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The Battle of the Nile, 1798

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The French sailed from Toulon on 19 May and headed towards Malta to capture the island. The fleet comprised thirteen ships of the line, eight frigates, two Venetian 64s, eight Venetian frigates, eight corvettes and four hundred transports carrying 36,000 troops. Vice-Admiral Brueys, the commander, was on board the flagship, L'Orient. His subordinates were Villeneuve, Blanquet-Duchayla and Decrès.

After the French had captured Malta and Gozo without resistance and set sail once more on 18 June, the likely destination of the French appeared to be Egypt. Nelson guessed correctly that the French were heading for Alexandria but did not find the French until three weeks after Napoleon had landed, taken Alexandria, won the Battle of the Pyramids and entered Cairo. Napoleon ordered Brueys to take up a defensive position at anchor, which he did on 8 July in Aboukir Bay.This place was chosen because his flagship was too big to anchor in Alexandria harbour.

The position taken by Brueys was much weaker than he thought. Men-of-war needed a depth of 30 feet in calm water. Brueys had anchored his ships virtually parallel to the four fathom (24 feet) line but not close enough to it. His flanks were unprotected, his ships were about 160 yards apart and half his men had been sent ashore. No proper survey of the Egyptian coast had ever been made and Brueys may well have assumed that the British would approach cautiously, sounding as they went and correcting their charts. He may have supposed that he would have time to prepare for battle. It was late in the day when the British squadron's approach was sighted and Brueys thought that the battle would take place on the following day, giving him the whole night in which to improve his position. He probably did not imagine that the British would risk a night action in uncharted waters.

He was wrong. The British fleet sailed on and at 5.30 pm Brueys signalled his ships to clear for action on the seaward side. Some of his men were still ashore and he tried to make up for this by borrowing seamen from his frigates. His thirteen sail of the line included his flagship and three 80-gun ships, the Franklin, the Guillaume Tell and the Tonnant. He had also four frigates, two corvettes, three bomb vessels and some gunboats. He placed his flagship in the centre of his line, supported by the Franklin and Tonnant. Rather belatedly, he ordered his ships to lower a second anchor and send a cable to the next ship astern, thus ensuring that their broadsides would continue to bear.

By this time, Nelson had seen his chance. A fleet at anchor was at a disadvantage because the attacking fleet could concentrate on a part of the defending line. Also, the French ships were held by a single anchor, so there was room between them and the sand bank where they could swing. It was possible for the British fleet to pass them to the landward and seaward, ensuring that some would have an opponent on either side. Nelson's ships took up formation as they approached the enemy. Nelson sent three signals; first, to prepare for battle; second, to be ready to anchor by the stern; third, to concentrate on the enemy's front and centre. He had previously ordered his ships to fly the white ensign so they could recognise each other more easily in the dark.

The Culloden struck a reef during the approach, was saved with difficulty and played no part in the battle. Nelson fought with only twelve 74-gun ships, together with the obsolescent Leander, which went first to the Culloden's rescue and so arrived rather late on the battlefield.

As it grew dark Nelson's leading ship, the Goliath led the way inside the French line, the Zealous, Orion, Theseus and Audacious following suit., Nelson's flagship, Vanguard, now came up on the outside of the French line, supported by the Minotaur and Defence. This was the situation that Nelson had wanted, with five French ships overwhelmed by eight British opponents. They were the oldest and weakest French ships. They had been ready to engage with the seaward battery and were caught with their guns not even run out. Several had opponents on either side. It was now dark and the Bellerophon engaged the Orient. The Majestic went on to engage L'Heureux and ended up exchanging broadsides with Le Mercure. The three rear French ships were left without opponents. At this time, with victory already certain, Nelson was wounded. He was on deck again later and retained command.

In the centre of the French line the Peuple Souverain, after being trapped between the Orion and Defence was dismasted and driven out of the battle line. The Leander moved into the gap. A French frigate, the Serieux, opened fire on the Orion and was sunk when the fire was returned. The Bellerophon, dismasted and severely damaged by the French flagship, drifted out of the line but the Swifsure and Alexander took her place. At 9 pm, a fire was seen on board L'Orient and the guns of the Swifsure concentrated on the spot. At about 10 pm, the French flagship blew up. The son of Luce Julien Joseph Casabianca - Giocante, aged 12 - remained on watch until he and his father died in the explosion. The poem, The boy stood on the burning deck was written about the incident. The nearer ships were in danger from the falling wreckage. The Franklin struck her colours at midnight. The Tonnant was then the only French ship still firing and she was dismasted by 3 am. At 4 am, the action was renewed and the Heureux and Mercure were cannonaded into surrender. The Timoleon had run ashore but the Généreux and Guillaume Tell, with two frigates, were sufficiently undamaged to make their escape. The Tonnant then surrendered and the crew of the Timoleon set their ship on fire and escaped ashore. Of the French ships of the line one had blown up, nine had surrendered, one was wrecked, one was burned and only two escaped.

SEE HERE for The Times' report of the Battle of the Nile


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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