The Rivalry Between Napoleon and Britain’s Most Famous Admiral You’ve Never Heard Of

May 2, 2023
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Smith Leading the Defence of Acre, from Cassell's Illustrated History of England, 1865, Public Domain.

On May 20th, 1799, in the city of Acre (currently Akko, Israel), Napoleon was handed his first defeat, the likes of which would not be seen again until he was routed at Waterloo in 1815. Acre and Waterloo are, in a sense, bookends of Napoleon’s eighty-battle career: Acre signaled the demise of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and with it, his earlier ambitions for an empire in the Middle East, while Waterloo famously ended Napoleon’s autocratic reign as Emperor of France and much of Europe. Yet, like a snake shedding its skin, Napoleon slunk away from the Egyptian campaign immediately following the debacle at Acre. He then returned to France, spinning his dismal failure at Acre as a victory, and was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Less than a month later, he was First Consul of France – effectively an autocrat.

Lost to most of history is the importance of Acre in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the man who vanquished Napoleon at Acre: Sir William Sidney Smith. An established, years-long antipathy between these men contributed to the uniqueness of the Acre fiasco and would continue to haunt Napoleon for years to come.

Six years before they faced off at the Siege of Acre, Napoleon and Smith crossed paths at the  Siege of Toulon in 1793, where both Smith and Napoleon made a name for themselves. Napoleon, then a 24-year-old artillery colonel in the service of the French Republic, brilliantly forced the Royalists and their British allies at Toulon to capitulate, making the siege a successful one. He was promoted to brigadier-general for his contributions. Sidney Smith was four years older than Napoleon and had made his name in the Royal Navy, primarily fighting in the American Revolutionary War. He had achieved the rank of lieutenant by the age of sixteen and was a captain before leaving the Royal Navy and serving as the principal naval advisor to Sweden’s King Gustav III. Gustav III also awarded Smith a knighthood for his service. When the Siege of Toulon was underway, Smith wasn’t even serving in the navy, yet he aided the evacuation of the Royalists and the British by destroying half the French fleet. He was captured and sent to the Temple Prison in Paris.

According to the norms of the day (and especially since he was technically a civilian), it was expected that the French would release Smith. Napoleon was adamant that Smith be charged with arson. He refused to accept the messenger bearing Smith’s letter asking for release, and Smith stayed in Temple Prison for two years until being rescued by French Loyalists and the British. Smith wrote a letter to Napoleon on the shutter of his cell; this actually turned into an open letter to Napoleon, as word got to the press, who published it.[1] Smith warned Napoleon that “Fortune’s wheel makes strange revolutions,” and that one day, their positions would be reversed.[2] He even posited that Napoleon would be sitting in the cell that he occupied.

Six years later, as Napoleon laid siege to another city in a different part of the world, it would seem that Smith’s words were indeed coming to haunt him. Napoleon had arrived in Alexandria on July 1 of  1798 for his Egypt campaign with a force of 50,000 men. Less than a month later, the British Navy dealt Napoleon a devastating blow, destroying his fleet on the Nile, and leaving Napoleon effectively stranded. Undeterred, Napoleon continued his campaign on land. Wishing to emulate his hero, Alexander the Great, Napoleon envisioned himself triumphantly marching on Jerusalem.[3] In order to achieve this objective, taking Acre was critical. After easy victories at Jaffa, Haifa, and Mt. Tabor, Napoleon expected the city to fall quickly in March of 1799. Then Sir Sidney Smith showed up on his ship The Tigre just off the coast of Acre.

From the harbor, Smith helped the Ottomans hold out against Napoleon’s forces by barraging them and supplying the Ottomans with artillery that Smith had actually captured from Napoleon. After fifty-four days of siege, Napoleon gave up. Smith wrote to Napoleon, this time assured that his nemesis would receive the letter immediately. In it, he referenced the poor treatment he had received from Napoleon and how their fortunes had reversed: “Could you have thought that a poor prisoner in the cell of the Temple prison–that an unfortunate for whom you refused, for a single moment, to give yourself any concern, being at the same time able to render him a signal service, since you were then all-powerful–could you have thought, I say, that this same man would have become your antagonist, and have compelled you, in the midst of the sands of Syria, to raise the siege of a miserable, almost defenceless town? Such events, you must admit, exceed all human calculations.”[4]

Napoleon receiving a letter from Smith must have created a buzz amongst Napoleon’s men, as Smith’s prison letter was well known by then. Incensed and embarrassed, Napoleon lied to his staff and claimed that Smith had challenged him to a duel. But Napoleon had a bigger problem than Smith’s smugness. He had roughly 2,000 wounded or ill men on his hands. It would have been impossible for them to return all the way to Egypt overland. According to the norms of warfare, they would be allowed to be evacuated by the nearby French battleships. But Napoleon could not bring himself to surrender to Smith, nor to ask for terms to help his men. Instead, he preferred to euthanize them with laudanum after marching his men back to Jaffa.

This was a low point, even for Napoleon. The trauma of the defeat at Acre was exacerbated by ego in a confrontation that started at Toulon. Napoleon’s pride and spat with Smith magnified the cruelty of which Napoleon was capable. In 1804, shortly after Napoleon became emperor of France, the rumors surrounding the poisoning of his troops still swirled at court and in the streets. It was then that he commissioned his first piece of visual propaganda, known as Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros. It was a sensation and cemented Napoleon’s success in re-imagining his Egypt campaign.

In his own time, Smith’s victory was widely celebrated in England through ballads, poems, and works of art. Not much remains of Smith’s legacy, nor of the importance of his victory at Acre. Gros’s painting, however, lives on as one of the most famous images of Napoleon’s campaign, and in so doing, obscures the history of the events. In a few collections around the world, the British side of the story and the importance of Acre exists and can be found in the form of commemorative medals such as these.

 

1. Pocock, Tom. A Thirst for Glory: The Life of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith. Random House (UK), 1998. P.55

2. Ibid, p. 55-56. According to legend, Napoleon’s motivation for destroying the Temple Prison in 1804 was to prevent Smith’s prophetic words from coming true.

3. Napoleon admired and emulated many aspects of  Alexander the Great’s conduct, but it was Napoleon’s campaign in the East that seems to have drawn on the ancient general the most. Mclynn, Frank. Napoleon: A Biography. New York, Arcade Pub, 2011. P. 200 in particular.

4. Pocock, pp. 107-108

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