The Battle of the Nile
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
A point had now been reached in the war when the French Republic had established itself in possession of the natural boundaries of France, and, beyond its own borders, had set up in the north of Italy and in Holland republics which were virtually dependencies, while Switzerland as the "Helvetic Republic" was practically in the same position. Spain was the ally of France, as in the days when a Bourbon reigned.
The victorious General Bonaparte had been careful to avoid humiliating Austria, whose friendship he desired, while Prussia-had long ceased to be hostile. The one remaining enemy recognised was Britain, and the French Directory was determined upon her humiliation. What was of more importance than the determination of the Directory was the determination of France's most distinguished general, of whom the Directory itself was beginning to stand in no little fear; for he had ignored orders and acted on his own responsibility both in campaigning and in negotiating, after a fashion which showed that the nominal servant of the state might very soon aim at making himself its master.
Bonaparte was bent on the destruction of England, but Camperdown had at any rate deferred the possibility of immediately carrying out the plan of sweeping the British Navy off the Channel with the combined fleets of France, Spain, and Holland, and flinging an army of invasion upon her shores. Ostensibly, however, this was still the scheme which 'was in preparation in the winter and spring following the Treaty of Campo Formio. Bonaparte was appointed to the command of the army of invasion. Nevertheless, the scheme which he was revolving in his mind was less obvious but more tremendous.
He had conceived the idea of an Asiatic conquest which should enable him to set out to achieve the empire of the West with Asia as his base. The British Empire was already the dominant power in India; in India it should be destroyed, and the way to India lay through Egypt. The supreme defect in all Bonaparte's schemes of conquest lay in his failure to understand the enormous importance of sea power; and because he did not understand it every one of his schemes for the destruction of the British was brought to nought, from his Egyptian expedition to his Continental System.
Bonaparte's plan, then, was to seize upon Egypt and Syria and to make them the base for further conquest. The Directory was not ill-pleased at the prospect of getting its alarmingly powerful servant out of the way, and it readily adopted his plan. The proposal of invading England was only a feint. Egypt was the real objective of the Toulon armament, although Egypt was technically a province of the Turkish Empire with which France had no quarrel.
The Navy did not believe that the Toulon fleet was intended for the invasion of England, a project which for the time had in fact been rendered impracticable. But Nelson was detached by Jervis to take charge of it. The expedition succeeded in sailing however before Nelson's arrival. Nelson, finding that his prey had escaped and guessing its destination, made straight for Alexandria; but Bonaparte took Malta en route, so that the British fleet missed the French fleet, reached Alexandria before it, found no trace of it, and started again to hunt for the quarry.
Two days later the French came to Alexandria, the fleets having passed each other in hazy weather. Bonaparte landed, and began the subjugation of Egypt, which was to be followed by that of Syria, and then by further developments. Nelson left Alexandria on July 10th, but after some vain searching he got news of the movements of the French, which brought him back again, and on August 1st he found the French fleet lying in Aboukir Bay,
In each fleet there were thirteen sail of the line, but the French ships were bigger and carried a greater weight of metal, besides having four frigates to two of Nelson's. The French were lying anchored in line very nearly from south to north with shoals on their left when the British came down on them with a northerly wind. It was already late in the day, but Nelson resolved to fight.
Reckoning that where there was room for French ships to swing there was room foor British ships to sail, his five leading ships passed down on the left of the French, between them and the shoals, and engaged the van. The rest passed down on the French right and also engaged the French van, which was thus crushed by the fire on both sides, while the rear was unable to come up to its assistance. The battle raged through the night; the French flagship, the Orient, was blown up; and in the morning the French fleet had ceased to exist.
Only two vessels escaped; one besides the Orient was burnt, and nine were captured. The Battle of the Nile or Aboukir Bay gave the British not a mere ascendency in the Mediterranean, but control, absolute, unqualified, and irresistable. Bonaparte and his army in Egypt were completely cut off from all communication, with France. The overwhelming supremacy won by Hawke thirty-nine years before at Quiberon was at last completely restored by Nelson's victory of the Nile.
Consequences of the Battle of the Nile
To that victory must also be attributed the formation of the second European coalition against France. Moderation on the part of France might have kept Europe acquiescent in the arrangements established the Treaty of Campo Formio; but early in 1798 she took aggressive action against the Papal States, and added a Roman Republic to those which she had already established in Northern Italy.
The Tsarina Catherine of Russia, intent on her own designs in the East, had stood aloof from the complications of Western Europe, though favourably disposed towards France, because French activity was conveniently embarrassing to her own neighbours Prussia and Austria.
But Catherine died at the end of 1796, and the new Tsar Paul I hated the French Revolution and looked askance upon the multiplication of republics. He was farther excited by the French seizure of Malta when Bonaparte was on bis way to Egypt; for Malta was the stronghold of the ancient Order of the Knights of St. John, whom he regarded as being under his special protection.. Even at an earlier stage, when the British fleets had mutinied at the Nore, he had shown his friendliness to Britain by detaining a Russian squadron in British waters to give help until the mutiny should be over.
Now he began actively to negotiate for a new coalition, and encouraged the Sultan of Turkey to declare war upon France in consequence of Bonaparte's unwarrantable intrusion in Egypt. Pitt eagerly associated himself with the Tsar. Naples was threatened by the French aggression in Italy; and after the battle of the Nile the presence of Nelson with his fleet on the Italian coast encouraged the king and queen of Naples to make war upon France - a short war, which resulted in the ejection of the monarchs from Naples and the establishment there of another republic called the "Parthenopean"; it did not however extend over Sicily. A treaty at the close of the year allied Britain with Russia, Turkey, and Naples. Two months later Austria, which had been haggling over terms, joined the new coalition.
Bonaparte, though isolated in Egypt, did not abate his designs. He opened a correspondence with Tippu Sultan of Mysore, and having established his own government in Egypt, marched into Syria. But before he could follow the example of Alexander the Great and plunge into Asia, it was necessary to secure the port of Acre, which would otherwise be a gateway through which hostile armies could be poured upon his rear. But Acre defied him. Sir Sidney Smith, in command of the British squadron in the Levant, intercepted the siege materials which he was endeavouring to obtain from France, and the stronghold could only be invested on the land side.
British sailors took vigorous part in the Turkish governor's stubborn defence; by the end of May Bonaparte had to retire foiled, with no alternative but to fall back upon Egypt. There he received news which decided him that the time had come when he should leave Egypt and return to France to seize the supreme control of the state.
With a few comrades he slipped away from Egypt, evaded hostile ships, and landed in France. At the end of the year the Directory was overthrown and Bonaparte was proclaimed First Consul, which meant that for practical purposes he was the absolute ruler of the nominal republic.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.