combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

Posted Muster
a biographical sketch

Addicted to Glory

A daring frigate captain, he dabbled in diplomacy and fancied himself an amateur spy. Virtually unknown today, he was as famous as Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars. He was hailed by the London crowds as the Lion of the Seas. Besides his devotion to the English crown he provided excellent service to three other European royal families and the Ottoman Empire. He stopped Napoleon in his effort to conquer India. Advanced in rank to admiral he never directed a major fleet action. He devoted the last years of his life to the abolition of slavery. He was Sir William Sidney Smith.

Smith was born in London in 1764. His father, Captain John Smith of the Guards, and a gentleman-usher to Queen Charlotte, was known as an adventurer and libertine. Adventure and connections with royalty were to mark Sidney's life. He eloped with the thirty year-old daughter of Pinkney Wilson, a rich London merchant who responded to what he thought an ill-considered marriage by disinheriting his daughter and eschewing all contact with her and the three children of the union.

An aunt intervened to convince Wilson to pay for his grandson's education. His father also used young Sidney as the bearer of messages begging money for his own support even after he had separated from the child's mother.

Smith's naval career began at age thirteen. He was appointed a captain's servant on the Tortoise, a transport of 32 guns. Despite the ship's humble designation, her captain acted as if he commanded a frigate. This aggressive nature may have rubbed off on Smith. Three months after his posting the Tortoise left for America escorting merchant ships. Upon his arrival, Smith was transferred to the brig Unicorn.

Aboard her he got his first taste of real action. In company with the Experiment, the Unicorn met the American frigate Raleigh and engaged her for three hours before the 44-gun Experiment was able to come to their assistance. The brig lost thirteen killed and a large number wounded including Smith. His forehead was laid open by a splinter. During the return across the Atlantic the Unicorn was laid over on its side during a gale and Smith aided in jettisoning the guns to right the ship, saving her.

Smith's career was off to a flying start. His next assignment, in 1779, was to the ship of the line Sandwich, then flagship of the channel squadron under Admiral Sir George Rodney. On 8 January 1780, Rodney's fleet encountered a Spanish convoy headed for Cadiz. Rodney captured all the vessels including a 64-gun ship, four frigates, two sloops and a dozen supply ships.

Within a few days of this encounter Smith saw his first real fleet action. Rodney had learned of a Spanish squadron off Cape Saint Vincent and determined to engage them. The squadron, eleven ships of the line and two frigates under Admiral Juan de Langara was only about half the strength of Rodney's fleet. When Langara sighted a mass of sail approaching from the north on the afternoon of January 16 he assumed it was an unescorted convoy. Only too late did he realize it was Rodney with the channel fleet. Forming a line Langara raced for Cadiz. Rodney signaled General Chase to allow his faster ships to overhaul the fleeing Spaniards. The British won a considerable victory despite growing darkness and a lee shore. Langara's flagship the 80-gun Fenix and five 70s were captured and another 70 blown up. Crippled with gout, Rodney was nevertheless able to direct the fighting and extricate his fleet from the dangerous situation it found itself in after the ten hour battle that became known as the Moonlight Battle of Saint Vincent. Smith was mentioned favorably for his actions in the engagement.

In September of 1779, Smith passed the examination for lieutenant and was posted to the 74-gun Alcide despite being only 16 years old. He performed well under Admiral Graves at the Battle of the Chesapeake. His bravery under Rodney at the Saintes in April 1782 earned him his first command, the schooner Fury. He was later appointed post captain and given command of the frigate Alcemene. He was then nineteen years old.

With the navy reduced following the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, Smith found himself on half-pay. Always restless, he decided to try his hand as an amateur spy. Making use of his command of the French language, he visited Normandy, observing efforts to convert the port of Cherbourg into a naval base. He sent the Admiralty a detailed description of efforts to build a breakwater at the port.

Following two years in France, Smith traveled to Gibraltar and Morocco where he observed commerce and naval dispositions, reporting again to the Admiralty. Among his suggestions was a recommended change of tactics for covering the entrance to the Mediterranean. As variable winds made it impossible to constantly cover the entrance from Gibraltar, he suggested basing a second squadron on the Atlantic side and recommended himself as most qualified to command such a squadron. He was then twenty-three.

