From: Copies of original letters from the army of General Bonaparte in Egypt, intercepted by the fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson. With an English translation (London, J. Wright, 1798-1800, 3 vols.), vol. 1, pp. 206-213.
Rosetta, August 4th.
E POUSSIELGUE(1), Controller of the Expences of the Army of the East, and Administrator General of the Finances.
WE have just been witness, my dear girl, of the most bloody and unfortunate naval action that has been fought for many ages. We do not yet know all the circumstances of it, but those that we do know, are horrible.
The French fleet, composed of thirteen sail of the line, of which one was a three decker of 120 guns, and three of 80, was moored in the incommodious bay of Aboukir; the only station to be found on the coast of Egypt. For the last week several English frigates had frequently reconnoitred the position of our fleet; so that it was in constant expectation of being attacked. From Aboukir to Rosetta, in a straight line, is about ten miles; so that from the heights of this latter place our ships were plainly discernible.
The 1st of this month, at half after five in the evening, we heard the report of several guns: this was the commencement of the action. We immediately got upon the roofs of the highest houses, and on the little eminences, and clearly distinguished ten English vessels; the others were not yet in sight. The firing was exceedingly brisk till a quarter after nine, when we perceived, by favour of the night, a prodigious light, which sufficiently announced to us, that some vessel was in flames—at this moment the fire was brisker than ever. At ten o’clock, the vessel which was burning, blew up with a most tremendous noise, which was heard as plainly at Rosetta, as the explosion of Grenelle at Paris. This accident was succeeded by a pitchy darkness, and a most profound silence, which continued for about ten minutes. The time elapsed between our seeing and hearing the explosion was two minutes. The firing now began again, and continued, without intermission, till three in the morning: it then grew very faint till five, when it commenced with more fury than ever.
I now took my stand on a tower called Aboul-Mandour, about a mile from Rosetta, from whence I had a clear and distinct view of the whole engagement. At eight in the morning, I perceived a vessel on fire; about half an hour after, another, which did not appear to me to have been on fire before, suddenly blew up; its explosion was as dreadful as that of the preceding evening. The vessel which was burning removed further from the shore, the flames insensibly diminished, and it appeared to us, that the crew had succeeded in extinguishing them altogether.
During this time, the contest raged with redoubled fury: a large vessel, with all her masts carried away, got on shore. Several others appeared totally dismasted; but the two fleets were so intermixed, that we could not distinguish whether they were French or English; nor possibly make out which side had the advantage. The firing continued as warm as ever, till two in the afternoon of the 2d; at which period, two sail of the line, and two frigates, cut their cables, and make sail to the eastward with all the canvas they could carry. These vessels we clearly distinguished by their colours to be French. No other vessel stirred, and the firing ceased.
About six in the evening I returned to the tower of Aboul-Mandour, to reconnoiter the position of the two squadrons: it was the same as when I left it. The four vessels under weigh were off the mouth of the Nile. We knew not what to think of it. Twenty-four hours were past, and not a soul arrived to give us any information. To procure any ourselves was impossible; by land, on account of the Arabs, who were assembled between Rosetta and Aboukir; and by sea, on account of the difficulty of passing the bar, and the swell at the mouth of the Nile.
Thou may’st judge of our impatience and perplexity. We drew a very unfavourable augury from this silence: we were compelled, however, to remain in this state of uncertainty, all the night of the 2d. At length, on the morning of the 3d, a boat(2), which had slipped out in the night from Alexandria, brought us some details; but out of a most melancholy nature. They told us that some officers of the French fleet, who had escaped in a shallop to Alexandria, had reported that soon after the commencement of the action, Admiral Brueys had received three dangerous wounds; one on the head, and two in the body; that he still persisted in remaining on the quarter-deck; and that a fourth shot had cut him in two; that his first Captain Casa-Bianca, had been killed at the same instant, by a cannon ball; that the ship was just then perceived to be on fire; that they could not succeed in putting it out; and that she had finally blown up about ten in the evening. They added, that our squadron was defeated and destroyed; that four vessels only had escaped; and that the rest were in the enemy’s hands.
I returned to the tower, and found every thing precisely as it was the evening before. It was the same yesterday, and is still so this morning.
I now present you with an exact view of the whole scene, as it appeared to us: keeping the tower of Aboukir to the left, and directing our eyes along the horizon, to the right.
