The Battle of the Nile, 1798
Napoleon’s fleet after landing the troops had found that they could not enter the harbour. It was too shallow so they anchored 30 kms north-east of the city in Aboukir Bay, something of a difficult anchorage.
The Rosetta Stone – Aboukir Bay is adjacent to the town of Rosetta. In 1799 one of Napoleon’s soldiers, Pierre Francois Bouchard, discovered a stele that became known as the Rosetta Stone. The stone had been used merely as a piece of building material in an old Ottoman castle, Fort Julien, which Napoleon’s forces were occupying.
It dated from 196 BCE, inscribed by priests in the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes. He had ascended to the throne of the Ptolemaic dynasty at the age of five. His regents did nothing to advance his realm’s cause so as an adult, just thirteen years old, he had aggressively to put down a revolt.
The Memphis Decree inscribed upon the stone celebrated his victory by announcing his ascension to the status of a god and declared concessions to the priesthood for their support of his defence of the realm. It was depicted in three languages – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (a later Egyptian script) and in Ancient Greek.
Plaster copies of the inscription soon began to circulate around the leading museums of Europe when it was realised this could be used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the very first time. It took over twenty years but finally Jean-François Champollion in Paris was able to transliterate the material.
In 1801 the British took control of the area and despatched the stone to London – it has been permanently on show in the British Museum since 1802 – its most visited object. Similar stelae were later discovered with bi- or trilingual inscriptions, but this was the first to be found.
Napoleon’s written orders had been for his navy to move off to Corfu as a suitable base for operations but these orders were intercepted by Bedouins and never reached Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys D’Aigalliers.
Nelson having moved off and resupplied at Sicily finally got some good intelligence about the situation in Egypt and set off in pursuit.
Brueys lined up his fleet with natural shoals to starboard so that supplies could be offloaded from that side, the cannon there able to protect any troops ashore, while the port broadside was still available if Nelson should attack. He also ordered his ships to connect themselves by a strong cable to the bow and stern of the ships either side of them. Their frigates were moored inside this ‘impregnable’ line.
This proved to be a catalogue of errors. First there was enough space for the English ships to pass behind the French vanguard. The ships were too far apart, anchored only at the bow the French ships swung and this made the gaps even larger and on a number of occasions they were unable to deliver a broadside on British ships passing through those gaps.
Brueys had his senior officers in conference on his flagship as the British fleet engaged his vanguard with a speed that took them completely by surprise; they had expected the British would wait until morning. His fleet was virtually wiped out in the Battle of the Nile.
The British lost 200 dead and fewer than 700 wounded (though this did include Nelson who was struck in the forehead by a piece of shot), the French losses are variously quoted, perhaps 3,500 dead and injured. Four French ships were sunk, three more were too damaged to ever see service again, three of the captured prizes were ever to be put back in to service.
Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve was in command of the rear division, his was one of only two ships that managed to escape the battle. Although criticised by some for never engaging with the British, Napoleon considered him a lucky commander, as a result he would become the commander of the Franco-Spanish forces at Trafalgar!
As a result of the naval defeat on the ‘Nile’, Napoleon and his troops were stranded in Egypt. He embarked on a campaign against Ottoman controlled Syria, but failed in a siege of Acre.