Battle of the Nile
gigatos | November 8, 2021
The Battle of the Nile-also known as the Battle of Abukir Bay, (in English, Battle of the Nile, in French, Bataille d”Aboukir, in Arabic, معركة ابو قير البحريه)-was a major naval engagement fought between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the First French Republic from 1 to 3 August 1798 in Abu Qir Bay, on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The battle was the climax of the naval campaign that had spread across the Mediterranean Sea during the previous three months, when a French convoy on board an expeditionary force under the command of the then General Napoleon Bonaparte set sail from Toulon for Alexandria.
The British forces, led by Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, later known as Lord Nelson, defeated the French.
Bonaparte was attempting to invade Egypt as the first step in a campaign against British India in an attempt to extricate Britain from the French Revolutionary Wars. As Bonaparte”s fleet crossed the Mediterranean, a British force under Nelson, which had been sent from the Tagus River Fleet in order to ascertain the objective of the French expedition and defeat it, began its pursuit. For more than two months it pursued the French, on some occasions coming within a few hours of them. Bonaparte, who knew Nelson”s plans, discreetly kept his destination and managed to take Malta and then reach Egypt without being intercepted by the British naval forces.
With the French army ashore, the French fleet dropped anchor in Abukir Bay, 20 miles -32 kilometers- northeast of Alexandria. The commander, Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys D”Aigalliers, believed he had taken up a formidable defensive position. When the British fleet arrived in Egypt on August 1 and discovered Brueys” disposition, Nelson ordered an immediate attack. His ships advanced toward the French line and split into two groups as they approached. One of them broke through the French line through the space between the rival ships and the shore, while the other engaged the French flank farthest from land. After falling into a crossfire, the warships of the French vanguard had to surrender after a fierce three-hour battle; the center of the fleet, on the other hand, managed to repel the initial British attack. With the arrival of British reinforcements, the British again attacked the center, and at 22:00 the French flagship, L”Orient, was blown up. After Brueys” death and the defeat of his center and vanguard, the rear division of the French fleet tried to escape from the bay, but only two ships of the line and two frigates, out of a total of seventeen ships, succeeded.
The battle turned the strategic situation of the forces of both powers in the Mediterranean upside down, and the British Royal Navy was entrenched in the dominant position in which it would remain throughout the rest of the war. The outcome also encouraged other countries to turn against France, and was a factor in the outbreak of the Second Coalition war. Bonaparte”s army was trapped in Egypt, and British domination of the Syrian coast contributed significantly to the French defeat at the siege of Acre in 1799, prior to Bonaparte”s return to Europe. Nelson, who had been wounded in the battle, was cheered as a hero throughout Europe and consequently named Baron Nelson, although he was privately dissatisfied with his reward. His captains also received widespread praise and would later go on to form the nucleus of Nelson”s Band of Brothers. The battle continues to feature prominently in popular culture, with Casabianca, an 1826 poem by Felicia Hemans, probably being its best known depiction.
Bonaparte believed that by establishing a permanent presence in Egypt – symbolically part of the Ottoman Empire, which was neutral – the French would gain an important base for future operations against British India, possibly in collaboration with the Anglophobic Sultan Fateh Ali Tipu of Seringapatam, which could force Britain to abandon the contest. The campaign would hinder communication between Britain and India, an essential part of the empire, as the profits from its trade provided the necessary funding for the metropolis to prosecute the war. The French Directory agreed with Bonaparte”s plans, although the desire to draw him, a highly ambitious politician, and his loyal veterans of his campaigns in Italy away from France played a large part in the decision. During the spring of 1798, Bonaparte assembled more than 35,000 troops on the French and Italian Mediterranean coast and concentrated a powerful fleet at Toulon. He also created the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, a body of scientists and engineers to establish a French colony in Egypt. Napoleon kept the destination of the expedition secret, so that even most army officers did not know the objective, as Bonaparte did not reveal it in public until the first part of the expedition was completed.
Napoleon”s armada left Toulon on May 19, 1798, and quickly sailed across the Ligurian Sea. On its passage through Genoa, more ships joined the expedition and it then set course for the coast of Sardinia and passed through Sicily on June 7. Two days later the fleet arrived in Malta, which was then the property of the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, whose grand master was Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim. Bonaparte demanded permission to access the fortified port of Valletta. When the members of the Order refused, the French general responded with an order to carry out a full-scale invasion of the Maltese islands. After twenty-four hours of skirmishing, the French defeated the Maltese. The order formally surrendered on June 12 and, in exchange for substantial financial compensation, handed over the islands and all their resources to Bonaparte, including the abundant property of the Catholic Church in Malta. A week later, Bonaparte had resupplied his ships, and on June 19, his fleet sailed for Crete on its way to Alexandria. In addition, he left four thousand men in Valletta under the command of General Claude-Henri Vaubois in order to secure French control of the islands.
As Bonaparte sailed for Malta, the British Royal Navy re-entered the Mediterranean for the first time in over a year. Alarmed by warnings of French preparations on the Mediterranean coast, Lord Spencer of the British Admiralty sent a message to Vice Admiral John Jervis, commander of the Mediterranean fleet based on the Tagus River, to send a squadron to investigate the situation. This squadron consisted of three ships of the line and three frigates and was entrusted in command to Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson.
Nelson was a highly experienced officer who had been one-eyed while battling in Corsica in 1794 and had received commendation for the capture of two Spanish ships of the line during the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in February 1797. In July of the same year, he lost an arm at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and was forced to return to Britain to recuperate. On his return to the Tagus Fleet in late April 1798, he was ordered to take command of the squadron stationed at Gibraltar and sail to the Ligurian Sea. On May 21, when Nelson was already near Toulon, a gale damaged his flagship, the HMS Vanguard, which lost its masts and was almost wrecked on the Corsican coast. Likewise, the rest of the squadron was scattered. The ships of the line took refuge on the island of San Pietro, near Sardinia; the wind blew the frigates to the west and they were unable to return.
On June 7, after several quick repairs had been carried out on the flagship, a fleet consisting of ten ships of the line and one fourth-rate ship joined Nelson near Toulon. The fleet, under the command of Captain Thomas Troubridge, had previously been sent to reinforce Nelson with orders to pursue and intercept the Toulon convoy. Although Nelson already had enough ships to challenge the French fleet, he faced two major disadvantages: he did not know the fate of the French, and he had no frigates to employ to scout in advance. Hoping to get information about French movements, Nelson set a course south and stopped at the island of Elba and Naples, where the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, informed him that the French fleet had passed Sicily on its way to Malta. Although Nelson and Hamilton requested it, King Ferdinand of Naples refused to lend his frigates to the British fleet for fear of reprisals from France. On June 22, a schooner from Ragusa informed Nelson of the departure from Malta eastward of the French on June 16. After consulting with his captains, the admiral concluded that the French target must be Egypt and set a course there to begin the pursuit. Nelson insisted on taking a direct route to Alexandria without detours because he incorrectly believed that the French had a five-day lead, when in fact it was only two days.
