BATTLE OF ABOUKIR BAY

The Battle of Aboukir Bay or (Nile) (August 1-2, 1798) saw a British fleet under Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson defeat a French fleet, stranding Napoleon's army in Egypt. French losses have been estimated to have been as high as 1,700 dead (including Vice-Admiral Brueys) and 3,000 captured. British losses were 218 dead.

Still on the rise but not yet the primary enemy of Britain, commanding General Napoleon Bonaparte intended to threaten the British position in India via the invasion and conquest of Egypt. The expedition was also cultural and included many scientists, educators, and technical specialists including a surveying party, as French intellectuals had long debated the feasibility of cutting a ship-canal between the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Previously, Napoleon spread misinformation about a planned invasion of Ireland, where the French Mediterranean fleet would meet up with the fleet to the north before the battle starts. This tricked the British navy into guarding the western Mediterranean Sea, and allowed Napoleon to support his Egypt expedition with no conflicts. About three weeks after his landing there, a British fleet of 14 ships under Horatio Nelson, which had been scouring the western Mediterranean Sea looking for the French fleet, finally came upon the 15 French ships being used to support the invasion of Egypt.

The fleets met close to sunset on August 1. The French were at anchor in Abu Qir Bay, in shallow water near a shoal, less than 7 fathoms (14 m) deep. The shoal was being used to protect the southwestern, port side of the fleet, while the starboard side faced the northeast and the open sea. Nelson had already achieved great fame, and the French Admiral Brueys had studied his tactics at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and other engagements. As a consequence, Brueys had his line of battle chained together at anchor, to prevent the British from cutting the line and defeating a part of it in a night action. Brueys expected the battle to begin the next morning, as he did not believe the British would risk a night encounter in shallow, uncharted waters. Leisurely, preparations for combat began. It is possible that the French were preparing to try to escape during the night.

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Nelson brought together a team of diverse men in whom he held faith and had occasionally gathered for conference during their three-month hunt through the Mediterranean for Bonaparte's fleet. Nelson let each captain act on his own initiative. As the British fleet approached, Thomas Foley of the Goliath observed the gap between the first ship of the French fleet and the closest land. He assessed that the chains anchored to shore lay deep enough for the Goliath to pass over. The Goliath separated from the conventional line of attack, face to face, and slipped round to the other side of the French fleet. Other British ships followed, and the French were attacked from both sides. One British ship, Culloden, ran aground; but the remainder were able to stay afloat, and began taking the French fleet apart, one by one, down the line. The wind from the north meant that the unengaged French ships could not come up to help their fellows. The French flagship L'Orient came under fire, first from Bellerophon, which received a battering and drifted away dismasted, and then from Alexander and Swiftsure. By 21:00, L'Orient was ablaze, and the battle paused as ships tried to distance themselves from the anticipated explosion. At about 22:00, the fire reached the magazine and the flagship exploded, hurling blazing parts of ship and crew hundreds of metres into the air. Only a hundred or so of L'Orient's crew of a thousand survived, by swimming from the burning ship. Following the blast, all of the men on both sides ceased fire and watched mouths agape for thirty minutes as the French flagship burst apart in a spectacular explosion. Only two French ships towards the end of the line, Le Généreux and Guillaume Tell, together with the two frigates Diane and Justice, were able to escape. The rest were burned, or captured by morning on 2 August. Nelson was struck on his forehead by grapeshot while standing on the quarterdeck, exposing his skull. Surgeon Jefferson pronounced the wound superficial, but Nelson could not believe it was not fatal and sent for his chaplain, Stephen Comyn. They moved Nelson to the breadroom, where they would not be disturbed. Nelson recovered and, following the victory, issued a memorandum to his fleet, "Almighty God having blessed His Majesty's arms with victory, the Admiral intends returning public thanksgiving for the same at 2 o'clock this day and he recommends every ship doing the same as soon as convenient."

News of the victory was delayed reaching Britain. Leander, the ship carrying Nelson's envoy Captain Edward Berry and returning home with the dispatches, was captured after a fierce battle by the surviving 74-gun Le Généreux. Nelson headed for Italy, where Vanguard was stranded at the Bay of Palermo. It was there that Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma were living. It was also the occasion of a less glorious incident of Nelson’s career, the execution of Prince Francesco Caracciolo. Napoleon, who had already landed with his army, finished his conquest of Egypt, and went on to conquer much of Syria, but the political situation in Paris soon changed. He abandoned his troops and left for France to take charge of a coup to overthrow the constitution and secured his own election as First Consul. Napoleon then crowned himself as Emperor on 2 December 1804. The battle established British naval superiority during the remainder of the French Revolutionary Wars, and was an important contribution to the growing fame of Admiral Nelson.

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