Battle of Nile - History

Battle of Nile - History

The Battle of the Nile took place in Aboukir Bay near the mouth of the Nile River. The French fleet commanded by Admiral Francois Paul Bruey d’ Aigalliers. He had transported the army of Napoleon to Egypt where they had captured Cairo. The British, taken by surprise by this action, responded with a fleet led by Admiral Horatio Nelson. On August 1st he came upon it anchored in the Aboukir Bay. The French fleet consisted of 17 ships including the Orient a massive 120 ton flagship. The battle began at 1800 hours as daylight was fading. The British column divided in two, some of the ships, led by Goliath under the command of Captain Foley, moving to the landward side of the French ships, while others stayed on the sea side. Thus the British were able to attack the French ships on two sides simultaneously. They slowly rolled up the French line.
The battle ended with a complete victory. All of the French ships were either captured, destroyed, or aground. It was probably the most one sided naval victory in history.

Order of battle at the Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile was a significant naval action fought during 1𔃁 August 1798. The battle took place in Aboukir Bay, near the mouth of the River Nile on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt and pitted a British fleet of the Royal Navy against a fleet of the French Navy. The battle was the climax of a three-month campaign in the Mediterranean during which a huge French convoy under General Napoleon Bonaparte had sailed from Toulon to Alexandria via Malta. Ώ] Despite close pursuit by a British fleet of thirteen ships of the line, one fourth rate and a sloop under Sir Horatio Nelson, the French were able to reach Alexandria unscathed and successfully land an army, which Bonaparte led inland. ΐ] The fleet that had escorted the convoy, consisting of thirteen ships of the line, four frigates and a number of smaller vessels under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys D'Aigalliers, anchored in Aboukir Bay as Alexandria harbour was too narrow, forming a line of battle that was protected by shoals to the north and west. Α]

Nelson reached the Egyptian coast on 1 August and discovered the French fleet at 14:00. Advancing during the afternoon, his ships entered the bay at 18:20 and attacked the French directly, despite the rapid approach of nightfall. Β] Taking advantage of a large gap between the lead French ship Guerrier and the northern shoal, HMS Goliath rounded the French line at 18:40 and opened fire from the unprepared port side, followed by five more British ships. Γ] The rest of the British line attacked the starboard side of the French van, catching the ships in a fierce crossfire. Δ] For three hours the battle continued as the British overwhelmed the first five French ships but were driven away from the heavily defended centre. Ε] The arrival of reinforcements allowed a second assault on the centre at 21:00 and at 22:00 the French flagship Orient exploded. Ζ] Despite the death of the Admiral Brueys, the French centre continued to fight until 03:00, when the badly damaged Tonnant managed to join the thus far unengaged French rear division. Η] At 06:00 firing began again as the less damaged ships of the British fleet attacked the French rear, forcing Rear-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve to pull away for the mouth of the bay. ⎖] Four French ships were too badly damaged to join him and were beached by their crews, Villeneuve eventually escaped to open water with just two ships of the line and two frigates. ⎗] On 3 August the last two remaining French ships stranded in the bay were defeated, one surrendering and the other deliberately set on fire by its crew. ⎘]

The almost total destruction of the French fleet reversed the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, giving the Royal Navy control of the sea which it retained until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. ⎙] Nelson and his captains were highly praised and generously rewarded, although Nelson privately complained that his peerage was not senior enough. ⎚] Bonaparte's army was trapped in the Middle East and Royal Navy dominance played a significant part in its subsequent defeat at the Siege of Acre, ⎛] Bonaparte himself abandoned the army late in 1799 to return to France and deal with the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition. ⎜] Of the captured ships, three were no longer serviceable and were burnt in the bay, and three others were judged fit only for harbour duties owing to the damage they had received in the battle. ⎝] The remainder enjoyed long and successful service careers in the Royal Navy two subsequently served at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. ⎞]

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of the Nile

The French army was returning to Cairo in triumph, a spectacle designed to dazzle the eyes of the Egyptians who thronged the city’s ancient streets. Garrison commander Général de Division Charles F.J. Dugua had arranged the grand parade, acting on instructions from his commander in chief, Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte, shrewd in the ways of propaganda and display, was determined that this day, June 14, 1799, would be long remembered by the native population.

The infantry demibrigades tramped through Cairo’s winding streets, sun-bronzed warriors smiling and waving to the onlooking crowds. When the head of the snaking blue column passed through the Bab-el-Nael, the ‘Gate of Victory,’ they found that palm fronds had been placed in their path in token of their triumph. The troops also wore small palm fronds in their round, sheepskin leather caps, headgear more appropriate to these scorching climes than their ubiquitous cocked hats. Throbbing drumbeats echoed through the streets, and captured Turkish standards were held aloft for all to see.

The French Armée de l’Orient had just come back from a grueling campaign in Palestine battling Ottoman Turkish forces, and beneath their friendly façade, most Egyptians were probably disappointed that their occupiers had not been destroyed. To most of the Egyptian population the French were not only invaders but also infidels who did not follow the precepts of Islam. There had been several revolts against the French, all bloodily suppressed, and resentments still simmered. Ever searching for signs of weakness, Cairo’s citizens, according to Captain Jean-Pierre Doguerrau,’seemed extremely curious to find out how many of us were left.’

Bonaparte himself appeared in the parade, during which the général-en-chef lifted his cocked hat to the onlooking native crowds, saluting them. Although perhaps done for effect, it was a gesture of friendship extraordinary in a man whom the Egyptians labeled Sultan el- Kebir, the ‘Ruler of Fire.’

The triumphal parade into Cairo, though magnificent, was a charade to cover up what had ultimately been an unsuccessful campaign. Often outnumbered, the French troops had performed wonders, winning several battles in spite of the odds. But try as he might, Bonaparte failed to capture the fortress at St. Jean d’Acre, considered by many to be the key to the region. Aided by a British Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Sir Willam Sydney Smith, Ahmed Djezzar Pasha’s Turkish troops managed to hold the fortress for two months against repeated French attacks. Plague swept through the French ranks, and siege efforts were hampered by the lack of adequate artillery. By May 20, there was nothing for Bonaparte to do but to order a withdrawal back to Egypt.

The retreat back to the Nile was a nightmare of searing heat, torturing thirst, debilitating sickness and fatigue for the French troops. With the army so encumbered with sick and wounded, Bonaparte ordered that all mounted men — officers included — walk so that casualties could ride. And so it was that a ragged, parched, exhausted and semimutinous army stumbled back to Egypt and relative safety. Some of the wounded men were left at El Arish, and others were distributed to other towns. The failure at Acre and the army’s crippling losses had to be concealed at all costs. Thus, the triumphal entry into Cairo was an exercise in skillful propaganda as well as an attempt to boost sagging French morale.

Once back in Cairo, Bonaparte assumed his role as de facto ruler of Egypt. Yet behind an imperious facade, Napoleon was secretly thinking of returning to Europe, where events had radically changed the geopolitical situation. Egypt, which a year ago had been the center of attention, was now a backwater.

While at Acre, Bonaparte received news that war with Austria was a virtual certainty. As time went on, more news filtered in through travelers’ tales and out-of-date newspapers. A Second Coalition against the revolutionary French had been formed, principally composed of Britain, Austria and Russia. Indeed, French arms, once so victorious, had met with a series of setbacks and outright defeats.

Bonaparte was not about to be marooned in an Egyptian backwater when Europe was ablaze and France seemed to be in danger again. And there was always the hope that France’s present government, the corrupt Directory, had been fatally weakened by those events. If so, maybe Bonaparte could test the political waters himself. But for now, he had to play a waiting game. Another Turkish force, the Army of Rhodes, was going to invade Egypt at any moment. There was also Egyptian resistance yet to overcome. Although defeated in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798 (see Military History, August 1998), the Mameluke leader Murad Bey was still at large, fomenting revolt and generally making himself a nuisance.

Yes, Bonaparte was waiting to leave, and he secretly ordered Admiral Honoré-Joseph-Antonie Ganteaume to keep two frigates, La Murion and La Carriere, ready for the journey to France. Even the return journey required delicate handling. The Royal Navy commanded the sea, and Bonaparte had no burning desire to become an involuntary guest of the British government.

As always, Bonaparte managed to keep himself busy during those weeks of waiting. Although he had shown administrative talents before, Egypt afforded him a golden opportunity to actually rule a country with little or no interference from his nominal superiors, the Directory. Egypt, backward and medieval, was malleable clay in the hands of its modern conqueror.

Bonaparte was a mixture of good and bad traits. He was a realist, yet his realism was tinged with romanticism and some genuine idealism. Bonaparte could be harsh, and he routinely ordered the executions of those perceived to be a threat to the French occupation — occasionally by beheading — on the flimsiest of pretexts. On the other hand, Bonaparte genuinely tried to improve the lot of the fellaheen, or Egyptian peasants. Hospitals were set up, sanitary rules enforced, mills built and irrigation projects improved. Cairo got its first street lamps and Egypt its first newspaper, Courier de l’gypte, under the French conqueror.

All these various administrative chores were interrupted by news that Bonaparte’s old nemesis, Murad Bey, was at Gizeh, only a few miles from Cairo. In fact, it was said that the white-bearded old Mameluke had climbed the Great Pyramid of Khufu and signaled his wife in her home in Cairo. He had about 200 or 300 men, a nucleus around which to build future armies. Murad had played a cat-and-mouse game with General Louis Antoine Desaix for some time maybe Bonaparte would have better luck.

Bonaparte moved his headquarters to Gizeh, but by the time he arrived, Murad Bey had slipped the net. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to inspect the Great Pyramid for a second time. Bonaparte explored the area with his customary thoroughness, accompanied by an entourage that included his aide Gérard Duroc — limping from a wound acquired at Acre — and his secretary Louis Antoine Favelet de Borrienne.

He had just about completed his inspection when a courier arrived with a message from Général de Brigade August Marmont, commander of the seaport of Alexandria. More than 100 sails had been spotted off the coast. The long-awaited invasion by the Army of Rhodes was at hand.

