Jittery Europeans had one anxious question. Would this shocking engagement be followed by a cataclysmic East-West war?
A devastating battle, it seems, had occurred on the afternoon of October 20, 1827, off Navarino, Greece. But who fired the first shot and what was the cause? The combatants were not at war. Yet, true enough, a British admiral had led the combined British, French, and Russian squadrons in a surprise action which destroyed the entire Turco-Egyptian fleet. How did it happen?
To answer, we must turn back six years before the naval action. In 1821 the Province of Janina, now Albania, rebelled against Turkey. The Sultan tried to extinguish the insurrection by ordering the head of the leading rebel presented to him on a platter. But this merely fanned more sparks in other parts of his tottering empire. In Morea, the southern part of Greece, the rebels vowed a war of extermination, and in the subsequent harvest of blood of twenty thousand Moslems only a few managed to escape to Turkish strongholds.
On Easter the Sultan retaliated by hanging the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and four of his bishops before the Episcopal palace in Constantinople. Then the Turks killed almost all the thirty thousand inhabitants of Chios.
All Greece sprang to arms in retaliation. An Hellenic navy was formed by the ship owners of the nearby islands. In June, 1822, a daring Greek naval leader rammed and blew up the Turkish admiral’s flagship. Similar actions sent all the Ottoman ships scurrying to the Dardanelles. Thereupon the Sultan, envisioning stranded armies in Greece, quickly sought the help of Mehemet Ali, Viceroy of Egypt.
Mehemet was a so-called vassal in the Sultan’s phantom empire. But actually he was more powerful than his supposed ruler. A man of great naval vision, he conceived of sea power as a means to wealth and imperialism. He had constructed a navy, which, in the eastern Mediterranean, was second only to Britain’s. Eager for action, he promised the Sultan he would subdue Crete, thereby enabling the Ottomans to devote more attention to Greece.
Once Mehemet had accomplished this task, the Sultan dubiously rewarded him with the title of Viceroy of Morea. Then he begged him to conquer his new domain. For a moment the Viceroy was indecisive. Above all, he did not want to involve Egypt against England because his great dream was that one day they would be allied. But the Viceroy was torn between this ambition and a pressing problem. Certain Mohammedans were circulating embarrassing gossip that he ate and drank like a Christian and might become their protector. Mehemet’s solution was to end these rumors by killing the Christian Greeks, while at the same time preventing the involvement in Morea from leading to war with England.
Mehemet gave command of the Morean expedition to his son Ibrahim and provided him with a large fleet of ships purchased from French and Italian builders, together with a highly disciplined army of soldiers.
Ibrahim, after skillfully eluding the Greek navy, seized Navarino as a base, devastated Morea, and laid siege to the stronghold of Missolonghi. Greek resistance came close to extinction as the butchering soldiers of the Nile surged on to Athens and assaulted the symbolic Acropolis.
Meanwhile, the Greek navy deteriorated because the ship owners discovered that piracy was more profitable than patriotism. Only the Greek peasantry still fought the war wholeheartedly. Yet, even among the loyal few, family fought family and chief fought chief. Anarchy prevailed. When Ibrahim could find no army to defeat, he resorted to killing civilians and devastating the land. The Western world did not realize his campaign difficulties, but only his terrible deeds. Tension mounted. The swelling sympathies of the Christian peoples pressed their diplomats toward action. From Britain, Generals Gordon and Church agreed to lead the Greek armies and Lord Cochrane and Captain Hastings offered to rebuild the Greek navy.
Despite the additional succor, Athens fell in June, 1827, and the Western diplomats had to act. The next month England, France, and Russia, with the disapproval of Austria, formed the Treaty of London and demanded an immediate armistice, with the three great powers as mediators. Should Turkey refuse mediation, the British, French, and Russian ambassadors in Constantinople, along with the admirals, were directed forcibly to effect an armistice.
