CONQUEST OF CORSICA II

Hood agreed that Nelson might take the town with five hundred troops backed by three ships of the line from Hood’s squadron but doubted that Nelson could take the heights as well. Hood therefore went back on shore from Victory two days after his first meeting with Dundas to press the matter with him again. But he got no further: Dundas refused even more vehemently than before, declaring that an attack on Bastia was impracticable without the reinforcement of two thousand troops requested from Gibraltar, adding ‘I consider the siege of Bastia, with our present means and force, to be a most visionary and rash attempt, such as no Officer could be justified in undertaking.’ Dundas’s force consisted of sixteen hundred regulars and 180 artillery men. Nelson’s estimate of the strength of the French in Bastia had been one thousand regulars and fifteen hundred ‘irregulars’, the latter Corsicans.

Hood’s written reply to Dundas was sharply edged: ‘I must take the liberty to observe, that however visionary and rash an attempt to reduce Bastia may be in your opinion, to me it appears very much the reverse, and to be perfectly a right measure…and I am now ready and willing to undertake the reduction of Bastia at my own risk, with the force and means at present here, being strongly impressed with the necessity of it.’2

Faced by that intractable declaration of intent Dundas resigned his command. Unfortunately for Hood the successor to the command, General d’Aubant, shared Dundas’s views. And he unrelentingly stuck by them. He not only refused soldiers for an assault on and siege of Bastia but also withheld from Hood mortars, field guns and ammunition from the stores he controlled at Fiorenzo. Hood was compelled to send to Naples for the materiel he lacked. But he exercised his own powers by recalling on board his ship’s soldiers from four regiments who had previously been allocated to him to do temporary service as marines and whom he had loaned to Dundas for the capture of Fiorenzo. Since these soldiers were now registered as part of the complements of the ships aboard which they were quartered d’Aubant was unable to refuse to release them.

The siege of this remote Corsican fortress of Bastia became bitter infighting between the Royal Navy and the army. With the soldiers under d’Aubant’s command confined to their garrison in Fiorenzo, this was the navy’s war or, so to speak, Hood’s and Nelson’s personal campaign. For Nelson, Bastia had to fall, and soon. To him the attitude of the army in refusing to join with Hood in the assault was incomprehensible. ‘Not attacking it I could not but consider as a national disgrace. If the Army will not take it, we must, by some way or the other.’

Through March Nelson maintained the blockade of Bastia, with Agamemnon riding out near-continuous gales and thick weather. From his storm-lashed quarterdeck Nelson angrily watched the town daily strengthening its defences: ‘…how that has hurt me’. Some of the hardship he was imposing upon Bastia was being experienced aboard Agamemnon as well. On 16 March he reported to Hood, ‘We are really without firing, wine, beef, pork, flour and almost without water: not a rope, canvas, twine or nail in the ship…We are certainly in a bad plight at present, not a man has slept dry for many months.’ As postscript to that same note in his journal he added, ‘But we cheerfully submit to it all, if it but turns out for the advantage and credit of our country.’ Holding on was critical for Nelson personally, his fear being that if Agamemnon were compelled to go to Leghorn for stores he would lose his own role in the attack on Bastia. He was in something like near panic over missing out on another land operation, one so closely involving his own efforts and persuasion. He put it to Hood, ‘My wish is to be present at the attack of Bastia; and if your Lordship intends me to command the Seamen who may be landed, I assure you I shall have the greatest pleasure in doing it, or any other service where you may think I can do most good: even if my ship goes into port to refit, I am ready to remain.’ Hood responded and Agamemnon’s deficiencies were supplied from the squadron and other sources.3

Nelson, together with an army artillery officer and an army engineer, then made steady reconnaissance ashore to decide landing beaches and sites for batteries northward of Bastia. He pitched a tent on a beach with the union flag hoisted above it, and was thereafter in continual movement between tent and Agamemnon. His presence on land was constant because his sailors, with others from the squadron, were building batteries, clearing roads and hauling guns and ammunition to the batteries. Like the earlier effort, it was a phenomenal task dragging guns up those rocky and precipitous heights, requiring physical strength and stamina that astonished all who witnessed it. ‘It is very hard service for my poor seamen, dragging guns up such heights as are scarcely credible,’ Nelson wrote. And, after his sailors had dragged guns to a pinnacle just seven hundred yards from the town, he described it as a feat ‘which never, in my opinion, would have been accomplished by any other than British seamen’.

