Last week was the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile back in 1798. Nowadays we associate Nelson so firmly with Trafalgar that his other victories can be overlooked. Back in the early 19th century, though, the Nile featured prominently on memorials like this one at Greenwich.
As with many battles, the name isn’t geographically accurate. The battle of the Nile didn’t actually take place at the Nile but at Abū Qīr Bay near Alexandria. Napoleon had invaded Egypt, his troops travelling in an enormous French fleet. After the troops had been successfully landed, his warships remained on the Egyptian coast ready to protect his lines of supply. They moored near the shore in the shelter of the bay.
Conventionally, naval battles were fought broadside to broadside, one ship against another. The French fleet was immensely strong. L’Orient, the French flagship mounted 118 guns. The French anchorage meant that the ships’ broadsides were facing out to sea, allowing an enormous concentration of fire to be brought to bear on any force attacking from the Mediterranean.
The British fleet that discovered the French lying at anchor was, on paper, vastly inferior. However, the British realised that the French had anchored slightly too far out into the open sea, allowing a channel between their line and the shore. The British split their force, some ships sailing between the French and the shore while others sailed between the shore and the open sea. With an onshore wind, the French were unable to manoeuvre away from their anchorage and the British sailed slowly down the line, each French ship being engaged one after the other by at least two British ships firing simultaneously from both sides.
The tactic was overwhelmingly successful. Of the 13 French ships of the line, nine were captured and two destroyed. No British ships were lost.
The most dramatic moment of the battle was the loss of L’Orient which caught fire and exploded when the flames spread to the powder magazine. The Captain’s young son had been ordered by his father to stand at his position until his father told him to move. His father having died, the son is said to have remained on deck and died. His death is commemorated in the poem, Casabianca:
The boy stood on the burning deck Whence all but he had fled.
After the battle, the British had complete naval dominance in the Mediterranean. With his lines of supply cut off, Napoleon’s plans to use Egypt as a jumping off point for further invasions were in disarray. Napoleon fled back to France the following year and the French army lingered on in Egypt until surrendering to the British in 1801.
Burke and the Bedouin
The Battle of the Nile is the climax of Burke and the Bedouin. William Brown is on board, the Orion, one of the British ships, and witnesses L’Orient’s sinking.
“It’s the Orient… The Orient is ablaze… The Orient is sinking.”
An officer appeared. “All hands on deck!”
Confused, William joined the procession of seamen clambering onto the deck. The night was still warm, but after the atmosphere of the gun deck, it was bliss to breathe fresh air.
Out here, the view was dominated by the blaze from the Orient. Sales and rigging were well alight and the spars were dropping onto the deck. Flames could be seen running along the joints between her timbers, where they had been sealed with tar. Here and there, the fire had spread to the timbers themselves. Against the light, the crew could be seen desperately throwing water onto the fire, but many had clearly already given up hope and were shimmying down ropes to escape into the sea.
“Stop gawping! Start dousing the deck.”
Buckets of water appeared, passed hand-to-hand up ship from the bilges or hauled to the deck from the sea below. While most of the men from the gun deck poured the water over the timbers at their feet, the crew who had been manning the sails aloft hauled buckets from the deck and soaked the canvas and ropes.
William could not understand the reason for this frantic activity, but it became all too clear after they had been at work for only a few minutes.
William had his back to the Orient when it happened. The night was lit up with a brilliant flash of light and, while his brain was still trying to comprehend what he had seen, the noise of the explosion rolled across the ship. William felt himself pushed forward by the force of the blast.
William fell to the deck, along with the rest of the crew.
Debris from the wreck flew across the ship. Pieces of hot metal scoured tracks in Saumarez’s immaculate deck. Pieces of the Orient‘s hull – two yards long and three feet thick – were hurled at the Orion as if they weighed no more than pieces of paper. There was other debris too – things William did not want to look at too closely. Most of the bodies were in pieces too small to be recognised as human, but William saw what was clearly an arm, the fist still clenched, although whatever it had been holding was lost somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Like all the Burke books, Burke and the Bedouin is first and foremost a spy story. But I wanted to describe one of Nelson’s greatest victories for a generation that has no longer grown up with the tale. There are French spies and a beautiful woman and midnight gallops across the desert, but the story ends with the historical reality of the Battle of the Nile and the end of Napoleon’s dreams of conquest in the east.
The picture at the top of the page is ‘The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798‘ by Nicholas Pocock.
Over on Twitter I’ve been joining in with #HistFicMay. It’s a lot of fun and if you are on Twitter yourself you might try having a look at the hashtag. Each day historical novelists are invited to tweet about some aspect of their work. The last few days have been research, an area where the average historical novelist can talk until the most enthusiastic reader has beaten themselves unconscious head butting a wall in the hope that they will stop.
One question was ‘What was the hardest thing to research?’ It’s a beautifully open question. Most difficult fact to track down? Most traumatic? (One person said that researching the slave trade wasn’t a lot of fun and my own research on the English occupation of Ireland left me a bit shaken.)
