Napoleon’s elite troops faced the opposition with contempt.
But in three hours the Frenchmen were swept from the field.
Sailing from Palermo, the British army was to land behind the French, inspire Calabrian insurrection and perhaps help besieged Gaeta. Maida allowed it a two-month stay in Italy. Gaeta fell on 18 July 1806, a fortnight after the battle.
A battle in four phases, from 0800 to noon. Kempt drove off the sharp‑shooters sniping at his flank and dealt with Compere’s two battalions in one volley. Acland, facing 3-to-1 odds, got fire support from three 6pdr gun-teams and flank cover from Oswald which enabled him to rout five French battalions. Cole, hard-pressed by Reynier’s able combination of guns, cavalry and infantry, had the decisive help of the 550-strong 20th Foot led by Col. R. Ross, future captor of Washington in 1814.
Maida Vale is a famous district of London, but few know the reason for the name. It comes from the tiny village of San Pietro di Maida in Calabria, Southern Italy, where a small British army defeated a larger French force on 4 July 1806. It was the first such victory in five years and a London building contractor celebrated by naming the road he was constructing—Maida Hill. As the area was built up a Maida Vale Road was added which gave the name to the district.
What was a British force doing in the toe of Italy in 1806? The British Prime Minister, William Pitt, -decided to send an army into the Mediterranean to act with the Russians and Austrians against the French. A British force of about 7,000 men under Lieutenant-General Sir James Henry Craig rendezvoused at sea with 14,000 Russians. They landed in the Bay of Naples on 20 November 1805 to be greeted with the news of the Austrian capitulation to Napoleon at Ulm on 20 October.
The Bourbon Court of Naples was in disarray, its king ineffective and forceful Queen Carolina full of grandiose schemes. On 22 December came the news of Napoleon’s annihilating victory over the Russian and Austrian Emperors at Austerlitz. There was now no hope of opposing the 30,000 troops sent to reinforce the already considerable French army in Northern Italy. The Russians withdrew to Corfu; the Neapolitan Court and the British forces to Sicily. Shortly afterwards French forces occupied the whole of Italy except the fortress of Gaeta. They could not immediately obey Napoleon’s order to throw the Bourbons out of Sicily because of the presence of the British garrison there and the fact that they had no boats with which to cross the Straits of Messina.
The situation remained quiet for some months. In April 1806, Sir James Craig retired on grounds of ill-health and handed over the British forces in Sicily to the temporary command of 47-year-old Major-General Sir John Stuart. Craig also handed on an important order that the main task was to defend Sicily. Meanwhile the French were content to occupy the toe of Italy and build up very large stocks of guns, ammunition, and supplies for the moment when an invasion of Sicily became practicable.
Sir John Stuart was not a brilliant general but he showed a good deal of common sense. He was pestered by the Court of Naples, particularly Queen Carolina, to invade Calabria, being assured that the local population would immediately rise against the French. Many other weird suggestions were made to him for the employment of his troops. He withstood them all until, in June, he thought the French commander, General de Division Jean L. E. Reynier, had only small forces at his immediate command around Reggio Calabria. He also believed that the Calabrians would rise in revolt if a British force landed.
He embarked an army at Palermo made up of the troops detailed in the accompanying panel. It was difficult to carry animals in the transports available, so he took only 16 horses (for commanders and aides) and mules for eight mountain guns. In order to keep the force ‘light’ he ordered that the men’s packs be left in store in Sicily. Before the embarkation Stuart detailed the eight battalion companies of the 20th Foot to sail in felucca sailing boats along the coast past Reggio and Scilla, hoping to force Reynier to keep troops in those ports to counter this threat.
The Expeditionary Force
LIGHT BRIGADE (Kempt)
470-man Light Battalion (6 companies)
150 ‘Flankers’ (picked shots) from the 35th Foot
260 Corsican and Sicilian infantry (3 companies)
1ST BRIGADE (Acland)
650 Highlanders of the 78th Foot (all 10 companies)
600 men of the 81st Foot (8 battalion companies)
2ND BRIGADE (Cole)
500-man Grenadier Battalion (5 companies)
700 men of the 27th Foot (8 battalion companies)
3RD BRIGADE (Oswald)
650 men of the 58th Foot (8 battalion companies)
480 Swiss of De Watteville’s Regiment (all 10 companies)
The transports, escorted by the frigate Apollo and two smaller warships, anchored in the Bay of Euphemia during the night of 30 June. Orders were given to disembark at dawn, and at 0200 the Corsican Rangers and all seven grenadier companies, under the command of Brigadier-General John Oswald, were put ashore to form a beachhead. A few French soldiers withdrew to the woods as the boats approached but there was no opposition to the landing.