On the night of June 22, Nelson”s fleet overtook the French in the dark, not realizing how close it was to its objective, partly also because of the fog. Having taken the direct route, Nelson arrived at Alexandria on June 28 and discovered that the French were not there. After a meeting with the Ottoman commander Sayyid Muhammad Kurayyim, Nelson ordered the British fleet to set a course northward, which reached the Anatolian coast on July 4 and then turned west toward Sicily. It reached the Anatolian coast on July 4 and then turned west toward Sicily. Nelson had not caught up with the French for less than a day; the vanguard of the rival fleet reached Alexandria on the evening of June 29.
Concerned about Nelson”s proximity, Bonaparte ordered an immediate invasion; the troops landed by means of an amphibious operation whose planning had been rather poor, and at least twenty soldiers drowned as a result. The French advanced toward the city of Alexandria along the coast and stormed it; after this, Bonaparte led the bulk of his army inland. He tasked his naval commander, Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys D”Aigalliers, with anchoring in Alexandria harbor, but soundings indicated that the harbor channel was too narrow and shallow for the larger ships of the fleet. Consequently, the French selected an alternative anchorage in Abu Qir Bay, thirty-two kilometers northeast of Alexandria.
Nelson”s fleet arrived at Syracuse, Sicily, on July 19, where it obtained essential supplies to continue its mission. While resupplying, the admiral wrote letters describing the events of the previous months:
It is an old saying, “the devil”s children have the devil”s luck.” I cannot know, or discover at this time, other than vague guesses, where the French fleet is located. All my bad luck, so far, is connected with the lack of frigates.
On 24 July the resupply of the fleet was completed and, having determined that the French must be somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, Nelson set sail again for Morea. On 28 July, at Coroni, Nelson finally obtained information describing the French attack on Egypt and headed south. His advance party, consisting of HMS Alexander and HMS Swiftsure, finally sighted the French transport fleet at Alexandria on the afternoon of 1 August.
Realizing that the port of Alexandria was unsuitable for his fleet, Brueys assembled all his captains and discussed options. Bonaparte had ordered the fleet anchored in Abukir Bay, a shallow and exposed anchorage, but had included among his orders the possibility of Brueys sailing to Corfu in the north, leaving only the transport ships and a few lighter warships at Alexandria in case the bay proved excessively dangerous. Brueys refused to contemplate this possibility, believing that his squadron could support the French army ashore, and summoned the captains on board his flagship, the L”Orient, equipped with one hundred and twenty guns. There they studied what their response would be in the event of Nelson”s discovery of the fleet. Despite the vehement opposition of Rear Admiral Armand Blanquet, who insisted that the fleet could best counterattack in the open sea, the rest of the captains agreed that anchoring in a line of battle inside the bay was the best tactic for dealing with Nelson. It is possible that Bonaparte foresaw the bay of Abukir as a temporary anchorage: on July 27 he expressed his wish that Brueys had already transported his ships to Alexandria, and three days later, he issued orders for the fleet to sail for Corfu with the aim of preparing naval operations against the Ottoman territories in the Balkans, intercepted and killed the messenger carrying the instructions.
Abukir Bay is a thirty-kilometer-wide coastal indentation extending from the village of Abu Qir in the west to Rosetta in the east, where a mouth of the Nile River meets the Mediterranean. In 1798, the bay was protected on the west by long rocky banks that penetrated 4.8 km into the bay from a promontory on which the castle of Abukir was located. A fortress situated on an island between the rocks protected the rocky banks. A fortress located on an island among the rocks protected the rocky banks. The garrison of the fortification, equipped with at least four cannons and two heavy mortars, was manned by French soldiers. Brueys had reinforced the fortress with bomber ships and gunboats, anchored among the rocky shallows to the west of the island in an optimal position to support the head of the French line. Along the bay, more rocky shoals extended to the south of the island and formed a semicircle about 1510 meters from the shore. These rocky shoals were not deep enough to allow the large warships to pass, so Brueys ordered his thirteen ships of the line to form a line of battle following the northeastern edge of the shallows from the south of the island. This position allowed the ships to carry out the landing of supplies on the port side while covering the operation with their starboard batteries. Each ship was ordered to be joined at the stern and bow with strong cables to the nearest ships so as to create a long battery, a theoretically impenetrable barrier. In addition, Brueys placed a second line of four frigates approximately 320 yards west of the main line, practically midway between the main line and the bank. The Guerrier was the first of the line and was located 2200 meters southeast of Abukir Island and approximately 910 meters from the end of the shallows surrounding the island. The line extended southeastward and curved into the open sea at its center. The French ships were separated by 150-meter intervals and the entire line was 2610 meters long. The flagship, the L”Orient, was in the center of the line, accompanied fore and aft by two large ships equipped with eighty guns. Rear-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, aboard the Guillaume Tell, was in charge of the rear of the line.
By arranging his ships in this way, Brueys hoped that the British would be forced to attack his powerful center and rear, which would allow him to use the vanguard to counterattack using the northeast wind once the battle had begun. However, he made a major mistake: he had left enough space between the Guerrier and the rocky shoals for the enemy ships to pass through and trap the unsupported French vanguard between two fires. Moreover, the French only prepared the starboard side of their ships – which pointed seaward – for battle, as they expected the attack to come from that place, and left the other side unprepared, which compounded the mistake. The port guns were disabled and that side of the deck was full of piled-up items that made access to the guns difficult. Brueys” arrangement contained another major flaw: the 150 yards of space between each ship was wide enough for a British ship to pass through and break the French line. Also, not all French captains had complied with Brueys” orders to join by cables to the nearest ships, which would have prevented such a maneuver by the British. The situation was further worsened by an order requiring ships to anchor only by the bow, since the ships shifted because of the wind, which increased the distance between them. This also created unprotected areas along the French line. British ships could thus anchor in these spaces and attack the French without the French being able to offer any response. In addition, the deployment of Brueys” fleet prevented the second line of frigates from being able to support the leading edge of the main line, due to the prevailing wind direction.
