The man who made Napoleon miss his destiny in the East - Sir Sidney Smith

21 June 1764, Rear Admiral Sir Sidney Smith was born in Westminster, one of the most raffish naval officers, celebrated most for his support during the Siege of Acre against Napoleon.

“That man made me miss my destiny" (Napoleon Bonaparte)

Somewhat romantic view of Acre by F. Spilsbury with Smith's "Tigre" and a picturesque dhow in the foreground

It was, naturally, below the dignity of an officer and gentleman to actually work beyond the scope of one’s patriotic duty. And in contrast to a pongo, an army officer, who bought his commission and usually came from a wealthy background, naval men had earned their rank by merit and had to live on the dreaded half-pay if they were not assigned to a ship. Thus, when the navy was reduced to peace-time size after the end of the American War in 1783, many sought employment elsewhere, in the navies of Russia, the Ottoman Empire or Sweden. And they were welcomed with open arms there. Sidney Smith, though, came from a wealthy family and didn’t have to worry overmuch about his livelihood, was free to travel and finally, in 1790, signed on with the Royal Swedish Navy, distinguished himself in the Battle of Svensksund against the Russians and gained a knighthood from King Gustav III. Unfortunately, a lot of fellow Britons served on Empress Catherine the Great’s ships, some were killed in action and a Swedish knighthood didn’t do exactly much to endear Smith to his brother officers when he returned back home. King George III acknowledged the “Swedish Knight’s” foreign title after he did some rather useful work when Toulon was evacuated after war had broken out with revolutionary France. It was there that Smith opposed Napoleon for the first time. Back home, Sir Sidney Smith was given command of His Majesty’s frigate “Diamond” and joined the Western Frigate Squadron along with Sir Edward Pellew’s famous “Indefatigable” and began to harass the French coast pretty much in the same way like Cochrane did ten years later off southeastern Spain, specialised in inshore work and finally was caught during a cutting-out operation in Le Havre in 1796. He spent two years in prison since the Directoire simply refused to exchange him and was finally freed in a Royalist coup and escaped back home to England.

"St. John d'Acre with H.B.M's ships Le Tigre & Theseus employed in its defence 2. May 1799" 

A year after Nelson defeated the French Levant Fleet in the Battle of the Nile and cut off the Armée d'Orient in Egypt from communications and supply, Napoleon decided to secure his Egyptian conquest and his plans to invade British India overland, by pushing into Syria. After initial successes against the Ottoman troops there, the harbour of Acre as a strategic coastal link to the Levant became the next objective. The defenders of the ancient harbour town proved to be more stubborn than Napoleon expected and after four weeks he ordered siege artillery to be brought in by sea and Sir Sidney Smith landed his first coup during the Siege of Acre. Patrolling with two ships-of-the-line off the Levantine coast, he captured the small convoy near Haifa and promptly supplied the Ottoman defenders with the guns. HMS “Tygre”, a French prize taken at the Nile and HMS “Theseus” were anchored in the bay and the battleships’ broadsides covered the landward approaches to Acre, while their sailors and marines bolstered the defences of the town with a vengeance. All of a sudden, Napoleon realised that he had bitten off more than he could chew, at least in terms of capturing Acre in a coup the main. Nevertheless, he fought off an Ottoman relief army against huge odds at Mount Tabor and when artillery finally arrived by the overland route along with fresh troops under Kleber, Napoleon decided on an all-out assault on Acre on 10 May 1799. The guns forced a breach into the ramshackle walls of the town, the brave grenadiers ran across the tongue of land under the fire of the two British warships into the gap, only to discover that the British with the help of a siege engineer named Philippeaux, a royalist Smith had met in prison and taken along, had erected a second wall. The charge foundered against the combined forces of Ottoman soldiery and sailors and marines of the Royal Navy. Napoleon called the whole thing off and withdrew to Egypt, while the British had to tow away HMS “Theseus”. Short of ammunition, half the ship had exploded when her officers and gunnery mates experimented with captured French shot. Napoleon, in the meanwhile, mused if he would have “been able to take Acre, I would have put on a turban, I would have made my soldiers wear big Turkish trousers, and I would have exposed them to battle only in case of extreme necessity. I would have made them into a Sacred Battalion--my Immortals. I would have finished the war against the Turks with Arabic, Greek, and Armenian troops. Instead of a battle in Moravia, I would have won a Battle of Issus, I would have made myself emperor of the East, and I would have returned to Paris by way of Constantinople.” It was not to be. Napoleon fled from Egypt and became First Consul instead.

Smith heroically defending Acre, as imagined by John Eckstein
(1735 – 1817)

Sacrificing his newly won reputation by negotiating the Convention of El-Arish with General Kleber, basically allowing the rest of the Armée d'Orient to return to France on ships of the Royal Navy, the hare-brained scheme did not exactly make Sir Sidney popular with Nelson and Lord Keith, the supreme British commander in the Med. Recalled back to England, the plan was nevertheless executed in 1801 when Nelson and Keith had turned their backs. And while he busied himself with new naval inventions, Trafalgar was won and the requirements on the navy were exactly his provenience, coastal warfare, combined operations with British and allied troops and guerrillas as well as large scale use of squadrons of battleships to exert diplomatic pressure. Even though Smith was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1805, he still had a strong independent streak that made him ignore or rebuff his superiors, a trait that is fatal for every career in every organisation since time immemorial. Sir Sidney Smith excelled in several small-scale operations in the Mediterranean theatre, but was usually ordered to disengage from his plans at some point or was completely ignored. Probably his most memorable assignment was evacuating the Portuguese Royal Family to Brazil in 1807. During the Hundred Days and afterwards, Sidney Smith did some diplomatic work, campaigned for a better treatment of war-disabled and against slavery and finally died in Paris at the age of 74, a man with independent ideas, a high grade of professionalism in his chosen field and unorthodox enough to be become a second Nelson but without having the opportunity beyond the Siege of Acre.

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