Calvi, Corsica

(May/July 1794)


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Background to the action

Shortly after the commencement of the war with Revolutionary France in 1793, the French port of Toulon surrendered to the English. Toulon, while in their hands, gave the English the strongest possible base in the Mediterranean, but might take up to 50,000 troops to hold it, more than the entire British Army. 

By December the port became untenable, the last defences collapsed, and thousands were abandoned to inevitable slaughter.

Nelson had been at Leghorn in Italy taking on provisions and water and on the third day of 1794 he sailed to rejoin Lord Hood for the next essential stage of operations: the securing of a new base. 

The obvious place was Corsica which was in revolt against the French. The keys to Corsica were the two fortress-cities of Bastia and Calvi on the east and west coasts.

  2000 soldiers and marines were landed to the North of Bastia, under the command of Colonel Villettes and Captain Nelson. Cannon were carried across the face of steep, rocky hillsides, covered with thorny scrub and seamed with deep ravines.
11 April 1794 Lord Hood sent his barge ashore with a summons to surrender. This was refused and a siege began. 
18 May 1794 A message came from the city that negotiations for surrender could commence the next day.
20 May 1794

At daybreak 4500 men from Calvi laid down their arms to less than 1000 English soldiers.  

Lord Hood's thanks to Nelson were "the handsomest that men can pen" but in his report to the Admiralty he had merely commended him for his part in landing the guns and stores, giving others the principal credit. Nelson was not a little vexed. He wrote to his uncle, "The whole operations of the siege were carried on through Lord Hood's letters to me, I was the mover of it - I was the cause of its success."


Attention now turned to Calvi. 

It was apparent that to take this city would be difficult if not impossible. 

On three sides great granite walls rose sheer from the rocks on the shore and towering bastions guarded the fourth. 

17 June 1794 Nelson in the Agamemnon lay off a small inlet named Porto Agro, some three and a half miles from Calvi. Nelson went ashore with Lieutenant-General Charles Stuart and they found it far from convenient as a landing-place. But it was already apparent that there was no alternative.
18 June 1794 The landing of weapons and stores began.
18 June - 3 July 1794 The next fortnight was hard labour, man-handling and dragging guns, shot, barrels of powder and rations up the steep slope from the beach and over the broken, bolder-blocked ground. That was not the end of the heavy manual work because batteries had to be built.
4 July 1794 The Royal Louis battery opened the bombardment
8 July 1794 From Nelson's journal we read - "Both sides kept up a heavy fire. The totally destroyed two of our twenty-four-pounders, greatly damaged a twenty-six pounder, and shook our works very much. One of the shells burst in the centre of our bettery, but, wonderful to say, not a man was much hurt. We on our part did considerable damage to the Mozelle and Fountain battery."
9 July 1794 Fro Nelson's journal we read - "By ten o'clock we had evidently the superiority of fire, and before night had dismounted every gun in the Fountain battery and Mozelle. In the night, we mounted the howitzer of ten inchs 150 yards in the rear, which fired on the Enemy every three minutes during the night to prevent their working.
12 July 1794

The bombardment continued and on this day Nelson was wounded. He had been watching the bombardment from a vantage point by an enormous flat-topped rock which commanded a view of the whole battlefield and the besieged city. when a shell burst on the rampart of the sandbags in a shower of stones and sand. Blood poured down his face from cuts; the deepest on the right brow which had narrowly missed his eye; but it had affected his sight.

Nelson was somewhat dismissive of the injury writing to Lord Hood, "I got a little hurt this morning: not much, as you may judge by my writing."

Hood replied "I am truly sorry to hear you have received a hurt, and hope you tell the truth in saying it is not much."

16 July 1794 By now Nelson understood better the serious of his condition. He wrote to his brother William, "You will be surprised when I say I was wounded in the head by stones from the merlon of our battery. My right eye is cut entirely down, but the Surgeons flatter me that I shall not entirely lose my sight of that eye. At present I can distinguish light from dark, but no object...Such is the chance of War, it was within a hair's breadth of taking off my head."
22 July 1794 To Lord Hood, "My eye is troublesome and I don't think I shall ever have the perfect sight of it again."
Late July Gradually the besiegers were being worn down by sickness including malaria, heat-exhaustion, dysentry and typhoid. With less than a thousand men fit for active duty it seemed possible the city could survive their efforts. 
28 July 1794

The French commander of Calvi declared that if no relief reached him in twenty-five days he would seek a capitulation. In the meantime, General Stuart realised that his enfeebled troops were unlikely to withstand another month's ordeal and told Lord Hood that after another ten days he would have either to attempt an assault on the citadel or raise the seige. 

That night four ships broke through the blockade of Calvi and landed their cargoes. However the cargoes were of food that was not wanted and not ammunition which was.

10 Aug 1794

On this day, when General Stuart had not even four hundred men fit for the duty, the French surendered and some six hundred defenders marched out of the city. 

Corsica was now a British possession.


Again Nelson felt aggrieved that his part in the success was not publicly recognised by General Stuart. 

Writing to William Suckling he said, "I, only I, am without reward...Nothing but my anxious endeavours to serve my Country makes me bear up against it; but I sometimes am ready to give all up.But never mind, some day I'll have a gazette of my own."

Praise was much more lavish, though, from Lord Hood who wrote in his dispatches, "...Captain Nelson, who had the command of the Seamen, and whose unremitting zeal and exertion I cannot sufficiently express." 



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