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Napoleon in Egypt: The Battle of the Nile

Updated on August 19, 2012

Two Worthy Adversaries

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte | Source
Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson | Source

A Short Documentary on the Battle of the Nile

Napoleon vs. Nelson

28th July 1798, British Admiral Horatio Nelson had been tracking the French fleet for two months, but thus far to no avail. He did come desperately close to claiming his prize a month earlier, near the island of Malta. Now, as he was sailing around the Gulf of Koren, it seemed as if his luck might change. He spoke to two Greek fishermen who informed him that they had seen a great fleet heading southeast from the island of Crete. So, armed with that information, he heads south towards Alexandria. Three days later, on the 1st August, he arrives at Alexandria port, at just after 12 o’clock in the afternoon, to his utter dismay; the port is completely empty; the French have seemingly eluded him again.

Dispirited and irritated, Nelson ordered dinner to be served; the atmosphere at the captain’s table was one of melancholy, as the fleet sailed slowly east. Then, just as the tablecloth was being cleared away, an officer of the watch rushed in, and excitedly told Nelson that ‘a signal is just now made that the enemy is in Aboukir Bay and moored in a line of battle,’ Cheers erupted, finally the long hunt was over; Britain and France were ready to battle once more.

The French Admiral Francois Brueys had anchored his fleet in a line across the bay. To the west was Bequier Island, surrounded by an extensive area of shoal. In the centre was the fearsome, gigantic ship known as the L’Orient, a true brute packed with 120 guns, dwarfing any of the British ships under Nelson’s command. Brueys had tucked his line as close to the Island and the shoal as possible. The reasoning was that the British would never dare to attack so close to a potential natural hazard.

However, Nelson cleverly deduced that if a French ship had room to swing on its anchor, then there must be room for a ship to pass through. He ordered Captain Tom Foley, commanding HMS Goliath to sail around the lead French ship, Guerrier. Following close behind were HMS Zealous, Orion, Theseus and Audacious. As each ship passed by, they opened fire on the Guerrier and two other leading French ships, the Conquerant and Spartiate. Within just twenty minutes, a little after 6pm, the three leading French ships had been silenced. As a result, a massive chunk of the French line had been blown away, creating a gap that the British could exploit at will.

Further down the line, Nelson’s ship HMS Vanguard proceeded to mercilessly bombard the French centre. In the midst of the onslaught, both sides exhibited extraordinary courage. A Captain Dupetit Thouars of the Tonant had both his arms and a leg shot off. Despite the extraordinary pain he must have been under, he ordered his men to place him in a tub on the quarterdeck. He died after every gun had been silenced.

Nelson himself would not escape unscathed, as he took a hit to the forehead from a musket ball, rendering him temporarily blind. He thought that death was near, so he ordered his men to carry him below. Unbelievably he refused the attention of the surgeon until the other wounded had been cared for, a testament to the man’s character and skills as a leader, a man who led by example than authority .

Nelson's Ship

HMS Vanguard
HMS Vanguard | Source

The Order of Battle

Source

Explosion

The explosion of the L'Orient, the French flagship meant that defeat for France was a certainty.
The explosion of the L'Orient, the French flagship meant that defeat for France was a certainty. | Source

Explosion and Victory

At 8pm, the first five ships of the French line had surrendered, victory for Britain and Nelson seemed an almost absolute certainty. But, there was still one more memorable event to come. HMS Bellerophon had had its mast torn away by heavy fire from the L.Orient’s heavy guns; the helpless British ship began to drift slowly out of sight. Captain Benjamin Hollowell, a Canadian commanding HMS Swiftsure recognised the danger and steered his ship between the stricken Bellerophon and mighty L’Orient. With just a few yards separating the two ships, Hollowell gave the order to fire. The L’Orient soon came under difficulty, as HMS Alexander joined in the assault on the gigantic gun ship. By 9pm, the crew of the Swiftsure noticed flames licking up from the deck of the L’Orient. What had happened was that some of the crew had absentmindedly left buckets of oil and paint around the ship, soon it was totally ablaze, and there was nothing that the French could do. Every British ship in range now concentrated their fire on the burning French flagship, knowing that if the fire spread to the powder magazines, she’d explode. Forty five minutes later, a huge explosion marked the end of the L’Orient; the explosion was so loud that the residents of Rosetta, ten miles away heard it clearly. The utterly shocking noise temporarily halted the battle, for several minutes neither side dared to fire on each other. Nelson ordered Vanguard’s only undamaged boat to pick up any survivors, of more than 1000 souls that had been aboard the giant ship, only 70 French sailors were saved.

At moonrise, the battle recommenced, as the guns began firing again. Rear Admiral Villeneuve had witnessed the horrific event, and felt totally helpless; none of his ships could have done anything to prevent the horror that befell his flagship. As the first rays of the sun shone out from the east, the fighting had long since ceased. Three of Villeneuve’s ships cut their cables, two managed to escape whilst another, the Timoleon ran aground and was set on fire by its own crew. Later on that day, Nelson dined with six French captains in his own cabin, unfortunately Brueys was not amongst them as he had perished on the L’Orient. All in all, 2000 people had been killed, 3000 taken prisoner and 11 ships captured or burned. To this day, it remains one of the most complete naval victories of all time.

More to follow:

References

Dwyer, P, Napoleon- The Path to Power 1769-1799, Bloomsbury Books, 2008

Grant, R.G, Battle, Dorling Kindersley, 2010

Rickard, J (16 January 2006)French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801

Rothenberg, Gunther, The Napoleonic Wars, Cassell, 1999

Strathern, P, Napoleon in Egypt, Jonathan Cape, 2007

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Natasha, I really enjoyed learning about Napoleon's escapades in Egypt, amazing to think that one of the reasons he did it was to try to emulate Alexander the Great. Really appreciate you dropping by.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      What an awesome collection of information. Thanks for putting it together. Voted interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I know, it was wasn't it. I knew of his exploits at Trafalgar but never really knew anything about the Battle of the Nile till now. You could say that with the victory at the Nile and Trafalgar, Nelson saved Britain from invasion.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      That was some battle. I never knew the details of it until now. No wonder everyone idolised Nelson, everyone except the French that is.