Today is the 214th anniversary of the Battle of Aboukir Bay–or the Battle of the Nile, if you prefer–one of the three most significant and wow-worthy battles at which Lord Nelson commanded.
A brief recap for those who don’t know their naval or Napoleonic history:
The young General Napoleon Buonaparte had the brilliant idea that if France could annex Egypt (he reckoned their nominal rulers, the Turks, wouldn’t mind much) they could begin to forge an empire that could theoretically stretch all the way to India. And this would be a good thing for all sorts of reasons.
One, it would give him his own kingdom–and he rather liked that idea. Also, it would play into his and France’s obsession with antiquity and studying ancient civilisations. And finally, and most significantly, it would establish a French military presence in the eastern Mediterranean which would seriously impede Britain’s phenomenal overseas trade and grab a piece of the action for themselves too.
(He also planned at one stage to establish his own religion there–a kind of quasi-Islamic/Christianity thing with himself as chief prophet…but we’ll leave that one, shall we?)
Anyway, Napoleon put his plans to the Directory.
They didn’t much mind either way, but they were keen to get this very popular young General out of Paris and a good long way away.
So they gave in to his nagging and he was allowed to gather up a small army, as well as a group of artists, scientists and engineers known as les Savants, to go with him and found the new colony in Egypt.
They set off from Italy–first stop Malta, where Napoleon turfed out the traditional rulers, the Knights of Malta, and robbed the place blind. Then onto Egypt, where he and his troops were ashore at Alexandria on the 1-2 July 1798.
Meanwhile, the British had got wind of the intended conquest of Egypt and Nelson and the Mediterranean fleet set off in hot pursuit. And chased the French all the way round the Mediterranean, never catching up with them.
After the soldiers and Napoleon were safely ashore, the French Admiral, Admiral de Brueys, sailed about a bit looking for the best harbours for the French fleet to anchor in, doing some reconnaissance, that kind of thing.
He thought he’d found the best place for anchorage–Aboukir Bay. And he lined his 13 vessels up, chained them together from their bows so that they couldn’t get washed away, and settled down to enjoy the sea breezes. Or to write complaining letters to the Directory. Or something.
It’s at this point, mid-afternoon on the 1st August, the British see the line of French ships about two miles long, strung out along the coast.
(The French also notice the British fleet, but don’t bother about them for two reasons–one, it’s going to be dark soon and what maniac would launch a nighttime battle in unfamiliar waters? And two, they’ve anchored close to the shore and there are sandbanks in between, hence they know they can only be attacked from one side because no one could get in between them and the shore…)
Yet Nelson gave the order to press on toward the French. And, relying on his captains to use their initiative, he led the way forward.
Rather than having a sailing order, the British ships got on as fast as they could, ready to have at them. And a classic Nelsonian battle was joined. Captain Foley aboard the Goliath led the way, taking his ship along the inside of the Guerriere–the manoeuvre the French had deemed impossible. Several other vessels followed him, while Nelson led the way at sea.
The result was a Nelsonian sandwich, with the French fleet caught in the middle like lunchmeat (their shore-facing gunports still closed) while the British ships raked them with broadsides from both port and starboard.
Several British officers were seriously wounded, including Nelson himself.
But that was nothing to the damage inflicted on the French. At 9.03 p.m. a fire was seen to have broken out in the cabin of the French ship, l’Orient. Within minutes it had spread, and at 9.37, l’Orient blew up, scattering molten lead shop and equally molten gold pieces (the bullion they’d nicked from Malta) into the air.
The battle dragged on into the next morning–but by early in the day only two remaining French ships had not been captured or destroyed…
Napoleon and his French troops were now effectively marooned in Egypt and without hope of either rescue or fresh supplies.
But what of Nelson…well, he did recover from his wounds–in Naples. And eventually made his way back to Britain where he was lionised and adored, with crowds lining the roads upon which he travelled, women pushed their babies at him to kiss…it was a hero’s welcome and then some.
Yet it wasn’t just that he was a hero. And it wasn’t just that the defeat of the French had ended their overseas pretensions or had come in a year when there had been little else to show for all the money expended on the war effort.
It was that Nelson–quite consciously I believe–had, even as he was going about his French-beating-business, ensured that he embodied the ideal of English military heroism, an ideal that had long been present in the English psyche–going back to Elizabeth I’s rousing speech given at Tilbury in 1588, before the Spanish Armada, where she said:
My loving people…I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust.
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Rousing stuff, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t fight for and with her?
Later in the 1590’s when Spain again thought sending a new Armada against Britain would be a cunning plan (they never learned, did they?) Elizabeth–older now, and less inclined toward public show–didn’t appear to give that enheartening speech.
But a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare had stepped in to fill the gap, writing a play and creating a character who would epitomise for all time this sense of English unity of purpose against a common enemy, a sense of loyalty and devotion to one’s fellows. Henry V.
And his speech to his troops before the encounter with the French (who else?) at Agincourt remains the rallying cry in times of war and uncertainty:
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more…
O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
It is the battle cry of the English military.
And, you see, for some time, Nelson had been working closely with the captains of his fleet–when he invited them to dinner on board his flagship, he would listen to their thoughts, discuss his ideas of successful attack with them, he encouraged them to trust him, he encouraged them to trust their own initiatives.
He forwarded the idea that one couldn’t go far wrong by ‘having at the enemy’ and trusted that every man would do his duty. He lived alongside his men, not removed from them. He shared their lives and was never austerely separate (as was Wellington.) With him, as in Henry’s speech, it was all about fellowship.
He led from the front–hence his frequent wounding. He even came to refer to these fellow captains at sea with him as his ‘band of brothers’, echoing–deliberately I think–Henry V in the St. Crispin’s Day speech.
Nelson was magnanimous in victory–another quality the English like to claim for their military heroes. (As opposed to Napoleon who ordered 4000 prisoners slaughtered at the Bay of Jaffa.)
After the explosion of l’Orient, the British sailors did their best to pull from the water any survivors. (They did this at Trafalgar too.)
In short, Nelson ensured that he fitted the template for English heroism which Shakespeare had formulated in Henry V. He followed the programme, unto the death as it happens.
Oh, and he delivered some cracking victories against the French too. (Always a crowd-pleaser!)
Quite a man, wasn’t he? And quite the hero.