After the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, there occurred the following year a land battle, which though small scale and unimportant in many ways, crucially showed that in the right circumstances that the British could also defeat the French on land. It could be truly described as the start of a long road that after many vicissitudes was eventually to lead to victory in the Iberian Peninsula and at Waterloo.
The immediate portents for a victory at Maida were not however good. In October 1805 Austria was defeated at the Battle of Ulm and in December the Austrian and Russian armies were defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon occupied Vienna and compelled Austria to sign the Treaty of Pressburg in December 1805.
About the same time that the treaty of Presburg was concluded with Austria, a treaty between France and Prussia was signed at Vienna. Peace with these two powers, and the withdrawal of the Russian army from Austria, allowed Napoleon a free hand in Italy.
Ferdinand the King of the Two Sicilies, which comprised the southern half of the present day country of Italy, in direct violation of the treaty of neutrality, which he had concluded with the French on the 8th of October 1805, had permitted only some six weeks later an Anglo-Russian squadron to land troops in the bay of Naples. The Russian troops numbered some 14,000. The British troops numbered about 10,000 men with Maj. General John Stuart later Count of Maida in command.
In response, Napoleon, on the 28th of December, the very day after the treaty of Pressburg had been signed, issued a proclamation, declaring that the Neapolitan dynasty had been deposed.
This proclamation, which it was correctly feared, would be followed swiftly by an advance of French troops led to the decision to evacuate without delay. The Russian troops embarked for Corfu; and the British troops, for Sicily. They arrived on the 22nd of January but it was not until the 13th February that King Ferdinand, fearing the loss of the last major piece of territory he controlled, allowed them to land.
Sicily was important to the British too, not so much for the conquest of the mainland though it was doubtless useful that Ferdinand still had a physical presence and could thus still be seen as a threat to Joseph but as a naval base. Most bases in the Mediterranean had been given up by the treaty of Amiens. Sicily was thus useful to put a block on French efforts in the Adriatic and Levant
With the French advancing and nothing to stop them, Ferdinand soon followed his allies example and fled his capital on the 23rd of January on the British 74-gun ship Excellent, for Palermo. The Queen followed shortly after.
Filling the vacuum, the French army rapidly advanced. General Massena, marched straight to Naples, and arrived there on the 15th of February, the garrison having capitulated. By the end of March the French were in control of the entire Kingdom, apart from Gaeta including Calabria in the tow of Italy.
Gaeta was a strongly fortified port situated upon a rocky promontory about 50 miles north of Naples. The governor of this fortress, the Prince of Hesse-Philipsthadt, was summoned to surrender by the French, but refused and the fort held out.
In late April a powerful British naval squadron arrived at Palermo, with instructions to defend Sicily. However the commander Rear-Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, was determined to take the war to the enemy and not just wait on events. Whether he saw himself as another Nelson is not known but the Queen of Naples certainly did and she was considered to be the effective ruler of the country rather than the King. She wanted to reconquer the mainland and these plans fitted in exactly with Smiths aims.
The first offensive step taken was to land vital supplies at Gaeta, which was accomplished, under a heavy fire from the besiegers. Assisted by the Navy the defenders then made two successful sallies against the French besiegers.
Meanwhile Sir Sidney arrived on patrol of the Bay of Naples with his squadron, where he found the city illuminated in honour of Joseph Bonaparte; who had just proclaimed, himself and was now being crowned, King of the Two Sicilies. Sir Sidney then sailed on to Capri. After a short engagement with few casualties, the French garrison were allowed to capitulate.
Having installed an English garrison in Capri (a small island off Naples), Sir Sidney then returned to Palermo.
General Stuart now commander of all land forces and Sir Sidney were both in favour of aggressive action. However their aims were very different. While Smith and the Queen saw land operations as a means of recovering the Kingdom, Stuarts more modest aims were to relieve the threat to and pressure on Sicily.
While Stuart’s aims were more modest his actions were on a larger scale than proposed by Sir Sidney. Stuart wrote to the First Minister of the Kingdom, Sir John Acton in my turn [referring to discussion he had had with Sir Sidney]
I mentioned to Sir Sidney my own promptitude to undertake and conduct co jointly with himself an enterprise on a larger scale. The descent on Calabria was first suggested by me as tending to establish the security of the Kingdom of Sicily.
