‘I will bring the French fleet to action the moment I can lay hand upon them.’
One of history’s most decisive naval encounters took place 225 years ago this summer, on 1 August 1798, against the backdrop of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1801). The Battle of Aboukir Bay – known to many as the Battle of the Nile – was the engagement that made Nelson’s name, and is forever remembered for the unexpected night attack launched by the great British admiral on his enemy.
Nelson attacked the French fleet at dusk, while it was harboured on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, wiping out 11 of 13 ships of the line. French casualties and prisoners numbered some 6,200, against around 900 on the British side. It was a comprehensive victory to burnish the growing Nelson legend, and one that would cancel out Napoleon’s land successes during his Egyptian campaign.
By the time the Egyptian action took place, the 39-year-old Nelson was already disabled. He had lost his right eye commanding the naval brigade at the reduction of Bastia and Calvi during the invasion of Corsica (1794); three years later, action at Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands saw him part company with the corresponding arm. But it is not my intention here to retell the story of Nelson’s entire career. That has been done too many times before. Instead, to mark the anniversary of Aboukir Bay, I want to look at what actually happened off Egypt’s coast, and what we can learn from it about the abilities of this archetypal British naval hero.
Journey to Egypt
It was in the spring of 1798 that a French expedition had set off from the southern port of Toulon on its way to Egypt. What was Napoleon up to? He fancied an invasion of England but had convinced himself, reluctantly, that a Channel crossing was impracticable, at least for now.
Eager to deliver a blow to Britain’s prestige and power, the French military leader instead convinced the country’s ruling Directory that a strike at the enemy’s Indian empire was possible. As a first step, this would be via Egypt, a country that had long fascinated French political thinkers. Napoleon, who had set sail from Toulon on 19 May with 35,000 men and a corps of scientists for good measure, surprised and took Malta on 12 June, before landing in Egypt on 1 July. Alexandria was captured the next day.
At the Battle of the Pyramids, fought outside Cairo on 21 July, the French easily dispatched the medieval cavalry of the Mamluks – the warrior race that actually ruled Egypt, though it was in theory a Turkish province – capturing the city itself the following day. Meanwhile, Nelson, who had been patrolling in the eastern Mediterranean and searching in vain for his adversary, was reinforced in early June, bringing the strength of his fleet up to 14 ships of the line and 1 brig. But with his frigates scattered, he put in for supplies to Syracuse (Sicily), where he may have learned that his enemy had slipped the net and was in Africa. Some sources say he already knew this when he took the opportunity to restock with food and water for what lay ahead.
The fact that the French fleet had evaded Nelson so far did not go down well at home, and a feeling persists to this day that an opportunity was missed to have fought ‘Trafalgar’ seven years before it actually happened, capturing Napoleon in the process, and saving Britain a bag of trouble. That will always remain another of those ‘what if’ moments of history. But, as it was, a replenished Nelson set sail again in his flagship HMS Vanguard with ten other ships at his disposal, his mission finally to track down his quarry.
Nelson was no different to other commanders in fancying himself an orator on the eve of battle, and he excelled as destiny approached: ‘Before this time tomorrow I shall have gained a peerage, or Westminster Abbey,’ he supposedly told his officers at a final dinner on 31 July, the night before Aboukir Bay. (Whether he truly uttered those precise words is disputed, as it is known that he always preferred St Paul’s, his final resting place.) Early the following morning, he dispatched his scouts HMS Alexander and HMS Swiftsure to check out the harbours at Alexandria, which proved to be free of French ships. The signal followed to turn east down the coast.
On 1 August, Nelson came upon the French ships at anchor in Aboukir (or Abukir) Bay, a wide inlet 15 miles north-east of Alexandria; his own fleet was numerically inferior, but he did have the advantage of surprise. Nelson was not badly outnumbered, the French mustering 13 ships of the line and four frigates. His opponent was Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, Comte de Brueys, who commanded from a splendid 120-gunner. Launched at Toulon in 1790, she had recently been renamed L’Orient to reflect Napoleon’s latest whimsy.
