The Battle of the Nile, which took place on August 1, 1798, was one of the early defining events of England’s war with France. It was also one of the early defining events of Jack Aubrey’s life. Over the course of the series, he mentions his participation in the battle many times, and he often wears “the button of the Nile” on his coat. In Master and Commander, he theorizes that he got his step in part for actions performed during the battle as “First of the Leander” (and because he was the only lieutenant who didn’t get knocked on the head).
Below is an overview of the battle, courtesy of The Napoleonic Guide.
Having unsuccessfully tried to catch the French fleet on its way to Egypt, Britain’s Admiral Nelson finally got within cannon shot at Aboukir Bay.
Nelson had 13 ships under his command, four fewer than Admiral Brueys d’Aigalliers, who felt protected by land batteries and rocks.
As soon as he saw the French Nelson set to them, but first his vessels had to brave fire from the battery placed on Aboukir Island.
Having got past those guns, the British then exploited poor positioning by Brueys d’Aigalliers, who had allowed too much room at the head of his line, and sailed down the unmanned shore-side of the first French ships, pummeling them with little fear of return fire.
Other arriving vessels also took advantage of similar gaps in the French line and even the mighty 120-gun L’Orient was in desperate trouble. It had forced the nearly sinking Bellerophon out of the battle but, at 10pm, the French flagship exploded after being set upon by a pack of British ships.
The Nile was a stunning victory for Nelson with only four enemy vessels escaping.
Note: Courage and determination have never been more impressively characterised than by the actions of Aristide Aubert Dupetit-Thouars, captain of the Tonnant, during the Battle of the Nile. Thouars had his right arm shot away, then the left and finally one of his legs was taken off by a cannonball. Refusing to give up command, he insisted on being put in a tub of bran that was on deck and led his men until he collapsed from blood loss. One of his final orders was to nail the Tricolour to the mast so it could not taken down in surrender.