The Battle of the Nile

Admiral Nelson's stunning victory over the French Fleet in 1798.

Battle: The Nile or Aboukir Bay.

War: Napoleonic Wars.

Date: 1st August 1798.

Place: East of Alexandria off the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean.

Combatants: A British Fleet against a French Fleet.

Admirals: Rear Admiral of the Blue Sir Horatio Nelson against Admiral Brueys d’Aigalliers.

Winner: Nelson and the British Fleet won a resounding victory, arguably one of the decisive battles of naval warfare.

The French Flagship L'Orient explodes at 10 o'clock at night
The French Flagship L'Orient explodes at 10 o'clock at night at the height of the battle, effectively ending any chance of the French winning.

The Fleets: The British Fleet: His Majesty’s Ships Vanguard (Nelson’s Flagship: Captain Berry, 74 guns), Majestic (Captain Westcott: 74 guns), Bellerophon (Captain Darby: 74 guns), Defence (Captain Peyton: 74 guns), Orion (Captain Saumarez: 74 guns), Minotaur (Captain Louis: 74 guns), Theseus (Captain Miller: 74 guns), Goliath (Captain Foley: 74 guns), Audacious (Captain Gould: 74 guns), Zealous (Captain Hood: 74 guns), Leander (Captain Thompson: 50 guns), Swiftsure (Captain Hallowell: 74 guns), Alexander (Captain Ball: 74 guns), Culloden (Captain Troubridge: 74 guns) and Mutine (Captain Hardy: 74 guns).

The French Fleet: L'Orient (Flagship: Commodore Casabianca: 120 guns), Guerrier (Captain Trullet: 74 guns), Conquerant (Captain D’Albarde: 74 guns), Spartiate (Captain Eimeriau: 74 guns), Aquilon (Captain Thevenard: 74 guns), Peuple Souverain (Captain Raccord: 74 guns), Franklin (Flagship of Admiral Hayla; Captain Gillet: 80 guns), Tonnant (Captain Thouars: 80 guns), Heureux (Captain Etienne: 74 guns), Mercure (Captain Cambon: 74 guns), Guillaume Tell (Admiral Villeneuve’s Flagship 80 guns), Genereux (Captain Lenoille: 74 guns), Timoleon (Captain Trullet [jeune]: 74 guns): Frigates: Serieuse (Captain Martin: 36 guns), L’Artemise (Captain Estandlet: 36 guns), Diane (Admiral de Crepe: Captain Soleil: 36 guns) and Justice (Captain Villeneuve: 40 guns).

The beginning of the battle of the Nile
The beginning of the battle

The French Fleet of 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates carried 1,196 guns. The British Fleet of 13 ships of the line and one 50 gun ship carried 1,012 guns.

Map of the Battle of the nile with Nelson
The Battle of the Nile at the moment the French Flagship L'Orient exploded

French Ships: F1: Guerrier, F2 Conquerant, F3 Spartiate, F4 Aquilon, F5 Peuple Souverain, F6 Benjamin Franklin, F7 L'Orient, F8 Tonnant, F9 Heureux, F10 Mercure, F11 Guillaume Tell, F12 Genereux, F13 Timoleon, F14 Serieuse, F15 Artemise, F16 Diane, F17 Justice.

British Ships: B1 Majestic, B2 Bellerophon, B3 Alexander, B4 Swiftsure, B5 Leander, B6 Defence, B7 Minotaur, B8 Orion, B9 Theseus, B10 Vanguard, B11 Goliath, B12 Audacious, B13 Zealous, B14 Culloden, B15 Mutine

Ships and Armaments: Sailing warships of the 18th and 19th Century carried their main armaments in broadside batteries along the sides. Ships were classified according to the number of guns carried or the number of decks carrying batteries. The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. Nile was a close fleet action. Ships sailed up to the enemy and in many instances anchored, delivering broadsides at a range of a few yards.

Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner; the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern or bow quarter, so that the shot traveled the length of the ship wreaking havoc and destruction. During the battle Leander and Alexander positioned themselves to “rake” the French Flagship L'Orient from its bow and stern quarters. The first broadside, loaded before action began, was always the most effective. To achieve maximum effect the British ships held their fire until alongside the French ships, advancing in an ominous silence under the fire of the French Fleet and the shore batteries on Aboukir Island.

Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or canister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols, each crew seeking to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.

Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks or guns and metalwork, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing horrific wounds. Falling masts and rigging inflicted severe crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging to be drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally succumbed. Only 70 survived the destruction of the L'Orient from a crew of 500 or more.

Ships’ crews of all nations were a tough bunch. The British, with continual blockade service against France and Spain, were particularly well drilled, British gun crews firing three broadsides or more to every two fired by the French. The French Navy still suffered from the loss of expert naval officers, executed or exiled during the French Revolution of 1789.

British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships, including French and Spanish. Loyalty for a crew lay primarily with their ship. Once the heat of battle subsided there was little animosity against the enemy. Great efforts were made by British crews to rescue the sailors of foundering French ships. After the battle some 200 sailors from the French crews were mustered into HM ships.

Life on a warship, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in constant short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy easily and quickly set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.

Account:
In January 1798 French land forces and a substantial fleet gathered in the French Mediterranean port of Toulon. It was apparent to the British government of William Pitt that General Napoleon

Buonaparte intended to invade some part of the Mediterranean, but it was not clear where. Admiral Lord St Vincent commanded the British Fleet at Gibraltar from where he directed the blockade of the Spanish Fleet in Cadiz and the deployment of British naval units in the Mediterranean.

In February 1798 Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson arrived at Gibraltar to act as St Vincent’s deputy and to command operations against Napoleon’s expeditionary force in the Mediterranean. The appointment of such a junior rear admiral caused outrage among more senior naval officers of the same rank.

On 9th May 1798 Nelson sailed from Gibraltar in his flagship HMS Vanguard with a small squadron of His Majesty’s Ships Alexander and Orion, four frigates and a sloop, under orders to discover where Napoleon’s fleet and army were bound.

On 20th May 1798 a powerful storm struck Nelson’s squadron, completely dismasting Vanguard, the flagship only being saved by the resource and courage of Captain Bell’s HMS Alexander in taking Vanguard in tow. The squadron was dispersed, the frigates returning to Gibraltar, Vanguard refitting in a Sicilian port in an astonishingly short period of 4 days.

While Nelson was storm bound, the French expedition unexpectedly sailed from Toulon heading south east, provoking a frenzied search by the British.

By Nelson’s assessment, which proved correct, Napoleon intended to take Malta and then invade the Turkish Khediveate of Egypt, providing support to Tipoo Sultan in his fight with the British in India and restoring French influence in that sub-continent. The government in London and the East India Company panicked at the prospect.

Refitting in the Sicilian port of St Pietro, Nelson received substantial reinforcements from Lord St Vincent; dispatched from Gibraltar immediately on his receipt of a powerful squadron from England (the one squadron sailing as the other was signaled, neither seeing the other), bringing his fleet to one of thirteen 74 gun ships of the line. Nelson’s main deficiency was in frigates; the small fast ships of his squadron failing to track him down in time to sail for Egypt.

The crew at prayer on His Majesty’s Ship Vanguard
The crew at prayer on His Majesty’s Ship Vanguard, Nelson’s flagship,
 giving thanks for the victory at the Battle of the Nile: picture by John Atkinson.
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Many ships plied the Mediterranean and Nelson had to make do with the information he could glean at random from these passing vessels. He learnt that Napoleon had taken Malta but immediately sailed on 16th June 1798 for the East.

Nelson’s fleet set sail for Egypt where the British searched in vain for signs of the French ships. Nelson returned to Sicily, increasingly concerned at his inability to find Napoleon and the effect on his reputation in England. On 28th July 1798 Captain Troubridge obtained further confirmation that the French Fleet had gone east.

