The Battle of 

the Nile


(1st August 1798)




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The background to the action

As the year of 1798 began their were no British ships based in the Mediterranean. Britain had evacuated the Mediterranean in early 1797 and despite the resounding victory over the Spanish at Cape St Vincent, no British ship had reentered since. This gave the French under General Napoleon Bonaparte great scope to widen their campaign of invasion. A secret decree was issued on 12 April 1798. It included plans to occupy Egypt, and exclude the English "from  all their possessions in the East to which the General can come." The implication was that the French would revive their aspirations in India and Ceylon. The General was also empowered to seize Malta, which was seen as a strategic base of the geatest importance. There was a need for speed because by August the Nile would be in flood and would seriously hamper their plans.  

March/April 1798

From September 1797 through to March 1798 Nelson had been back in England recovering from the loss of his arm at Tenerife. By March, his health and strength restored, he pressed the Admiralty for re-employment. He was appointed to the Vanguard(74) with Edward Berry as his Captain. He rendezvoused with Earl St Vincent off Cadiz in late April and St Vincent reported that it gave him "new life".

It was obvious that the French were preparing a large expedition, but even English spies could not discover its purpose. 

It could be bound for any country bordering the Mediterranean - including the now neutral kindom of the Two Sicilies - or preparing to attack Portugal, or by breaking out into the Atlanticfor a descent upon Lisbon, or even upon Ireland to encourage a revolt against the British.

What was evident was that the Royal navy would need to re-enter the Mediterranean, and that a close watch must once again be kept on Toulon. 

29 April 1798

Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty expressed that "the appearance of a British Squadron in the Mediterranean is a condition on which the fate of letting agents Kingston in Europe may at this moment be stated to depend".

It was Spencer's personal decision that if St Vincent did not proceed in person with a squadron, he should "put it under the command of Sir H. Nelson, whose acquaintance with that part of the world, as well as his activity and disposition, seem to qualify him in a particular manner for that service".

Early May
Nelson, in the Vanguard, along with the Alexander and the Orion, the frigates Emerald and Terpsichore and a sloop, entered the Gulf of Lion.
Nelson arrived off Toulon. 
19 May 1798

On this day Nelson received notification that he would be given ten additional ships-of-the-line commanded by "choice fellows of the inshore squadron".

A severe storm blew up.

Despite the severe weather Napoleon managed  to sail from Toulon - avoiding Nelson's squadron. When he met with contingents from Marseille, Genoa, and elsewhere he had an armada which consisted of 13 ships-of-the-line, 7 frigates, several gunboats, and nearly 300 transports of various sizes, carrying troops, and supplies. 
20 May 1798

When near Sardinia, the Vanguard was dismasted, and was only saved from wreck by the tireless activity of Captain Ball on the Alexander who took the flagship in tow. At one stage, fearing that the ship would be lost, Nelson asked Ball to cast off, but Ball caught up his speaking trumpet and hailed back: "I feel confident that I can bring her in safe. I therefore must not, and by the help of Almighty God I will not, leave you." Ball was right, but Nelson was never nearer going ashore in his life.

Afterwards Nelson wrote to his wife and said "I believe firmly that it was the Almighty's goodness to check my consumate vanity".

22 May 1798

The Vanguard had lost just 2 men and within 2 days was repaired and able to resume her mission.

However his frigates had been swept away, and when the storm moderated, their captains assumed that the admiral would retire to repair his ships at Gibraltar and made their own way thence. This deprived Nelson of his fast scouts. "I thought they would have known me better" was his rather caustic comment.

7/8 June 1798
Nelson's ten reinforcements, under Thomas Troubridge, joined him.  
15 June 1798

Nelson wrote to Earl Spencer saying " If the French fleet pass Sicily I shall believe that they are going on their scheme of possessing Alexandria, and getting their troops to India. . . The whole squadron is perfectly healthy, and perfectly equal to meet the French."