Restless with the peace, his thirst for action took Smith to Sweden where war had broken out with Russia. He applied for permission to serve the Swedish crown and when this permission was slow in coming he was not completely forthright about his involvement in military affairs in the conflict. Despite a lack of official British approval, he served Swedish King Gustavus III as an advisor in land operations as Colonel Smith. He was then appointed commander of the small craft in the Swedish fleet. This appointment enraged many Swedish officers who considered themselves far senior to the English upstart. Avoiding the truth he wrote the English authorities in Stockholm that he was following the Swedish king in a yacht and would not take part in hostilities. In fact he played a crucial role in the Swedish naval efforts. Further, Smith's talent for self promotion had won him the ear of King Gustavus who presented Smith's case to the English king, bypassing bureaucratic and diplomatic formalities.

The Russians had trapped the Swedish fleet in the Bay of Viborg and Smith's flotilla of some one-hundred small craft including bomb vessels, galleys and gun boats, was able to clear a number of islands at the entrance, allowing the Swedes to escape. In the Battle of Svensksund, the Russians lost sixty-four ships and over a thousand men killed. The Swedes lost four ships and had few casualties. An armistice followed.

Smith's success was not so well thought of by many of his English contemporaries as six half-pay British naval officers serving on the Russian side had been killed in the fighting. Nevertheless, at the request of King Gustavus, King George III of England invested Smith with the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Sword. Smith thereafter referred to himself as Sir Sidney Smith while his detractors labeled him the Swedish knight. He did not receive an English knighthood till 1838, when Queen Victoria knighted him two years before his death.

Smith's younger brother, Spencer, had been appointed an envoy to Turkey. In 1793, when hostilities resumed between Britain and France, Sir Sidney was in Smyrna, serving as a volunteer in the Turkish navy. He purchased a small lateen rigged vessel and recruited a crew of forty former British seamen to man his new ship. They set sail for London where Smith hoped to receive a command.

Making their way along the length of the Mediterranean they came upon Admiral Hood with a fleet at Toulon, the primary French naval base on the Mediterranean. The city had been seized by Royalist opponents of the French revolution, but by the time Smith arrived, forces of the revolutionary government were pressing close to the city. One of the critical players in this assault was a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose well-handled guns were of great aid to the besiegers.

Hood involved Smith, still an unemployed officer on half-pay, in his plans. Unpopular because of his attitude and the Swedish affair, Smith was met with considerable criticism. His response was that while his critics were commanding ships and crews paid for by the government, his command was financed solely from his own pocket.

Hood gave Smith command of a detachment charged with removing or burning the French naval vessels in Toulon's harbor before the revolutionaries retook the city. The effort was to be supported by a Spanish contingent that failed to appear. Despite lack of support from those allies, Smith's men were able to remove four ships of the line, eight frigates and seven corvettes. A further ten ships of the line, two frigates and two corvettes were burned. Although Hood was unstinting in his praise of Smith's efforts, which had resulted in greater losses to the enemy than any previous naval engagement in England's history, many of Smith's critics pointed out that not all of the French vessels anchored at Toulon were destroyed in the chaotic night action. Although Smith had destroyed more French ships than had the most successful fleet action to that date, he was blamed by Nelson and Collingwood, among others, for this failure to destroy all of the French fleet.

Returning to London, the Admiralty gave Smith command of the fifth-rate Diamond and posted him to Sir John Borlase Warren's Western Frigate Squadron, serving with such stalwarts as Sir Edward Pellew. Smith's exploits on that station became the stuff of legend.

In July 1795, Smith in Diamond in company with other vessels, occupied the les Saint-Marcouf off the coast of Normandy. Sacrificing two of his gun vessels, Badger and Sandfly, to provide materials and manpower he fortified the islands and established a naval garrison. With additional fortifications established, the islands served as a forward base for the blockade of Le Havre for nearly seven years.

Informed by the admiralty in 1796 that the French fleet had sailed from Brest, a harbor not visible from the open sea, Smith undertook a daring reconnaissance. Disguising the Diamond as a French frigate, he penetrated the narrow channel to the port. Although suspected by the French, his self-confidence and command of the language allowed his escape.

The next year Smith followed a convoy of nine French ships into Herqui, on the Brittany coast. He captured and burnt them; then captured the forts that protected the harbor and spiked their guns. The lieutenant who had led the capture of the forts sailed for London with dispatches describing the victory and, as a present for the admiralty, the captured ensign. London was wild with excitement, Convent Garden put on an Operetta, The Point in Herqui or The Triumph of British Courage.

These exploits were not enough to satisfy Smith. He imagined he could sail up the Seine and attack Bonaparte in his lair. In April 1797, he entered Le Havre on the estuary of the Seine. Although he was planning a reconnaissance preparatory to his grand plan, his immediate objective was to capture the Vengeur, a privateer that harried British shipping. In a carefully planned cutting-out expedition, he penetrated the harbor under cover of darkness in four small boats and easily captured his prize. However, wind and current prevented them leaving the harbor or the Diamond coming to their rescue. With daylight the situation was clear to the French. Landing his prisoners, Smith prepared to fight it out. After an hour, he recognized the futility of defense and surrendered, lowering the British ensign flying above his prize.

Smith was imprisoned in Paris for two years where he was held as a spy and threatened with the guillotine. This was in part due to his fame. Despite his reputation, he was often allowed considerable liberties, including freedom of the streets of Paris so long as he gave his parole as an officer.

French royalists hatched a plot to free him from prison. They rented a house that overlooked Smith's cell and communicated with him by a specially devised sign language. Smith was moved from one jail to another several times. The final time he was transported, he discovered his guards were monarchists. The carriage overturned in their haste to escape and they were chased to the coast where he was placed aboard a boat for England. One of his rescuers, a French fortification expert named Phillipeaux was to play a prominent role in later events.

Extremely popular with the London crowd after his escape, Smith was received at the Admiralty, by the Prime Minister and the King. His connections with Turkey were recalled and he was sent to the Mediterranean with two sets of orders, one to put himself under the command of Admiral Saint Vincent, and the other making him joint Minister Plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire with his younger brother, Spencer, as the other minister. Having served in the Ottoman Empire's navy he was considered perfect to provide assistance to the Turks in light of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.

Smith's character made his twin roles as naval captain and minister quite difficult, especially for his superiors. Smith set sail in the 80-gun Tigre and was soon the subject of many complaints. Believing himself a senior diplomat, Smith showed insufficient respect for his naval superiors. He requisitioned ships from other squadrons and flew a commodore's broad pennant without authorization. He corresponded directly with the Admiralty, bypassing the chain-of-command.

With the Turks he was a complete success. Wearing Turkish dress, including turban and long moustaches, he participated as an elected member of their highest council – the Divan. He was able to stiffen the Turkish will to resist Napoleon despite initial setbacks. Eluding Nelson in a chase across the Mediterranean, Napoleon had successfully landed in Egypt, defeated the Mamelukes garrisoning the country, and was marching on Syria preparatory to an invasion of India through Persia to fulfill his dream of becoming a modern day Alexander the Great. Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay and the land route to India was not only Napoleon's first but only choice. Although the French army was small by European standards, numbering some 15,000 men; western trained and organized forces had been winning spectacular victories over much larger eastern armies since classical Greece. Napoleon's final nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, got his start in just such engagements in India.

Smith, with a scratch squadron and his Turkish allies was the major obstacle between Napoleon and his perceived destiny.

In March 1799, Smith was lying off Alexandria in the Tigre, an 80-gun ship of the line that had been captured from the French. Smith received a message from Achmed Dejezzer, the Turkish Governor of Syria, informing him that Napoleon had taken Jaffa by storm and was marching on the port of Acre (now the Israeli town of Akko). Smith responded quickly to the news, dispatching Captain Miller in the 74-gun Theseus and a smaller vessel to conduct a reconnaissance of the Syrian coast. Acre lay north of the headland of Mount Carmel on an open bay. The city was just past the sandbar choked mouth of the river Kishon. Theseus arrived on March 13, followed by Smith in the Tigre, accompanied by the Alliance and Marianne on March 15.