Brueys’ ships were undermanned, with many of the crews ashore sinking wells or standing sentry over the working parties – to protect them not from the British but from Bedouins. The ships were not only undermanned but also chaotic – with maintenance (painting) going on aboard L’Orient, for example. The last thing Brueys seemed to be anticipating was an attack from the sea. The next surprise was Nelson’s decision to attack immediately, even though the sun was in the process of setting.
Aboukir Bay is almost semicircular, stretching from Aboukir Point (west) to the Rosetta mouth of the Nile (east). The French entrenchment should have been strong enough, with their 13 ships of the line moored line astern across the bay, aligned north–south in a compact line of battle with protection offered by Aboukir Island’s batteries to the north-west, and to the landward by unfathomed and potentially deadly shoals. Nelson’s force came on at a steady three knots, the wind from the north-north-west. When Brueys realised what was coming, he knew he couldn’t set sail and engage, as he simply didn’t have enough men aboard to accomplish this. By 5pm, he understood only too well Nelson’s intent – to attack – so gave the signal to engage at anchor.With the night-time wind buffeting along the French line, Nelson concentrated his attack on the weather end – the opposite end of the French line from that which the conditions would have suggested. Brueys was about to find his weakest ships being hit hardest. It was Nelson’s plan to attack the enemy van and centre, with his approach from the head of the French line – although achieving this meant running the risk presented by those threatening shoals. The Culloden, commanded by Captain Thomas Troubridge, duly ran aground, and would remain there throughout the engagement. In unfamiliar waters, Nelson’s officers were taking soundings as they came on. Leading the way was Goliath, commanded by Captain Thomas Foley, who at least had the advantage of a recent French chart. Nelson had boldly taken the triple risk that few other commanders would have chosen: an immediate attack; concentrating his attack on the van/centre; risking shoals. Yes, it was a high-risk strategy – but fortune was to favour the bold.
The French, disadvantaged by being caught in harbour, crowded in their anchorage, and unable to manoeuvre, were easily overpowered. Another factor that told against them was their being at single anchor with room to swing, which also gave the British ships room to enter and make hay. The first five British ships, with Foley in the van, rounded the head of the French line and nipped inside, between the French and the shore, and there they anchored. Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, and the other five ships, took the outside line, the seaward side of the French, who were therefore effectively surrounded, sandwiched between sea and shore. There is some debate as to who was responsible for Foley’s initiative, whether this was part of Nelson’s scheme or whether the former had just acted off his own bat. Weighing up all the evidence, such as it is, leads one to conclude that Foley enjoyed a fair bit of autonomy in that moment.
Battle is joined
The first cannon-fire came at 6.30pm, not as the ships converged, but when they were within pistol-shot range. It was already sunset. Within 30 minutes it would be dark, at which point Nelson ordered all ships to hoist distinguishing lights. Aboukir Bay was an atypical battle: one fought at anchor and in the gathering gloom, when the French hadn’t even run their guns out on the shore side. Le Guerrier, the French van ship, was stripped of her masts after 12 minutes of rapid fire, while ten further minutes saw Le Conquérant and Le Spartiate similarly treated.
By around 8.30pm, Le Spartiate had ceased firing, while L’Aquilon and Le Peuple Souverain were captured. As battles go, this was turning into more of a procession. Brueys was mortally wounded by a belly shot, while Nelson suffered a shrapnel wound to the head and thought himself finished: ‘I am killed; remember me to my wife,’ he cried as he collapsed into the arms of Captain Edward Berry. In fact, the wound was superficial. He was taken below for running repairs, his death in glory moment postponed.
At 8.55pm, L’Orient caught fire spectacularly; suddenly the night was not so dark. Some of the remaining French ships – Tonnant, Heureux, and Mercure – cut their cables to avoid getting caught up in the blaze, but this just caused further confusion, with the drifting vessels firing into one another: as if the French hadn’t suffered enough from raking British fire, they now had to contend with friendly fire too. To be fair, some British ships had been guilty of the same – but not to the same withering extent. L’Orient’s crew of some 1,000 hands was reduced to a mere 70, such were its losses. At 10pm, she finally gave up the ghost, detonating in rumbustious fashion – so spectacularly, in fact, that there was a temporary pause in the action, perhaps for as long as 10 minutes, as both sides took stock of what had just happened, blazing wreckage raining down on ships from both fleets. Three-ton cannon were hurled 250 yards like matchwood, and came down twisted and gnarled like trees in a storm.
