Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sir Sidney Smith and the Siege of Acre - 1799

by M.M. Bennetts

One of the perennial features of British history from Tudor times onwards is the rivalry with France for maritime power and influence and colonial possessions.

This had already proved an economically crippling policy for France during much of the 18th century--it had spurred the Seven Years War during which France lost both her North American colonies and her navy, and it prompted the financing of the American Rebellion against Great Britain, which had ultimately bankrupted France and brought on the Revolution of 1789. Still, the French strategy of the day seems to be, why abandon a losing game?

In 1798, the young General Bonaparte convinced the Directory that conquering Egypt was the just the ticket to curb Britain's overseas expansion. It would give them a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean and they could wallow in their lust for ancient Oriental splendour and knowledge. What could be better? The Egyptian government was weak, disorganised and corrupt and therefore easy to topple, and their overlords, the Ottomans, weren't paying much attention anyway. Right?

Plus, with a charismatic leader like Napoleon, they could forge on up through the countries of the Middle East and seize Constantinople, thus bringing liberty, fraternity and all those good things to the enslaved peoples of the Ottoman Empire. And from there, press on in the footsteps of Alexander the Great all the way to India and challenge British influence there.

Yes, it would be the biggest land-grab in history, but what of that?

The Directory were delighted with the prospect of removing young Bonaparte from Paris (let him go off and be someone else's headache for a while)--he was getting too popular and he had the support of the army too. So they sanctioned the expedition.

There was of course the now-famous chase around the Mediterranean by Nelson and the Fleet which ended with the Battle of the Nile, during which Nelson destroyed the French fleet, thus marooning the French army in Egypt. For which victory Lord Nelson became the ultimate national hero. But I don't want to talk about that.

The person I want to talk about is Captain Sir William Sidney Smith (1764-1840), an Englishman of extra-ordinary cunning and intelligence. He was said to be "of middling stature, good-looking, with tremendous moustachios, a pair of penetrating black eyes, an intelligent countenance, with a gentlemanly air, expressive of good nature and kindness of heart."

He was a naval officer, yes, of great daring and flamboyance--his raids on the French coast are the stuff of legend. (He and Nelson were rivals.) But he was also a fine intelligence agent and in 1798, he was incarcerated in the high-security Temple Prison in Paris (running his spy ring from his cell there) at exactly the time Napoleon was gaining permission from the Directory for his Egyptian expedition.

On a panel of wood in his cell, Smith inscribed this, by Rousseau: "Fortune's wheel makes strange revolutions, it must be confessed; but for the term revolution to be applicable, the turn of the wheel must be complete. You are today as high as you can be. Very well. I envy not your good fortune, for mine is better still. I am as low in the career of ambition as a man can well descend; so that, let this capricious dame, fortune, turn her wheel ever so little--I must necessarily mount, for the same reason you must descend."

But Smith then made it personal for Bonaparte, and wrote: "I make not this remark to cause you any uneasiness, but rather to bring you that consolation which I shall feel when you are arrived at the same point where I now am--yes! at the same point where I now am. You will inhabit this same prison--why not as well as I? I no more thought of such a thing, than you do at present, before I was actually shut up in it."

On 24 April 1798, Smith escaped, courtesy of a daring raid by French Royalists.

Once free, he returned to Britain, and was dispatched to Constantinople in October 1798 (his brother was ambassador there), given command of the 80 gun battleship, Tigre, and full powers to command the effort against Napoleon in the Levant. Sultan Selim, in response to the incursion into his territory, had declared war on France. He also admired Smith very much and put him in charge of the sea and land forces being assembled for the purpose of driving the French out of the Levant.

So, fast-forward to January 1799.

Bonaparte and his French troops have conquered, so to speak, Egypt. He has set up a government to suit himself. He has robbed the place of as many antiquities and treasures as he can manage. He's ordered the slaughter of the Al-Azhar mosque and neighbourhood in response to their insurrection against him. The place is under martial law. His troops have been decimated by disease and dehydration. He has no transport to get his men back home. Clearly it's now time to swing into action up the east coast of the Mediterranean to take Constantinople and/or open up an overland route to India. Preferably both.

Up the coast the 13,000 French troops march, across the Sinai desert with little food and less water.

First stop Jaffa. Which they storm and take in an orgy of slaughter, killing civilians and soldiers alike, at the beginning of March. Once in control, the French provision themselves, but they also come into contact with bubonic plague (again).

Nevertheless, from there, they march up around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, arriving at Haifa on 17 March from which the citadel of Acre--long fought over during the Crusades--is visible by telescope. And across that stretch of blue water, Napoleon sees something he had not planned on: British battleships and Turkish gunboats in the harbour. (Their total control of the sea-lanes also means his transport ships carrying all his heavy siege guns were also seized and he was wholly deprived of news from home or from base-camp in Egypt.)

Yet still, determined to fulfill his destiny as the new Alexander (yes, he really did believe that!), Napoleon presses on and on the 18 March, the French take up their position before the walls of Acre.

The citadel at Acre is built on a promontory, with only one side facing land--the rest surrounded by water--and possessing a very neat little harbour.

Now the Governor of Acre had for the past 25 years been Pasha el-Djezzar. (Djezzar translates as either Butcher or Cutter--a soubriquet more than earned by his treatment of his enemies.) He had certainly talked big, and threatened all manner of savagery against the French when they were in Egypt, but he was rather inclined to abandon Acre once the chips were down. Smith talked him into staying on.

With one of the Royalist spies who had rescued him from the Temple--an engineer who had shared a desk with Napoleon at school, Louis-Edmond Phelippeaux--Smith and Djezzar had reinforced the walls and land-facing towers.

Still, under the constant battery of guns, the French dug their trenches and opened siege on 28 March with their field guns. They also sent an army officer under a flag of truce to demand surrender, but Djezzar threw him into prison.

When a breach was opened in the walls of one of the towers, the French were not only repulsed but also ran into a dry moat and found their scaling ladders were too short, hence they retreated under fire. Within days, they were running out of ammunition, so Napoleon offered rewards for cannonballs.

Djezzar offered a bounty for enemy heads.

By early April, the French had launched another assault which had failed, but more worryingly, the sappers had dug their trenches almost to the walls and were attempting to mine one of the towers.

A sortie by the British drove them off, but by mid-April they were back driving the mine under the tower. On the 24th, the mine was blown, but they'd miscalculated the position and only the front wall of the tower's lower storey had collapsed. French troops stormed the breach, but again were driven back.

Meanwhile, the Turks were sending reinforcements both by land and sea and Napoleon had to dash off to scatter the reinforcements in a series of skirmishes and battles, most notably the Battle of Mount Tabor. There is no doubt that here, the French fought bravely against overwhelming (but rather disorganised) odds.

Another mine had now been dug under the same tower (which they called the Cursed Tower). Yet again, the tower only partially collapsed and the storming French troops were pelted with rocks and grenades and finally repelled with powder kegs filled with burning mixtures of gunpowder and sulpher--they're known as stink pots, these missiles, for the clouds of acrid smoke they give off.

At last, the replacement siege guns which Napoleon had requested sent overland arrived at the end of the month. Though it took them six days to set them up, Smith was expecting defeat and wrote to tell the Admiralty so.

On the 7th May the newly installed French siege guns began pounding away and it seemed an end was inevitable.

But again, British seapower came to the rescue and that evening, ships carrying supplies and reinforcements arrived.

Napoleon, seeing this, and never a patient man, stepped up the bombardment and French troops finally occupied the the second storey of the Cursed Tower. But not for long.

In the morning, Smith himself led a party of Marine reinforcements and took back the breach, holding it until more reinforcements arrived. (This act of heroism shamed Pasha Djezzar and he ordered his own troops to stand and fight, which they did with rather frightening gusto.)

Meanwhile, Napoleon had been busy spreading propaganda--he was a master of it. And he'd had printed two sets of pamphlets, one for Christians and one for Muslims. For the benefit of the Christians, he claimed he was the natural successor of those great men, the Crusaders, and a defender of Christian faith. To the Muslims, he declared that he had already destroyed the power of the pope in Rome and the Knights of St. John in Malta and that he was the true defender of Islam.

Smith got hold of these. And ordered them distributed amongst the opposite factions of those for whom they were intended. Local goodwill dried up to parching.

He also had bundles of leaflets dropped into the French trenches offering on behalf of the Sultan a free passage out of Syria for any soldiers wise enough to lay down their arms.

Napoleon was incandescent, and wrote, "Smith is a crazy young man..."

Having survived the latest assaults and secure in the knowledge that the garrison was reinforced and supplied, Smith sat back (if you can call it that) and watched with enjoyment as the effects of his propaganda war took hold. The French position was now untenable.

Still, Napoleon was determined to have one more go--he'd never been defeated before...And on the 10th May, in the full glare of a sweltering Middle Eastern sun, the final French assault was launched. Though Napoleon wanted to lead it himself, he was persuaded not to. General Kleber led the assault, while Smith led the defence.

The French were beaten to a standstill and Kleber ordered a retreat.

And Smith, cheeky as ever, wrote to Napoleon: "General, I am acquainted with the dispositions that for some days past you have been making to raise the siege; the preparations in hand to carry off your wounded, and to leave none behind you, do you great credit. This last word ought not to escape my mouth--I, who ought not to love you, to say nothing more: but the circumstances remind me to wish that you would reflect on the instability of human affairs. In fact, could you have thought that a poor prisoner in the cell of the Temple prison--that an unfortunate for whom you refused, for a single moment, to give yourself any concern, being at the same time able to render him a signal service, since you were then all-powerful--could you have thought, I say, that this same man would have become your antagonist, and have compelled you, in the midst of the sands of Syria, to raise the siege of a miserable, almost defenceless town? Such events, you must admit, exceed all human calculations. Believe me, general, adopt sentiments more moderate, and that man will not be your enemy, who shall tell you that Asia is not a theatre made for your glory. This letter is a little revenge that I give myself."

Napoleon was beaten.

He cut his losses and on 20 May began the retreat to Egypt with his exhausted and ill troops, over a third of his original force either dead or disabled. Although he claimed victory when he returned to Cairo, by the end of August, he had abandoned his troops in Egypt, hurried back to France alone, proclaiming his venture a success, taking charge of the army, and before long, the nation.

In 1808, he ordered the demolition of the Temple prison--he said, because it had become a place of Royalst pilgrimage as both Louis XVI and Louis XVII had been held there. Others maintained it was so that Smith's prophecy could never come true and he would never be incarcerated there.

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at


  1. interesting account! nice to learn something about the individual rivalries involved with this campaign.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. What "spin" the discovery of the Rosette Stone allowed. for such a miserable campaign! And then to have all things Egyptian so fashionable. Surely Napoleon was the Emperor of Spin.

    1. Barbara Gaskell Denvil 29, 2012 at 10:37 PM

      Thanks so much - an extremely interesting article. I only know Acre from the British successes led by Lawrence of Arabia a good deal more recently so I am now delighted to learn more. I have long been fascinated by Captain Harry Smith of the Light Brigade who also fought against Napolean, and had another amazing life. Seems the Smiths were wonderful characters.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


    Thank you, I first heard of Sir Sidney Smith on this youtube channel. I think anyone who enjoyed this article might find it interesting. His letters to Napoleon are simply amazing and according to this youtubeube channel Napoleon considered Sir Sidney his greatest foe.


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