Tuesday, March 25, 2008

British and Turks Defend Acre from French Attack

From: An Account of the French Expedition in Egypt; Written by Bonaparte and Berthier; with Sir William Sidney Smith’s Letters. With an English translation (London, Edward Baines, 1800.), pp. 43-47.

Copy of a Letter from Captain Sir William Sidney Smith, of his Majesty’s ship Tigre, to Evan Napean, Esq. dated off Mount Lebanon, June 16, 1799.

Sir Morten Eden has forwarded a duplicate of your letter of the 4th of May, informing me of the sailing of the French fleet from Brest. I take for granted this fleet is bound for these seas to support Bonaparte’s operations, not knowing that his expedition to Syria has completely failed, as the enclosed duplicates will inform their lordships.

My Lord, Tigre, Acre, May 9, 1799.

I had the honor to inform your lordship by my letter of the 2d instant, (in which Sir Sidney states the heroism and perseverance of the English and Turks to be almost unexampled; and that the repeated efforts of the French to take Acre by storm had been uniformly unsuccessful: But the nature of these proceedings is so fully and clearly given in the present dispatch as to supercede the necessity of inserting that of the 2d.) that we were busily employed in completing two ravelins for the reception of cannon to flank the enemy’s nearest approaches, distant only ten yards from them. They were attacked that very night, and almost every night since, but the enemy have each time been repulsed with very considerable loss; the enemy continued to batter in breach with progressive success, and have nine several attempted to storm, but have as often been beaten back with immense slaughter. Our best mode of defense have been frequent sorties to keep them on the defensive, and impede the progress of their covering works. We have thus been in one continued battle ever since the beginning of the siege, interrupted only as short intervals by the excessive fatigue of every individual on both sides. We had been long anxiously looking for a reinforcement, without which we could not expect to be able to keep the place so long as we have. The delay of its arrival being occasioned by Hassan Bey’s having originally received orders to join me in Egypt, I was obliged to be very peremptory in the repetition of my orders for him to join me here; it was not, however, till the evening of the day before yesterday, the fifty first day of the siege, that this fleet of corvettes and transports made its appearance. The approach of this additional strength was the signal to Bonaparte for a most vigorous and persevering assault, in hopes to get possession of the town before the reinforcement to the garrison could disembark.

The constant fire of the besiegers was suddenly increased ten fold. Our flanking fire from afloat was, as usual, plied to the utmost; but with less effect than heretofore, as the enemy had thrown up epaulments and traversers of sufficient thickness to protect him from it. The guns that could be worked to the Greatest advantage were a French crass eighteen-pounder in the Light house castle, manned from the Theseus under the direction of Mr. Scroder, master’s mate, and the last mounted twenty four pounder in the North Ravelin, manned from the Tigre, under the direction of Mr. Jones, midshipman. These guns being within grape distance of the head of attacking column, added to the Turkish musquetry, did great execution; and I take this opportunity of recommending these two petty officers, whose indefatigable vigilance and zeal merit my warmest praise. The Tigre’s two 68 pound cannonades, mounted in two germes lying in the mole; and worked under the direction of Mr. Bray, carpenter of the Tigre (one of the bravest and most intelligent men I have served with,) threw shells into the center of this column with evident effect, and checked it considerably. Still, however, the enemy gained ground, and made a lodgment in the second story of the north-east Tomer: the upper part being entirely battered down, and the ruins in the ditch forming the ascent by which they mounted. Day light shewed us the French standard on the outer angle of the tower. The fire of the besieged was much slackened in comparison to that of the besiegers, and our flanking fire was become of less effect, the enemy having covered themselves in this lodgment and the approach to it by two traverses across the ditch, which they had constructed under the fire that had been opposed to them during the whole of the night, and which were now seen composed of sand bags, and the bodies of their dead built in them, their bayonets only been visible above them. Hassan Bey’s troops were in the boats, though as yet but half was to shore. This was a most critical point of the contest; and an effort was necessary to preserve the place for a short time till their arrival.