Meanwhile, on this same day the French fleet had captured the island of Malta.

17 June 1798

The British squadron was off Naples. Nelson had been instructed to "open a correspondence with His Majesty's Ministers at every Court in Italy...." and indeed just a few days before he had written to Sir William Hamilton at Naples.

Nelson did  not leave his flagship but sent Troubridge and Hardy ashore to see Sir William and Sir John Acton, the Prime Minister. 

The Neapolitans were paralysed with fear of the French, dared not risk offending them and Acton instantly refused the British request for loan of frigates. But he did sign an order allowing the ports of the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies" to furnish the British with supplies and fresh water.

20 June 1798

Nelson could scarcely hide his disappointment when he wrote to Sir William, "I find plenty of good will towards us, but no help for us."

He reminded the Neapolitans that the British squadron was ready to "shed its blood" and that having taken Malta, this would be an ideal stepping stone for the French to attack Sicily.

22 June 1798

The Mutine fell in with a Ragusan brig from Malta. She learned that, having taken the island, the French fleet had sailed the next day. Since Sicily had not been the fleet's destination, Nelson concluded that it MUST be Alexandria. 

He immediately signalled four of his officers to come on board in what would be the first of many councils held in the Admiral's flagship.

They concluded that Alexandria was indeed the destination of the French and that the best strategy was to overtake and destroy them.   

29 June 1798

The squadron arrived at Alexandria and to Nelson's horror he found no sign of the French.

He would learn later that the French had indeed been destined for Alexandria, but had taken a longer route and the British squadron had arrived there BEFORE them.

If he had chosen to stay for just 2 days he would have been there when the French arrived, but he was driven in his mission and set off in the hope of finding them elsewhere.  

30 June-19 July 1798

During this period the British squadron pressed on eastward to look into the ports of the Levant, and then, when it had exhausted all hope of finding the Frech there, worked all the way back west to Syracuse in southeastern Sicily. There at least the squadron could take on supplies.  

Again there was no news of the French and the squadron set sail towards Greece.

Nelson confessed that the 18th July found him at his lowest ebb. He decreed that "The devil's children have the devil's luck."

28 July 1798
Troubridge was ordered into the little Greek port of Koroni to question the Turkish governor. He returned with news that electrified every man in the squadron. The French had been seen four weeks earlier, sailing south-east and this could only mean Alexandria. 
30 Jul 1798
As dusk fell Nelson made the signal for his squadron to close on Alexandria
1 Aug 1798
Looking into Alexandria Nelson saw a mass of transports, heavily protected by batteries ashore, but no ships-of-war of any size. The signal to turn eastwards down the coast was given. 

1 Aug 1798

1.30 p.m.

Captain Saumarez reported that he did not recollect ever feeling more hopeless than when he sat to eat that day, but "Judge what a change took place when the Officer of the Watch came running in saying, "Sir, a signal is just now made that the Enemy is in Aboukir Bay and moored in a line of battle."

The French Fleet in Aboukir Bay

Brueys had made a conscious decision to  moor in Aboukir Bay, having decided that Alexandria was too difficult for the entry of large ships. He could  have gone to Corfu but decided against this. Anchored as he was, on the edge of shoal water, and protected  by the lie of the coast and by batteries both on Aboukir Island and on the castle which stood on the promontory, he saw no reason to suppose that he could not stay where he was in perfect safety.

Nature had provided for de Brueys generously. From Aboukir Point, shoals stretched north-easterly towards the island, with broken water half covering them. They continued beyond the island, in the same direction for a further two miles. Within the curve of the bay itself was another irregular shoal. Brueys had only to anchor his van as near as possible to the island, and his rear close upon the inner shoal - then, if the ships lay close enough together - his line could neither be turned nor penetrated.

He had reckoned correctly on the enemy fleet being unprovided with charts of the reefs protecting his position. 

