The battle of the Nile was the first of Nelson’s three great naval victories (with Copenhagen and Trafalgar). It was the nearest Napoleon and Nelson came to a direct confrontation, and it helped to foil Napoleon’s grand plans in the east. It was one of the most comprehensive victories in naval history, and established Nelson’s fame across Europe.
The French hoped their expedition to Egypt would serve several purposes. Their first aim was to seize Egypt as a colony, restore her prosperity after two decades of ruinous misrule, and gain her famous wealth. The second aim was to threaten the British in India, the source of much of Britain’s wealth. Napoleon was to gain control of the Red Sea and send aid to Britain’s chief enemy in India, Tipu, Sultan of Mysore. Finally, the expedition had the benefit of removing the young, successful and popular Napoleon from Paris, where he was seen as a potential threat to the government.
The French expected the Egyptian population, suffering under the Mamluks, to welcome them as liberators. The last two decades of Mamluk rule had been disastrous, and after the French were finally expelled the Mamluks were unable to re-establish their rule. The French plan relied heavily on the Ottomans staying at neutral, counting on their hostility to the Mamluks (demonstrated in a failed invasion in 1786) overweighing their anger at the French invasion of what was still officially an Ottoman province.
The French expedition was large, although perhaps not large enough to attempt the permanent occupation of Egypt on its own. The original plan included provision for reinforcements to be sent, assuming that France would retain her freedom to act in the Mediterranean. Napoleon’s expedition included 30,000 infantry, 2,800 cavalry, 60 field guns, 40 siege guns and two companies of sappers and miners (it is interesting to note that any two ships in either the French or British fleets outgunned this army). To transport an army this size to Egypt required a massive fleet. Nearly 300 transport ships were accompanied by 13 ships of the line and seven frigates.
One famous and unusual aspect of the expedition is that it was accompanied by a group of 167 savants, who were to form the nucleus of a new academy in Egypt. The work carried out by this academic expedition probably had the most long term impact, at least in Europe. Amongst the achievements of its members was the discovery of the Rosetta stone, from which followed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian history.
The Egyptian expedition was prepared at great speed and in impressive secrecy. It was proposed early in 1798, approved on 12 April, and departed from Toulon on 20 May after only ten weeks of preparation. The level of secrecy was equally impressive. News of their real destination only arrived in Britain with the French newspapers on 12 July. Even Nelson, cruising in the Mediterranean, took months to catch up with the French fleet.
Napoleon sailed from Toulon on 20 May. The French expedition used several ports as well as Toulon, including Marseilles, Genoa, Civitavecchia and the ports of Corsica, making the level of secrecy even more impressive. The soldiers themselves were not informed of their destination until they were at sea.
The expedition’s first success came at Malta. The fleet reached the island on 9 June. Three days later, Napoleon was in control. The Knights of St John were dissolved, their treasure looted and the island thoroughly reformed, before the fleet sailed on leaving a French garrison that was to hold Malta for the next two years.
The next leg of the voyage saw a close encounter with Nelson’s fleet. On the night of 22-23 June, French officers heard signals guns from the British fleet. Napoleon refused to believe that any significant British fleet could possibly be in the Mediterranean, no alarm was called and the fleets passed in the night. Finally, on the morning of 1 July, just after Nelson had sailed north in frustration, the French fleet reached the Egyptian coast.
Although the destination of the French expedition was kept secret, its existence was not. Three months of fevered activities in a series of ports around the Mediterranean could not help but be noticed around Europe. Opinion in Britain thought that the expedition would head for either Naples or Sicily. The situation was not helped by the absence of the Royal Navy from the Mediterranean, abandoned at the end of 1796 when Britain found herself standing almost alone against France.
Faced with the certainty of a major French operation, the British government decided to re-enter the Mediterranean. Lord St. Vincent, commanding the fleet blockading Cadiz, was ordered to either enter the Mediterranean in person, or to send a strong detachment under a suitable commander. The arrival of this order coincided with the arrival of Nelson.