At first Stuart thought he had Sir Sidney on board with his plans but his was not to last. He wrote to Sir John Acton “Sir Sidney Smith was kept fully apprised by me of the progressive measures preparatory to our concerted objects and from the tenor of his language before he departed I had calculated upon his return to become a personal co-operation with me in my enterprise – a total breach however in his correspondence on his arrival in Palermo combined with a report he was there completing an equipment of Sicilians for some object in the Bay of Naples. Led me at length to imagine that he had opted the project to co-operate with me.”
Accordingly, Stuart prepared to leave Sicily without Sir Sidney’s direct support, for an expedition on the mainland, taking with him two thirds of the troops dedicated to the defence of the Island. The force comprised nearly 5000 men, which he initially hoped would give him numerical superiority over the local French forces. The actual breakdown of was:
Kempt’s Light Brigade
Important to the British success was this light infantry brigade under Lieutenant Colonel James Kempt, comprising sharpshooters drawn from all the British battalions and the Corsicans, which had quickly been forged into an effective fighting unit by Kempt. While this worked on this occasion it of course denuded other units of their best troops and was not repeated
Detachment of Royal Corsican Rangers
Detachment of Royal Sicilian Volunteers
Grenadier Battalion formed by men from different units
27th Regiment – the Inniskillings
Wattevilles Swiss detachment – five companies
58th Regiment of Foot
Lieutenant Colonel Ross
Of the infantry battalions, the 20th from Devonshire and the 27th Inniskillings had seen action before but the 58th, the 78th Highlanders and the 81st were untested.
Though there some draft animals and some officer had mounts, there was no cavalry available for the battle.
This left just four British battalions left in Sicily for the defence of Sicily plus the Royal Navy
Although the force was small, the troops had benefited from an extended period of acclimatisation and training in Sicily and further the allocation and how the units formed up made an effective use of scant resources.
In a not very secret departure which was probably visible to the French on the mainland and which would certainly have been noted by any local spies, the main body of the expedition set sail from Messina on the evening of the 26th of June. Some 500 men from the 20th regiment sailed separately for a series of feint landings off Reggio.
Meanwhile the Sir Sidney was engaged in his own enterprise of trying to ferment revolt among the local peasantry. He was sailing up north beyond the projected landing sight to take part in an attack on the town of Amantea. Smith wrote to Stuart in praise of the glorious undertaking but then explained why he was too busy help.
Stuart wrote a despatch to Windham, the Secretary of War, on the night of the 2nd of July:
The account which I had received for some time from Calabria had continued to strengthen the reports which I had formerly made to you of the disposition of that province to revolt against the usurping government…Calabrian chiefs asserted that if I would sustain them with the appearance only of a regular force, the people would engage by their own exertions to deliver themselves from the oppressions which they suffered and to cut off the body of French troops that remained in Lower Calabria.
As it occurred to me that the liberation of this province could it be accomplished would be the most effectual means of confirming to Sicily that security of which his Majesty appears most solicitous – I considered that the enterprise would be justifiable as it could be attempted without risqué or danger to the service”.
It has been suggested that Stuart was acting on a foray of his own without authority from London. This seems not to be the case. On the 5th of May Windham, had written a note to Stuart that he was sending him large supplies of arms, which would only be need for a land campaign, and on the 10th May he wrote “nature of your command will authorise you without specific instruction to detach any portion of your force which you think you can safely spare”
On the 3rd of July at daybreak the troops were landed 50 miles up the western coast in the bay of St.- Eufemia between the deltas of the rivers Amato and Angitola. It was an ideal landing place for with the Adriatic just 20 miles away across the mountains the French would have to fight or risk being bottled up in Calabria with their retreat to the north blocked.
It had been planned to land in the small hours of the morning but Stuart concerned that enemy troops might be hidden among the coastal scrub waited until daylight when two locals rowed out and reported that some Poles who had been guarding the beach had already fled after the navy opened fire and that the beach was undefended. By then however the surf was high which meant many of the troops were drenched together with their ammunition. Later in the day the surf became worse which resulted in a delay in to the ammunition and supplies being landed.
From the crows nests of the British ships, moored offshore, was clearly visible a landscape of shrubs, marshland, small trees and olive groves and vineyards enveloped by mountains, which formed a natural amphitheatre, on the slopes of which were several villages with their whitewashed houses.
The force numbered 4795, men, though some 500 men from the 20th did not land until the 4th of July.
