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Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith

Sir Wiliam Sydney Smith

Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith (1764 - 1840) is the forgotten man of the American and French revolutionary wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A contemporary of the much more famous Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, Sidney Smith (as he called himself) is the only person known to have almost been at both the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Reminiscing in later life and referring to the Siege of Acre (see below), Napoleon Bonaparte said of Smith: "That man made me miss my destiny".

Smith was born in Westminster into a military and naval family on 21st June 1764 and joined the Royal Navy in 1777 at the age of 13, first seeing action a year later in the American Revolutionary War. By the time he was 16 he was already a lieutenant aboard HMS Alcide, a 74 gun ship of war and just two years later was given his first command, HMS Fury, a sloop, whilst still in his teens. 

With the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, he was assigned shore based duties in France and Spain but grew tired and applied to join the Royal Swedish Navy in 1790 to fight in the war between Sweden and Russia. King Gustav III of Sweden appointed Smith his principal naval advisor and he commanded a Swedish naval squadron in the Battle of Svensksund which resulted in a devastating defeat for the Russians. The Swedish king rewarded Smith with a Swedish knighthood and made him a Commander Grand Cross of the Swedish Svärdsorden (Order of the Sword).

In 1792, Smith's brother, John Spencer, was employed at the British Embassy in Constantinople (later Istanbul) and Smith travelled there to see him. Whilst he was still in the city, in January 1793, war broke out in Revolutionary France and some time later Smith unofficially sailed to Toulon, in Southern France, where British Admiral Lord Hood had occupied the port at the request of French Royalist forces. By the time Smith arrived in December 1793, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte had surrounded the port and it was under attack.  In the face of overwhelming superior troop numbers, the British and their allies withdrew, with Smith given the order to destroy as many French ships and stores in the harbour as possible to stop them falling into the hands of Napoleon, Despite his efforts, however, almost half of the French fleet was seized by French revolutionary forces and led to criticism of Smith by none other than Horatio Nelson for his failure to scupper every ship. This event probably led to a life long rivalry between the two men.

On his return to London, Smith was given command of HMS Diamond and patrolled the seas off France whilst war continued within, Continually harrying French Revolutionary forces, Smith became specialised in inshore operations but disaster struck in April 1796 when. undertaking a covert mission ashore at Le Havre, he was captured by enemy forces and taken to prison in Paris. There he was threatened to be charged with arson for his burning of the French ships in Toulon. Smith was held for two years whilst negotiations continued with the British and French Royalists for his release. Eventually, in 1798 and under the pretence of being transferred to another prison, French Royalists helped Smith to escape. He was taken back to Le Havre, placed onboard a fishing boat and then picked up by HMS Argo which was patrolling offshore.

Following Nelson's victory against Napoleonic forces at the Battle of the Nile, Smith was given command of another ship, HMS Tigre, a captured 80 gun French ship of the line, and sent to the Mediterranean where he served both a military and diplomatic role in strengthening Turkish opposition to Napoleon and encouraging the Turks to destroy a French army based in Egypt. This role also further antagonised Nelson who felt his authority in the region was being usurped by Smith and as Nelson was a popular figure at home, his dislike of Smith also negatively affected Smith's reputation.  Meanwhile Napoleon, having defeated Ottoman forces in Egypt, marched his 13,000 strong French army through the Sinai into what is now Syria, taking control of much of the region and killing civilians and Turkish troops on the way. He then continued on to the important harbour city of Acre in modern day Israel. Smith, however, had anticipated the move and was already in the city helping Turkish forces strengthen their defences by loaning cannons and sailors from British warships offshore. He also used British ships to intercept French supply ships coming from France.

Napoleon and his army arrived at Acre in late March 1799 and immediately laid siege to the city.  Smith brought his own ship, HMS Tigre, and another, HMS Theseus closer in shore and they began to bombard the French positions with their cannon. Repeated French assaults on the city were beaten back by the Turkish defenders with the help of the offshore cannon batteries. Then, by early May, Napoleon succeeded in getting further supplies of siege artillery from France and managed to break through the city defences before again being beaten back. Shortly after, Turkish reinforcements arrived and Napoleon abandoned both his assault on the city and his army, evading British forces and sailing back to France. Smith attempted to negotiate the surrender of the French forces which had retreated back to Egypt and a treaty was signed but again, Nelson interfered arguing that the French army in Egypt should be annihilated rather than be left to return and join their comrades in arms in France. So instead the British landed an army in Egypt, with the assistance of Smith and his ships, which fought and eventually defeated the French forces.

