Nelson’s Pursuit of Napoleon’s Egypt Expedition

By John Keegan
8/6/2012 • MHQ

The British and the French clash in the Battle of the Nile, 1798. (
The British and the French clash in the Battle of the Nile, 1798. (

ON TRAFALGAR DAY Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson had the combined French and Spanish fleet in clear view. The encounter had come at the end of a long chase that had begun in May 1805, taken him across the Atlantic to reach the West Indies in June, back again to the mouth of the English Channel in August, and finally south to the Strait of Gibraltar in September, where he blockaded Cadiz until the enemy put to sea in October. He had had a number of false starts and followed a number of false trails, but once Admiral Pierre Villeneuve had cleared the Strait of Gibraltar from the Mediterranean and set off into the deep Atlantic, Nelson had been able to make the assumption with some certainty that the French were heading for the West Indies. The campaign of Trafalgar was to prove a triumph of strategic maneuver. As an intelligence operation, it was not, at least in its later stages, one of complexity.

The contrast with Nelson’s earlier pursuit, discovery, and destruction of a French fleet was extreme. In 1798 Nelson, recently promoted to independent command, was appointed to lead a British squadron back into the Mediterranean, from which it had been absent since late 1796, and to mount watch outside Toulon, the principal enemy naval base in the south of France. It was known that General Napoleon Bonaparte was in command of an army assembling there; that transports were gathering also, under the protection of a French battle fleet; and that an amphibious expedition was planned, directed against British interests. The question was which and where: Britain itself? Ireland? Southern Italy? Malta? Turkey? Egypt? All lay within Napoleon’s operational reach, and some, Malta in particular, were steppingstones to others. Beyond Egypt lay India, where Britain was rebuilding a substitute for the overseas empire lost in North America in 1782. If Napoleon could put to sea undetected, the Mediterranean would swallow his tracks and Nelson would discover where he had gone only when he had done his worst. The menace was guaranteed to perturb a watcher day and night. Nelson was perturbed. Before the French left port he was anticipating their departure for “Sicily, Malta and Sardinia” and “to finish the King of Naples at a blow” but also perhaps for “Malaga and [a] march through Spain” to invade Portugal, Britain’s longest-standing ally. After they left in late May, he was in hot pursuit, sometimes on the right track, sometimes the wrong, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead, sometimes in the wrong continent altogether. In the end he ran his quarry to earth. The scent had died in his nostrils several times, however, and his own false calculations had led him astray. Not until 1 o’clock in the afternoon of August 1, when the lookout on HMS Zealous reported masts in Aboukir Bay, east of the Nile Delta, had Nelson reassurance that the chase begun seventy-three days earlier had been brought to conclusion. How it had makes one of the most arresting operational intelligence stories of history.


NAPOLEON DID NOT YET DOMINATE the European world as he would as emperor of the French after May 1804. He was not yet even first consul, which he would be appointed in December 1799. He already promised to become, however, the leading political figure of the French Republic and was unquestionably its outstanding general, at a moment when French armies dominated Europe. The First Coalition of enemies of the French Revolution—formed in 1792 by Austria and Prussia, later joined by the north Italian kingdom of Sardinia, and enlarged by the French declaration of war on Spain, the Dutch Netherlands, and Britain—had progressively fallen to pieces during the 1790s. The Netherlands had been occupied in early 1795 and reorganized as the Batavian Republic, under French control. Prussia and Spain had made peace later that year. In August 1796, under French pressure, Spain actually declared war on Britain, closing its ports in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy and adding the strength of its large fleet to that of the French.

In 1796 the young General Bonaparte confirmed his growing reputation with a series of spectacular victories in northern Italy. After defeat at the Battle of Lodi in May, the king of Sardinia made peace and ceded the port of Nice and the province of Savoy to France. During the rest of the year, Bonaparte harried the armies of the Austrian empire out of its north Italian possessions by inflicting defeats at Castiglione and Arcola. Finally, after weeks of maneuvering around the fortress of Mantua, Bonaparte won a crushing victory at Rivoli on January 14, 1797, and drove the defeated Austrians back into southern Austria. Austrian Emperor Francis sued for peace, concluded at Campo Formio in October. The terms included the creation of a puppet French Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy and the cession of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) to France. In February 1798 the French occupied Rome and made Pope Pius VI prisoner; in April France occupied Switzerland.

The outcome of this succession of conquests was to leave Britain, which refused to make peace, without any ally except tiny Portugal, and without bases anywhere in mainland Europe, except for the Portuguese Atlantic ports. Russia, the only powerful continental state still resistant to French influence, was keeping its counsel. Turkey, ruler of the Balkans, Greece and the Greek islands, and Syria, and the nominal overlord of Egypt and the pirate principalities of Tunis and Algiers, remained a French ally. The old maritime Republic of Venice had been given to Austria at the Treaty of Campo Formio but would soon pass to France. The foreign policy of the Scandinavian kingdoms, Denmark and Sweden, was subservient to that of France. As a result, not a mile of northern European or southern Mediterranean coastline—except for that of the weak Kingdom of Naples, Portugal, and the island of Malta—lay outside French control. The Baltic was effectively closed to the British, so were the Channel and Atlantic ports, so were the Mediterranean harbors. All Britain’s traditional overseas bases, except for Gibraltar, had been lost. In October 1796 the British government felt compelled to withdraw its fleet from the Mediterranean, where it had maintained an almost continuous presence since the middle of the seventeenth century, and to concentrate the navy in home waters. England was actually threatened by invasion. Had it not been for Admiral John Jervis’s defeat of the Spanish in the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent in February 1797, and Admiral Adam Duncan’s destruction of the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown in October, her enemies might have achieved a sufficient combination of force to achieve the necessary conditions for a Channel crossing.

Despite the reduction in the enemy’s naval strength that the two victories brought about, the Royal Navy could not rest confident of its ability to contain the threat. In October 1798 Bonaparte was appointed to command an “Army of England,” organized to sustain the pressure. Moreover, Britain correctly sought to pursue an offensive strategy, directed at checking invasion by forcing France to look to the protection of its own interests, rather than waiting passively to respond to French attacks. That required the maintenance of several separate concentrations of strength: a Channel fleet to defend the short sea crossing; an Atlantic fleet to blockade the great French bases at Brest and Rochefort and to keep an eye on the remains of the Spanish navy in Cadiz; detached squadrons to protect the British possessions in the West Indies, at the Cape of Good Hope, and in India; and a host of smaller line-of-battle ships and frigates to protect the convoys of merchantmen and Indiamen on which British trade, the lever of the war against France, depended.

Britain had the superiority. In 1797 it had 161 line-of-battle ships (64 to 120 guns) and 209 fourth-rates (50 to 60 guns) and frigates (32 to 40 guns), against only thirty French line-of-battle ships and fifty Spanish. The French and Spanish did not, however, have to keep the seas, but could remain comfortably in port, awaiting their chance to sally forth at an unguarded moment, while the British ships were constantly on blockade, wearing out their masts and timbers in a battle with the elements, or else in dockyard, repairing the damage. Moreover, both the French and Spanish navies built new ships at a prodigious rate and found less difficulty in manning them than the British did. With larger resources of manpower, they conscripted soldiers and landsmen to fill the naval ranks and, while the recruits included fewer experienced seamen than the British, collared by the press, they were not necessarily more unwilling. The inequity of the press, the paucity of naval pay, the harshness of life aboard caused large-scale strikes in the Royal Navy in the spring of 1797—the “mutinies” at Spithead and the Nore—which for once frightened the admirals out of thinking that flogging was the cure for all indiscipline. The prospect of joining action against the revolutionary French with an untrustworthy lower deck prompted immediate improvements to the lot of the common sailor.

