The British invasion of Corsica in 1794 resulted in the creation of the British Martello Tower, a corruption of Cape Mortella on Corsica, where an armed tower held a garrison of French troops that put up a spirited resistance to the invasion.
As the first year of the war against France drew to a close, Britain and her allies confronted general uncertainty, with a stalemate on land and a lack of any result upon sea. The broad situation that the British parliament surveyed as it met at the end of January 1794 offered little of immediate prospect to build upon, with scant gain so far against the turbulent power that commanded France.
France’s rush against Holland and Belgium had been held. But strong doubts were arising concerning the staying power and involvement of Prussia, which remained preoccupied with Poland and territories it wanted there. Austrian mistrust of Prussia was deep and growing. The coalition and its military thrust appeared stalled. So it would remain, deep into 1794, accompanied by increasing anxiety about the rising strength, cohesion and success of the French army under the organizing vitality of Carnot.
The spirited new French army was everywhere demonstrating its recovery. Across the south the anti-Jacobin revolt had been fully suppressed. But for the British it was the failure at Toulon and the lack of any line ship action in the western approaches during 1793 that had provoked real dismay.
The overall strategy for the Continent visualized by Pitt was destruction of the Jacobin government. This was seen as the most likely means of terminating the war. The Austrians preferred it as the quickest solution and it was agreed that Paris should therefore be the target of a new campaign. But who would bear the fullest burden of the cost of it all, particularly the huge Austrian and Prussian armies?
The formula taking shape was the traditional one in which a Britain weak in land forces and chary of committing those she possessed to Continental warfare instead contributed to the costs of others or paid for mercenaries who fought on her behalf. But the picture that was forming even in late 1793 already hinted that the position against France might not hold even on that familiar basis. Weighing it up, Britain at the start of 1794 could, with perspicacity, recognize the other side of that situation, something equally familiar, which was that somewhere along she might find herself on her own. And that brought her back where her own certainties dwelled, what she felt sure of: the sea and her navy. But in January 1794 anxious questions touched that as well.
Earl Howe’s failure to bring the French grand fleet to battle sat badly upon the nation as a whole. The British public wanted battle from its navy. They wanted it in their home waters, where their real security lay. They wanted the assurance of it in a war the direction and balance of which no one yet could properly fathom. It was from the navy, so closely tied to British emotion and sentiment and conviction of destiny, that some positive assurance was required. Some affirmation of British naval mastery was needed to alleviate the ingrained fear of invasion.
Whatever the outcome on the Continent there had to be assurance that the navy retained its full capability of defending Britain’s shores, her primal defence, while maintaining its dominance upon the broad oceanic strategic picture, the source of Britain’s power and wealth.
The man committed to the latter was Secretary of State for War Dundas, a hard, ruthless, greedy Scot who later, as Lord Melville, head of the Admiralty, was to face a difficult trial in parliament on charges of corruption.
He effectively dominated colonial policy under Pitt. Unlike Pitt, he upheld slavery and the slave trade, attracting the implacable hostility of the Evangelical Abolitionists. It was symptomatic of Pitt’s broadly balanced position in the fractured society of late-eighteenth-century Britain that as Prime Minister he was equally comfortable in his working relationships with such different characters and viewpoints.
Dundas had already declared that in this war he never wanted to have to choose between colonial defence and that of the Continent. Here was the revived voice of Chatham, Pitt the Elder. For Henry Dundas, too, if forced to choose, his priority would ever be oceanic, attached to colonial possession and trade rather than Continental Europe. In early 1794 his colonial focus was anxiously fixed upon the West Indies.
After Britain’s loss of the American colonies and France’s loss of Canada, the West Indies had become the focal point of colonial interests. The West Indies stood as the immediate indispensable source of colonial wealth. Troops that would have made a big difference at Toulon were mustered for the West Indies instead. Departure of the Indies force was delayed until the end of November, after deployment to the French coast in the futile attempt to give assistance to the rebellion in La Vendée. Finally, on 27 November 1793, a powerful squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir John Jervis, bearing seven thousand troops under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Grey, sailed from St Helens for a winter crossing of the Atlantic.
The loss of Toulon signified something greater than the loss of the base itself. After sweeping away rebellion in the south, the French now had what they called the Army of Italy, a new threat to all the British allies along the coasts of the Ligurian Sea. Sardinia, Genoa, Leghorn (Livorno) and, though much more distantly, Naples and Sicily, all suddenly looked more vulnerable.
