The Corsican Campaign – February to August 1794
Following the loss of Toulon to the French Republican forces in December 1793, there was an urgent need for the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Lord Hood, to find a base forward of Gibraltar for his operations. The continuing conflict on the island of Corsica, which had been annexed by France just twenty-five years earlier, appeared to offer him a quick opportunity to secure it. Not only was there a nationalist insurgency against the French Republicans in process on the island, but it also boasted several safe anchorages and a rich supply of raw materials that would help to maintain the British fleet on its station.
A previous expedition despatched by Hood in September 1793 under the command of his brother-in-law, Commodore Robert Linzee, had been unable to raise the island for the young King Louis XVII because the nationalists led by the veteran Pasquale de Paoli had failed to appear. It seemed that the islanders had been unhappy at the prospect of swapping their new French Republican masters for their old French Royalist masters. Early in January 1794 Hood despatched Lieutenant-Colonel John Moore and Major George Koehler as emissaries to Paoli, and an agreement was reached that involved evicting the French in return for the island becoming a self-governing colony of the Britain Empire. As soon as these officers returned on 23 January their encouraging reports allowed Hood and the senior Army officer present, Major-General Sir David Dundas, to implement their plans for the invasion of Corsica.
In order to gain control of the island the French would need to be ousted from the three main towns, these being San Fiorenzo, Bastia and Calvi. For some time Hood had been aware that the French garrisons were short of supplies, and he had increased their discomfiture by sending his cruisers to patrol between Calvi and Cape Corse on the French mainland so as to prevent any further provisions reaching the island. Meanwhile Captain Horatio Nelson of the Agamemnon 64 had made several diversionary raids on the Corsican coast, and on one occasion had burned a dozen vessels laden with wine whilst taking possession of another four.
Despatching the Ardent 64, Captain Robert Manners Sutton, and three frigates to cruise off Antibes in watch over eight thousand French troops who had congregated at Nice and were preparing to sail for Corsica under the protection of a small naval squadron, Hood left Vice-Admiral William Hotham with the bulk of the Mediterranean Fleet to maintain a loose blockade over the French fleet in Toulon and departed the Hyères Islands for San Fiorenzo Bay on the late afternoon of 24 January. With his flagship Victory 100, Captain John Knight, sailed some sixty vessels including army victuallers, troop transports and horse transports under the superintendence of the Gorgon 24, Commander James Wallis, not to mention over two thousand residents of
Toulon who had been evacuated from the French port on its abandonment to the vengeful Republicans.
By sunset on 25 January Hood’s expeditionary force was off the Isle Rousse on the northern coast of Corsica, about thirty miles to the west of San Fiorenzo, and that night the Juno 32, Captain Samuel Hood, was sent in to collect Lieutenant-Colonel Moore from an appointed rendezvous. Unfortunately, a storm got up on the next morning, and rather than enter San Fiorenzo Bay Hood’s gale-battered ships were forced to bear away eastwards for Porto Ferrajo on the island Elba. Here the pilot declined to con the Victory inshore due to the thickness of the weather, and thus the invasion force had to shelter in the lee of the island until the 29th when they were finally able to enter the anchorage.
Suitably replenished with bread and wine from Leghorn, and anxious to avoid any further delay, on the evening of 5 February Hood despatched Commodore Linzee to Corsica with his broad pennant flying aboard the Alcide 74, Captain John Woodley, in company with the Egmont 74, Captain Archibald Dickson, Fortitude 74, Captain William Young, Lowestoffe 32, Captain William Wolseley, and the Juno, together with the transports conveying the fourteen hundred troops who had been evacuated from Toulon under the command of Major-General Dundas. Two days later this force arrived in San Fiorenzo Bay to the west of Mortella Point, and the troops were landed that evening. Their first objective was to gain control of the formidable Mortella Tower which held a prominent position above the prospective British anchorage in the bay, and to that end Lieutenant-Colonel Moore began the process of hauling guns up the cliffs to erect batteries on the heights one hundred and fifty yards above the tower.
Next day, 8 February, and with the sea-breeze springing up at 1 p.m., the Fortitude and Juno under the guidance of Captain Woodley, who retained an expert knowledge of the bay from Linzee’s expedition in the previous autumn, moved in to lend their own guns to the bombardment of the tower. For two and a half hours the ships battered away without making any impression on the thick stone walls, and in return they were subjected to a withering delivery of heated shot from the skilled French artillerymen. Although Captain Hood managed to save the Juno from too much damage, the Fortitude suffered greatly, losing six men killed and fifty-six wounded, many of whom fell victim when a powder box received a direct hit and blew up. She was eventually required to retreat in flames with red-hot shot embedded in her hull, her mainmast much injured, three lower deck guns dismounted, and her shrouds torn asunder. Somewhat inspired by this mode of warfare, Lieutenant-Colonel Moore’s men fired up their own furnace and the next day began throwing heated shot down upon the tower from a new position of advantage. Eventually a fire broke out in the fortification and the garrison of thirty-three men surrendered on the 10th having suffered two men mortally wounded. Captain Wolseley then landed with a party of men to take possession.