At this time, Nelson was a very junior admiral, having been promoted after the battle of Cape St. Vincent (14 February 1797). His first major expedition as an admiral was an attack on Santa Cruz in the Canaries, where a Spanish treasure ship was known to be docked. The attack had gone dreadfully badly. Amongst the injured was Nelson himself, who lost his arm.
In the immediate aftermath of the injury, Nelson was convinced that his naval career was over, imagining that there would be little call for a ‘one armed Admiral’, but once he had recovered he started to agitate for a command, and the Admiralty, aware of his talents, immediately found him a ship and sent him to join St. Vincent. For once Nelson’s arrival was not universally well received. Lord St. Vincent received orders suggesting that if he was not inclined to command the Mediterranean expedition, then Nelson would be ideally suited for the post. Most of the other admirals present with the fleet were senior to Nelson, and some of them did not take this well. Sir John Orde was so annoyed that he had to be sent home!
In May 1798 Nelson was sent back into the Mediterranean with a force of three ships of the line. Reinforcements were expected from Britain, and St. Vincent promised to bring Nelson up to strength as soon as they arrived, but for the moment the best Nelson could do was watch the French. The expedition began badly. On 20 May his flagship, HMS Vanguard was dismasted in a storm, and nearly ran aground. Nelson’s determination played a crucial part in saving the ship, but the captains of his frigates were convinced that Nelson would be forced to return to Gibraltar to make repairs, so they returned there themselves, leaving Nelson without frigates for most of his chase.
Losing his frigates critically weakened Nelson’s fleet. The frigates were the eyes of the fleet, able to out-sail the main ships of the line, increasing the area of visibility – the frigates could sail at the limits of visibility of the main fleet, more than doubling the amount of sea visible at any one time. Without them, Nelson could only see as far as the view from the highest mast in the fleet. With no idea of the French destination, Nelson was effectively hoping to chance upon their fleet during his travels. When one considers how hard his job was, it is perhaps creditable that he came as close as he did.
At first his route was obvious, and was the same as Napoleon’s, including Elba on 12 June and Civitavecchia, one of the ports used by the French, on 13 and 14 June. On 17 June he was at Naples, where the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, was of the opinion that the French must be heading for Malta. There was no news of any attack on Naples or Sicily, and Nelson now drew the conclusion that the French must be heading for Alexandria. He even guessed that India was their ultimate target.
More news came on 22 June, when the fleet was off Cape Passaro, on the south-eastern corner of Sicily. The news was of the capture of Malta, to the south of Sicily. This news did not answer the question of Napoleon’s ultimate destination. From Malta he could return north to Sicily, or head east to Egypt. Nelson was still convinced that the French were heading east, and his captains agreed. They were of the opinion that if the French were heading back north to Sicily, then they would have seen some evidence by now.
The two fleets were now both heading towards Egypt. Napoleon had taken a slightly more northern route, skirting the coast of Crete, while Nelson headed straight for Alexandria. The result of this is that Nelson’s fleet overtook the French fleet.
The two fleets appear to have come within earshot of each other on the night of 22-23 June, when Nelson’s faster fleet overtook the slower French transports. On 29 June, Nelson reached Alexandria, where he found no news of the French. His worry now was that the French had actually been heading somewhere further west or to the north, where they were now free to act without British interference. Accordingly, he sailed on, hoping to find the French wherever they had actually gone. He had missed Napoleon by a day, but it was to take over a month before he returned to Alexandria and finally found the French fleet.
The stress of the chase was clearly weighing on Nelson at this point. From Alexandria he wrote a letter to St. Vincent defending his actions, despite the fact that St. Vincent had no way of knowing what Nelson was doing or where he had been. In the meantime, Nelson’s fleet searched the eastern Mediterranean, sailing along the south coast of Crete and back to Syracuse (19 July). By this point, Napoleon was already approaching Cairo.
At Syracuse it became clear that the French were indeed somewhere to the east. Nelson started east again, heading for Greece. Finally, on 29 July, Nelson finally received reliable news of the French, and was able sail towards Alexandria for the second time. Perhaps ironically, this news came from a captured French wine transport!
