At the end of 1942, the Allies won three victories in three different theatres. In the Pacific the US Navy turned back the remorseless Japanese advance at Midway. In the snows of southern Russia the Red Army destroyed the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, while in the heat of the Western Dessert British and Commonwealth troops decisively defeated the German Africa Corp at the Battle of El Alamein. After three long years in which everything had been going against them, the momentum had at last shifted.
In the summer of 1798 it was the French who seemed to be all conquering, having yet to suffer a major defeat on land or sea. In five years of war they had forced Austria and Prussia to sue for peace and annexed Belgium, Holland and most of Italy. Now they planned to cripple their most persistent opponent, Britain. Several attempts at direct invasion having failed, they had launched an army from Southern France across the Mediterranean to attack Egypt. Almost forty thousand troops were despatched under the command of the Republic’s star general, Napoleon Bonaparte. They were carried by a fleet of over four hundred ships, protected by seventeen warships in the biggest seaborne expedition since the Spanish Armada. Having conquered Egypt, they would press on to India, seen by the French as the source of British Imperial power. Attempting to stop them was a fleet of fourteen Royal Navy ship’s of the line, under the command of the most unlikely of heroes.
Sir Horatio Nelson was a very junior admiral who had only just been promoted. He was a small man whose constitution was troubled by recurring bouts of dysentery and malaria from his early career in the West Indies. To add to his health concerns he was almost blind in one eye, and had just recovered from the loss of his arm to a Spanish musket ball the previous year. He was known as an excellent fighting captain, although this reputation had been tarnished by his last battle, an impetuous and unsuccessful attack made on Santa Cruz in Tenerife. Nevertheless it was to Nelson that the task of hunting down and defeating the French was given, and after two months of searching, he finally ran their fleet to ground, late in the afternoon on the 1st of August 1798.
Sixty miles east of the battlefield of El Alamein, close to one of the mouths of the Nile, lies Abukir Bay. It was here that the French fleet lay at anchor, in a formidable position. Moored bow to stern in a line two miles long, with the coastline of Egypt behind them, and treacherous shoals all around, they presented a wall of oak and iron to the approaching British. Aboard his huge flagship, the 120 gun L’Orient, Admiral Brueys was confident that with night fast approaching, his opponent would not dare to launch an attack into a bay littered with so many navigational hazards. But then he had yet to encounter a commander as aggressive as Nelson.
Without hesitation, the British fleet formed into line of battle, and plunged into the bay. To aid recognition in the dark, each ship exchanged its blue ensign for a white one, and displayed three blue lights from its mizzen top yard. In the lead ship, the 74 Goliath, Captain Thomas Folley skilfully navigated the way forward using the fleet’s most accurate chart of the bay. Thanks to him, only one British ship, the Culloden, ran aground. But this was not to be his most important contribution to the victory.
In the gathering gloom, Foley carefully examined the enemy fleet, and realised that the French ships were anchored only at their bows. With the wind blowing from the head of the line to the rear, this was fine to hold them in position. But as an experienced sea-captain Folley knew that no sailor would anchor in that way unless he was sure that he had deep water all around him for his ship to swing in. And where there was room for a French ship to swing, he deduced, there was also room for a British ship to pass. Without hesitation he rounded the end of the French line, followed by the next four British ships. They each fell on an opponent from the landward side, while the rest of the fleet ranged up on the outside. Each ship of the French van was now sandwiched between two opponents.
In such an unequal contest, there could only be one victor. And with the wind dead against them, and shoal water all around, the rest of the French fleet could do little to come to the aid of their colleagues. Admiral Brueys carefully planned position had become a trap. All that the remaining French ships could do was either cut and run, or wait for the remorseless advance of the British fleet towards them. It is a tribute to French arms that almost all stayed, with several captains remaining on their quarterdecks in spite of severe injury. By ten o’clock the fighting had reached the mighty L’Orient. Like a stag at bay, she was surrounded by three British 74s, all pounding away at her. The black Egyptian night was lit first by the flash of broadsides, and then by a more permanent light as hungry flames began to lick up the sides of the French flagship. Soon she was ablaze from stem to stern, while all about her ships tried to get clear. Then the fire reached the thirty tons of powder stored in her magazines, and she exploded.
From her crew of over a thousand just seventy survived, including Lieutenant Berthelot who was rescued by the crew of the Swiftsure, stark naked except for his hat. After a stunned pause, the fighting resumed as those British ships still in a condition to fight engaged the ships of the French rear. By dawn the action was over, and Nelson had triumphed. Of the seventeen French warships in the bay that night just four managed to escape. One was the flagship of Admiral Villeneuve, who would face Nelson again seven years later, off Cape Trafalgar.
News of the battle was greeted with rejoicing amongst the opponents of France. Nelson became famous overnight. George III made him a lord, the King of Naples made him a duke, and ladies from London to Vienna dressed in what they imagined to be Egyptian style in his honour. For the French, their army in Egypt was hopelessly cut off. Unable to advance to India, and shortly to be abandoned by its leader, General Bonaparte, it was eventually forced to surrender.
The final word must go to the wreck of the L’Orient. When she exploded and sank, she not only took most of her crew down with her, but the pay chest of the French Army, and all the treasures Napoleon had looted from Malta. There they lie, scattered across the muddy bottom of Abukir Bay, still waiting to be discovered one day.