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Battle of Genoa, 1795

The Battle of Genoa (also known as the Battle of Cape Noli and in French as Bataille de Gênes) was a naval battle fought between French and allied Anglo-Neapolitan forces on 14 March 1795 in the Gulf of Genoa, a large bay in the Ligurian Sea off the coast of the Republic of Genoa, during the French Revolutionary Wars.

The French fleet was led by Contre-amiral Pierre Martin and comprised 14 (later 13) ships of the line while the British Royal Navy and Neapolitan fleet, under Vice-Admiral William Hotham mustered 13 ships of the line. The battle ended with a minor British-Neapolitan victory and the capture of two French ships.

The battle was part of a naval campaign in the spring of 1795, during which Martin sought to assert French control over the waters off Southern France. These had been effectively ceded to the British 18 months earlier when the British captured the French Mediterranean naval base of Toulon. Although it was recaptured at an ensuing siege, the main French Mediterranean fleet had been burned in the harbour. Only half the fleet was salvageable and as repairs continued in Toulon, the British used their dominance to invade and capture the island of Corsica during 1794. By the start of 1795 enough French ships were in fighting condition that Martin felt able to make limited cruises in the Ligurian Sea. At the start of March 1795 he sailed for Genoa, encountering and capturing a British ship of the line en route. Off Genoa Martin found himself pursued by Hotham's fleet and, after two days of manoeuvres in calm weather, the French admiral turned back towards the French coast.

Hotham pursued, and on 13 March his leading ships caught the French rearguard. For two days Martin's rearmost ships fought a series of running engagements with the British fleet in which several ships from both sides were badly damaged. Martin's flagship the 120-gun Sans Culotte lost contact with the battle overnight, and after a brief resumption of the battle the following morning he gave orders to withdraw. Two French ships, Ça Ira and Censeur, were left behind, overwhelmed, and forced to surrender by the British. Hotham was urged by his subordinate, Captain Horatio Nelson, to continue pursuit, but refused and withdrew his fleet for repairs. One British ship, HMS Illustrious, was later wrecked on the Italian coast. Martin sent his damaged ships into Toulon for repairs and anchored the rest of the fleet in the Îles d'Hyères in preparations for further operations; four months later the fleets fought a second engagement, the Battle of the Hyères Islands, which also ended in a minor British victory.

Leading up to the battle

The French Revolutionary Wars expanded significantly in February 1793 when the National Convention of the newly-formed French Republic declared war on the Kingdom of Great Britain. To defend British commercial interests in the Mediterranean Sea, a Royal Navy fleet was assembled and sent to blockade the French Mediterranean Fleet in their main port of Toulon on the Southern coast of France. On arrival in August 1793, the British fleet found that Toulon was in a state of upheaval due to the Reign of Terror, and the British commander Lord Hood persuaded the citizens to declare for the French Royalist cause and allow British forces to seize the town and the French fleet. Republican forces laid siege to the city and four months of heavy fighting followed until the Royalists and their allies were expelled on 18 December. During the chaotic evacuation of the city most of the French Mediterranean fleet was set on fire by British and Spanish boarding parties.

In the aftermath, the British launched an invasion of Corsica while the French set about rebuilding their fleet. Due to failures by Spanish landing parties, many of the naval stores in Toulon had survived the fire as had more than half of the fleet, although many ships were badly damaged. For most of 1794 the surviving French ships remained in harbour, the new commander Contre-amiral Pierre Martin leading a brief sally in June with seven ships of the line which was forced to shelter at Gourjean Bay to escape an attack by Lord Hood's fleet. Problems stemming from the French Revolution several years earlier meant that the French fleet was suffering severe reductions in experience and morale in comparison with the British fleet.

By 1795 the full surviving strength of the French Mediterranean Fleet had been restored, Martin mustering 15 ships of the line and six frigates for an operation in the Ligurian Sea. The purpose of this operation is uncertain; the report of the Committee of Public Safety to the National Convention stated that the fleet was at sea to secure shipping lines in the Mediterranean, while other sources indicate that an amphibious landing in Corsica was the intention. Such an operation is mentioned in the correspondence of Représentant en mission from the National Convention, Étienne-François Letourneur, sent to provide political oversight for the fleet. This plan was also indicated by the numbers of troopships assembling in Toulon, although these vessels did not leave harbour during the operation. Historian Adolphe Thiers has suggested that the objective may have been a demonstration of force against Rome, following the lynching of French ambassador Nicolas Bassville there two years earlier.

Martin's Cruise

Martin was reluctant to leave Toulon until he could be certain that the lax British blockade of the port had been temporarily retired. Hood had been replaced in late 1794 by his deputy Vice-Admiral William Hotham, who based his ships in San Fiorenzo Bay on the northern coast of Corsica during the winter. There they had attempted partial refits and one ship, HMS Berwick, had been badly damaged due to poor handling during a gale. In late February Hotham sailed for more extensive repairs at Leghorn in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, leaving Berwick behind. Martin received news of Hotham's departure at the start of March, and sailed from Toulon on 3 March.