I’m going to go for ‘Most likely to have you freeze to death in a snowstorm while sheltering in an unheated stone hut 3,000 metres up the Andes.’
It’s a good story and every so often I tried to interest people in it and they completely blank me. Whether this is because they’ve all secretly done something equally daft or whether they can’t believe I’m not making it up, I don’t know. But here goes again.
When I was writing ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ I described him crossing the Andes, which the real James Burke did on his way to spy out the possibilities of a British fleet making a landing on the west coast of South America. Burke misjudged the time to travel and ended up crossing in snow. The account of the trip makes up half a dozen or so pages in the book, but they worried me because I had no idea what crossing the Andes was like in snow. There are accounts of crossing in summer but I felt that the experience at the beginning of winter must be very different. In the end, I decided that the best way to find out would be to do it myself.
Somehow I persuaded my wife (who hates riding) that this would be a good idea.
Burke had made his journey at the beginning of winter but our schedule meant we had to make it in October, in the southern spring, but still snowy in the Andes. We weren’t going to be able to cross down to Chile as the pass was officially still closed, so we couldn’t legally take our horses over. We decided that we would climb to the summit of the pass and turn and come back down.
We were following the route taken by General San Martin, who had crossed the Andes on his way to liberate Chile in 1817. Wisely, he had done it in high summer. When we arrived at our starting point, a ranch outside the city of Mendoza, the rancher who was to guide us up said that he strongly advised against doing it until the weather had improved.
We went ahead anyway. The idea had been to see what it was like for Burke and we found out.
It was cold. Very, very cold.
The road up starts easily enough. People take four wheel drives up there to admire the view. Gradually, though, it gets steeper. Quite a lot steeper.
We rode all day, until we arrived at the only refuge: a stone hut at 3,000 metres.
There were some bed frames and we took the woollen hides from the Western-style saddles and those were our mattresses. We piled any spare clothing on top of our sleeping bags and that was our beds for the night.
It’s not true that there was no heating at all. There are some very dry scrubs growing on the mountain, easily uprooted and carried back to the hut, mainly because they weigh practically nothing.
The good news is that light, dry wood burns very easily. The disadvantage is that the fire lasts hardly any time at all. Still, apart from the smoke blowing back down the chimney, it created a lovely warm spot immediately in front of the fireplace for as long as it lasted.
You could cook on it too.
Water came from a stream that ran past the hut. First thing in the morning, it was covered in ice.
One of the horses decided that a night up there was no fun at all and ran off. Fortunately we had a spare (and the first one was safely waiting for us at a frontier post at the bottom of the mountain when we returned).
Despite the cold, I was stunned by the beauty of the place.
The next day we made a serious attempt to get to the summit of the pass. We almost made it too, but, in the end, the snow defeated us.
It was the coldest I have ever been in my life and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’d love to do it again in the summer (apparently a week after we went the weather changed completely and people travelled up in T-shirts). My wife, though, has vetoed the idea.
And did it make any difference to the book? A few paragraphs may be more convincing.
On 27 June 1806 Buenos Aires fell to the British. It’s one of the least well-known campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars but the first of the James Burke books, Burke in the Land of Silver, centres on the run-up to this battle (not that there was really a battle) and its aftermath (which was much more exciting).
Why did Argentina matter?
The British invasion of Buenos Aires is often overlooked, possibly because it does not reflect particularly well on British military prowess. Spain’s South American possessions were important primarily because of the silver that they produced. Britain was anxious that, with Spain about to join the war on Napoleon’s side, the French should not get their hands on South American bullion. South America was also felt to be a relatively soft target, because of the unrest amongst the population there who were growing increasingly unhappy with Spanish rule.
Enter Sir Home Popham
Enter the extraordinary Commodore Home Popham. Almost forgotten until recently, Popham has suddenly become fashionable with both historians and novelists, and keeps on popping up all over the place. He deserves this newfound interest because Sir Home Riggs Popham was an extraordinary character.
Popham had been sent to the Cape of Good Hope carrying 6,000 men to capture the place, but the Cape fell unexpectedly easily, leaving him with a small army and no war to use it in. At this point, he decided that he’d head to Buenos Aires, taking 1,635 men with him (the rest being left to garrison the Cape). Deprived of a change for glory in South Africa, he would find it in South America. They sound pretty much the same, so why not?
Historians still argue about whether this decision was politically sanctioned or not. It was certainly never official, but there’s quite a lot of evidence that the government did encourage him to attack Buenos Aires.
Enter James Burke
Either way, Popham arrived in the River Plate in June 1806, where he sails into the story of Burke in the Land of Silver. The Plate is a difficult river to navigate. Popham was quoted at the time as saying, “It was a bit bumpy,” as his ships nearly grounded on sandbanks. According to some accounts Popham was helped to navigate the unfamiliar river by a British agent. If so, it’s quite likely that the real James Burke was involved. Was he really? The joy of writing about a secret agent is that what exactly he did do is a secret. He may genuinely have been there, but we can’t know for sure.