This was a serious situation indeed, because the Army of Rhodes was not the only adversary Bonaparte had to contend with. Besides Murad Bey hovering to the south, there was also Ibrahim Bey, whose Army of Damascus had been defeated and scattered in Syria, but who was regrouping around Gaza.

Accounts differ as to what Bonaparte did next, but the differences are ones of detail, not substance. All agree Bonaparte acted with alacrity, issuing a flurry of orders far into the night of July 15. Bourrienne, for example, related in his Memoirs of Napoleon that Bonaparte dictated orders until 3 o’clock on the morning of the 16th. Couriers were sent in all directions with instructions to various commands. ‘If the landing indeed proves serious,’ ran one missive to Desaix, ‘it will be necessary to evacuate the whole Upper Egypt while leaving a few of your men to garrison forts there.’

It was a bold, brilliant yet necessary gamble. Since Bonaparte needed every man for his confrontation with the Army of Rhodes, the southern portion of the country, as well as practically the entire northeastern desert contiguous to Sinai, was being evacuated. Only by denuding the country of troops and virtually abandoning Upper Egypt could Bonaparte hope to survive.

According to Bourrienne, Bonaparte finished dictating orders and was himself in the saddle heading northward by 4 a.m. He was 240 miles from Aboukir, and time was pressing. Some troops were on the move even earlier. Général de Division Jean Lannes’ division and Général de Brigade Antoine Rampon’s division (the latter replacing Général de Brigade Louis Bon, who had died of wounds received at Acre) were already marching by 1 a.m., their initial destination al-Ramaniyeh. Général de Brigade Joachim Murat was to gather what cavalry he could and form a vanguard for the infantry.

Cairo was transformed into a hive of activity by Bonaparte’s orders. In some quarters there was panic as the full impact of the invasion was digested and the city ransacked was for every possible able-bodied soldier. Even the hospitals were searched for men capable of firing a musket. Cairo garrison commander General Dugua followed his chief’s orders to the letter, first sending 1,200 men to Bonaparte, then following up with another contingent. Soon, the all-important Cairo garrison was a mere shadow of its former self.

General Bonaparte sternly admonished Marmont to ‘maintain the greatest vigilance’ — after all, he was closest to the enemy. While ensconced in Alexandria, he was to maintain defensive positions between Aboukir and Rosetta. ‘No officer,’ Bonaparte continued, ‘is to undress at night call the men frequently at night to ensure every man knows the position to which he is assigned.’ Watchdogs were also to be posted outside Alexandria’s walls as a kind of first alert against attack. In a sense, Bonaparte was preaching to the converted. Marmont was an able, energetic officer who was well-aware of the dangers he was confronting.

When the Anglo-Turkish armada appeared on July 11, Alexandria was subjected to a furious yet mercifully ineffective bombardment from the ships offshore. The fleet then anchored off Aboukir, about 15 miles east of Alexandria.

The invading fleet was awesome indeed, 60 transports jammed with some 15,000 Turkish troops. The slow and vulnerable troop transports were escorted by Turkish ships of the line and the ubiquitous British Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Smith. Some accounts claim there were even Russian warships present. Mustapha Pasha, seraskier of Rumelia, was leader of the Turkish host, an old man who did not lack courage but was curiously passive as a general.

The Turkish landing went well. There were two fortifications in the area. One, Aboukir castle, was medieval but still boasted formidable turrets and walls the other, just southwest of Aboukir village, was a newly built French redoubt that had been neglected since its completion. In consequence, when the Turks scrambled ashore, the small garrison there was unable to mount an effective defense. The redoubt batteries were overrun and the 300-man French garrison massacred.

Worse still for the French, the commander of the more formidable Aboukir castle ventured out in a sortie, only to have his troops cut to pieces. His rash act left a mere 35 men behind to hold the castle’s immense works. A siege ensued, with the French inside the castle hoping that they might be relieved by Marmont.

General Marmont was indeed on the way, his sweltering troops marching in dust-wreathed columns on the road to Aboukir. But he had only 1,200 men, enough to hold a city but not enough to engage the immense Turkish army. He therefore withdrew back to Alexandria to await Bonaparte and future developments. After three days the French garrison at Aboukir castle surrendered.

At that point, the Army of Rhodes largely squandered the advantages it had gained in the opening moves. Mustapha Pasha decided to sit tight, and for two weeks not a man ventured from the beaches. The aged Turkish general was beset by problems. For one thing his army, so large on paper, was riddled with sickness. In a letter to his government, Mustapha wrote that he had only 7,000 men actually fit for combat.

Mustapha might still have attempted something — for instance, capturing Alexandria and using it as a base for reinforcements and future operations. Instead, he adopted a defensive mode, shutting himself off inside the Aboukir Peninsula. That played right into Bonaparte’s hands, because from the French perspective the enemy was effectively isolated, cut off from the rest of the country it had come to ‘liberate.’

In rough outline the Aboukir Peninsula looked like a pointing hand. To the north, a narrow finger of land thrust out into the water, its tip guarded by the formidable Aboukir castle. Mustapha Pasha’s reserves and headquarters were at Aboukir village, just southwest of the castle, where the finger broadened. Beyond Aboukir village were two parallel entrenchments, dominated in their center by the now reused French redoubt. No less than 7,000 men and 12 guns, at least according to some sources, held these two lines.

Beyond the redoubt lines the peninsula broadened into a ‘fist’ that was marked by two sandy hills anchoring the right and left of yet another Turkish line. The ‘Hill of the Sheiks’ was on the Turkish right, crowned by a redoubt garrisoned by 1,200 men. To the left rose the ‘Hill of the Wells,’ also crowned with a redoubt but garrisoned, according to some sources, with some 2,000 men. The third Turkish line of defense stretched between those two hill redoubts, manned by some 1,000 men and 40 guns. The Turks had no cavalry. Although actual Turkish numbers are endlessly debated, the fact remains that the Aboukir Peninsula was formidably defended.

Given a reprieve by the enemy’s unexplained inactivity, Bonaparte lost no time in concentrating his forces. By July 24, he had assembled some 10,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen within striking distance of Aboukir. Général de Division Jean Baptiste Kléber’s division had not yet come up, but Bonaparte, prescient as ever, decided now was the time to strike the Turkish army.

The général-en-chef summoned Murat to his tent for a consultation. Although brilliant on the battlefield, Bonaparte sometimes displayed a penchant for exaggeration. ‘This battle will decide the fate of the world,’ he declared grandiloquently. ‘At least of this army’ Murat replied, ‘but every French soldier feels now that he must conquer or die and be assured, if ever infantry were charged to the teeth by cavalry, the Turks shall be tomorrow charged by mine.’ Murat’s words proved prophetic.

The Battle of Aboukir (actually, the First Battle of Aboukir, since a second was fought between French and British troops two years later) began early on the morning of July 25. Murat was in the forefront as usual, and his immediate command consisted of a cavalry brigade, Général de Division Jacques Zacharie Destaing’s infantry brigade and four guns. The cavalry brigade was made up of the 7th Hussars and the 3rd and 14th Dragoons. Lannes’ division composed the French right, Général de Division Pierre Lanusse the left. Estimates of total French forces engaged vary widely from 7,400 to 10,000 men and about 15 guns.

General Kléber was still not present, though he was well on his way. But there was also the matter of the French lines of communication with Alexandria, which had to be kept open, as well as the protection of the French flanks and rear. These tasks were assigned to Général de Brigade Nicholas Davout, the future ‘Iron Marshal.’ Davout, just recovering from a debilitating attack of dysentery, had not only cavalry but also some 100 men of the French Régiment de Dromedaires — that is, troopers mounted on camels.

The battle opened with a French cannonade that must have surprised and shaken the Turkish defenders. Then General Destaing moved forward against the Hill of the Sheiks, with Lanusse in support, while Lannes attacked the Hill of the Wells. Already thrown into disarray by the French barrage, the Turks soon abandoned the two hills, and the first defensive line dissolved like a desert mirage. Before the collapse, Murat had found a way around the Turkish line through what he described as ‘a fine plain, which separated the wings of the enemy.’ Thus, as the Turks fled they found Murat’s cavalry already in their rear and ready to pounce.

The French cavalrymen moved forward at a gallop, sabers drawn, with the dashing Gascon general at their head. Scores of Turks were cut down or driven into the sea. But there were still two more defensive lines to take before the French could call the day their own — and these lines were particularly strong. There was an entrenched village out in front and a formidable redoubt in the center just behind — the same redoubt the French had built. Also, on the Aboukir Bay side of the peninsula, some 30 Turkish gunboats stood ready to lend artillery support.

The French attacked the village in both flank and rear, and after some hard, sharp fighting, they took it. Thus far, the French had won an astounding victory. Some 1,200 Turks had been taken prisoner, while about 1,400 had been killed and wounded and a number had been driven into the sea and drowned. Some 50 standards had been taken (Middle Eastern armies were in the habit of carrying a large number of flags).

The last Turkish defenses were a hard nut to crack, however, and almost proved Murat’s undoing. Bonaparte brought up what artillery he could and eventually neutralized the support fire the Turks were getting from their offshore gunboats. Even Bonaparte’s young stepson Eugne de Beauharnais, though only an aide de camp and just two months shy of his 18th birthday, was pressed into service as an impromptu artillery officer.

At his stepfather’s order, Beauharnais directed the fire of two guns at the gunboats and had beginner’s luck. The young officer noted that one of his shots landed so close to a launch that the resulting waterspout drenched the boat’s occupants. Years later, Eugne found out that one of the people he soaked was none other than Commodore Smith.

But before the ship’s guns were neutralized, gunboat fire gave Murat a rough time, creating a cross-fire with land-based Turkish artillery. Mounts reared and plunged, horses and riders were mangled into bloody ruin, but Murat kept his head and rallied his men.

In the meantime, the French infantry was immersed in troubles of its own. The central redoubt was strong, and its Turkish defenders were more determined than those previously encountered. In fact, the Turkish troops had Janissarries among them, the Sultan’s famed elite troops. There was a moment of peril when the janissaries staged a strong sortie from the redoubt. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, bayonet against scimitar, with the janissaries momentarily gaining the upper hand. The French 18th Demi-Brigade de Ligne was overrun and faced annihilation, though it resisted bravely. Janissaries had been promised a silver auguette for each Frenchman dispatched, the reward collected when a soldier presented an infidel’s head as proof. In their avid quest for heads the janissaries were sparing no one, not even French wounded.

At that juncture, General Lannes came up with the 69th Demi-Brigade de Ligne and disaster was averted. The 69th had witnessed the wanton slaughter of their comrades in the 18th Demi-Brigade, and the rage they felt gave their attack a new impetus. In any case, the janissary sortie turned out to be a mistake, because the tide turned when they were caught out in the open, far from the redoubt’s sheltering mounds. Once the janissaries were dispatched, Lannes and his avenging infantrymen soon gained entry into the redoubt and captured it after some hard fighting.

Once again Murat and his cavalry appeared at a crucial moment. While Lannes’ infantry seized the redoubt, French cavalry again found a gap to exploit in the Turkish lines. Squeezing through the line, Murat and his horsemen galloped toward the main Turkish camp, where the Army of Rhodes’ main reserves were waiting. Battlefield indecision was never one of Murat’s failings — he was ready to take on whatever he might encounter. The troopers were a magnificent sight, sabers aloft, dragoon helmets gleaming, the ‘love locks’ and mirlton caps of the hussars bobbing and flaring in the wind.

Not content with merely leading his men, Murat sought out individual Turks to engage in personal combat. This knightly élan, so anachronistic in an age of cannons and gunpowder, was underscored by the legend ‘l’honneur et dames’ — honor and women — engraved on Murat’s blade.

Mustapha Pasha awaited the onslaught, surrounded by a bodyguard of 200 janissaries, but the French would not be denied. The advancing mass of horseflesh collided with the janissary infantry, and once among the Turks, the French wielded their sabers, which bit into necks, heads, torsos, each strike coating blades with a fresh layer of crimson.

And then occurred an event rarely seen outside the realm of fiction: a battle between two enemy commanders. Murat easily spotted Mustapha Pasha, a robed and turbaned figure whose venerable status was proclaimed by his long white beard. Murat shouted for the Turkish general to surrender, but Mustapha’s response was to raise a pistol and fire it almost point-blank into the Gascon’s face. The ball narrowly missed Murat’s jaw, went in near his ear, then came out the other side without injuring his tongue or even breaking a tooth. It was, Murat admitted after the battle, ‘a rare and extremely lucky wound.’

Murat, blood pouring from his jaw, brought his sword down on Mustapha Pasha’s gun hand, severing two of the Turkish commander’s fingers in the process. Disarmed and helpless, Mustapha Pasha surrendered. Later, Murat brought his illustrious prisoner back to Bonaparte in triumph. In a sudden act of compassion, Bonaparte used his own handkerchief to bandage the old Turk’s maimed hand. Ever the paladin, Murat refused to leave the field until the battle was over. Pausing only to quickly wind a strip of cloth around his head as a makeshift bandage, the cavalryman was soon back in the fray.

As Turkish resistance collapsed, the battle became a one-sided slaughter. Although they had fought bravely, the Turks now dissolved into a panic-stricken mob seeking escape. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, plunged headlong into the sea in a vain attempt to reach the safety of allied ships offshore. Only a handful managed to reach the vessels most drowned in the attempt. One lucky survivor was Mehmet Ali, later ruler of Egypt and founder of a dynasty that ended in the 1950s with King Farouk.

General Bonaparte was far from squeamish, yet he was affected by the overwhelming sight of battlefield carnage. He later recalled, ‘Floating on the water were thousands of turbans and sashes that the sea cast back upon the shore,’ this multihued flotsam a visible sign of those who had perished in the sea.

Bonaparte had succeeded beyond perhaps even his own wildest dreams. He had gained an overwhelming victory at minimal cost. Turkish casualty figures vary according to the source perhaps 2,000 were killed in battle, some 2,000 to 4,000 more drowned in the sea. In addition, 100 standards and 32 guns were taken by the French as trophies. French losses were 220 killed and 750 wounded. Murat, of course, was one of the wounded, and he had escaped serious injury because his mouth had been open when the ball passed through his face. ‘It’s the only time,’ Bonaparte wryly remarked, ‘he’s opened it to good purpose.’

But witticisms aside, Bonaparte gave credit where credit was due, lavishing praise on Murat in a dispatch to the Directory. ‘The success of the battle,’ he stated in no uncertain terms, ‘which will so much enhance the glory of the Republic, is principally due to General Murat.’ In a more jocular mood, he even said, ‘Did the cavalry swear they would do everything today?’

There was something of a postscript to the battle, because not all Turkish forces at Aboukir had been destroyed. Some 2,000 to 2,500 fleeing Turkish soldiers had managed to reach the temporary safety of Aboukir castle, the massive fortress on the tip of the peninsula. Although they could hold the French at bay, they found they had scant food and little water.

The morning after the battle, Bonaparte sent generous surrender terms out to the castle’s residents, even promising safe passage to the fleet that still hovered off the coast. The Turkish officers were inclined to accept the French offer, but the rank and file were not. This Egyptian campaign had often degenerated into a war of mutual extermination, with little quarter given. The French had, for instance, killed prisoners in a mass execution at Jaffa, and the garrison at Aboukir expected a like fate.

And so Aboukir castle held out for a week, bombarded by French forces under Général de Division Jacques-François de Boussay, Baron Menou. When it finally surrendered on August 2, the French described its famished garrison as looking ‘like ghosts.’ Perhaps 1,000 had died during the siege, more from hardship than from French gunfire. Crazed with thirst, some had even taken to drinking seawater and subsequently perished.

Less than a month after the battle, Bonaparte was gone, sailing back to France on August 23 with a select entourage. When he landed in France on October 17, he found that the news of Aboukir had preceded him. This last great Middle Eastern battle had secured — for the time being — French rule in Egypt and also allowed Bonaparte to leave Kléber in command and return to Paris a hero. The dazzling victory, however, obscured the fact that the général-en-chef had left a weakened and homesick army behind.

For Bonaparte, the Battle of Aboukir was a stepping stone, even a springboard, to power. For the languishing Armée de l’Orient, the victory allowed the soldiers to survive but also condemned them to two more years of hardships and homesickness before finally being repatriated to France by the victorious British in 1801.

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Battle of Nile - History

English Language and History

Selected and prepared for people

Symphony No. 4 in D Major:
3: Menuetto: Allegretto moderato & Trio
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

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HAVING triumphed all over north Italy and defeated Austria there, and put an end to the old republic of Venice, and made a very undesirable imperialistic peace,* he [Napoleon Bonaparte] returned to Paris as the great conquering hero. He was beginning to dominate France already. But he felt perhaps that the time was not ripe for him to seize power,* and so he arranged to go with an army to Egypt.* From his youth onwards he had felt this call of the east and now he could gratify it, and dreams of vast empire must have floated in his mind. He just managed to escape the English fleet in the Mediterranean and reached Alexandria.

Egypt was then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, but this empire had declined, and in effect the Mamelukes ruled Egypt, nominally under the Sultan of Turkey.* Revolutions and inventions might shake Europe but the Mamelukes still lived after the fashion of the Middle Ages.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte undertook a military campaign in Egypt hoping to build on his astonishing successes in southern Europe. His aim was to press on through Egypt towards India, fulfilling a long-cherished dream of Eastern empire and having slipped past the Royal Navy, all that remained was to sweep aside the Mamluk army serving the Ottoman Empire in Cairo.

The Battle of the Nile: The History of the Decisive Royal Navy Victory that Trapped Napoleon in Egypt

Before Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson had already earned enduring fame for the British victory at the Battle of the Nile. In 1798, he was given command of a small squadron and sent ahead to Gibraltar, and eventually given *Includes pictures
*Includes accounts of the fighting
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

Before Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson had already earned enduring fame for the British victory at the Battle of the Nile. In 1798, he was given command of a small squadron and sent ahead to Gibraltar, and eventually given instructions to hunt down and destroy Napoleon’s fleet.

An initial review of France’s naval forces had led Napoleon to conclude his navy could not hope to outfight the power of the Royal Navy, which had been the dominant naval power for centuries, so he was forced to look elsewhere. After months of planning, Napoleon crafted a scheme to attack and conquer Egypt, denying the British easy access to their colonies in India, with the ultimate goal of linking up with the Sultan Tipoo in India itself and defeating the British in the field there. Napoleon sailed with Admiral Brueys and 30,000 troops that June, heading for Egypt. Notionally part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was de facto a weak independent regime run by the breakaway Mamelukes. For France, it offered an overland route to India and a chance to beat Britain at her own game via economic strangulation. Nelson however, could only speculate at French intentions. Whatever the destination of the French fleet, he sought a battle of annihilation, the culmination of all he had learned as an officer and admiral. Only by that means could Britain secure the Mediterranean and neutralize the threat of a French army operating overseas. His understanding was icily accurate.

Ironically, Nelson and the British forces beat the French to Africa, failing to take into account their slower troop transports. While the British turned north, only two days later, on June 28, Napoleon’s army disembarked at Alexandria. Back in Sicily, Nelson heard further reports about the French and again sailed south. Arriving at Alexandria late in the afternoon of August 1, he found the port crowded with French transports, but no battle fleet.

At the same time, Brueys was only a few miles up the coast, anchored at Aboukir Bay. Nelson’s scouts soon spotted the fleet at anchor, and without hesitation, the British attacked, their captains racing each other to be the first to engage. Brueys had made a number of mistakes, for which he paid with his life. His disposition was sloppy, with gaps between the ships and sufficient room between the line of his fleet at anchor and the shallows for an enemy to interpose himself. Many of his sailors were ashore, unable to rejoin their vessels quickly enough to defend them. Fundamentally though, he shouldn’t have been there at all, as it was Napoleon, nervous about the Royal Navy and without a clear understanding of naval strategy, who had insisted that the French fleet anchor itself helplessly on the Egyptian coast. A patrolling French fleet at sea would at least have had a chance against Nelson. As it was, they were sitting ducks.