A probe inland was to have been made as early as possible by Lieutenant-Colonel James Kempt’s Light Brigade, but a large transport carrying it was late arriving at the anchorage. Realizing this, Oswald waited only to see boats of the second party reach the shore before moving off with his force towards the village of St. Euphemia.
The country away from the beach was very close, with small copses joined by thick undergrowth. The Corsican Rangers, scouting through it, were met with musketry fire and eventually driven back on the main body. Oswald advanced rapidly, attacked a party of 400 Poles with a few Frenchmen on both flanks and put them to flight. Several of the Poles were killed and 82 captured. Oswald moved on and occupied St. Euphemia without encountering further opposition.
The whole force was ashore by midday on 1 July, and was drawn up in a defensive position, incorporating a tower, the Bastione di Malta, with the right flank on the sea and the left on St. Euphemia. Several grenadier companies were pushed on as far as Nicastro. The landing of the guns, reserve ammunition, rations and stores was a slow and somewhat dangerous operation owing to the heavy surf, and it was not completed until the afternoon of the 2nd. Sir John had to wait for these stores, but he also waited for the Calabrians to rise in response to proclamations distributed among them. Except for the arrival of a few hundred ragged, ill-armed and totally undisciplined brigands, effective only for guerilla warfare, he waited in vain. The better-class Calabrians waited until the battle was won before they rose against the French.
Another reason for pausing was that Stuart knew nothing of the enemy’s strength or whereabouts. It was not until the morning of the 3rd that he heard that General Reynier had made a forced march from Reggio and was now bivouacked on the wooded slopes below the village of Maida, about eight miles away. Stuart reconnoitered the position in the afternoon and judged that it could only be attacked with hope of success on its left flank, the right being protected by thick brushwood and the center by the marshes of the river Lamato.
Nevertheless he felt that he must oppose the French rather than tamely re-embark, if only because of the many promises of support made to the Calabrians by the Court of Naples. Stuart’s information was that Reynier had about 4,000 men and that he was expecting another 3,000 gathered from various small garrisons. He therefore decided to attack early the next day while he still had a slight numerical superiority over the enemy. Orders were given for a dawn march. His appreciation of the enemy’s strength was at fault. Reynier, ignoring the threat posed by the 20th Foot in its feluccas, had marched directly upon Maida collecting all his outlying forces on his way. He faced Sir John with rather more than 7,000 infantry and 300 cavalry, which the British commander first knew about when he saw them deploying on the battlefield.
During the three-day wait, the engineers had constructed a trenched and sandbagged defensive position incorporating the tower, a precaution against the possibility of a re-embarkation under enemy pressure. This position was held by four companies of De Watteville’s Swiss Mercenary Regiment, with three of the six field-guns. Sir John’s plan was still to attack the French position on its left flank, and to do this he had to march his force along the coast to the mouth of the Lamato River. It set out at dawn in two parallel columns. The Light Brigade followed by Brigadier-General Galbraith Lowry Cole’s 2nd Brigade on the landward side; and the 1st Brigade of Brigadier-General Wroth Palmer Acland followed by Oswald’s reserve 3rd Brigade along the seashore.
The going was tough and progress slow, the landward columns floundering in marshy meadows and the seaward ones having to cope with sand and shingle. When both eventually reached the river they turned inland onto drier ground and marched parallel to the river until they came out into the wide plain of Maida, cultivated fields crossed by narrow drainage ditches. Here they deployed into line; Kempt on the right, Acland in the center, Cole on the left and Oswald in reserve behind the center and left. Kempt’s right was on the river and Cole’s left close to thickly bushed country: the three brigades formed a front of about one-and a-half miles.
Impregnable position abandoned
As they wheeled slowly into echelon of brigades the most surprising event of the day occurred. Reynier occupied a strong position, one which Sir John’s later dispatch judged almost impregnable. Yet the French commander, having studied every British move from his commanding height, left his position, descended into the plain and prepared to meet the invaders in a similar formation of echelon of brigades.