The sound of the explosion was heard 20 miles away. Nelson later claimed that L’Orient had struck before she ignited. She was the French flagship and a treasure ship carrying the loot that was to finance Bonaparte’s expedition against British India. Her spectacular loss must have had a salutary effect on the rest of her countrymen. There would be rumours after that Alexander had fired some combustible material at her, with or without Nelson’s sanction, that had set the whole lot ablaze like so many burning heretics. If true, then there was some use of ‘Greek Fire’ or other such concoction. We will never know the full truth: whether the French had the weapon, so forcing the British literally to fight fire with fire; whether it was deployed from Alexander; and, if it was, whether Nelson sanctioned its use. Nelson’s insistence that L’Orient had struck before burning was perhaps his attempt to minimise the impact of combustibles, if indeed they were used. All we know for sure is that the French flagship burned quickly and spectacularly. Another theory is that flames had ignited oil jars and paint buckets littering the poop, thereby ensuring that L’Orient fell victim to her own repainting.Battle became rout. The French ships placed at the back of the line were powerless to aid the others because of the wind direction. Their fate was to be picked off in turn. French ships fouled their compatriots. Two of them ran aground. There are reports, which are hard to substantiate, of a lull in the fighting involving Alexander, under the command of Alexander Ball, and its 84-gun French adversary, with both crews taking a breather from the firing due to exhaustion before the British cannonade resumed, leading to the surrender of its opponent. The engagement continued on and off during the night, and then sporadically for another day and night, but the outcome was clear and present. On the morning of the third day, Nelson was sufficiently recovered from his wounds to declare: ‘My lord, almighty God has blessed his majesty’s arms in the late battle, by a great victory.’
Outcome and reportage
The action, such as it was, was decisive. All of the French ships were either captured or destroyed with the exception of just two, the rearmost ships, plus two of the frigates, which managed to escape. Of 13 ships of the line, nine were taken and two had burned and sunk. The British ships suffered too. Bellerophon, for example, was cultivating a reputation as one of the most knocked-about ships of the fleet. She’d taken on the much larger L’Orient, been dismasted, lost three lieutenants killed, had her captain (Henry Darby) and master wounded, and suffered more than 190 casualties in total.
Nelson reverted to type with more pithiness: ‘I had the happiness to command a band of brothers,’ he wrote after the battle in a letter to Admiral Lord Howe. Of course, he was not the first to use the inspiring phrase ‘band of brothers’, as Shakespeare had earlier put the words into Henry V’s mouth on the eve of Agincourt. We assume therefore that Nelson had read some of the Bard.
Nelson also declared that: ‘Victory is not a strong enough name for such a scene as I have passed’. He called it right. Prior to Aboukir Bay, naval warfare had tended to be mostly indecisive. The Battle of the Nile was of a new order: it was a total spanking. As the architect of such an overwhelming triumph, Nelson would be feted as the hero of the hour, the deliverer of Britain from the French menace. Later, he would ruefully add that, had he not been rendered blind by his wound, he would have taken every single French ship bar none.
In those pre-internet days, news travelled slowly and was preceded by rumour. The early reports from France were of a victory, with Napoleon personally involved and the defeated Nelson taking his own life. Then came reports of something indecisive, with French and British ships grounded. Finally came the denouement – that a loss had been suffered – but its significance was still played down compared to other triumphs, such as victories in Egypt and the capture of Malta. Across the Channel, on 27 September, The Times and the Morning Chronicle were reporting the fate of L’Orient, then two days later a more comprehensive and indeed accurate account was available, laying bare the destruction of the French line of battle, all sunk or captured save for two. For a traditionally pessimistic nation, this seemed too good to be true; yet it was, as confirmed by the arrival of Nelson’s triumphant dispatch on the following day, 30 September.
For more than a fortnight, the wreckage of the French fleet lay in Aboukir Bay watched over by the victorious British, who had also suffered. Vanguard was badly mauled, and Troubridge’s Culloden was rudderless and had suffered hull damage from her grounding. The flotsam and jetsam of naval warfare littered the water over a ten-mile distance. The six hardiest of the British vessels and half-dozen least damaged of the French then set off for Gibraltar, while the French write-offs were set on fire and detonated.
