1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nile, Battle of the

NILE, BATTLE OF THE. This was fought between the British and French fleets on the 1st of August 1798 in the roadstead of Aboukir. The peace of Campo Formio, signed on the 17th of October 1797, had left France without an opponent in arms on the continent. War with Great Britain still continued, and for a time the Directory appeared to be intent on its schemes for an invasion of Ireland. Napoleon, fresh from his Italian victories, was appointed to command, and he made a round of inspection of Brest and the Channel ports. But all this show of activity was designed to cover the preparations for an attack on Great Britain “from behind”—in India and by way of Egypt. The French naval forces at Toulon were got ready slowly in spite of Napoleon's urging and with the defects inevitable in the impoverished state of the arsenal. Thirty-six thousand soldiers, including the best of the army of Italy, were to be embarked from the southern French ports, from Italy and from Corsica. Information that a great offensive movement was about to be made by the French reached both Earl St Vincent, the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet, and the British government. Since Spain had entered into alliances with France in 1796, the British fleet had not cruised in the Mediterranean but had been occupied in blocking the Spanish ships at Cadiz. On the end of May 1798 St Vincent detached Nelson, then the junior rear-admiral, with his flag into the Mediterranean, with three sail of the line and frigates to make a reconnaissance at Toulon. On the 17th of May a small French corvette was captured near Cape Sicié, and from the crew Nelson learnt that the French were still in the harbour. He could gain no information as to the aim of the armament. Napoleon enforced strict secrecy by not letting even the most important officers of the dockyard know whither he was bound. On the 2nd of May the British government had written to St Vincent stating their wish that a part of his fleet should be sent into the Mediterranean. The first lord of the admiralty, Lord Spencer, told him that he might either go himself or send a subordinate. If the latter course was followed Nelson was indicated as the officer to be chosen. Reinforcements were sent to him to enable him to provide both for the cruise in the Mediterranean and for the blockade of Cadiz. St Vincent had already selected Nelson, and when the reinforcements arrived he dispatched Captain Troubridge with the inshore squadron engaged in watching Cadiz—“the choice fellows,” as he described them, of his fleet—to join Nelson at Toulon. The ships were replaced by others similarly painted, so that the Spaniards might see no difference and therefore be unable to send news to their ally. Troubridge left on the 24th of May with as many vessels as would bring Nelson's whole command up, to thirteen 74's and one 50-gun ship.

While these measures were being taken to intercept him, Napoleon had put to sea on the 19th of May with fifteen sail of the line, twelve frigates and some two hundred transports. He sailed down the eastern side of Corsica and Sardinia to pick up the detachments which were to join him from the first-named island and from Civita Vecchia. On the evening of the 20th a gale from the N.W. brought some confusion on his flock of ships, but it also drove Nelson to the S.W. His flagship the “Vanguard” (74) was dismasted and compelled to anchor at San Pietro to refit. His frigates were separated from him by the weather, and the captains made, for Gibraltar, concluding that the admiral would go there to refit. The departure of his frigates left Nelson without vessels for scouting and had a material influence on the campaign. The “Vanguard” was made ready by the 27th of May, and resumed her station off Toulon. On the 7th of June Nelson was joined by Troubridge. Calms hampered his pursuit of the French, whom he now knew to be at sea, but on the 14th he was off Civita Vecchia; on the 17th he was at Naples, where he heard that the French had been seen going south, and made arrangements to obtain water and stores in the Neapolitan ports. On the 20th he was at Messina, where he first got definite information of the movements of the enemy. The French had appeared off Malta on the 9th and had occupied the island, which was surrendered to them on the 12th by the treachery of the French and Italian members of the order. Pushing on in the hope of finding them on the coast of the island, Nelson was off Cape Passaro on the 22nd, and there learnt that the French had sailed from the island. His instructions directed him to guard against possible French attacks on Sicily, or even an attempt to pass the Straits of Gibraltar and sail for Ireland. But Nelson knew that the Neapolitan government had no fears for Sicily and that the westerly winds would prevent the French from going to Gibraltar. On a view of all the circumstances, and after consultation with those of his captains in whose judgment he had the most confidence, he came to the just conclusion that they were bound for Egypt. He therefore sailed for Alexandria on the most direct route eastward along the coast of Africa. The information given him at Cape Passaro was that the French had left Malta on the 16th; the actual date was the 10th. Napoleon, whose frigates had sighted the British squadron, and who knew that he might be pursued, did not take the direct route, but steered to the north-east along the south shore of Crete. Thus it happened that on the night of the 22nd of June the fleets crossed one another’s tracks. Want of look-out vessels prevented Nelson from detecting the neighbourhood of his enemy. The French with their convoy going more slowly on the longer route to the north, and the active British squadron on the direct route to the south, both headed for Egypt, with barely 60 m. of sea between them, but neither aware of the position of the other.

