The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile, also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, was an important naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars between a British fleet commanded by Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson and a French fleet under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys D'Aigalliers. It took place on the evening and early morning of August 1 and 2 August 1798. French losses were as high as 1,700 dead (including Brueys) and 3,000 captured. British losses were 218 dead.

Background

Still on the rise but not yet the number one 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. About three weeks after his landing there, a British fleet of 14 ships under Horatio Nelson, which had been scouring the eastern Mediterranean Sea looking for the French fleet, finally came upon the 15 French ships being used to support the invasion.

The Battle of the Nile

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 4 fathoms (8 m) deep. The shoal was being used to protect the south-western (port) side of the fleet, while the starboard side faced the north-east and open sea. Nelson had already achieved great fame, and Admiral Brueys had studied his tactics at the Battle of the Saints and Battle of Copenhagen. 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 detail 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.

The battle

Nelson observed that the French fleet was anchored too far from the shallows. He ordered his line of battle to divide in two, with one division to pass between the French line and the shoal, and the other division to close from the deeper side and so fire on the French from both sides. One British ship, Culloden, ran aground, but the remainder were able to stay afloat and begin taking the French fleet apart one by one. The wind from the north meant that the unengaged French ships could not come up to help their fellows, enabling Nelson to put several ships on to a target at a time, working his way down the line.

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.

Only two French ships towards the end of the line, Généreux and Guillaume Tell, together with the two frigates Diane and Justice, were able to escape. Timoleon and the frigate Artemise were burned, the frigate Serieuse was sunk, and the remaining French ships (Guerrier, Conquérant, Spartiate, Aquilon, Souverain Peuple, Franklin, Tonnant, Heureux, Mercure) were captured by early morning on August 2. Other French ships were the bomb vessels Oranger, Portugaise and Hercule, the brigs Salamine 18, Railleur 18, and some other small ships. Hercule was scuttled.

The British ships were Vanguard (flagship), Alexander, Audacious, Bellerophon, Culloden, Defence, Goliath, Leander, Majestic, Minotaur, Orion, Swiftsure, Theseus, and Zealous. Returning home with Nelson's despatches, Leander, captained by Edward Berry, was later captured by the surviving 74-gun Généreux after a fierce battle, somewhat delaying the arrival of the triumphant news in Britain.

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", often 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 Orient during this battle.

Recent archaeology

In 2000, Dr. Paolo Gallo, an Italian archaeologist 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 sex to serve as sailors), 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 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, who died during the 1801 battle, was positively identified. One of his descendants attended the ceremony and was presented with a flag.

References

  • SMITH, Tannalee: "[http:// 30 Members of British Fleet Reburied]", Associated Press, (2005 April 18)
  • SLOPE, Nick (2004 February 5). "Burials on Nelson's Island." Women in Nelson's Navy. London: BBC. Accessed on August 2, 2005.
  • Naval wars in the Levant 1559-1853 - R. C. Anderson [ISBN 0878397990]

 

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