Nelson departed the scene of his triumph and near-death experience aboard Vanguard, with Culloden and another ship of the line. He was bound for Naples. The significance of the victory was manifest and simply stated: Napoleon and his force were cut off from France. Defeat had wrecked Bonaparte’s hopes of allying a great eastern empire to France, and prevented him returning to Europe in a Roman-style triumph: ‘See, the conquering hero comes!’.
The British victory was total – something that had an unfamiliar ring so far as naval warfare was concerned. Its fleet took advantage, mopping up by capturing Malta and Minorca, and controlling the Med. Another important consequence was that Napoleon’s embarrassment and temporary confinement in Egypt enabled Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, to sell the notion of a Second Coalition against him. In 1799, Britain allied with Russia, Austria, and Turkey – the latter because of France’s occupation of Egypt. France, meanwhile, was finished as a naval power, as it virtually gave up hope of challenging Britain on the waves.
Napoleon would have plenty of time, even after Waterloo, to regret the whole Egyptian fiasco and the ruination of Aboukir Bay. He would lay some of the blame on Brueys, claiming that the French admiral had ignored repeated urgings to take the fleet into the safer anchorage of Alexandria – though Napoleon later wrote, ‘If, in this disastrous event, [Brueys] made mistakes, he expiated them by his glorious end’.
Nelson returned to Naples in triumph – where he was welcomed with equal ardour by the Queen of Naples and by Lady Hamilton, his paramour. Then he was raised to the peerage as Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe (his Norfolk birthplace), with Parliament voting him a pension of £2,000 per annum and the East India Company throwing in £10,000. The King of Naples did his best to compete by making him the Duke of Bronte, in Sicily. Nelson was promoted to vice-admiral in January 1801. It was justified. In terms of ships captured and destroyed, the Battle of the Nile was record-breaking for a modern fleet action – until, that is, Trafalgar came along in 1805.
For his part, Napoleon licked his wounds and carried on. The Syrian campaign (1799) saw him invade after the Ottoman government declared war on France. Napoleon stormed the ancient city of Jaffa, where 1,200 prisoners were massacred – but he was frustrated again as he failed to capture the strategic port of Acre. There was also an outbreak of plague in his ranks, which prompted a hasty withdrawal to Egypt. There was even a second battle at Aboukir (25 July 1799). The Turks, supported by the British, landed here – but were totally routed by Napoleon and Murat.
Bonaparte finally cut his losses and left Egypt on 24 August 1799 to return to France. General Jean-Baptiste Kléber was left in command, and after lengthy negotiations concluded a peace with the Turks, the Convention of El Arish (24 January 1800), which enabled the final evacuation of French forces – an outcome that was, understandably, opposed by the British. Kléber himself was assassinated in Cairo on 14 June, and was succeeded by Jacques-François Menou, who had recently been defeated by the British at Alexandria (21 March 1800). The French force was finally repatriated and Egypt restored to the sultan.
Lessons of battle
We can learn much from Aboukir Bay about Nelson’s abilities and approach to combat – not least, the need to expect the unexpected and for its delivery in rapid time. He was not one for dawdling. His decision to attack immediately, even though night was falling, may have seemed eccentric – but he would surprise his opponents again in future, by hitting them not only when but also where it was least expected.
Having said that, he would ensure that his forces were prepared, and supplied as necessary, to maximise their chances, and he offered an object lesson in the art of delegation. He had confidence in his subordinates, who therefore did not hesitate to act independently and to good effect in the heat of battle. This paid dividends at Aboukir Bay, when Nelson was wounded and taken below, although the battle was already won and becoming a rout by this stage. Nelson did assert, however, that the victory would have been even more emphatic had he not been disabled.
There was one lesson Nelson himself did not heed – namely that while parading around on deck in full regalia may have inspired his men, it also made him a target for enemy sharpshooters. Seven years later, he would pay the ultimate price at Trafalgar.
Stephen Roberts is a historian who has written several times for MHM, including cover stories on Edward III and the Siege of Leningrad.
All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated