The Capture of Capri in 1808

Updated on December 26, 2017

Naples had been invaded by the French in 1806, driving the Bourbon monarchy into exile in Sicily under the protection of the guns of the British navy. Victory was not complete in Naples however, as the French had to contend with rural peasant resistance, a long but ultimately siege at Gaeta, a defeat against the British at Maida, and with a siege that lasted until February 1808 at Scilla and Regio. The French had lacked in siege guns to take Scilla and Regio, opposite Messinia on the streets, since the infrastructure to bring artillery there was lacking and the routes by sea closed. Thankfully for the French, on January 30 4 Sicilian gunboats had been captured on January 30th in adverse weather with a British frigate run aground trying to save them, yielding up long 24 pounder guns from the gunboats and 16 24 pounder carronades and 2 8 pounders from the frigate, giving the French the guns to convince an immediate surrender of Regio on 3 February and for Scilla to surrender on 17 February, its garrison being evacuated by sea. At last, the French controlled all of the mainland, but one possession remained in British hands : Capri, an island off of the city of Naples. In October the newly arrived French king in Naples, Murat, replacing Joseph Bonaparte, resolved to take it in a coup de force.

Forces and Geography

Capri is within sight of city of the city of Naples, with a channel of only some 4-5 kilometers separating it from the mainland. Unfortunately for the French during the era, 4-5 kilometers was well out of range of a cannon shot, meaning that any assault on the island would have to be conducted by an assault. This was made difficult by the geography of the island, which contained only one major port (Marine Grande) at Capri in the West, and three beaches where light craft could be drawn up. Even worse, the geography was heavily mountainous, with large cliffs surmounting the islands like ramparts flung up against the seas, and with the mountain of Solaro rising to 590 meters in the West, while in the East Capo stands at 334 meters. On an island which is only some 5 kilometers long and 1.5-1.8 kilometers wide, this makes for extremely steep slopes, and the island is riven in two by a huge cliff, then accessible only by a long staircase with 536 steps, built by the Phoenecians, and a goat track rarely used by man.

Nor had the British tarried while in command of the island, which they had seized in 1806. Commanded by Hudson Lowe, well acquainted with the region, the future jailer of Napoleon, significant fortifications had been built. Cannons had been landed from the navy to flank the Grande Marina, field-works thrown up, walls built to surround the access points up the cliffs, a rock trap to throw down dozens of tons of rocks on the only access road from the Grande Marina emplaced, ditches with metal spikes dug, and the city of Capri was surrounded with a ramparted wall, emplaced with cannons, and the fortified castle garrisoned. Three fortifications, one at Capri, one facing the strait, and one at mountain of Solaro West, completed it, named Saint-Michel, Socorso, and Santa-Maria, although the last was not armed due to the difficulty of bringing cannons up to it. 33 cannons had been placed by the British and Neapolitan fleets, 219,000 pounds invested, and a thousand men of the Corsican Rangers (Corsicans and other nationalities in British service), 500-600 militia, 100 sailors and artillerymen, and 200-300 bourbon royal guards installed. Combined with the geography, it made for an incredibly difficult target to take. Some 3 companies of Corsican Rangers held the west, while the remaining troops were positioned in the city of Capri in the east.

It was one which was put to good use. It served as both a rallying point for Bourbon sentiments with a Bourbon standard and British flag within eye's view of Naples, a place for espionage, assassins, and intelligence, smuggling of contraband - both in and out, with French wine, watches, and Parisian dresses being brought out with hefty commissions) and for watching over any naval traffic in Naples. All of this combined to make it a valuable installation, and one where the intelligence network centered on the island made it doubly difficult to attack.

If word of an attack was leaked to British, the British fleet was within 24-48 hours sailing time away, capable bringing supplies, troops, and putting a halt to any attack. There were already supposed to be British ships there, but at the time when the attack happened, the British ship Ambuscade had been at Palermo at the time of the attack. Surprise was thus vital. Murat carefully guarded his plan to attack, telling it to as few men as possible for much of September, only 2 in fact, Saliceti, his minister of police, and Tito Manzi, a loyal Neapolitan. Not until the 30th did reconnaissance of the island commence, by disguises as fishermen at night. Unfortunately, a double agent, Suzzareli, spread false information to the French, identifying the Marina de Limbo as the most weakly defended point when it was actually the strongest, and failing to mention the arrival of the Royal Malta Regiment, which brought troop strength up to at least 2,800 soldiers.

The French had used the entrance of Murat's wife into the capitol as a cover to begin amassing troops by the end of September. On the 3rd of October, fishing boats were impounded, yielding 180, and around a hundred and fifty ladders needed for the assault were requisitioned in the city. Around 2,100 soldiers, 2,000 French and 100 of Neapolitan royal guards, were ready, commanded by Jean Maximilien Lamarque, noted for his general military success in a host of field battles and in particular in success in small actions. If there was one person to seize the island, it would be Lamarque.

Battle

In the days before the attack, the English had grown increasingly suspicious, and aware that something was coming. Last minute work had been undertaken, although this was of doubtful value, exhausting as it did the men just before the battle. But nevertheless, the English were well alerted and prepared as the operation commenced.

At midnight, Lamarque embarked upon the only frigate that the Napoleonic Neapolitan navy possessed. With 2,000 men on some 95 ships, Lamarque would have to cross 25 to 40 kilometers of sea, land on dangerous beaches, and then climb up a hundred meter tall cliff, all under fire and against 2,800 enemies. It would be an incredible feat if it succeeded, but all of the indications could only be expressed as grim.