After consultations with the Turks, who were ready to defend the city, Smith offered his assistance. On the 17th he sent the Theseus south along the coast. Smith, with the Tigre's boats, took a position at Caifia under Mount Carmel south of Acre. That night the first French units were detected, mounted on donkeys and camels moving along the coast. Smith positioned a launch with a 12-pounder carronade to block the advance. With daylight, an effective fire was laid down and the French were forced to move inland to the Nazareth road.

Smith's ships, anchored off Acre, prevented the French from encircling the city to the north, forcing the French to approach the city from the northeast where the defenses were stronger.

During the first exchanges with the French, Smith noted a lack of artillery, and suspected guns were being transported by sea. On the morning of the 18th, a flotilla consisting of a French corvette and nine gun vessels was sighted from the Tigre. The ships were engaged and all the gun vessels taken. The corvette escaped. The captured vessels were packed with siege guns and supplies. Smith landed the siege guns and deployed the gunboats so as to harass the French advance up the coast.

Not all of Smith's efforts were successful. A boat attack on four French transports anchored off Caiffa was repulsed with heavy losses to the British. Contrary weather forced the British ships to up anchor on that same day and winds prevented their return until April 6th. During his absence Smith was able to revictual in preparation for protracted hostilities.

The fighting for Acre was notable for its hand-to-hand ferocity. The British seamen who played crucial roles in many aspects of the struggle were armed primarily with pikes and cutlasses. French dead littered the narrow avenues of the assault and their decomposing bodies were incorporated into the defensive works Napoleon ordered erected to protect his advancing troops from the flanking fire of heavy guns manned primarily by British gunners who were able to direct deadly accurate fire from solid ground instead of the rolling deck of a ship at sea.

The French, with Napoleon directing them, pushed an attack on the Northeast defenses of the city. Napoleon felt that the capture of Acre was crucial for his continued advance. Napoleon, using field pieces, in lieu of his lost siege artillery, was still able to create a small breach in the outer wall and a tunneling mine was dug under one of the towers on the city walls. The French pushed trenches up to the Turkish fortifications.

The French were also digging a tunnel or mine under a corner tower in an effort to collapse it. The British and Turks mounted a sortie under cover of darkness to prevent the undermining of the tower. The plan called for English sailors and marines to attack the mine while Turkish troops attacked the trenches on either side. The noisy Turks spoiled any chance of surprise for the predawn attack. Nevertheless, the British seamen, supported by the marines, were able to enter the mine tunnel and partially collapse it, thwarting the French effort for the moment.

The French were not long without siege artillery. More French guns were brought by sea to Jaffa and then overland to the siege. Despite repeated sorties and supporting fire from British ships and boats in the harbor, the breach at the northeast corner tower was enlarged by the combined fire of twenty-three French guns.

Napoleon mounted an assault on May 1st. The Theseus and Tigre provided supporting fire from either side of the city, and after much fighting, the assault was repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. Colonel Phillipeaux, who had been instrumental in designing the city's improved defenses, died of fatigue as a result of his tireless efforts during the desperate struggle.

Although Napoleon was an experienced artillery officer with considerable engineering abilities, Smith proved his equal in the technical conduct of the siege. The resourceful naval officer expanded the city's defenses with two ravelins flanking the disputed breach, but French attacks continued with increasing ferocity.

By May 7th, the city had been reinforced by two Turkish corvettes and more than twenty transports bearing additional troops.

Napoleon countered with works of his own to protect his advancing troops, throwing up walls of sandbags, earth and French corpses, so high that only the bayonets of the advancing infantry could be seen by the defenders. The massed French artillery created a breach at the northeast corner tower, and the French pushed their siege works closer to weakened fortifications. A steady fire from British-manned guns in the lighthouse tower, and a flanking ravelin, along with shells from two 68-pounders in shallow draft boats just off shore greatly annoyed the French in their methodical advance.

Even as Turkish reinforcements under Hassan Bey were disembarking from the recently arrived transports, the French mounted an attack at first light on May 8th focusing on the battered northeast corner, where rubble made a sort of ramp up the partially collapsed wall.