What we now call a cold war started in earnest. The Ottoman Empire rejected the Allied demands. Thereupon Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington’s Mediterranean squadron was immediately deployed in Grecian waters, where he was soon reinforced by French and Russian naval units. Naturally, Codrington requested of Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador in Constantinople, further clarification of his mission. Canning replied, “. . . although the measures to be executed by you are not adopted in a hostile spirit, and although the intention of the Allied Governments [is] to avoid, if possible, anything that may bring on war, yet the prevention of supplies [being sent to Ibrahim] ... is ultimately to be inforced, if necessary, and when the other means are exhausted, by cannon-shot.”
Meanwhile, the Sultan entreated Mehemet Ali to send a new fleet to Greece and Mehemet was gripped with his old indecision. Was not this too great a gamble? Was not England ready for war? Then the Austrian representative in Cairo gained his ear and spoke calculated words of advice. According to him, the Allies would not really fight to preserve the Treaty of London. First, they were incapable of unity. Bad blood existed between Codrington and Rear Admiral de Rigny, who would command the French squadron. Second, French civilian advisors were still with the Egyptian fleet at Navarino. Would countrymen fight countrymen? Third, England knew that Mehemet had another large fleet ready to sail for Greece. If she were really determined, why had she not anchored her powerful fleet outside of Alexandria to block any sailing? England was bluffing. Mehemet decided to take the gamble and ordered his fleet to sail.
Meanwhile, Codrington’s position was most precarious. In the face of massing Eastern sea power at Navarino, he had not yet seen any French or Russian sails coming to his aid. Nevertheless, in a bold effort to prohibit all resupply efforts, he anchored outside of horseshoe-like Navarino Bay.
Suddenly coming out of that bay appeared the Egyptian fleets, loaded with troops, and heading toward the sea, apparently to conduct operations against another part of Greece. To Codrington’s relief and almost miraculously French sails dotted the distant horizon. On the strength of this forthcoming support Codrington notified Ibrahim’s flagship: “Our orders are such that we will go to any extremities rather than abandon the object [of neutralizing the warring powers]. ... If a single cannon-shot were fired against our flag, it would be fatal to the Ottoman fleets.” Codrington’s bold attitude triumphed, as the Eastern fleets turned again toward Navarino and, on arrival, unloaded their troops.
Codrington’s tactics of clear warning coupled with readiness to fight thus far were successful, but he worried that Ibrahim still might think he was bluffing. He decided to have a personal meeting with the Egyptian chieftain and tacked his flagship, the Asia, into Navarino harbor and right between the Turco-Egyptian ships. Going ashore, he and de Rigny made their way to Ibrahim’s tent.
Codrington did not mince words with the Egyptian, telling him pointedly that the Allies intended to establish an armistice. Ibrahim seemed candid and sincere. Although he had orders to attack the Island of Hydra, he raised his hand to his heart as he pledged to hold his fleet at Navarino and desist from any operations until he could send couriers to Constantinople and Cairo for fresh instructions.
About sunset the two satisfied admirals returned to the Asia. Ned Codrington, who had fought so gallantly with Nelson, thought that he had avoided not only war, but battle. Little did he know that this deep calm was a deceiving prelude to the morrow of terror. For obscured in the interpreter’s translation, Ibrahim had construed his self-denying pledge as applying only to naval and not land operations.
Before many days, spiraling clouds of smoke darkened the sun over Morea. Smoldering homes and piles of blood-stained, lifeless women and children were testimonies of Ibrahim’s campaign. What remained of the striken population lived off grass in the mountains of Morea. Codrington listened in amazement to the detailed reports of a British intelligence officer.
Amazement changed to anger and anger to resolution. He decided to send a final letter to Ibrahim. The courier, Colonel Cradock, also was assigned the collateral duty of sketching the dispositions of the Turco-Egyptian fleet, as it lay in the protected Bay.
