"If, in this disastrous event, he made mistakes, he expiated them by his glorious end", Admiral de Brueys, the “L' Orient” and Nelson’s victory at the Nile

1 August 1798, during the climax of the Battle of the Nile, the French admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers, Comte de Brueys, died aboard his exploding flagship “L’Orient”.

"If, in this disastrous event, he made mistakes, he expiated them by his glorious end" (Napoleon on Brueys)

Thomas Luny: “Battle Of The Nile August 1st 1798 At 10pm“ (1834)

Jean-Charles de Borda, mathematician, physicist, and sailor, brilliant scientist, ahead of his times and all, is probably best known for having bestowed the term “metre” or “meter” on posterity when the French Academy of Sciences felt that measuring length had to be reformed along with the calendar and what not during the Reign of Terror in 1793. A decade earlier, though, he collaborated with the master shipbuilder Jacques-Noël Sané with a thoroughly scientific approach on naval design during a programme to revitalise the French navy and out came, among other highly successful battleship concepts, the largest ships-of-the-line of the Napoleonic era and those with the highest firepower, capable of throwing a broadside weight of 1484lbs against her enemies, in contrast to other 1st-rates of the time, as HMS “Victory”, firing a broadside of 1250lbs in 1793 or the giant four-decked 140-guns Spanish oddity “Santisima Trinidad”, aptly nicknamed “El Ponderoso”, of 1400lbs. Two of the 120-gun three-deckers of the “Océan”-class had been laid down before the Revolution and the third, still ordered as “Dauphin Royal” in November 1789, was commissioned with the peculiar name “Sans Culotte”, “without trousers”, in August 1793. She came through her baptism of fire at the Battle of Genoa in 1795, where Nelson had fought as well, back then as Captain of the 64-gunned 3rd-rate HMS “Agamemnon”. “Sans Culotte” was Rear Admiral Pierre Martin’s flagship then, a rather mediocre officer who lost against Hotham, at Genua and several more occasions, and was finally relieved by the somewhat more gifted Brueys a year later, when “Sans Culotte” received the name she became famous with, “L’Orient”.

The Comte de Brueys, contemporary portrait 

When the Revolution began to eat her own children, the aristos that made up the bulk of the old navy’s officer caste usually had an appointment with the national razor before they could say “Vive la révolution!”, as at least some did. Usually, a title was enough to get ruled out as an undesired element and consequently be beheaded, along with their crews who were traditionally royalist. That left the revolutionaries with Sané’s fine ships and no men to properly sail and fight them. "After my head falls off, send it to the British, they will pay a good deal for it!" Admiral Comte d’Estaing said defiantly before his execution and it was sheer blind luck that saved François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers, Comte de Brueys from d’Estaing’s fate and that of his friends’ and family who were all executed during the Reign of Terror. And even if he was not the brightest candle on the cake of Louis XVI’s ex-naval officers, he had considerably more experience and skill than those who managed to become captains of major warships by the merits of revolutionary fervour and having the right party membership book, admittedly a not a minor feat during the Terreur. Things changed, however, in 1795, Brueys, even though no longer a count, became Citoyen Admiral, supported Napoleon during his first campaign in Italy under the nose of Admiral John Jervis, Hotham’s replacement as commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet who had, by and large, his hands full of fighting France’s new Spanish allies. Nevertheless, Brueys impressed Napoleon enough to be appointed as admiral of the escort for the convoy that would ship the Armée d'Orient to Egypt. On 19 May 1798, Brueys hoisted his flag on “L’Orient”, flagship of a squadron of 13 powerful ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates. And with all due respect, Brueys managed to evade Nelson’s Mediterranean Squadron, broke through to the Eastern Mediterranean with a fleet of almost 500 ships, directed the naval operations that led to the French capture of Malta in June, evaded Nelson pursuing squadron twice more and rather fell out with Napoleon over the landing of the army in Egypt that the notoriously hydrophobic Corsican almost bungled. However, near unbeatable on terra firma, Napoleon established his beachhead in Alexandria and Brueys’ squadron lingered nearby in Aboukir Bay for four more weeks. The reason why had never been fully explained, but it was obviously by Napoleon’s standing order. However, he anchored his ships-of-the-line in a semi-circle in the bay with more than 500 heavy naval guns pointing at its entrance and nobody in his sane mind would have dared to charge right into this more than formidable naval position. Except Nelson.

William Lionel Wyllie’s (1851 – 1931) idea of the “Battle of the Nile”, with “L’Orient” exploding in the background (1899)

The French order of battle was almost impeccable, but Brueys made two grave mistakes. First, he placed his four frigates, the eyes of his fleet, along with his capital ships in the battle line, an idea that left him virtually blind to Nelson’s approach and then he lacked a bit of attention to detail and did not check if his orders were carried out as precisely as necessary. His master Napoleon would have cried, but Brueys’ line-of-battleships were not anchored close enough as necessary to support each other in close combat, especially not in the van. And that was exactly where Nelson would strike. Unnoticed by Bruey’s fleet, the British had approached Aboukir Bay, at 2 pm on 1 August 1798, HMS “Zealous” signalled “Enemy in Sight” to Nelson’s squadron and his 13 ships-of-the-line cleared for action. And while half the French crews were on shore, foraging, the British approached Brueys’ line scattered like horsemen during a steeplechase and Nelson had to signal his own van to slow down and allow the rest of his squadron to catch up and take soundings since their maps of Aboukir Bay were hopelessly outdated, and even though the French had hardly any time at all to ready their ships for battle. Finally, around 6 pm, HMS “Goliath” and “Zealous” opened up on “Guerrier” and “Conquérant“ and the Battle of the Nile had begun in earnest. Three hours later, the ships in the French van had struck their colours, but in the centre, where mighty “Orient” battered away at the British 74 “Bellerophon” and “Billy Ruffian” was almost a dismasted wreck. But the 1st rate had suffered as well, Bruey was almost cut in half by British shot, his flag captain Casabianca seriously wounded by flying wreckage and then three other British ships-of-the-line fell upon “L’Orient” and around 9 pm fire was observed blazing in the lower gundecks of the French flagship and everyone, French and British tried to get as far away from her as possible. Brueys had allegedly insisted to stay on his quarterdeck to the last and around 10 pm, mighty “L’Orient” exploded, taking Brueys, 1000 men of her remaining crew along with Casabianca and his son with her, inspiring Felicia Hemans' rather silly poem “Casabianca”, famously beginning with the lines: “The boy stood on the burning deck.” Two hours later, the Battle of the Nile was over, Brueys’ squadron decisively defeated and Napoleon left stranded in Egypt. It was the first of the three of Nelson’s overwhelming victories and left especially one man consequently impressed – the admiral commanding the French rear division who managed to get away with two ships-of-the-line, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the man who would oppose Nelson at Trafalgar seven years later.

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