The War Crimes Napoleon Committed After Capturing the City of Jaffa in 1799

The siege and capture of Jaffa in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces during the French campaign in Egypt and Syria is often cited as one of the darker chapters in the career of the famous French general. This event, surrounded by controversy and accusations of brutality, provides a case study in the complexities of warfare, the conduct of soldiers and commanders, and the grim realities of the age.

Background to the Siege of Jaffa

In late 1798, Napoleon launched a military expedition to Egypt and Syria, ostensibly to protect French trade interests and to undermine British access to India, but also with the aim of establishing French influence in the Middle East. After initially securing Egypt, Napoleon pushed into Ottoman-controlled Syria in early 1799, with the strategic coastal town of Jaffa as one of his primary targets.

Jaffa was heavily fortified and defended by a significant garrison of Ottoman troops. The town was crucial for Napoleon’s plans because its capture would secure the coastal route to the north towards Acre, another key target.

The siege and capture of Jaffa were marked by actions that have been interpreted as war crimes in today’s standard. Image: An 1877 artwork of Jaffa.

The Siege and Capture of Jaffa

Napoleon’s forces laid siege to Jaffa in March 1799. The siege lasted for several days, with French forces bombarding the city’s fortifications and eventually storming the walls. The fierce resistance of the Ottoman defenders was overcome, and the city fell into French hands. What followed the capture of Jaffa has been a subject of significant historical debate and controversy.

The Siege of Jaffa, conducted from March 3 to 7, 1799, was a brutal military engagement during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, involving fierce fighting between the French army and Ottoman defenders led by Ahmed al-Jazzar. Image: Portrait of Ahmed al-Jazzar.

Allegations of War Crimes

The following are some of the atrocities committed by French forces after capturing Jaffa in early March 1799:

Massacre of the Garrison

According to various historical accounts, after the city’s capture, Napoleon’s troops executed as many as 2,000 to 4,000 prisoners of war. These prisoners were primarily Ottoman soldiers who had previously been captured by the French at the Battle of El Arish and had been released on parole only to be recaptured fighting against Napoleon’s army in Jaffa.

Napoleon justified the massacre by citing military necessity and the impracticality of keeping large numbers of prisoners in a campaign that was short on supplies and manpower. However, this act was widely criticized and is often seen as a war crime against prisoners of war.

The Plague Incident

Another controversial episode was Napoleon’s handling of the outbreak of plague among his troops during their occupation of Jaffa. Reports and later accounts, particularly those sensationalized by British propaganda, accused Napoleon of ordering the poisoning of his own soldiers who were afflicted with plague to prevent the spread of the disease and to allow for a quicker military withdrawal.

Though these accounts were likely exaggerated (contemporary French sources provide no evidence of such an order and some historians argue it was a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of quarantine measures), the story has persisted in popular imagination as an example of Napoleon’s alleged ruthlessness.

After laying siege to the city, the French forces captured Jaffa on March 7. The aftermath was marked by severe atrocities committed by Napoleon’s troops, including the pillaging of the city, and the rape and murder of its civilian population. Image: A painting portraying the French general paying a visit to his ailing soldiers at the Armenian Saint Nicholas Monastery in Jaffa. This painting was done by French artist Baron Gros.

Historical Context and Analysis

The actions taken by Napoleon in Jaffa need to be understood within the broader context of 18th-century military conduct and the specifics of the campaign in Egypt and Syria. Warfare during this period was often brutal and governed by different norms and laws than those that would later be established in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Geneva Conventions.

Napoleon’s decision to execute the prisoners at Jaffa could be seen as a grim calculation based on the harsh logistics of his military campaign. His army was far from French support, in hostile territory, and struggling with supply issues. Such conditions, however, do not excuse the violations of contemporary military ethics and norms, which often called for the humane treatment of prisoners.

Also, some historians have cited the fact that during the siege of Jaffa in 1799, the Ottoman defenders repeatedly refused formal surrender offers from Napoleon’s forces. In a stark violation of diplomatic norms, it was alleged that they responded to French negotiation attempts by decapitating the envoys and displaying their heads on the city walls. This brutal act provoked a fierce response from the French, who subsequently stormed Jaffa and engaged in acts of severe retaliation.

While neither side’s actions can be justified, this context highlights the reciprocal brutality of the conflict. The alleged killing of envoys, a serious breach of wartime protocol, set a precedent that likely influenced the subsequent French actions.