Just in time. By the spring of 1798, a new naval threat had arisen. Unknown to the British government, the French leadership—the Directory—had relinquished for the time being the project of an invasion of England and decided to create an alternative threat to its island enemy’s strategic interests. The initiative had come from General Bonaparte. On February 23 he wrote, “To perform a descent on England without being master of the seas is a very daring operation and very difficult to put into effect….For such an operation we would need the long nights of winter. After the month of April, it would be increasingly impossible.” As an alternative, he proposed an attack on King George III’s personal homeland, the Electorate of Hanover. Its occupation would not, however, damage the commercial power of Britain. He saw another possibility: “We could well make an expedition to the Levant which would menace the commerce of the Indies.” The Levant lay across the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, in southern Turkey and Syria but also Egypt. Egypt was not only a fabled land but also the point at which the Mediterranean most nearly approached the Red Sea, the European means of access to the Indian Ocean and the Mogul dominions in India proper. France had not abandoned hopes of supplanting Britain as the dominant external influence in the Moguls’ affairs, set back though its interests had been by British victories in the subcontinent in the last thirty years. A French descent on India, principal source of British overseas wealth since its loss of the American colonies in 1782, might deal a disabling blow to the Revolution’s chief enemy.

Bonaparte, moreover, had chosen the moment shrewdly. The Mediterranean was temporarily a French lake. Even given the diminished strength of its navy, enough warships could be found to escort a troop convoy from France’s southern ports to the Nile in safety, while its mercantile fleet, together with those of Spain and northern Italy, would provide transports aplenty. The withdrawal of the necessary force would not significantly deplete that required to sustain dominance over the defeated Austrians or to deter Russia from intervention in Western Europe. Moreover, an expedition would not be effectively opposed. Though Egypt was legally part of the Ottoman Empire, under a Turkish governor, there was no proper Turkish garrison in the country. Power rested, as it had done since the thirteenth century, with the Mamelukes, a corporation of nominal slaves—purchased on the borders of Central Asia and trained as cavalrymen—who had usurped authority and used it to perpetuate their privileges. Though fiercely brave, they numbered only ten thousand and their ritualized horsemanship was tactically anomalous on a gunpowder battlefield. The local infantry that they commanded was a half­hearted force.

Bonaparte found little difficulty, therefore, in persuading the French foreign minister, Charles de Talleyrand, that an Egyptian expedition was the next military step the Republic should take. Talleyrand enumerated the advantages, which included, surprisingly in view of the long-established Franco-Turkish entente, “just reprisal for the wrongs done us” by the sultan’s government but also, more practically, “that it will be easy,” that it would be cheap, and that “it presents innumerable advantages.” The five directors argued against, more or less forcefully, but were worn down one by one. On March 5, 1798, they gave their formal assent to the operation.

Preparations then proceeded apace. Toulon was nominated the port of concentration; it was base to the thirteen warships—nine of 74 guns, three of 80, one (l’Orient) of 120—that would form the main escort and battle fleet. An order stopping the movement of merchant shipping out of Toulon and neighboring ports quickly permitted the requisitioning of enough transports—half French, the rest Spanish and Italian—to embark the army. Fewer would have been preferable, for such a large number made a conspicuous presence, but contemporary Mediterranean merchantmen were too small to carry more than two hundred men each. Some were also needed to carry horses, guns, and stores. As a convoy keeping strict station a cable’s length (two hundred yards) apart, the transports would occupy a square mile of sea. In practice, the varied quality of the vessels and their masters’ seamanship guaranteed straggling over a much wider area.

Napoleon’s force, the Army of the Orient, eventually numbered thirty-one thousand men: twenty-five thousand infantry, thirty-two hundred gunners and engineers, twenty-eight hundred cavalry. Only 1,230 horses were embarked, however, Bonaparte believing that he could commandeer sufficient extra mounts in Egypt to supply the deficiency in charger and draught teams. Correctly, Bonaparte, or more probably General Louis-Alexandre Berthier, the future marshal who was already his trusted chief of staff, doubted the ready availability of rations in Egypt. The army was organized into five divisions, among whose officers was another future marshal of the empire, General Jean Lannes. The officers of the fleet, commanded by Admiral François Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, included Admiral Honoré Ganteaume, who would lead Nelson on a dance in the months before Trafalgar, and Admiral Villeneuve, his tragic opponent in that battle. L’Orient, the flagship, was commanded by Captain Louis de Casabianca.


BRUEYS SAILED FROM TOULON on May 19, his twenty-two warships protecting a convoy of 130 merchantmen filled with soldiers, horses, guns, stores, and heavy equipment. Proceeding eastward at thirty-seven miles a day, they headed first toward the northern point of the island of Corsica, steering to make a junction with a separate convoy of seventy-two ships from Genoa, which they did on May 21. On May 28 they were joined by another convoy of twenty-two merchantmen from Ajaccio in Corsica, and on May 30 by the final complement of fifty-six ships, which had left Civitavecchia, on the Italian mainland, on May 26. The combined fleet, now numbering 280 transports besides its escorting warships, set a course down the eastern side of the island of Sardinia, heading toward Sicily. It cleared the southernmost point of Sardinia on June 5.

Nelson should easily have been up with it. He was not. The sea had sprung a surprise upon him. His flagship had been dismasted, his scouting frigates scattered, and he and his crew had barely escaped disaster. His ploy of interception had been scuppered, and he could not hope to begin reasserting control of the operational sea space until he had completed essential repairs and found his consorts.

Nelson had left Gibraltar on May 8, with his flag in Vanguard, 74 guns, commanded by Captain Edward Berry, and in company with Orion, 74 (Captain James Saumarez). Admiral Lord St. Vincent (John Jervis), commander of the fleet off Spain and Nelson’s superior, had given his three frigates, Emerald, 36, Terpsichore, 32, and Bonne Citoyenne, a sloop rather than frigate, 20 guns. He had also assigned him another ten 74s, the 50-gun Leander, and the brig Mutine, which were to join later.

Nelson’s departure did not go unnoticed, and Alexander, 74, was actually struck by a shot from a Spanish shore battery. The British commander arrived nevertheless, apparently undetected, seventy miles south of Toulon on May 20, “not discovered by the enemy, though close to their ports…and exactly in the position for intercepting the Enemy’s ships,” as Captain Berry wrote to his father. Moreover, Terpsichore had captured a prize from which it was learned that Bonaparte had arrived at Toulon and that fifteen warships were ready for sea, and, though it was not yet known when or where they would sail, the intelligence gave Nelson and his captains assurance that they were in the right spot, ahead of time.

Then the wind began to freshen. Vanguard had sent up its topgallant masts, usually sent down when bad weather threatened. In the early morning of May 21, Vanguard, still under topgallant masts, lost its main topmast, and with it two men, one swept overboard, one killed by falling to the deck. By daybreak, the mizzen topmast had gone as well, the foremast altogether, and the bowsprit was sprung in three places. The ship was almost unmanageable, could be sailed only on a broad reach—at right angles to the wind, which was approaching Force 12 (hurricane) on the Beaufort scale—and was driving toward the rocky west coast of Corsica on which, unless brought about by some means, she would shortly dash to pieces.

