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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served
 
 

The Battle of the Nile

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The Battle of the Nile

Nelson was appointed to HMS Vanguard in December 1797 and was sent to join St Vincent’s fleet in the Mediterranean. He was tasked by the Admiralty to lead a squadron of seven ships in the search for a French expeditionary force, commanded by General Napoleon Bonaparte. This force was on board 15 ships-of-the-line led by Admiral Brueys, whose destination was unknown. Strategically this was a risky decision as it meant that there was a bare minimum of ships guarding home waters raising the possibility that Britain could be invaded. But it was a decision taken to demonstrate to Austria, a former ally, and to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, that Britain was offering them protection against the French, so that they would join Britain’s war effort.

On 19-20 May 1798, en route to Toulon, Nelson’s ships encountered bad weather. His ship, HMS Vanguard, was dismasted and risked being lost. However, the ship was saved by the actions of Captain Alexander Ball of HMS Alexander who managed to get Nelson’s ship under tow, sailing to Sardinia for repair. Upon his return to Toulon, Nelson discovered that the French fleet had left. In July 1798 Nelson was informed both that he would get reinforcements, the first time he was to command a fleet, and that the French fleet had been sighted sailing towards the south-east, but with no precise indication where. The possibilities were Naples, Malta or Egypt.

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Nelson's frantic search for the French Fleet

Nelson sailed towards Sicily but sent Captain Thomas Troubridge on HMS Culloden to Naples to seek intelligence from Sir William Hamilton about the French fleet. On 22 June 1798, whilst off Sicily, Nelson learnt that Malta had been captured by the French who had then sailed away. Nelson deduced that they had sailed for Egypt, with the possible intention of attacking India. Reaching Alexandria on 28 June 1798, Nelson found that the French were not there. Frantically he sailed back to Sicily but still found no trace of them. On 28 July 1798 at Koroni, in the Gulf of Messenia, he was given information confirming that the French had made their way to Egypt. On 1 August 1798, whilst sailing back, Nelson’s fleet sighted at noon the French fleet moored in a single line in Aboukir Bay. Notwithstanding a long frantic chase and the onset of darkness, Nelson decided to attack immediately following a plan discussed with his captains. The captain of the leading British ship HMS Goliath, Thomas Foley, deduced that there was enough room to sail between the shore and the stationary French ships. Four other ships followed. As they went down the French line, which had been caught by surprise, they poured in their broadsides. The remaining British ships took the outside line of the French ships also firing as they went. The combined firepower of the British ships caused great damage. At 22:00 the French 120-gun L’Orient, one of the largest ships in existence, exploded. Fighting continued throughout the night and early morning. Only four French ships managed to escape under Rear-Admiral Pierre Charles de Villeneuve. The British suffered over 200 casualties whereas the French had lost over 3,000 men and had 3,000 taken prisoner. Nelson was unconscious for part of the action, having been hit in the head by metal shrapnel. With this victory Nelson had destroyed the French fleet, stranded Napoleon and his army in Egypt and removed the threat of invasion of India.

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Contemporary print of the Battle of the Nile

 

Extract from HMS Vanguard medical officer’s journal for 1798 revealing the extent of Nelson’s head injury sustained at the Battle of the Nile

Emma Hamilton and NaplesGo to next topic