Historical precedent (Hood at St Kitts and Barrington at St Lucia) showed that Fleets could hold out for a long time in  such an advantageous location. His clothing's in house design team were constantly developing fabrics and garments, continually producing ranges, such as natural fiber organic products, and developing customer ideas and requests within their price points.

As a precaution of attack from seaward de Brueys had put his strongest vessels, including his own flagship, in the middle of the line. His next heaviest ships occupied the only other position which he considered vulnerable, his rear. His van, contained his oldest and least effective craft.   

However, Brueys had not made the most of his position, perhaps because he was convinced that the British would not attack. His ships were anchored by the bow only, and without springs on their warps. In consequence they could not be swung to bring their guns to bear, and they had had to be anchored far enough from the shoals to allow room for the ships to swing. 

The British captains were quick to discover that, where there was room for a French ship to swing, there was also room for a British ship of the line to pass by inshore of the French line.  

1 Aug 1798

2.00 p.m.

The French sighted the British squadron and Brueys gave orders to recall working parties from ashore, and to stow hammocks.

1 Aug 1798

3.00 p.m.

The British flagship signalled "Prepare for battle and for anchoring by the stern".

1 Aug 1798

5.00 p.m.

ditto "I mean to attack the enemy's van and centre".

1 Aug 1798

5.30 p.m.

ditto "Form line of battle as convenient".

1 Aug 1798

5.40 p.m.

ditto "Close action"



British Ships

French Ships

Ship Guns Commander Ship Guns Commander
Vanguard 74

Admiral Nelson

Edward Berry

Guerrier 74 Trullet (Snr)
Orion 74 Sir James Saumarez Conquerant 74 Dalbarade 
Colloden  74 Thomas Troubridge Spartiate 74 Emereau
Bellerophon 74 Henry Darby Aquilon 74 Thevenard
Minotaur 74 Thomas Louis Peuple Soverain 74 Raccord
Defence 74 Wiliam Peyton Franklin 80

Admiral Blanquet


Alexander 74 Alexander Ball Orient 120

Admiral Brueys


Zealous 74 Samuel Hood Tonnant 80 Dupetit-Thouars
Audacious 74 Davidge Gould Heureux 74 Etienne
Goliath 74 Thomas Foley Mercure 74 Cambon
Theseus 74 Ralph Miller Guillaume Tell 80

Admiral Villeneuve


Majestic 74 George Westcott Genereux 74 Le Joille
Leander 50 Thomas Thompson Timoleon 74 Trullet (Jnr)
Swiftsure 74 Benjamin Hallowell Frigates
Mutine (brig) 18 Thomas Hardy Serieuse 36 Martin
      Artemise 36 Estandlet
      Diane 48

Admiral Decres


      Justice 44



1 Aug 1798

6.00 p.m.

As the attack commenced, the risks taken by Nelson were great for he was entering a strange bay at nightfall, without charts or pilots; and the possibility of his own ships firing into one another when attacking enemy ships lying between them could not be disregarded.

The ten British 74's hauled sharp to the wind to weather the foul ground to seaward of the island, sounding as they went. Nelson hailed Captain Samuel hood of the Zealous, and Hood undertook to bear up and lead around the shoal.

1 Aug 1798

6.15 p.m.

In the event it was not Hood, but Foley in the Goliath who had the distinction of leading Nelson's fleet into battle. The chance could not have fallen more appropriately, since Foley was one of the most experienced captains in the squadron; he had been flag-captain in the Britannia at the Battle of St Vincent.

As he rounded the island and ran down the enemy line, he saw that, with any luck,  he could take his ship inside the French position and fire at his opponent on the side she would not have been prepared for.

There has been argument about the merit and courage of Foley taking his ship inside the French line without orders to do so. In fact, it was exactly the kind of initiative which would have been most appreciated by Nelson. It has also been said that Foley intended this course all along, but this could not have been so, for its propriety must have depended on circumstances which could only have made themselves clear at the last moment. Foley's seizing of opportunity exactly corresponded to the spirit in which Nelson himself had turned out of the line at St Vincent.