The situation demanded any remedy, however unpromising. The rigging of a spritsail under the creaking bowsprit, an antique device not in naval use for many decades, succeeded in bringing up her head. Very slowly, she was worn round with the wind until she was pointing away from Corsica and so, during the course of the morning, as spars and standing rigging were hacked into the sea, clawed off the lee shore. On May 22, as the hurricane abated, Alexander was able to pass a tow and began to drag Vanguard southward toward the west coast of Sardinia. By late afternoon, with the wind moderating, a safe haven between Sardinia and the island of San Piétro was in sight, but the danger of driving ashore still threatened. Nelson signaled an order to Alexander to cast off the tow. It was refused, and, very gradually, Vanguard was brought to anchor on the morning of May 23. The captain of Alexander, Alexander Ball, of whom Nelson had till then had a very guarded opinion, became henceforth one of his most valued advisers.

Vanguard at once undertook repairs, using some of her own spare spars and others sent from Alexander and Orion to replace her lost lower, top, and topgallant masts. After four days she was ready to sail. The next day, May 24, a Marseilles vessel was spoken. It told that Napoleon’s fleet, which had been outside the track of the storm, had left Toulon on May 19, but gave no indication as to its destination.

Nelson therefore decided to retrace his course rather than press on into the uncertainties of the wider Mediterranean. He had lost touch with his three accompanying frigates during the great gale. He had not yet made contact with the squadron St. Vincent had allotted him. His judgment was that prudence demanded a return to his starting point, where he could concentrate his forces, gather in his frigates, and gain fresh intelligence of the enemy’s movements. By June 3 he was back off Toulon, where on June 5 the brig Mutine appeared, bearing news that Admiral Thomas Troubridge’s squadron of eleven men-of-war would soon join. Mutine was commanded by Thomas Masterman Hardy, the Hardy of “Kiss me, Hardy” at Trafalgar, already a favorite of Nelson’s. His information brought reassurance. On June 7, Troubridge appeared. Nelson’s command now numbered thirteen 74s and a 50, quite enough to defeat the French if they could be found. To find the French, however, Nelson needed frigates—the capital ships’ scouts—smaller, swifter vessels that could be sent to and beyond the horizon in search of the enemy. Where had the frigates gone?

Terpsichore, Emerald, and Bonne Citoyenne had been scattered by the storm that dismasted Vanguard. Bonne Citoyenne had sent down her topgallant masts and ridden out the storm; she was a weatherly little ship, much admired for her sailing qualities. Terpsichore had also struck her topgallants, and eventually her topmasts also, after three of her foremast shrouds had broken. She was alone for two days, May 20–21, during the height of the storm but found Bonne Citoyenne again in the afternoon of May 22. Both were then well south of Toulon. Emerald had been driven even farther south, but also east, so far away from her two sister frigates that early in the morning of May 21 she caught a glimpse of Vanguard off Corsica in her dismasted state. She was not in a position to render assistance, and the two ships lost each other in the tumult.

Emerald’s captain then decided, as the weather abated, to head toward the coast of Spain in the hope of picking up prizes, desirable in themselves, but also to gather information from them. Although he intercepted two merchantmen, he got no news of either Nelson’s or Bonaparte’s whereabouts. On May 31, however, he fell in with another British frigate, Alcmene, captained by George Hope, which St. Vincent had sent after Nelson on May 12. She was in company with Terpsichore and Bonne Citoyenne, which she had met two days earlier. They had told Captain Hope of the great storm but had, of course, no news of Nelson. Emerald’s captain went aboard Alcmene, told of his sighting of the dismasted Vanguard, and thus set in train a sequence of events that was to deprive Nelson of his scouting group for the next two and a half months.

Nelson had left instructions for his frigates to obey in the event of their separation from the flagship. That was a common and sensible eighteenth-century precaution designed, in the absence of anything but spoken or visual communication, to allow contact to be reestablished by designating a rendezvous. His instructions laid down that, if lost, they were to cruise on a line west to east and back again, due south of Toulon to within sixty to ninety miles of Cap St. Sebastian, near Barcelona. In the case of “not having heard from me for ten days,” the ships were to “return to Gibraltar.” The scheme should have worked. Captain Hope in Alcmene began to work the patrol line on May 23, sailing back and forth on 42 degrees 20 minutes north latitude as instructed. He continued to do so after Terpsichore and Bonne Citoyenne joined. Had he kept on until June 3, only one day more than the stipulated span, he would have been found by Nelson, who himself arrived on station that day.

On May 31, however, Hope had detached Terpsichore and Bonne Citoyenne to search for Nelson between Sardinia and North Africa. On June 2 he met Mutine and was told by Hardy that Troubridge, with ten men-of-war, was close behind him, also looking for Nelson. There were now four separate British forces in the western Mediterranean, all looking for Bonaparte but also for each other: Nelson approaching his designated patrol line, Alcmene and Mutine on it, Terpsichore and Bonne Citoyenne heading for Sardinia, Troubridge south of all of them but heading north and anxious to make touch. If Hope had kept Terpsichore and Bonne Citoyenne in company and stayed on station with Mutine, he would inevitably have met Nelson, and Troubridge later, thus forming a junction of heavy ships and scouts, which with the merest addition of luck would have intercepted the slow-sailing French in the central Mediterranean within the month at most. The destruction of the French fleet, and with it a major portion of the best of the French army, would have followed; Bonaparte would have been a beaten man; and none of his most famous victories, Marengo and Austerlitz foremost, would have been won. The First Coalition might have been revived, the Revolution contained, the French Empire never founded, the future of Europe changed altogether.

As it was, Hope decided on another course. Emerald’s report of the extent of damage suffered by Vanguard was decisive in forming his mind. He concluded that its severity required the flagship to enter a dockyard for repairs. The only ones available were at Naples and Gibraltar. To look for Nelson at Gibraltar required a retrogression, which would add both in space and time to Bonaparte’s head start. In any case, Hardy had told him that Nelson had not returned to Gibraltar when he had left in Mutine. He also decided against seeking out Troubridge, a bad mistake because that admiral shortly found Nelson himself and, had he been able to bring Hope’s frigates with him, would thereby have added enormously to the fleet’s powers of reconnaissance. Hope instead made the calamitous decision to mount a search for the French by himself. Having already detached Bonne Citoyenne and Terpsichore to Sardinia, he sent Emerald to search the north Italian ports while sailing Alcmene round Majorca and Minorca, then to Sardinia and eventually toward Naples, picking up his detached consorts on the way. The pattern of search would have been justifiable had either Nelson or the French armada been standing still. Nelson, however, was cruising on the patrol line while the French were heading steadily east and south, opening up irrecoverable sea room with every day that passed. Had Nelson known of Hope’s movements and orders, his anguish at “want of frigates” would have been even more acute than it was.

Nelson, back on his rendezvous line off Toulon, now at least had the consolation of picking up the ships that were to constitute his fighting force, first Mutine, then Troubridge’s ten 74s, on the afternoon of June 7. Then the weather again intervened. A calm fell, so that it was not until June 10 that Orion and Alexander, of his original three, which had been detached to chase merchantmen in hope of news, rejoined and the fleet was assembled. Nelson, with thirteen 74s, the 50-gun Leander, and the nimble Mutine, could now turn in pursuit of the enemy. Where to head?