This time he was not disappointed. On 1 August the British fleet reached Alexandria, where they found the French transports. They also found news of the French warships, probably when their sails were spotted from the masthead of one of Nelson’s warships. Their location and numbers were confirmed by signals from private ships in Alexandria.
The two fleets present at the battle of the Nile were roughly equal in strength. The British had more ships of the line, but the French had larger ships with more guns, and were fighting from what should have been a prepared position, supported by strong gun batteries on land.
The core of Nelson’s fleet were his 74s. The seventy four gun ship of the line was widely considered to be the most effective design of warship during this period. They combined enough firepower to take their position in the line of battle with superior sailing ability.
Nelson had entered the Mediterranean with three 74s. Troubridge joined him with nine 74s and the relatively tiny Leander, at fifty guns considered too small for the line of battle, although she did join in at the Nile (giving Nelson a total of 938 guns).
The French fleet was also strong in 74s, with nine. The rest of his fleet was bigger – three 80 gun ships and the massive L’Orient with 120 guns (for a total of 1026 guns). The French also had four frigates, which Brueys failed to use correctly).
The total number of guns in each fleet does not tell the entire story. Several French ships played little or no part in the battle, knocking well over 200 guns off their total. However, because the British enveloped the French line, those ships that were involved could fire all of their guns, while the British ships could only use half their guns. In the battle itself, 470 British guns faced 800 French guns.
Those French guns should have been almost impossible to defeat. Aboukir Bay was a strong position. Badly charted shallows guarded the French flanks. Admiral Brueys could have built strong gun batteries on land to protect his fleet, a strategy that had protected British fleets against strong attacks in the past. His ships should have been moored close together, allowing them to support each other, and chained together, preventing any enemy from sailing through the line. The ship nearest the line should have been anchored as close as possible to the shallows, preventing anyone from sailing around the head of the French line.
Instead, Brueys neglected his land defences. Although he did place a gun battery on Nelson Island, it was tiny – four guns and a single mortar – utterly pointless against a fleet of ships of the line. The French ships were anchored too far apart to support each other. Most of the French ships were anchored on a single rope, letting them swing at anchor. They should have used a ‘spring’ - a second rope that would let them control their position while anchored, allowing them direct their fire on the incoming British ships. Admiral Villeneuve later claimed to have done this on his own ship, but if so that was his only creditable action during the battle – indeed, it was just about his only action!
During the long search, Nelson and his captains had discussed every possible French deployment, and Nelson had expounded his plans for dealing with each of them. Where Nelson differed from so many admirals of the period was that he did not always wish to take detailed control of the actions of each of his ships once the battle had started. He wanted his captains to be willing to act as he had done at Cape St. Vincent to take advantage of any opportunities that they spotted. This does not mean that there was no plan. Captain Edward Berry, Nelson’ flag captain at the battle, wrote a pamphlet describing the entire campaign, in which he stated that Nelson’s captains had know what to do if they came across the French fleet at anchor for two months before the battle!
The result of this attitude can be seen at the Nile. Finding the French at anchor in Aboukir Bay, Nelson’s captains knew that they should attack the van (front) and centre of the French fleet in an attempt to destroy that part of the fleet before the French rear could intervene.
At Alexandria, Nelson ordered his ships to continue east to Aboukir at their best speed. This was the opposite to the normal approach to battle, where each fleet would establish a fixed order of battle, decided in advance. This allowed the British fleet to enter combat while it was still dark, although it did mean that the slower ships didn’t enter the battle immediately. Fortunately, as Nelson’s fleet was centred around a group of good 74s, the sailing speed of most of the fleet must have been fairly similar.
The first sight the French had of Nelson’s fleet was as they rounded what is now known as Nelson Island (or Aboukir Island) beyond Aboukir Point at the western edge of the bay. Admiral Brueys had dismissed the possibility of a British attack after a brief encounter with a small group of British frigates earlier in his voyage, and had thus neglected to use his own frigates to keep a watch. When the British ships first appeared, at around two in the afternoon, they were in no recognisable formation. Two ships – the Alexander and the Swiftsure were detached from the fleet, on reconnaissance duties, and took an hour longer to enter battle than the rest of the fleet, while Captain Troubridge, the third in command, was trailing behind the fleet with his captured French wine ship in tow. The rest of the fleet were stretched out in their order of sailing.