It was the battle of annihilation Nelson had sought – of 13 French battleships engaged, 2 were destroyed and 9 were captured. British losses were negligible, with no ships lost and about 900 killed or wounded. French casualties were at least 2,000, with thousands more captured. The French Mediterranean fleet had been wiped out, and Napoleon’s expeditionary force was now stranded.

With Nelson’s decisive victory, the Royal Navy had once again asserted itself as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. At the same time, Nelson’s inability to intercept Napoleon at sea allowed the French transports and ground forces to survive unscathed, and they eventually made their way back to France. . more

Royal Navy Dominance

The battle reversed the strategic situation between the two nations’ forces in the Mediterranean and entrenched the Royal Navy in the dominant position that it retained for the rest of the war. It also encouraged other European countries to turn against France. Bonaparte’s army was trapped in Egypt, and Royal Navy dominance off the Syrian coast contributed significantly to the French defeat at the Siege of Acre in 1799 which preceded Bonaparte’s return to Europe. Nelson had been wounded in the battle, and he was proclaimed a hero across Europe. His captains were also highly praised and went on to form the nucleus of the legendary Nelson’s Band of Brothers.

Battle of Aboukir Bay

When General Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, he carried out only the first move in a complicated game. He was now the master of Egypt and in a matter of hours would occupy Cairo. That, however, was not the main object of this mission. The central goal was to sever Britain’s communications with the East, destroy her trade and loosen her grip on India. Perhaps even a French occupation of part of Australia would be possible. To the young Corsican-born general, just coming into his stride in the wake of his brilliant campaign in northern Italy, the possibilities seemed to be infinite. ‘This little Europe is too small a field,’ Bonaparte supposedly said before setting out for Alexandria. ‘Great celebrity can be won only in the East.’

Little could Bonaparte have imagined, as he surveyed the beckoning East in the manner of a Roman emperor, that he was about to be all but ruined by the sudden swoop of a British naval flotilla commanded by Vice Adm. Sir Horatio Nelson.

The extraordinary story of the Battle of the Nile, as the action in Aboukir Bay is often incorrectly called, is remarkable for its paradoxes and its revelation of the power of an individual. For a start, the British fleet that fought the French on that first day of August 1798 should not have been fit for battle. Only a year before, much of it had been in a state of mutiny, more dangerous to Britain than to her enemies.

The fleet’s commander, Nelson, disagreed with time-honored tactics and was determined to try a revolutionary new idea in the coming battle. Had he been surrounded by radio and satellite communications, it is likely his superiors in London would not have let him go ahead.

Nelson was a nervous, neurotic genius. He was already immersed in his love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador in Naples — an example of misbehavior that in later times would have led to his being cashiered. At times Nelson would happily disobey orders — his most celebrated act of disobedience thus far had brought about British victory at Cape St. Vincent on February 14, 1797.

Naval tactics had changed little since Henry VIII of England came up with the idea of firing alternate broadsides. All the cannons on one side of a ship of the line would deliver a shattering volley, then the ship would turn so the first battery of guns could be reloaded and primed, while the guns on the opposite side of the ship fired. The superior maneuvering of the English ships, allowing more broadsides to be fired one after another, was largely responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. That highly successful 16th-century tactic became unwieldy in the 17th and 18th centuries, and British sea fights against the Dutch and French were usually heavy battering matches in which the two sides hammered each other into exhaustion.

Nelson’s genius produced a better idea — an idea that was so like Napoleon’s schemes of tearing an army to fragments that Nelson should perhaps be known as the Napoleon of the waves. At Cape St. Vincent, Commodore Nelson — not yet an admiral, but one step above a captain — was serving under Sir John Jervis. Jervis was a 61-year-old sea dog straight out of the pages of Tobias Smollett. Brave, devoted to his men, sensible and never foolhardy, he would have been the best kind of soldier’s general had he been in the army. When he had civilians on board, as sometimes happened after rescuing British civilians from territories about to be occupied by the French, he would ask the women to sing duets. Charmed by his good humor, they were always willing to oblige.

When Jervis sighted the Spanish fleet one misty morning, he ordered his ships to sail in a long line for the center of the Spanish line. Seeing the Spanish force divided but with the rearmost ships hastening to close up with the vanguard, Nelson sailed his ship, the 74-gun Captain, out of the British line — against orders — and deliberately placed it between the two divisions of the enemy fleet. So many cannons opened fire on Captain that for a time it vanished in the smoke. But when the smoke cleared Nelson’s ship was still afloat. His reckless gambit held apart the two sections of the Spanish fleet just long enough for the rest of Jervis’ ships, though outnumbered nearly 2-to-1, to concentrate against first one Spanish division and then against the other, with devastating results.

Nelson had also distinguished himself by leading boarding parties onto two larger Spanish ships, San Nicolas and San Joseph, both of which surrendered. As a result of the victory, Jervis became Earl St. Vincent, and his headstrong commodore became Rear Adm. Sir Horatio Nelson. Clearly, Nelson was a dangerous customer, and he would never be satisfied with anything short of total victory.

When the British government decided to send a fleet into the Mediterranean in 1798, they regarded it as merely a showing of the flag to encourage the Mediterranean states, such as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to join yet another coalition against Revolutionary France. ‘When you are apprised,’ First Lord of the Admiralty Earl George John Spencer wrote to Jervis, ‘that the appearance of a British squadron in the Mediterranean is a condition on which the fate of Europe may at this moment be said to depend, you will not be surprised that we are disposed to strain every nerve and incur considerable hazard in effecting it.’ He went on to add that such a squadron might be put under the command of Nelson.

Jervis had already put the plan in motion. American travelers from Italy had reached Cadiz, Spain, and somehow had managed to get word to Jervis’ fleet, which was blockading the port, that an immense French expedition was gathering at Toulon. The Americans said that rumors indicated an attempted landing in England, or, more likely, Ireland, where a full-scale rising against British rule was in progress. Acting on that information, Jervis sent Nelson into the Mediterranean with three ships of the line to find out what was going on. There was no intention of fighting a battle at that point — only to obtain information. After receiving Spencer’s message, however, Jervis, acting on his own initiative, decide to reinforce Nelson by sending another 10 ships of the line to join him.

Jervis had confidence in Nelson. When one of his captains complained about Nelson having disobeyed orders at Cape St. Vincent, Jervis — who, in fact, had planned to bring his whole line about one minute after Nelson did so on his own initiative — retorted roundly, ‘I forgive him, and if you ever break your orders with such a result I’ll forgive you, too.’

Not everyone shared Jervis’ confidence. Some captains in the British fleet were furious that the command in the Mediterranean had been given to a young rear admiral not yet 40 years old. And, indeed, Nelson had no flash of inspiration in the early stages of his search for the French fleet. But he had written to Spencer in June 1798 that if the French passed Sicily he would believe ‘they are going on their scheme of possessing Alexandria and getting troops to India.’

In fact, French engineers, intent on surveying Egypt, had landed at Alexandria in April however, news of their arrival did not reach London for another three months. Misled by a false report that the French had left Malta on June 16, Nelson set sail for Alexandria, convinced his prey was in front of him. In fact, the French were behind him. Thus, when his lookouts saw sails on the far horizon on June 22, Nelson did not bother to investigate them. If he had, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble, for later it was established that those sails did indeed belong to the French fleet.

Nelson’s fleet sped on. Captain James Saumarez of Orion said that they were going ‘upon the merest conjecture only, and not on any positive information. Some days must now elapse before we can be relieved from our cruel suspense.’

On June 28, Nelson’s fleet came in sight of Alexandria. There was, of course, no sign of the French, and Nelson immediately set off for the coast of the Levant. The very next day, as the British sails dropped over the horizon to the east, the French sails rose on the horizon to the west. Nelson had arrived a day too soon and had left a few hours too soon. The French congratulated themselves, and Bonaparte got on with the business of taking Egypt.

Nelson sailed on to the Gulf of Alexandretta, but not a word of the whereabouts of the French fleet could be obtained. He then battled against westerly winds and arrived at Syracuse on the east coast of Sicily by July 19, lamenting that ‘the Devil’s children have the Devil’s luck!’

In Naples, Sir William Hamilton used his influence to have Syracuse opened to Nelson’s ships so that he could take on fresh water. By July 25, he was ready to resume his search. Meanwhile, gun exercises were carried out every day, and the captains assembled in Nelson’s cabin aboard his flagship, Vanguard, to hear him expound his plans. At last, in the Gulf of Koron on July 28, some Greek fisherman provided the admiral with useful information: A great fleet had been seen heading southeast from Crete.

So it was that Nelson set course back to Alexandria, and just after midday on August 1, the British fleet reached the port again. And again, it was empty.

The disconsolate Nelson ordered dinner to be served, although it was only lunch time. It was a meal almost tearful in its sadness, and slowly the fleet idled along farther to the east. Then, as the tablecloth was being cleared, Saumarez recalled, ‘The officer of the watch came running in saying ‘Sir, a signal is just now made that the enemy is in Aboukir Bay and moored in a line of battle.’ ‘ Cheers broke out. The hunt was over. ‘If we succeed,’ remarked one of Nelson’s captains, ‘what will the world say?’ Nelson replied: ‘There is no if in the case. That we shall succeed is certain who will live to tell the story is a very different question.’

The French admiral, Franois Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers, had anchored his fleet in a line across the bay. To the west was Bequier Island, surrounded by an extensive shoal. Brueys tucked his van up against the island and the shoal, believing it to be quite safe. In the center of his line he had the gigantic L’Orient, much bigger than any British ship, bristling with 120 guns.

It is often said that Nelson ordered the British fleet to sail between the French ships and the shore, and that this tactic gave him the advantage because the French were not expecting an attack from that side and had not even bothered to clear their gunports. That explanation is misleading, however, and does not take into account the principle that guided Nelson at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent the year before. A close examination of the first 20 minutes of the Battle of Aboukir will make this clear.

