Friday, November 16, 2007

Admiral Ganteaume Gives Account of "Most Fatal of Disasters"

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. 219-225


Alexandria, August 23d.

Rear Admiral GANTEAUME(1), to General BRUIX, Minister of the Marine, and of the Colonies.

Citizen Minister,

OBLIGED to give you an account of the most fatal of disasters, it is with piercing and heart-felt sorrow, that I acquit myself of this melancholy part of my duty.

Eleven sail of the line taken, burnt, and lost for France, our best officers killed or wounded, the coasts of our new colony laid open to invasion of the enemy; such are the dreadful results of an engagement which took place on the night of the 1st instant, between our fleet and that of the English under the command of Admiral Nelson.

From the experience which you have had, Citizen Minister, in our ports during the course of this war, it will doubtless be easy for you to judge, whether the crews of a fleet so hastily fitted out as ours, could be reasonably expected to be well composed; and whether we could hope to find amongst men collected at random as it were, almost at the very instant of our departure, able mariners, and skilful and experienced cannoneers. The favourable season, however, the care and attention of the officers, and, perhaps, a certain portion of good luck, seconded the progress of the fleet effectually, that, together with its convoy, it reached the coast of Egypt without any accident whatever.

The Admiral has most assuredly informed you that on our arrival at Alexandria, we learned that an English squadron of 14 sail had been there three days before us. It would have been the most prudent step perhaps, to have quitted the coast the moment the descent had been effected; but the Admiral, who waited for the orders(2) of the Commander in Chief (whose army naturally derived a great degree of confidence from the presence of the squadron) did not think himself justified in quitting the coast, but took, on the contrary, a strong position in the anchoring ground of Bequiers.

This road by its proximity to Rosetta, enabled him to receive on board the necessary supplies for the fleet; and to replace, though with infinite risks and pains, some part of the water that was daily consumed on board. It was therefore, unfortunately determined to moor the fleet in one line, in an open situation, and which could not be protected from the shore.

Fatal intelligence received from time to time by neutral vessels, announced the return of the enemy’s squadron. It had been seen off the Isle of Candia, steering to the westward. The conduct of this fleet, which, though superior to ours, had not waited for us before Alexandria, but made sail to the west, while we were effecting our disembarkation, which it might easily have thwarted or prevented, unhappily confirmed us in the opinion that it had no orders to attack us, and produced a boundless and fatal security.

On the 21st of July, however, two of the enemy’s frigates(3) reconnoitred us, and on the 31st, about two in the afternoon, their whole fleet hove in sight. It was composed of 14 sail of the line, and two brigs. The wind was northerly and rather fresh. They bore down with a press of sail on our fleet, and clearly announced a design to attack us.

The measures which the Admiral took on this occasion, the resolution to engage at anchor, and the results of this horrible affair, are detailed in the abstract(4), which I have subjoined to the present letter; in that, I have delineated every circumstance as it appeared to me on this too grievous, and too dreadful night.

The L’Orient took fire. It was by an accident which I cannot yet comprehend, that I escaped from the midst of the flames, and was taken into a yawl that was lying under the ship’s counter. Not being able to reach the vessel of General Villeneuve, I made for this place, from whence I have now the mortification of transmitting you these melancholy details.

The Franklin, the Spartiate, the Tonnant, the Peuple Souverain, and the Conquerant are taken. They got their top-masts up, and sailed with the enemy’s squadron, which quitted the coast on the 18th of August; leaving here a small division of four ships of the line and two frigates.

The Mercure, the Heureux, and the Guerrier have been burnt by the enemy. The two first ran aground during the action, and were buiged when they took possession of them.

The Timoleon, incapable of making her escape, was run on shore by Captain Trulet, who set her on fire, after putting all the crew either into his own boats, or into those which were sent him from the rest of the fleet.

The two frigates, the Artemise and the Serieuse were destroyed, in spite of the enemy’s endeavours to preserve them; the first was burnt, and the other sunk.

The sole relicks then of this unfortunate armament are comprised in the division of frigates, corvets, and fluets, which are now at Alexandria, and in that of General Villeneuve, who, by a bold maneuver(5), made his escape from the enemy. You will see by my Abstract, that this latter division is composed of two ships of the line and two frigates,--the Guillaume Tell, the Genereux, the Diane, and the Justice.

Placed by my rank at the head of the part of our unfortunate armament which remains here, Admiral Nelson proposed to me to receive the wounded, and other prisoners. In concert with General Kleber, commandant of the town, I have acquiesced in his proposition; and three thousand one hundred prisoners, of whom about 800 are wounded, have been put on shore since the 6th of August.

By means of this correspondence we have collected some information respecting our personal losses. My pen trembles in my hand while, in conformity to my duty, I attempt to particularize our misfortunes.