Troubridge had brought orders from St. Vincent that recapitulated the strategic situation. Nelson was requested and required to proceed “in quest of the Armament [military force] preparing by the enemy at Toulon and Genoa, the object whereof appears to be, either an attack on Naples and Sicily, the conveyance of an army to some part of the coast of Spain, for the purpose of marching toward Portugal or to pass through the Straits [of Gibraltar] with the view to proceeding to Ireland.” However, in additional instructions, he was also authorized to pursue the French fleet “to any part of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Morea [Peloponnese], Archipelago [Greek islands] or even into the Black Sea, should its destination be to any of those parts.” He was to supply himself from the ports of “the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the King of the Two Sicilies [Naples], the Ottoman Territory, Malta and ci-devant [former] Venetian Dominions now belonging to the Emperor of Germany [Austria].” He might also expect help from the bey of Tunis, the bashaw of Tripoli [present-day Libya], and the dey of Algiers, three nominal but effectively independent possessions of the Ottoman Empire.

Portugal? Ireland? Naples? Sicily? No mention of Egypt. The only inference Nelson could make, as he assembled his fleet, was that Bonaparte must be assembling his also, which meant bringing together the Toulon and the Genoa elements. He concluded that Toulon would go to Genoa, rather than vice versa, and decided accordingly to search the north Italian coast. Implicitly, he thereby discarded the notion of Portugal and Ireland as destinations and thought more of Naples and Sicily. Having cleared the northern point of Corsica, he began by looking in Telamon Bay (Golfo di Talamone), south of Elba, thought by him a suitable mustering place for the Toulon and Genoa convoys. Mutine, having explored the bay and run between the offshore islands of Montecristo and Giglio, reported no sight of the enemy. At this stage Nelson still believed that “not all the French troops had left Genoa on the 6th.” On June 13, he went to look for himself, sailing the whole fleet between Elba and the islands of Pianosa and Montecristo, a laborious detour. Had his frigates been with him, one could have been sent to do the work while Nelson pressed forward. Mutine was not fast enough to perform detached duty and keep up with the fleet. He might have used one of the 74s as a scout, but that would have diminished his fighting power. Before leaving Gibraltar he had told St. Vincent that he intended to keep “the large Ships complete, to fight, I hope, larger ones.”

On June 14 the clouds lifted a little. Near Civitavecchia he spoke a Tunisian warship, which told him it had spoken a Greek on June 10 that had “on the 4th, passed through the French Fleet, of about 200 Sail, as he thought, off the N.W. end of Sicily, steering to the Eastward.” It is not clear if that meant it was moving along the north coast of Sicily or had passed Trapani and was off the south coast. If the former it was just possible the enemy might be making for Naples, if the latter it had some other objective, but in either case it might land troops on Sicily, eminently worth occupying in itself. In any case, Bonaparte’s Armament had been nearly three hundred miles ahead of him ten days earlier and, even allowing for its sluggardly rate of advance, might have made another three hundred miles since. The cloud of unknowing, even if it had lifted a little, still concealed most of the future.

In the circumstances, Nelson decided to go to Naples. There were good reasons for doing so. The long-serving British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, in post for thirty-four years, had important sources of information, drawn from diplomatic, political, and commercial contacts all over the central Mediterranean. The Kingdom of Naples, or the Two Sicilies as it was known, was well disposed toward Britain and in fear of France, whose armies were just over the border in the Papal States. It might lend Nelson’s fleet supplies and assistance. Its prime minister, General Sir John Acton, a cosmopolitan man of affairs, held the title of a British baronet and had some loyalty to his ancestors’ country. Nelson hoped for both intelligence and material support.

Arriving at the Ponza Islands off Naples on June 15, Nelson sent Troubridge ashore in Mutine. He landed on the morning of June 17. Thomas Troubridge was a trusted subordinate, a colleague of twenty-five years, and a no-nonsense fighting ship captain. St. Vincent thought him “the greatest man in that walk the English Navy has ever produced.” A veteran of the Glorious First of June and the Cape St. Vincent battles, his attitude to command was straightforward. “Whenever I see a fellow look as if he was thinking,” he gave as his opinion after the widespread outbreaks of indiscipline in 1797, “I say that’s mutiny.” Taken to see Hamilton and Acton, he came straight to the point. Hamilton recorded: “We did more business in half an hour than should have been done in a week in the official way here….Now being informed of the position and strength of the enemy” and having extracted an order from Acton authorizing the governors of every Neapolitan port to supply “the King’s ships with all sorts of provisions,” Troubridge “brightened up and seemed perfectly happy.” Putting Acton’s order in his pocket, he departed for the fleet offshore, which he reached on June 18.

Fighting is one thing; intelligence is another. Each requires different qualities, not often found in the same person. Troubridge, Hamilton, and Acton seem to have got on like a house on fire. Troubridge’s fault was bluntness. He wanted supplies for the ships, almost a naval officer’s first thought. He wanted the freshest news available of the enemy’s whereabouts. Acton’s order ensured the first. Hamilton’s hard information—the French were going to Malta—supplied the second. No wonder Troubridge departed wreathed in smiles.

What he should have extracted from Hamilton, and might have done had he not stuck so directly to the point as he saw it to be, was softer news. It might have emerged in speculative or even general conversation, clearly not Troubridge’s strong point. The news was the indication that the French Armament was bound farther afield than Sicily or Malta. On May 28 Acton, whose first language was French (he had been born at Besançon), had told Hamilton that the French ambassador at Naples had told him “that the grand expedition from Toulon…was really destined for Egypt.” Hamilton appears to have suspected that he might be dealing with disinformation. As a result, although he minuted Acton’s report to the Foreign Office in London, he did not pass its content on to Troubridge nor put it in writing to Nelson.


LONDON MAY INDEED have been better informed than Nelson was. The Foreign Office, the Admiralty, and the War Office all collected intelligence from professional agents, consular officials, well-disposed or garrulous travelers, and foreign newspapers, among other sources. As early as April 24 Lord Spencer, the foreign secretary, had noted the destination of “the Toulon ships” as “Portugal-Naples-Egypt.” Two days later, “61’78’71” (the designation of an agent) “believes,” he wrote, “the object to be Egypt incredible as it seems.” Henry Dundas, secretary of war and a member of the board of the East India Company, was meanwhile telling the Admiralty of news passed by an American recently in France of French plans to invade the Channel Islands, to send an expeditionary force to Ireland (which came about in August), to raise revolution in Naples and Poland (both blows against Austria), but also of a “strange scheme respecting Egypt,” by which four hundred French officers were to be sent overland through that country to assist Sultan Tipu against the British in India.

The Admiralty had its own man in the Toulon Armament’s operational zone, Lieutenant William Day, sent to Genoa to sell three Navy Board transports marooned there since the withdrawal from the Mediterranean in 1796. Day’s reports were sent overland via the normal route through Germany to Hamburg and then by sea to London, the transmission time being anything from three to five weeks. They first suggested that Spain was the destination. By May 1, however, when Day himself arrived in London, he brought news that indicated the eastern Mediterranean as a possibility. It was that the Armament was embarking four thousand ten-hooped barrels without bungholes, the purpose of which was judged to be to buoy warships over shallows. The first lord deduced that they were needed for the passage through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea.