An even more pressing problem for Brueys was the shortage of food and water for the fleet: Bonaparte had unloaded virtually all the ships” supplies and no more were coming in from the coast. Trying to solve this, Brueys sent groups of twenty-five men from each ship to go around requisitioning food, digging wells and getting hold of water. However, these groups needed the escort of armed guards to be able to repress the constant attacks they suffered from the Bedouins. Thus, a third of the fleet”s sailors were permanently ashore. Brueys wrote a letter to French Navy Minister Étienne Eustache Bruix, in which he described the situation: “Our crews are insufficient, both in number and quality. The rigging, in general, is in need of repairs, and I am sure it takes considerable courage to undertake the management of a fleet that is in such a condition.”
Arrival of Nelson
Although initially frustrated by the absence in Alexandria of the main French fleet, Nelson knew that the French fleet must be close by, as the transport ships were in the city. At 14:00 on 1 August, lookouts aboard HMS Zealous sighted the French ships anchored in Abukir Bay shortly before HMS Goliath also did so; the signal lieutenant of HMS Zealous reported the presence of sixteen French ships of the line, although, in reality, there were only thirteen. At the same time, lookouts on the Heureux, the ninth ship in the French line, discovered the British fleet approximately nine nautical miles away from the mouth of Abukir Bay. Initially, the French reported the presence of eleven British ships – both the Swiftsure and the Alexander had returned from their scouting operations at Alexandria, so they were 3 M – 5.6 km – west of the main fleet, out of sight. Troubridge”s ship, HMS Culloden, was also away from the main group, towing a merchant ship she had captured. Upon sighting the French, Troubridge abandoned his captured vessel and energetically tried to rejoin Nelson. Because of the need for so many sailors to work ashore to supply the squadron, Brueys had not deployed any of his warships to scout the area, which prevented him from reacting quickly to the sudden appearance of the British.
While the ships were preparing for action, Brueys ordered his captains to attend a conference on the L”Orient and hastened to call in the shore parties as well; most of these, however, did not arrive until the battle began. To replace them, a large number of men were mustered from the frigates and distributed among the sloops of the line. Brueys hoped to lure the British fleet onto the rocks at Abukir Island, for which he sent the schooners Alerte and Railleur, which were to act as decoys in the shallow waters. By 16:00, the Alexander and Swiftsure were already within the French field of vision, although still some distance from the main British fleet. Brueys ordered his line to leave, which contradicted the initial plan, which was to stay at anchor. Blanquet protested this decision on the grounds that there were not enough men to sail while others were busy manning the guns. Nelson, for his part, ordered the leading ship to slow down to create a more orderly formation. This fact convinced Brueys that the British were planning to wait until the next morning rather than risk fighting during the night in the narrow waters of the bay. Consequently, he rescinded his earlier order to sail. Brueys may have thought that the delay would allow him to outwit the British in the dark and thus follow the orders of Bonaparte, who had dictated that he avoid a direct confrontation with the British fleet if possible.
Nelson ordered his fleet to reduce speed to 16:00 so that the ships could place springs on the anchor cables; this was a system that increased stability and allowed the ships to turn more easily to aim their guns and engage their enemies even when at anchor, as well as making maneuvering easier and thus reducing the risk of being shot at. Nelson”s plan, which had emerged from the conversation with his captains during the voyage back to Alexandria, was to advance towards the French from the part nearest the sea and concentrate on attacking the vanguard and the center of the French line, so that each enemy ship would have to face two British ships and the great L”Orient would have to fight against three. The wind direction made it impossible for the French rearguard to easily join the fight and they were cut off from the front of the line. To ensure that none of his ships would open fire on another in the confusion of smoke and night, Nelson ordered each ship to place four horizontal lights on the end of her mizzen and hoist an illuminated white flag, which was different from the French tricolor flag, so they would not be confused despite the poor visibility. As his ship prepared for battle, Nelson hosted a final dinner with his officers on the Vanguard. At one point during this, he stood up and announced, “Tomorrow before this time, I will have earned the title of peer or a place in Westminster Abbey,” a reference to the reward for victory and the place where British military heroes were buried.
Shortly after the French order to weigh anchor was overruled, the British fleet began to approach rapidly. Brueys, thus convinced that he would eventually be attacked that night, ordered each of the ships to set up docks on anchor cables and prepare for action. He sent towards the enemy fleet the Alerte, which passed close to the first British ships and then tacked sharply to the west, skirting the shallows, in an attempt to get the enemy ships of the line to follow and be trapped. However, none of Nelson”s captains fell for the trap and the British fleet continued to advance undaunted. At 1730, Nelson ordered one of his two lead ships, Captain Samuel Hood”s HMS Zealous, which was vying for the honor of being the first to open fire on the French line with the Goliath, to explore the safest path inland from the harbor. The British had no information about the depth or width of the bay, except for a sketch chart obtained by the Swiftsure from a merchant captain, an inaccurate atlas found on the Zealous, and a French map produced thirty-five years earlier aboard the Goliath. Hood replied that he would sound as he went along to assess the depth of the water, adding, “If you will do me the honor of leading you into battle, I will hold my fire on the enemy.” Shortly thereafter, Nelson halted the march to converse with the commander of the schooner HMS Mutine, Lieutenant Thomas Hardy, who had captured some pilots from a small Alexandrian vessel. As the Vanguard stopped, so did the sloops following her; this caused a gap to open up between the Zealous, the Goliath, and the rest of the fleet. In order to counteract this setback, Nelson ordered HMS Theseus, commanded by Captain Ralph Miller, to overtake his flagship and join the two ships forming the vanguard. At 18:00, the British fleet was again advancing under full sail. At that time, Vanguard was sixth in a line of ten ships, Culloden was lagging farther north, and both Alexander and Swiftsure, still to the west, were hurrying to try to join the bulk of the squadron. After the rapid change from broad formation to rigid line of battle, both fleets unfurled their flags; each British ship added a flag of Great Britain – known as a Union Jack – to its flag on its rigging in case the main one suffered damage during the battle. At 18:20, as the Goliath and Zealous were rapidly rushing against them, the first French ships, the Guerrier and Conquérant, opened fire.
Beginning of the battle
Ten minutes after the French opened fire, the Goliath, disregarding the shots she was receiving from the fortification on the starboard side and those from the Guerrier on the port side, most of which were too high to reach the British ship, passed the tip of the French line. Captain Thomas Foley had detected, as she approached, the unexpected separation between the Guerrier and the shallows of the rocky area. Foley decided to take advantage of this tactical error and, on his own initiative, changed his angle of approach and slipped through the gap between the French line and the shallows. The moment the Guerrier”s bow came within range, the Goliath opened fire and inflicted significant damage with a double enfilade shot as the British sloop veered to port and also positioned herself on the port side of the opposing vessel, which was unprepared for combat. Foley”s Royal Marines and a company of Austrian grenadiers joined the attack, firing with their muskets. Foley had planned to anchor his ship close to the French ship and engage her at close range, but her anchor took a long time to drop and left the Guerrier behind. Finally, the Goliath stopped near the Conquérant”s bow; she then opened fire on the new opponent on the port side and, with the starboard guns-which she had not employed until then-exchanged some shots with the frigate Sérieuse and the bombard Hercule. These two ships were on the inside of the French line of battle.