The Martello tower near San Fiorenzo was the first target of the campaign
The key defence for the town of San Fiorenzo may have fallen to the British but there was still work to do. On 11 February Lord Hood, who had left Elba for Corsica the day after detaching Linzee, was forced to scurry for Cape Corse by a strong westerly wind, and thereafter a calm prevented his return to San Fiorenzo Bay until the 17th. By then the French had retired into the Convention Redoubt, a new heavily gunned fortification between Martello and Fornelli on the approach to San Fiorenzo. With their usual tenacity and skill in the use of blocks and ropes the seamen led by Captain Edward Cooke, who was temporarily without a ship, and Lieutenant John Gore of the flagship, hoisted four eighteen-pounder cannon, a large howitzer, and a ten-inch mortar along a precipitous track wide enough for but a single man to a rocky promontory above the French position. This allowed a thirty-six-hour bombardment to begin on the 16th, and an assault led by Lieutenant-Colonel Moore, assisted by Lieutenant Gore, carried the works in hand-to-hand fighting on the evening of the 17th. From the original garrison of five hundred and fifty men, some one hundred French became casualties and another seventy prisoners of war in return for losses to the assaulting force of seventeen men killed and thirty-six wounded.
On the following morning the indefatigable Gore took possession of the Fornelli fort following its evacuation by the French who had spiked their abandoned guns and retreated en-masse into the town of San Fiorenzo. Realising that on the unimpeded approach of Linzee’s ships the French were attempting to burn two frigates in the harbour, Gore managed to yank a spike out of one of the cannons and sink the Minerve 38 at her moorings. Sometime later she would be raised to the surface by the British and added to the navy as the San Fiorenzo 36. On the afternoon of the 19th the Fortunée 36 was successfully set on fire and destroyed by the French, and with the town also being abandoned shortly afterwards their forces were allowed to retreat some thirteen miles or so across the mountains for Bastia by the impassivity of the twelve hundred or so Corsican irregulars who failed to dispute their march. San Fiorenzo was occupied by British troops on the 20th, following which Captain Woodley was sent home with dispatches to arrive in Whitehall on 10 March.
The next target for the combined force was the capital of the island, Bastia, and from 23 February Hood paraded off the town in order to intimidate the garrison and collect intelligence preparatory to an attack. Returning to San Fiorenzo on 5 March, and already suffering from poor health, the admiral’s default lack of patience was severely tested by General Dundas’ perceived timidity in demanding that they await two thousand reinforcements from Gibraltar before proceeding with the campaign. It little helped that from the outset dissension had been rife between the two commanders, for whereas Hood’s Navy was quite happy to tackle superior enemy forces it could not, in the typically contemptuous opinion of the commander-in-chief, understand why the army failed to be of the same accord. This dispute, which had incubated at Toulon, then reached an unresolvable level of entrenchment when Lieutenant-Colonel Moore refused to accede to Hood’s entreaties to move on Bastia over his superior’s head, and thus Dundas felt it necessary to resign, being replaced by Colonel Abraham d’Aubant on 11 March.
On 7 April Captain Cooke arrived at the Admiralty to report that the French defences at Bastia, manned by an assortment of over four thousand five hundred loyal Corsicans, National Guard and regular troops, many of whom had marched across the mountains from the garrison at San Fiorenzo, were too formidable to attack, and that the British troops had been re-embarked pending reinforcements. However, notwithstanding the unexpectedly renewed vigour of the French resistance, Hood had begun to realise that the daily strengthening of the enemy positions and the threat of the potential relief force congregating at Nice meant that he could not afford to wait for the Army’s reinforcement, and with d’Aubant proving to be as unwavering as Dundas he decided that he would have to undertake an attack with the reduced forces at his disposal. When arriving at this decision he was guided to a great degree by the characteristically positive assessment of Captain Nelson, who with a squadron of six frigates under his command had been patrolling off Bastia, and who had ventured in so close on several occasions that his ships had been hit by the fire of the French batteries. Hood was not to know that Nelson, who would derisively be christened ‘The Brigadier’ by the sceptical senior army officers, had purposefully under-estimated the size of the French garrison in order to avoid what he considered would be the ‘National Disgrace’ of failing to take advantage of the opportunity to capture Bastia.