After the landing was effected Lieut Colonel Oswald led a party of British and Corsican troops towards the village of St Eufemia, about a mile inland, where some 400 French and Polish skirmishers attacked them. A few were captured or killed and the rest fled when rushed by the British.
Anderson of the 78th wrote.
Our landing was but slightly opposed, because our convoy, the Endymion frigate took up her position as near the shore as possible, and by her fire soon cleared the beach and drove the enemy far beyond our first footing. He made a partial stand, however, on a rising ground inland; but as our troops advanced, and after a skirmish, we soon forced him to retreat on his supports and finally on his main body. We then halted for the day, and the enemy left advanced posts and videttes to watch our movements.
Initial reports of the strength of the French locally varied between 2000 to 30,000 troops. From the prisoners Stuart leaned, that General Reynier, with an immediate force of 4000 infantry and 300 cavalry, was encamped on the sloping side of a woody hill below the village of Maida, which was about 10 miles from the position of the British and that he was only awaiting 3000 more troops before he would attack the British. There were in fact over 50,000 French troops in Calabria (some British estimates had put the numbers as low as 500) and the fact Reynier did not wait for further reinforcements suggest over confidence on his part. Certainly Reynier could have waited for further troops to be redeployed for the British had not the strength to launch a major offensive.
On the afternoon of the 3rd Stuart, in an endeavour to find out for himself what the French were up to, rode forward with together his staff to reconnoitre, General Reynier at the same time was also making a reconnaissance and the two generals only missed each other by minutes.
Having had an entrenchments dug on the beach in case a forced evacuation became necessary and leaving the Swiss to defend this, Stuart moved the bulk of his troops forward to occupy a line between the beach and St Efumea one mile inland, while sending an advance party seen miles inland to Nicastro on the lower foothills of the mountains to the north. Here some 200 what could best be described as brigands joined the British but there was no mass uprising though at Nicastro the people rose up against the French even killing those who were hospitalised, fighting ferociously and destroying the homes of collaborating nobles.
General Reynier, on the 3rd of July, from his balcony in the house, which he occupied in Maida, watched Nicastro illuminate the night. Turning to his military officers he is quoted as saying:
Tomorrow we defeat the English, the day after we burn Nicastro to the ground!
As well as having faith in his battle hardened and seasoned troops, Reynier had contempt for the British. He served under General Menow who had led the French forces at the battle of Alexandria in 1801. He later wrote an account of his experiences in which he was very critical as to courage and verve of British generals and their troops.
General Reynier must have been further heartened when on the night of the 3rd/4th General Compere arrived with his light units. Reynier now had a combined force of 5690 infantry, 328 cavalry and 373 gunners to oppose the British. This was made up of a brigade of the 1st Light Infantry (Legere) and 42nd Regiment of the Line, both containing two battalions under Compere and under General Digonet a brigade of the 23rd Light Infantry, also containing two battalions plus two battalions of Poles and one of Swiss troops.
Interestly both sides in fact had significant foreign contingents with them. Both the French and British had Swiss units and Sir John Colborne recounts how the commander of the British Swiss recognised the commander of the French Swiss as coming from the same canton. Perhaps fortunately they did not actually have to fight one another.
The two forces were in fact more evenly matched than mere numbers might suggest. The French had more infantry but some had only arrived on the night before the battle and were tired and the Poles were not considered reliable. While the French had a significant cavalry element, it seems that because the horses not fully broken and/or because the riders were inexperienced, that it was difficult to bring them to charge. In consequence some of the French cavalry abandoned their horses and fought on foot.
The British were superior in artillery. The British had 10 four pounder guns and 4 six pounder guns but the French had only four light guns. The French sorely missed their artillery as they normally relied upon it to soften up the enemy’s lines before their main attack began.
Probably Reynier believed the forces were equal for it seems that he overestimated the number of partisans who had joined the British. This and a fear that the numbers of partisans could only increase was probably what determined Reynier to launch an attack sooner rather than later.
Stuart too was worried about the balance of numbers. He knew that if he delayed, and fought a purely defensive battle, that would only give the French time to bring up further reinforcements and he would then be forced into that most difficult of manoeuvres, a fighting retreat.
So for different reasons both sides wanted to try and bring matters to an early and decisive conclusion. The reality however is that had the French deferred battle until their reinforcements arrived the result would probably have been very different. The French had in fact no real need to rush into battle, for the British force was too small to cause serious damage and partisan activity only really increased once the French had been defeated.
