Battle of the Nile (1798)

battle of the nile explosie l'orient

Prior to the Battle

Napoleon Bonaparte's victories in northern Italy over the Austrian Empire helped secure victory for the French in the War of the First Coalition in 1797, and Great Britain remained the only major European power still at war with the French Republic. However, the French navy was dominant in the Mediterranean, following the withdrawal of the British fleet after the outbreak of war between Britain and Spain in 1796. Bonaparte believed that, by establishing a permanent presence in Egypt, the French would obtain a staging point for future operations against British India. The campaign would sever the chain of communication that connected Britain with India, an essential part of the British Empire whose trade generated the wealth that Britain required to prosecute the war successfully. 

Alarmed by reports of French preparations on the Mediterranean coast, Lord Spencer at the Admiralty sent a message to Vice-Admiral Earl St. Vincent, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet to dispatch a squadron to investigate. This squadron, consisting of three ships of the line and three frigates, was entrusted to Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson. Nelson passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and took up position off Toulon by 17 May.

On 7 June a fleet consisting of ten ships of the line and a fourth-rate joined Nelson off Toulon. Although he now had enough ships to challenge the French fleet, Nelson suffered two great disadvantages: He had no intelligence regarding the destination of the French, and no frigates to scout ahead of his force.  On 22 June, a brig sailing from Ragusa brought Nelson the news that the French had sailed eastwards from Malta on 16 June. After conferring with his captains, the admiral decided that the French target must be Egypt. 

On the evening of 22 June, Nelson's fleet passed the French in the darkness, overtaking the slow invasion convoy without realising how close they were to their target. Making rapid time on a direct route, Nelson reached Alexandria on 28 June. There, he found no sign of the French; dismayed, he withdrew and began searching to the east of the port. While he was absent, Napoleon's fleet arrived on 1 July and landed their forces unopposed.

After Alexandria harbour had proved inadequate for his fleet, Brueys anchored his fleet in Aboukir Bay, ready to support Napoleon if required. Nelson meanwhile had crossed the Mediterranean again in a fruitless attempt to locate the French and had returned to Naples to re-provision. Nelson then decided to pass Alexandria again for a final check. In doing so his force captured a French merchant ship, which provided the first news of the French fleet. Searching along the coast, Nelson finally discovered the French fleet in Aboukir Bay on 1 August 1798.

In Aboukir Bay Brueys ordered his thirteen ships of the line to form up in a line of battle. Orders were issued for each ship to attach strong cables to the bow and stern of their neighbours, which would effectively turn the line into a long battery. The French ships were spaced at intervals of 160 yards (150 m) with the flagship Orient at the centre and two large 80-gun ships anchored on either side. However, Brueys had made some serious misjudgements: First, he had left enough room between Guerrier and the shoals for an enemy ship to cut across the head of the French line and proceed between the shoals and the French ships. Second, the 160-yard gaps between ships were large enough for a British ship to push through and break the French line. Furthermore, not all of the French captains had followed Brueys' orders to attach cables to their neighbours' bow and stern. The problem was exacerbated by orders to only anchor at the bow, which allowed the ships to swing with the wind and widened the gaps. This also created areas within the French line not covered by the broadside of any ship. British vessels could anchor in those spaces and engage the French without reply. 

The Battle of the Nile

Although initially disappointed that the main French fleet was not at Alexandria, Nelson knew from the presence of the transports that they must be nearby.  At the same time, French lookouts on Heureux, the ninth ship in the French line, sighted the British fleet approximately nine nautical miles off the mouth of Aboukir Bay. As his ships readied for action, Brueys ordered his captains to gather for a conference on Orient and hastily recalled his shore parties, although most had still not returned by the start of the battle.  Nelson gave orders for his leading ships to slow down, to allow the British fleet to approach in a more organised formation. This convinced Brueys that rather than risk an evening battle in confined waters, the British were planning to wait for the following day. Brueys may have been hoping that the delay would allow him to slip past the British during the night and thus follow Bonaparte's orders not to engage the British fleet directly if he could avoid it.

Nelson's plan was to advance on the French and pass down the seaward side of the van and centre of the French line, so that each French ship would face two British ships and the massive Orient would be fighting against three. To ensure that in the smoke and confusion of a night battle his ships would not accidentally open fire on one another, Nelson ordered that each ship prepare four horizontal lights at the head of their mizzen mast and hoist an illuminated White Ensign, which was different enough from the French tricolour that it would not be mistaken in poor visibility. As his ship was readied for battle, Nelson held a final dinner with Vanguard's officers, announcing as he rose: "Before this time tomorrow I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey," in reference to the rewards of victory or the traditional burial place of British military heroes.