After taking aboard some thirty artillery men and enough soldiers to cover for his marines, Hood anchored his ships in a crescent off Bastia on 3 April and by noon the next day had disembarked a force of one thousand troops and marines, supplemented by two hundred and fifty seamen, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Vilettes of the 69th Regiment and Captain Nelson. An inshore squadron of gunboats and launches were sent to patrol off the harbour under the command of Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who had recently been superseded in temporary command of the Courageux 74 by her usual captain, Hon. William Waldegrave, and under Nelson’s uncompromising enthusiasm, not to say the amazement of the Corsican patriots and the dismay of the French garrison, eight 24-pounder heavy cannon from the Agamemnon and four mortars were dragged to the heights above Bastia. By the 11th this artillery was in place, and with Hood’s summons to the town being rejected a furious exchange of fire began with the enemy. On the same day the recently-captured Proselyte 32, Commander Walter Serocold, moved up towards the town to be employed as a floating battery, but unfortunately she could not maintain her anchorage in the heavy swell and she became subjected to a red-hot fire from the forts that set her alight. After hoisting the signal of distress, Serocold continued firing until it was no longer safe to do so, and all of the Proselyte’s crew were safely evacuated in the squadron’s boats before she eventually fell victim to the flames and burned down to the water-line
For the next ten days the British batteries continued their bombardment, but it was not as effective as had been hoped and the besieged French continued to resist. By 21 April a battery that had been opened within seven hundred yards of the town began to have a greater impact, but when Hood sent a message to d’Aubant on 25 April requesting him to join the attack the Army commander again refused to countenance any movement until the reinforcements from Gibraltar had arrived. With nothing to be done but starve the French out the siege entered its fifth week, and when the troop reinforcements did arrive at San Fiorenzo on 15 May Hood haughtily rejected d’Aubant’s offer to launch a joint attack, whereupon the colonel followed Dundas’ lead in resigning his command.
By then the French commander-in-chief had already fled Bastia, and on the 19th the beleaguered and starving defenders sent a message out asking for terms. Two days later Captain Young went ashore to return with representatives who were able to agree the terms of capitulation, and on 22 May, despite outnumbering their assailants by three to one, the troops in the town and citadel surrendered to be marched down to the mole and embarked for their agreed repatriation to France. During the siege the French had lost about two hundred men killed and five hundred and forty wounded whilst the British had lost fourteen men killed and forty wounded, the former including Lieutenant Cary Tupper of the Victory, a hero of the Toulon siege, who had been slain by a musket shot on 24 April at the age of 29. News then came through of a far greater loss, that of the Ardent 64, which had been monitoring two French frigates at Villefranche, and which it was presumed had blown up with no trace ever being found of her five hundred man crew.
Following the capture of Bastia Captain Anthony Hunt, whose Amphitrite 24 had been wrecked off Leghorn on 30 January, and who had commanded the batteries with Commanders Serocold and Joseph Bullen, was sent home with dispatches to arrive at the Admiralty on 8 June. The bestowal of this honour on an officer who was a friend of Lord Hood was much to the fury of Nelson who thought Serocold the far more deserving recipient. Meanwhile Lieutenant Gore, who had led a detachment of seamen from the Victory ashore, was rewarded with the rank of commander and an appointment to the sloop Fleche 14, which had been lying in the port.
Now only the heavily fortified stronghold of Calvi, which was on the north-west coast of the island and well protected by two superior forts, remained in enemy hands, and with the French apparently down to two weeks’ worth of provisions and little hope of the British blockade being run an early conclusion was expected. At this juncture there arose a threat to the campaign from the French Republic when it was learned on 9 June that Rear-Admiral Pierre Martin had left Toulon with the remnants of that port’s fleet, and so Hood withdrew the Victory, Illustrious, Fortitude and Agamemnon from Corsican waters to join the rest of his command under Hotham in the hope of bringing the enemy to battle. Whilst this interlude was occurring General Paoli accepted the hegemony and protection of the British, and on 19 June George III was declared King of Corsica and the future Lord Minto, Sir Gilbert Elliott, became his viceroy.
Meanwhile, whilst Hood was bottling up the French fleet in the Golfe Jouan, Nelson was sent back to Bastia after briefly taking on supplies at Gibraltar to embark the troops and command the naval brigade at the siege of Calvi. A far more active Army commander than those who had campaigned hitherto was appointed in the form of Lieutenant-General Hon. Charles Stuart, and he and Nelson soon formed an accord of purpose. On 15 June the troops were embarked on sixteen transports under the escort of the Agamemnon, the Lutine 32, Commander James Macnamara, and the hospital ship Dolphin 44, Lieutenant Richard Retalick, and at 10 p.m. on the 17th this force came to anchor three and a half miles to the west of Calvi and a mile offshore of a small cove near Port Agro. In the early hours of the next morning Nelson and Stuart went ashore to scout out a landing place, and deciding that there was no better location than their current one they began the process of landing the stores and men under the superintendence of Captain Cooke. But no sooner had this operation commenced than it was interrupted by a succession of huge thunderstorms, and many of the ships had to quit the anchorage to find safer waters. For the best part of forty-eight hours the fate of the men who had already been landed caused no small amount of concern to those offshore, not least Lord Hood, who had anchored in Martello Bay on the 19th having once more left Hotham in blockade of the Toulon fleet. These concerns soon proved to be baseless when was found that Nelson’s men, with the unwavering assistance of the towering Captain Hallowell, had ignored the downpours and already began the process of constructing roads across the mountains and hauling into position the cannon required to effect the bombardment of the two heavy forts that protected Calvi.
Five days after the invasion force’s initial arrival off Port Agro the weather began to moderate, and the landing of the remaining men and stores could be accelerated. Hood himself arrived off the cove on 27 June to land seven more cannons from the Victory, and at dawn on 4 July the batteries opened. Such was the effectiveness of the heavy barrage that within a couple of days the British were able to force the abandonment of the smaller of the two forts, Fort Mollinochesco, and to oblige two frigates that had been providing covering fire in the bay to retreat into the harbour. To balance these successes there was a significant British casualty in this early stage of the siege when Commander Serocold was one of seven men killed by grape shot whilst manoeuvring a gun into position at the leading battery.
With Fort Mollinochesco captured the next task was to drive the French out of the principle French defence, Fort Muzello, but the enemy, whose passivity had allowed the British landings to proceed without interruption at Port Agro, had apparently been invigorated with a new defiance, and their fire soon put two of the Agamemnon’s 24-pounder cannon out of action. Ever in the thick of the action, Nelson was struck in the face by grit and sand thrown up by an enemy cannonball on the morning of 12 July, with unfortunate consequences for the sight of his right eye. Nevertheless, with cannon from the ex-French first rate Commerce de Marseilles 120 being landed, and with a spirit bolstered by the news of Admiral Lord Howe’s victory over the Brest fleet at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, the invasion force prevailed through the hot summer days despite exhaustion and a fever that laid low over a thousand men to leave a bare four hundred in action. On 18 July, after twelve days of relentless cannon fire, Fort Muzello was stormed by the Army and captured in ferocious close-quarter combat.
Thereafter the town of Calvi itself was relentlessly bombarded at close range, and with the French rejecting another summons the erection of batteries within six hundred and fifty yards of the city walls took place. A replenishment of the besieged garrison by four vessels which ran the British blockade on 28 July gave the defenders some hope, as did the sickness that was known to be ravaging the besieging forces, but when it became clear that the French ammunition was running low another summons was sent in on 31 July, and on this occasion a six-day ceasefire was agreed. This was merely a prelude to the surrender of Calvi on 10 August, whereupon the whole island came under Corsican patriot and British control. Under the terms of the capitulation the French garrison was repatriated to France, somewhat to the fury of the Corsican patriots. Thirty men had been killed during the siege including Commander Serocold, and another fifty-nine wounded, but malaria and disease had also taken their own toll and amongst the dead was a protégé of Nelson, Lieutenant James Moutray, the 21- year old son of the late Commissioner John Moutray.
Under Captain Wolseley’s superintendence the frigates Melpomène 36 and Mignonne 32, the former of which on the previous 22 October had engaged in a running fight with Nelson’s Agamemnon to the west of Sardinia before being rescued by four compatriot frigates, were boarded in the harbour and added to the navy. Meanwhile Captain Charles Cunningham, who had succeeded to the command of the Lowestoffe and partaken in the siege of Calvi, was sent home with dispatches to arrive in London on 1 September. Nelson, typically, but not without foundation, bemoaned his exclusion from Lieutenant-General Stuart’s dispatches announcing the victory at Calvi.
The campaign to capture Corsica had been a bloody and lengthy one, and with the entry of Spain into the war as an ally of France in August 1796 it proved to be somewhat immaterial, for at that point the defence of Gibraltar became paramount. By then bittering factions had split the Corsican nationalists, and with the victorious French armies in Italy extending their influence over the island the British garrisons were withdrawn in October 1796 prior to Admiral Sir John Jervis, the new commander-in-chief, withdrawing the whole fleet from the Mediterranean two months later.