Seeing the danger of the French effort, Smith personally led a contingent of sailors to defend the breach with pikes, cutlasses, and boarding axes. They joined Turks who had been hurling rocks down at the French and the heartened Turks and their British allies engaged the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. Djezzar Pasha, the Turkish commander, on learning Smith was in the breach, rushed to the defenses to urge caution, fearing the death of his English friend might prove a fatal blow to morale. Smith turned a deaf ear to the pleas and led a freshly arrived Turkish regiment, trained and armed in the European fashion, in a counterattack. The French beat back the Turkish sally, but in forming their defense they exposed themselves to the British-manned guns. Both sides suffered considerable losses and the French were checked in their advance.

Napoleon's ambitions were unchecked. Through May 9th and 10th, he personally directed the French artillery and work parties from an exposed mound named after Richard the Lionheart, who had fought on the same ground during the Crusades. The defenders could clearly see the animated general encouraging his troops. Taking a direct interest in the efforts against the northeast tower, Napoleon personally reconnoitered the breach. French artillery continued a scathing fire throughout the two days with each ball and shell knocking away chunks of wall to add to the rubble ramp. Although the French had only a few heavy guns they were concentrated against the battered corner of the medieval defenses and did considerable damage.

On the evening of May 10th, a massive column of French infantry assailed the breach again and carried it, only to be stopped at new defensive works Phillepeux had ordered erected prior to his death. One French general was killed and another seriously wounded by the Turks who fought with courage and little regard for their own safety. Their fighting fervor was so great that British reinforcements were also attacked by the Turks who confused the uniforms of the British officers with those of the French.

Fighting continued over the breach through the night and into the next day. The French then mounted a fresh assault but were met by a counterattack that drove them back to the third parallel of their siege works. The French attack became a desperate attempt to regain their jumping-off point. Several French guns were spiked. Both sides suffered grievously in the fighting.

On board the Theseus an accident resulted in the explosion of some seventy shells. The crew suffered 87 dead and wounded and damage to the ship was considerable. The French situation, however, was deteriorating. The troops were reluctant to mount another assault across piles of dead before the breach, and plague had broken out. The attackers proposed a truce to bury the dead, but the Turks rejected the entreaty. A new assault was mounted after the rejection, and it too was repulsed.

On the night of May 20th, the French lifted the siege and retired down the coast. Twenty-three siege guns were abandoned on the field.

The siege had lasted sixty-one days. The besiegers had mounted eight major assaults and the defenders had countered with eleven sorties. Losses were heavy on both sides, but Napoleon's hopes of a triumphant march into Asia were dashed. Smith and his ad hoc squadron remained at Acre well into June, rendering assistance to the Turks. With the exception of the losses on the Theseus, British casualties had been remarkably light.

Nelson, who had been somewhat disturbed by Smith's independence from his command, was lavish with his praise for the defense of Acre. Smith, whose younger brother was ambassador to Constantinople, was well known to the Turks and had been acting under diplomatic orders to assist their efforts against the French advance. This had not initially been known to Nelson and he had bridled at Smith's rejection of his authority as the superior naval officer in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Napoleon staggered back to Egypt with a defeated, plague-ridden army. Negotiations between Napoleon, Smith and the Turks to get the French to quit Egypt were rejected by the British authorities. This agreement, the Treaty of El Arish, was stoutly opposed by Nelson.

British troops were landed, and after a success at the Battle of Alexandria (the first British land victory over Napoleon), an agreement similar to the El Arish agreement was reached. Napoleon, returning to France in a frigate, blamed Smith as the man who had kept him from his destiny.

Smith sailed home carrying news of his victory. He was rewarded with an annual pension of £1000. Smith, as well as Nelson, were now firmly established as the heroes of the British Navy.

On his return to England, Smith represented the town of Rochester in Parliament and took the opportunity of defending the naval budget. It was also reported that he engaged in an affair with a neighbor, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the Prince of Wales and future King George IV.

Following the defense of Acre, Smith, still far from the top of the captains' list – promotions were primarily based on seniority – became enamored of the new technology of warfare including submarines and catamaran landing craft. During 1803, he was employed in the North Sea to stymie an expected French invasion, and his interest in technology was directed to that end. Among the inventors he worked with was the American Robert Fulton. The Admiralty was not impressed with his technological proposals and none were adopted, perhaps because of his attitude that tolerated no opinions except his own.