On the 28th of June Nelson reached Alexandria to find the port occupied only by a few Turkish ships. It was from Nelson that the Turkish authorities gained their first knowledge of the impending invasion. Nelson, misled by the false date given him at Cape Passaro, and being unable to reconnoitre the position of the enemy, came to the erroneous conclusion that he was mistaken in supposing that the French were on the way to Egypt, and that they must be bound for some other part of the eastern Mediterranean. On the 29th of June he sailed from Alexandria, standing to the north-east. His topsails were still in sight to the north-east when the French appeared coming from the northwest. They sighted the coast on the 29th to the west of Alexandria, and on the 1st of July they occupied the anchorage and town. While Nelson was ranging along the coast of Asia Minor, seeking for news of them and finding none, on his way back to Sicily, the French were landing their army. The British squadron reached Syracuse on the 19th of July. Here Nelson was able to obtain water and stores and clear indications that the French had gone to Egypt. On the 24th he sailed, and on the 1st of August was again off Alexandria. The battle of the Pyramids had been fought on the 21st, and Napoleon was master of Egypt. The fear of the British admiral was that the French fleet had left the coast in the interval of his absence. Brueys, the French admiral, had had a choice of three courses open to him—to enter the old harbour of Alexandria, to sail for Corfu then occupied by the French or to take a strong anchorage on the coast and prepare to repel attack. To enter the harbour was difficult for large ships, and to leave it by its one narrow entrance in the presence of even an inferior force would have been impossible. Brueys therefore decided against that course. He did not sail for Corfu, partly because some of the army stores were still in his ships and partly because his squadron, ill fitted from the first, was short of provisions, and no more could as yet be obtained from the shore. He therefore stationed himself with thirteen of his ships of the line in the road stead of Aboukir, some 15 m. north-east of Alexandria, between the island of Aboukir and the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. Here he was found on the evening of the 1st of August when the British fleet came in sight. The French line of thirteen ships was anchored to the east of Aboukir, now called Nelson’s Island, in a curve stretching to the south-east. It consisted of the “Guerrier” (74), the “Conquérant” (74), the “Spartiate” (74), the “Aquilon” (74), “Souverain Peuple” (74), “Franklin” (80), “Orient” (120), Admiral Bruey's flagship “Tonnant” (So), “Heureux” (74), “Timoléon” (74), “Guillaume Tell” (80), “Mercure” (74) and “Généreux” (74), counting from the west end. The French ships had begun the voyage short-handed and many men were absent on shore filling the water-casks. They fought with a half to two-thirds of their complements, which suffered from the bad training and inexperience of the French republican navy. A council of flag officers and captains was being held in the “Orient” when the British Squadron appeared.

When the enemy was sighted Nelson at once gave the order to attack. All the possibilities of battle had been fully discussed between him and his captains. Much controversy of a rather idle character has taken place as to assigning the credit for the actual course adopted; it was almost dictated to men so experienced and capable as the British captains and their admiral by the position of the enemy. If the French had been anchored so near the shore that it was not possible to pass between them and it, the British ships, coming from the west with a westerly wind, would have passed outside of them, endeavouring to anchor one on the bow and the next on the quarter of each French ship in succession. Those in the van might have been crushed before the ships in the rear and to leeward could come to their assistance. As it was, the French were so placed that there was room for the British ships to pass between them and the land. Therefore it was possible for the first comers of the British squadron to pass inside the French ships, to anchor there, and to allow the next comers to anchor outside so as to put the enemy's van between two fires. This disposition was not without its drawbacks, for it entailed the risk that the British ships might fire into one another while directing their guns on an object between them. The risk was the greater because the battle began at sundown and was continued in the dark. Yet it had the advantage that it produced an intense concentration of fire. In the circumstances it had the peculiar advantage, of which, however, the British captains may not have been aware, that as the French were very short-handed they were unable to work both broadsides to the full. It is to this fact that we must attribute the comparatively small loss suffered by the British ships in an attack which, if made against a well-appointed enemy, must have been extremely costly. Whether by previous arrangement with Nelson, or because he acted on the facts before him, the first British captain to come into action, Captain Foley of the “Goliath” (74), passed inside the French, and anchored abreast of the second of them, the “Conquérant.” The “Zealous” (74), under Captain Hood, anchored on the bow of the first Frenchman, the “Guerrier.” The “Audacious” (74), under Captain Davidge Gould, anchored between the “Zealous” and “Goliath.” The “Theseus” (74), under Captain Miller, anchored inside of the third French ship, the “Spartiate.” The “Orion” (74), under Captain Saumarez, anchored abreast of the fifth French vessel, the “Souverain Peuple.” Then Nelson, in his flagship the “Vanguard” (74), the sixth British ship to come into action, anchored on the outside of the French line abreast of the “Spartiate” already engaged with the “Theseus.” The “Minotaur” (74), under Captain Thomas Louis, and the “Defence” (74), under Captain Peyton, anchored next to the “Vanguard” and opposite the fourth French ship, the “Aquilon,” and the “Souverain Peuple,” already engaged with the “Orion.” Thus eight British 74’s which had only to fight one broadside at a time were thrown on five undermanned French 74’s, which had to fight both and were speedily crushed. One British vessel, the “Culloden” (74), under Captain Troubridge, grounded on the shoal at Aboukir, and could not get into action. She served as a beacon to the vessels coming behind her. As the French van was silenced, and the fresh vessels came up from the British rear, the attack was carried down the French line. About 9.30 p.m. the “Orient” was seen to be in flames, and at 10 p.m. she blew up. The explosion imposed a brief suspension of battle, but the fire was soon renewed. By midnight the battle was over. In the course of the next day the “Guillaume Tell,” the “Généreux” and two frigates succeeded in escaping, but they were the only survivors of the fleet attacked in the roadstead of Aboukir.

The destruction of the French fleet, which isolated Napoleon in Egypt, had profound political influence in Europe. The total loss of the British squadron was 218 killed and 678 wounded. The loss of the French was never exactly ascertained, but it was certainly very much greater. Admiral Brueys was killed on the quarter-deck of his flagship, and Nelson received a wound in the head from a langridge shot which disabled him.

See Captain Mahan’s Life of Nelson (2nd. ed. 1899).  (D. H.)