General Jean Baptiste KléberTalented army commander during the French Revolution who was assassinated in Egypt by a religious fanatic
Born: March 9, 1753
Place of Birth: Strasbourg, Bas-Rhin, France
Died: June 14, 1800
Cause of Death: Assassinated
Place of Death: Cairo, Egypt
Arc de Triomphe: KLEBER on the south pillar
The son of a mason, Jean Baptiste Kléber's father died early and his mother remarried to a master carpenter. His skills with geometry and drawing were notably good and his stepfather sent him to Paris to study as an architect. After completing his studies, Kléber moved to Besançon before moving to Strasbourg in 1775. Soon after he began his first stint in the military, attending the military school in Munich and becoming a cadet in the service of Austria. In 1779 Kléber was commissioned as a sous-lieutenant, but then six years later in 1785 he resigned his commission and returned to France. Back in France, he moved to Belfort where he took up a position as inspector of public buildings. In his time there, Kléber built the Chateau of Grandvillars, the hospital of Thann, and the house of the canonesses of Massevaux.
At the dawn of the Revolution, Kléber didn’t hesitate to join the National Guard as a grenadier in July of 1789. Three years later in January of 1792 he joined the 4th Battalion of Volunteers of Haut-Rhin, and before long he became a lieutenant colonel of his battalion. Serving in General Custine’s army, Kléber spent the next winter surveying the left bank of the Rhine at Mainz.
Campaigns of 1793 - 1794
Promoted to chef de brigade in April of 1793, Kléber took charge of the defense of the fort of Sainte-Elisabeth during the Siege of Mainz. Leading numerous sorties against the enemy, he successfully delayed the surrender of the fort, but the siege was never broken and the French finally finally surrendered Mainz on July 23rd. Having surrendered, Kléber was called to stand before the Convention and arrested at Nancy. After being escorted to Paris, the garrison of Mainz was declared to be of good merit, and within two weeks Kléber received a promotion to général de brigade and a new assignment to the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle. Due to the terms of surrender at Mainz, the French troops had agreed to not fight the First Coalition troops for one year, and so many including Kléber were instead directed to western France to fight against the rebels of the Vendée.
In September of 1793 Kléber was placed at the head of the advance guard against the rebels, and he and his men seized Montaigu and occupied Clisson before they were ordered to retreat. Going into battle at Torfou, Kléber was badly wounded by a ball to the shoulder but he managed to extricate his column despite the wound. Next he repulsed the rebels at Pallet, and he then defeated them at Saint-Symphorien. That October Kléber's army was reorganized and merged with other units to form the the Army of the West. Continuing to fight in October, Kléber and his men seized Tiffauges and battled at la Tremblaie before winning at Cholet. Due to his contributions to that victory, he was promoted to général de division on the field by the Representatives of the People. When General Leschelle was removed from command as commander-in-chief of the Army of the West, Kléber was selected to be the new commander but he refused, and instead General Chalbos became the new commander. Kléber then took command of the 1st Division, and he fought at Antrain in November and then Mans in December.
In April of 1794 Kléber was sent to the Army of the Ardennes, and then in May he was sent to the Army of the North where he took part in the fighting at Merbes-le-Château. That June he was first given command of a division, but before long he took command of the left wing of the Army of Moselle under General Jourdan. Kléber and his men won victories of Charleroi and Chapelle d’Herlaymont, and then he commanded the left wing at the Battle of Fleurus and successfully repulsed the Austrians.
With the reorganization of the armies into the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, Kléber took command of the 1st Division. Throughout that summer of 1794 he was busy leading his troops, taking Mons, Enghien, Ath, Montagne de Fer, Louvain, and Tirlemont. In September he invested Maestricht but then rejoined Jourdan’s army in time to command the left wing at the Battle of the Roer. He troops next bombarded Dusseldorf and then in October he took command of the army around Maestricht, receiving the city’s surrender in early November.
Campaigns of 1795 - 1796
Kléber’s next assignment was to the Army of the Rhine, where he was to command the divisions besieging Mainz. From December through February, Kléber took part in the siege before obtaining a leave to get some much needed rest. In March of 1795 he was appointed interim commander of the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, but he refused the command. Instead, in April after General Michaud was wounded Kléber became commander of the Army of the Rhine, commanding it for two weeks until he had reunited with the Army of the Moselle and could turn over his command to General Pichegru.
Next Kléber returned to the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, initially taking command of the center. In June of 1795 he took command of the left wing of the army, and then he crossed the Rhine in September and marched to Mainz to invest the right bank of the river. For a brief period of time he commanded the siege, but he was then forced to break the siege and retreat across the Rhine. In November of 1795 Kléber was appointed provisional commander-in-chief of the Army of the Rhine and Moselle but he refused the command, instead becoming commander at Strasbourg a month later. From late January through February 1796, he became interim commander-in-chief of the Army of the Sambre and Meuse during Jourdan’s absence.