Foley”s offensive was followed by Hood”s, aboard the Zealous, which also crossed the French line and managed to anchor close to the Guerrier, in the place previously planned by Foley, after which he began firing on the bow of the first French ship from close range. After this, he began firing at the bow of the first French ship from close range. After five minutes, the foremast of the Guerrier fell, which provoked cheers from the crews of the British ships. The rapidity with which the enemy fleet was advancing caught the French captains by surprise; they were still assembled on board the L”Orient when the firing began. Noticing the arrival of the first British ships, they hurried back to their vessels. The captain of the Guerrier, Jean-François-Timothée Trullet, shouted from his barge for his men to respond to the volleys coming from the Zealous as he tried to reach his ship.
The third British ship to enter the action was HMS Orion, under Captain James Saumarez. She rounded those then battling at the front of the line and maneuvered to position herself between the French main line and the frigates closer to shore. As she did so, the frigate Sérieuse opened fire on the Orion, wounding two men. The convention on naval warfare at the time stipulated that ships of the line should not attack frigates if there were ships of the same size to engage, but by opening fire, the French captain Claude-Jean Martin had invalidated this rule. Saumarez waited until the frigate was close to respond to the attack. The Orion needed only one volley from her batteries to shatter the frigate, and Martin”s battered craft was left adrift in the shallows. During the delay caused by this diversion, two more British ships had entered the fray: the Theseus, armed as a first-class ship, followed Foley”s path opposite the Guerrier”s bow. Miller steered his ship through the melee of anchored British and French vessels until he came upon the third opposing ship, the Spartiate. He anchored off her port side and fired at her from close range. HMS Audacious, commanded by Captain Davidge Gould, crossed the French line through the gap between the Guerrier and the Conquerant and anchored between the two ships to unload enfilade shots at both. The Orion then rejoined the action farther south than she had intended. She attacked the fifth French ship, the Peuple Souverain, and Admiral Blanquet”s flagship, the Franklin.
The next three British ships, with Vanguard in the lead followed by HMS Minotaur and HMS Defence, remained in line of battle and anchored to starboard of the French line at 18:40. Nelson concentrated his flagship”s fire on Spartiate, while Captain Thomas Louis, aboard Minotaur, attacked Aquilon, which had not participated in the battle up to that point, and Defence Captain John Peyton joined the attack against Peuple Souverain. As the French vanguard was already vastly outnumbered, the next British ships, HMS Bellerophon and HMS Majestic, avoided the ships engaged at the front of the line and advanced towards the still intact French center. Soon after, both ships began to battle with enemies far more powerful than themselves and suffered terrible damage. The captain of the Bellerophon, Henry Darby, was unable to anchor the ship in the intended place, near the Franklin, and his vessel came under the main battery of the flagship of the enemy squadron. The captain aboard the Majestic, George Blagdon Wetcott, suffered a similar fate and almost collided with the Heureux; after this incident, he received numerous shots from the HMS Tonnant. Unable to stop in time, the jib of Westcott”s ship and the shroud of the Tonnant became entangled.
The French also suffered. Admiral Brueys, aboard the L”Orient, received serious wounds to his face and hand during the first exchanges of fire with the Bellarophon from shrapnel. The last ship of the British line, the Culloden, commanded by Troubridge, came very close to the island of Abukir and was trapped on the rocks in the darkness. Despite the constant efforts of the Culloden”s boats, the schooner Mutine and HMS Leander, commanded by Captain Thomas Thompson, the ship was unable to break free and the waves pushed it further inland, causing significant damage to the ship”s hull.
Surrender of the French avant-garde
At 19:00, the British proceeded to light the identification lamps on the ships” mizzen masts. The Guerrier was already dismasted and practically destroyed, the target of the various enemy ships as they approached the French line. The Zealous, on the other hand, was hardly damaged: Hood had placed the ship out of range of the guns on both sides of the opposing ship and, in any case, the Guerrier was not prepared to fight simultaneously on both sides, as her port guns were blocked by the cargo stored on that side of the ship. Despite the condition their ship was in, the Guerrier”s crew refused to surrender and continued to fire the few guns still functional despite the Zealous”s forceful response. In addition to the cannon fire, Hood ordered his Marines to employ their muskets and fire salvoes aimed at the deck of the French ship. However, this only caused the enemy crew to take cover, but the British could not get them to surrender. The Conquérant offered less resistance and surrendered earlier, after receiving several volleys from British ships passing close to her position and the demolition of her three masts before 19:00, as a result of attacks by the Audacious and the Goliath. Captain Etienne Dalbarade, in view of the appalling condition of his vessel and mortally wounded, had his ship”s flag lowered and a boarding party then seized the ship. Unlike the Zealous, the other two British ships that had fought the Conquérant suffered significant damage in the engagement. The Goliath lost most of her rigging, suffered more than sixty casualties and her three masts were damaged. Captain Gould, aboard the Audacious, having defeated his rivals, took advantage of a dock on the cable to set fire to the Spartiate, the next French ship in line. To the west, the battered Sérieuse sank near the shallows. The survivors of the wreck jumped into boats and rowed to shore; the masts of the sloop were left protruding above the shallow water.
Captain Maxime Julien Émeriau was now facing four enemy ships -Theseus, Vanguard, Minotaur and Audacious-, after the Audacious diverted her batteries towards the Spartiate. Within minutes, all three masts of the French ship had fallen, but the battle continued around the Spartiate until 21:00, at which time Emeriau, badly wounded, ordered the flag to be lowered. Despite being outnumbered, the Spartiate had received help from the next ship in line, the Aquilon, the only one of the French vanguard that was facing only one opponent, the Minotaur. Captain Antoine René Thévenard used a spring in the anchor rope to get his ship into the proper position to launch a volley against the bow of Nelson”s flagship, whose crew suffered a hundred casualties, including the admiral. At about 20:30, a splinter of shrapnel from the Spartiate struck Nelson”s forehead, whose right eye was already damaged. The splinter caused a small tear in his skin that blinded him for a few moments. The admiral fell into the arms of Captain Edward Berry, who carried him inside the ship. Nelson, certain that the wound was serious, shouted, “I have been killed, give my regards to my wife for me,” and called his chaplain, Stephen Comyn. The Vanguard”s surgeon, Michael Jefferson, immediately analyzed the wound and informed the admiral that it was a simple tear and sutured the wound. Nelson then disobeyed Jefferson”s orders to remain at rest and returned to the deck shortly before the L”Orient exploded to supervise the final stages of the battle. Although Thévenard”s maneuver had proved successful, he placed his own bow within range of the Minotaur”s guns; consequently, by 21:25, the French ship was already dismasted and destroyed and the officers were forced to surrender after the death of Captain Thévenard. Having defeated his enemy, the Minotaur”s captain, Thomas Louis, set course south to join the attack against the Franklin.
