Thursday, 24 January 2008

The Battle of the Nile

The war situation continued to be grim. The victory in October 1797 over the Dutch fleet at Camperdown was gained by a navy that had been in mutiny four months before. It was a powerful moral booster and eased the strategic problem of patrolling the North Sea. But in the same month Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with General Bonaparte (leaving Britain with no allies), in the new year French armies ‘liberated’ Switzerland and Rome and a French force under Bonaparte’s command was assembling in the Channel ports.

In February 1798 Bonaparte abandoned the invasion of Britain as impracticable and forced on the Directory a scheme to invade Egypt, perhaps to disrupt Britain’s communications with India. Over 30,000 troops were prepared, carried by 300 transports, escorted by seven frigates and thirteen ships of the line, including the 120 gun L’Orient, the largest warship in the world.

On 20 May the French sailed from Toulon, giving Nelson the slip, leaving the British bewildered about their plans. On 9 June the French arrived at Malta, which they seized from the Knights of St John. In a piece of inspired guess-work Nelson realized that Bonaparte’s ultimate destination was Egypt. On 28 June the British reached Alexandria, but because there was no sign of the French, they sailed to Sicily. On 1 July the French fleet anchored off Alexandria. On 21 July they defeated the Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids near Cairo. On 24 July Nelson, convinced that the French must be in the eastern Mediterranean, sailed back to Egypt. On 1 August the French fleet was decisively defeated by Nelson at Aboukir Bay, twenty miles north of Alexandria; the most dramatic event was the blowing up of L’Orient (graphically portrayed by the painter Philip de Loutherbourg). The French army were now marooned in the eastern Mediterranean. Three months later the news reached Britain; it was the greatest morale-booster of the war so far and made Nelson a popular hero. In the autumn Pitt was engaged in putting together the Second Coalition with Russia and Turkey now firmly in the anti-French camp. However his attempt was hindered by Nelson’s disastrous intervention in Neapolitan politics.