The Battle of the Nile or Aboukir Bay (August 1-2, 1798) saw a British fleet under Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson defeat a French fleet, stranding Napoleon's army in Egypt. French losses have been estimated to have been as high as 1,700 dead (including Vice-Admiral Brueys) and 3,000 captured. British losses were 218 dead.
The French flagship L'Orient came under fire, first from Bellerophon, which received a battering and drifted away dismasted, and then from Alexander and Swiftsure. By 21:00, L'Orient was ablaze, and the battle paused as ships tried to distance themselves from the anticipated explosion. At about 22:00, the fire reached the magazine and the flagship exploded, hurling blazing parts of ship and crew hundreds of metres into the air. Only a hundred or so of L'Orient's crew of a thousand survived, by swimming from the burning ship. Following the blast, all of the men on both sides ceased fire and watched mouths agape for thirty minutes as the French flagship burst apart in a spectacular explosion.
Only two French ships towards the end of the line, Le Généreux and Guillaume Tell, together with the two frigates Diane and Justice, were able to escape. The rest were burned, or captured by morning on 2 August.
Nelson was struck on his forehead by grapeshot while standing on the quarterdeck, exposing his skull. Surgeon Jefferson pronounced the wound superficial, but Nelson could not believe it was not fatal and sent for his chaplain, Stephen Comyn. They moved Nelson to the breadroom, where they would not be disturbed. Nelson recovered and, following the victory, issued a memorandum to his fleet, "Almighty God having blessed His Majesty's arms with victory, the Admiral intends returning public thanksgiving for the same at 2 o'clock this day and he recommends every ship doing the same as soon as convenient." Reverend Comyn conducted the service from the quarterdeck of the Vanguard, which greatly impressed a group of captured French officers.
Nelson headed for Italy, where Vanguard was stranded at the Bay of Palermo. It was there that Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma were living. It was also the occasion of a less glorious incident of Nelson’s career, the execution of Prince Francesco Caracciolo.
Napoleon, who had already landed with his army, finished his conquest of Egypt, and went on to conquer much of Syria, but the political situation in Paris soon changed. He abandoned his troops and left for France to take charge of a coup to overthrow the constitution and secured his own election as First Consul. Napoleon then crowned himself as Emperor on 2 December 1804.
The battle established British naval superiority during the remainder of the French Revolutionary Wars, and was an important contribution to the growing fame of Admiral Nelson. It is also well-known for literary reasons: Felicia D. Hemans' poem "Casabianca", perhaps known better by its first line, "The boy stood on the burning deck", is about the son of Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca, who died in the explosion of the French flagship L'Orient during this battle.
|Vanguard||74||Capt. Edward Berry||Nelson's flag-ship|
|Alexander||74||Capt. Alexander Ball|
|Audacious||74||Capt. Davidge Gould|
|Bellerophon||74||Capt. Henry D'Esterre Darby||Dismasted|
|Culloden||74||Capt. Thomas Troubridge||Ran aground, took no part|
|Defence||74||Capt. John Peyton|
|Goliath||74||Capt. Thomas Foley|
|Majestic||74||Capt. George Blagdon Westcott||Captain killed|
|Minotaur||74||Capt. Thomas Louis|
|Orion||74||Capt. Sir James Saumarez||2nd in command|
|Swiftsure||74||Capt. Benjamin Hallowell|
|Theseus||74||Capt. Ralph Willet Miller|
|Zealous||74||Capt. Samuel Hood|
|Leander||50||Capt. Thomas Boulden Thompson|
|Mutine||16||Lt. Thomas Hardy||Assisted Culloden, took no part|
|Line of Battle|
|L'Orient||118||Flagship, Capt. Casabianca, Blew up 1 August|
|Franklin||80||Captured 2 August|
|Tonnant||80||Aristide Aubert Du Petit Thouars, Captured 3 August|
|Guerrier||74||Captured 2 August, scuttled (burnt) 18 August|
|Heureux||74||Captured 3 August, scuttled (burnt) 16 August|
|Mercure||74||Captured 3 August, scuttled (burnt) 18 August|
|Timoléon||74||Run aground and scuttled (blown up) 3 August|
|Artémise||36||Surrendered but run aground and scuttled (blown up) 3 August|
|Sérieuse||36||Sunk by Orion 1 August, later burnt|
|Also several Gunboats|
John Nicol, a sailor aboard HMS Goliath, writes this account:
The Goliath led the van. There was a French frigate right in our way. Captain Foley cried, "Sink that brute, what does he there?" In a moment she went to the bottom and her crew were seen running into her rigging. The sun was just setting as we went into the bay, and a red and fiery sun it was. I would, if had I had my choice, been on the deck. There I would have seen what was passing and the time would not have hung so heavy, but every man does his duty with spirit, whether his station be in the slaughterhouse or the magazine.
