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The Defence of Acre, 1799

Christopher Lloyd describes how, trying to fight his way from Egypt to Constantinople, Bonaparte was checked by Sidney Smith’s defence.

On November 10th, 1801, Captain Sir Sidney Smith galloped down Whitehall in the costume of a Turkish admiral to deliver despatches of his own success. In a romantic age he was the most histrionic of naval officers, not excepting Nelson. In almost every way he was the opposite of his witty and modest contemporary, Rev. Sydney Smith, who is perhaps better known today.

The estrangement between Nelson and Smith on the eve of the defence of Acre, which made the latter’s fame, was not entirely due to temperament. Basking in his reputation as the hero of the Nile after the destruction of the French fleet of August 1st, 1798, Nelson was convalescing from his wound in the arms of Lady Hamilton at Naples. He was not in the mood to favour the appearance of a junior captain calling himself a commodore with an independent commission in the Mediterranean.

Having conquered Egypt, and having at the same time lost his fleet at the battle of the Nile, Bonaparte intended to fight his way back to Europe via Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire had declared war against him, and Turkish armies were moving south. Bonaparte determined to take the offensive by marching up the coast road through Palestine and Syria. In order to harass this march.

Sir Sidney Smith, who had previously been engaged in secret service work at Constantinople, was appointed by the Foreign Office as joint minister plenipotentiary with his brother, Spencer Smith, to the Porte; and he was commissioned by the Admiralty to take command of any ships in the Levant after the withdrawal of Nelson’s fleet for the siege of Malta. It was this dual commission and the failure of Lord St. Vincent, commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, as well as the authorities at home, to notify Nelson of these arrangements that caused the quarrel. As usual, it was a failure in communications.

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