I accordingly landed the boats at the mole, and took the crews up to the breach armed with pikes. The enthusiastic gratitude of the Turks, men, women, and children, at the sight of such a reinforcement, at such a time is not to be described. Many fugitives returned with us to the breach, which we found defended by a few brave Turks, whose most destructive missile weapons were heavy stones, which striking the assailants on the head, overthrew the foremost down the slope, and impeded the progress of the rest. A succession, however, ascended to the assault, the heap of ruins between the two parties serving as a breast work for both, the muzzles of their muskets touching, and the spear heads of the standards locked. Gezza Pacha, hearing the English were on the breach, quitted his station, where, according to the ancient Turkish custom, he was fitting to reward such as should bring him the heads of the enemy, and distributing musket cartridges with his own hands. The energetic old man coming behind us, pulled us down with violence, saying, if any harm happened to his English friends, all was lost. This amicable contest, as to who should defend the breach, occasioned, a rush of Turks to the spot, and thus time was gained for the arrival of the first body of Hassan Bey’s troops. I had now to combat the Pacha’s repugnance to admitting any troops but his Albanians into the garden of his ferraglio, become a very important post, as occupying the terre-plein of the rampart. There was not above 200 of the original 1000 Albanians left alive. This was no time for debate, and I over ruled his objections by introducing the Chisslick regiment 1000 men armed with bayonets, disciplined after the European method under Sultan Selim’s own eye, and placed by his Imperial Majesty’s express commands at my disposal. The garrison animated by the appearance of such a reinforcement, was now all on foot, and there being consequently enough to defend the breach, I proposed to the Pacha to get rid of the objects of his jealousy, by opening his gates to let them make a sally and take the assailants in flank: He readily complied, and I gave directions to the Colonel to get possession of the enemy’s third parallel or nearest trench, and there fortify himself by shifting the parapet outwards. This order being clearly, understood, the gates were opened: and the Turks rushed out; but they were not equal to such a movement, and were driven back to the town with loss. Mr Bray, however, as usual, protected the town gate efficaciously with grape from the sixty eight pounders. The sortie had this good effect, that it obliged the enemy to expose themselves above their parapets, so that our flanking fire brought down numbers of them, and drew their force from the breach, so that a small number remaining on the lodgment were killed or dispersed by our few remaining hand grenades, thrown by Mr. Savage, midshipman of the Theseus. The enemy began a new breach by an incessant fire directed to the southward of the lodgment, every shot knocking down the whole sheets of a wall much less solid than that of the tower on which they had expended so much time and ammunition. The group of Generals and Aid-du-camp which the shells from the 68 pounders had frequently dispersed, was now re-assembled on Richard Coeur de Lion’s Mount. Bonaparte was distinguishable in the centre of a semicircle; his gesticulations indicated a renewal of attack, and his dispatching an Aid-du-camp to the camp shewed that we waited only for a reinforcement. I gave directions for Hassan Bey’s ships to take their stations in the shoal water to the southward, and made the Tigre’s signal to join the Theseus to the northward. A massive column appeared advancing into the breach with a solemn step. The Pacha’s idea was no: to defend the brink this time, but rather to let a certain number of the enemy in, and then close with them, according to the Turkish mode of war. The column thus mounted the breach unmolested, and descending from the rampart into Pacha’s garden, where, in a very few minutes, the bravest and most advanced among them lay headless corpses. The sabre, with the addition of a dagger in the other hand, proving more than a match for the bayonet; the rest retreated precipitately; and the commanding officer, who was seen manfully encouraging his men to mount the breach, and who we have since learnt to be General Lasne, was carried off, wounded by a musquet shot. General Rambaud was killed. Much confusion arose in the town from the actual entry of the enemy, it having been impossible, nay impolitic, to give previous information to every body of the mode of defense adopted, lest the enemy should come at a knowledge of it by means of their numerous emissaries. The English uniform which had hitherto served as a rallying point for the old garrison wherever it appeared was now in the dusk mistaken for French, and newly arrived Turks not distinguishing between one hat and another in the crowd, and thus many a severe blow of sabre was parried by our officers, among which Colonel Douglas, Mr. Ives, and Mr. Jones, had nearly lost their lives, as they were forcing their way through a torrent of fugitives. Calm was restored by the Pacha’s exertions, aided by Mr. Trotter, who had just arrived with Hassan Bey, and thus the contest of twenty five hours ended, both parties being so fatigued as to be unable to move. Bonaparte will, no doubt, renew the attack, the breach being, as above described, perfectly practicable for fifty men abreast; indeed the town is not, nor ever has been defensive according to the rules of art, but, according to every other rule, it must and shall be defended, not that it is in itself worth defending but we feel that it is by this breach Bonaparte means to march to farther conquests. It is on the issue of this conflict that depends the opinion of the multitude of spectators on the surrounding hills, who wait only to join the victor, and with such reinforcement for the execution of his known projects. Be assured my Lord, the magnitude of our obligations does but increase the energy of our efforts to discharge our duty, and though we may, and probably shall by overpowered, I can venture to say that the French will be so much farther weakened before it prevails, as to be little able to profit by its dear bought victory.

W. Sidney Smith.


Matt Osborne said...

I visited Acre in 1988. Napoleon's cannonballs were still sticking out of those walls. I found this a perfect analogy to the region itself: the west comes to conquer, but instead gets stuck, eventually leaving only its traces behind.

Jhon Davis said...

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