Other information available in London was, however, better. French newspapers, often acquired within a week of publication, were remarkably indiscreet. During late March, April, and early May, L’Echo, Le Surveillant, and Le Moniteur all printed material that amplified the picture the government was forming of the Toulon Armament’s strength, provisioning, and even destination. Le Moniteur, under government control, tried to muddy the water by printing deliberate misinformation, but the trend of the news remained unmistakable: A big fleet was preparing for a long-range military operation. Gossip helped to refine the picture. Some of the academics who were to accompany the expedition began to boast, a notorious failing of clever men leading unimportant lives. A mineralogist named de Dolemieu wrote to Jean de Luc, professor of natural history at Göttingen, that books about Egypt, Persia, India, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea were being shipped and that rumor had it the objective was Egypt and the purpose to intercept Britain’s commerce with India. De Luc, unfortunately, was a member of the household of Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife, and a Foreign Office agent. He passed the word on May 7.

The best intelligence received in London came, however, through official channels. It had been assembled by what would become classic spy-novel methods. The consul in Leghorn (Livorno) in northern Italy, named Udney, had a well-informed contact in a local British merchant who maintained commercial correspondence with other trading houses throughout the Mediterranean. These sources led Udney to overestimate somewhat the size of the Toulon Armament, but he got its departure date roughly right and its destination and purpose uncannily so. Its intermediate stop was to be Malta, which would be surrendered, and then Alexandria (though perhaps alternatively the Black Sea), with the object of landing troops to march overland to the Persian Gulf or sail down the Red Sea to attack the British East India Company’s possessions in India. Udney’s report, dated April 16, was passed by the Foreign Office to the Admiralty on May 24.

For a while London chose to discount the information. There were other dangers nearer home that a great French amphibious expedition threatened: a descent, in concert with the Spanish, on Portugal or an offensive against Britain itself, perhaps via Ireland, where rebellion broke out in May. What may have been deliberate French disinformation suggested that the rumors about Egypt were a cover story to conceal the real strategic purpose of the Toulon Armament. On June 1, the foreign secretary wrote to Lord Mornington, governor general in India, that “Bonaparte has at last embarked at Toulon with the project of attacking Ireland…taking or not taking Portugal in his way.”

New information soon dispelled these misapprehensions. Some came from the French press, more—and more compelling—from the gossipy academic world. A French scholar, Faujas de St. Fond, was reported from Frankfurt, in the occupied German territories, as affirming that the Armament was sailing for Egypt. Had Bonaparte known of their stream of leaks, he must certainly have regretted the decision to encumber the expedition with so many professional talkers. St. Fond’s indiscretion was received in London by June 13. On June 11 a dispatch from the diplomatic mission in Florence had brought an even more credible report: French General Carvoni had revealed that the expedition, which he was to accompany, was going to Egypt and then India. Two days later the foreign secretary wrote to his brother, “It really looks as if Bonaparte was after all in sober truth going to Egypt; and Dundas seems to think the scheme of attacking India from thence not so impractical as it may appear. I am still incredulous as to the latter point, though as to the former I am shaken. But as Bonaparte on the 23rd was still off Toulon [wrong] and as Lord St. Vincent must have detached [Troubridge’s ships] on the 21st at latest, there is real reason to hope that Nelson may destroy all these visions.”

That was certainly London’s hope but it was strictly circumscribed by its inability to communicate either what it wanted or what it knew to the central Mediterranean. On June 13, when Lord Spencer wrote his intelligence summary to his brother, Nelson was still in the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Orders had been sent from London to India and points in between to sail ships toward Suez, in particular to Commodore John Blanchett, in Leopard, 50 guns, on his way to India, to organize a small squadron in the Red Sea. It was anyone’s guess when word might reach him. It was equally difficult to estimate when either fresh orders or information might be got to Nelson. St. Vincent, off Cadiz, had instructions and good reason to stay there, blockading the Spanish and guarding the Strait of Gibraltar. He had already sent all the fast sailors at his disposal to Nelson and could spare no more. He could forward messages by neutral ships, but they were few, and his own rear link to London was tenuous and slow. He did not even know, from week to week, where Nelson was; after mid-June, when Nelson sent back the brig Transfer from Naples with dispatches, he did not know at all.

Nelson, by contrast, may have known something of Udney’s intelligence from Leghorn, since his papers contain a copy of an Udney letter that he may have picked up while on his way back to the Toulon rendezvous line after the dismasting, but it told only of the Toulon Armament’s strength, not its destination. Soon after he left Naples on June 18, however, he got firm news that it was sailing for Malta. On June 20, when he was in the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the toe of Italy, the British consul at Messina came aboard “to tell me that Malta had surrendered,” but not before he had written to the grand master of the knights of Malta, Ferdinand von Hompesch, urging him to put the island into a state of defense, while he hurried to help.

Nelson’s message left too late. Malta had already been surrendered, as Consul Udney had warned it would be on April 16. The knights had caved in. That should not have come as a surprise. The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John was no longer what it once had been.

When Bonaparte’s armada had appeared on June 9, Grand Master Hompesch quickly came to terms—a pension for himself, resettlement for the remaining knights. Such resistance as was shown came from the ordinary Maltese, though they had little love for the decayed order. By June 18, Bonaparte was off, having installed a French administration and garrison, proclaimed various civil and ecclesiastical reforms, and thoroughly looted the churches of treasure. It was a characteristically Napoleonic irruption, not least by its alienation of the Maltese—one of the most Catholic people of Europe. Had the knights only shown more backbone and encouraged the islanders to prolong resistance, the outcome would have been very different. Nelson, only a hundred miles behind and pressing onward, would have caught the Armament at a total disadvantage, with its commander and amphibious force ashore and its warships dispersed about the island’s periphery. Disaster would have been unavoidable.

Nelson, however, was misreading the signs. On Wednesday, June 20, when he had written to Hompesch from off Messina, he promised to be at Malta by Friday, June 22. So he was, or nearly. He was still convinced, however, that Sicily was the French objective and that Malta was to be used only as a base for its capture. His thoughts, therefore, misled him. He was shortly misled by objective misinformation.

Early in the morning of June 22, when he had promised to be at Malta but was actually just south of Cape Passaro, the southeast point of Sicily nearest the island, he was brought fresh news of the French from two different sources in quick succession. The first came from Hardy, who came aboard Vanguard from Mutine at 6:25 a.m. to report stopping a brig from Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic coast), with confirmation that Malta had fallen. The second was a sighting report from Leander of four strange ships to the east-southeast.

Nelson then decided, uncharacteristically, to consult his captains as to what to do. His conferences before Trafalgar would launch the legend of the “Band of Brothers,” but then he was expressing what he intended to do—telling, not asking. Yet by 1798 he had already acquired a reputation for decisiveness. It was odd that at this moment he felt the need for moral support. Still, it was a highly complex situation. The Ragusan brig had told that Malta had fallen the previous Friday and the French fleet sailed the following day, June 15 and 16 respectively. It was now Friday, June 22. Nelson must have calculated that if the French had gone to Sicily, they must have arrived, and news could not have failed to reach him of their arrival in the intermediate six days. As there was no news, they had gone somewhere else. Given the current direction of the wind, which was westerly, the Armament was most likely to be heading east, which might mean toward the Dardanelles and the Black Sea but almost certainly meant Egypt. It was a compelling conclusion, but he needed reassurance.