With campaigns underway in the spring of 1796, in May Kléber took command of the right wing of the Army of the Sambre and Meuse. That June, he battled the Austrians at Uckerath and Alternkirchen, and he next pursued the defeated Austrians by the Lahn River before being ordered to fall back. On the way back, he was attacked at Uckerath by General Kray, and he continued to fall back to Dusseldorf. At the end of June, the army retook the offensive and in July Kléber’s men were victorious at Runkel, Obermele, and Friedberg before taking Frankfurt.
General Jourdan fell ill at the end of July, and Kléber continued the offensive as interim commander-in-chief, seizing Bamberg and collapsing the Austrian forces at Forchheim. Upon Jourdan’s return, he retook command of the right wing for the next three weeks before resigning on September 1st due to dissatisfaction and disagreement with Jourdan’s decisions. When Jourdan was replaced as commander by Beurnonville later that month, Kléber returned to his position commanding the right wing. The next month he was offered the position of commander-in-chief, but he again refused the command, continuing his pattern of refusing to serve as commander-in-chief except on an interim basis. In the meantime he repulsed the Austrians who attempted to cross the Rhine.
Kléber offered his resignation in November of 1796, citing health reasons. Nonetheless, in December he was made interim commander-in-chief of the Army of the Sambre and Meuse. He reiterated his resignation to the Minister of War, and his resignation was finally accepted, though he didn’t leave his post until the beginning of February of 1797.
Expedition to Egypt
1797 was a quiet year for General Kléber. After staying in Strasbourg for a short period of time, he returned to Paris where he stayed in a small house at Chaillot. The next year, intrigued by the expedition to Egypt, he rejoined the army as a général de division and was given command of a division of the Army of the Orient.
Setting sail in May of 1798, the army arrived in Egypt in early July, and Kléber took part in the assault of Alexandria where he was wounded by a ball to the face. Given command of the province of Alexandria, in September he turned over his command to General Manscourt and demanded to return to France, citing ill health. Despite such requests, he rejoined the headquarters in Cairo that October, and then in January he retook command of his division, leading it on the expedition to Syria.
February of 1799 saw Kléber leading his troops into action at the fort of El-Arisch and battling the enemy at Gaza. After marching to Jaffa and taking part in the siege, he then marched to Acre and took part in that siege before being sidetracked elsewhere. In March his troops occupied Caiffa at the foot of Mount Carmel, and then in April they battled the Army of the Pasha of Damascus before rejoining Junot’s troops at Nazareth and winning at Chagarah. On April 15th, his troops were victorious at the Battle of Mount Tabor , finally routing the Pasha of Damascus’ troops.
Returning to the Siege of Acre, when General Bonaparte decided to abandon the siege Kléber’s division took up the rear guard during the retreat. That June Kléber was named governor of the provinces of Damiette and Mansourah. Two months later in August he brought his troops to assist in the Battle of Abukir, but they arrived too late to take part in the fighting.
Commander of Egypt
When General Napoleon Bonaparte took a select few and returned to France, he left Kléber in charge of the army. Napoleon thought highly of Kléber, saying there was no sight so splendid as watching Kléber go into battle, and likened him to the god of war, Mars.1 Kléber, who had been unaware of Napoleon’s intentions, cursed Napoleon and would sometimes draw cartoons mocking his former commander, but nonetheless he set about strengthening the French presence in Egypt. Desiring to evacuate Egypt, he negotiated an armistice with British Admiral Sidney Smith allowing the French to receive safe passage back to France. Unfortunately for all involved, the British government refused to ratify the treaty, infuriating the French.
Kléber immediately set out to push the matter, for in March he led the Army of the Orient against the Turks invading Egypt and destroyed them at the Battle of Héliopolis. He continued to defeat the Turks, over the next days retaking Belbeis, winning at Korain, and seizing the camp of Salahieh. In the meantime Cairo had risen in revolt, and Kléber’s men besieged it while he also worked the diplomatic channels, allying with former enemy Murad Bey. Unable to receive reinforcements, he also contacted Abyssinian slave traders and purchased hundreds of young black men and then freed them and trained them as French soldiers.2
After retaking Cairo, Kléber began to devote his energy to reorganizing the administration of Egypt. On June 14th he and his chief of staff General Damas were in Cairo for lunch. As they walked through a garden, a fanatic young Muslim student named Soleyman-el-Halepi surprised them and stabbed Kléber six times with a dagger. Kléber died a short time later, on the same day as General Desaix’s death on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea at the Battle of Marengo. His assassin was quickly captured and publicly executed.
Kléber’s successor in Egypt, General Menou, was not as capable of a commander and he was unable to lead or successfully negotiate the French out of defeat at the hands of the British the next year. After the French surrender of Cairo in 1801, General Belliard escorted Kléber’s remains back to France.
- John R. Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée, (USA: Da Capo Press, 1997), 42.
- Ibid., 321.
- Chandler, David G. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979.
- Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Who Was Who in the Napoleonic Wars. London: Arms & Armour, 1998.
- Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Généraux & Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1792-1814). 2 vols. Paris: Gaston Saffroy, 2003.
- Kléber's friend Marceau
- Kléber's frequent commander Jourdan
- Organization of French Revolutionary Armies
- Desaix who died on the same day
- Kléber's successor in Egypt Menou
Updated June 2019
© Nathan D. Jensen