However, from a contemporary perspective, there is no doubt whatsoever that events at Jaffa remain a tragic example of the extremes of wartime behavior, underscoring that atrocities committed by one side do not excuse those by the other.

The Aftermath and Legacy

The capture of Jaffa and the subsequent allegations of war crimes had a lasting impact on Napoleon’s reputation. While he continued to achieve military success and returned to France later that year as a hero, the stories from Jaffa followed him throughout his career, used by his enemies to tarnish his image as a liberator and enlightened leader.

For historians, the siege of Jaffa remains a controversial topic, illustrating the complexities of Napoleon as a figure: a military genius with progressive ideas about governance and law, yet capable of ruthless decisions and severe actions. The events at Jaffa highlight the dualities of his character and the often brutal realities of imperial ambitions.

Even shocking for its age, French forces proceeded to execute numerous Ottoman prisoners of war following the capture of Jaffa in March 1799. These actions have led historians to describe the siege of Jaffa as one of the most tragic episodes of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. Image: Portrait of Napoleon.


The horrific events following the Siege of Jaffa reflect the moral ambiguities and harsh realities of Napoleonic warfare, and they complicate the narrative of Napoleon as merely a progressive and rational leader. Instead, they paint a picture of a commander whose military pragmatism could sometimes lead to ruthless and ethically dubious decisions.

FAQs about Napoleon’s Siege of Jaffa in 1799

Here are some questions and answers based on the events during the capture of Jaffa by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops in March 1799:

What was the nature of the assault on Jaffa by French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799?

The assault on Jaffa was extremely violent and marked by indiscriminate slaughter and pillage. French troops showed no mercy, killing men, women, the elderly, and children, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.

What happened to the Ottoman prisoners after the capture of Jaffa?

Despite initial promises of mercy, around 3,000 Ottoman prisoners were taken to the beach and executed using bayonets instead of bullets to conserve ammunition. This was a ruthlessly efficient method and reflected the logistical challenges Napoleon faced in guarding and feeding a large number of prisoners.

How did Napoleon justify the mass execution of prisoners in Jaffa?

Napoleon justified the mass execution on several grounds, including the logistical impossibility of guarding and feeding a large number of prisoners and the fact that many of the executed prisoners had previously been captured, released on the condition they would not fight again, and had broken this vow by defending Jaffa.

How did the actions of Napoleon’s troops in Jaffa affect his reputation?

The actions of Napoleon’s troops in Jaffa were contentious even by the standards of the era and became a significant blemish on his record. This episode was exploited by his political adversaries as a symbol of cruelty and used to tarnish his reputation in subsequent years.

What does the Jaffa massacre illustrate about 18th-century warfare and military leadership?

The Jaffa massacre highlights the brutal realities of 18th-century warfare and the moral complexities faced by military leaders. It underscores the challenges of maintaining discipline and moral conduct within the ranks, particularly during prolonged campaigns in hostile territories. This event also reflects the difficult decisions faced by commanders who were far from their homelands and under extreme pressures.

FAQs about the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria

These questions encapsulate the key elements of the French campaign in Egypt and Syria, highlighting both its military activities and scientific achievements.

What were the primary objectives of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria?

Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Syria had dual objectives: to defend French trade interests and to promote scientific enterprise in the region. This campaign was part of the broader Mediterranean campaign of 1798.

Which significant territories were captured by Napoleon during the Mediterranean campaign of 1798 before reaching Egypt?

Before arriving in Egypt, Napoleon’s forces captured Malta and the Greek island of Crete as part of the Mediterranean campaign of 1798.

What led to the defeat of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria?

The defeat of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria was largely due to the abandonment of his troops by Napoleon, who returned to France to face the looming threat of a Second Coalition. Additionally, the defeat of the supporting French fleet by the British Royal Navy at the Battle of the Nile significantly weakened French forces in the region.

What was one major scientific success resulting from the French expedition to Egypt?

One major scientific success of the French expedition to Egypt was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which significantly contributed to the creation of the field of Egyptology.

How did Napoleon’s return to France during the campaign impact his forces in Egypt and Syria?

Napoleon’s return to France, motivated by the risk of a Second Coalition, left his troops leaderless and contributed to their ultimate defeat and withdrawal from Egypt and Syria. This abandonment had a demoralizing effect on his forces and compromised the military effectiveness of the campaign.

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