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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Royal Regiment of Malta at Capri

The period of British rule in Malta saw the formation of several local corps for service with the British Army. While most of them were specifically raised for home service, some did see action in overseas campaigns alongside other British Army units. One notable occasion came in October 1808, when the Royal Regiment of Malta was involved in heavy fighting, and suffered significant losses, during the unsuccessful defence of Capri.


In September 1798, the Maltese had rebelled against their French rulers, who had only assumed control of Malta three months before. British troops first arrived on the island shortly afterwards, to help Maltese irregular militias besiege the French garrison within the fortified harbour cities. On 10th December 1799, Brigadier-General Thomas Graham arrived from Sicily to take charge of the siege. He repeatedly pressed for more reinforcements to be despatched to the island, but by February 1800, having given up hope of receiving any, he had determined to raise a battalion of paid Maltese to serve under British command. On 28th March, he issued a call for volunteers, and by 2nd April, the first two companies had already been set up. By May, the new unit, which was styled the 'Maltese Light Infantry', had been completed, with eight companies of 100 men each.


The Maltese Light Infantry, also known locally as the 'Cacciatori Maltesi'.

The battalion was employed in the siege operations alongside both regular forces and the irregular Maltese militias, and played a significant role in forcing the French to finally capitulate on 5th September 1800. Four days later, the Maltese Light Infantry entered Valletta with its colours flying, being the only Maltese unit to be given this honour. Brigadier-General Graham personally congratulated the battalion for its perseverance and attention to discipline, and that November, writing from Trieste to Henry Dundas, the Secretary of State for War, he strongly suggested that the Maltese Light Infantry be retained as a corps within the British Army.


Indeed, the battalion continued to perform garrison duty in the Maltese Islands until April 1802, when it was finally disbanded following the expiration of the two-year period for which its men had originally enlisted. Within that time however, a detachment of the Maltese Light Infantry did serve overseas as part of a British expeditionary force that was despatched to Elba in September 1801. Some 300 volunteers from the battalion participated in the relief of the British garrison which had been under siege by the French at Porto Ferrajo. Subsequently, most of the men re-enlisted in the two Maltese Provincial Battalions that were raised for garrison duty soon afterwards.


Porto Ferrajo (now Portoferraio) on the island of Elba.

Although the Provincial Battalions were not intended to serve outside of Malta itself, it was soon decided that an additional Maltese corps should be raised to serve in overseas expeditions. The valour of the Maltese soldiers during the French blockade had been praised by both friend and foe alike, whilst the success of the Maltese Light Infantry at the Siege of Porto Ferrajo had also demonstrated the martial qualities of the Maltese, which the British were now determined to make use of. Major-General William Anne Villettes, the overall commander of British troops in Malta, was thus directed to raise a regiment of Maltese infantry for general service.


The formation of the 'Royal Regiment of Malta' commenced on 7th December 1804. Major-General Villettes was nominated colonel-commandant, while Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Pringle Dalrymple, formerly of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot, was given command of the regiment. The rest of the officers were a mixture of British, Germans, and Maltese, the latter being mostly transferred from other local corps. The regiment was to be made up of ten companies, with its establishment being fixed at a total of 1,126 men. Each recruit was to be enlisted for unlimited service, both as to time and place, and the rates of pay and allowances were to be the same for all ranks as those of a British infantry regiment of the line. The financially attractive terms proved detrimental to the organisation of the Maltese Provincial Battalions, as many resigned from those units to join the new regiment instead. Indeed, by 1806, what remained of these two battalions had to be consolidated into one.


Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Pringle Dalrymple.

The biggest hurdle when it came to attracting recruits to the new regiment was the general service clause. Villettes pleaded with the British military authorities that service beyond the Maltese Islands ought to be limited to the Mediterranean, as he believed that this would help overcome the difficulty in obtaining the last remaining recruits. He also asked for permission to enlist some Sicilians and Spaniards to help make up the numbers. Ultimately, he was permitted to enlist around a hundred such men but was strongly urged to renew his efforts to recruit Maltese troops. Following one last push, by early 1807, the Royal Regiment of Malta was completed, and it was not long before it was called upon for services beyond the island.


