Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William Sidney

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SMITH, Sir WILLIAM SIDNEY, known as Sir Sidney Smith (1764–1840), admiral, born on 21 June 1764, was second son of John Smith, a captain in the guards, and grandson of Edward Smith, a captain in the navy, who, in command of the Eltham, was mortally wounded in the attack on La Guayra on 18 Feb. 1742–3 [see Knowles, Sir Charles]. It has been supposed that the name Sidney referred to a kinship with the Strangford family of Smythe, which had intermarried with the Sidneys [see Smythe, Percy Clinton Sydney, sixth Viscount Strangford]. After a few years at school at Tonbridge and at Bath, Smith entered the navy in June 1777, on board the Tortoise storeship, going out to North America. In January 1778 he was moved from her to the Unicorn, a small 20-gun frigate, which was in company with the Experiment on 25 Sept. 1778 when, near Boston, she drove on shore, and captured the American frigate Raleigh; and again, on 3 May 1779, when she drove on shore, and captured or destroyed three French frigates in Cancale Bay [see Wallace, Sir James]. From September to November 1779 Smith was borne on the books of the Arrogant, then fitting at Portsmouth, and on 25 Nov. he joined the Sandwich, flagship of Sir George Brydges Rodney (afterwards Lord Rodney) [q. v.], and in her was present in the action off Cape St. Vincent on 16 Jan. 1780, and in the three actions with De Guichen on 17 April and 15 and 19 May 1780.

On 25 Sept. 1780 Smith was promoted by Rodney to be lieutenant of the Alcide, with Captain (afterwards Sir) Charles Thompson [q. v.], and in her was present in the action off the Chesapeake on 5 Sept. 1781, in the operations at St. Kitts in January 1782 [see Hood, Samuel, Viscount Hood], and in the battle of Dominica on 12 April 1782. On 6 May 1782 he was promoted by Rodney to the command of the Fury sloop, and on 7 May 1783 he was posted to the Alcmène. Early in 1784 the Alcmène returned to England and was paid off, and in the spring of 1785 Smith went to France, where, for the next two years, he resided for the most part at Caen, studying French and going much into French society, so that he acquired perfect familiarity with the language. His excursions led him along the coast, visiting the places which he had learnt to know from the sea some seven or eight years before. At Cancale a fisherman told him that he had picked up forty round-shot near a windmill, which, wrote Smith to his brother, ‘I remember amusing myself with firing at. 'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good; for he sold them for old iron for twelve sous a piece.’

In 1787 Smith paid a visit to Gibraltar, and conceiving, from reports of the excessive insolence of the emperor of Morocco, that a war was imminent, undertook a journey through his dominions ‘in order to acquire a knowledge of his coasts, harbours, and force.’ On his return in May 1788 he forwarded to the admiralty a report of his observations, accompanied with a request that he might have the command of a small squadron on the coast, his local knowledge, he submitted, making up for his want of seniority and experience. As the war, however, did not take place, he went, in the summer of 1789, to Stockholm with six months' leave of absence. In December he applied for a twelve months' extension of this leave, but in January suddenly returned to England, with a view to obtaining permission to accept the offer of a command in the Swedish fleet. At the same time he charged himself with the English ambassador's despatches, and with a direct message from the king of Sweden. It was probably this irregularity which led to his cold reception by the government, who refused to recognise him as the self-constituted representative of Sweden, and declined to give him any answer to the message he had brought. He returned to Sweden without even the permission to accept the king's offers, and thus, though during the campaign against Russia in the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1790 he served sometimes with the fleet, as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Sudermania, the commander-in-chief, and sometimes on shore, on the personal staff of the king, it was only as a volunteer, and without well-defined authority. The position was one of great difficulty, and excited much jealousy. Neither the king, nor the duke, nor any of the responsible officers knew anything about the conduct of a fleet, and if they escaped defeat in the action of 3–4 June, or blundered into victory on 9 July, it was only that the equal ignorance of the Russians permitted Smith's efforts to balance those of the English officers in the Russian service, or, after their death, to turn the scale [see Trevenen, James]. The armistice which followed the battle of 9 July led to a peace between the contending powers, and in August Smith returned to England. Gustavus III constituted him a knight grand cross of the order of the Sword, with the insignia of which George III formally invested him at St. James's on 16 May 1792.