To the south, HMS Bellerophon was in distress from the intense fire to which she was being subjected by the L”Orient. At 19:50, both the mainmast and mizzen collapsed and several fires broke out simultaneously at various points on the ship. Although the flames were quickly extinguished, the ship”s crew suffered more than two hundred casualties. Captain Dairby realized that his position was untenable and ordered the anchor cables to be cut at 20:20. The battered ship sailed away from the battle amid continuous gunfire from the Tonnant; finally, her foremast also collapsed. The L”Orient had suffered heavy damage and Admiral Brueys had been hit by a cannonball in the belly that nearly split him in half. He died a quarter of an hour later, having refused to go down to the cabins. The captain of the L”Orient, Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca, suffered wounds to his face, caused by several flying splinters, and fell unconscious. At the same time, his twelve-year-old son lost a leg after being hit by a bullet while standing next to his father. The southernmost British ship, the Majestic, had briefly engaged the Tonnant and, in the ensuing engagement, suffered heavy casualties. Captain George Blagdon Westcott was among those killed by musket fire. Lieutenant Robert Cuthbert took command of the vessel and managed to withdraw, allowing the badly damaged Majestic to be swept south. Thus, at 20:30, she was between the Tonnant and the next ship in the French line, the Heureux, battling against both. To lend support to the center, the Leander”s captain, Thompson, gave up his attempts to disentangle the Culloden from the rocks and headed for the French line. On her approach, she took advantage of the space left by the Peuple Souverain after her departure and tried to inflict damage on the Franklin and the L”Orient by intense enfilading shots.
As the battle raged in the bay, the two straggling British ships vigorously attempted to intervene in the engagement, guided by flashes of gunfire. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, aboard the Swiftsure, was able to avoid the shallows of Abukir after spotting the aground Culloden and, after flanking the melee of ships battling in the vanguard of the French line, headed for the French center. Shortly after 20:00, the crew spotted a dismasted hulk making a turn ahead of the Swiftsure and, at first, Hallowell ordered his men to fire on her. However, he rescinded the order when he learned the identity of the strange vessel. Attempting to communicate with the battered ship, Hallowell had received the following reply: “Bellerophon, moving away from the action, unserviceable.” Hallowell was relieved that he had not accidentally attacked one of his own ships in the dark, and then positioned himself between the L”Orient and the Franklin and opened fire on both. The Alexander was the last of the British ships to take part in the action, as it had followed the Swiftsure. The vessel approached the Tonnant, which had begun to pull away from the French flagship. Captain Alexander Ball then joined the attack against L”Orient.
Destruction of L”Orient
At 21:00, the British noticed that there was fire on the lower decks of the L”Orient. Captain Hallowell, knowing the damage the fire could cause to the French flagship, ordered the gunners to fire directly at the place where the fire was. The constant British gunfire spread the flames along the entire stern of the ship and made any attempt to smother it impossible. A few minutes later, the flames rose through the rigging and the sails began to burn. The British ships closest to the burning ship, the Swiftsure, the Alexander and the Orion, stopped firing, closed their doors and began to move away from the L”Orient, so as not to be harmed by the imminent explosion of the ammunition stored aboard the French ship. They also withdrew their crews from the guns to form groups to soak the sails and decks of their own ships with seawater to prevent them from catching fire. Similarly, the French ships Tonnant, Hereux and Mercure cut the anchor cables and allowed themselves to be dragged south to get away from the burning ship. The fire reached the magazines and the L”Orient was practically destroyed by a huge explosion. The shockwave was powerful enough to tear the seams of the nearest ships, while pieces of the hull were thrown even over the surrounding vessels. the Swiftsure, the Alexander and the Franklin were set ablaze by the falling wreck, but in all cases the crew was able to smother the respective fires with buckets of water, although a second explosion was caused on the Franklin.
It has never been possible to determine with certainty how the fire broke out on the L”Orient, but one of the most widely accepted versions is that jars full of oil and paint had been left on the deck, instead of being properly stored once the painting of the ship”s hull was completed shortly before the start of the battle. It is believed that a burning wadding from one of the British ships must have fallen on deck and, after coming into contact with the paint, it began to burn. The flames had then spread rapidly through the admiral”s cabin and had reached a powder magazine in which ammunition designed to burn more intensely in water than in air was stored. The captain of the fleet, Honoré Ganteaume, on the other hand, stated that the cause of the fire was an explosion on the quarterdeck, following a series of smaller fires in the boats on the main deck. Whatever the origin, the fire spread rapidly through the ship”s rigging, without the fire bombs, previously destroyed by the British, being able to stop it. A second fire then broke out in the bow. This trapped hundreds of sailors in the center of the deck. Archaeological investigations carried out later discovered remains of the ship scattered more than five hundred meters away and showed that the wreck of the ship had been caused by two consecutive explosions. Hundreds of men threw themselves into the sea to escape the flames, but only a hundred survived. British boats rescued about seventy survivors, including officer Léonard-Bernard Motard. A few others, including Ganteaume, managed to reach shore on rafts. The rest of the crew – more than a thousand people – perished, including Captain Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca and his twelve-year-old son.
For ten minutes after the explosion, no shots were exchanged; the sailors on both sides were either too stunned by the din or trying to smother the fires in their own boats to continue fighting. Nelson ordered the boats to be released so that the survivors in the water and near the wreckage of the L”Orient could take advantage of the pause to get out of the water. At 22:10, the Franklin resumed the engagement and fired on the Swiftsure. The ship commanded by Blanquet, which was isolated and in poor condition, was dismasted and the admiral, who had suffered a severe head wound, was forced to surrender, harassed by both the Swiftsure and the Defence. Of the Franklin”s crew, more than half were killed or wounded.
