The French Revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 made plans for an invasion of Egypt in order to constrict Britain's trade routes and threaten its possession of India. The British government heard that a large French naval expedition was to sail from a French Mediterranean port under the command of Napoleon, and in response it ordered the Earl of St. Vincent, the commander in chief of the British fleet, to detach ships under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson to reconnoitre off Toulon and to watch French naval movements there. But Nelson's own ship was dismasted in a storm, and his group of frigates, now dispersed, returned to the British base at Gibraltar. Meanwhile, St. Vincent sent Nelson more ships, which joined Nelson on June 7, bringing his strength up to 14 ships of the line.
The French expedition eluded the British warships and sailed first for Malta, which the French seized from the British early in June. After spending a week at Malta, Napoleon sailed with his fleet for his main objective, Egypt. Meanwhile, Nelson had found Toulon empty and had correctly guessed the French objective, but because he lacked frigates for reconnaissance, he missed the French fleet, reached Egypt first, found the port of Alexandria empty, and impetuously returned to Sicily, where his ships were resupplied. Determined to find the French fleet, he sailed to Egypt once more and on August 1 he sighted the main French fleet of 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates under Admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigailliers at anchor in Abu Qir Bay.
Although there were but a few hours left until nightfall and Brueys' ships were in a strong defensive position, being securely ranged in a sandy bay that was flanked on one side by a shore battery on Abu Qir Island, Nelson gave orders to attack at once. Several of the British warships were able to maneuver around the head of the French line of battle and thus got inside and behind their position. Fierce fighting ensued, during which Nelson himself was wounded in the head. The climax came at about 10:00 PM, when Brueys' 120-gun flagship, which was by far the largest ship in the bay, blew up with most of the ship's company, including the admiral. The fighting continued for the rest of the night, with the end result that the British warships destroyed or captured all but two of Brueys' ships of the line. The British suffered about 900 casualties, the French about 10 times as many.
The Battle of the Nile had several important effects. It isolated Napoleon's army in Egypt, thus ensuring its ultimate disintegration. It ensured that in due time Malta would be retaken from the French, and it both heightened British prestige and secured British control of the Mediterranean.