1756 - French expedition against Minorca
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The campaign lasted from April to June 1756
Great Britain and France were fighting an undeclared war since 1754 in North America. In 1755, the British Navy intercepted part of the French reinforcement destined to Canada. In response to this harassment, the French resolved to retaliate by attacking the British naval bases in the Mediterranean.
The most important British naval bases in the Mediterranean were Gibraltar and Port Mahon. The latter was located on the Island of Minorca. Port Mahon had come under British control in 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). This island allowed Great Britain to dominate the Mediterranean and to threaten Toulon. Its harbour at Port-Mahon was protected by a fortress more formidable than Gibraltar. Fort St. Philip, which commanded the town and harbour of Mahon, was probably the most elaborate fortress possessed by the British, and was inferior in strength to few strongholds in Europe.
Preparation for the Invasion
As early as October 1755, the British Ministry of War had received intelligence that the French were arming in the Mediterranean in order to launch expedition against Minorca. However, it did not take significant measures to counter this menace to one of its most important naval bases.
At the beginning of 1756, there was only a small British squadron of 3 ships of the line (Portland (50), Princess Louisa (60) and Deptford (60)) and 5 frigates (Chesterfield (44), Phoenix (24), Dolphin (24), Experiment (24), Fortune (14)) under Captain George Edgecumbe cruising in the Mediterranean.
On March 8, the British Admiralty placed a squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Byng for the protection of Minorca. The squadron had to be ready by March 11. Byng was promoted admiral for the mission and was assisted by Rear-Admiral Temple West. Byng was given only 10 ships of the line to fulfill his mission. He was also directed to take on board the absent officers of the Minorca garrison and a reinforcement of troops, consisting of the 7th Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. To make room for these men, all the marines belonging to the squadron were sent on shore.
On March 16, Louis XV appointed the Maréchal Duc de Richelieu, who was already in command of all French forces on the Mediterranean coast since the beginning of the year, as commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force assigned to capture Minorca. Indeed, this island allowed Great Britain to dominate the Mediterranean and to threaten Toulon. Its harbour at Port-Mahon was a more formidable fortress than Gibraltar.
On Thursday March 18, Richelieu left Paris for Marseille. He arrived on March 22 to discover his troops unprepared for the expedition.
On March 23, Richelieu went to Toulon, leaving the Chevalier de Redmond and MM. de Luppé and de Retz at Marseille to hasten preparations.
On March 25, upon his arrival in Toulon, Richelieu was once more disappointed to see that the fleet was far from being ready. He encountered all kinds of difficulties in hireing enough sailors to man the fleet.
On April 4, the French infantry started to embark aboard the fleet. On this day the following units got on board: Vermandois Infanterie (2 bns), Rohan Rochefort Infanterie (2 bns), Médoc Infanterie (2 bns).
On April 5, all the transport vessels assembled at Marseille by the Chevalier de Redmond arrived at Toulon. Embarkation continued with Royal Infanterie (2 bns) and Bretagne Infanterie (2 bns).
On April 6, Haynault Infanterie (2 bns), Royal Comtois Infanterie (2 bns) and La Marche Infanterie (1 bn) boarded the French vessels. The same day, Byng's squadron set sail from St. Helen's for Minorca. It consisted of 10 ships:
- Ramillies (90) flagship of Admiral Byng, under Captain Gardner
- Buckingham (70) flagship of Counter-Admiral Temple West, under Captain Everet
- Culloden (74) under Captain Ward
- Revenge (64) under Captain Cornwall
- Captain (64) under Captain Catford
- Trident (64) under Captain Durell
- Intrepid (64) under Captain Young
- Kingston (60) under Captain Parry
- Lancaster (66) under Captain Noel
- Defiance (60) under Captain Andrews
Meanwhile, the French army completed its embarkation with Cambis Infanterie (1 bn, the other bn still garrisoning Monaco), Royal Italien Infanterie (1 bn), Talaru Infanterie (2 bns), Soissonnais Infanterie (1 bn), Briqueville Infanterie (2 bns), Royal Marine Infanterie (2 bns) and I./Corps Royal de l'Artillerie (Chabrié battalion). All battalions contained 13 companies and had a total complement of 525 men each. All grenadier companies were separated from their regiments and embarked aboard the warships to act as marines. One company of miners under Boule and one company of workers under Boileau also embarked aboard the warships.