The four captains for whom he sent were senior and trusted—Saumarez of Orion, Troubridge of Culloden, Henry Darby of Bellerophon, and Ball of Alexander. In Vanguard’s cabin, he put to them the following assessment: “With this information [of the ‘strange ships’ and from the Ragusan brig] what is your opinion? Do you believe under all circumstances which we know that Sicily is [Bonaparte’s] destination? Do you think we had better stand for Malta, or steer for Sicily? Should the Armament be gone for Alexandria and got safe there our possessions in India are probably lost. Do you think that we had better push for that place?”

He got a variety of answers. Berry, of Vanguard, was for going to Alexandria; Ball agreed that the French were heading for Alexandria; Darby thought that probable; Saumarez and Troubridge emphasized the importance of protecting Alexandria, without stating an opinion about the French destination. Still, collectively, they made Nelson’s mind up—with regrettable consequences.

Resolved now to press on at best speed to Egypt, Nelson dealt peremptorily with the sighting reports of the strange ships. His own ships sent to follow them kept up a stream of signals. At 5:30 a.m. Culloden reported that they were running, with the wind behind them. At 6:46 a.m. Leander signaled “strange ships are frigates,” and Orion repeated it to the flagship so that there could be no mistake. Four frigates made a sizable force, likely to be part of a larger one. It was not an unreasonable guess that they might belong to the Armament. Soon after 7 a.m., however, Nelson ordered the “chasing ships” to be called back. His thoughts, which he was outlining at the time to his five captains in Vanguard’s cabin, admitted only two lines of decision: to go back to Sicily or make for Malta; alternatively, to race to Egypt with the favorable wind. He did not raise, perhaps even to himself, the option of disposing the fleet in scouting formation and running down the course taken by the strange ships to see if they were in company with others. Captain Thomas Thompson of Leander clearly could not understand and scarcely bear his superior’s refusal to follow up such an obvious pointer to the enemy’s whereabouts. At 8:29 a.m. he signaled again, “ships seen are frigates.” Nelson was unmoved. Leander, Orion, and Culloden were obliged to rejoin the fleet that crowded on sail for Alexandria.

Nelson might nevertheless have heeded his scouting ships had he possessed one vital piece of information: the actual date of departure of Bonaparte from Malta. The Ragusan brig had said Saturday, June 16. In fact he had not left until Tuesday, June 19, and on Friday, June 22, when the strange ships were sighted, had only been at sea three days. Nelson was harder on Bonaparte’s heels than Nelson guessed, and may indeed have been only thirty miles or so behind him. That night, in the mist, the French heard bells striking and signal guns firing, which must surely have been aboard Nelson’s ships. The French Armament, however, warned by the frigates seen earlier that day, was sailing in silence, closed up tight for mutual protection. By the time day broke, Nelson had passed ahead and was over the horizon. The chance of a decisive encounter had been lost.


THE CAPTAIN OF THE RAGUSAN BRIG may have been mistaken; he may equally have been misunderstood. We do not know what language he spoke, perhaps Italian, perhaps Serbo-Croatian, perhaps another Mediterranean tongue. As Alfred Thayer Mahan suggests in his The Life of Nelson, had Nelson done the interrogation himself, he might have found out more, for he was a shrewd questioner and his intellect was sharpened by anxiety and by constant dwelling upon the elements of the intricate problem before him. By the time Hardy came aboard Vanguard, however, it was two hours since he had stopped the Ragusan, which was then beyond his reach. Nelson, in any case, was in a fever to get forward. The wind was in his favor, and over the next six days he made exceptional progress, sometimes covering 150 miles in twenty-four hours. On June 28 he had Alexandria in sight and he spent the night taking soundings offshore (the Royal Navy had few charts of the eastern Mediterranean). It was disquieting, however, that there was no sign of the Armament, and when Captain Hardy returned in Mutine the next morning after a passage inshore, his fears were confirmed.

Hardy had failed to find the British consul, to whom Nelson had written, but the Ottoman fortress commander, who eventually appeared, told him that the French had not arrived, that the Turks were not at war with France, and that the British, though they might water and store their ships according to custom, should go away. Nelson did not linger. On the morning of Saturday, June 30, he set sail. He had decided he had made a mistake and that the Armament had gone elsewhere, perhaps to Turkey proper. Four days later, having left Cyprus to starboard, he was in the Gulf of Antalya.

Had Nelson only contained his impatience, the French would have sailed into his hands. Twenty-five hours after he departed Alexandria, the Armament anchored to the east of the city and began to send the army ashore. This was Nelson’s second, perhaps third, even fourth near miss. But for the gale, he might have caught Bonaparte coming out of Toulon. But for his anxiety to protect Naples, he might have devastated the Armament at Malta. But for his refusal to follow the strange ships, he might have slaughtered the Armament at sea on June 22. Had he but waited a day at Alexandria, he would certainly have destroyed it, or forced its surrender, in the delta of the Nile. As it was, he was now hastening away from his quarry, while Bonaparte and a clutch of his future battle-­winning marshals—Berthier, Lannes, Joachim Murat, Louis Nicolas Davout, Auguste Marmont—were being rowed ashore to take possession of Egypt, more or less at their leisure.

Nelson, by contrast, was in a frenzy. “His anxious and active mind,” wrote Captain Ball, “would not permit him to rest for a moment in the same place.” Where to go? He decided first to “stretch over to the coast of Caramania” (southern Turkey), as he later wrote to Sir William Hamilton. His conclusion, made ten days earlier, that the French were going east, seems to have left him with the conviction that, if they were not in Egypt, then they must be somewhere else in the Turkish sultan’s dominions. He had noticed the preparations the military commander at Alexandria had been making—“the Line-of-Battle Ship…landing her guns,” “the Turks preparing to resist,” as he later wrote to St. Vincent and Sir William Hamilton respectively—but, in the absence of the French, he must have interpreted those signs as elements of a general Ottoman alert. That, or else his premature decision to depart, implies an uncharacteristic moment of mental confusion, poor analysis, general jumpiness—not traits that he normally displayed.

He arrived in the Gulf of Antalya on July 4 and, seeing nothing, turned west again, heading first to cross the track of the Armament if it were still on its way to Egypt, then steering south of Crete, briefly north toward mainland Greece, eventually direct once more for Sicily, which he reached on July 20. Off Syracuse, where he proposed to water and take on stores, he wrote three letters on July 20: to his wife, to Sir William Hamilton, to St. Vincent. His few short words to Lady Nelson were a cri de coeur: “I have not been able to find the French Fleet…however, no person will say that it has been for want of activity.” To Hamilton he regretted again his “want of frigates,” from which “all my misfortune has proceeded,” and made arrangements for his letters to be forwarded to the foreign secretary and to St. Vincent. They, of course, had no more idea of his whereabouts than he of the French. To St. Vincent, supplementing a recapitulation and justification of his wandering since Vanguard’s dismasting, he raised again the issue of lack of frigates, “to which must be ­attributed my ignorance of the movements of the Enemy,” and then outlined his next plan: “to get into the mouth of the Archipelago [the Aegean], where, if the Enemy are gone to Constantinople, we shall hear of them directly; if I get no information there, to go to Cyprus, when, if they are in Syria or Egypt, I must hear of them.”

