The Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay 1798
In Aboukir Bay on 1 August 1798, Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson achieved one of the most decisive victories in the age of sail and re-established British command of the Mediterranean. With a fleet of fourteen ships, he captured six and destroyed seven French vessels out of a total of seventeen.
Since May 1798 Nelson had been searching for the French fleet. The French force sailed from Toulon in May, escorting the transports of General Napoleon Bonaparte's army to Egypt. Nelson's arrival ended eighteen months without a British presence in the Mediterranean. It was a risky venture since the Home Fleet was left without a reserve but the government hoped a victory would cause Austria to declare war on France.
The French position in Aboukir Bay appeared a very strong one with the ships anchored parallel to the shore. The French commander Admiral Brueys hoped that any attackers would be have to approach his ships head on while the French vessels could fire broadsides. However, there were wide gaps between the ships and none of the four French frigates were employed on scouting duties so Nelson's fleet achieved complete surprise at 1430 on 1 August.
Nelson's thirteen 74 gun ships and one 50 gun vessel were in theory outnumbered by Brueys' 120 gun flagship, three 80 gun ships and nine 74s plus four frigates. But five British ships led by Captain Thomas Foley in HMS Goliath passed between the leading French vessel and the shallow waters to engage the enemy from the landward side. This proved to be the key moment. With the remainder of Nelson's line sailing down the seaward side, eight French ships of the line were engaged by thirteen British ones.
The fighting was fierce and Nelson himself was hit in the forehead. At 2200 the magazine of the 120 gun French flagship L'Orient blew up in a massive explosion. By this time the French line was in complete disarray and Nelson ordered the last four French ships of the line to be engaged; two escaped with two frigates whilst the other two were captured.
The British suffered 218 killed and 677 wounded. French losses were far worse with an estimated 5225 men killed, wounded and captured. Napoleon's army in Egypt was cut off and forced to surrender by a British force in 1801, although its illustrious commander had returned to France in 1799. France's enemies were much encouraged by the great victory and the victor himself became Baron Nelson of the Nile.
- B. Lavery, "Nelson: Aboukir 1798" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).