Battle of the Nile Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of the Nile destroyed the French fleet, isolated more than thirty-five thousand French soldiers in Egypt, and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to march eastward to India.

Summary of Event

Napoleon Bonaparte’s conclusion of peace with Austria in 1797-1798 brought a temporary cessation of hostilities on the Continent. Only France and Great Britain remained belligerents. However, since France could not control the English Channel long enough to invade the island kingdom successfully, and the British had no sizable army, the war between the two powers had reached a stalemate. Napoleon Bonaparte, then a promising young French general, proposed to the Directory that the best way to conquer the British would be to attack their trade routes to the East. [kw]Battle of the Nile (Aug. 1-2, 1798) [kw]Nile, Battle of the (Aug. 1-2, 1798) British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] Nile, Battle of the (1798) [g]Egypt;Aug. 1-2, 1798: Battle of the Nile[3360] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 1-2, 1798: Battle of the Nile[3360] Napoleon I Napoleon I;Battle of the Nile[Nile] Brueys d’Aigalliers, François-Paul [p]Nelson, Lord

On May 19, 1798, he sailed from Toulon at the head of a military expedition bound for Egypt and thence, it was hoped, for India. After stopping at Malta long enough to raise the French flag and reorganize the government, Bonaparte landed his army near Alexandria at the beginning of July. He took the city by assault with little difficulty, and the French army then marched southeast to the Rosetta leg of the Nile and south to Cairo. Within sight of the pyramids at Giza, the Egyptian army was defeated, and Bonaparte occupied the capital on July 24, 1798.

For all practical purposes, Egypt had been conquered. The defeated army split into two sections, one fleeing north along the Nile and the other into Syria, each pursued by French divisions. Napoleon was pleased with this military success and was confident that he would return to France in the fall as he had intended. On August 2, however, he received the startling news that the French fleet, which had convoyed his four hundred transports the length of the Mediterranean, had been annihilated.

Following the capture of Alexandria, the French had used its harbor to unload equipment and supplies. The entrance to the Old Harbor, which was protected by fortifications, was believed to be too shallow to accommodate thirteen ships of the line. So Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, commander of the French fleet under Bonaparte, sailed 15 miles northeast along the coast to Abū Qīr Bay (also known as Aboukir Bay). There, he anchored the thirteen ships in line parallel to the shore, with two frigates between the shore and the last ship at each side. He believed that with this positioning he could ward off any possible attack by the British Mediterranean fleet.

The Battle of the Nile.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Horatio Nelson, then a rear admiral, commanded fourteen British ships of the line. He had attempted to intercept the French armada while it was crossing the Mediterranean, but the two forces had missed each other and Nelson had actually reached Alexandria ahead of his prey. Finding no trace of the French ships, he sailed north along the coasts of Syria and Asia Minor; still unable to sight the French navy, he returned to the Nile Delta. Late in the afternoon of August 1, the British fleet appeared on the horizon north of Abū Qīr Bay. Dispensing with the customary precautions (which would have delayed the battle until the following morning), Nelson ordered his captains to attack the enemy at once.

The French were caught unprepared. A third of Brueys’s men were ashore gathering supplies and digging wells. Moreover, the French ships had been anchored too far from shore. Brueys’s defensive position was based upon the theory that the British would have to attack from the seaward side while they were still under sail; all guns were pointed out to sea with no firepower facing the shore. Nelson quickly summed up this weakness and ordered a number of his captains to position their ships between the French fleet and the shore. The leading British ship, taking a calculated risk that the water would be deep enough, carried out this maneuver successfully; it was soon followed by a second, and then three more which broke through the French line. Before long the French ships were being bombarded from two sides at once, with fire being concentrated on the massive French flagship L’Orient, which blew up with extensive loss of life.

The battle raged throughout the night of August 1 and the following morning. The French suffered a major defeat. Eleven battleships were destroyed or captured, and Admiral Brueys was killed. Only two French ships of the line and two frigates escaped, and even these stragglers were later destroyed by Nelson’s fleet.

Significance

In the Battle of the Nile, Nelson received his second serious wound, a gunshot to the forehead, but he gained control of the Mediterranean Sea in a single decisive engagement. The islands of Minorca and Malta were recaptured shortly afterward, while at home the rise of prestige allowed Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to negotiate the Second Coalition, with the result that Austria, Russia, and Turkey declared war on France.

The defeat of the French fleet trapped more than thirty-five thousand French soldiers in Egypt, and even though Napoleon had a victory on land, remaining there would have been difficult. It was not, however, impossible, and the remaining French ships in the Mediterranean, combined with the Spanish, outnumbered Nelson’s fleet. Nevertheless, Napoleon abandoned his troops, escaping on a small vessel. It foreshadowed several instances in his military career when he deserted his armies in the field to flee to safety. Fewer than eight thousand of the French soldiers reached their homeland. Napoleon, however, returned to usher out the Directory and to take his place as one of the three members of the Consulate, then quickly elevated himself to first consul, then, finally, emperor for life. As for the French fleet, the Battle of the Nile represented only the first of a pair of critical defeats administered by Admiral Nelson.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foreman, Laura, and Ellen Blue Phillips. Napoleon’s Lost Fleet: Bonaparte, Nelson, and the Battle of the Nile. New York: Discovery Books, 1999. Popular history of the battle and the underwater archaeological expedition to recover the remains of L’Orient in Abū Qīr Bay. Lavishly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Colin S. The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War. New York: Free Press, 1992. Although Gray does not examine Abū Qīr Bay specifically, he nevertheless treats the British-French naval struggle of 1688-1815 in detail, investigating naval strategy and technology, especially as they pertain to the outcome of land warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herold, J. Christopher. Bonaparte in Egypt. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. This remains the classic work on the military campaign in Egypt, including a full chapter devoted to the naval battle. Once again, a pro-British perspective that might be balanced with the broader work of David Chandler, whose 1967 work, The Campaigns of Napoleon, claims that the battle, while not immediately decisive, ended Napoleon’s long-term objectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Roger. The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson. New York: Basic Books, 2005. An authoritative and complete, scholarly biography of Admiral Nelson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavery, Brian. Nelson and the Nile: The Naval War Against Bonaparte, 1798. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. A strategic analysis of the battle, describing the military and political factors that sent Nelson in pursuit of the French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1793-1815. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1989. An excellent investigation into the British Navy in the Napoleonic era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahan, Alfred T. Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812. 2 vols. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. First published in 1892, this is a classic work of scholarship and an outstanding work on the topic, putting the Battle of the Nile in a central position in the decline of French sea power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Geoffrey. The Age of Nelson: The Royal Navy, 1793-1815. New York: Viking, 1971. Discusses the Royal Navy, including changes in equipment and administration, more than particular battles, but does contain material on strategy and tactics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodger, A. B. The War of the Second Coalition, 1798-1801. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1964. Includes an excellent chapter on the battle and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tracy, Nicholas. Nelson’s Battles: The Art of Victory in the Age of Sail. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. Detailed account of Nelson’s naval career, including the Nile campaign. Describes the conditions of naval warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Oliver. The Battle of the Nile. London: B. T. Batsford, 1960. A pro-British history of the campaign with particular emphasis on the genius of Nelson. Useful for capturing the mood of each fleet on the eve of battle.

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon Rises to Power in France

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