From their position at two o’clock, it would take the British several hours to reach the French position. Darkness would fall at around seven, leaving the British with at best an hour of daylight. No French commander would have attacked under such circumstances. Their reaction would have been to form up for battle on the following morning. For some time Brueys seems to have been convinced that Nelson would not attack either, and so he took remarkably little action to strengthen his position in the four hours that passed before the first shots were fired in anger. In the end, the French simply waited to be attacked.
The lead British ship was HMS Goliath, commanded by Captain Foley. He saw how far apart and how far from the shore the French were, and realised that he could sail between the French line and the shore, ‘doubling’ the French line (trapping them between two lines of British ships). This was a controversial move at the time, and has been debated ever since. There are two main areas of opposition to this move. The first was that any one British ship was more than the equal of any French ship, and so doubling up was a waste. The second objection was that the British ships would inevitably fire into each other causing unnecessary casualties.
There is also some doubt about Foley’s charts. At this time, ships’ captains were expected to provide their own charts. Foley probably had a copy of a forty year old French chart – Bellini’s Petit Atlas Maritime – which provided him with rather more accurate details of the Egyptian coast than his colleagues possessed.
Whatever charts Foley had, the daring British approach convinced the French that they must have had knowledgeable local pilots on board to get them around the shoals. While some sources suggest a local ship may have been encountered further down the British line, Foley was acting entirely on his own resources.
At the time, Foley’s colleagues had less doubt. Four more British ships followed Foley inside the French line. Those five ships suffered lower casualties than their colleagues on the seaward side of the French fleet. It would appear that despite having had four hours to prepare, the guns on the landward side of the French ships had not been prepared for action. The first few British broadsides were thus unanswered, allowing them to inflict serious damage on the French ships, reducing the ability of the French ships to fight back when they did finally get the landward guns into action.
The Goliath tried to anchor opposite the first ship in the French line, the Guerrier, but ended up against the second in line, Le Conquerant. Eventually, five of the first six French ships were opposed by ships on their landward side. Nelson’s Vanguard, by now the sixth ship in the line, was the first ship to attack on the seaward side. She attacked the third French ship, the Spartiate. The rest of the fleet then took up position further down the line. Eventually, all but the last three French ships were engaged to some extent.
The French van was now in a terrible situation. Several of them were facing opponents anchored out of their arc of fire, and could barely respond. As the light began to fade at around seven, ten of the French ships were engaged with ten of the British. HMS Culloden had run aground on the approach. The Leander, at 50 guns too small to take a place in most lines of battle, stopped to try and help her. The Swiftsure and the Alexander were straggling behind the fleet, having been detached on reconnaissance duty. The three ships at the front of the French line, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve, took no active part in the battle (Napoleon later blamed Villeneuve for the entire defeat).
By eight, the first five French ships were out of action. The Swiftsure, Alexander and Leander now joined the battle, concentrating on the French flagship L’Orient. She had already fought off the Bellerophon, although not without taking serious damage. Admiral Breuys commanded his ship rather better than his fleet, continuing to direct the fighting even after losing both of his legs. He was finally killed by a direct hit from a cannon ball. Unfortunately, the ship had not been properly cleared for battle. Some oil, used to help paint the ship, had been left in a vulnerable position, and soon caught fire. As the fire spread, the captain of the Swiftsure noticed the flames, and ordered her fire to be concentrated on the flames.
As the fire spread, it became obvious that the ship was doomed. Many sailors abandoned ship and were rescued by the British. Finally, at around ten, the flames reached the ship’s magazine, and L’Orient exploded. The explosion could be heard in Cairo, and was generally accepted to be the loudest noise anyone present ever heard. Burning debris showered every ship in the vicinity. The explosion was so stunning that the fighting stopped for ten minutes!
