French Account of the Battle of the Nile

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The Admiralty had to rely on this French account to see exactly how Nelson won his victory. It was written in captivity on board the British Alexander on its way to Naples. The letter frequently refers to ‘plans’, probably the maps reproduced below.

The Battle of the Nile posed French officials quite a problem. How could they break the news of such a disaster to their professional superiors and their friends and families? For some, the battle became a focal point for political discourse in Paris. The Fructidor coup, remember, had been secured at sabre-point and there were many right-wing politicians who were ready to seize on any evidence of failure to criticise the aggressive foreign policy of the new Directory. At the same time, such battles offered a magnificent opportunity for the French to revel in revolutionary ideals such as brotherhood, sacrifice and duty. Here was a chance to stoke the fires of military myth and legend from which the increasingly militarised revolution drew its strength. French accounts of the battle, therefore, carried their own currency and were by no means shunned or cast aside.

This is an excellent example of such an account by a high-ranking administrative officer. It has been carefully constructed. The author is not afraid to explain in detail several failings and misfortunes of the French fleet. He describes how men had been sent ashore to dig wells and how they were forced to take along guards for protection from Bedouin raids. He then admits how few Frenchmen returned to their ships when the British arrived, and that orders to secure each ship to the next astern and to rig springs to the anchor cables were ‘not Generally executed’. This is significant professional criticism, aimed at both officers and men, and it betrays a rotten hierarchy within the French navy.

The author reserves special favour for those who did stay to fight, however, and he emphasises the French fighting spirit, albeit in a lost cause. The courage of the mortally wounded Brueys is celebrated along with the ‘bravery and intelligence’ of the 10-year-old son of Commodore Casabianca. This is the child later immortalised in Felicia Hemans’ poem ‘Casabianca’, which begins with the line known to generations of British schoolboys: ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’. The poem describes the drama of L’Orient’s destruction before returning to the quarterdeck in the penultimate verse. The boy, however, has vanished: ‘The boy-oh! Where was he?’ This account provides an answer: the boy who had stood on the burning deck found himself in the sea. Unable to swim, he clings to the ship’s wrecked masts with his father. The subsequent explosion then killed them both ‘and put an End to their Hopes and Fears’.

The surrender of the Franklin is described, but the author makes quite clear the scale of the carnage and destruction aboard her. This account leaves one in no doubt that the Franklin’s crew had fought until there was no point in fighting on. A similar impression is gained from this account of the fates of the Tonnant and Timoléon. The account is carefully structured around the juxtaposition of the hopeless French position and the courage and character of the French sailors in that predicament. The author thus draws attention away from the scale of the disaster, which is not mentioned at all, and towards the principles that the revolution carried so close to its heart. It is a classic propaganda technique that was used repeatedly by French dispatch-writers seeking to deflect blame and detailed criticism of their own performance.

The 1st of August 1798 Wind NNW light breezes and fair weather The 2nd Division of the Fleet sent a Party of men on shore to dig Wells: Every Ship in the Fleet sent 25 men to protect the workmen from the continual Attacks of the Bedouins and Vagabonds of the Country.

At 2 O’Clock in the afternoon, the Heureux made the sigl for 12 sail WSW which we could easily distinguish, from the mast heads to be Ships of war. the sigl was then made for all the Boats, Workmen and Guards, to repair on board their Respective Ships, which was only obeyed by a small number At 3 O’clock the Adml not having any doubt, but that the Ships in sight were the Enemy, he ordered the Hammocks to be stowed for action, & directed L’Alerte & La Ruillier Brig sloops of war to reconnoitre the Enemy whom we soon perceived were steering for Beguler Bay, under a Crowd of Canvas, but without observing any order of sailing. At 4 O’clock we saw over the Fort of Aboukad 2 Ships apparently waiting to join the Squadron: without doubt they had been sent to look into the Port of Alexandria. we likewise saw a Brig with the 12 Ships. In 2 Hours they were 14 sail of the Line and a Brig – The English Fleet were soon off the Island of Bequier.

