"Before this time to-morrow I shall have gained a peerage, or Westminster Abbey." The Battle of the Nile

1 August 1798, off Aboukir Bay, 20 miles northeast of Alexandria, HMS “Zealous” signaled “Enemy In Sight” at 2 pm, immediately acknowledged by the rest of Rear-Admiral Nelson’s Mediterranean squadron. The 13 British sail-of-the-line cleared for action. The Battle of the Nile had begun.

“The boy stood on the burning deck / Whence all but he had fled - Twit!” (Spike Milligan)

George Arnald's iconic painting: "The Destruction of L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile" (1827


 After inspecting the harbours on the French Atlantic coast as potential bases for an invasion of Great Britain and Ireland early in 1798, Napoleon quickly decided that he had to hit the British elsewhere. Britain’s large overseas empire and steady growing economical power was the spot he decided to strike at and chose Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire, as base of operations to threaten India as well as Africa and the trade routes to the Far East. With all possible secrecy, an expeditionary force of 30.000 men was shipped onboard of more than 70 merchantmen and transports in French and Northern Italian ports and formed a convoy protected by a squadron of 13 battleships under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers, Comte de Brueys, leaving the Tyrrhenian Sea with a course set for Malta by the end of May.

Even with their final destination yet unknown, the British Admiralty got at least a scent of the large French convoy sailing east and ordered Nelson to collect his scattered Mediterranean squadron and pursue – with one major disadvantage: He had almost no frigates to scout ahead and spot the course of the convoy. When the British learned that Malta had surrendered to Napoleon in Mid-June, it was clear that they sailed for the Levant. Both fleets probably passed each other by unseen in the night of 22 June. And even though masts were seen by the British, Nelson ordered his squadron to sail for Alexandria as fast as possible.

Napoleon at Malta with "L'Orient" to the right


Arriving there before the French, Nelson believed he made a mistake and sailed north and the French came in 25 hours later on 28 June, disembarked and Napoleon began his Egyptian campaign. When the British returned four weeks later, they saw the mastheads of the transports in Alexandria and the warships in Aboukir Bay. The French ships-of-the-line were anchored along the bay in a semi-circle as a floating shore battery and didn’t expect the British who attacked immediately.

Nelson split his squadron in two, one division was to attack the French vanguard and sail around to fire at the landward side of the French line – de Bruey thought that impossible in terms of draft of the huge warships versus the depth of the bay, Captain Thomas Foley of HMS “Goliath” didn’t and persuaded Nelson to give it a go – while the second division was to break the French line in the middle and take the enemy under fire from the other side.

The first division caught the French van completely off guard, some of their crews were still on the beach provisioning and withering fire from the British ships-of-the-line forced them to surrender pretty soon. The second division had a rough ride though. The most powerful French ships, de Bruey’s 120 gun flagship “L’Orient”among them, where anchored there and gave the first ship of the approaching British battle-line, HMS “Bellerophon” a severe beating. When HMS “Swiftsure” and HMS “Alexander” took “L’Orient” under concentrated fire, she caught fire and finally exploded – a rare event in a naval battle during the Age of Sail – killing the probably 500 men aboard her during the battle, de Bruey, his flag captain Casabianca and his young son, inspiring Felicia Heman’s particularly silly poem “Casabianca” (The boy stood on the burning deck…). After “L’Orient’s” explosion what was left of the French squadron decided to flee, but only two ships-of-the-line made it out of the bay, the rest was either destroyed or captured by the British.

With one strike, Napoleon’s hopes of conquering India were dashed. He tried to break out to Syria with his unsupplied army, was beaten back at Acre by the British, returned to Egypt where the rest of his army was finally defeated in the Battle of Alexandria by a joint British and Ottoman Army in March 1801 – the surviving members of Napoleon’s expeditionary force, one third of its original strength – where evacuated on British ships. Napoleon himself returned to France already in 1799, while the archaeological discoveries made by scientists accompanying the French army triggered a downright Egypt-mania in Europe that lasted well into the second half of the 19th century and never really ebbed away.


James Gilray: "The Gallant Nellson bringing home two Uncommon fierce French Crocadiles from the Nile as a Present to the King" (1798)