Sunday, May 15, 2005


British sailors laid to rest – 200 years on


Navy News
May 13, 2005

Under the scorching Mediterranean sun, British sailors dressed in whites bore coffins draped with the Union Flag.

A few yards away, their heads bowed, with rifles pointing towards the ground, stood their comrades, a guard of honour.

More than 200 years after their deaths, men and women who fought with Nelson and helped drive Napoleon out of Egypt were fittingly laid to rest.

Rescued from the ravages of the weather and tourist ‘vandalism’, soldiers, sailors and marines – and in some cases their partners and children – of the 1798 and 1801 campaigns were re-interred with honour in Alexandria following three years’ work by Nelsonian experts.

With full military honours, led by Royal Marines buglers and a guard from Type 22 frigate HMS Chatham, the dead of Nelson’s Island were buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Chatby cemetery in the Egyptian port.

The bodies had originally been laid to rest in a sandstone outcrop five miles offshore in Abukir Bay in the Nile Delta, near where Nelson routed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Archaeologist Dr Paolo Gallo began excavations on the island – measuring just 350 yards by 150 – while researching its ancient Egyptian history.

But the digs soon uncovered much more recent burials, notably British dead from the early 19th century – prompting three years’ work on the tiny rocky outcrop.

Nick Slope, chairman of the Nelson Society, began poring over records of the period and began piecing together a fascinating slice of Nelsonian history, overlooked or forgotten for nearly two centuries.

“The burials on the island were under threat of erosion – they were becoming exposed and washed away by winter rains,” said Mr Slope.

“What was more worrying was that the island has recently been opened up to tourism and the dead were being dug up and their remains taken as trophies or scattered under the mistaken impression that they were ancient ‘mummies’.”

The remains of 32 individuals were located and re-interred, but Mr Slope’s research suggests that around 80 RN and RM personnel were buried on Nelson’s Island – named after the admiral by his commanders at the Nile – plus 76 soldiers.

The dead were not killed at the Nile in 1798, but rather succumbed to their wounds or sickness after the clash (most of the dead in the battle itself were buried at sea), or in the 1801 campaign in Egypt when the Fleet anchored in Abukir Bay.

Some remains have been positively identified, chiefly Cdr James Russell of HMS Ceres.

His frigate served initially as a troopship in the 1801 operations, before assuming the role of a hospital ship.

Russell, who died in September 1801, was buried with honour in a well-made coffin, dug deep into the ground, with a cross at the head of the grave – all signs of status.

His descendant, RAF veteran Gordon Watson, from Waterlooville in Hampshire, and his wife Joan watched as the commander was laid to rest for a second time.

“He did not have any children, so it’s fitting that he is buried here with his friends – who were his family, really,” said Mrs Watson.

The men of 1798 and 1801 probably little knew of the island’s history when they chose to bury their dead there, but it was an entirely appropriate resting place.

“We suspect in antiquity the island was probably connected to the mainland and served as an acropolis, before subsequently being used as a fortress,” said Mr Slope.

“For me, this a job done – we have saved the graves of 30 people. You could almost say this experience has changed my life. It has been tough, but fascinating.

“Often we are just digging things up, but here I feel I have done something worthwhile. We have closed the circle by giving them a proper burial and recognition.”

Ceremonies at Chatby, led by a Royal Navy chaplain and defence staff from Britain’s embassy in Egypt, did not solely concentrate on the Napoleonic era.

The Royal Marines prayer was read over the grave of Mne Joe Cook, who succumbed to bronchial pneumonia in 1945 while serving with HMS Nile.


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