He ended, however, by detailing “a report that on the 1st of July, the French were seen off Candia [Crete], but near what part of the Island I cannot learn.” Leaving Syracuse on July 24, his last word to Hamilton was, “No Frigates!—to which has been, and may again, be attributed the loss of the French Fleet.” Frigates or not, Nelson’s luck was about to change. On July 28, when south of the Greek mainland, he sent Culloden into the Gulf of Coron (modern Messenia, the large western inlet into the Peloponnese), from which he was brought news that “the Enemy’s Fleet had been seen steering to the S.E. from Candia about four weeks before.” The news came from the Turkish governor, who had heard from Constantinople that the French were in Egypt. Culloden also brought in a French brig, which hailed from Limassol in Cyprus and endorsed the Turkish governor’s report. It was further confirmed by the master of a merchantman stopped by Alexander. Nelson’s fleet had by now stopped forty-one merchant vessels during its toing-and-froing and would have stopped more had not the French admiral captured any stray ship he found in the Armament’s path, no doubt a fruitful counterintelligence measure.

The visit to the Gulf of Coron effectively ended the intelligence famine. Nelson now had good reason for believing that Bonaparte was not at Corfu (the most likely destination had he headed for Greece), was not going to Constantinople, and was neither on the south coast of Turkey, nor in Cyprus. The Armament might possibly have landed in Syria, a term that contemporaneously embraced present-day Israel and Lebanon, but if so its ships would be within easy sailing distance of Alexandria and would certainly be heard of there. For Alexandria, on July 29, he accordingly made all sail, and during the next few days achieved very rapid passage; in the twenty-four hours of July 31 the fleet covered 161 miles, at an average speed of nearly 8 knots, very fast going for line-of-battle ships.

Landfall on August 1 brought a brief repetition of the disappointment of June 30. The harbor was empty. A short eastward cast along the coast set fears to rest. At 2:30 in the afternoon Goliath’s signal midshipman, aloft in the foremast, spotted a crowd of masts in Aboukir Bay. Desperate to be first with the news, he slid to the deck to tell his captain, but then broke a halliard as he made his flag hoist to Vanguard. So it was Zealous that got the signal first to Nelson: “Sixteen sail of the line at anchor bearing East by South.”

The report was not quite accurate. Admiral Brueys commanded thirteen line-of-battle ships, but also four frigates, two brigs, two bomb vessels, and a collection of smaller gunboats. It was the thirteen heavy ships that mattered—the enormous 120-gun l’Orient, three 80s and nine 74s. They were variously armed, one with eighteen-pounders instead of thirty-two-pounders, and some were old, as much as fifty years old, and less strongly built than the British. Still, Victory, which was to be Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was then forty years old. Neither age, nor even weight of metal, really counted among the decisive features. Seamanship, ship-handling, and bloody-mindedness did. The British were masters of their craft, to a degree that the relatively inexperienced French, officers and men alike, were not. The code of revolutionary correctness had robbed the French navy of many good officers, conscription to the army of much of its manpower. The diet of victory on land in particular had sapped the French navy’s will to win. Victory at sea was not essential to France. It was crucial to the British as a people and to the Royal Navy as a service.


BONAPARTE, as Sir Arthur Bryant (the great popular historian of Britain’s role in the wars of the French Revolution and empire) was to remark, never saw and therefore could not imagine “the staggering destructive power of a British ship of the line in action.” The Royal Navy had been a ferocious instrument of war ever since the seventeenth century. Its defeat in the American War of Independence, however, had infused it with a ruthless killer instinct. It had been outraged by the French and Spanish seizure of command of the sea in 1780–1781, its birthright as it saw it, and had not relented since the resumption of hostilities in 1793 in the determination to humble its enemies.

Bonaparte, the mastermind of the Egyptian expedition, was not far from the fleet, winning new victories over feeble enemies in the interior of Egypt. Had he been nearer, he might have sent his fleet away to be out of danger, perhaps at Corfu, from which it could have been recalled quickly at need and where it would have constituted a threat to Nelson’s lines of communication. The concept, however, of a “fleet in being,” affecting events by doing nothing, may have been alien to Bonaparte’s active and aggressive mind. He had therefore ordered Brueys to remain in Egyptian waters but to put the fleet under the guns of Alexandria. It was then anchored in Marabout Bay, where the landings had been staged, a clearly unsatisfactory roadstead. Alexandria, however, was a difficult harbor, shallow and easily blocked. It was therefore eventually decided to transfer the ships to Aboukir Bay, nine miles to the east.

Brueys had anchored his ships in a position he thought made a successful attack by the British—which he expected—impossible. They lay in a shallow crescent formation, bows on to Aboukir (Bequiéres) Island with the bay to starboard and shoals and shallow water between them and the land to port. Brueys had apparently judged the gap between the head of his line and the island impassable, believing that, even if negotiated, the water beyond was too shallow for the British to pass on either side of his ships—that was, between his line and the shoreward shoals. He had strengthened his defenses by having cables run between most of his ships, which were about 175 yards apart, and by ordering springs to be attached to their anchor cables. Springs, ropes taken to the capstan, could be tightened to swing the ship by the bow or stern, so that they were maneuverable even though at anchor. Not all the French captains, however, had attached springs by the time the battle began.

The French position, nevertheless, was formidable enough to deter a cautious enemy, but the British were not cautious, nor were they unobservant. Thomas Foley, captain of Goliath, had one of the only two charts of the coast in the fleet, and a good one; it showed the depths of water right up to the shoreline. More important, Foley made a snap judgment about the way the French were anchored. Nelson himself would shortly come to the same conclusion, saying to Berry, his flag captain in Vanguard, “where there was room for an enemy’s ship to swing, there was room for one of ours to anchor.” Foley saw that instantly as he passed Aboukir Island and so pointed Goliath inshore, to pass round Guerrier at the head of Brueys’ line and so down the inside of the anchored enemy.

Foley had intended to anchor alongside Guerrier, into which he fired as he rounded her bow, but his crew ran out too much cable. Goliath ended up farther down the French line, opposite Conquérant and Spartiate. The mistake did not really matter, for the British ships next astern—Zealous, Audacious, Orion, and Theseus—were following fast. They also joined in the cannonade against Guerrier—which collected fire from all of them as they passed by and was quickly dismasted—while Theseus positioned herself to fire into both Spartiate and Aquilon.

The head of the French line was now solidly engaged by anchored opponents. Vanguard, which was following Theseus, took a different course, steering to pass on the seaward rather than inshore side of the French and to anchor opposite Spartiate, which was thus taken between two fires. Minotaur engaged Quilon, also caught between two fires, while Defence stopped opposite Peuple Souverain, which was being fired into by Orion on the other side.

The center of the French line was composed of the heaviest ships, Franklin, 80; l’Orient, 120; and Tonnant, 80. The other 80, Guillaume Tell, was some distance away, third from rear. Darkness had fallen as the center’s British opponents began to appear—first Majestic, which was mishandled and ended up opposite another 74 farther down, then Bellerophon, then Alexander, then Swiftsure. The last two, positioning themselves skillfully in the gaps astern of Franklin and l’Orient respectively, were able to do serious damage without suffering heavily themselves. Bellerophon, coming alongside l’Orient, suffered terrible damage and loss by choosing to engage the heaviest ship present. In an hour of fighting she lost her main and mizzen masts, while her foremast also was damaged.