The 1st vessel dismasted, carries English colours.
The 2d and 3d in a good condition, colours not to be distinguished. The 4th has lost a mast.
The 5th in good condition; has English colours.
The 6th has lost a top-mast; this morning she hoisted a gib and a square sail.
The 7th has lost all her top-gallant masts.
The 8th has all her mast by the board.
The 9th ditto; except her bowsprit, which is standing.
The 10th dismasted; this morning a sail was bent to her bowsprit.
The 11th, 12th, and 13th, form a kind of groupe, we can only see that the three vessels have but seven masts between them.
The 14th has only her mizzen mast.
The 15th has lost her mizzen-top, and top-gallant masts.
The 16th has all her masts by the board.
The 17th has lost her mizzen top-gallant.
The 18th has lost her fore and main-masts.
The 19th, 20th, and 21st, form a groupe, with only four masts standing—all the top-masts gone.
The 22d entirely dismasted, and on shore—has English colours; they are endeavouring to get her off, and rig her out with jury masts.
The 23d in good condition; has English colours.
The 24th ditto. This is all that I could distinguish.
The result is, that though the English are victorious, they have been very roughly handled: this is clear, from their not being able to follow the four vessels that made off on the 2d.
For two days, all these vessels have remained inactive; they lie like logs in the water.
This morning intelligence is arrived from Alexandria, which confirms our losses. Rear Admiral Decres is killed, as well as Ducheyla. The Tonnant was the last ship that struck. Du Petit Thouars who commanded her, had both his legs carried away by a cannon ball. The vessels that escaped are the Guillaume Tell and the ----; the frigates are the Diana and the Justice. They say that it was the Artemise which blew up the morning before yesterday.
There is much still to be learned respecting this engagement. The English Admiral, they tell us, has sent a flag of truce to Alexandria, with a request that they would receive and take care of the wounded, which amount to 1500. He also proposes to send the prisoners on shore. I have not heard what answer was returned.
You will have in France the official relation of this event from both parties. I know not what they may say; but thou mayest rely with the utmost confidence on what I have written, because it is what I saw.
Communicate my letter to the female Citizen Corancez—this will save her son the trouble of writing; besides, I have set him about something else. He has already written six letters, and has not received an answer to any of them. I have heard nothing of Citizen Mony, whom I have appointed Agent at Demanhour. Derances, who has been ill, is quite recovered; he is with me. Martain is well, he has not received a single line from his family. I am the only fortunate person, since I have received three letters from thee since I have been in Egypt; many others have undoubtedly miscarried, as the English have taken several of our couriers.
I have had my portrait painted in profile since I have been here, by Citizen Denou, a skilful artist. They tell me that it is extremely like—but we have so many English about us, that I dare not send it, for fear it should find its way to England, or to the bottom of the sea. How happy should I be to bring it to thee myself! Be assured that the moment I can obtain my discharge, which I solicit night and day, I will quit this country. No fortune in the world shall keep me here. I would consent with pleasure to return to thee, as naked as I was born.
For the rest, my health is extremely good. I set out for Cairo to-morrow morning, in a handsome passageboat, with the military chest, the Paymaster-general, two advice-boats, an escort of 250 men, and more than 40 passengers. I take with me a fine Arabian horse, which a Cheik here made me a present of. We go by the Nile.
Adieu, my dear little girl, love me always well, and remember me to all our friends. I embrace thee tenderly, as well as my children.
[British Translators' Notes]
(1)This man was originally a merchant of Marseilles; but having a talent for intrigue, he was selected by the Directory, who had frequently profited by his ingenuity, to corrupt and revolutionize the knights of Malta. How well he succeeded, the recent surrender of that island declares but too plainly. He had, however, made himself too obnoxious to the Maltese to think of remaining there, and Bonaparte who, as the Cardinal Antici somewhere observes, “knows how to distinguish,” advanced him, in return for his eminent services, to the lucrative post in which we now find him.
He is evidently a very able man; and his letter which we now lay before the reader, is one of the most surprising instances of accuracy of observation, and fidelity of description, that we ever remember to have met with. It has been shewn to many of our officers who were in the engagement; and they unanimously concur in regarding it as a very extraordinary production.
It should be mentioned to the farther credit of Poussielgue that he could at no time have been nearer than seven miles to the scenes which he so correctly and minutely describes.
(2) That which brought General Loyer. See his letter, No. XXVIII.