The French fleet faced a series of gales, and it took four days to reach the Corsican coast; two ships were partly dismasted during the passage. There Martin's scouts discovered the damaged Berwick limping around Cap Corse with jury masts. Recognising his superiority, Martin detached a squadron of frigates and ships of the line to chase Berwick and a short battle developed in which the fleeing Berwick fought the frigate Alceste. Both ships took damage in the encounter, but as Alceste dropped back, a bar shot tore the head off Captain Adam Littlejohn on Berwick. With other ships coming into range, Berwick unable to escape and their captain dead, the surviving officers decided to surrender. Martin ordered the captured Berwick and the damaged Alceste to detach for the protected anchorage at Gourjean Bay, while his fleet continued eastwards into the Gulf of Genoa.

On same day as the capture of Berwick, news of the French departure from Toulon reached Hotham at Leghorn from Genoa, with reports that the French had passed Île Sainte-Marguerite on 6 March, heading east. This was corroborated by the scouting sloop HMS Moselle, which reported the French to the north-west, heading south. Within a day Hotham's fleet was ready to sail, leaving the harbour in the early morning of 9 March. Hotham believed that the French target was Corsica, and sent the brig HMS Tarleton under Commander Charles Brisbane to warn Littlejohn and arrange a rendezvous with Berwick off Cap Corse. On the evening of 9 March Tarleton returned with the news of the capture of Berwick, causing Hotham to veer north-west in his course. The following day the frigates scouting ahead of the British fleet discovered Martin's fleet off Cape Noli in the Gulf of Genoa, steering westwards, back towards Toulon.

The Chase

The weather was calm, and it was not until 11 March that ships from the main body of the British fleet sighted the French, now south and to windward of the British. The lead ship in Hotham's fleet at this time was HMS Princess Royal, leading a vanguard some 5 or 6 nautical miles (11 km) ahead of the main body of the fleet. Contact was lost for a time, but re-established on 12 March when Martin brought his fleet about. Martin advanced to within 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) of Princess Royal before tacking away to larboard. The weather remained calm with choppy seas which made manoeuvring very difficult and prevented either fleet from closing for battle; when presented with the opportunity to attack, Martin declined.

A breeze from the south in the evening gave Hotham the opportunity to form up his fleet into a line of battle with the van to the west, the French to the southwest. The night was characterised by heavy squalls, and the French ship Mercure lost a topmast; the damaged ship detached to join Berwick at Gourjean Bay, accompanied by a frigate, while continuing to steer his fleet to the west away from the British. At 08:00 the following morning another of Martin's ships, the large 80-gun Ça Ira from the rearguard of the French fleet, collided with the neighbouring Victoire and its fore and main topmasts collapsed overboard.

By the morning of 13 March it had become clear to Hotham that Martin had no intention of engaging the British fleet, and the British admiral decided to authorise a general chase, permitting his captains to break from the line and pursue the French to the best of their ships' ability. The leading ship of the chase was a frigate, the 36-gun HMS Inconstant under Captain Thomas Fremantle, which reached the damaged Ça Ira within an hour of the collision and opened fire at close range on the larboard quarter.

Seeing that Ça Ira was under threat, the French frigate Vestale attacked Inconstant from a distance, pulled past the British ship and attached a tow line to the limping ship of the line. Fremantle brought his ship around and fired into Ça Ira again, but on this occasion was exposed to the main broadside of the French ship and was subject to cannon-fire which caused casualties of three killed and 14 wounded, as well as significant damage. Unable to continue the action, Fremantle pulled back for repairs. The attack by Inconstant had allowed other British ships to join the action, so that at 10:45 the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon under Captain Horatio Nelson was able to open fire on the French ship.

Agamemnon, supported briefly by HMS Captain under Captain Samuel Reeve, retained contact with Ça Ira, firing on the French ship at long range for three and a half hours. Nelson had been able to position his ship off the stern of Ça Ira and weave back and forth behind the French ship, unleashing a devastating raking fire. The attack killed or wounded 110 crew on the French ship, and shattered the masts and rigging. Nelson had just seven men wounded in the encounter. Efforts by Sans Culotte and Barra to intervene were driven off and Ça Ira was severely damaged by Agamemnon's fire. Eventually parts of the French centre dropped back in support and Hotham ordered Nelson to fall back rather than risk being overwhelmed. While this combat continued other British ships had come up, HMS Bedford and HMS Egmont engaging three French ships, including Timoléon and Martin's flagship the 120-gun Sans Culotte. Egmont was hampered during the engagement by an explosion of a bursting cannon on the lower deck, which caused nearly 30 casualties among the gun crews. Hotham's fleet was unable to fully engage with the retreating French throughout the day however, and when night fell both fleets continued westwards, the French withdrawing with the British line in pursuit.

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