The Battle of the Nile was on 1 August 1798. Nobody seems to remember it these days – it’s all about Trafalgar. Back in the day, though, the battle of the Nile was regarded as quite a big deal. Look at this commemorative arch at Greenwich and you can see one of the figures holding a scroll saying “Trafalgar” on the left while a cherub on the right holds another saying “The Nile” and “Copenhagen”.
In many ways, I think that the Battle of the Nile was a more impressive victory than Trafalgar. I’ll go into details of battle and why it was important later, but first I should explain the background to the engagement.
In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. He had distinguished himself by his generalship during his invasion of Italy and was a rising star in France. There are suggestions that the Directory (the rulers of France at the time) wanted him out of the way. He was becoming a little bit too popular and they may well have been worried that he could one day challenge their rule, as, indeed, he did only a year later.
Was the invasion of Egypt just a sideshow? Or would its possession by France allow them to move troops overland into India and threaten British possessions there? We know that Napoleon looked seriously at the idea of building a canal very close to where the Suez Canal was eventually constructed, but in the end his plans were thwarted, so we will never know whether an overland invasion of India was a serious prospect or not.
Victory at the Battle of the Pyramids gave Napoleon control of Egypt
Egypt had fallen very quickly to the French attack, but if it was to be used as a jumping off point for further conquest it was essential that France maintain its supply lines across the Mediterranean. The British had a substantial naval presence in the Med, but Napoleon had assembled a considerable fleet to transport his army and to maintain communications after the conquest. This was lying off the northern coast of Egypt, not actually at the Nile at all but in the Bay of Aboukir, near Alexandria.
Nobody knows exactly why the fleet was lying at anchor in a position where it was at risk from an attack from the sea where it would be pinned between the land and any hostile force. After the French defeat everybody blamed everybody else for this strategic error. One possible explanation is that Napoleon had ordered the fleet to sea but that the message had somehow never reached it, and this is the version that I use in Burke and the Bedouin. We’ll never know, of course, but if the British had had an agent in Egypt, then stopping that message getting through would have been a very useful way for him to spend his time.
There was a roughly equal number of ships in both fleets, but the French ships carried more guns. In 18th-century naval battles the number of guns that could be brought to bear was usually decisive and the French fleet carried 1196 guns against only 1012 for the British.
The British sailed into the bay intending a conventional attack. Each British ship would line up against a French vessel and both sides would hammer into each other with their cannon until the loser was no longer able to fight effectively. However, as the British approach the French line they realised that the French vessels were swinging at anchor. Clearly there was enough water between the line of French vessels and the coast for them to swing without grounding and, the British reasoned, it must therefore be possible for their ships to sail down the narrow channel. The British split into two columns and each French vessel found itself engaged on both sides. With the wind making it impossible for the French to make out to sea, they were stuck in line as the British worked their way along sinking ship after ship.
The most dramatic French loss was their flagship L’Orient, which carried an astonishing 120 guns. Fire on deck spread to the magazine magazine which exploded and the ship very quickly sank. While nowadays most of us have forgotten the Battle of the Nile many will remember the boy who “stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled”, a poem that commemorated the sinking of L’Orient. The boy was the captain’s son who, the captain being dead and unable to tell him to abandon ship, remained at his post and became one of over a thousand men to die in the explosion.
When it was all over, of 13 French ships of the line and four frigates, three were destroyed and nine captured by the British. British casualties were 895 while the French lost 5,225 dead and 3,105 captured.
The French defeat left them with no way of resupplying or reinforcing their army in Egypt. The French remained stuck in the country, despite attempts to fight their way out through Syria, until they surrendered to an Anglo-Ottoman force in 1800. By then, of course, Napoleon had abandoned them, returning to France in August 1799.
Nelson’s remarkable victory left the British firmly in control of the Mediterranean and prevented the French from using Egypt as a jumping off point for further aggression in the Middle East or towards India. It deserves to be remembered.
‘Twas on the ninth day of August in the year ninety-eight
We’ll sing the praise of Nelson and the bold British fleet.
Traditional sea song.
Burke and the Bedouin
Did a British spy stop the messenger carrying the orders to the French fleet to set to sea and thus make Nelson’s victory possible? We’ll never know, but the idea that the messenger was intercepted is one that historians consider quite credible.
Burke’s escapades in Egypt are a straightforward adventure story, featuring a beautiful woman (of course), desperate rides across the desert, evil Turks, and dastardly Frenchmen. It’s a lot of fun but there’s some solid history about the French landings, the Battle of the Pyramids and, of course, the Battle of the Nile.
The Battle of the Pyramids, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1808. Public domain
Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm, by Thomas Luny. Public domain