On the evening of the 3rd Sir Sidney arrived in the Pompee to give additional covering fire in case it became necessary to evacuate the Army under fire.
Early on the morning of the 4th July, the British moved off along the beach in two parallel columns On the landward side marched Kempt’s brigade followed by Cole and Acland’s brigades and, nearest the sea marched Oswald’s brigade in the rear. Each brigade had its own light guns, while in addition Acland’s brigade also had three six pounder guns. The navy shadowed the force as it moved along the coast but once it was to turn inland the naval guns would be out of range and the army would be on its own..
The march was to severely test the troops before they were even involved in fighting. It was very hot and the beach was composed of pumice stones and pebbles while inland lay deep sand dunes where men, mules and field guns all get bogged down. However in due course the force reached the river Amato and swinging to the left and inland moved onto the Plain by about 9 a.m.
On his right Kempt deployed his Corsican Rangers and a light company of the 20th across the shallow Amato River, to clear some thickets and to guard against any French encircling move. The French had positioned sharpshooters in the scrub, who opened fire and scattered the Corsicans. The 20th lost its Captain, Captain Maclean, and was in some difficulty until troops from the main force together with the Corsicans, who had now reformed, came to their assistance and drove the French back in confusion. The Corsicans and the British were then able to rejoin their places on the right of Kempt’s Brigade.
As he advanced further into the plain, it must have became clear to Stuart that the French had received reinforcements and now outnumbered the British.
At this moment when the situation must have looked at its bleakest, General Reynier began to move his infantry into the plain from the foothills. By this time too his cavalry had been recalled from skirmishing and were in position with the rest of the army. Reynier advanced steadily, and methodically. It is difficult to explain this move whereby the French gave up the advantage of high ground. Perhaps they were simply over confident or perhaps partisan snipers in the woods at their rear worried them.
The British were of course very relieved that they did not have to advance uphill into the foothills into French positions. Major Roverea wrote “Imagine our surprise and joy when the French left their advantageous position to descend into the plain”.
The armies were now directly opposing one another and getting closer all the time. Although early in the day a heat haze across the plain was already obscuring visibility. Soon the smoke from guns and dust stirred up by troops and buffalo would make conditions worse.
To the left of Kempt were the Grenadiers, then the 78th and 81st Foot and on the left flank was the 27th Foot. The 58th Foot and some Swiss was kept as a reserve. The strength of the British position was the right flank, protected as it was by the river but weakness was on the left flank which was vulnerable to turning by the cavalry, in the almost parade ground conditions of the chosen battle site.
On the French left was the cream of the French army, 1st Light infantry and then 42nd Line infantry, 2880 men strong. Then to their right was Peyri’s brigade of Swiss and Poles, 1500 strong and on the far right was Digonet’s 23rd light infantry, of 1250 men, all now joined by the French cavalry and artillery. Although subject to some controversy in the past, it seems the French or at least Compere’s men were not in their usual columns when the battle began but in lines of three. Reynier assumed the British would be in their normal two deep line and felt his columns would be too vulnerable to concentrated fire. The column however had the advantage of momentum, which a line did not have.
The two armies were now about a mile apart on the open plain and the French cavalry preceded by some startled buffalo now wheeled round towards the British but failed to close.
When the choking dust raised by the cavalry,had settled and the view cleared, the two opposing forces were noticeably nearer one another as they both continued their steady forward progress.
The two armies continued to close upon each other in silence, broken only by the crash of opposing cannon, the French fire was unusually for them inaccurate, while the more numerous British guns were caused more damage, especially when firing canister shot. However neither force had however significant artillery. The cannon smoke however further helped to obscure the vision of both armies.
Major Stewart recorded:
I have already noticed that the enemy’s guns were not well served, and pointed too high; not so the British. When our artillery opened, under the direction of Major Lemoine and Captain Dougal Campbell, no practice could be more perfect. Every shot told, and carried off a file of the enemy’s line. When the shot struck the line, two or three files on the right and left of the men thrown down gave way leaving a momentary opening before they recovered and closed up the gap.