The Brig Le Alerte then began to fwd the Admiral’s orders into Execution Viz. to stand towards the Enemy until nearly within Gun-Shot & then to Manoeuvre & Endeavour to draw them towards the outer shoal lying off that island. but the English Adml. without Doubt had Experienced Pilots on board as he did not pay any attention to the Brigs Track, but allowed her to go away hauling well round the Dangers. At 4 O’clock a small country boat dispatched from Alexandria to Rosetta, voluntarily Bore down to the English Brig, which took possession of her, notwithstanding the repeated efforts of the Alerte to prevent it by firing a great many shot at the Boat at 5 o’clock the Enemy came to the wind in Succession this Manoeuvre convinced us that they intended attacking us that Evening. The Admiral got the Top Gallant Yards across, but soon made the sigl that he intended engaging the Enemy at An Anchor, convinced without doubt, that he had not Seamen Enough to engage under sail for he wanted at least 200 good seamen for each ship. After this sigl each Ship ought to have sent a stream Cable to the Ship a stern of her to have made an hawser fast to the Cable, About 20 fathoms in the water & to have passed the opposite side to that intended as a spring this was not Generally executed.

Orders were then given to let go another Bowr Anchor, & the broadsides of the ships were brought to bear on the Enemy having the Ships heads SE from the Island of Bequier forming a line of about 1300 fathoms NW and SE distant from Each other 80 fathoms and in the Position marked Plan 1st each with an anchor out SSE. At ¼ past I saw one of the Enemy’s ships that were steering to get to windward of the headmost of the Line, Ran on the reef ENE of the Island She had immediate Assistance from the Brig and got afloat in the morning. The battery on the Island open’d a Fire on the Enemy & their Shells fell ahead of th 2nd Ship in the Line. – At ½ past 5 the head-most ships of our line being within Gun-shot of the English, the Adml made the signal to Engage, which was not obey’d till the Enemy was within Pistol Shot, and just doubling of us, the action then became very warm. The Conquerant began to fire, then Le Guerrier, L’ Spartiate, L’Aquilon, Le Peuple Souverain, Le Franklin. At 6 O’clock, La Serieuse Frigate & L’Hercule Bomb cut their Cables & got under weigh to avoid the Enemy’s fire they got on shore.

Le Serieuse caught fire & had part of her Masts burnt L’Artemise was obliged to get under weigh and Likewise got on shore. These two Frigates sent their Ships company’s on board the different Line of battle ships. The sloop of war, two Bombs & several Transports that were with the fleet were more successfull, as they got under weigh & reach’d the Anchorage under the Protection of the Fort of Aboukar. All the van were Attacked on both sides by the Enemy, who rang’d close along our Line, they had each an Anchor out a stern, which facilitated their motions and enabled them to place themselves, in the most advantageous situation.

At ¼ 6 the Franklin opened her fire upon the Enemy, from the Starbd side & at ¾ past 6 She was Engaged on both sides, L’Orient at the same time began firing from her Starbd Guns. & At 7 the Tonnant open’d her fire. all the ships from the Le Guerrier to the Tonnant were now engaged, against a Superior force. This only redoubled the Ardour of our Ships, who kept up a very heavy & regular Fire. At 8 O’clock at night, the ship which was engaging the L’Orient on the Starbd Quarter notwithstanding her Advantageous position was dismasted and so roughly handled, that She Cut her Cables & drove further from the Line This Event gave the Franklin Hopes that L’Orient would now be able to assist her, by attacking one of the Ships opposed to her, but at this very moment the 2 Ships that been observed a stern of the Fleet, and were quite fresh steered right for the Centre One of them Anchor’d on the L’Orient’s Starbd Bow, and the other Cut the Line a stern of the L’Orient, & Anchored on her Larbd Quarter the action in this place became extremely warm.

