Commodore Linzee attacks Forneilli, San Fiorenzo – 1 October 1793

by | Dec 15, 2019 | 1793, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments



Whilst Vice-Admiral Lord Hood was attempting to hold Toulon for the French royalists, a detachment of three sail of the line and two frigates under the command of Commodore Robert Linzee, flying his broad pennant aboard the Alcide 74, was detached along the coast to Villefranche in September to try and raise the population in favour of the young King Louis XVII. His overtures receiving no encouragement from the town, Linzee, conversant with his orders, then stood across the edge of the Ligurian Sea to the French province and island of Corsica where a rebellion against the republican authorities was afoot.

France had only purchased Corsica from the Republic of Genoa some twenty-five years earlier, and although some prominent families such as the Buonapartes had accepted the French rule and allowed their sons to profit by it, others had joined a resistance led by ‘General’ Pasquale de Paoli against their new masters. Over the previous quarter of the century the French had gradually subjugated their new province, but once the revolutionary years of turmoil had begun to grip the mainland the Corsican nationalists had realised the opportunity for achieving their independence. After driving the 3,500 republicans into their coastal garrisons during 1793 Paoli had appealed to Hood to parade off the island with several sail of the line – not in order to restore the royalists but rather to encourage his own patriotic uprising.

However, Paoli failed to appear when Linzee arrived off Corsica, and although some patriots described as ‘peasants’ did make contact to be furnished with weaponry, Linzee could not obtain any enthusiasm for a revolt from the three major towns of Bastia, Calvi and San Fiorenzo. Deciding that a blockade of the island was out of the question with the small force at his disposal, but being determined to at least discomfort the French garrisons, he resolved to attempt an attack on the northern port of San Fiorenzo, the latter-day Saint Florent, it having been conveyed to him that the town batteries would be unable to support a tower and redoubt at Forneilli, which was about two miles north of San Fiorenzo in the deep water gulf of that name, and which defended the approach to the town.

A Martello Tower of the type attacked by Commodore Linzee in 1793

A Mortella tower of the type attacked by Commodore Linzee in 1794

Prior to attacking the works at Forneilli Linzee had to subdue a formidable-looking cylindrical stone tower at Cape Mortella on the western arm of the Gulf of San Fiorenzo. This structure protected the only safe anchorage in the gulf, and its armament consisted of a 24-pounder and two 18-pounder cannons, being manned by approximately thirty men. The tower, a prototype for the string of Martello Towers that would later be employed off the southern British ports and in her colonies, should have been a most difficult obstacle to attack, but for some reason the garrison abandoned it after but a few broadsides from the frigate Lowestoffe 32. Whilst thirty men were despatched in boats to take possession of the abandoned tower the frigate Nemesis 28, which was to have joined the Lowestoffe in what was expected to be a prolonged bombardment, bore away to apprise Linzee that the safe anchorage had been secured.

The way was now clear for Linzee to launch his attack on the works at Forneilli, comprising the tower, which according to his later despatch sported two 8-pounder cannons, the redoubt, which he would state housed four 24-pounder cannon and two mortars, and a further 4-pounder cannon that was set on the heights. In this design however he was frustrated by the weather conditions, and in particular he was concerned by the contrary effect that the heights above the gulf would have on any favourable wind. On 24 September the Courageux 74 came in from Leghorn with supplies for Linzee’s small force, and three days later the launches of the squadron cut out a small vessel which was quickly converted into a gunboat, yet these reinforcements barely compensated for the delay in commencing the attack which had crucially allowed the republicans to strengthen their defences.

Eventually concluding that that he could no longer rely on a favourable wind, Linzee ordered the Ardent 64 to warp up through the gulf during the early hours of 1 October to a berth from where she could both attack the redoubt and provide cover for the other men-of-war as they approached. Having successfully gained her position, the Ardent opened fire on the redoubt at 3.30 a.m., but although she was joined thirty minutes later by the Alcide, Linzee’s pennant ship was suddenly caught by the feared gusts and thrust both perilously close to the Ardent and also towards the rocks. Just in time her sails were thrown aback and the squadron’s boats were able to tow her to safety. Noting the commodore’s predicament, the Courageux assumed the Alcide’s position, and this enabled her to provide cover for the commodore from the enemy’s shot as he warped into a position from which he could also direct his fire on the enemy works.

The British maintained their bombardment for some four hours, but their efforts made barely any impression on the redoubt, whilst conversely both the Courageux and Ardent suffered greatly under a raking fire from the nine 24-pounders and two mortars in the distant town of San Fiorenzo, these being the very cannon that Linzee had been assured were out of range. On at least four occasions the Courageux was set on fire by heated shot, and the Alcide herself was only saved from destruction when a seaman grabbed a wet swab to throw a red hot shot over the side. Having consulted all of his captains Linzee eventually had no option but to call off the bombardment at about 7.45a.m.

During this unsuccessful attack the Courageux had lost her first lieutenant, Ludlow Shiells, and one seaman killed whilst in the process of attempting to extract a red-hot shot from her hull, in addition to another thirteen men wounded. The Ardent had suffered casualties of fourteen men killed and seventeen wounded, and the Alcide had three men fatally wounded and another six injured.

In his despatch to Lord Hood Linzee blamed the failure of the attack on the erroneous information pertaining to the range of the cannon at San Fiorenzo, and on the failure of the Corsican patriots to adhere to a promise to attack the forts from the interior whilst the squadron were undertaking their bombardment from the sea. However, historians of the era would also blame Linzee for his failure to overcome the difficulties caused by the wind conditions, and for his delay in prosecuting a prompt attack.

Commodore Linzee s Squadron:

Alcide 74 Commodore Robert Linzee
  Flag Captain John Woodley
Courageux 74 Captain John Matthews
Ardent 64 Captain Robert Manners Sutton
Lowestoffe 32 Captain William Wolseley
Nemesis 28 Captain Lord Amelius Beauclerk