Nelson apparently realized that if there was room for each French ship to swing on its anchor with the tide, there must be room for a British ship to pass or to anchor in its turn. Captain Thomas Foley in Goliath sailed right around the leading French ship, Guerrier, and he was followed by Zealous, Orion, Theseus and Audacious. As each ship sailed past Guerrier, Conquerant and Spartiate, a thundering broadside was delivered. Within 20 minutes, or by 6 p.m., the leading three French ships had been silenced. The head of the French line had been blown away, and a gap had been opened through which the British could sail at will.

On the seaward side of the French line, Nelson’s Vanguard led a furious bombardment of the center. Enormous courage was shown by both sides. It is recorded that Captain Dupetit Thouars of Tonant had both arms and a leg shot off, after which he ordered his men to place him in a tub on his quarterdeck, where he died after every gun on his ship had been silenced.

A musket ball struck Nelson on the forehead, tearing a flap of skin, which fell over his one good eye, rendering him temporarily blind. He thought he was dying and was carried below, where he refused the attentions of the surgeon until the other wounded cared for. ‘I will take my turn with my brave fellows,’ he said — the sort of remark that was calculated to endear him to his ‘brave fellows.’

By 8 p.m., the first five ships in the French line had surrendered, and victory was certain. But one more great drama remained to be played out before the battle ended.

The British ship Bellerophon had had her mast torn off by fire from Orient’s heavy guns and was drifting out of the fight. A Canadian named Benjamin Hallowell was in charge of Swiftsure, and he brought his ship between Bellerophon and her adversary, anchoring just yards from Orient. Swiftsure released a fierce broadside and was joined by Alexander. Orient was soon in difficulty, and at 9 p.m. Hallowell saw flames coming from the French flagship. Her poorly disciplined crew had left buckets of oil and paint around the ship, and these had caught fire. Every British ship whose guns could reach her hammered Orient mercilessly, and soon it became obvious she would blow up as soon as the flames reached her powder magazine. Someone told Nelson of the anticipated explosion, and he insisted on being led up on deck to watch.

At about 9:45 p.m., Orient blew up with a detonation that was heard 10 miles away at Rosetta. The noise temporarily stopped the battle, and for some minutes silenced reigned as if neither fleet dared open fire again. On Goliath, there were several women and boys whose task it was to pass gunpowder up from the magazine to the gunners. Reportedly, they thought their own ship had blown up, and at about that time a tough Scotswoman gave birth to a son.

Nelson ordered Vanguard’s only undamaged boat to pick up what survivors from Orient it could, and about 70 French sailors were saved.

As the guns opened fire again, the moon rose, casting an eerie pall over the destruction of the French fleet. Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Sylvestre de Villeneuve, who commanded the rear of the French line of battle, was a spectator of that horrific event, and his ships were never able to do anything about it. Long before dawn the firing had stopped, and with the coming of daylight the full extent of the carnage was revealed. ‘Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene,’ said Nelson.

Three of Villeneuve’s ships cut their cables and ran for the open sea, but one of them, Timoleon, ran aground and was set on fire by her own crew. On the night of August 2, Nelson dined with six French captains in his own cabin, but Brueys had been killed on Orient. More than 3,000 prisoners had been taken, and more than 2,000 men killed. Eleven ships had been captured or burned. It was probably the most complete naval victory to date.

Nelson then sailed for Naples, where he was received with rapture by Lady Emma Hamilton. When the news of the British victory reached England, Nelson was made a viscount, a step lower in the peerage than the earldom given to Sir John Jervis after the victory at Cape St. Vincent, for which Nelson had been largely responsible.

Meanwhile, after an unsuccessful foray into the Levant, Napoleon boarded a ship for France. His dreams of an Eastern empire were over, but he did get himself a Western empire by becoming first consul and then emperor.

Undoubtedly, Nelson had saved England. He had made himself a viscount. And, by forcing the French general to return to France, he had helped make Napoleon an emperor. Not bad for an evening’s work.

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Battle of the Nile (47 BC)

In 48 BC, Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt with an army to hunt down his rival Pompey the Great and to mediate a dispute between co-rulers Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra, who were fighting over the throne. Ptolemy's regent Pothinus presented Caesar with the severed head of Pompey, disgusting and angering him. Caesar later met Cleopatra, who was delivered to the royal palace wrapped in a rug, and she successfully courted his assistance in claiming the throne for her the two also became lovers. Caesar defended Alexandria from a siege by Ptolemy's army, led by Achillas, and Caesar decided to have Pothinus executed for attempting to kill Cleopatra, while he sent Ptolemy and Theodotus of Chios to join their army near Alexandria, which was about to be attacked from two sides by both the Romans and the army of Mithridates I of the Bosporus. Caesar would take command of the Roman army and a fleet on the Nile as he prepared for the final battle with Ptolemy's army and fleet on the Nile Delta.

The Roman fleet and Egyptian fleet engaged in battle on the Nile River as the Roman legions set out to destroy Ptolemy's army, which used the natural defenses of a steep hilltop to protect themselves. The Egyptian fleet was destroyed, but all but one of the Roman troop transport ships were sunk, and the only surviving one retreated the only Roman ship still alive was one meant for ranged combat, not one carrying any soldiers. Caesar decided to break the deadlock by having his army split in two, attacking the hill from the flanks. Caesar's mere presence inspired his men, and the Egyptian infantry struggled as they were outflanked, showered with arrows and javelins, and assaulted by war elephants. The Romans managed to destroy the Egyptian army, slaughtering its soldiers and sending out cavalry to pursue the fleeing remnants. Ptolemy drowned when his ship capsized during the retreat, allowing for Caesar to install Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt, with Ptolemy XIV as her nominal co-ruler. Caesar lingered in Egypt until April, enjoying a liaison with his mistress Cleopatra, before marching back towards Rome through Asia and fighting against new enemies such as Pontus.

Battle of Nile - History

English Language and History

Selected and prepared for people

Symphony No. 4 in D Major:
3: Menuetto: Allegretto moderato & Trio
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

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HAVING triumphed all over north Italy and defeated Austria there, and put an end to the old republic of Venice, and made a very undesirable imperialistic peace,* he [Napoleon Bonaparte] returned to Paris as the great conquering hero. He was beginning to dominate France already. But he felt perhaps that the time was not ripe for him to seize power,* and so he arranged to go with an army to Egypt.* From his youth onwards he had felt this call of the east and now he could gratify it, and dreams of vast empire must have floated in his mind. He just managed to escape the English fleet in the Mediterranean and reached Alexandria.

Egypt was then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, but this empire had declined, and in effect the Mamelukes ruled Egypt, nominally under the Sultan of Turkey.* Revolutions and inventions might shake Europe but the Mamelukes still lived after the fashion of the Middle Ages.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte undertook a military campaign in Egypt hoping to build on his astonishing successes in southern Europe. His aim was to press on through Egypt towards India, fulfilling a long-cherished dream of Eastern empire and having slipped past the Royal Navy, all that remained was to sweep aside the Mamluk army serving the Ottoman Empire in Cairo.

Battle of Nile - History

By Eric Niderost

In late June 1798, a French expeditionary force plied the Mediterranean, seen by fishing and trading vessels but its destination known only to a very few. On June 25th it approached the island of Crete, but neglected landfall, keeping to sea. The convoy was searching for a wind, the fabled meltemi, and was not disappointed in its quest. Soon the meltemi’s steady gusts were blowing the heavily laden ships to Egypt, the ultimate goal of the expedition.

“The Sea Was Covered For Miles With Ships of All Sizes”

The French convoy was a splendid sight, something that would forever remain in the memories of those privileged to witness its stately passage. Two-­hundred-­and-­eighty troop transports, 13 ships of the line, and a scattering of frigates and attendant vessels rolled and swayed together on the sea. Collectively the convoy was like an island, a moving, man­made island of oak, fir, hemp and canvas. One awed observer recorded that “the sea was covered for miles with ships of all sizes whose masts resembled a huge forest.”

Indeed, hundreds of masts spiked the sky, and spars creaked and groaned as the wind filled the straining sails. Aboard the transports some 38,000 soldiers of the Armee de l’Orient—the Army of the Orient—were packed into damp, evil­-smelling holds like blue-­coated sardines. To while away the interminable hours, they gambled, sang patriotic songs, or simply wallowed in the gut-­wrenching agonies of seasickness.

The ships also carried 60 field guns, 40 siege cannon, 1,200 horses, and a large contingent of civilians. Perhaps as many as three hundred women were aboard some “authorized” females like laundresses, but many more disguised stowaways. Probably the most interesting passengers were the members of the Commission on the Sciences and the Arts, over 160 strong. There were car­tographers, surveyors and civil engineers, but also distinguished scientists like the mathematician Garpard Monge. Artists, architects and antiquarians (roughly today’s archaeologists) were also aboard, men who would help found the science of modern Egyptology.

Napoleon’s Court on L’Orient

The flagship of the great armada was L’Orient, a powerful first rate (vaisseaux) of magnificent size and awesome power. Measuring some two hundred feet in length and 50 feet at the beam, the ship displaced about 3,500 tons and carried 124 guns. L’Orient’s cannon were mounted on three massive decks in a hull that rose high above the waterline like an oaken cliff.

Napoleon Bonaparte.

Ships like L’Orient were the era’s battleships, floating fortresses that were little better than floating gun platforms under canvas. Such vessels were not noted for their speed, but L’Orient was particularly overburdened and carried nearly double her normal com­plement of 1,100 men. Small mountains of baggage cluttered her decks, and the hold carried a small fortune in treasure. The reason for this last was that such a massive expedition needed funding. Some three million Swiss francs had been “appropriated” from French-­occupied Switzerland. This was joined by seven million francs’ worth of gold, silver and statuary “liberated” from the island of Malta.

The commander-­in-­chief of the expedition, Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, was also aboard L’Orient, holding court in his lavishly appointed , book-­cluttered cabin in the stern of the vessel. At 28, Bonaparte was already famous for his brilliant Italian campaign against the Austrians in 1796­1797. Thin, almost scrawny, with a large head and a shock of unkempt hair, Bonaparte cut a poor figure, but outward appearances were deceiving.