Cradock was half-successful. Although he could not find Ibrahim, who was somewhere in inland Morea directing the atrocities, the Colonel diligently sketched the dispositions of the fleet. The Turco-Egyptians had an ingenious formation which took advantage of the bottleneck entrance to the Bay and the shore batteries situated on both sides of the entrance. Facing the entrance, the fleet was anchored in a crescent formation with the most powerful warships in the first line. Covering the gaps of that line were medium ships of the second line and positioned so as to fire through the remaining gaps were corvettes of the third line. Fire ships filled the area between the ends of the crescent and the shore.
Possibly Cradock heard that this trap had been prepared under the crafty eye of a French advisor, named Letellier. If the Allies moved into the Bay, the crescent allowed them only one place of anchorage, inside the crescent. Obviously, if a battle developed, it would be the focal point of fire of the three lines of ships as well as the shore batteries. Letellier and the Eastern captains, devoid of Ibrahim’s advice, planned that if the Allies entered and anchored, they would withhold action until midnight. Then, on signal, the fire ships on both sides of the opening of the crescent would cut their cables, seal off the opening, and rain down fire upon the trapped fleet. Meanwhile, the triple line of Eastern ships would pepper the center of the crescent.
Timid souls, but not Codrington, would have lost heart upon hearing Cradock’s report. Obviously, for him to enter would produce the risk, if not probability, of fighting a battle under tremendous tactical disadvantages. Moreover, Codrington could not fire the first shot.
If, through a miracle, he won the battle without firing the first shot, the Allied governments might disavow his action. True enough, they had given him the mission of neutralizing the Turks, by cannon shot if necessary. A blockade would prove ineffective. But no matter how much the people of England might be desirous of war with the Ottoman Empire, their diplomats were determined against it. Turkey was the southern barrier to Russian expansion and misfortune would befall a British admiral who brought on a general war which would destroy that barrier.
But fear and indecision were not characteristics of Codrington. His immediate decision was psychological; to make the admirals of the French and Russian squadrons think as he did. He was determined to enter the harbor and to provoke Ibrahim into attacking him, or else to force Ibrahim to immobolize his fleet by anchoring the Allied fleet next to it. There was no other way out, if his mission was to be accomplished successfully.
The Russian squadron had just arrived. But Codrington found that its commander, Count Heiden, had been given impossible instructions by the St. Petersburg government. He was to be on good terms with the French and British, but he was also to be amicable toward the Austrians, whose ships were resupplying the Turks at Navarino!
Codrington started untangling the knot. He warned the Austrians that, in case of hostilities, they would be considered as enemies, unless they immediately desisted from these logistics operations. Then, he calculatedly began to whet Heiden’s appetite for a good fight, stressing the ancient enmity between Russia and Turkey. Heiden was won over.
Admiral de Rigny’s knot was harder to untie, because he not only disliked the Russians, but Heiden in particular. In addition France had built many vessels for Egypt and still had French advisors aboard her fleet. Codrington adroitly mellowed de Rigny. He built up his importance, all the while carefully showing no partiality to the Russians. He gave in to de Rigny on all minor matters. Toying with de Rigny’s intense dislike of blockades, Codrington continually stressed the onerous details of a winter blockade. De Rigny was pliable. The French officer, convinced that a winter blockade just would not work, recommended instead entering the harbor and anchoring in company with the Ottoman fleets. Codrington’s skillful handling of personality had gained him his first objective.
Codrington then prepared his battle plan, using all of his keen diplomatic skill to forge the Allies into a loyal team. The British would lead into the Bay, and take position opposite ships of the right center of the crescent. The French would deploy to the right of the British while the Russians, entering last, would be responsible for the weaker flank of the crescent. “No gun is to be fired from the combined fleet,” read Codrington’s order, “without a signal being made for that purpose, unless the shot be fired from any of the Turkish ships.” Codrington clearly directed the Allied fleet to anchor as close as possible to their opposite numbers in the Eastern fleet. If battle resulted, there would be expected loss of central control and probable resultant confusion. In such a case, Codrington reminded his associates of the words of Lord Nelson, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”
The Allies waited for a southwest wind and were rewarded on the afternoon of October 20. The Allies soon were underway, formed as planned. An Ottoman boat put out from shore and when it reached the Asia near the mouth of Navarino Bay, delivered a message to Codrington.
