Battle of the Nile, 1798

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Horatio Nelson versus Paul-François Brueys: A British fleet under Nelson surprises a French fleet under Brueys at anchor. Even with the advantage of surprise, can Nelson and his captains find a way to overcome Brueys’ powerful flagship, L’Orient?

Significance

The British victory ensured the French presence in Egypt would soon expire, and ended any future threat to India in one stroke, a possibility Nelson had always taken seriously (Strathern, 2007: 170). The victory marked “the establishment of British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, never again to be lost” (Mostert, 2007: 276). In his lengthy work on the history of the British Royal Navy, Wilson writes that

The Battle of the Nile exemplified all that was best about the Royal Navy. The captains acted with zeal and good sense. The French fought valiantly in defence of their line, but they could not match the discipline and skills in the British sailors. (2013: 421)

This was the French admirals’ first experience with Nelson, who suddenly became a “potential determinant of the whole course of war” (Moster, 2007: 276). The French admirals’ nightmare of facing Nelson at sea only ended in with Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalagar in 1805. By this point though it was too late for French naval fortunes in the Napoleonic Wars.

Analysis

The British victory at the Nile is a perfect example of the superiority of Nelson’s decentralized command and control. Nelson issued very few orders to his captains, issuing only signals 53 and 54. Nelson trusted his captains to act decisively on their own initiative in line with his overall intent, in this case to engage the French line on both sides. Kuehn, in his excellent analysis of the Napoleonic Wars at the operational level, explains it best:

Nelson’s ships did not waste time signalling an acknowledgement or request back to Nelson for any further guidance. This was because they all knew their commander intimately, they knew their ships and they knew their enemy was unprepared . . .

Nelson effectively gave his captains free rein when he sent the signal to his ships at 1730 [hrs] “to form line as most convenient,” leaving it to their discretion how to approach the French fleet since he was in the rear aboard Vanguard. The execution was not without some hiccups, such as when Captain Troubridge on Culloden ran aground just north of the French, but this also served to let the ships behind know where not to sail. Several ships performed the anchoring maneuver inexpertly and paid with heavy casualties as a result of being out of position. But most of Nelson’s other captains served him well. The aggressive captain of the lead ship Goliath was Sir Thomas Foley. He instantly made the decision to go behind the first French ships and inside the French line. About half the other captains followed his initiative while Nelson signalled for the remainder in the last bit of daylight to follow Majestic (74) on the northern side. This resulted in a double envelopment of the French ships in the first part of the line. Their mates further down the line were anchored solidly and could not help them.

To make matters worse, some French ships had not strung cable anchored French ships. Again, taking local initiative, several British ships between their neighbours to counter the known British tactic of “breaking the line” and then shooting longitudinally into the aft and bows of the performed this maneuver, especially Leander (50) and Alexander (74), dealing out further bloody devastation against the hapless French ships that were their targets. (2015: 79-80)

The initiative of the British captains contrasts with the hesitancy of the French. While Brueys’ fleet was obviously at a severe disadvantage to begin the battle his subordinates did little to help the situation. For example, commentators such as Jurien de Gravière have noted that while Nelson received reinforcements during the course of the battle, nearly half of Brueys’ ships were mere spectators in the rear under the command of Villeneuve (Mostert, 2007: 275). While the wind direction, anchors, and cables made it very difficult for these French ships to move towards the battle, the maneuver was by no means impossible. Gravière argues that Villeneuve’s ships “could have cut their cables during the battle as easily as they did when they sought to effect their escape” and “save a dead calm, which did not exist, they could have easily stemmed the feeble current which prevails on that coast” and affected the battle (Mostert, 2007: 275). Villeneuve, an admiral keep in mind, defended himself against such accusations by stating that “there was no instruction as to bringing the rear to support the van, because the thing was impossible” (Moster, 2007: 276). Essentially, British captains felt more confidence in exercising initiative than a French admiral. The result was a decisive British victory.

Notes

I was determined to animate one of the classic battles from the Napoleonic period of the Age of Sail when I was able to find a copy of the 1974 wargame covering the period 1776-1815, Wooden Ships and Iron Men. It is an old one but a good one with pretty simple basic rules with a ton of optional, advanced rules. Some scenarios can also be played free online at http://www.youplay.it/play/cp_dynamicIndex2.asp.

I was extremely satisfied with how well the animation for the Orient explosion turned out.

– Jonathan Webb

Works Consulted

Grant, R.C. Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare. New York: DK Publishing, 2011.

Kuehn, John T. Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015.

Mostert, Noel. The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Padfield, Peter. Nelson’s War. London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1976.

Strathern, Paul. Napoleon in Egypt. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.

Warner, Oliver. Nelson’s Battles. London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1965.

Wilson, Ben. Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy. London: Orion, 2013.

Images

British ship-of-the-line: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Hercule_(1798)

British brig-sloop: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruizer-class_brig-sloop

Francois-Paul Brueys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois-Paul_Brueys_d%27Aigalliers

French frigate: https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=List%20of%20French%20sail%20frigates

French ship-of-the-line: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Hercule_(1798)

Horatio Nelson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Nelson,_1st_Viscount_Nelson

Map of Egypt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_campaign_in_Egypt_and_Syria

Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections

 

If you enjoyed the Battle of the Nile 1798 battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Battle of Cape Economus 256 BC, another naval battle fought in the Mediterranean Sea::

Battle of Lepanto 1571, another naval battle fought in the Mediterranean Sea during the Gunpowder Era::

Ulm Campaign 1805, another battle in which a commander effectively used decentralized command and control at the operational level during the Napoleonic Wars:

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