Sunday, April 17, 2005


Nelson's heroes to be honoured


This is Cornwall
April 16, 2005

As some of Lord Nelson's brave followers are finally laid to rest in Egypt, Colin Bradley tells how the great naval commander owed his success at the Battle of the Nile more then 200 years ago to both men and women.

A westcountry archaeologist has welcomed plans to honour the fallen heroes of one of Horatio Nelson's greatest naval victories. Next Monday, the remains of 30 British men, women and children, discovered in unmarked graves on a tiny island off the Egyptian coast, are to be buried with full military honours at the British Commonwealth war memorial cemetery in Alexandria.

The ceremony comes five years after Italian archaeologist Dr Paolo Gallo stumbled across the skeletons while excavating for Greek and Roman artefacts on Nelson's Island in Abu Qir Bay - the scene of Nelson's triumph over Napoleon's invasion fleet in what became known as the Battle of the Nile.

Some of the British remains date back to the 1798 battle, while others are from 1801, when Britain landed expeditionary troops and forced a French surrender.

Since their discovery, the Nelson Society, which is busy preparing for this year's 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, has been extensively studying Nelson's logs and muster books in a bid to identify the skeletons.

Sadly, only one has been identified, that of Royal Navy commander James Russell, whose 87-year-old descendent, Gordon Watson, will be attending the ceremony at the Al-Shatby cemetery, along with officers from the visiting British warship HMS Chatham.

Nick Slope, chairman of the Nelson Society, said the findings were "unique" as they represented the first battleground cemetery from Nelson's time. Among the remains are the skeletons of three infants and a woman, who had all been buried in individual wooden coffins.

"The historical and archaeological record makes it clear that women fought, nursed, accompanied their husbands, gave birth, entertained and even enlisted in disguise to serve in Nelson's navy," he said. "These findings have forced us to re-examine the social and organisational nature of Nelson's crews and has painted a more complex picture of those who inhabited the 'wooden world'."

Devon-based author and archaeologist Roy Adkins, who has kept in contact with the project team, said the excavations had been "extremely important".

"In most naval battles, the dead were buried at sea, as often there was no time to do more than tip them overboard," he said.

"So burials of seamen from this date that can be investigated archaeologically are very rare." The graves would originally have had markers, but over time these disappeared and the graves lost. Although there were historical records of men and women from Nelson's ships being buried onshore after the battle, it was a stroke of luck that these burials came to light.

"Now that the remains have been scientifically examined, so that the archaeological and historical evidence they can provide will not be lost, it is fitting that they should be given an honourable burial in graves that are properly marked as a memorial to all those who lost their lives."

Mr Adkins, who wrote about Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in his 2000 book "The Keys of Egypt", has also penned a gripping account of Nelson's famous victory at Trafalgar. His paperback "Trafalgar - the Biography of a Battle" is out next month.

"The importance of the Battle of the Nile is that it stranded Napoleon in Egypt, cut off his contact with France and so stifled his plans for a French empire in the East," he said. "He had hoped to march his army all the way to India, but Nelson put a stop to that and eventually Napoleon abandoned his men and escaped back to France where he staged a coup, seized power and eventually became Emperor."

Despite suffering concussion during the battle after being struck above his right eye by a shot splinter, Nelson led his 13-strong fleet to rout the French, whose flagship L'Orient blew up. But its main mast was saved and after Nelson was killed at Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, it provided the timber for his own coffin when he was buried at St Paul's Cathedral.

One of the women who survived the Battle of the Nile was Nancy Perriam of Exmouth. She served on board the Orion as a seamstress, but during the fighting handed out powder and also helped in the surgeon's cockpit.

The wife of a gunner's mate, she ended her days selling fish on the streets of the East Devon resort and when she died in 1865 at the age of 96 she was buried in the churchyard at nearby Littleham. In a grave not far away lies the body of Nelson's wife, Frances, who had lived in Exmouth following the end of her marriage.


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