With a Dash of Indecision 1798



Napoleon became emperor of France, and Europe fought almost twenty years of the Napoleonic Wars because Admiral Horatio Nelson blew it in 1798. While the British fleet led by Nelson eventually destroyed the French fleet that had carried General Napoleon Bonaparte and his army to Egypt, the operative word in that sentence is eventually.

The situation in 1798 was not good for Britain. It was at war with revolutionary France, and one by one its allies had been defeated or intimidated out of the war. Things had gotten so bad that by 1797 there was no British fleet in the Mediterranean for the first time in 150 years. In fact, there were only a few ports in the Mediterranean Sea that any British ship could even enter. Those friendly ports were Gibraltar, Malta, and Naples, among the hundreds of ports that were found on the shores of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and connected waters.

The French were on a roll, and one general was definitely making a name for himself. He was Napoleon Bonaparte, who had conquered and revitalized the French army in Italy. Napoleon had effectively defeated the entire peninsula except for Naples: a conquest that came soon after that. Bonaparte had returned to Paris to be hailed by the masses, which made the members of the Directorate rather nervous. Fortunately for them, Napoleon began agitating in February 1798 for an army with which to conquer Egypt. The idea appealed to the French politicians on many levels.

Egypt, while technically part of the Ottoman empire (a French ally), had been, in reality, an independent nation ruled by the Mameluke horsemen for centuries. Placed where it was, if France could control Egypt, it had an easy route to India. Since the American Revolution, India had become a vital part of the trade empire that financed Britain and her allies. If India could be threatened, then England might be forced to accept a peace on France’s terms. If Egypt were captured, the only route the British would have to India would involve going completely around Africa, taking months to send any reinforcements. With Egypt, French troops could reach India in a few weeks. Egypt would effectively give the French Republic interior lines in any expansion of the war to India or the Orient. It would put the British at such a disadvantage, there was a good chance of France taking over the entire subcontinent. Without the wealth of India, continuing the war would bankrupt Britain within months.

There also was another important factor that had to be on the minds of those who approved Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt: It got him out of Paris. In fact it got him out of Europe entirely. Win or lose, the venture seemed to remove Bonaparte as a political threat.

By the spring of 1798, more than 31,000 soldiers and almost 200 scholars had gathered in Toulon for the invasion of Egypt. It was impossible to gather such a force without the British knowing. Word had reached the British weeks earlier, and in response, Nelson had reentered the Mediterranean. His fleet was hovering about seventy miles south of Toulon harbor, hoping to engage the French ships commanded by Admiral Baraguey as soon as they sailed. This was important because Nelson had no idea what the final destination of this powerful army would be. He knew only that from Toulon the fleet would be headed for an invasion. If Napoleon and more than 30,000 men got loose in the Mediterranean, the possible targets ranged from Ireland and Portugal to Malta and Constantinople or Egypt. So the young admiral waited anxiously for the French to sail into his arms.

Most plans do not survive contact with the enemy, but Nelson’s plan did not even have to wait for the enemy before it began to unravel. Weather scuttled any chance Nelson had of intercepting Napoleon near Toulon. A sudden and locally severe storm in early May swept across the Mediterranean and slammed through where the British fleet stood guard. It caught that fleet in the open waters.

Nelson’s flagship, the Vanguard, lost all of its masts. She had to be towed into a port and was nearly lost in the effort. The few frigates Nelson controlled were unavoidably scattered as they ran before the storm and were soon out of contact. Frigates were the scouts of the fleet and losing them proved costly later. All the British ships were separated and damaged. While the British were scattered and battered, the French sailed. Luck helped them avoid the storm. More than fifty merchant ships and a dozen men-of-war were able to slip south past the crippled British ships totally unobserved.

Nelson really had no choice but to put his hopes in meeting the French near their destination. This was because in the day of wooden ships and iron men, locating the enemy on the open sea was incredibly difficult. Today, with GPS and real-time satellite photography it can be hard to picture just how little a sea captain 200 years ago could observe. In an ocean that encompassed tens of thousands of square miles, a crewman perched on the top mast might be able to spot a ship ten or twelve miles away. His vision was greatly limited by the effective horizon. If they passed just a mile beyond the effective horizon of the enemy, a hundred ships, or in this case nearly eighty, were effectively invisible. Even sailing in a line at the normal speed, a ship’s best speed was around ten miles per hour. Plus the warships could not separate too fully as they would have to be able to signal one another if anything was found. So all of Nelson’s fleet, once it was reassembled and repaired, could search only a tiny portion of the sea at a time. Frigates, being faster and more able to stop merchant ships and ask questions, helped. But after the storm, Nelson’s frigates mostly managed to find one another, not the main fleet. This meant that they were of no use to Nelson in the weeks just after the French sailed. Even if one of the frigates found the French vessels, its captain wouldn’t know where Nelson’s ships were to report that finding to him.

So Nelson had lost sight of Napoleon’s army and protecting ships. But he knew that he had to find them. Everyone was in a panic as to what the already famous French general might do. Nelson got new orders and information from Gibraltar, but they were of no help. The orders made it clear that no one in England or Gibraltar had any better idea where Napoleon was going than Nelson did. The French fleet had vanished, and when it reappeared the cost to the British was likely to be high. Nelson’s orders were for him to search the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, Greek waters, and even the Black Sea as needed. They also warned that the French could be planning to invade Ireland, or maybe grab Gibraltar, or Naples, or Sicily, or Malta. It is interesting that the list in his orders did not include Egypt, a tribute to the disinformation being put out by the French. So basically Admiral Nelson’s orders read “look somewhere” but gave him no idea where to look.

By the time the British were repaired and ready to sail again as a fleet, ten days had passed. That meant the French could be as much as 300 miles away in about any direction. With no hard information on Napoleon’s whereabouts, Nelson chose one of the possible invasion targets. He sailed for the port city of Naples. The Italian city had two advantages. It was a friendly port, one of the few, so supplies and more repairs were available. And there was a good chance that the British ambassador to that kingdom, Lord William Hamilton, might have obtained, from the many merchants who used the port, some idea of where the French fleet was

Strangely, considering all the disinformation being spread by the French, France’s ambassador in Naples had told the British ambassador that Napoleon’s eventual destination was Egypt. But Lord Hamilton was unable to separate that nugget of truth from the many lies purposely spread by French agents, and so he put no faith in it. Instead he made his own best guess. When they sailed into Naples, Hamilton told Nelson’s captains that he thought Napoleon’s immediate destination was Malta.

On June 20, a month after the French had been lost, while sailing from Naples toward Malta Nelson’s ships were met by the British consul from Messina as the fleet passed through the straits named for that city. The consul carried the news that Napoleon had indeed gone to Malta and the island had surrendered to his overwhelming force on June 9. It was too late to save Malta and probably too late to stop the French from sailing on.

So far, fate had intervened in Napoleon’s favor. He would have approved of his luck, having once stated he always preferred a lucky general to a competent one. But once Horatio Nelson arrived at Malta on June 22, the French general didn’t need luck anymore. From that point on, Nelson’s own actions became the main cause of his own failure. While in Malta, Admiral Nelson was told that Napoleon had sailed away on the fifteenth or sixteenth. This meant the French again had almost a week’s head start and could be hundreds of miles away in any direction. Actually, there was some confusion, likely due to translation, and the French had sailed less than two days earlier. But because of his incorrect assumption that the invasion fleet was at least a six days’ sail away, Nelson ignored a report of four strange ships just to the southeast of Malta. These were actually four frigates that were trailing at the rear of the French fleet. Napoleon was just tens of miles away, not hundreds.

