- James Houser
August 1, 1798 - The Battle of the Nile
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
August 1, 1798. In the headwaters of the Nile, a French fleet rests at anchor, having just delivered young General Napoleon Bonaparte and his army on their invasion of Egypt. Everything has gone well so far, but that is about to change. Lord Horatio Nelson and his Royal Navy squadron are about to make life very, very tough for the French Navy…and Napoleon.
By 1798, nine years after the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution had calmed down and formed a stable autocratic government known as the Directory. The Directory had just signed a peace treaty with most of Europe, ending the wars that had begun when the Revolution went international. This would have been an excellent breathing space after almost a decade of turmoil and war, but the treaty noticeably did not include Great Britain, which appeared to have every intention of fighting Revolutionary France to the end. Something had to be done to bring England to terms and force them to make peace.
To accomplish this, the Directory turned to its most famous and celebrated general. Napoleon Bonaparte was 29 years old and already widely acknowledged as the greatest military leader alive after his brilliant series of victories in Italy. He had also played a political and police role in keeping the Directory from being overthrown. As 1798 began, he was in command of the army being assembled on the Channel to prepare for the invasion of England. The Directory was concerned about their ambitious, brilliant young hero – and they were right to be. They wanted him as far away from France as possible, so when Napoleon told them that any invasion of England was probably a bust they were quick to agree.
Instead, Napoleon and the Directory agreed that they had to strike at England indirectly. In order to do this, Napoleon wanted to invade Egypt. Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, at least technically, but was actually governed by local warlords known loosely as the Mamluks; it was hoped that this fact would prevent open hostilities with a still quite powerful Ottoman Empire. Napoleon believed that by seizing Egypt, France could use it as a stepping stone to strike at England’s empire in India and its trade routes in the Indian Ocean. By presenting this threat to British commerce, France could hopefully strangle the banks and merchants of England and bring her to the peace table.
Whether this plan would have EVER worked was dubious at best. But the French believed it could. Napoleon began assembling an army and fleet on the south coast of France in spring 1798, collecting a large army, enormous amounts of food and ammunition, and a collection of ships. Only a handful of people knew the true purpose of the expedition. Among the passengers were a large number of historians, scholars, archaeologists and scientists, making this something of a geographical/scientific expedition as well as a military one. It would be some of these French scholars that would discover the Rosetta Stone, founding the modern field of Egyptology.
The British knew the French were up to something, but they couldn’t be sure what. A large number of men and ships were assembling in Toulon harbor, but what was their target – Naples? Gibraltar? Turkey? Malta? Egypt? The Caribbean? Ireland, even, or England? The government in London ordered the commander of the fleet at Gibraltar, Earl St. Vincent, to detach a force to shadow the French. The British commander sent his most promising young officer, the aggressive, ambitious, inspiring and one-armed Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson, with 13 ships to keep an eye on the French.
Nelson, in his flagship Vanguard, ran into a storm as he approached the French Riviera on May 21, 1798. The storm scattered his fleet and damaged Vanguard, causing him to waste valuable time gathering his scattered ships and making repairs. Worse, only after he had reassembled his soaked and battered ships did he realize that Napoleon and his fleet had set sail on May 19 and slipped past him under cover of the storm. The French were loose in the Mediterranean, and Nelson had already lost his quarry. Where could they have gone? A strange game of cat-and-mouse now began; Nelson knew that catching the French en route to their destination was vastly preferable to trying to stop them once they’d landed.
After a few days, more ships from Gibraltar arrived to reinforce Nelson and he had repaired his flagship. These ships hadn’t spotted the French, which meant they weren’t heading west. The whole eastern Mediterranean – Italy, Greece, North Africa, Turkey, Egypt and Syria – were open to the French. Nelson first sailed to Naples, hoping to get some news of the French in Italy’s busy southern port; coming up dry, he had to make a guess. He sailed for Egypt, and arrived on June 28 to find no sign of the French. Frantic, realizing that with every day Napoleon’s army and fleet could be descending anywhere with little to no opposition, Nelson – who still did not know the French target - made another wild guess and sailed north for Turkey, figuring Napoleon might be trying to capture Constantinople.