It was late by the time the British arrived and the French, anchored in a strong position with a combined firepower greater than that of Nelson's fleet, did not expect them to attack. Nelson however immediately ordered his ships to advance. The French line was anchored close to a line of shoals, in the belief that this would secure their port side from attack; Brueys had assumed the British would follow convention and attack his centre from the starboard side. However, Captain Thomas Foley aboard HMS Goliath discovered a gap between the shoals and the French ships, and took Goliath into the channel. The unprepared French found themselves attacked on both sides, the British fleet splitting, with some following Foley and others passing down the starboard side of the French line.

 

The British fleet was soon heavily engaged, passing down the French line and engaging their ships one by one. Nelson on Vanguard personally engaged Spartiate, also coming under fire from Aquilon. At about eight o'clock, he was with Berry on the quarter-deck when a piece of French shot struck him in his forehead. He fell to the deck, a flap of torn skin obscuring his good eye. Blinded and half stunned, he felt sure he would die and cried out "I am killed. Remember me to my wife." He was taken below to be seen by the surgeon. After examining Nelson, the surgeon pronounced the wound non-threatening and applied a temporary bandage. The French van, pounded by British fire from both sides, had begun to surrender, and the victorious British ships continued to move down the line, bringing Brueys' 118-gun flagship Orient under constant heavy fire. 

Destruction of Orient

At 21:00, the British observed a fire on the lower decks of the Orient. Sustained British gun fire spread the flames throughout the ship's stern and prevented all efforts to extinguish them. Within minutes the fire had ascended the rigging and set the vast sails alight. The nearest British ships all stopped firing, closed their gun ports, and began edging away from the burning ship in anticipation of the detonation of the enormous ammunition supplies stored on board. In addition, they took crews away from the guns to form fire parties and to soak the sails and decks in seawater to help contain any resulting fires. Likewise the French ships all cut their anchor cables and drifted southwards away from the burning ship. At 22:00 the fire reached the magazines, and the Orient was destroyed by a massive explosion. The concussion of the blast was powerful enough to rip open the seams of the nearest ships, and flaming wreckage landed in a huge circle, much of it flying directly over the surrounding ships into the sea beyond. 

It has never been firmly established how the fire on Orient broke out, but one common account is that jars of oil and paint had been left on the poop deck, instead of being properly stowed after painting of the ship's hull had been completed shortly before the battle. Burning wadding from one of the British ships is believed to have floated onto the poop deck and ignited the paint. The fire rapidly spread through the admiral's cabin and into a ready magazine that stored carcass ammunition, which was designed to burn more fiercely in water than in air. A second blaze then began at the bow, trapping hundreds of sailors in the ship's waist. Subsequent archaeological investigation found debris scattered over 500 metres (550 yds) of seabed and evidence that the ship was wracked by two huge explosions one after the other. Hundreds of men dove into the sea to escape the flames, but fewer than 100 survived the blast. British boats picked up approximately 70 survivors. The remainder of the crew, numbering more than 1,000 men, were killed. For ten minutes after the explosion there was no firing; sailors from both sides were either too shocked by the blast or desperately extinguishing fires aboard their own ships to continue the fight. During the lull, Nelson gave orders that boats be sent to pull survivors from the water around the remains of Orient.

The rear division of the French fleet attempted to break out of the bay, with Brueys dead and his vanguard and centre defeated, but only two ships of the line and two frigates escaped from a total of 17 ships engaged.
As the sun rose at 04:00 on 2 August, firing broke out once again. The surviving French ships of the line, covering their retreat with gunfire, gradually pulled to the east away from the shore at 06:00. They formed up and stood out to sea, pursued by Zealous. Despite strenuous efforts, Captain Hood's isolated ship came under heavy fire and was unable to cut off the trailing Justice as the French survivors escaped seawards. Zealous was struck by a number of French shots and lost one man killed. For the remainder of the day Nelson's ships made improvised repairs and boarded and consolidated their prizes. 
On the morning of 3 August, Nelson sent Theseus and Leander to force the surrender of the grounded Tonnant and Timoléon. The Tonnant, its decks crowded with 1,600 survivors from other French vessels, surrendered as the British ships approached while Timoléon was set on fire by its remaining crew who then escaped to the shore in small boats. Timoléon exploded shortly after midday, the eleventh and final French ship of the line destroyed or captured during the battle.