A satisfactory reason for this has never been given. The answer lay possibly in Reynier’s overweening sense of French world-wide superiority. With Napoleon’s awe-inspiring victories in Europe as an example, this view might be excused in most commanders, but Reynier had been defeated in 1801 by British infantry in Egypt and he was to be twice more defeated by them after Maida. He certainly thought that his troops in Egypt were demoralized at being deserted by Napoleon and that they only surrendered in order to get back to France. Now Reynier would revenge his defeat with three well-tried regiments of French veterans, the lere Legere (1st Light) being considered the finest infantry regiment in the French army.
Historians disagree about the French formation at Maida. Some confidently say that this battle was a foretaste of Wellington’s many defensive victories in the Peninsula, where the French advanced in column and the British met them in line. That was definitely not the case at Maida. The French left their camp in column but deployed on the plain long before the forces met. All accounts written by soldiers who fought in the battle show that two forces met line to line, the French three ranks deep, the British two deep. Though both armies’ regulations prescribed a three deep line, a third rank was virtually useless except for filling gaps in the first two and passing loaded muskets forward. The British, adopting a thinner two-rank formation, compensated for their inferior numbers by getting equal firepower.
Before the main action Kempt, whose right was on the shallow and easily fordable Lamato River, sent 200 Corsican Rangers to scour the bushes on the far side of the river to guard against ambush. They were backed up by the light company of the 20th. Almost immediately the Corsicans were met by the fire of two companies of tirailleurs. They fell back in some disorder, and the light company had a serious attack to contend with. Its commander was killed, and not until Kempt sent over the 150 ‘flankers’ of the 35th was the situation restored. The enemy broke and fled. The Corsican Rangers, now reformed, pursued them up the wooded hill towards Maida. The ‘flankers’ and the 20th returned to their brigade, where the latter took up a position of the right of the line.
Three battles in one
The main battle lasted less than three hours. It can conveniently be described in three phases, right, center and left, because each action was fought and completed almost independently of the rest. As the British were wheeling into line on their right, and the French were doing the same thing on their left, it was clear that the British Light Brigade’s right and French left (lere Legere) would meet while more distant formations were widely separated. It was now 0800.
The initial long-range volleys did little harm and both sides continued a slow advance. Then occurred one of two unusual accidents to have a decisive impact on the battle. Every man of the Light Brigade was carrying a blanket roll, worn horse-collar-wise over the shoulders. Kempt, realizing they would have greater freedom of action without these, gave the order to halt when scarcely 100 yards from the enemy. The front rank was ordered to face about, so that each man could lift off the blanket of his opposite number. The French saw the redcoats’ backs through the smoke left by earlier volleys and, being all too familiar with the sight of their enemies’ backs, thought that the British were in retreat.
Not stopping to halt and fire what could have been a damaging volley they came forward with the bayonet at the double. When only 30 yards separated the forces the Light Brigade, now back in its normal line, fired one devastating volley which turned thelere Legere into a panic stricken mob whose only wish was to escape up the scrub-covered hills behind them. General Compere, attempting to rally them, rode to the front and into the British line, but he was followed by only a handful of men all of whom were quickly killed or made prisoner.
Compere was wounded and captured. The Light Brigade pursued its beaten enemy to Maida and beyond, killing many and taking more prisoners. Highly satisfactory though this action had been tactically, it had the disadvantage of leading the whole of the brigade away from the battlefield, upon which it did not appear again. The 58th Foot from Oswald’s reserve brigade moved into ground vacated by the Light Brigade in order to protect Acland’s right flank.
Under-age and new to action
The center of the line was held by Brig.-Gen. Acland’s 1st Brigade with the 78th (Seaforth) Highlanders on the right and the 81st Foot on the left. At the request of Colonel MacLeod, the 78th had retained its light and grenadier companies, and was thus a full regiment; a request no doubt granted because about 400 soldiers in the battalion companies were under age and all were new to action. The French formations had been difficult to see because their cavalry rode up and down the front intentionally raising a cloud of dust that created an effective screen. At about 0900 they withdrew to their right and as the dust settled Acland was able to see General Peyri’s brigade advancing upon him. It consisted of the 42eme Legere and a second line in support containing two battalions of the Polish Legion and the 1st Swiss Regiment commanded by a cousin of Lieutenant-Colonel Louis de Watteville, who led the Swiss regiment on the British side.
The forces slowly closed and the French delivered the first volley, which, like much of the French musketry that day, was aimed too high and did little harm. Well-aimed volleys shot in exchange by the longer line of 78th and 81st, with artillery support from Major Lemoine’s three 6-pounder field-pieces, were sufficient to break the 42erne, which retired before it could be reached with the bayonet. Peyri now brought up his Poles and Swiss. The former behaved badly, and fell back in disorder before the advance of the 81st. The 78th fared differently, for now occurred the second accident of the day.
