Great Britain was now alone in her struggle with France, and Bonaparte resolved that it should be a war to the death. With Great Britain defeated, the conqueror would have the whole of Europe at his feet. First he meant to strike a blow at our power in the East, and a great number of transports, filled with the best and bravest French soldiers, sailed for Egypt under escort of the French fleet. From there they were to go on to India, and with the aid of the rebel Tippoo, try to drive us out of the country.
To prevent this, Nelson was sent from Cadiz with a large force of ships.
Heavy weather was met with, during which the Vanguard lost her main and mizzen top-masts, while her foremast snapped off close to the deck. So damaged was she that she had to be taken in tow. In the meantime the frigates of the squadron, thinking the flagship would have to return to refit at Gibraltar, sailed back to that port.
"I thought Hope" (the commander of the frigates) "would have known me better," Nelson bitterly said; and in four days the Vanguard, having been what is called "jury-rigged," continued on her way.
The loss of the frigates, "the eyes of the fleet," was a great misfortune, and in the eight weeks' chase which followed Nelson had much cause to regret their absence.
Alexandria reached, there was no news of the enemy, though three days after, while the British were sailing between Cyprus and the island of Rhodes, they actually arrived.
This Nelson of course did not know, and doubling back he reached Syracuse, where he anchored, "having gone a round of six hundred leagues," to use his own words, "and still as ignorant of the situation as he was twenty-seven days ago."
Already at home people were beginning to murmur, and to wonder what the great Nelson was about to let the foe escape him in this way.
He himself was very sad at his want of success. "My return to Syracuse broke my heart; more people die of broken hearts than we are aware of," he afterwards said.
Again the squadron sailed, and this time the foe were found and brought to bay.
At length on the 1st of August 1798 the look-out at the mast-head made the signal that the French were at anchor in Aboukir Bay, 15 miles east of Alexandria, and thus the long pursuit had ended.
In numbers the two fleets were equal, but Brueys, the French admiral, had larger ships and more guns. To attack him the British would have to advance through unknown and shallow waters.
Brueys did not believe that our vessels could thread their way among the shoals which lay between him and the shore, and in this belief he prepared to meet the attack, which he felt sure must be made from the more open sea on his rear.
Nelson, who in his early days had been famous for his skill and daring as a pilot, was to rudely shake this mistaken idea.
The wind blew along the French line, and he was thus able by attacking their van and centre to throw what force he pleased on a few ships. All his plans were made, and in order that there might be no mistake about his orders being quickly understood, the admiral had caused new signals to be written in the signal-books.
His captains had often met on the Vanguard and talked of the coming battle. "First gain the victory," Nelson had told them, "and then make the best use of it you can." Now they were all eager for the fight, and full of admiration for the admiral's plan of battle. "If we succeed, what will the world say?" exclaimed Captain Berry.
"There is no if in the case," answered Nelson; "that we shall succeed is certain: who may live to tell the story, is a very different question."
At 5.30 p.m.—less than three hours after the enemy had been sighted—the signal was given to the British fleet to form line of battle in single column, the ships ranged ahead and astern of each other.
Captain Hood of the Zealous, carefully sounding as he went, with Captain Foley of the Goliath, led the way, the latter ship ahead of but outside the Zealous.
The flagship came sixth in order, so that Nelson could, if he thought it best to do so, change the plan of attack of the other vessels which came after him. The Vanguard had six flags flying in different parts of her rigging, so that her colours might not be shot away: "That they should be struck," to quote Southey, "no British admiral considers as a possibility."
Keeping out of every danger in the way of shoals, the British bore up to battle; so coolly and steadily did they advance, and so skilfully did they haul round every danger, that Brueys felt sure they must have pilots on board.
A brilliant idea here struck Captain Foley. Taking the depth carefully as he went along, he passed round on the inside of the leading French ship, and brought up opposite the Conquerant, second of the enemy's line. The Zealous, Orion, Theseus, and Audacious followed, and placed themselves between the Frenchmen and the shore. The Vanguard, with the other British ships, passed on the outside.
By this means the French were caught between two fires, and within a few minutes five French ships were defending themselves against the attack of eight British, while the other French vessels to leeward were forced to look on.