Almost immediately after this he went out to Constantinople on a visit to his younger brother, Charles Spencer Smith, then ambassador to the Porte, being entrusted, he used afterwards to say, with a secret mission, and probably intending to volunteer for service with the Turks, should the war with Russia continue. Towards the end of 1793 he received the news of the war and the general order to return to England at once. Calling at Smyrna, he found there a considerable number of seamen, similarly called home, but unable to get a passage. On his own responsibility he purchased a small vessel, shipped some forty of them on board her, and with her joined Lord Hood at Toulon. When the evacuation of the place became necessary, Smith volunteered to burn the French ships which had to be left behind—a duty which, in the haste and confusion incident to the time, was carried out so imperfectly that several of the ships reported as burnt and destroyed formed part of the French fleets during the next and following years. The distinction conferred on Smith, an officer on half-pay, by assigning to him a task of difficulty and distinction, added to his own habitual and excessive self-assertion, obtained for him much ill will in the fleet, and it was freely said that he talked too much to be of any great use. In the emergency, however, Hood was glad to have a spare man at hand, and sent him home with the despatches. He was at once appointed to the Diamond frigate, which, after being employed during 1794 in the North Sea, was through 1795–6 employed on the north coast of France, where, in command of a flotilla of small craft, Smith displayed unusual ability for partisan warfare, captured or destroyed great numbers of the enemy's armed vessels, and completely stopped the coasting trade.

On 18 April 1796 the ship was off Havre, and Smith learnt that a noted privateer lugger, which, by her superior speed and the ability of her commander, had done much damage to our trade, was then lying in the port. Smith determined to send in the boats to bring her out, and, finding at the last moment that he had no available lieutenant, went himself in command of the enterprise. The lugger was taken by surprise and captured, almost without resistance; but when she was in the river, with Smith on board, she was caught by the flood-tide and swept up some distance above the town, where, the wind having fallen very light, she still was at daybreak. She was then attacked by a very superior force of gunboats and other armed vessels and recaptured, with Smith and his officers and men. Smith and his companions were taken to Havre; but, though he was treated with proper courtesy, the proposals made by the English government for his exchange were bluntly rejected, and within a few days he was sent to Paris, where he was closely confined in the Temple. The French government and the French people were greatly exasperated against him. It was known that he had directed the burning of the ships at Toulon; it was understood that, at the time, he held no commission, and it was maintained that his piratical action put him out of the recognised category of prisoners of war. His eighteen months' cruise on the coast of France had won for him a dangerous notoriety; and it was even urged that at the moment of his capture, in a place where no English officer had any ostensible business, he was attempting to carry out some deep-laid and nefarious plot for the destruction of Havre (Barrow, i. 199–200). In consequence, though not harshly treated, he was retained a prisoner for two weary years. He then, with the assistance of a Colonel Phélypeaux, an officer of engineers in the old royal army of France, and aided, it was supposed, by a feminine intrigue, succeeded in effecting his escape, reached Havre, and was taken off by a fishing-boat to the Argo frigate, which landed him at Portsmouth a few days later. Sir William Hotham [q. v.], senior officer off Havre at the time, noted in his ‘Characters’ that he was one morning invited by the captain of the Argo to breakfast. ‘As he had designedly kept the circumstance [of Smith's arrival on board] from me, I was some minutes sitting next to him at breakfast without at all knowing who he was, he was so completely disguised, and was such a perfect Frenchman.’ Smith had, in fact, already deceived sharper eyes and more capable ears than Hotham's, unless, indeed, we accept Barrow's unsupported suggestion that the escape was connived at by the Directory (i. 230).

On arriving in London, on 8 May 1798, Smith was taken by Lord Spencer, the first lord of the admiralty, to wait on the king, and a few weeks later he was appointed to the Tigre of 80 guns, in which, in October, he was sent out to join Lord St. Vincent at Cadiz or Gibraltar, but with a commission from the foreign office appointing him joint plenipotentiary with his brother at Constantinople, and instructions to St. Vincent to send him to the Levant (Nicolas, iii. 214). The anomalous position led to what threatened to be a very serious misunderstanding; for St. Vincent, conceiving it to be Lord Spencer's intention that Smith should conduct the further operations on the coast of Egypt, did not formally put him under Nelson's orders, and Smith, who was not at all the man to minimise his authority, assumed the airs of an independent commander, constituted himself a commodore, and hoisted a broad pennant; all which gave—as it could not help doing—great offence to Nelson, on whose prerogative of command Smith was unduly trespassing (ib. iii. 213, 215). It has indeed been asserted that there was no such intention, either on the part of Smith or Spencer; but both of them had had sufficient experience of the admiralty and the navy to know the evils that might result from an error in form. It was only after very sharp letters from St. Vincent and Nelson that Smith was convinced of his mistake, and, while remaining senior officer in the Levant, conducted the business as subordinate to Nelson.

