Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of the Nile

Battle of the Nile
Battle of the Nile. Public Domain

In early 1798, French General Napoleon Bonaparte began planning an invasion of Egypt with the goal of threatening British possessions in India and assessing the feasibility of building a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Alerted to this fact, the Royal Navy gave Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson fifteen ships of the line with orders to locate and destroy the French fleet supporting Napoleon's forces.

On August 1, 1798, following weeks futile searching, Nelson finally located the French transports at Alexandria. Though disappointed that the French fleet was not present, Nelson soon found it anchored just to the east in Aboukir Bay.

Conflict

The Battle of the Nile occurred during the Wars of the French Revolution.

Date

Nelson attacked the French on the evening of August 1/2, 1798.

Fleets & Commanders

British

  • Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson
  • 13 ships of the line

French

  • Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys D'Aigalliers
  • 13 ships of the line

Background

The French commander, Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys D’Aigalliers, anticipating a British attack, had anchored his thirteen ships of the line in line of battle with shallow, shoal water to port and the open sea to starboard.  This deployment was intended to force the British to attack the strong French center and rear while permitting Brueys' van to utilize the prevailing northeasterly winds to mount a counterattack once the action commenced.

With sunset fast approaching, Brueys did not believe the British would risk a night battle in unknown, shallow waters. As a further precaution he ordered that the ships of the fleet be chained together to prevent the British from breaking the line.

Nelson Attacks

During the search for Brueys fleet, Nelson had taken the time to meet frequently with his captains and thoroughly schooled them in his approach to naval warfare, stressing individual initiative and aggressive tactics.

These lessons would be put to use as Nelson’s fleet bore down on the French position. As they approached, Captain Thomas Foley of HMS Goliath (74 guns) noticed that the chain between the first French ship and the shore was submerged deep enough for a ship to pass over it. Without hesitation, Hardy led five British ships over the chain and into the narrow space between the French and the shoals.

His maneuver allowed Nelson, aboard HMS Vanguard (74 guns) and the remainder of the fleet to proceed down the other side of the French line—sandwiching the enemy fleet and inflicting devastating damage upon each ship in turn. Surprised by the audacity of the British tactics, Brueys watched in horror as his fleet was systematically destroyed.  As the fighting escalated, Bruyes fell wounded when in an exchange with HMS Bellerophon (74 gun). The climax of the battle occurred when the French flagship, L’Orient (110 guns) caught fire and exploded around 10 p.m., killing Brueys and all but 100 of the ship’s crew. The French flagship's destruction led to a ten minute lull in the fighting as both sides recovered from the blast. As the battle drew to a close, it became clear that Nelson had all but annihilated the French fleet.

Aftermath

When the fighting ceased, nine French ships had fallen into British hands, while two had burnt, and two escaped. In addition, Napoleon’s army was stranded in Egypt, cut off from all supplies. The battle cost Nelson 218 killed and 677 wounded, while the French suffered around 1,700 killed, 600 wounded, and 3,000 captured. During the battle, Nelson was wounded in the forehead, exposing his skull. Despite bleeding profusely, he refused preferential treatment and insisted on waiting his turn while other wounded sailors were treated before him.

For his triumph, Nelson was raised to the peerage as Baron Nelson of the Nile—a move that irritated him as Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent had been given the more prestigious title of earl following the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797).

This perceived slight kindled a life-long belief that his accomplishments were not fully recognized and rewarded by the government.

Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of the Nile." ThoughtCo, Mar. 16, 2018, thoughtco.com/french-revolution-battle-of-the-nile-2361189. Hickman, Kennedy. (2018, March 16). Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of the Nile. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/french-revolution-battle-of-the-nile-2361189 Hickman, Kennedy. "Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of the Nile." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/french-revolution-battle-of-the-nile-2361189 (accessed May 24, 2018).