Napoleon had, accidentally, dodged Nelson this whole time. While Nelson had been looking for him at Naples, Napoleon had landed at Malta on June 9. The French had quickly taken the island from the Knights of St. John, confiscated most of the island’s resources and supplies, and set sail on June 19 for Egypt. Without knowing it, Nelson had passed the French in the darkness, overtaking the slow French convoy without realizing how close they were. He had reached, and left, Egypt only one day before the French actually did arrive.
Napoleon launched his amphibious assault on the great port city of Alexandria on June 29, quickly storming and capturing the city of Alexander, Cleopatra and Saladin. Napoleon ordered his fleet, with 17 warships under the command of Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers (just call him Brueys) to find a safe harbor. The harbor of Alexandria was too shallow and narrow for the big French ships of the line. Instead, they had to settle for Abukir Bay.
Abukir Bay, 15 miles west of Alexandria, is about 16 miles across, stretching from the town of Abu Qir in the west to Rosetta in the east, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean. The bay is wide and shallow, and Brueys placed his ships in an almost perfect defensive position. His 13 ships of the line and 4 light frigates were anchored as close to the shore as he dared, in a solid defensive line nose-to-tail (bow-to-stern for you nautical types). This defensive line presented any approaching fleet with a full array of fourteen ships’ worth of heavy cannon; since the enemy ships would have to approach from the front, they would be nailed and sunk well before they could get within range. The line could not be outflanked or taken from behind; it was perfect.
Napoleon advised Brueys that if he felt that Abukir was too dangerous and exposed to British attack, he could take his ships to Corfu on the Greek coast and just leave the transports at Alexandria. Brueys refused, since he was confident that he could defend himself in Abukir and believed the French would need gunboat support in the future. He was so sure of his invulnerability that he sent part of his crews ashore to dig wells and replenish his water supplies. He chose to send the crewmen that would normally man the guns that faced inland, since he knew that no one could attack from that direction. Therefore, when the critical moment came, these guns would not be manned – but why would they need to be? Only a crazy man would bring his ships that close to shore.
Nelson had scoured the coasts of Greece, Italy and Turkey before finally receiving word of the French location. He immediately made haste for Egypt, arriving on the morning of August 1, 1798. To his dismay, he realized that Napoleon was already long landed and the French fleet was set up to defend itself in Abukir Bay. By this time, Napoleon had already crushed the Mamluk army in the Battle of the Pyramids and was on his way into Cairo. Nelson was too late to keep Napoleon from invading Egypt – but he could make sure that his mission would fail anyway. If Nelson could cut the French off from supplies and reinforcements, Napoleon would be stranded. The only question was how to get at the French fleet.
Nelson had fewer ships than Brueys and the French admiral was in a seemingly impenetrable defensive position, but Nelson was determined to attack regardless. He had been holding constant conferences and briefings with his captains for months, trying to wargame and preplan for any possible formation the French could take so they could smash their enemy. This was one of Nelson’s special strengths: the mutual trust with his subordinates and his insistence on drill and planning. Every captain in his fleet knew the contingency plan and the prearranged signals for every tactical combination.
Nelson looked at the French and realized that the very immobility which made them strong also made them vulnerable. Always an aggressive fighter, he decided to attack the French fleet immediately. He sailed in on a northwesterly wind, his ships in single file in the line astern formation. Rather than approaching the French frontally like an idiot, he had his ships hug the coast and home in on the northwestern end of the French line. Nelson’s orders were that each British ship should come as close as possible, hug the shoreline, and blast away at the French from close quarters. This would take advantage of superior English seamanship and gunnery, since the better-trained Royal Navy sailors could fire twice as fast with greater accuracy.