Bonaparte was no mere soldier but an able administrator. The young general was a human dynamo, more elemental force of nature than mere mortal. He was nominally obeying the orders of the Directory, the corrupt French revolutionary government then in power, but in reality they merely rubber­stamped a project he had instigated.

Somewhere in the Mediterranean an enemy British fleet under Adm. Sir Horatio Nelson was searching for the French, but Bonaparte seemed unconcerned. He was no fool, but he also had an almost superstitious faith in his destiny, or “star.” Bonaparte’s only qualms were physical, not mental: He was prone to seasickness. Most of the voyage he kept to his bed, which was fitted with coasters to compensate for the ship’s roll.

The Army of England Becomes the Army of the East

The Egyptian expedition had its immediate origins in the spring and summer of 1797. Bonaparte had expelled the Austrians from northern Italy, and a peace would be signed at Campo Formio that fall. General Bonaparte was basking in a new-­won fame, but with the coming of peace he would be just another underemployed—or unemployed—army officer.

Peace with Austria meant the French Republic was supreme in western Europe, but Great Britain remained an implacable enemy. Britain would have to be invaded to be subdued, but that would mean a seaborne invasion. Britain’s Royal Navy ruled the seas, so the French would have to gain mastery of the English Channel before an army could be ferried across to the recalcitrant island. On January 29, 1798 Bonaparte confided to his secretary Bourrienne that “If the success of a descent on England appear doubtful, as I suspect it will, the Army of England shall become the Army of the East, and I will go to Egypt.”

Visits to Calais, Dunkirk and other ports told him what he wanted to know. The French fleet along the channel was woefully ill­-prepared. “It [the proposed cross-­channel invasion] is too great a chance,” Bonaparte concluded. “I will not hazard it.”

His ideas on Egypt and the east now took center stage. Bonaparte concluded, as he wrote in a letter of August 1797, “that the time is not far distant when we should see that, in order to destroy the power of England effectively, it should be necessary to attack Egypt.” The newly hatched scheme had, in fact, a long incubation. A French occupation of Egypt had been proposed as early as 1672, and in the 1770s the idea had resurfaced yet again. Nothing came of it, but French reports on Egypt made during this time provided vital information for Bonaparte.

Egypt: A Land of Wealth and Trade

Bonaparte’s Egyptian plans reflected the man himself, an amalgam of the cynical and idealistic, the hard­headed and romantic. The East was the land of wealth, the home of turbaned sheiks and the Arabian Nights. It was also the place where Alexander and Caesar had built solid military reputations.

On a more practical level, Egypt was astride the land trade routes to the Red Sea and India—and India, even in 1798, was fast becoming a “jewel” in England’s crown. Egypt, gift of the Nile, was a potentially rich country and if seized by a strong power might well dominate the Middle East. But above all, the idea of threatening British trade was an irresistible lure. If Britain’s main gate was bolted and barred, seizing Egypt might take Britain by the “back door.” The potential loss of India and eastern trade would be dis­astrous for an island kingdom that depended on sea commerce for its very existence.

Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, Comte de Brueys.

On April 12, 1798 the Directory issued secret orders to General Bonaparte that followed the main outlines of his scheme. He was to occupy Egypt and make it a French colony, also taking the strategic Mediterranean island of Malta en route. Bonaparte was also to take British “possessions in the East” as far as he was able a threat to India was clearly implied.

Egypt was ruled by the Mamlukes, a military caste in league with the ulama, the religious establishment, and rich merchants. Actually, Egypt was nominally a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, but the empire was weak and corrupt. By 1798 the Ottomans were in serious decline, but the odor of decay smelled sweet to the French government, because then Egypt might be seized with impunity. The French wished to keep good relations with Istanbul, so they would try to excuse their actions by claiming they were taking Egypt “to overthrow the Mamlukes.” The excuse was flimsy, and few believed it, but it served as a smokescreen to cover French ambitions.

Into the Lion’s Den

On May 19, 1798 the main contingent of the Egyptian expedition left the port of Toulon. General Bonaparte stood on the broad quarterdeck of L’Orient silently watching the spectacle he himself had set into motion. Ships of every size and description—ships of the line, transports, supply vessels, frigates—formed a convoy in the freshening breeze, and as they passed the giant flagship they dipped their colors in salute.

Bonaparte was one of the greatest land generals history has ever produced, but at sea he was literally out of his element. The moment he set foot on L’Orient, he became a mere passenger, his military genius neutralized and rendered helpless by an unknown environ­ment. The sea was the home of the Royal Navy, and as they sailed on, the French were entering the British Lion’s “den.”

At first luck—or Bonaparte’s “star”—favored the French. Smaller French contingents from Marseilles, Genoa, Ajaccio and Civita Vecchia managed to rendezvous with the main force at sea. Malta was sighted and taken after a two­-and­-a­-half­ week voyage from Toulon. After Malta was secured, the French set sail for Egypt so far, everything was going according to plan. True, rations had spoiled and the seasick troops aboard the swaying transports were subsisting on salted meat. But at least there was no sign of the British Royal Navy. Where was Nelson?

The Threat of a Landing on the British Isles

Britain was not unmindful of the threat that Bonaparte posed. In the winter of 1796 Britain had withdrawn its ships from the Mediterranean, partly because of Bonaparte’s successes in Italy and partly because Spain’s entry into the war on the French side stretched Britain’s resources and made the inland sea untenable.

In the early months of 1798 it was obvious the French were going to mount a major sea expedition—that much was certain. But where would the blow fall? One possibility was Ireland, Britain’s vulnerable “back door,” whose Celtic people had suffered terrible oppression under British rule. A French army landing in Ireland might cause the Emerald Isle to explode in open revolt. Of course the French did all in their power to keep the British in the dark. To confuse the issue and keep the British off the scent, the Egyptian expedition was dubbed the “Left Wing of the Army of England,” as if confirming London, not Alexandria, was its ultimate desti­nation.

The British had to know what the French were up to, and to do that, the Royal Navy would have to re­enter the Mediterranean. First Lord of the Admiralty Earl Spencer dispatched a message to Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent, and commander of the fleet off Portugal and Spain, to send ships to Toulon without delay. There was a note of urgency in Spencer’s missive, because he felt the “appearance of a British squadron in the Mediterranean might determine the fate of Europe.” These words proved prophetic.

“Take, Sink, Burn, or Destroy It”

The Earl of St. Vincent was an able sea officer, but Spencer suggested another man for the Mediterranean mission, Horatio Nelson. Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson was a relatively new flag officer, a factor that counted in a service where seniority counted. But to Spencer’s credit he recognized Nelson as a man with unique qualifications for the job. He was energetic, indefatigable and uncon­ventional. Above all, Nelson could be trusted to carry out his mission with speed and efficiency.

It turned out that Spencer was “preaching to the converted.” Even before the First Lord’s instructions reached his desk, St. Vincent had dispatched Nelson into the Mediterranean, on May 2, 1798. Nelson had a small squadron of three ships of the line, two frigates, and a sloop. The squadron included the 74­-gun ships Vanguard (Nelson’s flasgship) Orion, Alexander, and the frigates Emerald and Terpsichore.

Horatio Nelson was emaciated and often in poor health he stood at five-­foot-­seven and weighed about 130 pounds. He had been blinded in one eye during a skirmish. Badly wounded during an ill-conceived raid, his right arm had been amputated at the elbow in 1797. Nelson wasn’t a natural sailor, and seasickness often made his delicate stomach queasy.

Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Yet in spite of these physical ills, Nelson was a man of real genius in battle, a brilliant and innovative tactician and superb strategist. It was as if two Nelsons cohabited his wasted frame. Nelson the man’s vanity knew no bounds, but he was also caring, kindly and genuinely concerned with the welfare of his men. Nelson the admiral was bold, ruthless and had an unwavering instinct to go for the enemy’s jugular.

For the next two months or so Nelson played a cat-­and-­mouse game with Bonaparte, with the former desperately trying to locate and pin down his elusive foe. At first it seemed that luck—or chance—was favoring the French. On May 20 a howling gale dismasted Vanguard. It was touch and go for a time, but the admiral’s storm­-tossed squadron made it to Sardinia and safety. By May 27 Van­guard was repaired, and Nelson’s squadron resumed its search.

A French merchant ship was encountered, and its captain pumped for information. It seemed Bonaparte’s armada had already left Toulon—a startling piece of intelligence. But where were they headed? Nelson’s problem was compounded by a lack of frigates. Frigates were the “eyes of the fleet,” swift messengers and scouts, and without them Nelson was blind. It will be recalled that orig­inally Nelson had two frigates, but during the terrible storm they had departed for Gibraltar. It seems the frigate captains, seeing Vanguard dismasted, assumed Nelson would make for Gibraltar to effect repairs. It was, as we have seen, a bad guess, and now Nelson had no scouts.

On June 7 Nelson received welcome reinforcements from St. Vincent, 10 ships of the line and one frigate. Now, should the French be located, Nelson could attack with every hope of success. St. Vincent had included some updated orders along with the reinforce­ments. Nelson was now told to catch up with the French armada, and do all in his power to “take, sink, burn, or destroy it.”

Missing the French Fleet by Two Days

The possibility of an encounter with a British fleet on the open sea was something that haunted Vice Admiral François Paul, Comte de Brueys d’Aigailliers. Brueys was responsible for the French warships that were escorting the huge convoy, and the last thing he wanted was a sea battle. The French armada was an impressive sight, a stately procession of ships that covered two to four square miles of open water. But Brueys knew there were serious flaws behind the impressive façade.

The French transports were like a large flock of sheep, Brueys’ warships the “shepherd,” and the British fleet a pack of “wolves.” Many of the transports were terribly slow, barely making three knots when even a lumbering first rate like L’Orient could manage six to ten knots. Slow and cumbersome, the transports were incapable of maneuver or flight.

The convoy was too large and unwieldy the French warships would have their hands full just surviving, much less protecting the transports. Ironically the snail­like pace of the French convoy, coupled with Nelson’s growing impatience, proved Bonaparte’s sal­vation. Also, Brueys decided to take a roundabout course to Egypt via Crete to further throw the British off the scent.

