The Battle of the Nile and The wreck of the L’Orient.
The year is 1798,England and France have been at war for many years (French Revolutionary War). Napoleon Bonaparte has invaded Egypt with the possible intention of expanding French control of the region and challenging Britain’s dominance in India. His fleet of 17 ships has eluded the British fleet in the Mediterranean Sea for nearly 9 months…..
The British Fleet, under the command of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson suspects the French fleet to be heading to Alexandria, Egypt and sets sail from Malta on the 22nd of June with his fleet of 14 ships, arriving in Alexandria on the 29th only to find the French fleet nowhere to be found. Nelson then sails to Sicily for supplies and while on the way to Syracuse, receives intelligence that the French are indeed heading for the Coast of Egypt. The British fleet set sail on the 25th of July and arrives in Alexandria on the 1st of August to find that the French fleet once again was not in the harbour…..
The HMS Swiftsure had been sent ahead to reconnoiter the Egyptian Coast and on the afternoon of the 1st of August finds the French fleet lying at anchor in the Bay of Aboukir to the east of Alexandria. Nelson wastes no time……..
The British Fleet:
HMS Vanguard (74-Guns)
HMS Minotaur (74-Guns)
HMS Audacious (74-Guns)
HMS Defence (74-Guns)
HMS Zealous (74-Guns)
HMS Orion (74-Guns)
HMS Goliath (74-Guns)
HMS Majestic (74-Guns)
HMS Bellerophon (74-Guns)
HMS Culloden (74-Guns)
HMS Theseus (74-Guns)
HMS Alexander (50-Guns)
HMS Swiftsure (50-Guns)
HMS Leander (50-Guns)
The French Fleet:
Le’Souverain Peuple (74-Guns)
Le’Guillaume Tell (74-Guns)
La Diane (48-Gun Frigate)
La Justice (44-Gun Frigate)
L’Artemis (36-Gun Frigate)
La Seriuese (33-Gun Frigate)
Nelson finds the French fleet lying at anchor in a line of battle near the shoal water mark, with the lead ship of the van, Le’Guerrier, close to the shoal water near Aboukir Island. He has a North-by-Northwest wind at his back in the late afternoon and all things look to be in his favor.
(Sea battles were normally fought from first light until dark. But Nelson felt he could not wait….)
At 5 O’clock on the 1st of August he makes the decision to attack….
Nelson quickly formulates a plan of attack to strike the van and the middle of the anchored French fleet on both the landward and seaward sides of the line. The HMS Goliath and the HMS Zealous lead the attack on the inside of the French line, rounding the Aboukir Reef and maneuvering between the first ship and the shoal water near Aboukir Island, raking the Le’Guerrier, Le’Conquerant, and Le’Spartiate with full broadsides. The HMS Orion, Audacious, and Theseus then followed. The first three French ships are dismasted in less than 12 minutes into the battle as the French Admiral of the fleet Francois-Paul Brueys d’Aigallier had not expected the British to attack on the landward side of his fleet and had not cleared the fleet’s port-side guns for action. A decision which would later prove to be a fatal one……
As the British ships progress down the landward side, bombarding one ship to the next along the French line, L’Aquilon and Le’Spartiate are taken by 8:30 in the evening. In the meantime, the HMS Vanguard, Minotaur, Defence, Bellerophon, Majestic, Swiftsure, and Alexander have taken up position and opened fire on the starboard side (seaward) of the French line with devastating results. The Bellerophon, which is abreast of the L’Orient, is dismasted and drifts out of action. As other British ships move in, a fire is noticed in the after section of the ship and the captain of the HMS Vanguard concentrates his gunfire on that section of the ship.
On the landward side of the French fleet, the HMS Goliath, Zealous, Orion, Audacious, and Theseus systematically move down the French line from ship to ship raking each ship with broadside after broadside, dismasting the La Serieuse, and continue bombarding the main ships in the French line.
Meanwhile, the fire onboard the L’Orient is spreading…….
As the fire onboard the L’Orient grows wildly out of control, the British ships in close proximity realize imminent danger is near and start to move away from the ship as fast as possible…..
At approximately 10 o’clock in the evening, the fire onboard the L’Orient had spread to the ship’s powder magazines. The resulting explosion is said to have been heard in Alexandria, over 9 kilometers away. As a result of the explosion, there is a lull in the battle of over 10 full minutes. When the smoke clears….the L’Orient is gone! Taking almost a thousand lives with her to the bottom!Falling debris from the explosion set fires onboard the HMS Alexander, which was quickly extinguished, and the battle resumes until around 3 in the morning on the 2nd of August.
The Battle continues at around 5 o’clock in the morning with the British recommencing fighting by moving down the line of remaining French ships finding only the Le’Guillaume Tell, Le’Genereux, and L’Artemis still flying the French flag. L’Artemis fires one last broadside and then strikes her colors. At 11 o’clock the Le’Guillaume Tell, Le’Genereux, La Diane, and La Justice get underway and are pursued by the HMS Zealous. However, the Zealous is recalled by Nelson.
With Napoleon’s fleet destroyed, captured, or on the run, Napoleon Bonaparte and his army are effectively trapped in Egypt and Britain now maintains control of the Mediterranean Sea. It will be almost 3 years before Napoleon is able to return to France.
Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson returns to England a hero and is given the title of “Baron of the Nile” and goes on to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Unfortunately, he also dies in the battle and is buried a hero in England in a coffin made from part of L’Orient’s main mast.
The L’Orient began life in 1790 at Toulon Arsenal as an Ocean class ship originally named “Le Dauphin Royal” in honor of the new prince of France (“Dauphin” being the French word for prince). She was renamed “Le Sans Culotte” in September 1792 and then “L’Orient” in May 1795.
Length…………..65.18 meters (196.6 French feet)
Beam………….....16.24 meters (50 French feet)
Draft…………….8.12 meters (25 French feet)
Compliment……..1,079 - 1,130 men
Armament……….120 guns in total
The shipwreck of the L’Orient lay, forgotten to history, in the Aboukir Bay for almost 200 years. In the early 1960’s Egyptian diver and amateur archaeologist, Kamal Abou El-Sadat, located the shipwrecks of Napoleon’s fleet as well as the ancient lost cities of Canopus, Menouthis, and Heraklion.
In 1983, French archaeologist Jacques Dumas re-located the wreck of the L’Orient, Le’Guerrier, Le’Serieuse, and L’Artemis. However, his records of the ship’s locations were lost when he died in Morrocco in 1985.
Excavation of the French fleet had still not been conducted by this time.
In 2000, French archaeologist Frank Goddio, with the support of the HILTI organization, in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, conducted the excavation of the L’Orient. Verification of the ship’s identity was confirmed when the rudder of the ship was located and the ship’s original name, Le Dauphin Royal was found engraved on the rudder.
Excavation of the ship revealed many artifacts and provided insight into daily shipboard life of the period, as well as to determine how the ship actually sank. It was determined that there were actually two explosions, one in the forward section and one in the aft section of the ship that left only the center section of the ship intact.
The wreck is lying in a North-South orientation at 9-11 meters of depth with a 36-pounder cannon lying on the main deck. The main deck has collapsed onto the 2nd and 3rd decks leaving the main fore-aft passageway exposed. Athwartship’s passageways are exposed in three areas. All are accessable and are non-overhead environments. However, the copper-bronze deck supports are exposed, posing snag hazards. Along the port side hull you will find copper hull sheathing and various parts of gun port doors and hardware. In the aft section of the ship bags of shrapnel and lead bullets are found.
As this is a site of archaeological value, it is strictly forbidden to remove any artifact from the site!