Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of the Nile (1798)

The “Battle of the Nile,” which didn’t really take place on the Nile but whatever, can be seen as the naval companion to the Battle of the Pyramids, fought 11 days earlier between French and Egyptian forces outside of Cairo. It can also be treated as that battle’s bookend. As successfully as the Battle of the Pyramids began Napoleon’s campaign in the Middle East, the Battle of the Nile ensured that, though the campaign went on for another three years, it would inevitably end in failure.

You may recall from our discussion of the Battle of the Pyramids that, after coming ashore at Alexandria, Napoleon ordered his fleet to sail east and anchor in Abu Qir Bay (sometimes written as Abukir or Aboukir), near the Nile Delta. A British fleet under the command of some guy named Horatio Nelson (?) was sailing about the Mediterranean, having a few months prior received word that France was putting together a large fleet (Napoleon sailed hundreds of ships to Egypt, and it was impossible for that to go unnoticed). His initial small squadron was reinforced from Britain until it numbered some 14 ships of the line, roughly the same size as the Napoleon’s fleet if you ignore the hundreds of French troop transports that would have been useless in a naval fight.

It was Nelson who figured out, based on reported sightings of the French fleet, that Napoleon was headed to Egypt. But he kind of botched his chance to strike what could have been a history-changing blow. Believing that Napoleon had a several days’ head start, Nelson sailed full speed to Alexandria from Naples on June 22. In fact the British fleet unknowingly passed the French that very evening, and arrived at Alexandria well ahead of them–Nelson had significantly overestimated how much farther ahead Napoleon was, and therefore missed the opportunity to attack said fleet at sea and maybe preempt the entire Egyptian invasion. You could argue, even, that he missed a prime chance to kill Napoleon before the whole…well, you know how that all played out.

On the other hand, maybe things worked out for the best from Nelson’s perspective. His plan, had he caught up to the French fleet, apparently called for sending part of his fleet to chase the French troop transports, leaving the rest of his ships to be outnumbered by the French ships of the line. Obviously we’ll never know, but this was probably a very bad plan. In other words, it’s quite possible that had Nelson actually caught up with the French at sea he would’ve lost the ensuing battle.

Casting around to figure out what had happened, Nelson sailed his fleet first north to Anatolia and then west toward Sicily. Napoleon, meanwhile, arrived at Alexandria at the end of June. While Nelson didn’t know where Napoleon was, Napoleon definitely knew that a British fleet was sniffing about the eastern Mediterranean, and so he ordered a hasty (and uncharacteristically sloppy) disembarkation and then, after determining that Alexandria’s harbor was too shallow and too exposed, had the fleet sail to Abu Qir. He issued further orders that, if Abu Qir didn’t offer enough protection, the fleet’s ships of the line were to sail north to Corfu. But Napoleon’s admiral, François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, determined to keep the fleet nearby to support Napoleon’s invasion. Napoleon later may have ordered the fleet to Corfu again to engage in operations against the Ottoman navy, but those orders never reached Brueys. So Abu Qir it was.

Brueys arranged his ships of the line in an actual defensive line, with each ship captain ordered to chain his vessel to the ones fore and aft, that stretched almost 3 kilometers and was anchored at the center by his flagship, the massive 118 gun Orient. The line was bookended by an island at one end and shallow shoals to the other that the British fleet would have struggled to navigate, and those Brueys defended by turning some of his transports into makeshift gun ships and bomb ships, as well as by garrisoning a fort on a small rocky island in the shallow water.

Brueys screwed up in several ways. He left too wide a gap between the end of the line and the shoals, so it was possible for British ships to sail in behind the French line. Then, assuming that it would be impossible for the British to get around his line, he didn’t bother loading or preparing the cannon on the rear (port) side of his ships, so that if Nelson could get ships around the French line the French would be unable to fire upon them.  Third, Brueys left too much space between his ships, enough space to allow British vessels to sail between them. This would have been impossible had all of his captains followed their orders to chain their ships together, but of course several of them did not. The French fleet was also struggling to find enough food and water, Napoleon having taken most of its provisions with him on his march to Cairo. The need to send out foragers left the fleet undermanned when the time came to fight.