On 10th November 1807, the Royal Regiment of Malta, about 950-strong, departed for Sicily under the command of Major Augustus Meade. Permission was given for ten wives and their children to travel along with each company. In September of the following year, the regiment was ordered to reinforce the British garrison at Capri and embarked from Milazzo. On the way, it was ordered to assault the coastal town of Diamante, in Italy’s Calabria region, which was under blockade by the Royal Navy. 250 men of the Royal Regiment of Malta, led by Major John Hamill, together with 100 men of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot, were landed ashore. The town’s defenders, consisting of around 400 Civic Guards and a considerable number of French troops, quickly took to the mountains, leaving 34 richly laden vessels, together with four large gunboats, to fall into the hands of the invading force. Two Maltese soldiers were lost in this affair. The men soon reembarked and resumed their journey towards Capri.


A private of the Royal Regiment of Malta.

In February 1806, the French had invaded Naples, forcing King Ferdinand IV & III of Naples and Sicily respectively to flee to Palermo. Napoleon Bonaparte appointed his brother Joseph King of Naples and Sicily, although Ferdinand continued to reign over the latter kingdom under British protection. The island of Capri, located in the Bay of Naples, and separated from the mainland by a distance of only five kilometres, was one of the territories that had been seized by the French, but in May, a British force under the command of Rear Admiral Sidney Smith had recaptured it. Since then, British and Corsican troops had garrisoned the island. Under the energetic command of Lieutenant Colonel Hudson Lowe, Capri was heavily fortified in anticipation of a French counterattack. Yet, it was only when Joseph was succeeded as King of Naples by his brother-in-law, Marshal Joachim Murat, that the French finally decided to dislodge the British from their doorstep.


A seaborne assault was not going to be easy. There were two harbours, Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, and only a handful of sandy beaches where a landing could take place. The rest of the coast consisted mostly of steep cliffs, and the island was heavily mountainous. These natural features had been further reinforced by fortified works built by the British over the previous two years. The island’s garrison consisted mainly of the Royal Corsican Rangers, and was practically doubled to around 1,800 men with the arrival of the Royal Regiment of Malta. Two of the Maltese companies were stationed in the main town of Capri, while another was detached to Cala di Limmo, a cove in the southwestern part of the island. The remaining seven companies were distributed on high ground to the west of the town of Anacapri, overlooking a steep slope that terminated in a narrow creek, across which a wall some five metres high had been built to discourage any landing.


Map of Capri, showing the two main towns on the island.

By the end of September 1808, the French had amassed around 2,300 French and Neapolitan troops to take part in the invasion. They were commanded by Général de division Jean Maximilien Lamarque, an experienced military commander, who authorised nocturnal reconnaissance of the island’s coast by men disguised as fishermen. Indeed, about a week before the attack was due, Lieutenant Giovanni Andrea Trevisan, of the Royal Regiment of Malta, was in charge of a night picquet, when he spotted a boat approaching the wall and some men placing a ladder against it. When he challenged them, he received no reply, and his men fired at the boat as it rowed off. Trevisan’s superiors later dismissed the incident, claiming that the men were most likely fishermen, despite his insistence that they had appeared to be measuring the height of the wall.


In the early hours of 4th October, within a fortnight of the arrival of the Maltese troops on the island, a large flotilla came out from the Bay of Naples, conveying the invasion force. The French carried out two feint attacks, one against Marina Grande in the north, and the other against Marina Piccola in the south, to divert the defenders from the main landing, which was to take place along the less obvious rocky western coast of the island. Lowe initially moved his reserves towards the direction of Marina Grande, but eventually received a message from Major Hamill, requesting that reinforcements from the Royal Corsican Regiment be sent to his position west of Anacapri. Accordingly, that afternoon, two Corsican companies were despatched to reinforce the Maltese positions.


French troops landing on the rocky western coast of Capri.

From their position on the high ground, the Maltese troops could not see the boats once they moved close inshore, thus leaving them unable to stop the French from raising ladders against the wall. Although some of the officers were in favour of sending a detachment down the hill, Hamill was unwilling to expose his men to fire from the French ships and thus refused permission. Instead, for the rest of the day, all that the Maltese soldiers could do was to try to pick off the French as they dropped over the wall and ran into cover on the other side of it. French casualties mounted, but as time wore on, the ammunition of the defenders started to run low. Sometime after 8 pm, the French decided to advance up the ravine in force under the cover of darkness. Major Hamill ordered his men to charge, but they were met by a volley of musket fire at close range, with Hamill himself among those killed.