At 24:00, the Tonnant was the only French sloop still in action, as Commodore Aristide Aubert Du Petit Thouars was still battling the Majestic, and when the Swiftsure passed close enough, he fired at her. At three o”clock in the morning, after more than three hours of close combat, the Majestic was without her mainmast and mizzenmast, while of the Tonnant only a dismasted hull remained. Despite having lost both legs and an arm, Captain Du Petit Thouars remained in command of the ship and insisted on nailing the tricolor to the mast in order to prevent it from being lowered. In addition, he continued to give orders from his position, leaning on a wheat bucket. Under his direction, the battered Tonnant managed to move away from the fighting and slowly move south, where she joined the division commanded by Villeneuve, which had not participated effectively in the fighting. Throughout the engagement, the rearguard had confined itself to arbitrarily and constantly firing at the ships engaged in the fight in front of it. The only notable effect of this action, however, was the destruction of the Timoléon”s rudder by a deflected cannon shot from nearby Généreux.
Last bouts: August 2 and 3
With sunrise at 4:00 on August 2, the French southern division – consisting of the Guillaume Tell, Tonnant, Généreux and Timoléon – and the battered Alexander and Majestic again exchanged fire. Despite being briefly outnumbered, the British ships soon received assistance, as the Goliath and Theseus soon arrived on the scene. As Captain Miller maneuvered to get his ship into position, the Theseus came under fire from the frigate Artémise. Miller turned his ship toward the Artémise, but Captain Pierre-Jean Standelet lowered his flag and ordered his men to abandon the frigate. Miller sent a boat under Lieutenant William Hoste to take over the empty vessel; however, Standelet had ordered his own frigate burned and it exploded shortly thereafter. At 6 a.m., the remaining French ships-of-the-line tried to move away from the coast to the east, firing continuously to cover their retreat. The Zealous pursued them and prevented the frigate Justice from being able to board the Bellerophon, which was anchored south of the bay, receiving hasty repairs.
There were still two French ships with the tricolor flag flying, but neither was in the optimum position to withdraw or attack. By the time the cables linking the Heureux and the Mercure to the line had been cut to escape the explosion of the L”Orient, the crews of both ships had panicked and neither captain – both were wounded – had managed to restore order, and consequently both were stranded in the shallows. Consequently, both were stranded in the shallows. The Alexander, the Goliath, the Theseus and the Leander attacked the stranded ships, which were helpless, and both surrendered within minutes. However, the distraction caused by the Heureux, the Mercure and the Justice made it possible for Villeneuve to lead most of the seaworthy French sloops to the mouth of the bay, where they arrived at 11:00. On board the dismasted Tonnant, Commodore Du Petit Thouars died of his multiple wounds and was thrown overboard, as he had requested. The crew intentionally ran the ship aground, as it could not reach the speed necessary to escape. The Timoléon was too far from Villeneuve to escape with him and, in an attempt to join the surviving ships, ran aground on the shore. The force of the impact tore the foremast from the hull. The remaining ships – the ships of the line Guillaume Tell and Généraux and the frigates Justice and Diane – formed up and sailed out into the open sea, pursued by the Zealous. Despite their best efforts, Captain Hood”s ship, which was far from any other friendly vessel, was heavily shot at and was unable to intercept the Justice, whose crew escaped into the open sea. In the pursuit, the Zealous was hit by French gunfire and lost one of her men.
During the remainder of August 2, improvised repairs were carried out on Nelson”s ships. Also, dams made in the fighting were secured. The Culloden, in particular, needed assistance. Troubridge, who had finally managed to disentangle his ship from the rocks at two o”clock in the morning, found that he had lost his rudder and that more than 120 long tons-122 short tons-of water per hour was entering the ship. The repairs necessary to fix the ship”s hull and the fashioning of a new rudder from a spare mainmast took them the next two days. On the morning of August 3, Nelson sent the Theseus and the Leander to force the surrender of the Tonnant and the Timoléon, which remained aground. The Tonnant, with about sixteen hundred survivors from other ships on deck, surrendered at the approach of the British ships, while the crew of the Timoléon set fire to her and then escaped to shore in small boats. The ship was blown up after noon, the eleventh French ship-of-the-line destroyed or captured during the battle.
British losses in the battle were recorded fairly accurately in the immediate aftermath and were 218 killed and approximately 677 wounded, although the number of wounded who died of their injuries later is unknown. The ships that suffered most were the Bellerophon, with 201 casualties, and the Majestic, with 193. On the other hand, of both the Culloden and the Zealous crews only one person died and seven were wounded.
The casualty list included Captain Westcott, five lieutenants and ten junior officers among the dead, and Admiral Nelson, Captains Saumarez, Ball and Darby and six lieutenants among the wounded. Besides the Culloden, the only British ships whose hulls were severely damaged were the Bellerophon, the Majestic and the Vanguard. Among these, the Bellerophon and the Majestic were the only ships to lose their masts: the Majestic lost the main and mizzen masts, while the Bellerophon lost all three.
It is more difficult to estimate French casualties, but they were significantly higher. Estimates of French losses range from two thousand to five thousand, with a suggested midpoint of three thousand five hundred, including more than one thousand captured wounded and nearly two thousand killed, half of whom perished on the L”Orient. In addition to Admiral Brueys” death and Admiral Blanquet”s injuries, four captains were killed and seven others were seriously wounded. The French ships suffered major damage: two ships of the line and two frigates were destroyed – as was a bombard sunk by their crews – and three other ships that were captured were too badly damaged to sail again. Of the remaining prey, only three vessels could be repaired and serve again. For weeks, the shores were dotted with corpses washed up on the waves, slowly rotting from the intense heat and dryness of the weather.
Nelson, who said that “Victory was not a strong enough name for such a scene” while surveying the bay on the morning of August 2, stayed in Abukir for the next two weeks, preoccupied with recovering from his wound, writing reports and assessing the military situation in Egypt by using documents found aboard one of the captured ships. The wound Nelson suffered in the head was recorded as a wound “three inches long” with “the skull exposed to within an inch”. This wound caused him pain for the rest of his life and left him with a large scar, so he combed his hair so that he could hide it as much as possible. While the commander recovered, his men recovered material from the now useless ships and repaired his ships and those obtained in the battle.
Throughout the week, Bedouin tribesmen surrounded Abukir Bay with bonfires in celebration of the British victory. On August 5, the Leander, carrying messages for the Earl of St. Vincent, sailed for Cadiz under the command of Captain Edward Berry. Over the next few days, the British landed all but two hundred of the captured prisoners ashore under strict “parole” conditions, although Bonaparte later ordered them to form an infantry unit and added them to the army. The British kept the wounded officers taken as French prisoners aboard the Vanguard, where Nelson routinely accompanied them to dinner. Historian Joseph Allen relates that on one occasion, Nelson, whose eyesight was still weak from his wound, offered toothpicks to an officer who had lost his teeth and then handed a snuff box to another officer whose nose had been pulled off, causing an embarrassing situation. On August 8 boats of the fleet stormed the island of Abukir, which surrendered without resistance. The group that landed on the island removed four of the guns and destroyed the rest along with the fortress in which they were located. It also renamed the island “Nelson”s Island”.