Behind the Goliath and the Zealous came another three ships the Orion, Theseus and Audacious. As the sun sank below the horizon, the five leading ships were bringing an overwhelming fire to bear upon the enemy van. By now the waters between the French line and the shoals of the bay were becoming increasingly crowded, so as Nelson came up in the Vanguard he decided to attck on the outside of the line, expecting that the other ships would follow him as indeed did firstly the Minotaur and the Theseus.

1 Aug 1798

7.00 p.m.

By now total darkness had fallen, and the scene being lit by nothing but gunfire, Nelson signalled all ships to hoist distinguishing lights.

The eighth and ninth of Nelson's ships, arriving to a smoke-hung and darkling scene, sustained the heaviest casualties. 

The Bellerophon brought up abreast of L'Orient and received the undivided attention of a vessel of double her own force. Her masts were entirely shot away.

The Majestic ran her jib-boom into the main-rigging of L'Heureux and while she hung in this position, suffered heavy loss. Her Captain, Westcott, was fatally wounded in the throat by a musket ball. 

Nelson is injured

Nelson, standing on his quarter-deck with Berry by his side, was struck on the head by a piece of flying langridge - the scrap shot much used by the French for the destruction of British sails. The fragment cut his brow to the bone, above his old wound, and a flap of flesh, falling down over his good eye, accompanied by profuse haemorrhage, blinded him. He fell, and Berry, catching him in his arms, heard the words, "I am killed. Remember me to my wife."

They carried him down the ladders to the cockpit where the surgeon worked amongst the mangled bodies by the dim light of a lantern, but, as he turned to attend the admiral, Nelson ordered, "No, I will take my turn with my brave fellows." When the surgeon did examine the wound he found it slight but messy, the splinter having slashed his scalp to the skull above his right eye, causing concussion. 



>1 Aug 1798 >8.00 p.m.

Around 8 o'clock four of the French ships had already struck, and by 8.30 Le Spartiate, long dismasted had ceased to fire. Incredibly it was as late as this that the Alexander and the Swiftsure finally joined the battle. Together they made for L'Orient, which, up to now, had inflicted much more damage than she had sustained.

Now, the Swiftsure took a position off the French flagship's bows, while the Alexander placed herself in a devastating position aft, able to fire shot through her weak stern, wher it passed along the full length of the decks. Admiral de Brueys was wounded in the head and arm early in the action and then took a shot in the belly which "nearly cut him in two".

Soon after, the Alexander's  raking shots started a fire in the stern chain of the French flagship.

>1 Aug 1798 >9.00 p.m.

"Observed L'Orient to be on fire" was entered in the log book of the Zealous. The fire spread rapidly to the poop and was soon out of control. The blaze intensified when it caught a store of paint, oil and chemicals on the middle deck. By now Nelson had dragged his injured body back on deck and he at once told Berry to do what he could to save as many as possible of the crew of the enemy ship. By now it was inevitible that the fire must reach her magazine and ships of both sides cut their anchor cables to move away as fast as they could. 

Hallowell, in the Swiftsure took the oposite view. He was so near the heat that the pitch was running out of the seams of his ship. He felt that any explosion from L'Orient would arch right over. 

In the Goliath Purser SAmuel Grant was released from his medical duties in the cockpit and from the poop he saw "the French decker in a blaze. . . . It was the most melancholy, but the same moment the most beautiful sight I ever beheld".

>1 Aug 1798 >10.00 p.m.
No two accounts agree exactly when L'Orient went up, but there is little doubt that it was at or soon after ten o'clock.

Close by, in the Swiftsure, Chaplain Willyams wrote that the ship "blew up with a crashing sound that defened all around her. The tremendous motion, felt to the very bottom of each ship, was like that of an earthquake. The fragments were driven such a vast height into the air that some moments elapsed before they could descend."

