Napoleon Bonaparte’s Weakest Link, His Navy

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A Brief History

On August 2, 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the French fleet supporting then General Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt was defeated soundly by the British at the Battle of the Nile.  As would often continue during Napoleon’s stellar military career, the French Navy was perhaps the weakest link of Napoleon’s military might.

Digging Deeper

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of, if not THE, greatest military genius of all time, and in fact has had more written about him than any other mortal man in history!  The exception is Jesus Christ, arguably not considered a mortal man.  (Note: We have often written articles about Napoleon and his exploits, and Dr. Zar has written two books about Napoleon, Meteors That Enlighten the Earth: Napoleon and the Cult of Great Men and Simply Napoleon, the latter co-authored by J. David Markham.)

J. David Markham.  Photograph by Barbara Markham, uploaded by Cameronreilly (talk) (Uploads).

As of 1792, the British Navy was the finest in the world, boasting 661 ships, 14,000 cannon and 100,000 sailors.  Against this giant naval force, the French claimed 291 ships, 12,000 cannon, and 78,000 sailors.  Compounding the French disadvantage at this point (1792), the Revolution had deprived the French Navy of many of its ablest commanders and cannoneers, while the British continued to build their fleet and manpower.  While the French built their Army, the French Navy suffered disrepair and neglect.

Napoleon had originally wanted to invade and conquer Britain but determined that his Navy was not strong enough to take on such a daunting task.  A French invasion of Ireland in 1797 had already failed.  Instead, Napoleon had planned to conquer Egypt, but kept his plans secret so that the British would not know where to intercept his fleet.  He had taken the island of Malta, and successfully disembarked in Egypt, as his fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral François-Paul Bruey d’Aigalliers anchored nearby at Aboukir Bay.  The French naval commander believed his position was one he could easily defend.  He was wrong!

Illustration from page 481 of The Outline of History; Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1923), the definitive edition revised and rearranged by the author, by H.G. Wells, illustrated by J. F. Horrabin, “The Trail of Napoleon; Showing the chief places of importance in his life”

The British fleet, under the command of Bonaparte nemesis Horatio Nelson, arrived on August 1, 1798 and quickly discovered the position of the French ships.  The battle commenced between closely matched forces, both boasting 13 ships of the line (the battleships of their day), and the French with 4 smaller ships, the British with 2 smaller vessels.  The battle raged until finally over on August 3, 1798, with only French 2 ships of the line and 2 frigates managing to escape the British deluge of fire and flee the battle area.

The French losses were catastrophic.  Sunk were 2 ships of the line, and another 9 ships of the line captured.  Of the 4 French frigates, 2 were sunk and 2 escaped.  Somewhere between 2000 and 5000 French sailors were killed or wounded and another 3000 to 3900 were captured.  The British had suffered no losses of ships and only 218 killed and 677 wounded.

Map of ship positions and movements during the Battle of Aboukir Bay, 1–2 August 1798.  British ships are in red; French ships are in blue.  Intermediate ship positions are shown in pale red/blue.  The map has been simplified, and differs from the text in several minor particulars.  Based on a map from Intelligence in War (2003) by John Keegan, ISBN 0091802296.

At this point in his career, Napoleon was not the autocratic ruler of the French, but the Battle of the Nile was to be a foreboding of things to come.  Napoleon had famously said, “My arm was strong enough, it is true, to stop with a single shock all the horses of the continent. But I could not bridle the English fleet and there lay all the mischief.”  This quote is a lament about the French inferiority to the British at sea, a factor that would bedevil Napoleon throughout his military career and reign as Emperor of the French.

Later, in 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Admiral Nelson would have his final and greatest victory over the sea forces of Napoleon, pitting 33 British ships against a combined fleet of 41 French and Spanish ships Southwest of Spain.  Though Nelson himself was killed in the battle, the British lost no ships, while destroying 1 French ship, and capturing a stunning bag of 10 French and 11 Spanish ships!  (Many of the captured ships were later sunk.)  The British suffered about 1666 killed and wounded, while the French/Spanish losses amounted to 15,000 men killed, wounded and captured.  Thus, Napoleon’s Navy had suffered one of the greatest naval battle defeats in history.  (Or, from the British perspective, the British Navy had won one of the greatest victories in naval history.)

Artist’s conception of the situation at noon as Royal Sovereign was breaking into the Franco-Spanish line.  Map by Pinpin.

The Napoleonic Wars continued for the next decade after Trafalgar, but the French were never able to mount anything like a serious attempt to win supremacy at sea after the catastrophic losses at Trafalgar.  For the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) the British Lion was indeed a Sea Lion!

(By the way, Napoleon also said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”  As you read our accounts or the accounts related by any other authors, be sure to take the information with a grain of salt, as history is written by the victors, often long after the events took place, often not by eye-witnesses and often by someone with a particular point of view his or her account is an attempt to justify.  The perspective and prejudices of the authors of historical accounts may well make those accounts something quite different from the reality that had taken place.  I’m just saying…)

An 1803 satire on the fear of French invasion, a British political cartoon by T. West (artist) and Williams (etcher), shows Britannia beating Napoleon with a bundle of birch twigs marked “United Kingdom,” as the British lion rests atop a cliff overlooking the Channel, in which the British fleet is massed.  This file comes from the Bodleian Libraries, a group of research libraries in Oxford University.

Question for students (and subscribers):  What battle of the Napoleonic Wars or French Revolutionary Wars do you find most interesting? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fitchett, WH. Naval Battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Leonaur, 2018.

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory.  The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: A Political, Social, and Military History – 3 Volume Set  ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Markham, J. David and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a painting titled The Destruction of “L’Orient” at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798 (between 1825 and 1827) by George Arnald (1763–1841), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.  The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.