The first message to reach Bonaparte about the disaster his fleet had suffered came on August 14 at his camp on the road between Salahieh and Cairo. The messenger was an officer sent by the governor of Alexandria, General Jean Baptiste Kléber, and the report had been hastily written by Admiral Ganteaume. The latter had rejoined Villeneuve”s ships at sea later. One account tells that when Bonaparte received the message, he read it without emotion before calling the messenger and asking for more details. When the messenger had finished, the French general announced, supposedly, “We no longer have a fleet; well, we must stay in this territory or leave it with grandeur just as the ancients did.” Another version, as told by General Bourrienne”s secretary, states that the news shocked Bonaparte, who exclaimed, “Wretched Brueys, what have you done!” Later, Bonaparte mostly blamed the defeat on the wounded Admiral Blanquet, falsely accusing him of having surrendered his ship, the Franklin, undamaged. Subsequent complaints from Ganteaume and Minister Étienee Eustache Bruix reduced the degree of criticism Blanquet faced; however, Blanquet never served again as commander. Bonaparte”s more immediate concern, however, was directly related to his officers, who began to question the wisdom of the expedition. Bonaparte invited the senior officers to dinner and asked them how they were doing. When they replied that they were “marvelous,” Napoleon replied that this was fine, as he would shoot them if they continued to “foment mutiny and encourage rebellion.” In order to prevent any uprising on the part of the Egyptians, those found talking about the battle were threatened with having their tongues cut out.
Nelson”s first set of despatches was captured following the interception and subsequent defeat of the Leander by the Généraux in a fierce confrontation off the coast of Crete on 18 August 1798. Consequently, reports of the battle did not reach Britain until Capel did so on the Mutine on 2 October. He entered the Admiralty at 11:15 and communicated the news in person to Lord Spencer, who collapsed when he heard the report. Although Nelson had been criticized in the press when he had failed to intercept the French fleet, rumors concerning the battle had begun to reach Britain from the Continent in late September. Consequently, news of Capel was greeted with celebrations throughout the country. Four days later, Nelson was awarded the title of Baron of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe. However, this did not satisfy Nelson, who personally felt that his actions deserved a better reward. King George III addressed the Houses of Parliament on November 20 with the following words:
The innumerable examples of our naval triumphs have received new splendor from a decisive and memorable action in which a portion of my fleet, under the command of Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson, attacked, and practically destroyed, a superior force of the enemy, reinforced by every possible advantage of the situation. Thanks to this great victory, certain designs whose injustice, perfidy, and extravagance had engaged the attention of the world, and which were particularly inimical to some of the most valuable interests of the British Empire, have, to the confusion of their authors, been overturned, and the consequent blow to the power and influence of France has opened a breach which, widened by proper efforts on the part of other powers, may lead to the liberation of Europe.
Saumarez”s convoy, which transported the French ships that had been taken by the British after the victory, stopped first in Malta, where he assisted a rebellion of the Maltese population. Then he sailed to Gibraltar, where he arrived on October 18. There he was greeted by the cheers of the garrison. Saumarez wrote that “we will never be able to do justice to the warmth of their ovations nor to the praise they offered to our squadron”. On October 23, after transferring the wounded to the military hospital and provisioning with basic supplies, the convoy departed for Lisbon, leaving the Bellerophon and the Majestic to undergo more extensive repairs. The Peuple Souverain also remained at Gibraltar; the ship was too damaged to make the Atlantic crossing to Britain, so she was converted to a guard ship, under the name HMS Guerrier. The rest of the ships taken underwent basic repairs and then sailed for Britain. However, they did not go directly there: before, they spent several months in the Tagus River, where they joined the merchant convoy coming from Portugal in June 1799, under the escort of a squadron commanded by Admiral Sir Alan Gardner. Finally, they arrived at Plymouth. Both their age and condition meant that neither the Conquerant nor the Aquilon could be considered fit for service in the Royal Navy, so both were withdrawn, although they had been purchased for £20,000 under the names HMS Conquerant and HMS Aboukir in order to give a financial reward to the crews that had captured them. Similar sums were also paid for the Guerrier, Mercure, Heureux and Peuple Souverain, while the other captured vessels were considerably more valuable. Made of Adriatic oak, the Tonnant had been built in 1792 and both the Franklin and Spartiate were less than a year old. The Tonnant and Spartiate, which would later take part in the Battle of Trafalgar, joined the Royal Navy under their old names, while the Franklin, considered “the finest two-decked ship in the world,” The total value of the ships captured at the Nile and consequently included in the Royal Navy is estimated at just over one hundred and thirty thousand pounds sterling.
Additional prizes were awarded to the British fleet: the British Parliament rewarded Nelson with two thousand pounds while the Irish Parliament graced him with one thousand pounds until its dissolution as a consequence of the signing of the Act of Union of 1800. Both parliaments unanimously thanked him for the victory and each captain participating in the battle received a gold medal specially minted for the occasion and the first lieutenant of each ship was promoted to the position of commander. Troubridge and his men, initially excluded from the rewards because their ship, the Culloden, had not participated directly in the engagement, finally obtained the same awards after Nelson interceded on their behalf. The British East India Company awarded Nelson ten thousand pounds in recognition of the benefit his action had on their holdings. The cities of London and Liverpool and other municipal and corporate bodies conferred similar awards on him. Nelson”s own captains presented him with a sword and portrait as “tokens of their appreciation.” Nelson encouraged this close relationship with his officers and on September 29, 1798, he described the ensemble using the words of William Shakespeare”s Henry V: “The memory of our little army, of our happy little army, of our band of brothers.” From this event, Nelson”s Band of Brothers was born, a cadre of high quality naval officers who served alongside Nelson for the rest of his life. Nearly five decades after the battle, it was recognized, among other actions, with a pin added to the Naval General Service Medal, awarded to all British participants in the battle who were still living in 1847.
