Nelson Destroys the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile

Today on August 1, 1798, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson destroys the French navy at the Battle of the Nile — isolating Napoleon Bonaparte's army in Egypt.

The Battle of the Nile, also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, resulted in a decisive British victory — one of Horatio Nelson’s crowning achievements. The battle took place in Abu Qir Bay near Alexandria, Egypt. In 1798, French Revolutionary Commander Napoleon Bonaparte began preparations for an invasion of Egypt. His main objective was to restrict British trading routes in the region while threatening their control of India. British spies caught wind of his plans and sent ships to watch French naval movements near Toulon.

Following a painful recovery after Tenerife, Lord Nelson was finally ready to serve his king once again. Nelson’s arm had been partially amputated after his defeat at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. He first sent orders to several dispersed British warships around the Mediterranean to rendezvous at their base in Gibraltar. By late spring, 14 ships of the line and one brig assembled and were ready to depart. However, news quickly reached Nelson that the French navy stationed in Toulon was now gone. Napoleon’s naval expedition managed to elude all British warships and sailed directly to Malta — the British garrison promptly surrendered the remote island. After installing a new garrison in the capital of Valletta, Napoleon carried on toward Egypt.

Nelson immediately departed Gibraltar to hunt down the French fleet. Poor intelligence and bad weather conditions made it difficult to track them down. The British fleet eventually sailed to Alexandria in Egypt. Several weeks later, they arrived only to find the port was empty. The vice-admiral was now furious at failing to locate the enemy navy. The British sailed to Sicily to regroup and resupply. More determined than ever, Nelson set sail for Egypt once again. His perseverance would pay off. Late in the afternoon on August 1, 1798, he sighted the main French fleet anchored at Abu Qir Bay. Under the command of Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers, the French contingent consisted of 13 ships of the lines and four frigates.

Nelson faced a tough decision — either attack with only a few hours of daylight left or wait until morning. True to form, he ordered an immediate assault. The Battle of the Nile was now underway. The French ships were anchored in a strong defensive line near the shore with support from artillery batteries on land. d’Aigailliers had ropes attached between his vessels, preventing any attacker from easily breaking through the line. Despite their strong position, many sailors were on land at the time foraging for food. d’Aigailliers also made the mistake of leaving too much room between his ships and the shore.

As the British ships approached, several managed to sneak in between the open gap. Now sandwiched between two lines of enemy ships, the French fleet lay in a dangerous position. They immediately came under heavy fire from Nelson’s well-trained ‘band of brothers.’ Ship after ship moved down the French line, inflicting catastrophic damage. But the Battle of the Nile almost took a turn for the worse. Admiral Nelson was suddenly struck and wounded above his remaining good eye. Fortunately, the injury was not serious. Their beloved captain soon returned to the quarter-deck — just in time to watch the final destruction of Napoleon’s navy.

“I am killed, remember me to my wife.” — Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile

At 21:00, a severe fire broke out on L’Orient, the French flagship. The British concentrated their guns on the doomed vessel and quickly began sailing away from it. About an hour later, the flames reached the ship’s magazines. The main gunpowder and ammunition storehouse exploded. Wooden debris, sailors, rigging, and cannons were blasted into the air. The seams of other nearby ships ripped apart from the explosion. Admiral d’Aigailliers aboard the French flagship was blown to pieces.

Only two French warships escaped the bloody Battle of the Nile. Nelson’s lopsided victory changed the nature of modern naval warfare. With the destruction of the French navy, Napoleon’s army was isolated in Egypt. His expedition would eventually fail without a reliable stream of supplies and reinforcements. Lord Nelson further cemented the Royal Navy’s superiority in the Mediterranean Sea. The British ultimately recaptured Malta.

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