Saturday, November 17, 2007

Admiral Ganteaume Provides Official Abstract of Encounter with the British

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. 230-234


Alexandria, August 5th.

Abstract of the Engagement which took place on the night of the first of August, between the French Fleet, and that of Great Britain, under the command of Rear Admiral NELSON.

AT two in the afternoon, the Heureux threw out a signal of 12 sail in the W.N.W. Our men on the look out, discovered them at the same time, and counted successively as many as 16. We were not long in recognizing these vessels to be an English squadron, composed of 14 sail of the line and two brigs.

The enemy steered for our anchoring ground, with a press of sail: having a brig sounding a head. The wind was N. and rather fresh.

The two brigs, the Alceste and the Raileur, were immediately ordered to make a sail to windward, to prevent the enemy’s light vessel from continuing her soundings.

The signals for stowing the hammocks, and making ready for fight; for announcing the resolution of engaging at anchor; and for recalling the men on board their respective ships, were all made at three.

The long boats employed in watering were also recalled: a boat was hastily dispatched from the Artemise to the shoals of Rosetta, to acquaint the transports there with the appearance of the enemy; and finally, the frigates and corvettes were ordered to send as many of their men as possible on board the ships of the line.

The enemy’s squadron continued to advance with a press of sail; after standing off to a considerable distance, to avoid the breakers on the island(1), it hauled its wind, shortened sail, and clearly manifested a design to attack us.

At three quarters after five, the battery on the little island threw some bombs, which fell into the van of the enemy’s line. At 6, the Admiral threw out the signal for commencing the engagement, and shortly after, the two headmost ships began firing.

Several of the enemy’s vessels having suddenly shortened sail, had turned the head of our line, and letting go their anchors, with a cable astern, had ranged along side, between us and the land; while others had moored themselves within pistol-shot of us, on the other side! By this maneuver, all our vessels, as far down as the Tonnant, found themselves completely enveloped, and placed between two fires.

It appeared to us that in executing this maneuver, two of their vessels had run aground: one of them, however, was immediately got off.

The attack and the defense were extremely brisk. The whole of our van was attacked on both sides, and sometimes raked. In this disorder, and involved as we were in continual clouds of smoke, it was extremely difficult to distinguish the different movements of the line.

At the beginning of the action, the admiral, all the superior officers, the first commissary, and about twenty pilots, and masters of transports, were on the poop of the ship(2), employed in serving the musquetry. All the soldiers, and sailors, were ordered to the guns of the main and lower decks: the twelve pounders were not half-manned.

After the action had lasted about an hour, the Admiral was wounded in the body, and in the hand; he then came down from the poop, and a short time after, was killed on the quarter-deck.

Obliged to defend ourselves on both sides, we gave up the twelve pounders, but the twenty-fours, and thirty-six’s kept up their fire with all possible ardour. The Franklin and the Tonnant appeared to be in as critical a situation as ourselves.

The English having utterly destroyed our van(3), suffered their ships to drift forward, still ranging along our line, and taking their different stations around us: while we [illegible] van cut off, were frequently obliged to [illegible] away our cable, or our hawser, to enable us to present our broadside to the enemy.

One of their ships, however, which lay close to us on the starboard side totally dismasted, ceased her fire, and cut her cable, to get out of the reach of our guns: but obliged to defend ourselves against two others who were furiously thundering upon us, on the larboard quarter, and on the starboard bow, we were again compelled to heave in some of our cable.

The 36 and 24 pounders were still firing briskly, when an explosion took place on the aft of the quarter-deck. We had already had a boat on fire; but we had cut it away, and so avoided the danger. We had also thrown a hammock, and some other things, which were in flames, over board, but this third time, the fire spread so rapidly and instantaneously amongst the fragments of every kind, with which the poop was incumbered, that all was soon in flames. The fire pumps had been dashed to pieces by the enemy’s balls, and the tubs and buckets rendered useless.

An order was given to cease firing, that all hands might be at liberty to bring water; but such was the ardour of the moment, that in the tumult, the guns of the main-deck still continued their fire. Although the officers had called all the people between decks, aloft, the flames had in a very short time, made a most alarming progress, and we had but few means in our power of checking them.

Our main and mizzen masts were both carried away; and we soon saw that there was no saving the ship; the fire having already gained the poop, and even the battery on the quarter-deck.

The captain and second captain had been wounded some time before. General Gnateaume therefore took upon himself the command, and ordered the scuttles to be opened, and every body to quit the ship.

The fire broke out about a quarter before ten, and at half after ten the ship blew up, although we had taken the precaution to open all the water-courses. Some of the crew saved themselves on the wreck; the rest perished.

The action continued all the night with the ships in the rear, and at break of day, we discovered that the Guerrier, the Conquerant, the Spartiate, the Aquillon, the Peuple Souverain, and the Franklin had hauled down their colours, and were in the possession of the enemy. The Timoleon, with all her masts gone, was dropt astern of the fleet, her colours still flying. The Heureux and the Mercure which had run aground were attacked, and obliged to strike in the morning. The artemise was set on fire at 8 o’clock, and the Serieuse sunk.

The Guillaume Tell, the Genereux, the Timoleon, the Diana, and the Justice, with their colours still flying, were engaged with some English vessels during a part of the morning, but this division, with the exception of the Timoleon, set their sails, about 11 o’clock, and stood off to sea.

The Timoleon ran ashore; and we have since heard, that the Captain, after landing all his men, set her on fire the next morning, to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy.

Such are the results of this horrible affair; and we have detailed them as they presented themselves to our memory; not having been able to preserve a paper or note of any kind.

Read Admiral GANTEAUME.

[British Translators' Notes]

(1)See the Charts.

(2)The l’Orient.

(3)We take the opportunity of this passage to make a few observations.

It has been said in the French papers, and repeated in our ears usque ad nauseam, that the fate of the day was undecided when the l’Orient took fire; and questions have been gravely put by the opposition writers, and still more gravely debated, as to the probable consequences of the engagement, if that accident had not taken place.

These patriotic gentlemen, however, may now close their well meant discussions: we have it, happily, in our power to decide the question for ever, by such authority, as they neither can nor will, we believe, be inclined to dispute. We have the authentic and irrefragable testimony of the Admiral Ganteaume, that the van of the French fleet was in our hands before that event took place: and we have, secondly, THE EXPRESS AUTHORITY OF THE CAPT. BERRY for saying that Six of their ships had struck before the l’Orient was perceived to be on fire; and that not only HE, BUT EVERY OTHER OFFICER, WHO WAS IN A SITUATION OF JUDGING, IS PERSUADED THAT THE L’ORIENT HERSELF HAD PREVIOUSLY STRUCK TO THE BRITISH FLAG!

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