Admiral de Bruey’s, who, at this time, had been Slightly wounded in head & arm, very soon after Received a Shot in the Belly which almost cut him in two, he desired not to be carried below but to be left to die upon Deck, he only lived ¼ of an hour, Rear Admiral Blanquet as well as his Aids de Camp were unacquainted with this melancholy Event, until the Action was nearly over, Adml Blanquet received a Severe wound in his Face which knock’d him down he was carried off the Deck senseless. At ¼ past 8 O’clock the Le Peuple Souverain drove to Leewd of the Line and Anchor’d a cables length abreast of the L’Orient it was not known however what Unfortunate Event occasioned this, the Vacant space she left placed the Franklin in a more unfortunate Position and it became very critical from a Manoeuvre of one of the Enemy’s fresh Ships which had been to the assistance of the Ship on shore, she Anchored across of the Franklin’s Bows & commenc’d a very heavy and Raking Fire; notwithstanding the dreadfull situation of the Ships in the Centre, they continually kept up a very heavy Fire – At ½ past 8 O’clock the Action was general from the Guerrier to the Mercure, and the two Fleets Engaged in the Position indicated in Plan the 2nd. The Death of Admiral de Breuy’s, & the severe wounds of Admiral Blanquet, must have deeply Affected the People who fought under them; but it Added to their Ardour for Revenge, and the Action continued on both sides with great obstinacy. At 9 O’clock the Ships in the Van Slackened their Fire, & soon after totally ceased, & with Infinite Sorrow we Suppos’d they had surrendered. They were dismasted very soon after the Action began and so much damaged that it is to be presumed, that they could not hold out any longer, against an Enemy so Superior by an advantageous Position, having placed Several Ships against one. At ¼ past 9 O’clock the L’Orient caught Fire in the Cabin, it soon afterwards broke out upon the Poop – every effort was made use of to extinguish it, but without Effect, and very soon it became So Considerable, that there were no hopes of saving the Ship. At ½ past 9, Citizen Gillis, Capitaine de Pavillon of the Franklin was very severely wounded, and was carried off the Deck – At ¾ past 9 the Arm Chest, fill’d with Musquet Cartridges, blew up, and set fire to several places in the Poop and Quarter Deck, but was fortunately extinguished; her Situation however was still very desperate, Surrounded by enemies and only 80 fathoms to windward of L’Orient who was entirely on fire there could not be any other Expectation than that of falling a Prey to the Enemy or the Flames. At 10 O’clock the Main & Mizen Masts fell, & all the Guns on the main deck were dismounted. At ¼ past 10 The Tonnant Cut her Cables to avoid from the L’Orient, the English Ship that was on the L’Orient’s Larbd Quarter, as soon as She had done firing at her brought her broad-side on the Tonnant’s Bow, and kept up a very heavy Raking Fire. The Heureux and Mercure conceived likewise that they ought to Cut their Cables, this Manoeuvre created so much confusion amongst the Rear Ships that they fir’d into Each Other & did considerable damage.