The stunning detonation silenced the battle and was heard in Alexandria, fifteen miles away. The sparks fell, one of the Alexander's sails caught fire and burned briefly; then all that remained of the shattered hull and splintered masts and yards fell back into the sea. 

The explosion killed all but 70 of her 1010 men. 


>1 Aug 1798 >12.00 p.m

Just before midnight, the Franklin, lying next to where the flagship had exploded, struck her colours. 

All the enemy ships in the van and centre had now surrendered or were trying to do so and attention was now concentrated on the six at the rear.

>2 Aug 1798 >3.00 a.m
By three o'clock the spasmodic firing had all but ceased
>2 Aug 1798 >Dawn

When dawn at last came, it was seen that the leading six ships of the French line were in British possession. 

Captain Miller of the Theseus wrote: "My people were so extremely jaded, that as soon as they had hove our sheet anchor up, they were asleep, in a moment, in every sort of posture, having been working then at their full exertion, or fighting, for nearly 12 hours."

>2 Aug 1798 >Noon
Three of the French ships still had masts, spars and sails intact and somewhere around noon were able to make a "dash for freedom". Of these Le Guillaume Tell and Le Genereux made good their escape, despite a vain attempt by the Zealous to cut them off. 

Troubridge and the Culloden

One of the British ships, the Culloden took no part in the battle. Troubridge, in his anxiety to get into action, had sailed too close to the rocks and grounded the Culloden on the shoals, where she lay stranded and under fire from French guns on the island off Aboukir point. All his own endeavours, combined with those of the smaller craft commanded by Thompson and Hardy, failed to get the Culloden off. 

It caused Troubridge bitter grief, though he was able to save the ships following him from sharing the same fate. He did not get off until the early hours of the following day, and then at the cost of his rudder and damage below the waterline.

As the result of a personal petition by Nelson, Troubridge was still awarded the Naval Gold Medal for his part in the action. 

The aftermath of the battle


Aboukir Bay was a scene of silent, smoking desolation. "An awful sight it was," remembered a sailor in the Goliath. Of the thirteen French ships of the line that had lain at anchor the day before, ten had been captured, one had blown up and two escaped. 

The French losses were estimated at six times heavier than the British at 1700 killed, 1500 wounded, and 3000 taken prisoner. 

The British were again in command of the Mediterranean and Bonaparte's army was marooned ashore in a hostile country without hope of rescue. Nelson simply said: "Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene."

On the night of August 2, in Saumarez's ship, Nelson's Captains inaugurated "The Egyptian Club", and a solemn document signed, signed by all present, invited Sir Horatio to accept the gift of a sword and have his portrait taken for the Society.

The following weeks and months

The refittingof the British fleet and the French prizes commenced. Nelson ordered three French ships which could not be refitted within a month to be burnt.

On 22 September Nelson arrived at Naples in the still half-crippled Vanguard. He received a hero's welcome.

Nelson's despatches, sent by Naples, announcing the Victory, took two months and a day to reach England. The effect on Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty was so dramatic that he "heard it in silence, turned away, and fell to the ground in a faint."

Lady Spencer caught the mood of the nation when she wrote "My heart is absolutely bursting with different sensations of joy, of gratitude, of pride, of every emotion that ever warmed the bosom of a British woman . . .  This moment, the guns are firing, illuminations are preparing, your gallant name is echoed from street to street. 

On 6 November he was made Baron Nelson of the Nile.

Other awards were heaped on him by various countries and organisations

A shower of souvenirs, ranging from the purely ornamental to the functional, and within reach of every purse, had been produced to meet the huge popular demand, and the likeness of the Victor of the Nile, on canvas, paper, porcelain, pottery, glass, muslin and metal, was as familiar in cottage and castle as that of the King.

For the rest of his life Nelson WAS "The Hero of the Nile"