The Battle of the Nile
By 1798 Great Britain was the only major power still at war with the French Republic following the War of the First Coalition. Because of this, the Republic was searching to oust the British from their power over the seas. Whilst this proved difficult in the Atlantic due to the supremacy of the Royal Navy, the French still held significant might on the Mediterranean seas.
Napoleon decided to target Egypt, believing that this was the best alternative to an invasion of Britain as it would weaken British accees to India by removing important supply depots for merchant ships. If Egypt was captured then this could be used to launch operations against British India, creating enough hardship that would lead to British withdrawal from the war.
By April 1798 a French force which numbered approximately 35,000 formed at Toulon with the intention of landing in Egypt. They were to be transported to Egypt in 400 transports which were escorted by thirteen great battleships.
The Royal Navy received reports in May suggesting a large French force was sailing across the Mediterranean Sea. This led to Vice-Admiral Earl St. Vincent sending a squadron from the Tagus to conduct an investigation. The small squadron which numbered only six ships was under the command of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Initially the squadron were hampered by a fierce storm which damaged Nelsons flagship HMS Vanguard. It was not until the 7th of June that the squadron were seaworthy again, with the force being more than doubled in size with the addition of reinforcements. The search continued.
A great historical event occurred on the 22nd of June when the two fleets actually crossed each other’s tracks. Despite the colossal French force passing Nelson, the thick fog obscured their movements and allowed them to slip into the night.
Nelson overran the French, reaching Alexandria in Egypt only to find an empty coastline. He then instructed his force to return to Sicily, combing the seas whilst en-route. It is believed only twelve hours after Nelson departed Alexandria the French fleets were visible off the coast. The French force landed, and it was four weeks until Nelson returned to the Egyptian coast to make battle.
When Nelson returned to the Egyptian coast it was not long until the fleet of seventeen French ships were spotted anchored off of Aboukir Bay. The French outnumbered the British in terms of guns and tonnage, with French ships on average exceeded 2000 tonnes whilst British ships scarcely averaged 1500. The average British ship under Nelsons command numbered 74 guns, with the heaviest calibre being a 32 pounder. These were dwarfed by the French 80 gun ships, of which three were present at Aboukir Bay. The large French ships were built to project massive fire power, with their lower decks alone being capable of inflicting greater firepower than an entire British broadside. All in all the French had a 20% advantage in tonnage and a 30% advantage in manpower.
Whilst the British were outnumbered and outgunned, their greatest advantage came from Nelsons tactical planning. During the long search for the French across the Meditteranean Nelson had liaised with his Captains to discuss every possible way the French may be met in battle, ensuring everybody knew what their role was. One of the possible scenarios was finding the French in a battle-line and close to the shore. This was the exact situation the British found themselves facing.
The French had lined their combat fleet near the coastline in a long formation, all tied together with thick rope to stop their formation being broken. Whilst this did prove a solid defensive position, it was exploitable by an abstract thinking commander such as Nelson. The decision was made to move along the French line from its stern to its bow on both sides, raking the French ships in the process. Roped formations by the French would prevent any immediate manoeuvers and would effectively leave them as sitting ducks. It was likely the French did not believe any attacker would come alongside from the shore, but Nelson famously said “Where a French ship can swing…an English ship can either sail or anchor”.
At approximately half past five in the afternoon the British line began to glide past the first French vessel, the Guerrier. HMS Goliath was the first Royal ship to make contact, however its Captain dropped anchor too late and ended up in an engagement with the second ship in the line. However due to the close formation of the Royal Navy it was not long until HMS Zealous took position on the Guerrier’s stern and fiercely attacked.
Movements during the Battle of the Nile.
In what can best be imagined as a sort of leap frogging motion, HMS Orion was the next British ship to engage, delivering a devastating broadside into the Guerrier before gliding past HMS Zealous and then HMS Goliath to take position on the stern of the third French ship in line. As HMS Orion moved down the line it was engaged by a small frigate (The Seriuse) anchored alongside the main French force, the Orion returned fire and The Seriuse reeled under the shock, sinking shortly after.
This movement continued, with HMS Theseus travelling down the narrow sea lane between the already established British and French ships. It delivered broadsides into each French ship as it passed, continuing Nelson's efficient devastation. In a letter home to his wife, Captain Miller who commanded the Theseus wrote “In running along the enemy’s line in the wake of the Zealous and Goliath their shot swept over us”. Whether this was true or not, it helps to paint the picture of the minute distances in which these wooden giants were fighting.
Within thirty minutes of the start of the battle and five British ships were situated within the French formation. As night descended on the battle, the seas were alight by burning gunpowder and magazine explosions. At nine o’clock the Orient, the French flagship was set alight. It is believed her fresh coat of paint contained a large amount of oil which led to a tremendous blaze. Aboard the ship, French Admiral Brueys had apparently been cut in two by a cannon-ball. An hour later the flagship exploded, only 70 of its crew of 1000 survived.
By morning it was clear the battle had been won by the Royal Navy. The mile long line of French ships had all but disappeared, one was destroyed, one had been sunk, one ran aground and the rest were captured or had fled. The French had fought with courage throughout the battle, but they had been placed in an inescapable defeat due to the bold movements of the Royal Navy. The rear of the French line had not been engaged for the entire battle, yet they did not cut their ropes and come to the aid of their comrades further along.
The magazine explosion aboard the Orient. Thomas Luny (1798)
The battle is an excellent example of how British seamanship had been greatly enhanced through the long blockades of the French. Through battles such as this, Nelson installed his secret to victory amongst his Captains, that was “No English captain can do wrong who lays a ship alongside an enemy”.
Casualties for the British numbered 218 dead and over 600 wounded, whilst French casualties are estimated to have been around 3500. Therefore, proving to be a devastating defeat by all accounts to the French, especially when the material loss of ships is considered as well. It is said that when Napoleon received the news of the defeat he was speechless.
This battle of 1798 destroyed French prestige in the Mediterranean, saved British India and created a desperate situation for Napoleon in Egypt. Captain Graviere of the French Navy said that from this point on the French tried to avoid battle, and subsequently faced a morale crisis. The battle led to the collapse of Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion and his return to France.
In the long term the preservation of British India because of the battle ensured that the British would remain as an enemy of Republican France for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. Access to India ensured economic survival for Britain amidst Napoleon’s continental blockade in the following years, therefore proving to be a significant victory.