With Compere’s and Kempt’s brigades closing to about one hundred yards but with the range increasing to five hundred yards across the rest of the battle front for the British had no time to straighten their lines before the first clash occurred between the French Ist Legere and Kempt’s brigade. It was the French 1st Legere who were first given the order to halt, load and fire. The range however was at the extreme limit and the effect on Kempt’s troops was minimal.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal that Kempt noticing that his men were too encumbered by packs, greycoats and blankets ordered them to offload themselves of their loads and that as the front rank turned about to help the rear rank, that the French mistook this for the start of a retreat.” Whatever the reason, Compere galloped in front of his men shouting for them to stop firing and to advance with the bayonets fixed.
The British held their fire with Kempt urging his men to let the French come close and it was not until French were about a hundred paces away, that Kempt ordered a mass fusillade. The French faltered for a moment but then their momentum carried them forward but at twenty paces a second volley brought the French to a ragged halt. With the inaccurate and short range weapons of the time it was the side that delayed firing as long as possible which if it could hold its nerve was likely to be victorious and so it proved to be in this case. Kempt seizing the opportunity now ordered “Steady, Light infantry! wait for the word. charge bayonets”. The French tried to rally but were swept aside. Compere himself though hit twice, accompanied by a few men, struggled to close with the British but were soon overwhelmed. Kempt’s men pursued the French until they rallied at the village of Maida. With the loss, killed or captured some 900 men the 1st Legere ceased to exist as an organised force.
Then Acland’s brigade moved forward in support of the Light Brigade and came up against the 42nd. By now fighting began to spread across the entire front. The French 42nd to the immediate right of the 1st Legere took their cue from the 1st Legere and also began to retreat but in a more orderly fashion and rallying were able to covert the exposed French left flank. Then Peyri’s brigade of Poles and Swiss advanced from the rear of the French centre to endeavour to halt Acland’s forward movement..
The enemy, or at least the Swiss for the Poles quickly vanished and ceased to pay any further significant part in the battle, closed up with the British in good order.
Major Stewart recounts how the fact there were Swiss on both sides caused confusion.
“On the side of the French there was a Swiss Regiment, commanded by an officer of the family of Watteville, a family which had also a regiment in our service, and in the field that day. The Watteville Regiment in the French service was dressed in a kind of light claret-coloured uniform, something like scarlet when much worn, and with hats so much resembling those of the band of our Wattsville’s, that when this corps was seen advancing from their second line, the Highlanders, in their inexperience, believed they were our own, who had in some manner got to the front; and a word passed quickly to cease firing. The fire had accordingly slackened, before the voice of the mounted officers, whose elevated position enabled them to distinguish more clearly, could be heard, and the enemy, believing this relaxation to proceed from a different cause, advanced with additional boldness. This brought them so close that when the men were undeceived and recommenced firing, it was with such effect that, in ten minutes, the front was cleared, and the enemy driven back with great precipitation.”
British discipline had held again and with two concentrated volleys at very close range and a counter charge from the 78th and 81st, reinforced by the 58th brought up from the reserves had forced the enemy at the very last moment to retreat.
Major Stewart further recounted “I have heard that in Lieut-General Sir John Stuarts official dispatch concerning the battle of Maida it is stated that the bayonets of the contending forces actually crossed during the charge. They may have done so, in some parts of the line –– but so far as I could see they did not do so, and I have never heard any one who was in the action say that “the bayonets actually crossed.” It would seem in fact that this probably did not happen although it shows how close the two lines got to one another.
Joseph Anderson, later to be Lieutenant Colonel but then an ensign with the 78th Regiment and part of Acland’s brigade, wrote:
“We remained quiet and steady, but impatient, on our ground, and had a full view of our foes, as they boldly and confidently advanced, evidently expecting that they could, and would, walk over us; and so they ought to have done, for we afterwards ascertained they numbered upwards of nine thousand of their best troops, while our force did not much exceed six thousand men! Their cavalry was also more numerous, for we had only one squadron of the 23rd Light Dragoons [this contradicts all other reports] but ours was so admirably managed that it kept the others in check during the whole day.
