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The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE BATTLE OF THE NILE

"O saviour of the silver-coasted isle!

O shaker of the Baltic and the Nile!"

—TENNYSON.

[112] "LET us destroy England!" exclaimed Napoleon impatiently; "that done, Europe is at our feet."

It was evident, after the victories of Cape St Vincent and Camperdown, that England was too strong to be encountered by sea again. But Napoleon had gigantic schemes of his own. He would attack England in distant India, he would restore to France the great kingdom of the East. English troops were now in possession of the Cape of Good Hope, therefore Napoleon planned the route through Egypt to India. The shadowy East appealed to the strong imagination of the young Corsican soldier.

"Europe is but a molehill," he said; "all the great glories have come from Asia."

Very quietly he now set to work preparing for his conquest of Egypt. England must know nothing of it. In the summer of 1798 all was ready, and one May morning, the sun rose on the white sails of the French transports, as they left Toulon.

"In the name of Liberty I am come to lead you across mighty seas and into remote regions, where your valour may win such glory and such wealth as can never be looked for beneath the cold heavens of [113] the west," said Napoleon to his soldiers at starting. No expedition so vast and formidable in strength had ever set sail from the French coast before as that, which now swept proudly down the Mediterranean Sea, while England guarded her own coasts for the invasion that never came.

The French fleet having captured Malta, arrived off Alexandria on July 1, and the troops disembarked in a violent gale, their boats being nearly swamped by the surf.

Alexandria fell without a struggle, and the army set out for the long desert march to Cairo.

On the 21st Napoleon and his army came within sight of the Pyramids, and found the enemy drawn up to receive him.

"Soldiers," he cried, "forty centuries look down upon you from the top of yonder pyramids."

The battle of the Pyramids was fought and won, and the victorious French started back for the coast.

Meanwhile it became known to England that the French fleet was in the Mediterranean Sea, and Nelson with an English fleet was despatched at once in quest. After searching for some time, he arrived off Alexandria on August 1 to find the long-sought fleet riding at anchor in Aboukir Bay, some fifteen miles from Alexandria; and the look-out from the mast-head of the admiral's flagship beheld the gleam of white sails in the afternoon sunshine [114] with feelings akin to despair. The afternoon wore on, and the French ships lay motionless on the smooth waters of Aboukir Bay. None thought that Nelson would dare attack them till morning. But they did not know the English admiral.

"Fear? I never saw fear. What is it?" he had asked, when little more than a baby. He did not know at the age of forty. He made up his mind to attack at once. It was his first command, and his first magnificent chance.

"If we succeed, what will the world say?" said one of his captains.

"There is no if  in the case," replied Nelson; "that we shall succeed is certain. Who may live to tell the story is another question."

Nelson had already lost one eye and his right arm in battle, but he was undaunted. The order to advance was given, and soon the gleaming sails of the English ships were scudding over the afternoon waters of the Mediterranean. They entered Aboukir Bay in grim silence. One by one the battle-ships took up their positions between the French ships and the coast, in such a way that two English ships attacked one French; and at half-past six, as the sun was setting in the west, the battle began. By seven o'clock black darkness had fallen over land and sea; but the flashing lights filled the heavens, and the booming guns broke the silence of the eastern night.

Early in the night Nelson was badly wounded in [115] the forehead—so badly that he cried, "I am killed." They carried him below. The surgeon was attending a poor sailor, who had been badly wounded. When he saw Nelson being carried down, apparently dying, he left the sailor and hurried to the side of the admiral.

"No," murmured Nelson in his agony; "I will take my turn with my brave fellows."

Suddenly, in the middle of that savage night of battle, the French flagship exploded. Flames in great sheets shot up into the moonless sky, as from a volcano. The water hissed, as blazing masses of rigging and timber shot up only to fall into the troubled bay. The French Admiral perished, and a hush fell on every man in the two fleets. No gun was fired, for all seemed paralysed with the awful sight of that burning ship. Among those who perished in the flagship was the ten-year-old Casabianca, who refused to leave his post without his father's leave, and that father was already dead below.

"The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle's wreck

Shone round him o'er the dead."

Morning dawned to find two French ships alone unconquered, and these saved themselves by flight. Thus ended the battle of the Nile, one of the most important naval battles ever fought. For it put an end for the present to the naval power of France, [116] and it gave to England absolute command of the Mediterranean.

The news reached Napoleon on his desert march.

"To France," he said with a sigh, "the Fates have decreed the empire of the land; to England the empire of the sea."

"We have no longer a fleet," he said later. "We must either remain in this country, or quit it as great as the ancients."


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