Ibrahim had not given orders for the Allies to enter. “I am not come to receive orders,” Codrington told the courier, “but to give them; and if any shot be fired at the allied fleet, the Turkish fleet will be destroyed.”
The British and French ships then sailed under the land batteries into the jaws of the Bay, moving closer and closer to the first line of the crescent. As the Russian ships rounded the bend, the wind died down.
The Asia dropped anchor, so close to the Egyptian and Turkish first line that she could have fired at several different frigates. On the poop stood Codrington, his usual cocked hat replaced by a round one which offered more shade. His intense eyes watched the lagging Russians. Would the wind be gone before they could anchor?
The 76-gun Genoa had moored just in front of the Asia and her cannon pointed at a 74-gun Turkish ship only a pistol shot away. The Albion moved in, forward of the Genoa and started coming around when part of her rigging suddenly caught the bowsprit of a Turkish vessel. But there was no act of violence.
At the open end of the crescent the frigate Dartmouth had the mission of clearing this section of fire boats. Some longboats were sent out to request one fire boat to give way, and as one longboat moved in to a fire boat, suspicious Turkish sailors showed excitement. A Turk lifted his musket. Then came a shot, followed by many more. In the longboat below, the English lieutenant fell while seamen in the Dartmouth returned fire in a desperate effort to help their shipmates.
Admiral de Rigny saw all this from his flagship, the Syrene, and shouted over his megaphone to an Egyptian frigate a yardarm away that they should not fire at each other. The admonition came too late, as cannon shots rumbled from an Eastern ship in the second line. The Syrene replied in kind and inevitably the flames of battle spread, ship by ship, on up the line.
Meanwhile the flagships of the Egyptian, Moharem Bey, and the Turk, Captain Bey, lay inactive next to Codrington. A message came from Moharem that he would not fire. Codrington quickly ordered his excellent pilot and interpreter, Peter Mitchell, to go to Moharem’s flagship, the French-built La Guerriere, and assure him of Codrington’s good faith. As Mitchell approached the Guerriere in a small boat, impatient Egyptian crew members eyed him. A musket shot rang out and Mitchell fell. Moharem had lost control of the Guerriere's crew.
Codrington acted immediately. Captain Bey’s 84-gun ship was on his starboard, the Guerriere and another double-tier frigate were on his port, and still another frigate was astern. The guns of the Asia soon devastated Captain Bey’s flagship, then swung around to attack the Guerriere, whose confusion had increased because Moharem Bey and Letellier were deserting her. When the Guerriere tried to move away from the guns of the Asia, hardly a yardarm away, she ran aground and blew up, showering the Asia with burning timber.
The undaunted Codrington again swung his ship around to attack his remaining antagonists. He remained on the poop, where a ball had already broken his big gold watch, another had pierced his loose sleeves, and the boatswain and the master both lay dead.
The French were hard pressed. From her position at the head of the French line, the 60-gun Syrene had boldly moved into an opening in the Egyptian line. For over an hour she battled three frigates and managed to set ablaze one double-banked frigate. Moments later an explosion on the burning ship catapulted her masts on board the Syrene and de Rigny had to move his flag to the Trident.
Meanwhile the Russians were slowly but steadily moving into the smoke-drenched harbor and could hardly identify friend from foe. Fire ships were burning and exploding. Clouds of smoke, red flames, and the diffused sunlight all created strange patterns on the surface of the water. Russian crew members watched one fire ship swallowed into the deep. Then they saw the image of the Mother of God floating on the water. An excited sailor dove into the foaming water and splashed toward the sign. Surely it meant the cross had won over the crescent!