He finally reached the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1805; two days after news of Nelson's death at Trafalgar shocked the nation. Returning to the Mediterranean in 1806, he was given command of the inshore squadron under the overall command of Lord Collingwood. Smith's special responsibility was Sicily.

The Sicilian situation was delicate. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was divided into two parts. The mainland portion, centered on Naples, was ruled by Napoleon's brother, Joseph. The legitimate Bourbon King, Ferdinand IV, married to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette's sister, held sway over the actual island of Sicily, but was under severe pressure from the French. Their kingdom, The Two Sicilies, was expected to soon be united under Joseph Bonaparte. British troops, aided by Sicilians and Corsicans, were trying to prevent the invasion of the island.

King Ferdinand named Smith Viceroy of Calabria and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This appointment added political and military responsibilities to his naval brief. However, Smith had received no approval from his government before accepting these responsibilities from King Ferdinand.

Going against the British generals on the scene, Smith, supported by the Queen, determined that the best defense was a strong offense. Smith decided to attack the mainland. First taking the Island of Capri, Smith mounted an invasion of Calabria using 5,000 British troops and Corsican irregulars. Assisted by the Massi, the Calabrian mountain fighters, the invaders won an unexpected victory against the French.

Hugh Elliot, the British ambassador, was beside himself. He had not only received no advance warning of the attack but funds he had provided Smith for intelligence gathering had been used to arm the Massi. Mere victory was not an antidote for widespread criticism of Smith's actions and arrogance and he was recalled.

An emergency revoked Smith's orders to London. Bonaparte had captured the Eastern border of the Adriatic Sea and he was negotiating with the Turks for passage across Turkey, Levant, and Egypt with India as his final destination. Smith was ordered to proceed to Constantinople and place himself under the command of Sir John Duckworth. Although Smith's knowledge of the Ottoman Empire was superior to any serving English senior officer, his self-promoting attitude and general arrogance gave overall command to Duckworth who proved unequal to the task.

Where Smith would likely have relied on his friendship with the Sultan, Duckworth resorted to intimidation. The Turks were not intimidated. Entering the Sea of Marmora from the Eastern rather than the Western side the squadron was prevented by strong currents from approaching Constantinople. They were forced to withdraw and one of Duckworth's ships was struck by an 800-pound stone cannonball fired from the Turkish fortifications. Smith was in the rear of the squadron and was unable to intervene. After two months Duckworth abandoned the mission.

Smith returned to Britain but was soon recalled to duty. On November 9th, he hoisted his flag on the London with orders to proceed to Portugal, then threatened by the French. From his station of the Tagus, Smith was in a position to escort the Portuguese Royal Family to safety in Brazil. With four ships of the line as escort, the Portuguese Royal Family and 12,000 Portuguese citizens arrived in Rio De Janeiro on March 7th.

Sidney Smith arrived in May to take command of a naval station on the Brazilian coast. Smith now gave his total support to the Prince Regent's wife, D. Carlota Joaquina, in her ambition, who in the name of her brother now King of Spain, to rule Buenos Aires and La Plata. Smith is still remembered as a sort of Brazilian national hero. Once again a British ambassador was incensed with Smith's meddling and demanded his recall.

In 1810 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral and, in that same year, at the age of 46, he married a widow four years his senior, Caroline Rumbolt. Finding himself at the Battle of Waterloo, Smith arranged for care for the wounded.

With the years of war a thing of the past, Smith became increasingly eccentric, although he did dedicate himself to the abolition of African slavery. Ironically, Smith lived in France during his later years to avoid English creditors. This did not greatly displease Smith, who was quite at home in the nation that had been his country's bitter enemy for decades. He became eccentric in the last decades of his life, supporting projects and propositions that seemed almost hallucinatory.

He was forced to move to Paris to avoid his creditors. He died in 1840 at age 76. Although his ego was insufferable, even his enemies admitted his courage.

contributed by Jess C. Henderson

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