aboukir bay

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Horatio Nelson and the Battle of the Nile,

In 1798 the French General Napoleon Bonaparte set sail with a large fleet and 40,000 men with the goal of conquering Egypt, thus cutting off British trade routes to India.  While Napoleon was successful in conquering Egypt, adding the Battle of the Pyramids to his list of glorious victories, little did he know that an equally intelligent strategic genius was about to swoop in and sour his success.  Upon Napoleon’s departure, then Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson shadowed the large force with a fleet of his own.  

Short on supplies and unprepared for battle, the French fleet consisting of 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates anchored in a defensive line formation close to the shoreline in Aboukir Bay near the outlet of the Nile River.  Along the shore was a series of unmapped sandbars and shoals, which could easily ground a large ship.  The French believed that by parking close to the shore, they would prevent the British from being able to attack from the landward side.  However, that was Nelson’s plan all along, and ignoring the risks, he ordered his fleet to divide into two forces.  The first would sail parallel of the French fleet on the seaside, the other force would enter the bay, risking the shoals to attack from the landward side.  Thus the British would have the French fleet surrounded from both sides.

On August 1st, 1798 Nelson’s forces of 13 ships of the line, 1 fourth rate, and one sloop engaged the French with the winds at their backs.   Nelson’s gamble paid off greatly, as none of his ships were grounded on the shoals, and the British fleet caught the French in a deadly double envelopment.  

The result was a hopeless situation for the French as the British fleet pounded the French fleet with broadsides from both sides.  Foolishly the French had also spaced some of their ships too far apart, allowing British warships to “cross the T” in between, thus directing full broadsides against the lightly defended sterns and bows of the French ships.  Eventually the British had the French fleet completely surrounded.  The highlight of the battle when the French flagship L’Orient, a massive 120 gun warship was destroyed in a large explosion, taking 1,000 of her crew down with her into the salty brine.

After being pounded by the British fleet for two days, the French had no choice but to surrender or be completely annihilated.  It was a grand victory for Nelson and the Royal Navy, which lost no ships during the battle.  The French, however, suffered terrible losses.  Only one ship of the line and two frigates escaped the battle.  Two ships of the line were destroyed as well as two frigates.  9 ships of the line were captured.  Around 3,000 - 5,000 French sailors were killed during the fighting, with another 4,000 captured and taken prisoner.  The British however, suffered some losses as well, with 218 killed and 677 wounded.  Nelson himself was lightly wounded by a piece of grapeshot which struck him in the head and left him temporarily blinded.  

The Battle of the Nile was Nelson’s first great major naval victory, making him a national hero and household name all over Britain.  More importantly it changed the fortunes of the British in the Mediterranean.  For Napoleon, the loss of his fleet was a disaster which turned his dreams of  Egyptian conquest into a terrible nightmare.  Cut off from supplies and reinforcements from France, Napoleon would be forced to abandon his army in Egypt a year later, the first great defeat of his military career.

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The Battle of the Nile

1 August 1798

The Battle of the Nile began on this day in maritime history, 1 August 1798. The battle, also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, saw the British Royal Navy under Horatio Nelson prevail over the Navy of the French Republic in battle that concluded on 3 August. The battle was the climax of a naval campaign that had ranged across the Mediterranean during the previous three months, as a large French convoy sailed from Toulon to Alexandria carrying an expeditionary force under then General Napoleon Bonaparte. The British victory at the Battle of the Nile effectively put an end to Napoleon’s invasion of the Middle East and made Nelson a war hero in the British Empire.

The Battle of the Nile

1 August 1798

The Battle of the Nile began on this day in history, 1 August 1798. The battle, also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, saw the British Royal Navy under Horatio Nelson prevail over the Navy of the French Republic in a battle that concluded on 3 August. The battle was the climax of a naval campaign that had ranged across the Mediterranean during the previous three months, as a large French convoy sailed from Toulon to Alexandria carrying an expeditionary force under then General Napoleon Bonaparte. The British victory at the Battle of the Nile effectively put an end to Napoleon’s invasion of the Middle East and made Nelson a war hero in the British Empire.