This was what Hood contemplated in January 1794, as his fleet lay anchored in its retreat at Hyères Bay, just a few miles from Toulon. Hood had lost the place that Marlborough in his war had considered being the key to Mediterranean and trans-Alpine military action. French success in the south of France and French pressure on the Austro-Sardinian forces around and beyond the Alps meant that Marlborough’s Mediterranean strategy had become as relevant to this war as it had been to his.
Unhappily for Hood the French fleet at Toulon and the extensive naval facilities there, the command base of French power on the western Mediterranean, would soon be restored.
Hood required a new base to cope with that. It had to be somewhere accessible to supplies, where storage depots could be maintained and ships repaired and refitted. And from where Austrian and Sardinian military operations could be supported. Hood looked at his maps and with Corsica lying large before him it was the obvious choice. It offered good harbours, easy provisioning and, best of all, plenty of timber for ship repair.
Corsica, formerly the possession of Genoa, had been ceded to France in 1768. It was the Genoese connection that had given Napoleon Buonaparte his Italian antecedents. The nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, was fighting the French and had already asked George III to take the island under British protection. In 1793 his partisans had established positions of strength across much of this wild, mountainous island, but the French commanded its principal strategic bases.
The objective for Hood would be the large bay of San Fiorenzo at the northern end of Corsica. Fiorenzo was the natural shelter for a fleet with defensive outposts at the fortresses of Bastia and Calvi. With these three points taken from the French, the British navy would cover the most vitally strategic stretch of coast in the entire Mediterranean, the Ligurian coast.
Fiorenzo lay a mere two hundred or so kilometres directly south of Genoa across the Ligurian Sea. Within easy reach stretched the entire coastline from Toulon to Elba. Apart from Toulon itself, this reach embraced such diverse points as Nice, Genoa, Spezia and Leghorn. A tight blockade of Toulon would be maintained with French trade and supply through Genoa and Leghorn to Corsica equally tightly controlled, if not curtailed.
To Captain Nelson, Hood promptly delegated the task of preparation for this critical offensive through which British command of the Mediterranean might become absolute. The zeal with which Nelson committed himself to his new task indicated his own conviction of that. From the last days of the old year into the first weeks of the new he had been blockading the Corsican coastline to lock in the French ships at their Corsican anchorages and to deny the French army its supplies. Two French frigates were destroyed at their anchorage. Garrison stores on land were destroyed by Agamemnon’s guns from the sea. Supply ships were captured. Nelson in short time made himself master of the coast around Bastia. Agamemnon’s sailors began to regard themselves as ‘invincible, almost invulnerable’, he wrote to his wife. ‘They really mind shot no more than peas.’
The first assault on Fiorenzo nevertheless failed. Hood suspected treachery from islanders who, though fighting the French, were ever hostile to any invaders of their shores. On 12 January Hood sent a delegation from the fleet to Corsica for new discussions with Paoli at his base. The party consisted of two army officers and Sir Gilbert Elliot, who was to represent Britain on the island. The group reported favourably and Hood immediately sailed for Fiorenzo from Hyères Bay.
As the siege of Fiorenzo began sailors undertook the task of reducing one of the outlying fortifications, Forneilli, whose guns covered Fiorenzo. Forneilli was a formidably fortified redoubt that appeared to defy any form of assault. Its natural defence, height and steep access, was the common one of a place as ruggedly mountainous as Corsica. It was dominated, however, by a rock-like projection, several hundred feet above sea level, which the French had failed to fortify, in an apparent belief that it was inaccessible. The ascent to the top appeared close to perpendicular in places, seldom much wider than what allowed one person to stand. But up that path the sailors dragged the heavy guns brought ashore to form a battery, from which they poured shot upon Forneilli, forcing the French to retreat into Fiorenzo. Getting the guns to the top was an astonishing feat of strength, endurance and determination, a tough accomplishment of a kind not at that time associated with naval sailors. But the precedent had been set at Toulon, where a naval officer had led the invading force ashore and where artillery had similarly been hauled to the heights and manned there by sailors.
Nelson initiated on Corsica the sort of sailor landings and land operations that would become a frequent and indispensable form of naval assault throughout this war. On Corsica those provided the fuller action and excitement that Nelson had been craving. Toulon had denied him action, although many of his own sailors had been taken ashore to fight. Corsica at once promised something different, and delivered it. This sudden licence for what Nelson relished most, independent action, enlivened him. He wrote to his wife, ‘I have not been one hour at anchor for pleasure in eight months; but I can assure you I never was better in health.’
