Full Nelson: Patrick O’Brian’s Take on the Battle of the Nile

O’Brian wrote this short piece, included in the first of the New York Times Magazine’s six millennium issues. It appeared among a page of “The Best” written by a score of other notable writers. O’Brian’s department is “Best Naval Battle.” It is, perhaps, the last thing he published while alive.

These last 1,000 years have been shaped by battles, and perhaps most decisively by sea battles. There was the great galley action at Lepanto in 1571, when from the naval point of view the Ottoman Turks were firmly checked — 117 Turkish galleys were taken and 80 destroyed; only 12 Christian vessels were lost. There was the Spanish Armada, so ferociously pursued and battered right up the Channel and beyond by Sir Francis Drake and his companions that Spain’s moral power and reputation were permanently damaged.

In England’s long struggle against Napoleon, the crowning naval achievement was the battle of Trafalgar. But nowhere were the odds longer, the element of surprise more important or the necessity for improvisation more acute than in Nelson’s victory over the French at the Nile.

In 1798, when all of England’s allies in the war against France had been defeated and when the Spaniards had changed sides, obliging the Royal Navy to withdraw from the Mediterranean, Bonaparte set out from Toulon with a powerful fleet and 300 transports on May 19, with the intention of conquering Egypt and attacking the British in India. French security was very good, but even so, British naval intelligence gathered some information and Adm. Horatio Nelson was sent to see what Bonaparte was doing. But Nelson had almost no frigates, and without them to range far and wide, he could not find the French until August.

In the meantime, Bonaparte had captured Malta, stormed Alexandria and taken Cairo. But he had left his fleet in the bay of Aboukir, and here Nelson found them, 13 line-of-battle ships anchored in a long curve. There were dangerous shoals by Aboukir, and a long sandbank ran parallel to the strand. The French fleet was also protected by bomb-vessels and a battery on the island, and four frigates lay inside the line.

When Nelson discovered Bonaparte’s fleet at about 2 P.M. on Aug. 1, the breeze was in the north-northwest, and the French lay almost directly to leeward. At this point, Nelson had only eleven 74’s and one 50-gunship. He nevertheless attacked directly, and his fleet bore down under all the canvas that could be set.

Despite this zeal, it was not until 5:30 P.M. that the fleet, finally abreast of the end of the shoal off Aboukir, was ordered to form the battle line ahead and astern of Nelson in the Vanguard. Shortly thereafter, Nelson hailed Capt. Samuel Hood, asking whether he thought the ships were far enough to the eastward to bear up. Hood replied, “I don’t know, sir; but with your permission I will stand in and try.” This he did, and sounding carefully, he rounded the shoal. At about 6 P.M. Nelson ordered the fleet to fill its sails and prepare for battle. They did so, the 74’s coming down on the anchored Frenchmen with the north-northwest wind on their starboard beam. At this point, the Culloden, a 74 under Nelson’s particular friend, Thomas Troubridge, struck on the tail of the rocky shoal, while two remaining 74’s were still a great way off.

The attack nevertheless went on, although it meant 10 ships of the line, mounting 740 guns, against 13, mounting no fewer than 1,026, not counting the shore batteries.

At 6:20 P.M., with the sun low in the west, the Conquerant and the Guerrier, the leaders of the French van, opened fire on the two foremost British ships, the Goliath and the Zealous, while the mortars on the island began throwing shells. The Goliath’s captain, sounding as he came, found that there was room for him to cross the Guerrier’s bows without running on the shoal, and then, setting his topgallant sails again, he did so, raking the Frenchmen with his broadside as he crossed. He had meant to anchor by the stern and batter her yardarm-to-yardarm on her larboard side, there being depth enough for him to do so. But his anchor did not bring him up directly, and he moved on to the next 74, the Conquerant, while the Zealous took her place alongside the Guerrier, hitting her so hard that her foremast came down within five minutes.

The sun set, and now the bulk of Nelson’s fleet came down, the Orion following the Goliath along the French inner side, while most of the rest ran down the outer, each anchoring opposite her chosen foe. The two fleets filled the sky with the smoke, flashes and bellowing of some 2,000 guns, for by now the last British ships, guided by the stranded Culloden, had reached the fight.

The odds in numbers and in weight of broadside metal were heavily against Nelson, but the tactical position was entirely in his favor. The French admiral had left enough room at the head of his van and between his ships for the enemy to pass through, which several did, working down the line so that the Frenchmen often had British ships on either side. The French, with inadequate crews for the task, had to fire both broadsides; the better-manned English, only one, and that far more accurate.

The French fought with splendid courage, but it was no use; at about 10 P.M. their flagship, L’Orient, caught fire and blew up. Then there was silence for nearly a quarter of an hour before the battle began again; it continued until daybreak, when mopping-up operations began. During this time only four French ships managed to escape.

It was a famous victory: it shattered Bonaparte’s scheme in Egypt and India; it had great political influence in Europe; it was splendidly rewarded, with medals, promotions and quantities of presents bestowed on those who fought, and it awakened the world to Lord Nelson’s glory.

Courtesy of Gibbons Burke.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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