Vice Admiral Francois
Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers,
Compte de Brueys
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Nevertheless at first everything went well. The fleet sailed on 19 May and the various rendezvous were achieved allowing the convoy to increase in numbers. The only difficulty experienced was when General Desaix failed to make his rendezvous and the convoy lost three days although the final link up was achieved at Malta. Malta was taken against only nominal opposItIon and troops were landed to garrIson Valetta. De Brueys also avoided Nelson's fleet. A course was set for Crete in order to deceive Nelson and then south to Egypt. On the night of June 22-23 the different courses of the two fleets crossed but the British were unaware of the enemy's proximity although some of the French sailors heard alien ships' bells. The French fleet, slowed down by its large convoy, managed to avoid Nelson and on 1 July the French reached Alexandria. Here the first recorded conflict between de Brueys and Bonaparte occurred. In order to capture Alexandria the landings had to take place at a nearby village called Marabout. Bad weather, lack of charts and the troops with no practice at embarkation led de Brueys to advise postponing the landing to the next day. This sensible approach was over ruled by Bonaparte -"Admiral, we have no time to waste. Luck grants me three days, no more. If l don't take advantage of them, we're lost." De Brueys was proved right. The landings, poorly co-ordinated, went on through the night resulting in the landing boats being overturned and men drowned - although the official reports only named 19 men as being lost the numbers were much greater. Nevertheless, Alexandria was seized and by 10 July all the French troops had begun to advance into the interior. De Bruey's task was completed. All he had to do was to land the stores and ensure the transports were protected. The burning question is why was he, three weeks after the main landing, still in Aboukir Bay?
Bonaparte blamed de Brueys for being in Aboukir Bay and not at sea. Contemporary correspondence however reveals that the French fleet stayed at anchor on the direct orders of Bonaparte himself. De Brueys had wanted to sail for Corfu to pick up further ships of the line. Bonaparte however probably wanted the fleet to protect the transports in Alexandria harbour from attack as well as wanting the sailors to fulfill quasi military duties whilst his army was on the march. The safest way would have been for the whole French fleet to enter Alexandria harbour. However there were doubts that L'Orient would be able to enter the harbour and that exiting from the port would be "difficult and dangerous". Despite recommendations on 15 July that blowing up one or two rocks would allow the ship to comfortably enter the harbour, de Brueys determined to remain at Aboukir Bay - 23 miles east. Having made this decision and therefore deprived of harbour facilities he had to undertake other tasks. Stores still needed to be unloaded, wells dug to supply the fleet with water and armed protection provided for the sailors ashore who were subject to attack by Bedouin tribesmen. This explains why many of the sailors were ashore when Nelson attacked.
Given this, what was crucial was for de Brueys to have positioned his fleet in a way which would repel attack. His position was certainly not hopeless. Lord Hood at St Kitts in 1782 and Samuel Barrington at St Lucia in 1778 had successfully repulsed prolonged attacks from much the same position as he had. What de Brueys needed to do was to make his anchorage safe. On first taking anchorage on 4 July, he held a council of flag officers and captains and, with the exception of Blanquet, all had agreed that in case of attack the fleet should engage at anchor and not under sail. Use was to be made of the geography of the bay. The western end of the semi circular bay was marked by Aboukir point and Aboukir Island and shoals to seaward of it, with a connecting line of rocks and shoals narrowing the mouth of the bay. The island and the point were fortified. De Brueys' ships of the line were moored in a slightly bent line stretching south from the shallows just inside the island. Four frigates were anchored at intervals inside the line and the smaller ships in shallow water. The thirteen French ships of the line were anchored with L'Orient in the middle of the line and a concentration of powerful 80 gun ships at the rear where de Brueys expected the attack to come. This would have deterred anyone other than Nelson from attacking. De Brueys was certainly happy with his position. On 13 July he wrote to Bonaparte "I have been taking up a strong position in case I am compelled to fight at anchor."
However de Brueys had made two crucial mistakes. Inexcusably he did not have his frigates at sea to warn him of Nelson's approach. This meant that he would have little warning that he was going to be attacked and would not be able to ensure all his seamen ashore could return to their ships in time. Secondly he had not checked that his instructions had been carried out. The leading French ship Le Guerrier had not anchored close enough to the shoals and the ships were not close enough to give supporting fire to each other. These mistakes meant that the English ships could deploy themselves either side of a French ship with an unchallenged gun superiority of two to one. Also, de Brueys' instructions to take lines from one ship to the next astern were not carried out allowing the English to pass between the first and second ships.
The English fleet was sighted by L'Heureuse about 2pm. De Brueys ordered his frigates to send part of their crews to serve on the ships of the line. He also ordered everyone ashore recalled - only some obeyed. At 3pm he ordered hammocks stowed and for two light vessels to sail into the bay to reconnoitre and if possible tempt the English ships into chasing them into waters where the larger ships would run aground - this plan failed. De Brueys then gave orders to reform the line and ensure broadsides bore - but Blanquet pointed out the absence of the launches and expectation of counter orders prevented these directions being more than half executed. At 5.30 pm the Controller General of the Finances to Bonaparte's army, Poussielque, heard cannon. At 6.20 pm the French fleet hoisted its colours. Contrary to de Bruey's belief Nelson did not attack the rear of the fleet commanded by Villeneuve but attacked the van and battle was joined.
Nevertheless despite the mistakes there was no doubting de Brueys bravery. L'Orient opened fire at 6.45 pm and dismasted the Bellerophon. She was then attacked by the Alexander and Swiftsure .One ship anchored on L'Orient's starboard bow; the other on L'Orient's larboard quarter. At 7pm de Brueys had been wounded in the head and arm while on the poop deck. He had refused to have his wounds tended and had tried to stop the flow of blood with his handkerchief. At 7.30pm while descending to the quarterdeck he was almost cut in two by a cannon ball. He refused to be carried below saying "a French Admiral ought to die on his own quarterdeck". Cradled in the arms of the helmsman and surrounded by his staff he was dead by 7.45pm; before the fire broke out that was to engulf his flagship. His men fought on but by the time of his death the French fleet was already doomed. Possielgue noticed L'Orient on fire at 9.15 pm and timed her explosion at 10.00 pm. After a ten minute silence the firing began again and continued until 3 am. At 5am on 2 August it began again and continued until 2pm when Possielgue saw Villeneuve's ships escaping. Of the 13 French ships of the line and 4 frigates, 9 were captured, 4 burnt/sunk and 4 escaped. It was the greatest defeat suffered by a French fleet for over lOO years. Although the French could still send powerful fleets into the Mediterranean (de Bruix's fleet in 1799-1800 for example which was larger than de Bruey's), French Admirals could not shake off the prospect of being defeated as comprehensively as de Brueys had been and like de Bruix avoided offensive operations. One French Admiral never ceased to be haunted by what he had seen on 1- 2 August 1798 and that was Villeneuve.
De Brueys was unfortunate that he was opposed by Nelson and his captains but I cannot help feeling that, although a little bit unkind, Admiral Ganteaume his chief of staff was right. Ganteaume wrote "Il ne sut pas meme former sa ligne d'embossage; malheureusement determiner dans un lieu ouvert et que la terre ne pouvait proteger" ("He did not even know how to form his line with vessels broadside on, unfortunately deciding on an open place without the protection of the land"). Had Napoleon chosen the right admiral? Would Blanquet have been a better choice? We shall, of course, never know.