The portent was right. Soon after four o’clock the entire Russian fleet took up position. Their telling fire combined with that of the other Allies defeated the Eastern fleets. Sensing disaster, the Easterners’ fire became even more wild and inaccurate. Cables were cut, and one by one their ships drifted to leeward.
At evening the Easterners burned or scuttled their ships. Throughout the night massive fireballs lit up the harbor, and their lurid light silhouetted the wrecked and sinking fleet. “Morning presented us,” later wrote a midshipman, “a scene of horror and devastation which is impossible to describe. Besides the wrecks lining the beach all round the harbor, the water was covered with floating spars, upon which were multitudes of poor wretches, calling for help in various languages, amidst their dead and dying fellow sufferers.”
This ended the naval engagement at Navarino and the destruction of nearly all of the Turco-Egyptian fleet’s eighty-two ships. As might have been expected, the chief Allied damage had been sustained aboard the flagships of the three admirals. Western seamanship, gunnery, and leadership had amply justified Codrington’s calculated risk.
Codrington’s daring plan to move in close to the Turco-Egyptian vessels completely upset Letellier’s timing for a midnight battle. Since the two fleets were anchored almost within pistol shot, it was almost inevitable that some poorly disciplined Turk or Egyptian would fire the first shot before nightfall. Either the Eastern forces should have opened up with every gun available on land and water while the Allies were still approaching or else they should not have prepared for battle at all, and yielded to Codrington’s diplomacy of pressure. As it was, their operations were riddled with disunity. Some of the captains wanted to fight, many did not. A majority had believed the battle talk of the Allies to be a bluff and that they could not possibly obtain tactical unity. Moreover, Ibrahim had not been with his fleet.
These assumptions were Turco-Egyptian fatal mistakes. One observer expressed it well: “The allies acted with such cordiality that they were in fact the squadron of one nation.” In the heat of battle, the Russians and the French assisted each other many times, despite their over-all diverse interests, severe antagonisms, and conflicting instructions.
To whom was this competent unity due? Codrington, without question. His military diplomacy and tact had been outstanding. Navarino also contained an even more significant lesson. The British diplomats feared that this battle would produce a major war. Codrington, however, was a bit wiser. He knew that military incidents may be the occasion, but not the basic cause, of war. Nations fight over vital interests. The only exception is when one nation grossly miscalculates the other’s willingness to fight. By implementing the Treaty of London, unrespected by Turkey, by developing a fleet ready for action, Codrington changed a bluff into a real deterrent. It was far better for Codrington to demonstrate at Navarino the true intentions of the Allies before the Sultan had enlarged upon his Grecian policy to a point where the Great Powers were forced to declare war.
Indeed, if the diplomats had possessed the foresight of Codrington, they would have, immediately after the Treaty of London, sent the Allied fleets to Alexandria for a demonstration. Mehemet Ali would have known their intentions and would never have dispatched his second fleet to Greece.
But, unfortunately, a brilliant naval captain is sometimes without honor in his own country. The King of England repudiated what Codrington had done. His replacement arrived. Greek independence, though now assured, had to wait. And Admiral Codrington, along with his remarkable diplomacy and leadership, slipped into thankless oblivion.
COMING FROM BEHIND
Contributed by Commander Edwin S. Memel, USN
A British representative in Italy arranged to send his seven year old son to the American Dependents’ school where he learned baseball and was otherwise exposed to all things American. He was in effect “brainwashed” and he loved it. In great detail, he extolled the virtues of the United States to his English parents until one day the father admonished the youngster, “Now, David, you listen to me! You must always remember that the best things in the world are British! We have been doing all of these things much longer than the Americans have, and for that reason, we just naturally do them better.” The child thought quietly for a moment. Then he said, “But Daddy, you must admit that they are catching up fast.”
(The Naval Institute will pay $5.00 for each anecdote accepted for publication in the Proceedings.)