Hood took full command on 4 April, though preparation for the siege remained with Nelson. By 11 April three batteries equipped with sixteen heavy guns and mortars were ready to open fire on Bastia. Hood sent in a flag of truce demanding surrender. The answer he got from La Combe St Michel, Corsica’s commissioner, was defiant: ‘I have hot shot for your ships and bayonets for your troops. When two-thirds of our troops are killed, I will then trust to the generosity of the English.’

The battle for Bastia began at once. Navy and Bastia began pouring shot and mortars upon one another. The cannonade was immense. From commanding positions over the town, the citadel and the outworks five British 24-pounders, four mortars and two heavey carronades poured their fire while the ships opened up from the sea. Thus it was to remain through April and on into the third week of May. Bastia continued to hold out defiantly, in spite of the destruction raining upon it and the starvation afflicting its garrison and populace.

Bizarrely, throughout the campaign General d’Aubant and his officers had simply stood by as interested observers.

On 19 May the French asked for negotiation. A boat went from Victory to the town. ‘The enemy met us without arms, and our officers advancing, they shook hands, and were good friends: they said it was all over, and that Bastia was ours,’ Nelson recorded in his journal. General d’Aubant and the soldiers from Fiorenzo simultaneously appeared on the hills above the town. They were there because reinforcement had just arrived from Gibraltar. They then proceeded to occupy Bastia and all its outposts.

The garrison was far stronger than Hood believed and had held out longer than expected. Nelson, however, had known. He knew it two months before the siege began. Here, then, was the near-fearful recklessness that ever pulsed in this extraordinary man. He had got the information from a packet boat intercepted by Agamemnon. The mailbag on board contained a letter from Corsica’s commissioner, General La Combe St Michel, declaring that he needed subsistence for eight thousand French and Corsican soldiers. This was four times as many as estimated by Nelson and Hood, but Nelson kept that critical information to himself. He rightly believed that disclosure would set Hood against any assault against Bastia. It would embarrassingly confirm Dundas’s verdict that such an attack would be ‘visionary and rash’. Failure to attack had been insufferable to Nelson. It went wholly against his disdain for holding off and failing to try. There was as well the conviction that his sailors could master any situation given the proper leadership and motivation.

Had he persuaded Hood into the sort of landing that he had cried out for at the start it could have finished them both, for they likely would have suffered heavy loss in the attack. This provided illustration of the length to which Nelson was prepared to go, whatever the risk and circumstances, to ensure action for himself. It worked at sea, and much of his future glory would be based upon it. But he never learned the point that Napoleon, in his memoirs, made on the difference at battle scene between land and sea: ‘A marine general has nothing to guess; he knows where his enemy is, and knows his strength. A land general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy plainly…When the armies are facing each other, the slightest accident of the ground, the least wood, may hide a party of the hostile army. The most experienced eye cannot be certain whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army, or only three fourths of it…The marine general requires nothing but an experienced eye; nothing relating to the enemy’s strength is concealed from him.’4 A year after Bastia had fallen Nelson was to confess, ‘I never yet told Lord Hood that…I had information given me of the enormous number of troops we had to oppose us; but my own honour, Lord Hood’s honour, and the honour of our country must have all been sacrificed, had I mentioned what I knew.’5 He had been prepared for that risk, and would be again. And in his correspondence on this matter he described as well as he ever would the settled principles that drove him: ‘I feel for the honour of my country, and had rather be beat than not make the attack. If we do not try we can never be successful…My reputation depends on the opinion I have given; but I feel an honest consciousness that I have done right. We must, we will have it, or some of our heads will be laid low. I glory in the attempt,’ he told his wife in one of his many assertive letters at the time. Or, on another occasion, ‘My disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures.’ Also, ‘…our country will, I believe, sooner forgive an officer for attacking his enemy than for letting it down’. And, in response to his wife’s continual fears over his safety, ‘Only recollect that a brave man dies but once, a coward all his life long.’

At all events, Bastia had been won. He and his sailors had done it. ‘The more we see of this place, the more we are astonished at their giving it up,’ Nelson said. Starvation was probably the greatest factor in compelling early surrender. On that point at least General Dundas has been insightfully correct.

