In 1780, the French Navy came to the decision, with advice from Jean-Charles de Borda, a knight, naval officer and a member of the Academy of the Sciences, to limit ship production models to three types - 74-gun and 80-gun double-deck designs and a 120-gun triple-deck, triple-masted ship-of-the-line. The move intended to standardize shipbuilding so the Navy could train the officers and men in ships with consistent sailing abilities and seamanship covering basics such as turning radius, speed, handling and the like. It was assumed if the ships were built as mirror images to each other by class, naval battle plans could be almost mechanical by nature. The ships built, in turn, were to be identical in their dimensions, hull shape, tonnage, length and beam - so each ship-in-class would handle as one at sea.
During her career, one particular vessel of this movement saw her name changed three times due to political reasons - she began as Dauphin Royal and served under this name until September of 1792 before becoming Sans-Culotte until May of 1795. She then received her final of L' Orient. L' Orient was the third of fifteen ships built to the standards of the Ocean-class, a triple-deck ship-of-the-line armed with 120 cannons and constructed at the Toulon arsenal in France. This class of ship was one of the largest wooden ships ever built, a battleship to the French navy. She was launched in 1791 and designed by a noted shipbuilder of the day - Jacques-Noel Sane. The Orient, as built, was 196 feet, 6 inches long (65.18 meters) with a 50 foot beam (16.24 meters) and having a draught of 25 feet (8.12 meters). She displaced at 5,085 tons.
Orient was armed to fire a 60-gun broadside - the accepted naval strategy of the day. Her lower deck held 32 x 36lb cannons while her middle deck was outfitted with 34 x 24lb cannons and her top deck armed with 32 x12lb cannons. On the forecastle there were 16 x 8-pounder and 4 x 36-pounder guns. This formidable gun platform was not satisfied with being the most powerful ship in French service - it quickly gained the reputation for being the best warship anywhere in the world.
The British Admiralty had been locked in an arms race with France for over one hundred years so the launching of the Ocean-class was a major concern to the Crown. In 1793, Orient's sister ship, Commerce-de-Marseilles, was seized in Toulon, France by the Royal Navy. Her capture gave the Admiralty the ability to test the sailing abilities of the feared French triple-decker monster. The French had reported the class navigated like smaller frigates and not many ships could be compared to her - deemed a one-of-a-kind ship. The British put the Commerce-de-Marseilles to the test at sea, finding she was slow in handling and British frigates could outmaneuver her at will. The Royal Navy decided not to use the vessel as a warship of their own (as most captured prize ships were) so, from 1796 onwards, she was used as a landing bridge - or stationary troop barracks - for the Royal Navy. Whatever the opinions of the class were held by the British, her sister ship the Orient still remained an impressive vessel.
From 1791 to 1795, and still carrying her original name of Dauphin Royal until changed to Sans-Culotte in May of 1795, she spent time training her crew of 1,079 for ship handling and gunnery. The crew trained over and over for the order "Make Sail" which required, within seconds, hundreds of sailors climbing the rigging above the rolling deck to unfurl the huge sails in an attempt to harness the power of the wind. Learning how to go aloft took time and one had to be fit to climb the ratlines, or rope ladders, and training was also undertaken at night and even in bad weather for to contend with possible at-sea fighting environments - sometimes the crew faced with dangerous gales or ropes coated with ice. Ropes that broke had to be repaired at sea as they could not be outright replaced so landsmen, or new recruits, had to learn how to splice the torn ends together.
Another order that affected the entire crew was "Battle Stations", the order causing much excitement during drills though proving rather terrifying in wartime. The training of the gun crew was practiced almost daily and the main guns had a six man crew to each gun element. Gunners were assigned an identification number for ease of ordering in the thick of battle: No. 1 was the gun captain who primed, aimed and fired the cannon. No. 2 turned and raised the gun barrel as required. No. 3 loaded the gun with powder and shot. No. 4 had a water bucket and swab to eliminate sparks in the barrel before reloading. No. 5 moved the gun barrel and passed ammunition. No. 6 was the "powder monkey" who would run to the powder magazine below decks and back to his gun station with fresh powder. The monkeys were traditionally boys as young as 10 or 12 years old - an accepted practice among many navies of the period. In battle, the smell of gunpowder and blood filled the air while cannon fire drowned out all other sounds except the screams of wounded comrades.