Nelson again sailed for the Egyptian coast, reaching Alexandria on 1st August 1798, to find, whereas on his earlier visit the port had been empty, Alexandria was now filled with French transport vessels. The British Fleet continued along the coast until dusk at around 6pm, when the signal was flown “Enemy in sight.” The search for the French Fleet was over; Nelson’s ships cleared for action.

The French Fleet of Admiral Brueys was unprepared for battle. The journey from France carrying Napoleon’s army had left the French ships short of water and supplies. The 200 transport vessels had crowded into the port of Alexandria leaving no room for the ships of war, forcing Brueys to take his fleet to the East of Alexandria into the Bay of Aboukir, a long crescent stretching from North to South, shoaling gently from the shore. The French ships had anchored in a line as near to the shoal edge as possible to prevent the British, if they should appear, from attacking on the landward station.


The British and French fleets engage

Brueys had arrayed his fleet with the 120 gun L'Orient in the centre and the other more powerful ships at the southern end of the line. A careful disposition would have placed the ships close together, but this was not done and the attacking British were enabled to penetrate the French line, firing into the vulnerable bows and sterns of the French ships. The French army occupied nearby Aboukir Island, building batteries to provide their navy with additional protection. A substantial part of the crews were ashore digging wells to provide water for the fleet.

It is said that shortage of provisions prevented Brueys’ frigates from cruising off shore to provide warning of the British approach. This seems a hardly adequate excuse. In every way the French Fleet was caught napping and Nelson was exactly the commander to take full advantage of the French lack of care.

The French ships saw the British Fleet as it sailed around the point into Aboukir Bay. One senior French officer urged that the fleet should sail immediately and attempt to meet the attack in the open sea, but Brueys declined to move, his immediate expectation being that Nelson would not attack so late in the day; a vain hope.

It had been Nelson’s practice during the months spent searching the Mediterranean for Napoleon’s Fleet to assemble his captains and discuss with them plans for any eventuality that might arise, the emphasis being on aggression and immediate attack. There was consequently no need for instructions to his captains; all knew what they should do.

Under a heavy but ineffectual barrage from the French batteries on Aboukir Island and more effective broadsides from the French ships, the British line, with the wind behind it, rushed down on the French Fleet. The French brig, Alerte, attempted to lure the British men of war into the shoals, but was ignored by the leading British ships, Goliath and Zealous, racing each other to be the first ship into battle. The action began at about 6.30pm, as the sun set.

Brueys’ dispositions were immediately set at naught, the two British ships heading straight for the landward side of the French line. Foley’s Goliath anchoring alongside the second French ship, Conquerant and opening fire, Zealous attacking the lead French ship, Guerrier.


The British Fleet attacks the French Fleet at the beginning of the Battle of the Nile
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A devastating feature of the French lack of preparation immediately became apparent. The French ships, taking the opportunity of being at anchor to conduct a refit, took considerable time to bring the landward batteries into action, the guns being without tackles and piled with stores and equipment from elsewhere in the ships. Within 12 minutes of the start of the battle Guerrier was totally disabled.

The next British ship into action, Orion, again on the landward side, fired into Guerrier, continued down the French line, sinking the frigate Serieuse, before attacking the Franklin and Peuple Souverain simultaneously.

Audacious fired into Guerrier and Conquerant and then engaged Peuple Souverain. Theseus also fired into the wretched Guerrier, before anchoring by Spartiate to exchange broadside after broadside.

Nelson’s Flagship Vanguard was the first British ship to take the seaward of the French line, attacking Spartiate from that side and taking a heavy fire from Spartiate and the fourth French ship, Aquilon. Within minutes all the gun crews in the forward batteries on Vanguard were dead or wounded. Louis’ Minotaur anchored ahead of Aquilon and diverted her fire from Vanguard, giving the flagship the respite she urgently needed.