As soon as these formidable French columns came sufficiently near, and not till then, our lines were called to “attention” and ordered to “shoulder arms.” Then commenced in earnest the glorious battle of Maida, first with a volley from our brigade into the enemy’s columns and from our artillery at each flank without ceasing, followed by independent file firing as fast as our men could load; and well they did their work! Nor were the enemy idle; they returned our fire without ceasing, then in part commenced to deploy into line. The independent file firing was still continued with more vigour than ever for at least a quarter of an hour, when many brave men fell on both sides. Our brigade was then ordered to charge, supported by our second line, and this they did lustily and with endless hearty cheers, the French at the same moment following our example and advancing towards us at a steady charge of bayonets, the rolling of drums, and endless loud cheers. Both armies were equally determined to carry all before them; it was not till we got within five or six paces of each other that the enemy wavered, broke their ranks, and gave way, turning away to a man and scampering off, most of them throwing away their arms at the same time; but our men continued their cheers and got up with some of them, and numbers were either bayoneted, shot, or taken prisoners. The enemy was then fairly driven over the bridge by which they had advanced, or forced into the river, where numbers were captured or drowned.”
Reynier’s now made use of Digonet’s 23rd Legere, which formed his left flank and was made up of some 1250 men. With this regiment plus his cavalry, it looked for a time as if the French might achieve in reverse what the British had achieved on the opposite flank. For racing through smoke from dead grass set alight by the firing the French were about to encircle Cole’s brigade on the British left which had been left exposed by the forward motion of Acland. With supplies of ammunition running low and the troops worn out by the exertions of the battle and the heat and dust, there was a real danger that the battle could still be lost or at least end in a stalemate.
The French however were brought to a sudden and totally unexpected halt however by Lieutenant Colonel Ross’s 20th Regiment of Foot. The 550 men of the 20th had landed at Sam Eufemia whist the battle was in progress. On being told where the danger was Ross rushed his fresh troops straight into battle. The sun was in the eyes of the French cavalry and they were taken completely by surprise.
After the cavalry had retreated, Ross moved his troops forward and started to enfilade the French flank, swinging to the right and poured a volley into the now vulnerable and exposed 23rd. They then retreated but in good order to join up with the 42nd.
By noon the battle was over. The 23rd and 42 Regiments had remained functioning units and concentrating his scattered troops round these two units, Reynier retreated into the hills protected by his cavalry. If the British had had cavalry the defeat of the French could well have been even more total. However there were none and with the solders tired and ammunition low, the French were largely unmolested and were able to retreat in good order.
The proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution record that “all the French lay on their faces being stabbed in the back while all the British lay on their backs being shot in front” Even accepting a pardonably degree of exaggeration the report gives the flavour of the battle. In his Sketches Major James Stewart of the 78th wrote “The disadvantage so frequently experienced in the transmarine expeditions of England, occasioned by the want of ships for the conveyance of a sufficient number of troops, was now severely felt; for though the field was most favourable for the operations of cavalry, that arm was, on the present occasion, totally wanting. As soon as the ships had landed the infantry at St. Euphemia, they were ordered back for the cavalry, who arrived the day after the battle”.
The British had won and while praise can and should be given to the steadfastness of the units, as in all battles there was an element of luck. The French decision to attack the British left flank where the best British units was pivotal. The British unit, which suffered the most casualties, was Acland’s. This was probably not because they were involved in the heaviest fighting but because they had the most inexperienced troops. If the French had concentrated their attack on the British centre or right the result may have been very different.
The wounded, including Compere now began to arrive at the beach and the four companies of troops who had stayed back to man the trenches in case an evacuation under fire became necessary, together with sailors of from the warships were soon involved in caring for the casualties.
After the battle was over, thee was a moment of panic when it was reported that the French had launched a cavalry charge and the 27th Foot and the Grenadiers who by this time were bathing in the sea, after the heat and exertion of the day, were hurriedly ordered to form a line, bayonets fixed and stark naked. It turned out to be nothing more than a report triggered by the general confusion of the battlefield and dust kicked up by a stampeding herd of buffalo.
Total British losses were one officer, three sergeants, and 41 rank and file killed, and eleven officers (which included Stewart), eight sergeants, two drummers, and 261 rank and file wounded: whereas the loss of the French, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, was estimated at nearly 4000 men.
Stuart spent that night on board the Pompee with Sir Sidney. It must have been a difficult meeting. In April Stuart had been placed in charge of all the Sicilian land forces. However on the 28th of June, just as the invasion force was setting off, Ferdinand placed all Sicilian forces under Sir Sidney. Stuart complained bitterly to Hugh Elliot, the British Resident Minister. He wrote on the 10th of July: “The decree of the 28th of last month issued by his serene Majesty and distributed by Admiral Sir Sidney Smith during the operation of the army tends so much to weaken the authorities which it was necessary for me to assume in the proposition of my enterprise that I felt myself foolish to continue to expose the lives and reputations of the victorious troops under my command .The army as well as myself have felt the slight that has been offered, they are not the mercenaries of his serene highness but the protectors of his dominions”
Strained though the relations must have been, they did discuss how to take advantage of the unexpected victory and though in principle they agreed that some forces should be diverted used to relive the siege of Gaeta, nothing happened.