On April 8, everything was ready for the French fleet to set sail but a storm kept it in Toulon.
On April 9, despite a strong easterly wind, the French tried to leave Toulon. However, the Sage (64) almost ran aground at Cap Cépet and the admiral decided to postpone the departure.
Departure of the French Fleet from Toulon
Finally, on April 10, a French fleet of 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates under M. de la Galissonière weighed from Toulon. It escorted 198 sails carrying some 16,000 men (24 battalions organised in 5 brigades with an artillery battalion, at least 36 guns and engineers) under the Duc de Richelieu. The grenadiers of each battalion served as marines on the men of war. The fleet consisted of the following vessels:
- Ships of the line
- Foudroyant (80) flagship of Admiral de la Galissonière, under Captain Forger de l'Aiguille. The ship also transported Richelieu, his son and his son-in-law along with MM. de Maillebois, du Mesnil, de Lannion, the Prince de Beauvau, the Prince of Württemberg and M. de Caufons
- Couronne (74) under the Marquis de Saint-Aignan
- Redoutable (74) flagship of Squadron Leader de Glandevez, under Captain de Marconville
- Sage (64) under Captain de Mercier
- Content (64) under the Chevalier de Raimondis
- Fier (60) under Captain de Herville
- Lion (64) under Villars de la Brosse
- Orphée (64) under Trogné de l'Éguille
- Hippopotame (50) under M. de Beaumont
- Triton (64) under M. de Rochemore
- Téméraire (74) under M. de Sabran
- Guerrier (74) under M. de Grammont
- Junon (42) under M. de Revest
- Rose (30) under M. de la Clue
- Gracieuse (24) under M. Marquezan
- Topaze (24) under M. de Corné-Montelet
- Nymphe (20) under M. de Callian
Richelieu's staff consisted of two lieutenant-generals: MM. de Maillebois and du Mesnil; and six maréchal de camp: M. de Lannion, M. de Laval, the Prince Charles de Beauvau, the Prince Auguste-Elizabeth de Wurtemberg, the Duc de Fronsac and M. de Monti. However, the French staff had not gathered proper intelligence about the fortifications of Fort St. Philip. They ignored how formidable they were.
At the end of the first day of sailing, the fleet put into port in the Islands of Hyères.
On April 12, the French fleet left the Islands of Hyères. The Triton (64) collided with two transport vessels transporting the 1st battalion of Cambis Infanterie and three companies of Vermandois Infanterie, forcing these vessels to return to Toulon for repairs.
On April 13, the French fleet was hit by a storm. Several vessels were separated from the fleet and some ships were dismasted while others had to retrace to Marseille.
On April 16, General Blakeney, the 82 years old British governor of Minorca, had received warning of the intended attack and had made such preparations as he could for defence, preparing 40,000 fascines and demolishing all the buildings which obstructed the line of sight of his guns at Fort St. Philip. But the means at his disposal were poor. He had some 800 labourers and 2,600 regulars in four regiments of foot: the 4th, 23rd, 24th and 34th. Captain Edgcumbe was lying off Mahon with a squadron too small to meet the French fleet. Before sailing away to Gibraltar, he sent Blakeney all the marines that he could spare. Even so, however, Blakeney could muster little more than 2,800 men. But his most serious difficulty was lack of officers. The lieutenant-governor of the island, the governor of its principal defence, Fort Philip, and the colonels of all four regiments were absent. Furthermore, 19 subalterns had never yet joined their respective corps and 9 more officers were absent on recruiting duties. In all 35 officers were wanting at their posts. Blakeney himself was crippled with gout and unfit to bear the incessant labours of a siege.