The situation was now critical, with the Maltese soldiers having lost their commander, and finding themselves surrounded. They were almost out of ammunition, with promised replenishments from the British depot in the town of Capri having failed to materialise. Some of them managed to fight their way out and proceeded towards a fortified position on Monte Solaro, where they joined the two companies of the Royal Corsican Rangers that had been sent to reinforce them. Yet, with this position being considered untenable, the Corsicans had been ordered to return to the town of Capri by Hudson Lowe. Being acquainted with a precipitous path through the mountains, they were able to reach safety, unlike the Maltese, who, being unfamiliar with the terrain, were forced to accept generous terms of surrender offered to them by General Lamarque. With their drums beating, they exited the fort and marched to Anacapri, where they handed in their weapons. Their officers, however, were allowed to retain their swords.


Général de division Jean Maximilien Lamarque.

By their own admission, the French claimed to have sustained 800 casualties in the whole enterprise. The Royal Regiment of Malta lost Major Hamill, Ensign Brickell and 75 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and men. Captain Friedrich Kirchberg and Captain Louis Xavier de Lentzbourg, as well as another 120 NCOs and men, were wounded, while around 250 officers and other ranks were captured. About 270 men from the regiment managed to avoid capture. The regiment’s colours, which had been retrieved from Major Hamill’s quarters by Ensign Perry and two sergeants, were smuggled out after having been concealed beneath the skirts of two Maltese wives who had accompanied their husbands. When the Maltese captives were taken to Castel Nuovo, in Naples, a rumour that the French were planning to search the persons of the officers led to the decision to burn these colours, to stop them from falling into the hands of the enemy.


With half the island of Capri in French hands, General Lamarque expected the rest of the garrison to surrender. Yet Lowe decided to fight on, perhaps in the hope of receiving reinforcements. Over the next days, casualties mounted as the French were able to bombard the town of Capri at will from the heights around Anacapri. Finally, on 18th October, the beleaguered defenders surrendered. The British now held only Sicily in Italy, and for some time afterwards, there was fear that a similar seaborne invasion could be affected by the French across the Straits of Messina, leading to more troops and ships being despatched to the island. In the end, there was to be no French invasion of Sicily, while Capri was eventually restored to King Ferdinand.


Castel Nuovo, Naples, where some of the Maltese prisoners were kept.

In the meantime, immediately after the disaster suffered by the Royal Regiment of Malta, various reports had started to circulate back home, casting doubts on the bravery displayed by the Maltese troops. Sir John Dalrymple, who had returned from a leave of absence in England in time to be present at the capitulation of Capri, immediately wrote to Sir Alexander Ball, the Civil Commissioner of Malta, defending his men. He claimed that not only did he himself not doubt the courage of the troops under his command, but he had also had confirmation of their exemplary performance from both the officers who had commanded them in battle, as well as from the enemy who had fought against them. Indeed, he had been personally complimented by General Lamarque on the bravery displayed by his regiment.


When looking at the reasons for the failure of the Royal Regiment of Malta to defend its sector, one has to take into consideration that this relatively new corps, which as a result had very little combat experience, had been entrusted with defending the weakest and most vulnerable part of the coast, which had not been particularly well-fortified or even been provided with a single piece of artillery. In addition, the commanding officer on the day, Major Hamill, despite his unquestioned bravery, does not appear to have made the best strategic decisions. Some French officers later declared that had Hamill acted upon the wishes of his officers, and ordered a charge down the hill whilst the French were landing, the latter would have been trapped on the narrow and enclosed beach, leaving them with no option but to surrender or be forced to re-embark under heavy fire. Failure to resupply the troops with more ammunition from the arms depot in Capri, despite repeated requests, must also be taken into account.


Major John Hamill.

What remained of the regiment returned to Malta in 1809. Soon after, new colours were presented to the corps, which was taken as proof that the regiment had been considered by the authorities to have behaved bravely. Over the next couple of years, the Royal Regiment of Malta was garrisoned in the Cottonera area, and later in Gozo, where it was tasked with guarding French prisoners. Yet, following the Capri episode, recruitment had suffered, leading to the decision to disband the regiment. The officers were to be placed on half pay, while the NCOs and privates were to be permitted to volunteer into any of the other foreign corps in the Mediterranean or the Maltese Provincial Battalion. Those officers still being held prisoner by the French were to be continued on full pay until their release. The Royal Regiment of Malta was officially disbanded at Fort Tigné on 26th April 1811.

 

References

Alexander George Chesney. (1897). Historical Records of the Maltese Corps of the British Army.

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