By 10 o’clock her ordeal began to abate as fire from Swiftsure and Alexander raked the French flagship from bow and stern. They did terrible slaughter. Brueys, badly wounded, in­sisted on remaining on deck until struck by a shot that killed him. Below­decks the spaces were full of wounded, including Captain Casabianca’s young son. They were also cluttered by flammable stores. Lieutenant Webley, of Zealous, noted when l’Orient took fire. Swiftsure’s captain ordered his crew to fire into the seat of the blaze to stop the French crew fighting the flames. Soon it became obvious that l’Orient’s magazine would be set off, and both her British and French neighbors cut their anchor cables to reach what was hoped to be a safe distance. Alexander drifted off, as did Tonnant, Heureux, and Mercure, either to anchor against or to ground in shallow water. Swiftsure, close ahead of l’Orient, was judged by her captain to be safer where she was; he calculated that the coming explosion would pass over his ship.


SO IT DID. The enormous detonation sent the ­debris of broken timbers, masts, cordage, and bodies hundreds of feet into the air, to rain down detritus into the waters of the bay for a mile around, while the noise, heard in Alexandria nine miles away, temporarily brought the battle to a stop. When it resumed, after a quarter of an hour, the scene of battle had been decisively altered. The disappearance of l’Orient and the shift of Tonnant, which had drifted dismasted toward the rear, left a large gap in the middle of the French line, widened by the falling away of Heureux and Mercure, which had also gone aground, though their crews continued to serve the guns.

The French were thus in almost total disarray, with their ­admiral dead, flagship destroyed, and the surviving ships separated into two groups. In the forward group, Guerrier, whose crew had fought heroically while her captain had refused to surrender twenty times, at last struck after three hours, dismasted and devastated. Conquérant, after another valiant passage of resistance, had also at last struck. Spartiate, third in line, had surrendered after two hours, the first French ship to give up, but with two hundred dead and wounded aboard and the survivors pumping to keep the ship afloat. Aquilon surrendered a little later, with eighty-seven dead aboard and 213 wounded. Peuple Souverain, fifth in the order of battle, had drifted out of the line, perhaps because her cables had been severed by gunfire. Franklin, still in line, had ceased to fight after being set on fire four times, the last by burning debris from the explosion of l’Orient.

By early in the morning of August 2, therefore, the French fleet consisted of a shattered and defeated van, a central void and a rear in disarray. Franklin, anchored ahead of l’Orient’s original position, did recommence fire after the great explosion but was swiftly brought to surrender. Aft of the gap, some of the French ships continued resistance for several hours, including Heureux and Mercure from inshore. Admiral Villeneuve, in Guillaume Tell, eventually decided, however, that it was his duty to escape. He cut his cable and sailed out of the bay, followed by Généreux and the frigates Justice and Diane. He left behind the dismasted Tonnant and Timoléon, which with heroic but pointless obstinacy continued to work their guns into the afternoon of August 2. Tonnant eventually hauled down her colors, but Timoléon’s crew left theirs flying when they set fire to the ship and rowed ashore to escape capture.


NELSON HAD WON A CRUSHING VICTORY, never exceeded in its completeness during the days of sailing ship warfare and equaled in naval history only by Japan’s annihilation of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Of the enemy’s thirteen line-of-battle ships, two had escaped. But two had blown up and the other nine had been captured in action or driven ashore. Nelson had lost none of his ships. Culloden, which had grounded during the approach, to the fire-eating Troubridge’s fury, had been floated off; Bellerophon and Majestic, the hardest hit, survived. Nelson’s casualties—he himself had suffered a nasty scalp wound early on—numbered 208 killed and 677 wounded. The French, by contrast, had surrendered more than a thousand wounded, while their dead came to several thousand, a thousand in l’Orient alone.

It was the nature of the battle that determined the scale of the slaughter; ships anchored broadside to broadside, firing into each other at pointblank range, caused ghastly carnage among their crews. Engagements in the open sea, when ships had the freedom to maneuver, were much less costly in human life. Yet at Copenhagen, a battle Nelson was to fight in nearly identical circumstances in 1801, Danish casualties were only 476 killed, 559 wounded. A killer instinct was at work at the Nile—a determination among the British to prevail, among the French not to be overcome.

What animated the French is the harder to estimate—revolutionary fervor no doubt, certainly Bonapartist inspiration, perhaps also the determination not to return to the traditional state of inferiority prevailing before their naval renaissance in the American War of Independence. Analysis of the British mood is more straightforward. Victory was a way of life for the Nelsonian sailor. He believed all races inferior to his own, expected to beat them, and would fight unremittingly to ensure that he did. Moreover, the fleet had been led on a merry dance by Brueys for nearly three months. Cornered at last, he and his sailors became the object of their enemy’s pent-up frustration.

No one in Nelson’s fleet had been more frustrated than Nelson himself, sleeping badly, eating little, railing in every letter he wrote against the bad luck that had him in its grip. Want of frigates, want of help from those he believed owed it to him were his constant themes. The frustrated commander also came to believe that the fates were against him, that he had consistently made the right choices but that some malign spirit had intervened to disappoint his best intentions.

Nelson made mistakes during his seventy-three days of chase, between the great storm of May 18 and his bringing of Admiral Brueys to battle on August 1, notably in deciding not to chase the French frigates sighted off Sicily on June 22 and in not waiting off Alexandria on June 30 when the signs were that the Turks expected trouble; had he then reined in his impatience for twenty-four hours, he would have won what might have been the most decisive naval battle in history. On the other hand, as an essay in pure intelligence operations by a commander on the spot, Horatio Nelson’s Nile campaign is difficult to fault.

The restraints under which he worked are clear to enumerate: no reconnaissance force (“want of frigates”); no means of communication with land-based sources of information except by going to get it himself; no reassurance that any such information gleaned was reliable, even from friendly sources (Hamilton’s and Acton’s economy with the truth should be remembered); no access to the central intelligence resources of his own home base (three to five weeks’ delay in communication between the Mediterranean and London in the inward direction, therefore twice that two-way); no certain home intelligence even if sent. Other restraints were an active disinformation campaign conducted by the enemy (manipulation of the official press) and energetic denial of local sources of intelligence (Brueys’ commandeering of all merchant shipping encountered during the voyage to Alexandria).

Nelson had to work therefore by optimizing local intelligence acquisitions (particularly the interrogation of Turkish officials in the Peloponnese and merchant captains off Crete after his first passage to Alexandria), which were offset by misinformation (the report that the French had left Malta three days earlier than was the case) and by his own “understanding.”

The Nile campaign demonstrates that, to Nelson’s many other qualities, which included inspirational powers of leadership, lightning tactical verve, ruthless determination in battle, incisive strategic grasp, and a revolutionary capacity for operation innovation, all combined with complete disregard for his own personal safety in any circumstances, must be added the abilities of a first-class intelligence analyst. Few dispute that Nelson was the greatest admiral who ever lived. The range and depth of his powers suggests that he would have dominated in any age.


John Keegan, an MHQ contributing editor, is the author of some twenty works of military history. This article is excerpted from his book, Intelligence in War: From Nelson to Hitler, Copyright © 2003 John Keegan, published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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