Hood’s dependence upon Nelson mounted steadily. Certainly he would have found no one else with the same zest for what was allocated to him. All of it resounds from Nelson’s correspondence at the time. Hood, he said, trusted his ‘zeal and activity’. On the business of contacting and conferring with Paoli, ‘This business going through my hands is a proof of Lord Hood’s confidence in me, and that I shall pledge myself for nothing but what will be acceptable to him.’
On 19 February the French abandoned Fiorenzo and retreated to Bastia. That same day Nelson had gone ashore with sixty troops and marched to within three miles of Bastia. He was surveying Bastia’s defences at the time of the Fiorenzo assault and delivered an exhaustive report on the fortifications, their vulnerabilities and on how the place might be taken. That task became the fire in his mind.
Hood’s faith in Nelson had reached the point where he took care to avoid placing a senior captain over him on these Corsican operations, the next phase of which, Bastia, was thus entirely entrusted to Nelson, who now had six frigates under his command.
Closing off Bastia was vital. From Bastia across to Leghorn offered the shortest direct passage between Corsica and the mainland. It was therefore the main supply point for the French. Bastia was a walled town of ten thousand inhabitants with a citadel at its centre. The main fortifications were along the sea front, with others in the hills above guarding the approaches from Fiorenzo. The high batteries would also intimidate any force that might manage to seize the town. But Nelson was all for rushing and taking the place at once. He had examined landing places near Bastia and believed that troops and cannon could be landed with great ease on level country south of the town. His reports went over almost daily from Agamemnon to Hood aboard Victory lying off Fiorenzo. He reported that the French were ceaselessly strengthening the defences of Bastia. Nevertheless, ‘Bastia, I am sure, in its present state, would soon fall,’ he wrote to Hood.
On 23 February Nelson decided on close reconnoitre and bombardment of Bastia from the sea. It was to be a studiedly slow-paced challenge to Bastia’s firepower from his frigates, led by Agamemnon. ‘I backed our main top-sail and passed slowly along the town.’ Twenty-seven identifiable guns and four mortars firing from the shore, the heights and the town itself commenced pouring shot and shells upon the small fleet of frigates. The cannonading between ships and shore lasted nearly two hours. Although every ship was struck not a man was killed or wounded aboard any of them.
During the action British troops appeared on the heights above Bastia. They were under Lieutenant General Sir David Dundas, who had commanded the military at Toulon. He was a close relative of Minister Henry Dundas, to whom he sent ‘whining’ letters that the ever-optimistic Dundas contemptuously rejected. The troops had come over on the twelve-mile land route from Fiorenzo. They made no move down to attack from the heights.
The appearance of the military raised impatient reflection with Nelson. In a letter to his wife detailing the events of that day he said, ‘If I had carried with me five hundred troops, to a certainty I should have stormed the Town, and I believe it might have been carried. Armies go so slow, that Seamen think they never mean to get forward; but I dare say they act on a surer principle, although we seldom fail. You cannot think how pleased Lord Hood has been with my attack…’ In a letter to his brother on the same event he gave the army less allowance: ‘Our troops are not yet got to work. I can’t think what they are after.’
What he himself was after, now even more determinedly so, was to do what he felt the army was failing to do. Hood, in remarkable concurrence with such precipitate possibility of conflict between the two services, was swiftly of the same mind. But when Dundas brought his troops back down to Fiorenzo, Hood sought to persuade him to return and attempt to take Bastia. Dundas refused. He believed that starvation by blockade would in due course bring submission, without the loss of life that would result from direct assault. And, he forcefully asserted, Hood indubitably would be of the same opinion were the whole responsibility of such an attack to rest upon his shoulders.
‘Nothing would be more gratifying to my feelings, than to have the whole responsibility upon me,’ Hood coldly corrected.
‘What the general could have seen to have made a retreat necessary, I cannot conceive,’ Nelson wrote in his journal. ‘I wish not to be thought arrogant, or presumptuously sure of my own judgment, but it is my firm opinion that the Agamemnon with only the frigates now here, lying against the town for a few hours with 500 troops ready to land…would to a certainty carry the place. I presumed to propose it to Lord Hood and his Lordship agreed with me.’