The ‘French Swiss’ were dressed in reddish jackets, and the 78th were ordered by their officers to hold their fire, thinking that the ‘British Swiss’ had come up to the front from Oswald’s reserve brigade behind. The ‘French Swiss’ were allowed to approach and fire a damaging volley which, if better aimed, might well have enabled them to breach the line. Once the Highlanders discovered in this unpleasant way that their ‘friends’ were their enemies. They fired a volley that stopped the Swiss short. They were about to follow up with the bayonet, when Acland, realizing that they had got well beyond the 81st, ordered them to halt until the line straightened out.
General Reynier sought to take advantage of their exposed position by bringing in the 23eme Legere from his right, but this unit was already too close to Cole’s 2nd Brigade for such a move, and the best he could do was to hold his position with reformed troops and part of the horse artillery and cavalry. Reynier was now in the unfortunate position of a commander who, expecting a walk-over victory, found that his left and center had been utterly defeated. His only hope was to win an engagement on his right, and to this end he gathered all the reserves he could muster and sent them, with his cavalry and some artillery, to reinforce General Digonet’s three battalions of the 23eme Legere facing Cole.
Cole’s brigade was still completing its wheel at an oblique angle to Acland’s front, delayed by constantly have to form square to confront cavalry. As Cole gradually moved up into line the opposition became stronger owing to the reinforcements Reynier was pushing across. The French artillery was doing more damage than hitherto; cavalry constantly threatened to charge; and the 23eme Legere, with the reserves Reynier had thrown in, considerably outnumbered the brigade. Added to all this, French sharpshooters were dispersed in the thick cover on Cole’s left, where they peppered the British line from the flank. Cole countered this nuisance by moving four companies of the 27th Regiment to their left front, facing the brushwood that concealed the tirailleurs. Stubble in which the rest of the 27th stood was set on fire by shells and the brigade shuffled uneasily. With ammunition getting scarce, the situation was the most critical of the morning.
Then came unexpected support. An officer rode up and told Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Bunbury, who was viewing the situation (as a staff officer) with some disquiet, that the 20th Foot’s eight battalion companies had landed near the mouth of the Lamato and were now marching to the sound of the guns. Bunbury immediately galloped off to meet them and explained the position graphically to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ross. With instant appreciation of what was necessary, Ross brought his column on at the double, scattered the French sharpshooters, and formed line a little beyond Cole’s left and at right angles to it. The 20th poured one volley into the French cavalry and massed infantry, following up this surprise attack with the bayonet to meet Cole’s troops who had also charged. The right wing of the French was defeated and put to flight and that was the end of the day, or rather, morning, for it was scarcely noon.
Left in the hands of the partisans
Fewer than 5,000 British soldiers had run more than 7,000 French off the field, killing 700 and making more than 1,000 prisoner—and leaving many of the helpless remainder to the local partisans for unpleasant liquidation. The British losses were 45 killed and 282 wounded. In the direct infantry fighting 3,880 redcoats had defeated 6,900 French, for Oswald’s 930-strong brigade was scarcely engaged.
Acland, Cole, Kempt and Oswald, each on that day fought his own battle, without orders and without support other than that which they rendered each other, with the exception of Bunbury’s action in hastening up the 20th to Cole’s support. A few years later in the Peninsular War, under Wellington, Cole and Oswald commanded divisions, and Kempt, as a major-general, a brigade of the Light Division. Acland commanded a brigade which held a key position in the battle of Vimeiro, before being invalided home.
The staff officers had been unable to bring their respective brigade commanders any orders during the action, but once it was over it was essential that the C-in-C should decide whether to pursue the enemy or remain on the field. He ordered that there should be no pursuit. Stuart has been criticized for this decision, but it is difficult to see what a pursuit would have gained. He had no cavalry, and it is an axiom of war that a fleeing enemy, discarding equipment and even weapons, will always outrun an orderly body of troops of the same arm.
The moral effect of Maida was profound and far-reaching. British troops on the open field had soundly beaten the elite of the French infantry. This delighted the British public, who were in need of a land victory; and it gave hope to all the European countries over whom Napoleon held sway. The myth that French troops were invincible had spread widely: Maida dispelled that myth. The French were shaken, never again did they treat British troops with such high-handed contempt.