LESSON 26 The battle of the Nile
'Tis an old story now, that Battle of the Nile;(1) but a brave story can never die of age.
The Bay is wide, but dangerous from shoals: the line of deep blue water, and the old castle of Aboukir,(2) map out the position of the French fleet on the 1st of August 1798. Having landed Buonaparte and his army, the French Admiral moored his fleet in the form of a crescent close along the shore. His vastly superior force, and the strength of his position (protected towards the north by dangerous shoals, and towards the west by the castle and batteries), made him consider that position impregnable; and on the strength of this conviction he wrote to Paris that Nelson(3) had purposely avoided him.
Was he undeceived when Hood,(4) in the Zealous, made signal that the enemy was in sight, and a cheer of triumph burst from every ship in the British fleet?—that fleet which had been sweeping the seas with bursting sails for six long weeks in search of its formidable foe, and which now bore down upon him with fearless exultation. The soundings of that dangerous bay were unknown to Nelson; but he knew that where there was room for a French ship to swing, there must be room for an Englishman to anchor at either side of him,—and the closer the better!
As his proud and fearless fleet came on, he hailed Hood, to ask whether the action should commence that night; then receiving the answer he longed for, the signal for "close battle" flew from his mast-head. The delay thus caused to the Zealous gave Foley(5) the lead. He showed the example of leading inside the enemy's lines,(6) and anchored by the stern alongside the second ship; thus leaving to Hood the first. The latter, putting his own generous construction on an accident, exclaimed, "Thank God, he has nobly left to his old friend still to lead the van!"
Slowly and majestically, as the evening fell, the remainder of the fleet came on beneath a cloud of sails, receiving the fire of the castle and the batteries in portentous silence, only broken by the crash of spars, or the boatswain's whistle; each ship furling her sails calmly, as a sea-bird might fold its wings, and gliding tranquilly onward till she found her destined foe. Then the anchor dropped astern, and the fire burst from her bloodstained decks with a vigour that showed how sternly it had been repressed till then.
The leading ships passed between the enemy and the shore; but when the Admiral came up, he led the remainder of the fleet along the seaward side, thus doubling on the Frenchman's line, and placing it in a defile of fire.
The sun went down soon after Nelson anchored; and his rearward ships were guided through the darkness and the dangers of that formidable bay only by the Frenchman's fire flashing fierce welcome, as each enemy arrived and went hovering along the lines. He coolly scrutinized how he might draw most of that fire upon himself. The Bellerophon, with reckless gallantry, fastened on the gigantic Orient, by whose terrible artillery she was soon crushed, and scorched into a wreck. Then she drifted helplessly to leeward. But she had already done her work,—the Orient was on fire, and through the terrible roar of battle a whisper went for a moment that paralyzed every eager heart and hand. During that dread pause the fight was suspended; the very wounded ceased to groan: yet the burning ship still continued to fire broadsides from her flaming decks; her gallant crew alone unawed by their approaching fate, and shouting their own death-song.
At length the terrible explosion came; and the column of flame, that shot upwards into the very sky, for a moment rendered visible the whole surrounding scene, from the red flags aloft to the reddened decks below; the wide shore with all its swarthy crowds, and the far-off glittering seas with the torn and dismantled fleets. Then darkness and silence came again, broken only by the shower of blazing fragments in which that brave ship fell upon the waters.
Till that moment, Nelson was ignorant how the battle went. He knew that every man was doing his duty, but he knew not how successfully. He had been wounded in the forehead, but had found his way unnoticed to the deck in the suspense of the coming explosion. Its light was a fitting lamp for eyes like his to read by. He saw his own proud flag still floating everywhere; and at the same moment his crew recognized their wounded chief. Their cheer of welcome was only drowned in the renewed roar of their artillery, which continued until it no longer found an answer, and Silence had confessed Destruction.
Morning rose upon an altered scene. The sun had set upon as proud a fleet as ever sailed from the gay shores on France. Now only torn and blackened hulls marked the position they had then occupied; and where their Admiral's ship had been, the blank sea sparkled in the sunshine. Two ships of the line and two frigates escaped, only to be captured soon afterwards; but within the bay the tricolour(7) was flying on only one ship. As the Theseus approached to attack her, attempting to capitulate she hoisted a flag of truce. "Your battle-flag or none!" was the stern reply, as her enemy rounded to, and the matches glimmered over her line of guns, Slowly and reluctantly, like an expiring hope, that pale flag fluttered down from her lofty spars, and the next that floated was that of England.
And now the battle was over—India was saved upon the shores of Egypt—the career of Buonaparte was checked, and his navy annihilated. Seven years later that navy was revived, to perish utterly at Trafalgar—a fitting hecatomb(8) for the obsequies(9) of Nelson, whose life, it seemed, terminated as his mission was accomplished.
When was the Battle of the Nile fought? What account of Nelson's doings had the French Admiral sent to Paris? What had Nelson really been doing for six weeks? Who showed the example of leading inside the enemy's lines? In what position was the French fleet placed when Nelson came up? What was the turning-point of the battle? How many ships carried the French flag next morning? What were the results of the victory?