The Siege of Calvi (1794)
The Siege of Calvi was a combined British-Corsican military operation during the Invasion of Corsica in the early stages of the French Revolutionary Wars. The Corsican people had risen up against the French garrison of the island in 1793 and sought support from the British Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet under Lord Hood.
In exchange for this military support against the French-held towns of San Fiorenzo, Bastia and Calvi, it was negotiated that Corsica would become a self-governing part of the British Empire, providing Hood with a base of operations against the French coast. The French garrison on the island, comprising some 6,000 French troops and Corsican militia was led by the pro-revolutionary Corsican Raphaël de Casabianca, based in Calvi. In February 1794 a small British expeditionary force led by Hood landed near San Fiorenzo, laid siege to the town and captured it in a short campaign in April. The much larger town of Bastia was besieged and starved into surrender by May.
The British force was now led by army-commander General Charles Stuart, as Hood has sailed to Gourjean Bay. Following the siege of Bastia the British now turned their attention to the fortress of Calvi, as it was the only remaining French bastion in Corsica.
Calvi was a heavily fortified position, defended by two large modern artillery forts.
On the west side of the town was Fort Mozello, a star fort mounting ten cannon and supported by a smaller battery to the east. To the southwest of the town was a second fortification, Fort Mollinochesco, which dominated the main road through the mountains from the Corsican interior.
The British commanders knew that if they delayed an assault into the summer of 1794 that their troops would suffer in the "unhealthy season" when malaria was rife on the island and their conquest might be significantly delayed. Stuart and Hood thus resolved to attack as soon as practicable.
Stuart landed his forces at the cove of Port-Agra, 3 miles (4.8 km) from Calvi, escorted by a squadron led by Nelson in the ship of the line HMS Agamemnon and the store frigates HMS Dolphin and HMS Lutine, accompanied by 16 transports.
Stuart's plan was that the British forces would haul artillery up the steep slopes of the mountains which overlooked the town and fire on the forts below with relative impunity. This was a highly complex operation which required roads to be built to access the mountainsides;.
The first fire was opened against Fort Mollinochesco. So heavy was the British bombardment that by the 6th of July the fort had been severely damaged. The French garrison withdrew into Calvi. With Fort Mollinochesco in British hands the bay was no longer a safe anchorage for the French, and the frigates retired into Calvi harbour
British efforts then focused on Fort Mozello, subjecting the fort to a heavy fire for a further twelve days, at which point a breach had been blown in the western wall of the badly-damaged fort. With Mozello weakened, Stuart gave orders for an assault on the outer works of the fort on the 18th of July.
Despite heavy musket fire and hand to hand fighting with French pike men the British regiments captured the outer batteries, stormed the breach and took possession of the fort. With the main French defences now in British hands, the town came under heavy close bombardment, shattering houses and causing heavy casualties among the garrison and townspeople. Stuart sent terms of surrender to Casabianca on 19 July. The French commander responded however with the town's Latin motto "Civtas Calvis semper fidelis" ("Calvi is always loyal")
Later in July Casabianca sent a message to Stuart notifying the British general that if supplies and reinforcements had not arrived within 25 days he would surrender the city. Stuart conferred about the matter with Lord Hood on HMS Victory
Hood and Stuart agreed that they would not permit Calvi to hold beyond 10 August, but on the evening of the 28th of July four small vessels carrying supplies slipped through the meagre British blockade, to cheers from the defenders. The offer of surrender was withdrawn, and firing resumed once more on both sides at 17:00. The ships however brought no ammunition, [for which Calvi was desperately short]. On the 31st of July a new offer of a truce was made and accepted by Stuart to last six days. On the 10th of August, after 51 days of siege, Casabianca capitulated as arranged.
The terms of the surrender were generous, and the French troops repatriated to France. Corsica now became a British colony, and remained a British base of operations for two more years.
Nelson Lost the Sight in his Right Eye in Calvi
It was in Calvi on the 12th of July that a heavy exchange of gunfire took place. Captain Horatio Nelson was hit by gravel thrown up by a shot and was blinded in his right eye. He later wrote:
"I was wounded in the head by stones from the merlon of our battery. My right eye is cut entirely down but the surgeons flatter me. I shall not entirely lose the sight of that eye. At present I can distinguish light from dark, but no object"
Nelson had lost the sight of the eye permanently, though not the eye itself. Contrary to popular belief Nelson never did wear an eye patch. There was no need for him to wear it because there was no disfigurement. British surgeons could never determine whether or not it was truly sightless. Nelson never received an injury subsidy for this reason.