The loss of L’Orient marked the end of effective French resistance. Some of the remaining ships continued to fight for another hour. Admiral Blanquet’s Le Franklin surrendered at half past eleven, by which time only three guns were still in action. However, the loss of L’Orient had a specific impact on the rest of Napoleon’s time in Egypt. The bulk of his money, along with the treasure looted from Malta, was still onboard the flagship. Napoleon would have to manage without his money.
When dawn broke the next morning, the scale of the British victory became obvious. The first six French ships had all been captured. L’Orient was sunk. Three of the remaining six had gone aground trying to avoid the explosion (including Le Mercure, second from the front of the French fleet, and relatively far from the fighting!). The remaining three French ships, under Admiral Villeneuve, were still relatively undamaged. Most of the British ships were badly damaged, and had Villeneuve chosen to risk an attack, he might have caused some confusion (although it would seem more likely that he would have simply thrown away his ships). In the event, he made no such attempt. Instead, he signalled the retreat. Even this was bodged. Le Timoleon, who had perhaps suffered more damage than the remaining two ships, proved unable to achieve this, and ran aground. Eventually, Villeneuve was able to escape with two ships of the line – Le Guillaume Tell and Le Genereux.
The Battle of the Nile was one of the most complete naval victories ever seen. A French fleet of thirteen ships of the line and four frigates had been reduced to two ships of the line and two frigates. No British ships had been lost. Nelson estimated that the French had lost 9,000 men killed or captured, although casualty figures in a defeated fleet were always hard to calculate during this period. The British had lost 218 dead and 677 wounded, less than a tenth of the French losses.
The results of the battle of the Nile look somewhat disappointing when compared to the scale of the victory. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign continued. Nelson went on to his least successful period, attached to the court of Naples. The Second Coalition, created over the next year, achieved little and began to unravel just as Nelson was travelling home in 1800.
Nelson’s first duty after the battle was to dispatch reports to the main interested parties. The Leander was dispatched to carry the news to Lord St. Vincent, and then to Britain. Captain Berry was given the honour of carrying the news, but this backfired when the Leander was captured by Le Genereux, one of the two French escapees! Nelson was well aware of the dangers that faced a lone ship in the Mediterranean and as soon as his frigates reached Alexandria he dispatched a second ship with the news, this time directly to the Admiralty, while the brig Mutine was sent to Naples, and her news got through. At the same time, Captain Hardy was moved from the Mutine to act as Nelson’s Flag Captain. Finally, a lieutenant Duval serving under Captain Hood in the Zealous was sent overland to India, via the Persian Gulf, where the news was received with great relief.
The fleet was then split. Saumarez was given the honour of escorting the captured French ships back to Gibraltar, along with an escort of seven ships of the line. Nelson now felt that the Vanguard needed the sort of repairs that required a port (she had suffered serious damage in a storm early in the campaign, as well as battle damage), and decided to combine this with an attempt to gain the active support of the court of Naples.
Captain Hood was left in charge of the blockade of Egypt. The battle of the Nile altered the nature of the French expedition. It encouraged resistance in Egypt. During the battle, the local Bedouins and Mamluks had lined Aboukir Bay, cheering on the British. After the battle their celebrations had lasted for three nights, illuminated by bonfires fuelled by wreckage from the French ships. The loss of his fleet isolated Napoleon. He could no longer expect reinforcements. Most of his money was lost with L’Orient. The French had hoped to fund their expedition from Egyptian tax revenues, which fell as a result of the British blockade. Napoleon was forced to abandon his campaign against the Mamluks in Upper Egypt. Finally, the victory encouraged the Ottoman Empire to declare war on the French. The best Napoleon could realistically hope for now was for his expedition to survive in Egypt. A letter written by the paymaster of the army, M. Poussielgue, and captured by the British as it crossed the Mediterranean captured some of the mood amongst the French forces in Egypt, describing the battle as ‘this fatal engagement’ (click here to read the full letter).
Nelson was immediately successful at Naples. News of the victory was received with extravagant glee – Nelson’s arrival was greeted by a flotilla of over one hundred boats, with passengers including Lord and Lady Hamilton, and the King himself. The celebrations went on for days. The Queen of Naples was the sister of Maria Antoinette, the executed Queen of France. The praise he received at Naples was widely considered to have overwhelmed Nelson, who remained attached to the Neapolitan court for the next two years. This period also saw the start of his notorious affair with Lady Emma Hamilton.