Stuart went ashore in the morning and rode to the village of Maida where he settled in and wrote a message to his troops and compiled his despatches for Windham in London. He wrote in a triumphalist tone.
Camp on the plain of Maida
6th July 1806
It is with the utmost satisfaction that I have the honour of imparting to you for the information of his Majesty the particulars of an action in which the French army quartered on this plain have sustained a signal defeat by the troops under my command
General Reynier having been apprised of our debarkation at St Eufemia appears to have made a rapid march. For the purpose of attacking me and with his characteristic confidence of defeating me
On the afternoon of the 3rd inst I received intelligence that he had that day encamped near Maida about ten miles distant from our position – that this force consisted at the moment of about 4000 infantry and 300 cavalry together with four pieces of artillery – and that he was in expectation of being joined within a day or two by 3000 more troops who were marching after him in a second division.
As I had landed under a promise to the inhabitants to contend for them if necessary I thought it could tend to discourage the exertions I meant to excite if I was to confine myself entirely to defence with at the same time my intelligence of the approach of the enemy gave me but little time to reflect.
I determined therefore at any rate to advance towards his positions.”
Despite his tensions with Smith, Stuart in his despatches was generous to the role of the Navy.
“The scene of the action was too far from the sea to enable us to derive any direct help from the navy – but Admiral Sir Sidney Smith who had arrived in the Bay the evening before the action had directed such a disposition of ships and gunboats as would have greatly favoured us had events obliged us to retire – the solicitude of every part off the navy to be of use to us- the promptitude with which the seamen hastened on shore with our supplies – the anxiety to assist our wounded – and the tenderness with which they treated them would have been an affecting circumstance to observers even the most indifferent”
In his message to his troops Stuart wrote
“Major General Sir John Stuart finds himself incapable of expressing to the troops the sentiments excited in him by their brave and distinguished conduct in the late affair on the 4th in which they gained so signal a triumph over a boasting and insolent enemy. Every solder the general has the honour of addressing will have equal right with himself to make boast hereafter that bore a part in the glorious battle of Maida.”
John Colborne later Lord Seaton, who was with the 20th Regiment, described the battle from his own more limited perspective, to his stepfather.
To Mr Bargus
Camp near Monteleone
11th July 1806
My dear Sir – this sheet of paper you will perceive bears strong marks of active service, and as all my baggage is contained in my pocket it has of course, been considerably damaged. I have not time to give you a detailed account of one of the most glorious battles that an English army has ever fought.
The expedition sailed from Messina, and arrived in the Bay of St. Euphemia on the Ist of July. On the 4th Sir John Stuart moved on to attack the French army under the command of Reynier, who occupied an excellent! position in a wood above the plain of Maida but confident in his own genius, the superiority in numbers both cavalry and infantry, and despising us too much, he advanced to the plain to meet us. The right was first engaged, and some of the best regiments of the enemy charged us with the greatest intrepidity, nor were our men less forward to meet them reserving our fire till we came within a short distance, the astonished invincibles were mowed down by our well directed fire and the right of our line passed through their left, few of them escaped. Their dead and woundcd marked the original line. In this affair our light infantry distinguished themselves.
All the force of the enemy was now directed to the left, endeavouring frequently to turn it, but owing to the cool and gallant conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Smith and the 27th Regiment under his command, who penetrated the design of General Reynier, this attack succeeded as the one on the right. The 20th, coming up at this critical moment in echelon, and forming on the left of the 27th, the enemy retired in the greatest confusion, and had we had cavalry, every man of them would have been a prisoner. . The loss in our regiment has been chiefly confined to the flank companies above five and thirty privates and one captain [McLean], a particular and intimate friend of mine and the only officer killed in the field He was shot through the heart at the commencement of the action. The field of battle after the action was a horrid sight. The loss of the French in killed, wounded and prisoners is almost incredible, at nearly 2,000. Our army entered the field with 4,600; the enemy had 7,200 bayonets and 300 cavalry. Fortunate it is for us that the spectators were numerous. I now begin to think, as our ancestors did, that one Englishman is equal to two Frenchmen”
With the battle over Stuart himself seemed content to remain in Maida, Bunbury, the Quartermaster General said that Stuart had formed no plan and was just a spectator. However whatever Stuart’s limitations, he was well clearly served by his officers.
