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THE BATTLE OF THE NILE

The Battle of the Nile, also known as the Battle of Abukir Bay, was a naval sea battle fought between 1st and 2nd August 1798, between the Royal Navy and the navy of the French Republic in the bay of Abukir, at the mouth of the River Nile.


The Battle of the Nile
The Battle of the Nile

It features in my first book 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling' when Tom Palmer, Amy's friend, is sent from the Foundling Hospital to serve in the Royal Navy on HMS Bellerophon. Within a month, he finds himself, at aged 14, at his first battle, and in the thick of the action where his role of a powder monkey sees him having to deliver gun powder from the magazine room to the gun crews. He later writes Amy a letter where he relates the details of the battle, the fate of HMS Bellerophon, and its high casualty rate.

In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte's French Republic army had defeated all the major European powers, apart from Britain who was still at war with France. At this stage, Napoleon was still a general in the army and not First Consul, or even the emperor he would later become.

The Royal Navy was dominant in all areas apart from the Mediterranean, so Napoleon came up with a plan to occupy Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, and then disrupt the lucrative trade routes between Britain and India.


Napoleon in the 1790's
Napoleon in the 1790's

The French Directory approved of his plans, and in early 1798 he assembled 35,000 soldiers and a large fleet at Toulon, which he sailed into the Mediterranean in May. He stopped at Malta where the French occupied the island and deposed the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers, which had controlled the island since the time of the Crusades.

The French fleet then departed for Alexandria, leaving Malta garrisoned by 4000 troops, but by this time the Royal Navy had heard about Napoleon's movements in the Mediterranean, and they sent a fleet of six ships under the command on Admiral Horatio Nelson. They then encountered a fierce storm, and the fleet was scattered and Nelson's flagship HMS Vanguard was wrecked off the coast of Corsica.


Admiral Nelson in 1800
Admiral Nelson in 1800

Nelson was a highly experienced commander who had been serving in the Royal Navy since the age of 12, where he quickly rose through the ranks and commanded his own vessel by the age of 20. He had seen action in numerous battles, losing an arm and and eye in the process, and he was known for his inspirational leadership, brilliant strategy, and unconventional tactics.

HMS Vanguard was repaired, and Nelson was joined by a fleet ten ships under Captain Troubridge, but he still didn't know the final destination of Napoleon's fleet, as he had kept it secret. The British fleet stopped at Naples where the ambassador Sir William Hamilton informed him that the French had left Malta and had been spotted heading south. Nelson and his captains then realised that Napoleon was heading for Alexandria and asked the help of King Ferdinand of Naples to reinforce his fleet, but he refused.

Nelson reached Alexandria on 28th June, where he found that the French fleet had already left, so Nelson headed north, but French scout frigates had spotted him and Napoleon ordered the fleet back, where the army disembarked, and Alexandria was stormed and captured. He then ordered Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys, the commander of the French fleet, to anchor in Abukir Bay.


The British and the French fleet facing each other in Abukir Bay
The British and the French fleet facing each other in Abukir Bay

At 14:00 on 1st August, HMS Zealous spotted the 13 ships of the French fleet and signalled the message to Nelson. Brueys was at a disadvantage from the start as the bay at Abukir was open and unprotected apart from rocky shoals in the entrance, and a fort on Abukir Island which was garrisoned by the French.

When Napoleon had landed his army at Alexandria he had taken most of the food, supplies, and fresh water, forcing Brueys to send large numbers of men ashore to forage for food and dig wells for water, which left his fleet undermanned by a third. He had also prepared the guns of his ships to only fire from the starboard sea facing side, with the port side gun doors closed and covered by supplies, which left the port facing side vulnerable if attacked from behind. He also left a 160 yard gap between his ships, which would easily allow British ships to pass and be able to attack from behind the French line. Brueys was conferring with his captains on his flagship Orient when the British fleet was sighted and bearing down fast.


The French line of ships with Abukir fort on the far left
The French line of ships with Abukir fort on the far left

At 18:00 both fleets raised their colours, and as HMS Goliath and Zealous neared the French line, Guerrier and Conquérant opened fire first but caused no damage, as HMS Goliath returned fire with a full broadside which caused severe damage to Guerrier, until Goliath stopped near Conquérant and opened fire on both sides, engaging with both Conquérant and the nearby Serieuse. Then HMS Orion arrived and sailed behind the French line as Serieuse opened fire, but Orion under Captain Saumarez, a native of Guernsey, needed just one broadside to completely destroy Serieuse. HMS Theseus, Audacious, Minotaur, Defence, and Bellerophon, then engaged with Spartiate, Peuple Souveraine, and Franklin, leaving the French line now heavily outnumbered.

Tom Palmer's ship, HMS Bellerophon, was supposed to engage with Franklin but went too far and came under heavy fire from the Orient, causing severe damage and the loss of all three masts. By this time all of the British line was in place and, apart from Bellerophon, had taken little damage, but the French front line had been severely mauled and many ships were now out of action.

The Spartiate opened fire on Nelson's flagship HMS Vanguard, and at 20:30 he sustained a serous injury above his blind right eye, causing him to be carried below deck to be treated, but the wound was then successfully stitched up and Nelson returned to the quarterdeck.

The Orient then suffered sever damage and Brueys was killed when he was ripped in half by a cannonball, then at 21:00 fire was spotted on the lower decks of Orient, and Captain Hallowell of HMS Swiftsure opened up a full broadside into the flames causing the fire to spread. Seeing that its explosion was imminent, both nearby British and French ships closed their gun doors and headed away as Orient exploded in a blast that was so powerful that it ripped the seams of the nearest ships and caused fires and damage on several ships further away. Out of a crew of over a 1000, only 100 survived from Orient.


 Orient exploding
Orient exploding

By 22:00, the only French ships left fighting were Franklin and Tonnant, and exchanges of fire carried on until the sun rose at 04:00 on 2nd August. Now there were only four French rear line ships left, and they managed to escape the bay and sail out to sea, as Nelson ordered his damaged ships to be repaired, before sending HMS Theseus to track down the remaining French ships that had escaped. All four had been grounded, with some men escaping onto the land and the rest surrendering.

HMS Bellerophon sustained the heaviest casualties with 201 killed or wounded. Tom Palmer manages to survive, and he vividly relates the battle to Amy in a letter he sends after the badly damaged ship reaches Gibraltar to be repaired.

Without a Mediterranean fleet, Napoleon's plans for the Middle East were abandoned. He managed to defeat the Egyptian army and occupy Egypt, but his idea of subduing and controlling the Ottoman Empire came to nothing, and Britain's trade route with India was kept intact.

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