I saw as little of this action as I did of the one on 14 February off Cape St Vincent. My station was in the powder magazine with the gunner. As we entered the bay we stripped to our trousers, opened our ports, cleared, and every ship we passed gave them a broadside and three cheers. Any information we got was from the boys and women who carried the powder. The women behaved as well as the men, and got a present for their bravery from the grand signior.
When the French Admiral's ship blew up, the Goliath got such a shake we thought the after-part of her had blown up until the boys told us what it was. They brought us every now and then the cheering news of another French ship having struck [surrendered], and we answered the cheers on deck with heartfelt joy. In the heat of the action a shot came right into the magazine but did no harm as the carpenters plugged it up and stopped the water that was rushing in.
I was much indebted to the gunner's wife who gave her husband and me a drink of wine every now and then, which lessened our fatigue much. There were some of the women wounded, and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds and was buried on a small island in the bay. One woman bore a son in the heat of the action. She belonged to Edinburgh.
When we ceased firing I went on deck to view the state of the fleets, and an awful sight it was. The whole bay was covered with dead bodies, mangled, wounded, and scorched, not a bit of clothes on them except their trousers. There were a number of French, belonging to the French Admiral's ship, the L'Orient, who had swam to the Goliath, and were cowering under her forecastle. Poor fellows! they were brought on board, and Captain Foley ordered them down to the steward's room, to get provisions and clothing. One thing I observed in these Frenchmen quite different from anything I had before observed. In the American War, when we took a French ship, the Duke de Chartres, the prisoners were as merry as if they had taken us, only saying, `Fortune de guerre - you take me today, I take you tomorrow.' Those we now had on board were thankful for our kindness, but were sullen and as downcast as if each had lost a ship of his own.
The only incidents I heard of are two. One lad who was stationed by a salt-box, on which he sat to give out cartridges, and keep the lids closed - it is a trying berth - when asked for a cartridge, he gave none, yet he sat upright; his eyes were open. One of the men gave him a push; he fell all his length on the deck. There was not a blemish on his body, yet he was quite dead, and was thrown overboard. The other, a lad who had the match in his hand to fire his gun. In the act of applying it, a shot took off his arm; it hung by a small piece of skin. The match fell to the deck. He looked to his arm, and seeing what had happened, seized the match in his left hand, and fired off the gun before he went to the cockpit to have it dressed. They were in our mess, or I might never have heard of it. Two of the mess were killed, and I knew not of it until the day after. Thus terminated the glorious first of August, the busiest night in my life.
Soon after the action the whole fleet set sail with the prizes, and left the Goliath as guard ship. We remained here until we were relieved by the Tigre, seventy-four, when we sailed for Naples to refit. After refitting we sailed for Malta to join the blockade, where we remained eight months without any occurrence worthy of notice.
In 2000, Italian archaeologist Dr. Paolo Gallo discovered a burial site on Nelson's Island in Abū Qīr Bay. The graves contained the remains of sailors, officers, marines, women - some of whom may have disguised their appearance to serve in the all-male navy - and surprisingly, three infants. Subsequent work with British historian and archaeologist Nick Slope determined that some of the graves dated to shortly after the battle, while others dated from another battle in 1801.
On 18 April 2005, thirty of the British sailors and officers killed in the 1801 skirmish were given a military funeral in Alexandria, attended by the crew of the visiting HMS Chatham. Only one of the bodies, that of Commodore James Russell, was positively identified. One of his descendants attended the ceremony, and was presented with a flag.
One of the most unusual memorials to any naval battle lies just a few miles from Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire. The memorial is composed of numerous clumps of beech trees, which had been planted on otherwise arable farmland. These clumps are known as the Nile Clumps, because it is believed they were shaped from a larger piece of woodland (forest) after the Battle of the Nile, to represent the positions of French and British ships. Many of the "ships" have "sunk" over the years, but several still survive, and work is underway to replant some of them.
The story behind their construction is that Emma Hamilton, mistress of Nelson, in her declining years became friends with the Marquess of Queensbury, owner of much of the land around the town of Amesbury, including Stonehenge; and, together with Captain Thomas Hardy, Nelson's flag captain at the Battle of Trafalgar, persuaded the Marquess to create the unique memorial. Most of the surviving clumps now stand on land owned by the National Trust's Stonehenge Landscape estate.
Nelson's friend and sometime agent Alexander Davidson erected an obelisk on his estate at Swarland in Northumberland to commemorate the victory. Davidson also planted trees just to the west of the obelisk to represent the coastline of the Nile Delta and some of the ships that took part in the Battle of the Nile.
A number of ships of the Royal Navy have been named after the battle. Four have been named HMS Aboukir, the first being the French ship Aquilon captured in the battle. Another two ships have been named HMS Nile.