Colonel Kempt advanced further along the line of hills and Oswald’s brigade took Monteleone with its garrison of over three hundred and fifty troops..
Also Colborne on the day following the battle, was detached with a small party to follow the track taken by the defeated French. He reached the town of Borgia and found the French had evacuated. Catching up with their rearguard and finding the British army was not following behind him, he retreated. He describes the situation thus:
It was after the battle of Maida, and we were’ going on towards a town called Borgia, and were not at all certain where the French were. I commanded the advanced guard-about 87 soldiers and two dragoons (these were my cavalry). I had only one other officer with me. The column was some way behind us, and my guide was getting frightened, so I said, ‘ Well, I can’t help it; if you don’t show .us the way, or get another guide, you must be hanged.’ So he went with two or three soldiers and tried to knock up somebody in a cottage. At last a man was found who said he would lead us if we would let him go when we were within a hundred yards’ of the town. When we were within sight of the town he took care to put us in mind of our engagement, and we let him go. Then I had not the least idea whether the French were there or not. Just at the entrance to the town I saw a man, so I said, ‘ There, catch him I make haste. We ran after him and tried to catch him, but he ran into his cottage, and the same thing happened with two or three others, until we actually found ourselves half way up the town. At last we got a man who happened to be the’ Capo Genti,’ the head of the town; so I said, ‘ Dove sonoi Francesi ‘ , Oh, they passed through five or six hours ago, and are encamped a few miles further on: Then all the people, when they found we were English, came flocking round and I had begun to take lodgings for us all, when a message came from our column that it had retreated. Hearing rockets and fireworks they thought it must be the enemy, when really it was the people in the town firing for joy of our arrival. This retreat of our column was a great pity. The French retired still further the next day, and the people of the town were very angry with us, because, in my expectation of the column, I had ordered 4,000 rations. They all turned out and reproached us, and I was anxious as to ‘what would happen. 1said, ‘ It is not my fault. I am very sorry indeed to go back.’ But they were very angry all the same. ” So after marching all day and all night, at four o’ clock we had to march back again. I had a bad fever afterwards, but I do not know if that was the reason. Great numbers had fever owing to the carelessness of the Quartermaster-General’s department, who took up our quarters close to a marsh; although you are sure to get malaria if you sleep. . Anywhere where there is stagnant water and the thermometer between 80 and 90. About sixteen in a company died of it, and the doctors did. not know how to treat it and bled for it so it was nearly a year before the army was free of it.
The local and immediate results of the victory were considerable. The French in the region retreated north and to the Adriatic coast but were harassed all the way be a resurgent partisan movement.
Stuart did contemplate crossing the mountains with the mass of his troops but abandoned the idea, claiming that the order granting Sir Sidney authority over local forces meant that he would have insufficient forces.. Accordingly he headed south. Some British troops returned to Sicily by sea but the majority advanced down south overland to the straights of Messina and took possession on their way of all the forts and depots and stores, arms and ammunition readied by the French for the invasion of Sicily. Finally the towns of Reggio and Scylla just across the straights from Messina were attacked. Reggio fell quickly, Scylla proved harder because of its thick walls and siege guns had to be brought up overland but it too had fallen by the 23rd of July.
A real victory had been won and Sicily was safe from invasion. It must however be questionable how real was the danger of invasion. Napoleon certainly was for the project and was constantly encouraging his brother Joseph to take the initiative but Joseph was reluctant. He knew that even when the French controlled all Calabria, crossing the straight of Messina would be a formidable task. There was a strong British naval presence and the swift currents through the straights could have made an invasion difficult even without the Royal Navy. In the event no attempt, was ever made by the French.
Further Joseph was concerned abut his rear, He was a great respecter of the Royal Navy and how it could act as a multiplier of land forces. He wrote that 8000 British troops were equal to a force of 50,000 French on the mainland, for in eight days the navy could transfer troops to eight different places.
Maida showed that with the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar that England no longer fearing invasion and having command of the seas could land troops, thereafter support them, on any part of the Continent accessible from the sea and defeat the French on land.