Still named the Sans-Culotte , her first battle was on March 14th, 1795, in the Battle of Genoa as the British and Neapolitan warships engaged the French. Sans-Culotte acted as the French flagship of Rear Admiral Martin. The 120-gun ship covered the rear of the French line and exchanged cannon fire with the third-rate, 74-gun warship HMS Bedford and 74-gun HMS Egmont. The two British ships tacked for advantage over the Sans-Culotte but failed to gain the advantage. However, during the battle, Sans-Culotte lost contact with the French fleet during the night, placing her guns out of range of the action. The French lost the battle, losing two ships-of-the-line and 600 men while the British, and her ally, lost just 74 men in comparison. In May of 1795, Sans-Culotte was renamed, due to a political consequence, as the Orient.
In 1798, Orient was appointed flagship of the squadron and tasked by Napoleon with the invasion of Egypt under the command of Admiral Brueys. Orient had the honor to convey General Bonaparte and the heads of the Army of Egypt. The British has already reduced French holdings in India and the Egyptian campaign was to begin an offensive against British colonial power and influence. The French fleet evaded the British blockade and captured Malta and then went on to land 31,000 troops in Egypt. British Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson and his squadron arrived off the port of Aboukir Bay on August 1st, 1798 and found the French transport ships were safe in the harbor, protected by a fleet of French ships that were anchored in a chevron formation in the bay. Nelson's forward scout ship relayed information concerning the French fleet positions and strength and indicated the French had a single 120-gun ship present, Orient, and two 80-gun vessels. The number of French ships equaled the number of ships under Nelson's command except all were 74-gun ships (though HMS Leander was a 50-gun platform) and a small brigantine, HMS Mutine.
Night was falling and Nelson ordered an attack which was against the conventional rules of naval warfare - not uncommon for Nelson. His action began the Battle of the Nile. Captain Foley of HMS Goliath saw an opening in the French line of battle and sailed between the ships. Followed by a number of other British ships, they began to attack the French on the shore side. Nelson, seeing this tactic, sailed the balance of the squadron against the French on the bay side of their line. Now the French fleet was being attacked in turn by broadsides along their port and starboard sides by the British ships.
Soon the line of British 74-gun frigates approached the 120-gun Orient and five total English vessels were firing on the Orient. The constant cannon fire into Orient started several fires that were being controlled by the crew. However, before the battle, the bridge of the ship was being painted and cleaned. When the British were sighted, the paint and oil containers on the bridge were not stowed but left on deck. Soon the containers had spilled and were set afire from burning embers. The liquid paint and oil on fire spread into the chain-whales on the port side of the ship and spread up into the masts. Poor maintenance led to the fire pump being out of action along with not enough water buckets and axes available.
The vessel was soon afire along its entire length and it was decided to flood the powder magazines now that the fire was a greater danger to the ship than the British ships firing on her. It became obvious that the fire was spreading faster than the water so the order was given to abandon ship. Hundreds of persons jumped overboard and some tried to lower boats and escape while the wounded, having been left on the ship, were left to burn alive. At 10:30PM, the powerful symbol of the French Navy exploded, showering the surrounding vessels with the flaming debris, bringing about an end to the warship.
The British have often advanced the figure of 70 survivors which corresponds to the number people saved by their ships. The French reported a total of 760 saved of the 1,130 officers, men and boys onboard. The explosion was said to provide such a spectacle that many involved in the fighting stopped for approximately half-an-hour to watch the event unfold. Nelson, who had been wounded, still went up onto his bridge to witness the event himself. After the battle, the main mast of the Orient was located and collected by the British and taken to London to be used for Nelson's coffin. The battle of the Nile was considered Nelson's greatest victory. The battle served to put the English Navy ahead of the French, a position it would hold until the end of the campaign and embolden other European powers to stand up to the French.
After Nelson's death following the Battle of Trafalgar, his body was placed within the coffin constructed of the Orient's main mast.
In1998, French archaeologist Franck Goddio found remains of Orient dispersed across the seabed for more than three hundred meters, proving the violence of the explosion. Several hundred objects, including gold and silver coins as well as skeletons sailors, were found in water as shallow as 21 feet (9 meters) and some 8 miles from the coast. The sea bed in the area was still covered in gunpowder.