BOOK REVIEW: Nile 1798 – Nelson’s First Great Victory

By Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Osprey Publishing, UK (2011).

Reviewed by Captain John A. Rodgaard USN (Ret.)

Osprey Publishing’s Campaign Series of books are noted for their concise quality in conveying military history. One of their latest offerings, written by Dr. Gregory Fremont-Barnes, is no exception. Nile 1798: Nelson’s First Great Victory is well laid-out; succinctly written and beautifully illustrated, to include many examples from the author’s own collection of prints.

In his introduction, the author’s rationale for labelling the Battle of the Nile as one of the most decisive battles in naval history is spot on. The Battle of the Nile, together with Nelson’s other two great victories, Copenhagen in 1801 and Trafalgar in 1805, would secure Britain (after another 17 years of global warfare, to include the sideshow with the United States) as the pre-eminent maritime power for the next one hundred years. They laid the foundation for Britain to expand its empire and commonwealth.

Fremont-Barnes provides a biography of the opposing commanders’ naval service – Vice Admiral Brueys and Rear Admiral Villeneuve for the French and Nelson, to include a short biographical piece for each one of his senior commanders – Nelson’s ‘Band of Brothers’. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same for the French. However, he did name them in the listing of the French order-of-battle, and one can look them up on the Internet with varying degrees of success.

The author provides a description of the opposing order-of-battle that acknowledges the superiority of Nelson’s squadron in fighting efficiency. This advantage was critical, because the ships of the French squadron were superior in almost all respects – armament, construction, sailing qualities and manpower. However, the collective advantage of the French squadron was squandered as a result of a series of decisions made by Brueys – he possessed four frigates, but none were at sea to provide him with timely warning of the British squadron’s presence. He decided to array his squadron at anchor, in a line ahead formation, thinking that it was close enough to the shoals that would prevent the British from sailing between the shore and his ships, thus providing an opportunity for Nelson to engage Brueys’ squadron from both sides – doubly-up. Brueys planned to force the British into a simple one-on-one gunnery duel; a duel that greatly favoured French weight of shot.

Brueys also discounted the effect that wind direction would have on his squadron for he intended to fight in place, thus giving the British a critical manoeuvring advantage of having the wind at their backs. Finally, Brueys had decided to send hundreds of his men ashore to fetch fresh water. This drastically reduced the fighting efficiency of his ships.

Fremont-Barnes’ description of the battle itself is tightly woven. For one who is familiar with the battle, the author’s writing style still captures a sense of drama, and gives the reader a sense that the outcome could have been much different; one that might have prevented the annihilation of the French squadron. His description is enhanced by a series of three-dimensional views depicting the phases of the battle. These approximations are very helpful and guide the reader through the three primary phases of the battle. Unfortunately, I found the contemporary interpretative paintings of the battle a little hooky and unnecessary.

Dr. Fremont-Barnes has produced an excellent treatise on the battle, weaving it into the overall land and sea phases of the campaign that initially saw Napoleon triumphant, but later forced him to abandon his army and return to France. The immediate result was to bring Napoleon to the fore. However, he would eventually surrender to one of the ship’s that fought at the Nile, HMS Bellerophon. Ironic?

Recently retired, Captain Rodgaard currently commands the National Capitol Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States.

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