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Battle of the Nile

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.

Background

Still on the rise but not yet the primary enemy of Britain, commanding General Napoleon Bonaparte intended to threaten the British position in India via the invasion and conquest of Egypt. The expedition was also cultural and included many scientists, educators, and technical specialists — including a surveying party, as French intellectuals had long debated the feasibility of cutting a ship-canal between the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Previously, Napoleon spread misinformation about a planned invasion of Ireland, where the French Mediterranean fleet would meet up with the fleet to the north before the battle starts. This tricked the British navy into guarding the western Mediterranean Sea, and allowed Napoleon to support his Egypt expedition with no conflicts. About three weeks after his landing there, a British fleet of 14 ships under Horatio Nelson, which had been scouring the western Mediterranean Sea looking for the French fleet, finally came upon the 15 French ships being used to support the invasion of Egypt.

Preparations

The fleets met close to sunset on August 1. The French were at anchor in Abū Qīr Bay, in shallow water near a shoal, less than 7 fathoms (14 m) deep. The shoal was being used to protect the southwestern, port side of the fleet, while the starboard side faced the northeast and the open sea. Nelson had already achieved great fame, and the French Admiral Brueys had studied his tactics at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and other engagements. As a consequence, Brueys had his line of battle chained together at anchor, to prevent the British from cutting the line and defeating a part of it in a night action. Brueys expected the battle to begin the next morning, as he did not believe the British would risk a night encounter in shallow, uncharted waters. Leisurely preparations for combat began. It is possible that the French were preparing to try to escape during the night.

Battle

Nelson brought together a team of diverse men in whom he had faith and had occasionally gathered for conference during their three-month hunt through the Mediterranean for Bonaparte's fleet. Nelson let each captain act on his own initiative. As the British fleet approached, Thomas Foley of the Goliath observed the gap between the first ship of the French fleet and the closest land. He judged that the chains anchored to shore lay deep enough for the Goliath to pass over. The Goliath separated from the conventional line of attack, face to face, and slipped round to the other side of the French fleet. Other British ships followed, and the French were attacked from both sides. One British ship, Culloden, ran aground; but the remainder were able to stay afloat, and began taking the French fleet apart, one by one, down the line. The wind from the north meant that the unengaged French ships could not come up to help their fellows.

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.

Aftermath

News of the victory was delayed reaching Britain. Leander, the ship carrying Nelson's envoy Captain Edward Berry and returning home with the dispatches, was captured after a fierce battle by the surviving 74-gun Le Généreux.

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.

The "Band of Brothers"

The battle brought the term "Band of Brothers" into popular use to indicate an unusually close-knit team of fighting men. The phrase originates in Shakespeare's Henry V, and was used by Nelson of his fifteen Nile captains in letters about the battle to Earl St. Vincent on 25 September 1798, to his wife on 1 October, and most famously to Earl Howe on 8 January 1799: "I had the happiness to command a Band of Brothers...". Although the term has sometimes been extended to other officers who served under Nelson at various times, it was used by Nelson himself specifically of those captains, listed below, who were with him during the Nile campaign and the battle itself.

British fleet

Ship Guns Commander Notes
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

French fleet

Ship Guns Notes
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
Aquilon 74 Captured
Guerrier 74 Captured 2 August, scuttled (burnt) 18 August
Heureux 74 Captured 3 August, scuttled (burnt) 16 August
Spartiate 74 Captured
Peuple Souverain 74 Captured
Mercure 74 Captured 3 August, scuttled (burnt) 18 August
Conquérant 74 Captured
Généreux 74 Escaped
Guillaume Tell 80 Escaped
Timoléon 74 Run aground and scuttled (blown up) 3 August
Frigates
Artémise 36 Surrendered but run aground and scuttled (blown up) 3 August
Justice 44 Escaped
Diane 38 Escaped
Sérieuse 36 Sunk by Orion 1 August, later burnt
Brigs
Alerte 12
Railleur 14 Escaped
Hercule 7 Scuttled
Salamine 18 escaped
Also several Gunboats

Firsthand account

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.

Recent archaeology

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.

Memorials

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.

References

  • Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Levant, 1559–1853. Princeton, Princeton University, 1952. ISBN 1-57898-538-2
  • Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1999. ISBN 0842027807
  • Strathern, Paul. Napoleon in Egypt: The Greatest Glory. Jonathan Cape, Random House, London, 2007. ISBN 9780224076814
  • Taylor, Gordon Clifford. The Sea Chaplains. Oxford: Oxford Illustrated Press, 1978. ISBN 0902280562.

Notes

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