Popham was in charge of the force while it was on the water, but once it landed control was handed over to Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops to mount an adequate defence and, as Popham had predicted, Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.
Things end badly
James Burke had arrived in Buenos Aires with instructions to prepare the way for a British invasion. He could congratulate himself on a job well done. But with the military victory easily achieved, Beresford had to move from winning the war to winning the peace. He told the locals he had come to liberate them from Spain, but he proved no better at handling the aftermath of war than some more modern occupying powers. A series of missteps turned the population against the British and the locals rose in revolt. The British were driven out of Buenos Aires, their tails between their legs.
With the Spanish rising against the French, Napoleon never did get his hands on that silver. The Spanish colonists became our allies again. James Burke did return to Argentina where I like to think he contributed to the struggle of the locals to free themselves from Spanish rule. Whether he did or not, the population did rise against Spain and the independence of Argentina was declared on July 9, 1816 by the Congress of Tucumán.
Nobody is quite sure what happened to James Burke after his ventures in South America, but evidence from the Army rolls suggests that he remained in the Army with a pattern of movement between regiments and ranks that suggested continued to work in intelligence until well after the war with France was over.
Burke in the Land of Silver
Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of the stories I’ve written about James Burke. All my stories have a solid basis in historical fact, but this one is the closest to a true story. Burke’s adventures, including his improbable romantic entanglements with royalty, are pretty close to what actually happened. The story grew out of my love for Buenos Aires and I have visited many of the places featured in the book. It’s a rollicking good read, as well as an excellent introduction to a little-known bit of Britain’s military and political history. It’s available on Kindle at £2.99 (buy it quickly: this price won’t hold forever) and in paperback at £7.99.
‘The Glorious Conquest of Buenos Ayres by the British Forces, 27th June 1806’ Coloured woodcut, published by G Thompson, 1806. Copyright National Army Museum and reproduced with permission.
I’ve been talking a lot about Cawnporelately because I’ve just republished the book and I’d like you all to have a chance to read it, but this week I’m writing about James Burke and an incident from the very first of my books about him: Burke in the Land of Silver.
A bit of historical background
In 1808 Napoleon “invited” the Spanish king, Charles IV and his heir, Ferdinand VII to Bayonne in France. They never returned to Spain. Napoleon installed his brother, Joseph, as King.
The British had seen this coming. They had evacuated the Portuguese Royal Family ahead of the French invasion of Portugal, moving them to their colony in Brazil. They planned to do the same thing with the Spanish king and queen. In the run-up to the French invasion, Charles had left Madrid for Aranjuez, where he had a new palace. Significantly, Aranjuez was on the Tagus. The British idea was to evacuate Charles and his wife down river and then across the Atlantic to their South American colonies. The British agent charged with arranging this with the Spanish monarchy was James Burke.
James Burke’s role in fiction and history
In Burke in the Land of Silver I have my hero travelling across France and Spain where he approaches the queen and offers her British assistance. He is, however, just too late. Before he can get the king and queen out, the French mount their coup.
It’s a fictionalised account of a real historical event, but last week Rob Griffith, a brilliant military researcher, sent me a copy of a letter he had come across in the National Archives. It is from James Burke and it describes what really happened in 1808. He’s writing from HMS Alacrity off Cadiz. His handwriting is a great deal more legible than that of many other people of this period, but I can’t guarantee that there aren’t errors in my reading of it. All the plans have been made to get the king and queen to safety but before he can land to put them into effect a revolution (the first stage of the French coup) breaks out:
we were favoured with the timely lamentable intelligence of a most unhappy revolution having taken place in the government of Spain
The details clearly differ from the way I tell it in my book, but here we are at that critical point where Burke realises that nothing can be done to save the Spanish monarch and his wife. As in Burke in the Land of Silver he’s all too conscious that he was almost in time. In fact, he was even closer than in the book.
had I been dispatched immediately on my arrival in England I would have prevented that awfully disturbing catastrophe
For me, seeing this letter in his own hand has brought me closer to Burke. It was actually quite an emotional moment.
I do worry sometimes that my fictional Burke is painted as a more significant figure than he was. Actually, this letter suggests that he was heavily involved in diplomacy at the highest levels and was even more significant than my hero. He does seem to have been quite a remarkable man to be so overlooked by history. I hope that, with all their imaginative license, my books will still go some way to restoring this extraordinary figure back to us.
Rob Griffith – writing fact
Huge thanks to Rob Griffith for finding this letter and sending a copy to me. Rob is a remarkable military historian who has featured on my blog before. [https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/riflemen/] I do recommend his book, Riflemen, to anybody interested in British light infantry of the Napoleonic era.
Me – writing fiction
Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of several books about James Burke. His adventures in that one are closely based on fact, while his later escapades are more the product of my fevered imagination, but the character is true to what we know of the real man. The next in the series will see him dallying with the Empress Josephine, which I thought was probably a stretch too far until I realised that they had almost certainly met. Yes, James Burke certainly knew how to live!
You may also be interested in my books about the fictional John Williamson, whose adventures in the mid-19th century are closely based on actual historical events.