The Admiral, the Chiefs of Division, Casa-Bianca, Thevenard, Du Petit Thouars, are killed, and six other superior officers, whose names are subjoined(6), dangerously wounded. I have not yet been able to procure an exact list of the privates killed and wounded, on account of Admiral Nelson’s refused to send me the Commissaries of the captured vessels, with their roles d’equipage.

Since the action the enemy’s cruisers are masters of the whole coast, and interrupt all our communications. The other day they captured the Fortune, a corvet which the Admiral had sent to cruize off Damietta. The English squadron, as I had the honour of mentioning to you above, sailed (it is said) for Sicily on the 18th instant. The division which is stationed here, consists of four seventy-fours and two frigates.

On account of the extraordinary care which the English always take to conceal their loss of men, we have been able to procure no information on the subject that can be relied on. We are assured, however, that Admiral Nelson is dangerously wounded in the head, and that two captains are killed. We are also told, that two of their ships, the Majestic and the Bellerophon, had each 150 men killed and wounded.

In the situation in which we are, blocked up by a very superior force, I am still ignorant, Citizen Minister, what measures we shall pursue with the feeble maritime resources that yet remain to us in this port; but if I must needs speak the truth, such as it really appears to me, I then say that, after so dreadful a disaster, I CONCEIVE NOTHING BUT A PEACE CAN CONSOLIDATE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF OUR NEW COLONY. MAY OUR GOVERNORS PROCURE US A SOLID AND HONOURABLE ONE!

I am, with respect,



[British Translators' Notes]

(1)Our last was from a spectator on shore. We now present our readers (and we do it with great satisfaction) with a narrative of the engagement, from one who was an actor in it; from one who might have said with Aeneas,

--quaeque ipse miserrima vidi, Et quorum pars magna fui!

From Ganteaume, in short, Rear Admiral of the fleet, who was on board the l’Orient durng the action—which he describes with the precision of a seamen, and the feelings of a patriot.

These dispatches are addressed to Bruix. They are confidential, and such as would certainly have never transpired, but for the event which threw them into our hands. If this correspondence reach the minister of marine (which we have no doubt but it will) he may still profit by it. We have given it with fidelity.

We think these two papers give the fullest account of the glorious event of the first of August, that has yet appeared. It should be observed, however, that the letters from our fleet were all on board the Leander; and, as we have already observed, were destroyed by her gallant commander, previous to striking.—We are not, indeed, without a portion of information on the subject; but still it is flattering to see a brave and able officer, (for such Ganteaume is,) bearing testimony in his official documents, to the superior courage and skill of our intrepid countrymen.

(2)If we wanted any additional proofs of the falsehood of Bonaparte, this paper would furnish it. To injure the reputation of Brueys, and to insult his ashes, he asserts, as we have already seen (No. III.), that this unfortunate Admiral detained the fleet on the coast of Egypt contrary to his wishes; and here we have Ganteaume, Commander in Chief of all the French Naval forces in Egypt, expressly declaring, in direct contradiction to the assertion, that Brueys only remained on the coast because Bonaparte would not permit him to depart!

We have given our opinion on this subject (No. III.), and probably said more than enough there to convince the blindest of Bonaparte’s admirers, that he is deficient in one quality at least, of a great man; but we could not resist the temptation of making “assurance doubly sure,” and establishing his character beyond all possibility of future doubt, by the unsuspected evidence of his warmest friend.

(3)Sir John Sinclair, who has taken his ideas of ships in the Mediterranean from flies in a milk-pot, ducks in a pond, or gilt boats and streamers in a garden canal, very properly reprehends Mr. Pitt for not having made the victory more complete, by causing all the ships which were in quest of Lord Nelson, to find him! And true it is, that if these two frigates, and two or three more that were on the look out for the Admiral, had joined him previous to the engagement, they might have rendered him some service. But the worst is yet to come: for we can seriously assure Sir John, that if these vessels had not perversely found the French fleet (for which their captains shall be broke when he is first Lord of the Admiralty) while they were searching for ours, the victory would have been as complete as heart could wish, not a vessel, not a man would have escaped! It was these and other frigates which afterwards appeared that alarmed the enemy, and occasioned all those measures of precaution and security which we find they took; and for which, if Sir John will be pleased to compare the various dates of this and the following dispatch, he will see they had sufficient time.

Notwithstanding all this, however, we are not inclined to be very angry with the ships in question. It is thought by many that their captains possess full as much nautical skill as Sir John Sinclair, and nearly as much promptitude and zeal for the service of their country; this we confess, is also our opinion, and when we see SUCH MEN anxiously and ardently engaged on an element which no human power can controul, and in a service which no human abilities can effect at will, we are ready to conclude that something more than a knowledge of agriculture is required to enable us to judge of their merits, and something better than an itch of finding fault, to justify an attack on the plans of the minister who employs them!

(4)It follows this letter.

(5)Genteaume does Villeneuve too much credit: the merit of the escape (such as it is) is due to another person.

(6)These names do not appear; they were, probably, omitted in the hurry of making up the dispatches.

No comments: