Nelson’s Pursuit of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Fleet


Nelson (red routes) entered the Mediterranean through Gibraltar on May 9th of 1798. On May 20th, the fleet was caught in a storm. Nelson’s ship, HMS Vanguard, lost its bowsprit and rig, and almost went aground near Corsica. Alexander Ball, the captain of HMS Alexander, which was next to Vanguard during this incident, took in tow Vanguard while Nelson was on board and eventually saved her, despite orders to the contrary by Nelson. Later Nelson would mention this incident as “God punished my arrogance”. A lifelong friendship was established between Nelson and Ball, with whom he had kept his distance up until this incident. Following this unpleasant experience, Vanguard managed to arrive at the San Pietro harbor of Sardinia. There, although unable to receive any assistance officially, Vanguard was ready to set sail again in three days, thanks to the initiative of the governor and the determination of Nelson. Gibraltar had estimated that the repairs would have taken thirty days.

The storm had created another issue: Nelson had lost what he called “my scouts”, his frigates. Assuming that Vanguard would return to Gibraltar for repairs, the frigates had returned to Gibraltar and were waiting for the fleet. Nelson’s job had become much more difficult without the frigates, the scouting party of the fleet (For he did not want to separate the ships of the line from each other). Thus a historical pursuit began. Nelson first sailed up to Toulon, arriving there on May 31st , where he received the news that two groups from the French fleet (the blue routes) had left from Marseilles and Toulon about ten days ago to “an unknown target”. Napoleon Bonaparte was with the fleet.

Nelson headed for Italy. At the same time, a third group from the French fleet left from Civita Vecchia. Nelson followed the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea and stopped at Messina and Syracuse. He did, of course, not know that the French fleet was at Malta at this time. Nelson continued from Palermo to Crete. Interestingly, unaware of Nelson, the French followed the same route to Crete. On June 22nd , the two fleets actually came very close to each other, within each other’s line of sight, but an exceptional fog prevented them from seeing each other and Nelson passed the French, arriving in Chania of Crete on 25th and continuing without any rest. Had he spent the night there, he would have come across the French, since they arrived in Chania just on June 26th, 1798.

Nelson continued, entering Alexandria on June 29th. The French were, of course, not there yet. Again without any rest, Nelson turned back to Crete by the way of the Syrian coast. Upon arriving in Crete, he received the news that the French had been seen there. As he could not make use of his scouting frigates – they were in Gibraltar waiting for Nelson – he made an assumption and set sail to Syracusa. Naturally, there were no French over there, but a merchantman told Nelson that the French were sailing towards east. It was now obvious that the French fleet was in Egypt. He took on water, firewood and in five days he was again in Alexandria. The harbor of Alexandria was completely empty, however there were some French infantry soldiers on land. The English began searching and finally, on August 1st, 1798, during dusk time, the lookout on the mast shouted that ahead there was “a forest of masts”, 15 miles east of Alexandria, offshore of the Abukir (Ebukır, Ebugur) anchorage place towards Raşit (Rosetta) near the mouth of the Nile. The famous attack took place at the end of the pursuit, right that very night, without taking time even for a very short rest.

Nelson’s fleet members started the battle in highly trained condition thanks to having sailed for months on every possible route in the Mediterranean, not much different from today’s sailing racers. Therefore they were able to carry out the maneuvers needed during the battle with necessary agility and precision. Nelson, like any good coach, kept his crew at a very high performance level and knew that this would give him the edge he needed over his adversary.


Nelson’s “Tcheleng” or “The Knight of the Ottoman Crescent”