Meantime he had undertaken the defence of Saint Jean d'Acre, which was to render his name famous. On 3 March 1799 he took over the command of Alexandria, and the same evening learnt that Bonaparte, on his way to Syria, had stormed Jaffa. He at once sent the Theseus to Acre, and with her, Colonel Phélypeaux, who, having shared his escape from Paris, was now serving with him as a volunteer. Phélypeaux and Miller, the captain of the Theseus, made what arrangements were possible for the defence of the town, and on the 15th they were joined by Smith in the Tigre. But their preparations would have been of little value had not the superiority at sea enabled him on the 18th to capture the whole of the siege artillery, stores, and ammunition on which Bonaparte was dependent for the prosecution of his design. The eight gunboats in which these had been embarked were also a most valuable reinforcement; and while the siege guns were mounted on the walls of the fortress, the gunboats, supported by the Tigre and Theseus, took up positions from which they enfiladed the French lines. To carry on the attack the French had only their field guns, and it was not till 25 April that they were able to bring up six heavy guns from Jaffa. Time had thus been gained, and the defences of the town put into a better state. On 4 May, after six weeks of mining, countermining, and hard fighting at very close quarters, a practicable breach was made, the mine was finished, and a general assault was ordered for the 5th. During the night, however, the besieged destroyed the mine, and the assault was postponed. On the evening of the 7th the long-expected reinforcement of Turkish troops from Rhodes came in sight, and Bonaparte, seeing the necessity of anticipating them, delivered the assault at once. The combat raged through the night with the utmost fury, and at daybreak the French held one of the towers. The Turkish ships were still some distance off becalmed, and Smith, seeing the critical nature of the struggle, landed a strong party of seamen armed with pikes, who held the breach till the troops arrived. All day the battle raged. At nightfall the assailants withdrew. Twelve days later the siege was raised. ‘In Smith's character there was a strong fantastic and vainglorious strain; but, so far as appears, he showed at Acre discretion and sound judgment, as well as energy and courage. He had to be much on shore as well as afloat; but he seems to have shown Phélypeaux and, after his death, Colonel Douglas the confidence and deference which their professional skill demanded, as he certainly was most generous in recognising their services and those of others. The good sense which defers to superior experience, the lofty spirit which bears the weight of responsibility and sustains the courage of waverers, ungrudging expenditure of means and effort, unshaken determination to endure to the end, and heroic inspiration at the critical moment of the last assault, all these fine qualities must in candour be allowed to Smith at the siege of Acre’ (Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, i. 303–4).

The news of this decisive check to the progress of the French arms in the east was received in England with great enthusiasm. The thanks of both houses of parliament were voted to Smith, and a year later a pension of 1,000l. a year was settled on him. He was given also the thanks of the city of London and the freedom of the Levant Company, together with a piece of plate and, some years later, a grant of 1,500l. From the sultan he received a pelisse and the chelingk or plume of triumph, such as were given also to Nelson for the victory in Aboukir Bay. The glory so deservedly accorded to Smith for his triumph at Acre rekindled the too exuberant vanity which the reprimands of St. Vincent and of Nelson had previously reduced within manageable limits. He again fancied himself commander-in-chief, independent of even the government, and plenipotentiary, controlled only by his younger brother, who was a long way off, at Constantinople; and thus, setting aside the positive orders from home that no terms were to be made with the enemy which did not involve the surrender of the French troops in Egypt as prisoners of war, he took on himself to conclude (24 Jan. 1800) the treaty of El Arish, by the terms of which the French soldiers, with their arms, baggage, and effects, were to be transported to France at the charge of the sultan and his allies. It was impossible for Lord Keith, who was in chief command, to approve of such a treaty [see Elphinstone, George Keith, Viscount Keith]; and the war recommenced, to be brought to an end by the campaign of 1801, through which the Tigre formed part of the squadron under Keith, and Smith was landed in command of the seamen employed on shore. After the surrender of Alexandria, 2 Sept. 1801, he was sent home with despatches, and arrived in London on 10 Nov.