Meanwhile Nelson was still scouring the Mediterranean for the French. Off Sicily he learned that the French had taken Malta. Nelson polled his captains for their opinions, an unusual method for those days, and the consensus was the French were headed for Alexandria, the port of Egypt.

Nelson agreed, and soon the British fleet was under full sail to Alexandria. They arrived off the coast of Egypt on June 28, only to discover there was no trace of the French. Nelson was nearly beside himself with worry—what would be the consequences for his country if he made the wrong guess? Suppose the French were headed for the Atlantic, then on to Ireland or even England? What then?

The British were on the right track, but had beaten their quarry to Alexandria by two days. Nelson felt he could not linger in the area for too long the stakes were too high. The admiral ordered the fleet to sail north, hoping to somehow glean information about the French along the way. The British left Alexandria on June 29 if Nelson had just waited another 24 to 48 hours, history would have been changed. The last British vessel to depart, the brig Mutine, left Alexandria only two hours before the leading French ship, the frigate Junon, arrived.

The Battle of the Pyramids

The French armada hove off the coast of Alexandria on July 1. The Junon had been sent ahead of the main convoy, and when she returned it was with a startling piece of intelligence: A British fleet had recently been snooping around the area. Alexandria itself was heavily fortified, and to force a passage into its harbor seemed foolhardy. A storm was brewing, the coastal waters becoming choppy and flecked with whitecaps. Brueys suggested that the French ride out the storm overnight, then land at Aboukir Bay, about 15 miles east of Alexandria. Bonaparte overruled him, declaring,“Admiral, we have no time to lose. Fortune has given me three days if I do not profit from it, we are lost.” The looming menace of Nelson influenced Bonaparte’s decision.

The French landed at Marabout, about seven miles east of Alexandria. Bonaparte wanted to disembark five thousand men to capture the city from its landward side the rest of the Armee de l’Orient would stay aboard the storm-­tossed ships. Even so, the landing was a rough one, with troop­-laden boats fighting desperately to gain the shore. At least 20 French soldiers drowned in the operation, but at last Bonaparte had his strike force assembled by 3 am on July 2.

The Battle of the Pyramids would be the height of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. His victory in Egypt was short-lived, but nonetheless proved a propaganda victory decisive in his quest for power.

The French took Alexandria with little difficulty and soon the rest of the expedition disembarked in the port itself. Bonaparte then concentrated his attention to the conquest of Egypt. French troops were tortured by thirst and plagued by heat, flies and burning desert sands, but within a few weeks Egypt was secured. On July 25, 1798 Bonaparte smashed a Mamluke host in a battle grandil­oquently dubbed “the Battle of the Pyramids.” Mamluke resistance collapsed, Cairo was taken, and the tricolor of the French Republic now flew above the land of the Pharaohs.

Stationing the Fleet at Aboukir Bay

With his task accomplished, Admiral Brueys saw no reason to stay in Egyptian waters. Since the British might return at any moment, Bonaparte wanted the fleet to take shelter in Alexandria’s harbor. On paper the idea made sense, but the British might blockade Alexandria and bottle up the French warships. Brueys wanted to go to Corfu, where he would be admirably placed to pounce on British lines of communication. Bonaparte vetoed that proposal.

Bonaparte wanted his fleet nearby the ships were his lifeline to France, and would also be on hand to escort future reinforcements. If Brueys had reservations about Alexandria’s harbor, the next best compromise was Aboukir Bay. Brueys agreed to the plan, or at least acquiesced, and moved the French fleet to Aboukir July 7.

Aboukir Bay stretches in a graceful curve some 30 miles long. The Rosetta mouth of the Nile anchors the eastern end of the bay, and the western end is punctuated by a promontory and a small offshore island. The mighty river disgorged tons of silt each year, deposits that collected near the shore to produce hazardous shoals. These were bad enough, but in addition a shoaling sandbank hugged the curve of the bay and created a four­fathom line that was an additional obstacle, because any ship of the line that crossed it risked being run aground.

The French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay believing shallow water would protect them on the landward side.

Brueys anchored his 13 ships of the line in a sweeping arc two miles long. The idea was to anchor the ships hard against the shoaling sandbanks and four­fathom line, thus making sure no enemy ships could get on the landward, leeward side of the French fleet. With their landward side thus protected, the French could run out all their guns that faced seaward with perfect confidence. Bruey’s line would be in effect a long floating battery, a wooden wall bristling with some five hundred cannon.

With the French ships at anchor, Brueys ordered the spars be taken down. There was no immediate need for them, and in a battle they might come crashing down on French gun crews. To bolster his defenses Brueys constructed a small battery of four guns on Aboukir Island.

The French fleet at Aboukir was arranged into three major divisions. The van, the contingent nearest Aboukir Island, consisted of Le Guerrier, Le Conquerant, Le Spartiate, L’Aquilon and Le Peuple Souverain, all 74­gunners. Brueys placed his heaviest and most formidable ships in the center, which included Le Franklin, 80 guns, the flagship of Rear Admiral Blanquet du Chayla L’Orient, 124 guns, under Brueys and his chief of staff Rear Admiral Honore­Joseph­Antoine Ganteaume and Le Tonnant, 90 guns. The rear con­tingent included L’Heureuse, Le Timoleon, Le Mercure and Le Genereux, all 74 guns. The flagship of Rear Admiral Pierre Charles Villenueve, Le Guillaume Tell, was also with the rear. Brueys’ four frigates, Seriense, Artimise, Diane and Justice were stationed between the ships of the line and the shoals, silent sentinels bobbing at anchor.

Sighting the French Fleet

The next few weeks were ones of mounting concern over supply problems. Brueys sent shore parties to gather what food they could, while other sailors were set to work digging wells because water was in short supply. Almost 25 men from each ship had to be sent ashore as guards, because local bedouins harassed foraging parties at every turn.

Meanwhile, Nelson finally managed to get the information he was waiting for—the French had indeed sailed to Egypt. Soon the British fleet was bound for Alexandria, crowding sail to assure a swift passage. Nelson arrived off Alexandria August 1, only to find the harbor packed with French transports and the French tricolor flag dancing above the port battlements. Where were the enemy warships?

The British fleet probed eastward, and soon a lookout aboard the Zealous sighted the French anchored at Aboukir. At 2:45 a signal flag was hoisted to inform Nelson of the discovery. The British were now about nine miles away from Aboukir Bay, but the ships were scattered. Zealous and Goliath were the closest to the enemy the others were in small groups across the Mediterranean.

According to some accounts the British were first sighted by L’Heureuse about 2 pm. Sailing ships were slow by modern standards the French still had three hours or so before the leading Royal Navy ships would actually arrive. There was time enough for a con­ference, so Brueys assembled his senior flag officers to discuss options. The French admiral had two choices: he could fight at anchor, taking advantage of the shoals guarding his back, or he could raise sail and meet the British in classic head­-to-­head fashion.

The British find navigable water landward of the French.

Brueys was unwell, suffering from a bad case of dysentery, and the illness seemed to cloud his judgment. Wracked by indecision as well as stomach pains, he ordered the topsails put up. This was a clear signal he wanted to fight under sail, a notion that was seconded by Admiral Blanquet. Brueys had second thoughts, however, and soon opted to stay at anchor.

Fighting at anchor was based on sound reasoning. For one thing, the British had the wind in their favor, a crisp breeze that was blowing in a southeasterly direction into the bay. It would be next to impossible for the French to get underway. Then, too, the French ships were seriously undermanned at the best of times, and thousands of sailors were still ashore with foraging parties. As it happened, not all personnel obeyed Bruey’s command to return to the ships.

The French were also lacking in training and experience. Many of the French sailors were conscripted fishermen and merchant sea­men, ill­trained for a battle at sea. But above all the French ships were so undermanned there was not enough personnel to simul­taneously work the guns and the sails. The French had to stay at anchor.

The Goliath‘s Leeward-Side Attack

The British ships became a hive of feverish activity. Red-­coated marine drummers beat to quarters, a throbbing tattoo that galvanized the men and sent them scurrying to their battle stations. The cannon were loaded and run out, gun ports raised to allow their stubby black muzzles to protrude from the sides of the ships. The ships’ hulls, once sleek and graceful, now sprouted cannon like a porcu­pine’s quills.

Cannon came in many sizes, but the standard gun was the 32­-pounder, so named for the weight of the projectile it fired. A 32­-pounder cannon weighed almost three tons, and could shoot a heavy iron ball in excess of one­-and-­a-­half miles. At half that range, a 32­pound cannonball could penetrate two-and­-a-­half ­feet of solid oak.

Captain Thomas Foley of the Goliath was about to show what the Royal Navy could do. As Goliath nosed toward the entrance of Aboukir Bay, Foley was poring over a 20-­year­-old atlas he had in his possession. The burly captain peered ahead, consulted the atlas, then realized the French had made a major miscalculation. The French ships of the line were anchored at the bow only, not at both the bow and the stern. This allowed them to swing at anchor closer to the shoals. If the French could swing so freely, there must be enough deep water for a ship of the line to sail in the narrow passage between the shoals and the French landward­-facing, leeward sides.

With the wind at its back, the British fleet converges on the French line. (Copyright North East Lincolnshire Museum Service / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

It was a revelation, and a key to victory. If the British could get on both sides of the French ships, they would be subjected to a mur­derous crossfire. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So Foley took the plunge and squeezed his ship past the shoals and Le Guerrier, the leading French ship of the van. The small French battery on Aboukir Island fired a few rounds, but they fell short. Goliath swept past Le Guerrier’s bow, and while doing so unleashed a devastating broadside. A broadside taken at the bow was the most feared, since shot could sweep the entire length of a ship from stem to stern.

Shaken and bloodied, Le Guerrier had to literally scramble to mount a defense. Captain Trulet, Le Guerrier’s master, had stacked piles of crates and other gear on the ship’s landward side, not expecting to be attacked from that direction. French sailors were fran­tically clawing through the crates in an effort to clear for action when a second broadside ripped into Le Guerrier. A man could be decapitated, disemboweled, or lose a limb if he was in the direct flight path of a cannonball, but even a near miss could produce a lethal shower of splinters when the shot hit wood.

