On this day: The Battle of the Nile
On this day in 1798 began the Battle of the Nile, a major naval engagement between the Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. 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 the then General Napoleon Bonaparte. In the engagement the British fleet, led by Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, decisively defeated the French in a near-apocalyptic battle of annihilation.
I wrote about this epic encounter in Tenacious. To my mind it was not Trafalgar that was Nelson’s very finest hour, but the Battle of the Nile. In the shallow, sandy waters of Aboukir Bay, off the coast of Alexandria, Nelson altered the course of history and slammed the door in the face of Napoleon’s dreams of empire.
Nelson’s achievement at the Battle of the Nile is all the more amazing as only the year before much of the British fleet was in a state of mutiny. Yet Nelson took on an enemy of superior numbers and utterly exterminated them, with loss of life on the French side eight times that of the British!
In the course of the extensive research I did for Tenacious I was intrigued to find a number of Devon connections, the English county in which I now live:
More officers and men who defended their country in the Battle of the Nile came from Devon than any other county.
The only captain killed at the Battle of the Nile was Devon man George Westcott, commander of the 74‑gun ship-of-the-line Majestic. When Nelson located the French fleet at anchor at Aboukir Bay, he quickly ordered the British into the attack. Majestic was towards the rear of the British line, and did not come into action until late in the battle. In the darkness and smoke she collided with Heureux and became entangled in her rigging. Trapped for several minutes, Majestic suffered heavy casualties. Westcott was hit by a musket ball in the throat and killed. He was buried at sea. Despite humble origins, like Tom Kydd he had risen to become one of Nelson’s celebrated ‘band of brothers’ and a monument to his memory was erected in St Paul’s, and also in his home town. In January 1801, Nelson, passing through Honiton, on his way to take up a new command at Plymouth, presented Mrs. Westcott with his own Nile medal, saying, ‘You will not value it less because Nelson has worn it.’
After his victory at the Nile, Nelson was given the Freedom of the City of Exeter and a sword was presented to him at the Guildhall. It passed through various hands after his death and was eventually returned to the city in 1934. The scabbard bears the City Arms with the inscription ‘Horatio Nelson (Vice Admiral of the Blue) enrolled as a Freeman of the City of Exeter, 21st January 1801. Thomas Floud Mayor.’
The loss of the French flagship L’Orient during the Battle of the Nile has gone down as ‘the mother of all ship explosions’ in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. When the conflagration aboard the ship reached the magazine L’Orient exploded in an incredible spectacle, with blazing parts of the ship hurled hundreds of yards into the air. After the explosion both sides fell into a stunned silence for about ten minutes and an eerie light pervaded the scene. Mangled, wounded and scorched bodies were strewn all over Aboukir Bay.
The poem Casabianca by Felilcia Hemans was written in commemoration of the death of the son of the captain of the L’Orient:
- The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead
One of the most unusual battle trophies must be the coffin made from the wreckage of L’Orient. After the battle Swiftsure recovered a section of L’Orient’s mainmast. The ship’s carpenter made it into a coffin which Captain Hallowell presented to Nelson. While his officers were appalled, Nelson was amused and for a time kept the coffin standing in his cabin.
L’Orient had reportedly been carrying the treasure of the Knights of St John, looted by Napoleon at his capture of Malta. An underwater archaeological study of L’Orient‘s wreck-site has recovered some artefacts including small-arms, coins and personal possessions of crew-members – but whether Napoleon’s hoard was landed before the battle or lies buried somewhere within Neptune’s Realm may remain a mystery forever…
I have two paperbacks of Tenacious up for grabs! Just email firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the French commander at the Battle of the Nile. Please include your full postal address. Deadline: August 10
Lemuel Francis Abbott [Public domain] via Wikimedia Common
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