Nelson did not want to wait the few days that it would have taken to check out that report or order the entire fleet after the “strange ships.” If they proved to be nothing, he would be even farther behind Napoleon. Having decided that if Napoleon’s target had been relatively nearby Sicily, he would have heard of its fall by then, he correctly guessed Egypt had to be the target. The British fleet rushed south, making best speed to Alexandria harbor. In fact, Nelson was in so much of a hurry to get to Alexandria, he did not deploy the fleet in a wide line that would sweep the ocean as they sailed. He kept his ships together as this allowed them all to make greater speed.

Had the French actually had a six-day lead, everything Nelson did would have been correct. In fact, he would have probably arrived in Alexandria at just the right time. The problem was that the French fleet had really left Malta on June 19, not the sixteenth. The French fleet was also much slower moving. This is because the slow transports, full of soldiers, were by necessity setting the pace. So the French not only had left for Egypt later than the British thought, but were traveling at a much slower speed as well. Had Nelson made more inquiries, he might have found out the correct date for when the French had sailed. But fearing the worst, he rushed southeast to Alexandria (the main port of Egypt) so quickly, he never knew of the mistake.

Being able to sail toward Egypt much faster than the encumbered French fleet, Nelson actually passed that fleet on the way. He sailed past within a few dozen miles of the French without seeing them and arrived before they did. The British found the harbor at Alexandria empty. Had Nelson guessed wrong? He had to wonder. Napoleon could have landed anywhere and be wreaking real havoc on the few allies remaining in the area or could he have sailed off to Ireland? There could be dispatches on a sloop from London now blaming the admiral for the loss of Ireland or the capture of Gibraltar. Sitting in the empty harbor, Nelson’s anxiety caused him to make the blunder that changed history. If he had just waited three days at the location he had correctly determined to be Napoleon’s target, the British fleet would have been waiting when the highly vulnerable transports and their escorts arrived. The slaughter would have likely been terrible, and even if Napoleon himself survived, his invasion of Egypt would have been stopped before it was started. Without at least the illusion of that conquest, when Napoleon had returned to Paris, he would have come back as a failure and not a conquering hero worshiped by the masses. It is then likely his own coup and takeover of the government would have failed or never have been risked. There would have been no First Consul Napoleon and certainly not an Emperor Napoleon. Without the military genius of Napoleon, there would have been no war to conquer all of Europe. Peace might even have broken out as the French government by necessity moderated and the monarchies learned to live with it.

But Nelson could not sit still. After weeks of scuttling across the Mediterranean, he just kept going. Perhaps he lost confidence in his judgment that Egypt was the French’s target. For whatever reason, on June 30, within hours of arriving, the British left Alexandria to sail up the coast of Syria (which included Palestine at this time). Twenty-five hours later, the French did arrive in Alexandria and instead of facing the Royal Navy, they met no real resistance. This allowed the entire army to be landed near the city. Nelson spent the next month frantically searching port after port for the French fleet. It was not until August first that he returned to Alexandria and found it.

In one of his most brilliant battles, Admiral Horatio Nelson crushed the anchored French defenders in Aboukir Bay. Only two of the French ships of the line and a few smaller vessels escaped destruction or capture. But Napoleon and his army were long gone. Ten days earlier, on July 21, Napoleon’s army had destroyed the Mameluke cavalry army in the Battle of the Pyramids. After that victory, he had effectively conquered Egypt. With no fleet or reinforcements, the French were unable to hold Egypt. But a year later, in July 1799, Napoleon slipped back to France on a single frigate. Having carefully managed the news that reached Paris, he returned as a hero. In the coup d’état on 18 Brumaire (that is, November 9, 1799), Napoleon took control of the French government. It wasn’t until after the Battle of Waterloo, sixteen years later, that Europe again knew any real peace.

Admiral Nelson correctly deduced the target of Napoleon’s invasion and had actually beaten the French to Alexandria. But unable to just sit and wait, he then led the British fleet off on a monthlong search for a French fleet that arrived in the same city just twenty-five hours after Nelson left. It was a mistake that eventually made Napoleon the emperor of France and set the stage for sixteen years of war.

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