In the general election of 1802 he was returned as M.P. for Rochester, and during 1803 had, under Lord Keith, command of a squadron of small craft on the coast of Flanders and Holland. On 9 Nov. 1805 he was promoted to be rear-admiral, and in January 1806 he hoisted his flag on board the Pompée for service in the Mediterranean, where Lord Collingwood was instructed to employ him in a detached command on the coast of Naples. From May to August 1806 he carried on a successful war of outposts against the French, and another, more bitter and not so successful, against the English military officers, with whom he was supposed to be co-operating, and especially against Sir John Moore (1761–1809) [q. v.], who was quite unable to understand the real merit hidden beneath so much extravagance and vanity. Colonel (afterwards Sir Henry Edward) Bunbury [q. v.], then chief of the staff under Stuart or Moore, tells many stories of Smith's absurdities, and says ‘he was an enthusiast, always panting for distinction, restlessly active, but desultory in his views, extravagantly vain, daring, quick-sighted, and fertile in those resources which befit a partisan leader; but he possessed no great depth of judgment, nor any fixity of purpose save that of persuading mankind, as he was fully persuaded himself, that Sidney Smith was the most brilliant of chevaliers. He was kind tempered, generous, and as agreeable as a man can be supposed to be who is always talking of himself’ (Narrative of some Passages in the great War with France, p. 232). Moore described Smith as ‘most impudent;’ but Bunbury, although naturally taking the soldier's estimate of the man, says ‘the coming of the admiral and the energy of his first proceedings soon produced a wide effect. Arms and ammunition were conveyed into the mountains of Calabria; the smaller detachments of the enemy were driven from the shores, and some of the strongest points were armed and occupied by the insurgents and parties of English marines and seamen. The admiral spread his ships and small craft along the coasts from Scylla to the Bay of Naples, he took the island of Capri: threatened Salerno and Policastro; scattered through the interior his proclamations as “commander-in-chief on behalf of King Ferdinand,” and the insurrection soon kindled throughout the Basilicata and the two Calabrias, though the bands acted in general with little concert or collective strength’ (ib.)

In August Smith had instructions to put himself under the orders of Sir John Thomas Duckworth [q. v.], with whom he co-operated in the futile demonstration off Constantinople in February–March 1807. In the summer he returned to England, and in November was sent out as senior officer to the Tagus, with his flag in the Hibernia. At Lisbon he made the arrangements for the departure of the prince regent and the royal family to the Brazils, and sent several of the ships under his orders as a convoy to the Portuguese squadron. In February 1808 he was himself sent out to Rio de Janeiro, to take command of the South American station, but a bitter quarrel which broke out between him and Lord Strangford, the English minister, led to his being summarily recalled in the summer of 1809. A later correspondence with Canning seems to show that the parts of Smith's conduct which Strangford had represented as irregular were strictly in accordance with his secret instructions; but in any case it was obviously impossible to permit the minister at a foreign court and the commander-in-chief on the station to be writing abusive letters to or at each other [see Smyth, Percy Clinton Sydney].

On 31 July 1810 Smith was promoted to be vice-admiral, and in July 1812 went out to the Mediterranean as second in command under Sir Edward Pellew (afterwards Viscount Exmouth) [q. v.] In March 1814, being in very bad health, he was allowed to return to England with his flag flying in the Hibernia. With her arrival at Plymouth in July Smith's service came to an end. In June 1815 he found himself, at the critical moment, at Brussels, and on the afternoon of the 18th rode out to the army, joined the Duke of Wellington, and rode with him from St. Jean to Waterloo. ‘Thus,’ he wrote, ‘though I was not allowed to have any of the fun, I had the heartfelt gratification of being the first Englishman that was not in the battle who shook hands with him.’ He accompanied the army to Paris, where, in the Palais Bourbon, on 29 Dec., he was invested by the Duke of Wellington with the insignia of the K.C.B., to which he had been nominated in the previous January. On 19 July 1821 he attained the rank of admiral. During his later years he lived principally in Paris, amusing himself with a fictitious order of ‘Knights Liberators’ or ‘Knights Templars,’ which he had formed and of which he constituted himself president. It had for its proposed aim the liberation of Christian slaves from the Barbary pirates; but its efforts seem to have been limited to correspondence. On 4 July 1838 Smith was nominated a G.C.B. He died in Paris on 26 May 1840 and was buried at Père-Lachaise, where there is a monument to his memory. He married, in October 1810, Caroline, widow of Sir George Berriman Rumbold [q. v.], who died in 1826, having no issue by her second marriage.

A characteristically theatrical portrait by Eckstein, in the National Portrait Gallery, has been engraved. A more pleasing portrait by Chandler has been engraved by E. Bell.

[Barrow's Life of Smith (2 vols. 8vo, 1848) was written to a great extent from Smith's papers, and incorporates many of his letters. It has thus a biographical value of which the extreme carelessness with which it has been put together cannot entirely deprive it. Howard's Life (2 vols. 8vo) is pleasantly written, but with no special sources of information. The memoirs in Naval Chronicle, iv. 445 (with a portrait by Ridley), vol. xxvi. (see Index), and Marshall's Roy. Nav. Biogr. i. 291, are useful. See also O'Neil's Account of the Proceedings of the Squadron of Sir S. Smith in effecting the Escape of the Royal Family of Portugal; Burke's Works, 1823, vii. 217 seq.; Croker's Correspondence and Diaries, i. 348–9; Nicolas's Nelson Despatches (see Index).]

J. K. L.