Arrival of the French Fleet at Minorca
On April 18, the British lookouts at Fort St. Philip saw 197 sails on the horizon. The French fleet finally dropped anchor off the port of Ciutadella, at the northwestern end of Minorca. The same day, Richelieu landed and Blakeney at once withdrew the whole of his force to Fort St. Philip, abandoning the forts at Ciutadella and Fornnels. Fort St. Philip, which commanded the town and harbour of Mahon, was probably the most elaborate fortress possessed by the British, and was inferior in strength to few strongholds in Europe. In addition to the ordinary elaborations of the school of Vauban, Fort St. Philip was strengthened by numerous mines and galleries hewn out of the solid rock, affording unusual protection to the defenders.
On April 19, Blakeney having had little time to break up the roads or otherwise to hinder the French advance, Richelieu occupied Fornnels and sent 24 grenadier companies forward, supported by du Mesnil's infantry brigade, to chase the British from the centre of the island. This force then encamped at Mercadal.
By April 20, the entire French army had disembarked. Richelieu then sent the Prince de Beauvau with the Hainaut and Soisonnais brigades to Ferrarias, midway between Ciutadella and Mercadal, to maintain communication with du Mesnil. The latter, sent 6 grenadier companies under M. de Briqueville to occupy Alaior.
On April 21, Richelieu advanced to Ferrarias with the main force, leaving only I./Briqueville Infanterie to occupy Ciutadella. Meanwhile, Beauvau made his junction with du Mesnil at Mercadal and the combined force advanced up to Alaior.
Siege of Fort St. Philip
On April 22, Beauvau left Alaior with all the grenadier companies of the army and 50 selected pickets from each regiment. He took possession of the town of Mahon without meeting any resistance, Blakeney having already retired into Fort St. Philip. M. Raulin de Belval, lieutenant-colonel of Royal Italien Infanterie, was immediately appointed commander of Mahon.
The French Siege of Fort St. Philip lasted from April 23 to June 28. Richelieu had been besieging Fort St. Philip for three whole weeks when three additional British battalions were finally ordered to sail for Gibraltar (the 53rd Foot, 54th Foot and 57th Foot).
On May 17, Great Britain declared war on France.
On May 20, Byng's fleet made an attempt to relieve Fort St. Philip. But after a timid battle off Minorca, he withdrew towards Gibraltar. The siege continued until June 28 when the British garrison finally surrendered with the honours of war.
On July 7, the British garrison embarked for Gibraltar.
On July 8, Richelieu embarked on board the Foudroyant (80) with some of his principal officers. The same day, the whole French fleet hoisted sail with several transports carrying troops and artillery. Eleven battalions and a detachment of artillery (100 men and 3 engineers) were left under the Comte de Lannion to garrison Minorca.
After the capture of Minorca, a French force of 19 bns was sent to Corsica under the command of M. de Castries.
On July 16, the French fleet arrived at Toulon.
Soon after his arrival at Gibraltar, Sir Edward Hawke sailed with the British fleet to Minorca. He found that the island had fallen and that the French army and fleet had returned to Toulon. The French had no longer any squadron at sea in the Mediterranean, and the vice-admiral therefore had to confine himself to protecting British trade and preserving British prestige.
On August 14, by the Treaty of Compiègne, French troops were authorised by the Republic of Genoa to occupy Calvi, Saint-Florent and Ajaccio in Corsica.
On December 3 1756, Hawke set out with part of his fleet for home, leaving Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders in command in the Mediterranean.
The siege had lasted for 70 days and had cost the French at the least 800 killed and around 2,500 wounded. The losses of the British garrison amounted to less than 400 killed and wounded. However, Great Britain had lost one of its most important bases in the Mediterranean. The island would remain under French control until the end of the war.
This article incorporates texts from the following books, which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous: A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761
- Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 146-160
- Fortescue J. W.: A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 291-295
- Pajol, Charles P. V.: Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. IV, Paris, 1891, p. 30
- Pajol, Charles P. V.: Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. VI, Paris, 1891, pp. 3-19
Castex, Jean-Claude: Dictionnaire des batailles terrestres franco-anglaises de la Guerre de Sept Ans, Presse de l'université Laval, Québec: 2006, pp. 438-443
Terrón Ponce, José L.: La expedición a Menorca del mariscal de Richelieu en 1756, Nec Pluribus Impar
Abbass Hassan Obbaiss: a historian from Babylon in Iraq, for writing the initial introduction of this article