Even before the battle, Naples was moving away from neutrality, signing an alliance with Austria. Now Nelson was able to persuade the King to attempt the liberation of Rome. The expedition went badly wrong, ending with the loss of Naples and the court forced into exile on Sicily!
The battle of the Nile is considered to have played a part in encouraging the formation of the Second Coalition. This coalition did not thrive. After his return to France, Napoleon soon seized power, and led his armies to yet more victories against Austria. By the end of 1802 the war was petering out, and in 1803 the Peace of Amiens led to a temporary end of the fighting. The failure of the Second Coalition should not be allowed to detract from the scale of Nelson’s victory. The battle of the Nile was the most crushing victory of the Napoleonic Wars at sea, possibly of the entire war. It established Nelson’s reputation and provided Napoleon with his first real defeat.
The two surviving French ships remained at large for two years, before eventually falling to the British in early 1800. Nelson was to figure prominently in the capture of one, and play a more distant role in the second. For most of the intervening time, Nelson had been mired in the politics of the Kingdom of Naples, as well as developing his famous relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton. His commander in chief, Lord Keith, finally grew tired of Nelson’s inactivity and summoned him to a meeting at Leghorn on 20 January 1800. From there the two admirals retuned to Naples, before sailing on towards Malta, where the French garrison had been under siege for eighteen months.
At the exact same time, the French had finally decided to make an attempt to get supplies to the defenders of Malta. A small squadron was put together under Admiral Perrée, with Le Genereux as his flagship. This fleet was close to Malta when, on 18 February 1800 it ran into Nelson’s small force. His own ship, the Foudroyant, started the chase in second place behind HMS Northumberland, but Nelson was determined to fire the first shots, and managed to overhaul her. Ahead of the chase a strange sail was spotted, which turned out to be the 32 gun British frigate HMS Success. In fleet battles, frigates did not normally attack ships of the line, but in smaller engagements this was not the case, and Nelson ordered the Success to attack the much larger French ship.
It is sometimes suggested that the Success ran a real danger of being sunk quickly by Le Genereux. There is no doubt that she was exposed to a risk of serious damage, but a 32 gun frigate was not that much smaller than a 60 gun ship of the line. Most of the difference in the number of guns was because the lower deck of a frigate contained no guns, making it more seaworthy than similarly sized ships of the line. Le Genereux was an 80 gun ship of the line, but less manoeuvrable than the frigate. The Success fired her starboard broadside, and was then able to turn around and fire her larboard guns before the French were able to reply, so in the event 64 guns faced 80 for a single broadside, before Nelson ordered the Success out of the battle.
The risk taken by the Success paid off. Le Genereux was slowed by the encounter, and a test shot from the Foudroyant proved she was now in range. A brief exchange of fire followed, but once the Northumberland joined in, the French ship surrendered. Nelson was delighted, and worked out that he had already been involved in the capture of nineteen ships of the line and four admirals! It was this incident that inspired one of Nelson’s captains (Alexander Ball) to refer to him as a ‘heaven-born admiral’, on the grounds that on his first visit to Malta he had encountered the first French attempt to resupply their garrison for eighteen months.
However, his delight at the capture of Le Genereux was not enough to drag him away from the delights of Naples. The last French survivor of the Nile, Le Guillaume Tell, was trapped in Valetta harbour, and was widely expected to make a run for it. Lord Keith ordered Nelson to take personal command of the siege, but claiming ill health, Nelson quickly returned to Naples. His behaviour at Naples was by now notorious, but his health may have been genuinely poor at this point.
At the end of March, Le Guillaume Tell made her move. Once again, the Foudroyant was involved, this time under the command of Nelson’s flag captain, Sir Edward Berry. Once again a frigate, the Penelope, was involved in delaying the French ship of the line. This time the battle lasted longer, from six in the evening on 30 March to just after eight. With the surrender of Le Guillaume Tell the last survivor of the French fleet destroyed at the Nile was captured.