The battle was partly hidden by smoke and the fading light. In the growing darkness the Bellerophon and the Majestic pushed up. The former drew up abreast of the Orient, a ship whose power was double her own, and with whom she was soon engaged in a desperate single combat. The Majestic, raked by the fire—in which her captain fell—of the first French ship she met, the Heureux, sailed on and fell upon the Mercure, into whose sides she poured a desperate volley.
For an hour the British ships kept their places, and during the hottest of the fight Nelson was struck on the forehead, and, for the time being, was quite blinded.
With the words, "I am killed," he sank into Berry's arms. With tender care he was carried to the cockpit. Here, as at Santa Cruz, and as afterwards at Trafalgar, he refused to have his wound looked to before his humbler messmates had been attended by the surgeons.
When the admiral's time came it was found that the wound was less serious than at first thought. Rest was ordered, but this the impatient spirit of Nelson could not stand while the battle was raging round him and the result was still uncertain.
Meanwhile the other British ships were hastening up to throw their weight into the balance and turn the scale towards victory.
The gallant Troubridge had the ill fortune of seeing his ship, the Culloden, run aground and stick fast. All efforts to get her off failed, and she lay there a helpless log, while her captain and crew longed to be in the thick of the battle.
Unable to fight, Troubridge was yet able to give his comrades great help, and to play a big part in the victory.
By constant signalling in the growing darkness by means of lanterns, he warned the other captains of his position, and prevented them from sharing his own fate. With this beacon in the shape of a stranded ship to guide them, they were able, by avoiding the way she had come, to sail on with greater speed and confidence to battle.
Nelson saw the service Troubridge had done, and pitied him greatly for the accident, while he praised his skill in saving the ship.
"It was Troubridge," said he, "who saved the Culloden when none that I know in the service would have attempted it."
"Her misfortune was great in getting aground," he wrote to the Admiralty, "while her more fortunate companions were in full tide of happiness. Captain Troubridge on shore is superior to captains afloat: in the midst of his great misfortunes he made those signals which prevented, certainly, the Alexander and Swiftsure from running on the shoals. I beg your pardon for writing on a subject which I verily believe has never entered your lordship's head; but my heart, as it ought to be, is warm to my gallant friends."
This letter was sent because he heard that the gold medals given to the captains at the fight might not include Troubridge, whose ship had not been in action.
Pouring their fire on the enemy's centre, the new arrivals, which the Culloden had guided, put the fate of the battle beyond doubt.
The Battle of the Nile.
A little before nine, Admiral Brueys' flagship took fire, and at a quarter to ten she blew up, with a terrific explosion, the flames illuminating the whole bay, and showing a picture of awful grandeur.
A death-like silence followed the explosion; both sides for the time ceased firing. Of the brave foemen who fought their ship to the last, only some seventy were saved by the British crews. Among the many who perished was the commodore's son, Casa Bianca, a brave boy of thirteen, the hero of the poem, "The boy stood on the burning deck," who refused to leave the doomed ship.
When dawn broke over the scene of wreck and ruin, the extent of the victory was seen.
The leading French ships had struck; the flagship was no more; the Tonnant was still afloat, but mastless; the Heureux and Mercure ashore.
Three ships of the enemy's line only were still standing, and of these two escaped under Rear-Admiral Villeneuve. The third, the Timoléon, ran aground, when she was set fire to by her captain, and went down with her colours flying in all the pride of "no surrender."
The fight had been fierce, and the victory was great. The British crews, who had been "working and fighting at their hardest for near twelve hours," no sooner cast anchor than they dropped on deck completely tired out, and slept where they lay.
On the 2nd of August, "Almighty God having blessed His Majesty's arms with victory"—so ran the memorandum—a public thanksgiving was held throughout the fleet.
On the same day, Nelson sent to the captains, officers, and seamen of the fleet, asking them "to accept the Admiral's most sincere and cordial thanks for their very gallant behaviour in this glorious battle."
Honours fell fast upon the victor. Letters of congratulation from the Czar, the Sultan, the Kings of Sardinia and the two Sicilies reached him. A grateful country gave him the honour of a peerage, under the title of Baron Nelson of the Nile, besides a pension of £2000 a year. The East India Company, who felt that he had saved India by his victory, made him a present of £10,000.
At home the whole country spoke of little else but of Nelson and his glorious deeds. Indeed, throughout all Europe the fame of the great admiral was ringing.