The second British broadside produced an iron hail that ripped through Le Guerrier’s sides and pulverized the crates into kindling, thus doubling the clouds of flying splinters. Within minutes most of Le Guerrier’s gun crews were dead or wounded. Captain Foley originally wanted to anchor next to Le Guerrier to continue the punishment, but he laid his anchor cable too far and found himself beside Le Conquerant, the second ship in the French van. No matter one target was as good as another, and Goliath began pounding away at Le Conquerant without delay.

Following the Goliath

Other British ships followed Goliath into the narrow waters between the shoals and the leeward of the French line. Zealous, the next ship to follow Goliath, was captained by Samuel Hood. Following Goliath into the abyss was an act of faith as well as of courage, because Hood lacked reliable charts. Hood accepted the challenge, but later admitted: “I expected Goliath and Zealous to stick on the shoal every moment.”

Audcious, Orion and Theseus followed Goliath and Zealous there was now every chance of a major British victory. Earlier, Admiral Nelson had also realized there was enough water on the leeward side of the French line and had heartily approved of Foley’s actions. Nelson had been nursing a terrible toothache, but soon forgot the discomfort in the excitement of the coming battle. To complete the envelopment of the French ships Nelson led an attack on their seaward side, his flagship Vanguard edging up to Le Spartiate to begin a brutal duel that would last far into the night.

Le Guerrier had taken the most punishment thus far, but her ordeal was not yet over.

Some French ships are surrounded.

Zealous anchored right alongside, then started to pump a steady barrage of cannonballs into her already peppered hull. Theseus gave Le Guerrier a salvo that toppled her main and mizzen mast, then sailed over to attack Le Spartiate, the third ship in the French van. The luckless Le Spartiate had the dubious distinction of being the first French ship to be attacked on both sides, fatally sand­wiched between both the Theseus and the Vanguard. Orion, one of the other ships that joined Goliath on the leeward side, anchored on the quarter of Le Peuple Souverain and the bow of Le Franklin.

One of the French frigates, La Serieuse, tried to come to the aid of her bigger sisters by attacking the much larger Goliath. This was more than foolhardy it was a breech of battle etiquette, and La Serieuse paid the penalty for her rashness. Captain Foley was outraged by such impertinence, and quickly ordered, “Sink that brute!” Goliath sent a thundering broadside into the French frigate, and some accounts say Zealous joined in. La Serieuse was not merely damaged, she was pulverized, her shot­riddled hull letting in water like a sieve. The ship sank almost at once, her crew scrambling up its rigging to seek safety in the masts as she settled in the shoals.

The Height of the Battle of the Nile

It was now the turn of the British to absorb some punishment. The towering L’Orient was ready for action, and Brueys had seen to it that her guns were double­shotted—that is, they were loaded with not one but two cannonballs each. In the meantime, gunsmoke began to appear, drifting skeins that floated over the water in dirty clouds that obscured friend and foe alike. Besides, night was falling. The gathering darkness and the growing gunsmoke clouds further reduced visibility and gave meaning to the phrase “fog of war.” In all this, Bellerophon lost her bearings, and then the gunsmoke parted to reveal a terrifying sight: the looming bulk of L’Orient was just beyond.

The French flagship’s cannon suddenly erupted with a mighty roar, their muzzles recoiling in gouts of flame and smoke as they launched a half­ton of metal into the air. Bellerophon was not merely damaged, she was pulverized, and two hundred of her crew were dead and wounded. The plucky 74 fought back, but it soon was reduced to a mastless hulk that drifted powerless from the scene.

A little past 8 o’clock three more British ships joined the action, Alexander, Swiftsure and Leander. A fourth British ship, Culloden, had the frustrating experience of running aground in the shoals and having to sit out the whole battle. But at least the ship served as a kind of signal marker to show other ships where shoals were located.

The Battle of the Nile was now at its height, the two fleets like giants locked in a titanic struggle. The muzzle flashes of hundreds of cannon speckled the bay, momentarily illuminating ships for a few seconds, and the sounds of heavy firing echoed across the darkened waters like rumbling peals of thunder.

At the height of the Battle of the Nile, the naval clash became a series of viciously small contests between individual ships.

In a sense the Battle of the Nile was composed of not one battle but twenty or more interconnected clashes. Once night fell each ship had little sense of what was going on beyond its immediate vicinity. The lower gun decks of each vessel must have been particularly hellish, where scrambling crews served monster cannon in low, darkened passageways that reeked of sweat, powder and blood. 32-­pounders crashed and roared all along the gun deck, an unending chorus of destruction, the blasts so severe gunners’ ears could bleed from concussion. Sailors didn’t need a preacher to tell them about hell they were experiencing a hell on earth more ter­rifying than any sermon.

Explosion on L’Orient

L’Orient was the anchor of the French defense and her very size and obvious importance made it a tempting target. The Swiftsure anchored near L’Orient’s bow and Alexander took a place abaft, where it was in a good position to fire into the stern. The sterns of first rates were magnificent creations, with rows of windows all carved and decorated with gilded wood. Yet there was a price to be paid for this magnificence, because there were few cannon in the stern.

L’Orient became a magnet for every British ship that could bring its guns to bear. Whistling cannonballs peppered its hull and smashed its upper decks, and water geysered all round from near misses. A small fire started inside one of the French flagship’s luxurious stern cabins, ignited by a shot from the Alexander. Normally regular cannon shot would not be so incendiary, but there had been paints stored in the stern—crew-members had been in the process of painting the great hull when the British appeared.

The massive French flagship was reeling under a hurricane of shot, and soon many of its guns were smashed and its gun crews dead and wounded. Brueys, already wounded in the forehead, was becoming concerned about the spread of the fires when a cannonball from the Swiftsure swept his quarterdeck and tore off both his legs. According to some accounts he ordered a chair, had himself placed in it, then had tourniquets placed on the bloody stumps. “A French Admiral,” he coolly explained, “should die on his quar­terdeck.” The fires were spreading, joining together to form a raging inferno that threatened to consume the entire ship.

Brueys succumbed, and his death seemed to signal the beginning of the end for the great warship. Fires were everywhere, beacon lights for every British ship. According to one account, five British ships—Swiftsure, Alexander, Defense, Goliath and Leander— were now firing on the stricken behemoth.

Once the fire reached L’Orient’s magazines the ship would be destroyed in the resulting explosion. Seeing its fate, British and French ships tried to move away from the blazing flagship Le Tonnant, Le Heureuse and Le Mercure cut their cables. The Alexander did like­wise it would have taken an hour to haul up the anchor.

As surviving senior officer, Admiral Ganteaume ordered an “abandon ship.” Sailors dived into the sea where British boats later picked them up. Even so, only 60 of L’Orient’s complement of 1,100 survived the ordeal. Sometime around 10 pm the giant flagship exploded, ripped apart by a huge fireball that shot flame, smoke and debris of every description hundreds of feet into the air. Ash, wood debris and bits of human flesh cascaded down on nearby ships like an unnatural rain.

Putting Up a Hard Fight

The fighting stopped for 10 or 15 minutes after L’Orient blew up. It was as if the very magnitude of the explosion had rendered the combatants dumbstruck. Firing began again finally, and continued though the night, but by dawn all was silent. With the coming of morning the desert sun revealed a scene of extraordinary carnage. Spars and other wreckage littered the bay, and hundreds of scorched and bloody corpses bobbed in the waters.

The six leading ships of the French fleet had struck their colors and surrendered. In spite of the odds against them, the French had fought with tenacity and courage. Le Spartiate, for example, had been sandwiched between Nelson’s Vanguard and Theseus. By the time she hauled down her flag she was a battered wreck with two masts down and her hull riddled with holes. Vanguard had put 49 holes in her starboard hull, Theseus 27 to larboard. Yet Le Spartiate had given a good account of herself, even wounding Nelson in the head with a piece of langrange, a kind of shrapnel.

Other French ships met varying fates. Le Tonnant was grounded about a mile away from its original position, having cut her cable to escape the flagship’s explosion. Le Hereuse and Le Mercure were similarly grounded. Le Franklin, named after America’s Benjamin Franklin, held out until nearly all her guns were wrecked and two­thirds of her crew were dead or wounded. Le Tonnant, 80 guns, was a battered, dismasted hulk that held out for three days before capitulating.

The Army of the Orient Trapped

The French rear was still untouched. Rear Admiral Pierre-­Charles Villeneuve aboard Le Guillaume Tell decided to escape with what he could. Villenueve was no coward, but the British victory was so overwhelming there was little he could do. Le Guillaume Tell and Le Genereux cut their cables and made good their escape along with frigates La Diane and La Justice. Another French ship of the line, Le Timoleon, was dismasted and could not escape. Her master captain Trulet finally had her burned rather than be taken by the enemy.

The Battle of the Nile was the most complete naval victory of the 18th century. As Nelson himself remarked, “Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene.” British casualties were 218 killed and 677 wounded, many of them from the Vanguard and dismasted Bellerophon. French losses were catastrophic, some 1,700 dead and 1,500 wounded. A further 3,200 became prisoners, but most were soon released because Nelson did not have the resources to feed them.

The Armee de l’Orient was marooned in Egypt, cut off from reinforcements and supplies from France. Bonaparte was shocked when he first heard news of the disaster. “So this is the end of my navy,” he was heard to muse. “Can it be that I am fated to perish in Egypt?” But he soon recovered his spirits, and issued a proclamation to his homesick men: “The sea, of which we are no longer master, separates us from our homeland, but no sea separates us from either Africa or Asia.” This was propaganda, however, the last gasp of an Indian fantasy that was beyond resuscitation.

Nelson’s triumph at the Nile helped form a Second Coalition against France that was composed of Britain, Turkey, Naples, Russia and Austria. Bonaparte would eventually return to France and make himself First Consul and later Emperor. He never liked to admit French defeat, but in a candid moment he once remarked, “The name of Aboukir was detested by every Frenchman.”