Nelson was still somewhat frantically sailing around the eastern Mediterranean trying to catch a break when, while at the Greek port of Koroni in late July, he finally got word of the Egyptian invasion. He made a beeline south, found nothing at Alexandria, and then began canvassing the Egyptian coast to the east. The British fleet arrived at Abu Qir sometime on the afternoon of August 1. While conventional wisdom would have argued for attacking the following morning, Nelson decided to strike right away. Brueys probably assumed that Nelson would wait and may have been planning to try to slip out of the bay and make a break for it under cover of darkness. At the very least, Nelson had to consider the possibility that the French would attempt to run, so if he wanted to force a battle attacking immediately was the best way to do it.

Nelson opted to focus his attack on the end of the French line near the shoals, and as you’ve probably already guessed several of his captains figured out that it was possible to sail around the end of French line and attack from the French fleet’s unprotected rear. One by one the French ships at that end of the line were knocked out of the battle, badly damaged and having taken many casualties. Nelson himself was wounded but got stitched up and returned to command the latter part of the battle on his flagship, the Vanguard. Brueys was not so lucky. Although the Orient more than held its own for the first part of the battle due to its size and firepower, he was killed by British cannon fire. Then sometime before 9 PM (when it was noticed by the British) a fire broke out on the Orient’s lower deck. Several British vessels focused their guns on that fire and helped it spread uncontrollably throughout the ship. At around 10 PM it hit the Orient’s magazine and the ship exploded.

The Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 PM, showing the destruction of the Orient, by 18th-19th century painter Thomas Luny (Wikimedia)

The battle was over at that point, but skirmishes continued between the remaining French ships and the British fleet. Two French ships of the line and two frigates were able to break out of the bay and escape, but the rest–11 ships of the line and two frigates in total–were either destroyed or captured, with the final two surrendering on August 3. Britain lost a little over 200 sailors against as many as 5000 French killed and over 3000 more taken prisoner.

The Destruction of ‘L’Orient‘ at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798 by 19th century British George Arnald (Wikimedia)

The British victory at Abu Qir had ramifications beyond Egypt. It was so total, and the French losses so comprehensive, that France was unable to challenge British naval superiority in the Mediterranean again for the rest of the Napoleonic period. France very quickly lost control of Malta, which Napoleon had conquered on his way to Egypt. Napoleon’s plans to force an alliance on the Ottomans after he’d seized Egypt went up in smoke when the Ottomans, emboldened by the British victory, declared war on him instead. Nelson’s reputation, which was being battered as he scrambled around the Mediterranean looking for the French fleet, was salvaged and enhanced–he remained a consistent thorn in Napoleon’s side under he was killed in 1805 while in the process of winning the Battle of Trafalgar, an engagement more famous, but probably less consequential, than this one.

But of course the immediate effect of the Battle of the Nile on Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was profound. Instead of a French fleet shadowing and supporting his advance up the eastern Mediterranean coast, Napoleon had to deal with the British fleet harassing him every step of the way. His hope–that France might outfit another fleet and attempt to break through the British fleet to come to his aid–never materialized. His contingency plan–it seems clear from the way he’d outfitted his army that he’d intended for it to operate independently of the mother country if push came to shove–proved inadequate. Britain’s involvement was decisive in Napoleon’s defeat at Acre in May 1799, which was the point at which the French general threw in the towel and hightailed it back to France, having in the end never really conquered much more than Cairo if we’re going to be completely honest.

To Napoleon’s credit, I suppose, he did lay an ass whupping on the Ottomans before departing. And to be fair, things worked out pretty well for Napoleon back in France, for a few years anyway, and many of the officers he’d brought with him to Egypt went on to serve quite ably in his European campaigns. Things certainly could have gone much worse for him had Nelson found him at sea before he made it to Egypt. But his dream of a new French Empire to rival and ultimately break apart the British Empire died very prematurely at Abu Qir.


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