After the Battle

The Battle of the Nile was a major blow to Napoleon's ambitions in the east. The fleet had been destroyed: Orient, another ship and two frigates had been burnt, seven 74-gun ships and two 80-gun ships had been captured, and only two ships-of-the-line and two frigates escaped, while the forces Napoleon had brought to Egypt were stranded. Given its strategic importance, some historians regard Nelson's achievement at the Nile as the most significant of his career, even greater than that at Trafalgar seven years later.

British casualties in the battle were recorded with some accuracy in the immediate aftermath as 218 killed and approximately 677 wounded, although the number of wounded who subsequently died is not known. French casualties are harder to calculate but were significantly higher. Estimates of French losses range from 2,000 to 5,000, with a suggested median point of 3,500, which includes more than 1,000 captured wounded and nearly 2,000 killed, half of whom died on Orient.

Nelson, who on surveying the bay on the morning of 2 August said, "Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene", remained at anchor in Aboukir Bay for the next two weeks, preoccupied with recovering from his wound. Nelson's head wound was recorded as being "three inches long" with "the cranium exposed for one inch". He suffered pain from the injury for the rest of his life and was badly scarred, styling his hair to disguise it as much as possible. As their commander recovered, his men stripped the wrecks of useful supplies and made repairs to their ships and prizes. The total value of the prizes captured at the Nile and subsequently bought into the Royal Navy was estimated at just over £130,000 (the equivalent of £11,720,000 as of 2018).

Over the next few days the British landed all but 200 of the captured prisoners on shore under strict terms of parole. The wounded officers taken prisoner were held on board Vanguard, where Nelson regularly entertained them at dinner. Historian Joseph Allen recounts that on one occasion Nelson, whose eyesight was still suffering following his wound, offered toothpicks to an officer who had lost his teeth and then passed a snuff-box to an officer, whose nose had been torn off, causing much embarrassment.

Reports of the battle did not reach Britain until Capel arrived in Mutine on 2 October, entering the Admiralty at 11:15 and personally delivering the news to Lord Spencer, who collapsed unconscious when he heard the report. Although Nelson had previously been castigated in the press for failing to intercept the French fleet, rumours of the battle had begun to arrive in Britain from the continent in late September and the news Capel brought was greeted with celebrations right across the country. Balls and victory feasts were held and church bells were rung. Nelson was proclaimed a hero across Europe. His own captains presented him with a sword and a portrait as "proof of their esteem." Nelson publicly encouraged this close bond with his officers and on 29 September 1798 described them as "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers", echoing William Shakespeare's play Henry V. From this grew the notion of the Nelsonic Band of Brothers, a cadre of high-quality naval officers that served with Nelson for the remainder of his life. 

The City of London awarded swords to Nelson and his captains, whilst the King ordered them to be presented with special medals. The Tsar of Russia sent him a gift, and Selim III, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, awarded Nelson the Order of the Turkish Crescent for his role in restoring Ottoman rule in Egypt. Lord Hood, after a conversation with the Prime Minister, said that Nelson would likely be given a Viscountcy, similar to Jervis's earldom after Cape St Vincent and Duncan's Viscountcy after Camperdown. Earl Spencer however demurred, arguing that as Nelson had only been detached in command of a squadron, rather than being the commander in chief of the fleet, such an award would create an unwelcome precedent. Instead, Nelson received the title Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe, a title with which he was privately dissatisfied, believing his actions deserved better reward. 

Legacy

The Battle of the Nile remains one of the Royal Navy's most famous victories, and has remained prominent in the British popular imagination, sustained by its depiction in a large number of cartoons, paintings, poems, and plays. One of the best known poems about the battle is Casabianca, which was written by Felicia Dorothea Hemans in 1826 and describes a fictional account of the death of Captain Casabianca's son on Orient.

The composer Joseph Haydn had just completed the Missa in Angustiis (mass for troubled times) after Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles. The well-received news of France's defeat at the Nile however resulted in the mass gradually acquiring the nickname Lord Nelson Mass. The title became indelible when, in 1800, Nelson himself visited the Palais Esterházy, accompanied by his mistress, Lady Hamilton, and may have heard the mass performed.

The Royal Navy commemorated the battle with the ship names HMS Aboukir and HMS Nile, and in 1998 commemorated the 200th anniversary of the battle with a visit to Aboukir Bay by the modern frigate HMS Somerset, whose crew laid wreaths in memory of those who lost their lives in the battle.