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.
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.
Burke and the Bedouin is available from Amazon in both paperback and e-book format, and in the USA from Simon & Schuster.
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