Nelson’s ships went into action at 1828 on August 1, with only half an hour of daylight left. As his line ahead slipped around the edge of Abukir Bay, the sun was beginning to vanish to the west. The sands of Egypt and the headwaters of the Nile glimmered in the evening light. The sounds of cannon bounced off the beaches, and the Battle of the Nile was on. (It is also called the Battle of Abukir Bay, probably the more accurate term, but the British like to call it the Battle of the Nile. Let’s face it, it does sound better.)
The key to Nelson’s plan was that Brueys had badly miscalculated. His ships were not nearly as close to the shoreline as he thought, so when Nelson’s line came haring in, the two lead ships – Goliath and Zealous – slipped around the tip of the French line and came blasting up the unprotected landward side, their bottoms scraping through the shallows as they did so. Soon the first two ships in the French line, Guerrier and Conquerant, were burning, unable to respond and paralyzed by the sudden British attack. Nelson’s fleet had completely unhinged Brueys’ brilliant plan, and the French sailors tried desperately to turn their ships and fire on the British, who – rather than sailing into the teeth of 14 massed French broadsides – were instead knocking over one French ship after another like dominoes.
By hitting the French at the tip of their line, Nelson was able to mass the fire of all his ships on only a few French ones. Only one British ship was visible to the French at a time since they were in single file, while Nelson’s vessels could weigh anchor, send 13 broadsides into a poor French man-of-war, then move on to the next. Darkness was falling, and soon the only light came from the burning French ships.
Within an hour, the first six French ships in line were either sinking or surrendering, and now their flames danced off the waters of the bay as the British crashed through each ship in turn. The last English ship, the Bellerophon was only now coming into play, and went off to confront Brueys’ 120-gun flagship L’Orient. Bellerophon came off worse against this French monster, and had to pull away, but the damage was done.
Brueys had ordered his ship repainted while they were waiting in the bay these last few weeks, and there were still cans of paint and thinner scattered across the deck. The Bellerophon’s fire set them alight, and Brueys’ crew was still trying to put out the fire when the rest of the English fleet came up to turn their guns on L’Orient. At 2130 – two hours after dark, and three hours after the battle had begun – Brueys’ flagship exploded, taking her admiral down alongside her.
Only the last four ships in the French line were able to weigh anchor and run for their lives, leaving behind one of the worst disasters in naval history. With a smaller fleet, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson had sunk or captured thirteen French warships, for the loss of none of his own ships and relatively light casualties – 218 killed and 678 wounded compared to 5,000 French seamen killed, wounded, drowned, or captured. Nelson himself, who had spent the battle bellowing from his flagship, his sleeve pinned up over his missing arm, had suffered a nasty forehead cut. Many of the captured French warships were converted into Royal Navy vessels, and several of them fought under Nelson at his glorious (and mortal) victory at Trafalgar seven years later.
The loss of the French fleet doomed Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure. Although Napoleon had no real trouble in defeating the Mamluks and setting himself up in the country, he didn’t have enough troops to last long without reinforcements, supplies or a fleet to support his operations. Within a year, Napoleon would be forced to abandon his men and sneak back to France in an effort to regain power and avoid capture.
Horatio Nelson became the British hero of the day, the Napoleon of the waves, and would only increase his reputation with time. His enormous ego and obvious over-ambitiousness didn’t help – when he was awarded a title for his great victory at the Battle of the Nile, he was OFFENDED that it was less important and lucrative than he wanted, though a bounty of 10,000 pounds for “saving India” eased his bruised ego somewhat.
Either way, Nelson’s victory at the Nile would not be the last time he stood in the way of the greatest land conqueror Europe had ever seen. In 1805, seven years after one miraculous and brilliant victory, Nelson would face the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. His stunning victory, and equally stunning death in the middle of achieving it, would catapult him from hero to legend.