The victors also received rewards from other states, mainly from the Ottoman Empire. Emperor Selim III awarded Nelson the title of Knight Commander of the newly created Order of the Crescent Moon and also presented him with a chelengk, a rose studded with diamonds, a sable skin and other valuables. Tsar Paul I of Russia sent him, along with other prizes, a gold chest encrusted with diamonds. On his return to Naples, King Ferdinand IV and Sir William Hamilton received him with a triumphal procession. On the same day, he was presented to Sir William”s wife Emma, Lady Hamilton, for the third time, and she fainted violently at the meeting. Apparently, it took him several weeks to recover from his injuries. The Neapolitan court praised him as a hero. In Nelson”s own words, “They were mad with joy.” Nelson would later become involved in Neapolitan politics and become Duke of Bronté, actions that cost him recriminations from his superiors and dented his reputation. British General John Moore, who met Nelson on this visit to Naples, described him. According to him, “covered with stars, medals and ribbons, he looked more like a prince of the opera than the victor of the Nile”.
Rumors of a battle began to spread through the French press as early as August 7, but the first credible reports did not arrive until the 26th of the month, and even these claimed that Nelson was dead and Bonaparte had been imprisoned by the British. As the news began to be confirmed, the press in France insisted that the defeat was the result of both overwhelming British numerical superiority and the activity of unspecified “traitors.” The existing anti-government newspapers in France attributed the defeat to both overwhelming British numerical superiority and the alleged philomonarchist sentiments in the Navy. Existing anti-government newspapers in France attributed the defeat to the incompetence of the French Directory and to alleged philomonarchical sentiments in the Navy. Villeneuve received scathing criticism upon his arrival in France because of his ineffectiveness in supporting Brueys during the battle. In his defense, he claimed that the wind had blown against him and that Brueys had not ordered him to counterattack the British fleet. Several years later, Bonaparte commented in writing that if the French Navy had adopted the same tactical principles as the British:
The British press, on the other hand, was jubilant; many newspapers tried to portray the battle as a victory for Britain over anarchy, and the success was used to attack politicians Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Whigs with alleged republican sympathies.
There has been extensive historiographical debate about the difference between the strengths of the two fleets, even though they were ostensibly equal in size, with thirteen ships of the line each. However, the loss of the Culloden, the relative size of the L”Orient and the Leander, and the participation in the action of two of the French frigates and several smaller vessels, as well as the theoretical advantage of the French position, leads most historians to the conclusion that the French were slightly more powerful. The fact that the number of guns on several French sloops-Spartiate, Franklin, L”Orient, Tonnant, and Guillaume Tell-was notably greater than that of any British ship that took part in the battle accentuated that difference. However, the inadequate deployment of the French ships, their reduced crews, and the failure of Villeneuve”s rear division, which failed to take a prominent part in the action, led to the French defeat.
The Battle of the Nile has been called “possibly the most decisive naval engagement of the golden age of shipping” and “the most splendid and glorious success of the British Navy”. Historian and novelist Cecil Scott Forester, writing in 1929, compared the Battle of the Nile with the great naval confrontations of history and concluded that “its only rival as an example of the annihilation of one fleet at the hands of another with practically equal material forces is that of Tsu-Shima”. The effect on the strategic situation in the Mediterranean was immediate, as it turned it completely upside down and gave the British control of the sea, which lasted for the rest of the war. The destruction of the French Mediterranean fleet allowed the Royal Navy to regain hegemony at sea by running blockades of French ports and those of its allies. In particular, British ships cut off Malta from France, a fact that was favored by the rebellion that arose among the Maltese natives and forced the French to retreat to Valletta and close the walls. The ensuing siege of Malta lasted for two years until the fortress was surrendered by starvation. In 1799, British ships harassed Bonaparte”s army, which was heading north through Palestine. The fleet also played a crucial role in Bonaparte”s defeat at the siege of Acre, capturing the barges carrying the equipment needed to carry out the siege and bombarding the French assault forces from British ships anchored off the square. In one of the latter engagements, Captain Miller of the Theseus was killed in an ammunition explosion. The defeat at Acre forced Bonaparte to retreat to Egypt and abandon his plans to form an empire in the Middle East. The French general left Kleber in command of Egypt and returned to France later that year.
The Ottomans, with whom Bonaparte had planned to establish an alliance once his control of Egypt was complete, were encouraged to go to war against France after the latter”s defeat at the Battle of the Nile. This led to a series of campaigns that gradually weakened the French army trapped in Egypt. The British victory also favored the declaration of war by the Austrian and Russian empires, which were gathering their armies as part of the Second Coalition, which took place in 1799. With the Mediterranean undefended, a Russian fleet entered the Ionian Sea, while Austrian armies regained most of the territories they had lost to Bonaparte in the previous war. Without their best general and also without their veterans, the French suffered a series of defeats and France did not regain its dominance over continental Europe until Bonaparte”s return and his accession to the post of first consul. In 1801, a British expeditionary force defeated the part of the French army remaining in Egypt, which was badly demoralized. The Royal Navy used its dominion over the Mediterranean to invade Egypt; this allowed it to carry out the operation without fear of ambush while its fleets anchored off the Egyptian coast.
Despite the overwhelming British victory in the battle, the campaign has sometimes been considered a strategic success for France. Historian Edward Ingram noted that had Nelson intercepted Bonaparte at sea as ordered, the ensuing battle could have annihilated both the French fleet and its transports. As it turned out, Bonaparte was able to continue the war in the Middle East and later return to Europe personally unscathed. The importance of the army officers who sailed in the convoy and who later formed the core of generals and marshals under Napoleon”s command as emperor underlines the significance that such a confrontation could have had on the course of history. In addition to Bonaparte himself, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Auguste Marmont, Jean Lannes, Joachim Murat, Louis Desaix, Jean Reynier, Antoine-François Andréossy, Jean-Andoche Junot, Louis-Nicolas Davout and Dumas participated in the crossing of the Mediterranean.
Although Nelson biographer Ernle Bradford assumed in 1977 that the wreck of the L”Orient “is almost certainly irretrievable,” the first archaeological investigation of the battle began in 1983, when a team of French researchers led by Jacques Dumas discovered the wreck of the French flagship. Franck Goddio took over the work in 1998, leading a larger project to explore the bay. In addition to military and nautical equipment, Goddio recovered a large number of gold and silver coins from various countries around the Mediterranean Sea, some of which dated back to the 17th century. It is possible that these were part of the treasure that had been taken from Malta and lost due to the explosion of the L”Orient. In 2000, Italian archaeologist Paolo Gallo led an excavation focused on the ancient ruins of Nelson”s Island, which revealed several tombs dating from the battle, as well as others from the 1801 invasion. The remains found in these graves, including those of a woman and three children, were transferred in 2005 to a cemetery in Shatby, Alexandria. The ceremony was attended by sailors from the frigate HMS Chatham and an Egyptian Navy band, as well as a descendant of the only identified burial, Commander James Russell.