The surrender and occupation of Bastia and its fortifications were complete by 22 May. The army had taken over, under Lieutenant Colonel Villettes, and for Nelson what had been his operation no longer was. An attack was about to be launched against the other fortress, Calvi, and he saw his own role diminished and uncertain. Although Hood had allowed Nelson a free hand while the army held off, he had never in any way defined Nelson’s command. In the new circumstances Nelson saw himself at a disadvantage with the army. He was, he said in a letter home, ‘everything, yet nothing ostensible’.

Nelson then put his unease to Hood: ‘Your Lordship knows exactly the situation I am in here. With Colonel Villettes I have no reason but to suppose I am respected in the highest degree…but yet I am considered as not commanding the seamen landed. My wishes may be, and are, complied with; my orders would possibly be disregarded. Therefore, if we move from hence, I would wish your Lordship to settle that point.’

Hood gave sympathetic acknowledgement without, however, issuing any decisive clarification of the sort Nelson wanted. Hood had already had too many difficulties with the army without inviting more. The idea of conceding clearly defined authority to Nelson as his man there may have raised fear in Hood of Nelson’s impatience and impetuosity provoking trouble with the army.

For Hood defeat at Toulon had been followed, after much uncertainty, by triumph at Fiorenzo and Bastia. Towards Calvi all now directed their attention. There was no basis for doubting another imminent triumph there as well. Hood was in poor health and expected soon to be going home. He would wish to return expecting the sort of salutation and honours that these successes would ensure. He now possibly believed that Nelson’s energetic and impulsive bravado needed to be subdued. Hood was by this time certainly aware of the possible loss that might have been suffered had he yielded to Nelson’s early impetuous conviction that Bastia might be won by merely five hundred seamen. Nevertheless, he had benefited in the end from that impetuosity. What Hood’s reputation had gained here he owed to Nelson. Difficult therefore to understand what Hood now officially delivered concerning Nelson’s part at Bastia.

Aboard Victory lying off Bastia, on 22 May Hood wrote his first report, his general order of thanks directly to the participants in the action. It was brief, direct. ‘The commander in chief returns his best thanks to Captain Nelson…as well as to every officer and seaman employed in the reduction of Bastia…’ But when Hood sat down and composed his official report to the Admiralty his tributes were framed differently.

Hood’s report to Admiralty began with particularly fulsome praise for ‘the unremitting zeal, exertion and judicious conduct’ of Colonel Villettes. As for the other army officers, ‘their persevering ardour, and desire to distinguish themselves, cannot be too highly spoken of; and which it will be my pride to remember to the latest period of my life’. Then, ‘Captain Nelson, of His Majesty’s ship Agamemnon, who had the command and direction of the seamen, in landing the guns, mortars and stores; and Captain Hunt, who commanded at the batteries…have an ample claim to my gratitude; as the seamen…’ This praise for Hunt particularly riled Nelson, for Hunt was a protégé of Hood who had made minimal contribution to their success.

Apart from the spareness of the praise in comparison with that which extolled the army officers, for Hood to have so limited Nelson’s part in all of it to that of a mere supervisor of the landing of guns and stores coldly denigrated the whole of Nelson’s extraordinary achievement there, ignored Hood’s own faith in and dependence upon him, dismissed the boldness and endurance that had helped to establish their very presence on the Corsican coast.

Lord Nelson, John Hoppner, c.1805. RNM. The Corsican campaign is often credited as the first in which Nelson rose to prominence within the Royal Navy

Like the others, Nelson saw Hood’s initial congratulatory General Order at once. But it would be several weeks before copies of the Admiralty report reached him. When it did it was to be a jolting shock. Regardless of that brutal insensitivity and lack of consideration, it was nevertheless Hood’s gift of responsibility on Corsica that finally meant everything. For here on Corsica in the first half of 1794 began the remarkable ascendancy in this war of this unique character, Horatio Nelson. So much of what was to mould his greater role in such a determining war was cast here. In Corsica Nelson drew upon himself the sort of command he sought in which to exercise his independence and express the individuality so vital to him. The conquest of Corsica was Nelson’s achievement. Land battle thus arrived before sea battle for Nelson in this war. He had had his first action at sea, a small encounter on the way to Tunis, but what he ardently longed for was to be part of the confrontation between the French and the British navies on that large and decisive scale that might settle the issue on this sea and on the ocean beyond. That was yet distant.

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