The relentless aggression of the British captains was vividly illustrated by the conduct of HMS Bellerophon. Darby took his ship past Vanguard and Minotaur to attack the French Flagship, L'Orient, the largest ship in the battle. Within the hour Bellerophon had taken substantial casualties and drifted away, dismasted and helpless, all its officers dead or wounded.

HMS Defence and Majestic entered the line on the seaward side, Defence attacking the Franklin, sixth in the French line, and Majestic receiving a heavy fire from L'Orient before attacking Heureux and Tonnant.


The French ship Tonnant battling with HMS Majestic during the
Battle of the Nile. Tonnant was one of the 9 French ships taken at
 the battle and fought in the British line at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Four British ships, Culloden, Alexander, Swiftsure and Leander, lying to the rear of the main fleet, raced to join the battle. Culloden leading grounded in the shoals. Alexander and Swiftsure left Leander and the brig Mutine to assist Culloden and hurried on, both ships attacking L'Orient; Swiftsure firing into her bow quarter, Alexander raking her stern quarter.

Leander, finally leaving the immovable Culloden, took position between Franklin and L'Orient, firing into both.

Nelson being treated in the cockpit for his head wound
Nelson being treated in the cockpit for his
head wound at the Battle of the Nile
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On Vanguard, Nelson was struck on the head by a piece of langridge shot, used to cut rigging, and taken below. When finally seen by the surgeon the wound was pronounced superficial.

At around 9pm L'Orient caught fire. Brueys had been wounded three times, the final injury proving fatal. Anchored and with little capacity to move, the French Flagship, already heavily damaged by the intrepid Bellerophon, was under fire from Alexander, Swiftsure and Leander, all firing from quarters that made reply difficult. The final devastating aspect of the French lack of foresight was about to play its part.

The crew of L'Orient had been repainting their ship, fresh paint covering the hull. Tubs of unused paint and highly flammable turpentine were stored on the deck and caught fire in the battle. Once the fire started the British ships concentrated their shot on the burning area, preventing effective fire fighting. Quickly the prodigious conflagration on L'Orient lit up the whole bay. It became clear that the French Flagship was doomed, its crew leaping into the sea, the British ships pulling away and dousing their woodwork and rigging with seawater. Nelson, recovering from his wound below, was called onto Vanguard’s deck.

Nelson comes on deck to see the French flagship L'Orient ablaze
Nelson comes on deck to see the French flagship L'Orient ablaze in time to see
it explode, an apocalyptic event that spelt the end for the French Fleet

At 10pm L'Orient exploded. The sound was heard by French troops miles inland and crews of other men of war thought their own ships had blown up.

L'Orient Explodes
L'Orient Explodes

Firing ceased, the deathly pause in the battle plunging the bay into darkness. After a period of stunned silence the sea and surrounding ships were pelted by falling body parts, timber and debris from the destroyed French Flagship. It was some minutes before the gun crews recovered from the shock of the explosion and the battle resumed.

The French Flagship L'Orient explodes at 10pm The French Flagship L'Orient explodes at 10pm

Desperate efforts were made by the French and British ships to recover the survivors, Lieutenant Galway taking off Vanguard’s long boat. But only 70 or so of L'Orient’s crew survived the explosion, many killed in the sea by the blast.

The end of the battle of the nile
The end of the battle

French resistance continued through the night. At dawn Guillaume Tell and Genereux cut their cables and headed for the open sea under Admiral Villeneuve, accompanied by the frigates Diane and Justice. HMS Zealous attempted a pursuit but was soon recalled. The firing in the bay finally ended at 3pm on 2nd August 1798. The French Fleet had been completely overwhelmed. Of its 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates 1 ship had sunk, 2 ships were burnt and 9 ships captured.

Gilray's cartoon of Napoleon raging at the news of Nelson
Gilray's cartoon of Napoleon raging at the news of Nelson's
destruction of the french Fleet at the Battle of the Nile

Casualties:
British casualties were 895 including the death of Captain Westcott and Nelson wounded (although he refused to include himself in the official return of wounded). French casualties were 5,225 dead and 3,105 captured, including wounded.