The Tonnant anchor’d a head of the Guillaume Tel, Genereux and Timolion the other 2 Ships got on shore, the Ship that had engaged the Tonnant on her Bow Cut her Cables; all her Rigging & Sails were Cut to pieces & she drove down and anchor’d a stern of the English Ship that had been engaging L’Heureux & Mercure, before they changed their Position – Those of the Etat Major & Ships Company of the L’Orient, who had Escaped Death, convinced of the Impossibility of extinguishing the fire, which had got down on the middle gun Deck, endeavoured to save themselves. Rear Adml Genteaume, saved himself in a Boat, & went on board the Salamine & from thence to Aboukir & Alexandria. The Adjutant General Molaud altho’ badly wounded swam to the Ship nearest to the L’Orient, which prov’d to be An English Ship, Commodore Casa-bianca, & his Son only 10 Years Old, (who during the Action gave proofs of Bravery & Intelligence far above his Age) were not so fortunate they were in the Water upon the wreck of the L’Orients Masts, not being able to Swim, Seeking each other till ¾ past, 10 when the Ship blew up. The Explotion was dreadfull, and spread the Fire all round to a considerable distance. The Franklins Deck was covered with red hot pieces of Timber, Oakum and Rope on Fire. She was on Fire the 4th time but luckily got it under immediately, After the Tremendous Explotion, the Action ceased Every where, & was succeeded by the most profound Silence. The Sky was obscured by thick clouds of black smoak which Seemed to threaten the Destruction of the 2 Fleets. It was ¼ of an hour before the Ships Crews recover’d from the kind of Stupor they were thrown into. Towards 11 O’clock the Franklin, Anxious to preserve the trust confided in her, recommenced the Action with a few of her Lower Deck Guns; all the rest were dismounted, two thirds of Her Ships Company were either kill’d or wounded, and those who remain’d were much fatigued, She was Surrounded by Enemies Ships, some of which were within Pistol Shot, & mowed down the men Every Broadside. At ½ past 11 O’clock, having only 3 Lower Deck Guns that could defend the Honor of the Flag, it became Necessary to put an End to so Disproportionate a Struggle, & Citizen Martinel, Capitaine de Frigate, ordered the colours to be struck; the Action in the Rear of the Fleet was very [illegible] till ¾ past 11, when it became very warm; 3 of the enemies Ships were engaging them, & two of them were very near, as may be seen in Plan the 3rd. The Tonnant, already Badly Treated, was nearest the Ship Engaged, and returned a very brisk Fire. About 3 O’clock in the morning She was dismasted & oblig’d to Cut her Cables a second time, & not having any more Anchors left she drove on shore.

Le Guillame Tell, Le Genereux and Le Timoleon shifted their Births and Anchored farther down out of Gun Shot These Ships were not much damaged. At ½ past 3 O’clock the Action ceased throughout the Line. Early in the morning, the Frigate La Justice got under weigh and made Small Tacks to keep near the Guillaume Tel And At 9 Anchor’d an English Ship having got under weigh & was making Small Tacks to prevent her getting off. At 6 O’clock two English Ships join’d those which had been engaging the Rear, & began firing on the Hereux and Mercure, which ships were aground. The former soon Struck & the latter followed her Example, as they could not bring their Broadsides to bear on the Enemy (See the 4th Plan) At ½ past 7 the Ships Crew of Le Artemise Frigate Quitted her and set her on fire. At 8 she blew up. The Enemy without doubt had received great damage in their Masts and Yards, as they did not get under weigh to attack the remainder of the French Fleet. the French Flag was flying on board 4 French Ships of the Line, and 2 Frigates. At ¾ past 11 Le Guillaume Tel, Le Genereux, La Dianne, and La Justice, were under weigh and form’d in Line of Battle. The English Ship that was under Sail; stood towards the Fleet, Fearing that she might be cut off. the two other Enemy’s ships got Immediately under weigh to Assist her, At Noon the Timoleon, who probable was not in a state to put to Sea, stood right for the shore under her fore sail, and As soon as she Struck the Shore her Fore Mast fell. The French Division joined the Enemy’s Ship which ranged along their Line on Opposite Tacks, within Pistol-Shot, and received their Broadsides, which she returned They then each continued their Route – The Division was in sight at Sun Set – – Nothing Remarkable happened during the night of the 2nd – The 3rd of August in the morning the French colours were flying in the Tonnant and the Timoleon – The English Adml sent a cartel to the former to know if she had struck, & upon being answered in the Negative, he directed 2 ships to against her, when they got within Gun-shot of her she struck, it being impossible to defend any longer The Timoleon was aground too near in for any Ships to approach her, in the night of the 2nd Inst. they sent greatest part of their Ships Company’s on Shore, and at Noon the next day they Quitted her & Set her on fire.

Here ends the Journal of the 1st 2nd and 3rd days of August which will be Ever Remembered with the Deepest Sorrow, by the Frenchmen who Possess good Hearts, and by all those true Republicans who have survived this Melancholy Disaster.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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