VADM Francois Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers,
Compte de Brueys (1753-1798)
VADM de Brueys, commander of the French Fleet during Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay, was five years older than Nelson. Born in Uzes he joined the French Navy at age 13 and experienced rapid promotion during the revolutionary wars. He caught Napoleon’s eye around 1796, after taking possession of the Ionian Islands and later capturing a larger force of Venetian ships in Corfu.
Promoted to VADM just before the Egypt expedition, he had a number of highly regarded officers assisting him, including RADM Villeneuve, third in command, who would meet Nelson again at Trafalgar.
This fleet might have been de Bruey’s biggest command but he did not sound at all confident in a letter to his Minister of Marine when he noted, “Our crews are very weak both in numbers and the quality of the men. Our ships are, in general, ill-armed …” He estimated that he was short 2000 men and those aboard were “composed of men picked up at hazard and almost at the moment of sailing.” On the other hand, he had 13 ships of the line, seven frigates and a number of other warships to protect his 300-odd transports. He also had ample time to train the raw new hands during his lumbering passage to Malta and Alexandria, 19 May to 1 July. Finally, his flagship, the formidable new L’Orient, had 120 guns and was one of the biggest warships in the world.
He luckily evaded Nelson on his passage to Egypt and he disembarked Napoleon with his army virtually unopposed at Alexandria. De Brueys correctly forecast that the harbour there was too “difficult and dangerous” for his larger ships, so he took the warships, probably under Napoleon’s direction, to wait in support 32 km away in Aboukir. When Nelson struck, a good proportion of de Brueys’ sailors had been camped ashore in Alexandria for three weeks or more helping to unload stores, dig wells and even perform garrison duties.
Following RADM Hood at St Kitts in 1782 and RADM Barrington in St Lucia in 1778, where prolonged attacks had been repulsed in similar harbours, de Brueys anchored his 13 ships of the line close to shoal water in a slightly curved formation. However he failed to keep his frigates at sea to warn of an attack and he failed to ensure that his anchoring plan had been properly executed.
For instance, his first ship, La Guerre, was not close enough to the shoal ground and his large ships were not close enough for mutual support. Contrary to his instructions, his big ships also failed to pass lines to the next astern to prevent the English slipping through. They also anchored by the bow only and had no anchor springs to bring guns to bear.
Where French ships had room to swing on the tide, English captains reasoned that there was room to pass inside and bracket their prey with broadsides from both sides.
Secondly, Nelson’s early instructions to his fleet, to prepare to anchor by the stern with a spring leading forward, permitted devastating and well-directed fire.
De Brueys’s ships sighted the English about 1400 but it was not until 1845 that his flagship L’Orient could bring a gun to bear. By 1900 de Brueys had been wounded in the head and arm and at 1930 he was almost cut in half by a cannonball. He refused to be taken below and died about 1945. L’Orient exploded at 2200, with a roar heard at Alexandria, 32 kilometres away.