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Nelson destroyed the entire French fleet at the Battle of the Nile

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships on Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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This edited article about the Royal Navy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 355 published on 2 November 1968.

Battle of the Nile, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of the Nile

As a step towards the French conquest of Britain, Napoleon Bonaparte planned to drive the British from their possessions in Malta and Egypt. On May 19, 1798, he set out with a large French fleet, succeeded in capturing Malta, and then sailed for Egypt.

News of this reached Britain, and on June 12, Admiral Nelson was given command of a force of 13 seventy-fours and one 50-gun ship, with orders to “take, sink or destroy” the French fleet wherever he should find it.

The chase lasted for several weeks, because Nelson had no frigates to scout for him. At last, on August 1, he spotted the French fleet of 17 ships (including 13 ships of the line) anchored in a broken line in Aboukir Bay, an open roadstead about 15 miles east of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Between them and the shore were hazardous shoals, rocks and a long sandbank. Because an attack was not expected from that direction, the French guns on the landward side had not been prepared for action.

Nelson realised this and ordered his ships to sail between the French and the shore and attack from that side.

The Battle of the Nile began at sunset, and as darkness was falling, five British ships raked the French line with terrific fire. Nelson in the sixth ship, the Vanguard, met furious fire from Spartiate and Aquilon. He was without his right eye, lost at the siege of Calvi in 1794, and his right arm, shot away at the siege of Santa Cruz in 1797. In the present battle, while standing on his quarter-deck, he was deeply wounded in the forehead by a fragment of iron shot which blinded him temporarily. He was taken below for treatment, but hardly had his head been bound up when he was on deck again.

By this time – nine o’clock – the three-decker French flag ship Orient was on fire. The flames spread rapidly and soon her rigging was a mass of fire, with flames leaping up in mast-high sheets from one end of her to the other. Shortly after ten o’clock, the great ship blew up with a tremendous explosion. Seventy of her crew were saved, most of them by British boats.

By morning, the entire French fleet had been sunk or captured, with the exception of two rear-battleships and two frigates which were taken or destroyed in subsequent actions. On the British side, not a vessel was lost, although all were damaged to some extent.

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