Horatio's unknown heroes

The British victory over Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of Nile in 1798 was a historical landmark. But the remains of the ordinary men and women who died in the battle, some of whom were re-buried with full naval honours yesterday, have much to teach us too
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The Independent Online

Both skeletons had been bleached white by 200 years of exposure to the sun and the sands of Egypt. Like the other human remains found with them, they were wrapped in a sheet of plain canvas and placed in plain wooden coffins. To the strains of the Last Post, the worn bones of a woman known only as "G" and an infant who was almost certainly her newborn child were yesterday solemnly lowered into a war grave amid the bustle of the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

It was a final farewell, complete with two Royal Marine buglers, diplomats and a naval band, for two forgotten casualties of a battle for dominance fought two centuries ago between Britain and France in shallow waters off Egypt's Mediterranean coast.

"G", named after the large metal letter nailed to her original coffin lid, was discovered with the remains of the handkerchief that had been used to cover her face still intact. The child beside her had been wrapped in a shroud and placed in a small wooden casket held together with small wooden pins.

Along with the skeletal remains of 28 other Britons, they were found three years ago on Nelson Island, a rocky and windswept islet in Abu Qir bay named after the military genius who led a British fleet to victory in the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

It was a bloody night-time fight which cost nearly 2,000 lives but it ended in a crushing victory for Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson over a French invasion force led by an ambitious Gallic general - Napoleon Bonaparte.

The defeat of Admiral Paul Brueys made the reputation of Nelson - "the Hero of the Nile" - as a brilliant tactician and is considered by some historians to be more important in the defeat of France than his victory at Trafalgar seven years later. But while history has recorded the minutiae of the sweeping naval manoeuvre that allowed the British fleet to destroy seven French vessels, including the flagship L'Orient, and capture seven others without a single loss, the unexpected story of those below the decks, including "G" and her child, has gone largely untold.

The re-interment yesterday in the Al Chatby war cemetery followed three years' of excavations on Nelson Island which not only uncovered the remains of 30 men, women and children who formed part of the British forces but also shed new light on the lives they led - from the co-existence of the sexes on board a military vessel to the prevalence of sexually transmitted disease.

It is a picture of a harsh existence on board a fighting fleet which ultimately led to death from injury or disease on a sun-baked island some six miles from the port of Alexandria and 2,000 miles from home.

Nick Slope, chairman of the Nelson Society, and the archaeologist and naval historian who led the British excavations after the burial ground was discovered by an Italian team, said that without rapid action, the remains would have been lost for ever. "There was concern in 2002 that these burials were under threat from erosion because the island is a popular picnicking and fishing site. We have learned vast amounts about the Royal Navy of this era - we know there were women and children on board, we have learned that some of the people had syphilis."

Using contemporary records, including the muster and log books of Royal Navy vessels, the researchers have been able to draw up a list of people known to have been buried on Nelson Island after the 1798 battle and the subsequent land invasion of Egypt by a British army in 1801.

Among them is an unnamed woman from Leith in Edinburgh who was injured while serving as a "powder monkey" on HMS Goliath, one of the ships involved in the Battle of the Nile, also known as the Battle of Abu Qir. An account of the battle and its aftermath written by one of the sailors, John Tailor, records that the woman died of her wounds and was "buried on a small island in the Bay". Archaeologists are trying to establish whether the account relates directly to "G", speculating that the letter on her coffin signifies the vessel on which she served - Goliath.

The presence of women on board a ship of the line crewed by up to 400 matelots, many of them press-ganged into military service, would have been contrary to the express rules of the Royal Navy. Senior officers also made clear their disapproval of a female retinue. Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, a close friend of Nelson, once wrote: "I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel."

Other records show that officers objected to women at sea on the grounds of their habit of using a ship's fresh water supply to wash their clothes. But historians point out that, despite the ban, women and children were not uncommon in Nelson's navy and captains often turned a blind eye to the practice.

Margarett Lincoln, director of research at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which is staging an exhibition this summer comparing Nelson and Napoleon to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, said: "Every ship had a complement of warrant officers who were vessel's specialists - the carpenter, the gunner, the bosun.

"Because they were away at sea for very long periods of time during this era, they were often allowed to bring their wives and children on board. The women performed a number of roles. In battle they would help the surgeons to tend the injured while others acted as powder monkeys, bringing powder to the guns.

"It also happened that pregnant women would also be on the ships so children would be born on board. But conditions were often appalling and the babies would often succumb to disease."

The evidence from the Nelson Island excavations appears to prove this point. Of the three infants found in the burial ground, two were either stillborn or died shortly after birth and the other died at just a few months old.

Teenage boys, some as young as 12, were also among the crew of the British and French naval vessels that clashed as light was fading in Abu Qir bay on 1 August 1798. Indeed, the son of the captain of the French flagship, Commodore Casabianca, inspired some of the most famous verse ever written about the glory and cruelty of naval battle, the opening lines of Casabianca, by the Liverpool-born poet Felicia Hemans: "The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but him had fled/ The flame that lit the battle's wreck / Shone round him o'er the dead."

The young French sailor refused to leave his mortally wounded father before fire reached the magazine of the 120-gun flagship, L'Orient and destroyed the vessel in an explosion heard 12 miles away.

But while Nelson's navy inflicted heavy losses on the French, including 1,700 dead and 600 wounded, the British suffered 218 fatalities and 677 casualties. The proximity to land meant that many of the injured who succumbed to their wounds were buried on Nelson Island.

Widespread prostitution in the Nelson era, including among on-board nurses, also took its toll on the ship's crew. One of the 30 skeletons re-buried yesterday had deep grooves in the roof of the mouth that indicate advanced syphilis. Another account from the era shows that one naïve commander was mystified by the popularity of Nelson Island and its use as a "place of leisure" when no alcohol was available.

The publication of the findings from the excavations nonetheless brings warnings that too much should not be read into the fact that the skeletons uncovered have included women and children. The arrival of General Abercrombie's 12,000-strong army in Abu Qir bay in 1801 would have brought with it at least 360 women, making it possible that many of those who perished on Nelson Island were not connected with the Battle of the Nile.

The only skeleton to have been positively identified from the excavations is Commander James Russell, the captain of a hired gunship who died in 1801.

None of this detracts, however, from the importance of the battle that took place. Nelson, who had spent fruitless weeks scouring the Mediterranean for Napoleon's fleet, finally sighted the 17 French vessels in the late evening of 1 August. Admiral Brueys had set his gunships in a line close to the shallow coastal waters in the expectation that no vessel could sneak behind. Such was his certainty that he did not order the land-facing guns to be prepared. He also believed the British would wait until the next morning to join battle.

Nelson, who suffered a serious head wound in the ensuing fight, had different ideas. Five British vessels sailed into the shallows behind the French fleet while the admiral led an assault from the front. Combining surprise with superior seamanship, the Royal Navy ships swarmed around each French vessel in turn, destroying or capturing all but four of the enemy vessels.

The victory left Napoleon's army stranded and the future emperor fled back to France, his ambition of using Egypt as a springboard to challenge British domination of India thwarted .

Margarett Lincoln said: "The battle had huge political and cultural consequences. At a time when people in Britain were despairing, Nelson scored this remarkable victory.

"The battle was recreated for public entertainment and it also reinvigorated interest in Egyptian culture. Ultimately, the people buried on Nelson Island were part of what became a cultural phenomenon."