At sea, the ships of the French fleet were rapidly scattered, the frigate in the lead, gunboats following, and fishing boats scattered across the waves. Their spirits however, remained high. Three attacks were planned, one real and two false. The two false were to be against the Marina Grande, and the beach of Tragara, while the real attack would be against the Marine de Limbo. It was desirable that the attacks happen as close together as possible, and at 13 h the attack opened at the Marina Grande, followed by the assault at Limbo at 14 h It was rapidly realized that with a 32 pounder cannon enfilading the beach, and the path up the cliff being covered with fortifications, it would be impossible to land there. But it was discovered by the assault commander Thompson that there was a crack leading up the cliff some 50 meters from the point del Miglio. Braving the fire of the defenders he brought his boat closer, into the dead space of the guns, and although his boat was pushed out again into the fire, it was brought back in. Leaping ashore, the ladders were deployed, and some 40 meters up the tricolor flag flapped. The other boats rallied, and 300 to 350 men were ashore while the English retreated behind a wall. The landing had been made, in an incredible feat of bravery and quick-thinking. By now, it was 15 h (3 PM). Additional French attacks failed, but more reinforcements came ashore by dribs and drabs, bringing it up to 600 men by night-time. Any retreat would be impossible, as it would be then that the English would counter-attack and drive the French into the sea. It would be a question of to vanquish or perish for the men clinging to the path on the cliff-side, their boats rocking beneath them in the surf, from a position where only victory could be a salve for their wounds. The ladders were thrown into the sea, to leave only one path forwards.

The English had been disoriented by the movements of the French fleet. Initially, at around 10h, Lamarque had paused in front of the Marina Grande, and the English had assumed that it was his main attack point, moving their reserves there. Instead, Lamarque had been waiting for Monteserras to round the point del capo, the eastern cape, with the detachment to attack Tragara. Seeing the French fleet sailed on, he ordered the troops back, but then when the false attack began, he countermanded that in panic. Up and down the 536 flights of stairs travelled the reserve companies, under the burning Italian sun and with equipment weighing 24 kilograms : well before they fired their first shot, they were completely exhausted. The same occurred at Tragara itself, where the French drew the English marching to Mulo, then attacked Tragara, tiring out the English soldiers.

The fall of night hid the French, and at their little crevice near Limbo, they prepared to attack the English in front of them, a thousand to a thousand two hundred strong. Rocks fell into the sea as they prepared, and the English heard the sound, believed themselves turned to the left, and fired into the darkness. In the night, the English fired too high to hit anything, even if there had been something to hit. Then the drums sounded, and to the cries of "Vive l'empereur", "Vive Jojo" (in place of "Vive le roi Murat", "En avant", and "à la baionette", the French attacked.

Seized by panic, the English center gave way, while in the North the English troops gave way - actually Corsican troops gave way - attacked by French Corsican forces as well. The English were driven from the heights, and the peak of the stairs down to the city of Capri taken. Some English forces escaped, but after this point, the remainder were locked in. 500 prisoners had been taken at this point, and hundreds more were locked into the fortress at Solarno. The day after, they surrendered, unable to retreat, but more impressive deeds happened elsewhere, as the French, arriving at the great cliff separating the west and eastern parts of the island at 3 h in the morning, descended it in the dark, losing only 3 men to crash down to the rocks below. What a feat! The remaining French troops descended the cliffs the next day, taking the harbor, and investing Capri. To take it, guns would be needed, but the enemy fleet (Sicilians, with 2 frigates, 2 corvettes, 4 polaccas, 12 gunboats, and the British frigate Ambuscade) had arrived to blockade the island. Now it was the besiegers who were besieged, and without assistance, enemy reinforcements would arrive and destroy them.

But they were saved once again, and on the 13th October, with the wind against the enemy fleet, Murat managed to get a convoy through to the island. 600 reinforcements arrived from Sicily, but on the island, Lowe, the British commander, was running low on ammunition, and field fortification supplies. A ship carrying artillery and engineer stores almost arrived but then turned back. With the situation hopeless, the English capitulated the 16th, the city occupied the 17th. under the terms of the capitulation, the English were allowed to leave. The day after, an English squadron with 3,000 troops arrived, but it was too late : the island had fallen. The French had won, against all odds.

Aftermath

With the capture of Capri, the British held only Sicily in Italy. The French had won a victory when the odds seemed heavily against them, and demonstrated that they could win despite the opposition of superior enemy seapower. If they could do so at Capri, why couldn't they do the same at Sicily, storming across the straits of Messina, this time with even more favorable currents and greater cover by their shore batteries? The British blamed their weakness on foreigners in their army, pressing for more troops, and to begin a levée en masse across Sicily. More ships were dispatched to defend Messina. The British army and navy was paralyzed, diverting its attention to the defense of Massina, fearful that another coup de main would throw them from the island. In a time period where the war in Spain was raging with more and more resources being drawn in, it was a welcome reprieve for the French. Ultimately, no invasion of Sicily happened, but the possibility alone would place the Sicilian government into a state of paralysis and fear.

Sources

La Prise de Capri en 1808 by Robert Darcy

The War in the Mediterranean 1803-1810, by Piers Mackesy

© 2017 Ryan Thomas

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