The French admiral, Brueys, died on the quarterdeck of L'Orient before it exploded. Commodore Casabianca, the captain of the L'Orient, died in the explosion with his 10 year old son.

Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson; wounded at the Battle of the Nile
Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson; wounded at the Battle of the Nile,
wearing the Nile medal presented by Alexander Davison

Follow-up:
The immediate result of the battle was the collapse of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the lifting of any threat to Britain’s hold on India. Napoleon abandoned his army to its fate and returned to France.

Nelson’s missing frigates arrived a few days after the battle. Nelson is quoted as saying “If I were to die today you will find engraved on my heart “lack of frigates.”

The battle secured Nelson’s European reputation as a sea commander.

Admiral Nelson celebrating with the ship's crew
Admiral Nelson celebrating with the ship's crew after the Victory at the Nile

Anecdotes and traditions:

  • Nelson ordered 6 British colours to be flown from different parts of Vanguard’s rigging to ensure that there was never a time when British colours were not shown, however much of the rigging was brought down by hostile fire.
  • L'Orient was carrying a considerable quantity of valuables including the treasure of the Knights of St John, looted by Napoleon from his capture of Malta. All was lost.
  • Following the battle Nelson ordered all ships to hold services of thanksgiving. The captured atheistic French revolutionary officers are said to have been struck by the devotion shown by the British crews at these services and by their silent discipline.
  • All the first lieutenants of the British ships engaged were promoted to captain by order of the Admiralty.
  • It took a month for reliable news of the battle to reach Britain. Initial reports suggested that the French had won.
  • Alexander Davison was appointed agent for the considerable number of prizes taken, both men of war and transport vessels. Davison awarded medals for the battle, gold for captains, silver for officers, gilt metal for warrant officers and metal for sailors; at a cost to him of £2,000.
  • Nelson was showered with presents: The Turkish Sultan gave him a “Pelisse of Sables” and a diamond aigrette from his own turban. He also gave 2,000 sequins to be distributed among the British wounded. Nelson was made a baron and awarded a pension of £2,000 per annum. Gifts of money, swords and other items came from the Czar of Russia, the King of Sicily, the City of London and the East Indian Company.
  • The poem Casabianca 'The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled' by Felilcia Hemans was written in commemoration of the death of the son of the captain of the L'Orient when the French flagship exploded.

Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson wearing the diamond aigrette
Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson wearing the diamond aigrette given to
him by the Sultan of Turkey for defeating the French Fleet at the Nile

  • Two of the French ships captured at the Nile, Spartiate and Tonnant, fought in the British line of battle at Trafalgar.
  • Nelson was obsessed with the idea of dying at the moment of victory. When wounded on the quarterdeck of Vanguard he thought he had suffered a fatal injury. Taken below, Nelson refused treatment before the sailors already in the cockpit, insisting on waiting his turn. Finally the surgeon pronounced the wound superficial to ringing cheers of relief from Vanguard’s crew. Nelson returned to the quarterdeck to see L'Orient destroyed, an apocalyptic moment.
  • After the battle Swiftsure recovered a section of L'Orient’s mainmast. The ship’s carpenter made it into a coffin which Captain Hallowell presented to Nelson. Nelson kept the coffin standing in his cabin.
  • Nelson’s captains at the Nile formed “the Egyptian Club” to meet and commemorate the battle. Among their first actions were to present a sword to Nelson and commission his portrait.
  • At the instigation, it is said, of Lady Hamilton and Captain Hardy, the Marquess of Queensbury laid out a plantation of trees on his estate near Stonehenge in Wiltshire in the formation of the fleets at the Battle of the Nile, known as the “Nile Clumps”.

Gilray's cartoon of Nelson as the 'Hero of the Nile'
Gilray's cartoon of Nelson as the 'Hero of the Nile' wearing
the airgrette presented to him by the Sultan of Turkey

References:

  • Life of Nelson by Robert Southey
  • Nelson by Carola Oman