Smith returned to England in 1801 and received some honours and a pension in the amount of £1,000 per annum. He was again overshadowed by Nelson, however, who returned following his victory at the Battle of Copenhagen in the same year where Nelson had sunk 15 Danish ships which were feared to be about to ally with French Revolutionary forces. 

In 1802 the British and French signed the Treaty of Amiens which temporarily ended hostility between the two countries and Smith stood for Parliament where he was elected MP for Rochester in Kent. His Parliamentary career was short, however, as the Treaty with France collapsed in 1803 when Britain declared war on France once more, angered by Napoleon's continued interference in other European countries and governments. Smith was deployed to command a naval squadron in the North Sea with the task of monitoring and disrupting the activities of French ships which it was feared would soon be involved in an invasion attempt of England. Instead the French ships eventually disappeared to the South where they suffered defeat at the hands of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where of course Nelson also died. Despite being deployed in home waters, Smith was one of the few senior English naval figures not to attend Nelson's funeral.

In November 1805 Smith was promoted to Rear Admiral and sent once again to the Mediterranean where he was tasked with assisting the Italian King of the Two Sicilies to regain the Kingdom of Naples which had been taken by Smith's old adversary, Napoleon. With the assistance of several thousand Calabrian and British troops. Smith succeeded, defeating the French at the Battle of Maida.

In October 1807, Spain and France signed a treaty to divide the Kingdom of Portugal between them. As Portugal was, and still is, England's oldest ally, Smith was appointed to command an expedition to Lisbon to either assist the Portuguese in resisting any Franco Spanish attack or, if necessary, to destroy the Portuguese fleet if it looked likely to fall into enemy hands. Instead of the latter, Smith arranged for the Portuguese fleet and the Portuguese Royal Family to withdraw across the Atlantic to Brazil - then a Portuguese colony.  Smith returned to England and received much popular acclaim for his actions but he was still viewed with suspicion amongst his peers who preferred the legacy of Nelson. Smith was promoted - automatically - to Vice Admiral in 1810 and married Caroline Rumbold, the widow of a diplomat with whom Smith had worked, that same year.

In July 1812, Smith was sent to the Mediterranean for a third time, this time aboard HMS Tremendous, a 74 gun ship-of-the-line. His task was to blockade Toulon and once there he transferred his flag to the mighty 110 gun first rate ship-of-the-line HMS Hyperion. Smith awaited the French but they failed to engage him in battle. Two years later, allied armies entered Paris, Napoleon abdicated and Smith returned to England.

In March 1815 Napoleon famously escaped from his prison on the island of Elba and gathering his veteran troops on the way, marched back to Paris. He entered the capital victorious and was proclaimed Emperor of the French Nation. Smith meanwhile was visiting Brussels with his wife when he heard cannon and gun fire in the distance. Riding a horse, Smith rode out and met with the Duke of Wellington who had just defeated Napoleon's army at the Battle of Waterloo. Smith was asked to oversee the collection and treatment of both allied and French wounded soldiers and also asked to take the surrender of French garrisons stationed near the battlefield, so the deposed King Louis XVIII of France could enter Paris safely. For these and other services Smith finally received his British knighthood - the KCB.

After the final fall of Napoleon and the end of the war with France, Smith took up the anti slavery cause. Barbary pirates had for centuries operated from North Africa enslaving captured sailors and taking people from European coasts.. Using his diplomatic and parliamentary contacts, Smith campaigned for funds and military action to end all slavery and ran up significant personal debt doing so which the British government was slow to reimburse, As debtors could face imprisonment in England at the time, Smith moved his family to France and although he eventually was repaid by the government and had his pension increased, he remained in France for the rest of his life and never had another naval command despite his frequent requests for one.  He died in Paris on 26th May 1840 following a stroke and is buried with his wife in a local cemetery,

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