The Maida Gold Medal: for an early victory in the Napoleonic War
“an extremely brilliant and creditable little affair”
Although much has been written on Britain’s part in the long French wars of 1793-1815 – on land and sea – some theatres of war remain relatively under-explored. One of these is the Mediterranean, which formed a major element in Britain’s strategic planning against France but which has only comparatively recently received a renewed interest in research and publication.
Control of the Mediterranean – or at least a dominant role in it – was vital to Britain’s strategy against the French Empire and its allies and to counter French naval activity from their base at Toulon, as well as being essential to Britain’s trade with India and the East via Egypt and her important commercial links with surrounding countries.
As early as 1794 Britain attacked and took control of the island of Corsica – another ‘forgotten campaign’ of the French Wars. But the ‘Anglo-Corsican Kingdom’ was short-lived and by the end of 1796 Britain had withdrawn, leaving only Gibraltar and Malta as a toeholds in the Mediterranean.
After 1806, Sicily became Britain’s major base in the Mediterranean. After the failed Peace of Amiens (1802-03), with French activity in Italy on the increase, Britain regarded control of the ports of Messina, Palermo and Syracuse as vital – Malta was deemed too far away and too small. Control of Sicily would allow the harassment of French supply lines and attacks on her Italian possessions, tying up French forces in the peninsula and in the Adriatic.
In November 1805, a ‘secret expedition’ of 7,500 British troops under Sir James Craig landed near Naples, aiming to support ‘The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’ against French attack from the north. However, Napoleon’s crushing victory at Austerlitz in December and the advance of thousands of French troops into the Kingdom of Naples, forced Sir James to fall back to Sicily to defend the island. He took the Neapolitan royal family with him as the emperor’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was installed as ruler of the mainland kingdom.
From 1806 to 1815, Britain maintained a large garrison on Sicily, sizeable elements drawn from the King’s German Legion (3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th Line Battalions) and many British regiments served on rota on the island – some for years. It must have been a better posting than Portugal or Spain at that time! The garrison, initially based around Messina, was greatly increased over the years and at its largest in 1810 there were 22 battalions scattered around the coast and ports of Sicily, with 17,500 British and German troops on the island – a very large force.
This garrison did not simply sit around and enjoy the climate. A number of audacious amphibious ‘hit and run’ raids were organised from time to time, to strike against fairly isolated French garrisons, ports and shipping along the coasts of the Kingdom of Naples. However, the greatest example of this garrison striking suddenly against French forces came as early as July 1806, when a force under Major General Sir John Stuart landed in the Gulf of Euphemia, in Calabria, and inflicted a convincing defeat on French forces in what was a short, sharp action near the town of Maida.
The Battle of Maida, fought on July 4th 1806, was the British army’s first land victory since the accession of Napoleon and destroyed the aura of invincibility created by victories like Austerlitz. General Stuart, with around 5,000 men found himself ranged against approx. 6,000 French under Général Jean Reynier. At its simplest, the battle devolved into a fairly simple ‘face to face’ action with little manoeuvring. Having marched inland, the British force was extended in three brigades ‘in echelon’, west to east, with a reserve and cavalry on the flank and was faced by three French brigades, each of which attacked the brigade opposite. There was some severe hand-to-hand fighting but effective volley fire and the point of the bayonet broke up the French attacks and forced a full-scale retreat after the French had suffered severe casualties – perhaps 2,000 to the British 350. Unfortunately, there was little follow-up, the troops being too exhausted after the battle and in the intense heat, so the victory did not lead to any significant outcomes, other than to encourage Neapolitan resistance and show the Italians that the French could be defeated.
The commanding officer, General Sir John Stuart, did very well out of it – he received the thanks of Parliament, a pension of £1,000 per annum for life, advancement to K.C.B. and the title (granted by the King of Naples) of ‘Count of Maida’. He was also given the Freedom of the City of London and an expensive presentation sword!
In 1808, George III ordered a medal to be struck to commemorate this notable victory. Announced in the London Gazette of 23rd February 1808, it conferred the new medal upon Sir John Stuart, his three brigade commanders (Generals G. Lowry Cole and W. Palmer Acland and Colonel John Oswald) and nine Lieut. Colonels commanding regiments or artillery. This makes just 13 in the initial Gazette but at least 17 are known to have been awarded, including those to the commanders of the de Watteville Regiment and the Royal Corsican Rangers.
The medal was undoubtedly inspired by the Naval Gold Medal introduced in 1794 and in turn became the prototype of the Army Gold Medal introduced for officers in 1810, though for some unknown reason the exact design was not continued and the Army Gold Medals awarded up to 1814 were plainer, with the name of the action (only) carried on the reverse.
The Maida medal, 1.5” (39mm) in diameter, was awarded in gold, with no distinction in metal or size according to rank. Its obverse showed a plain but attractive laureate profile of King George III (not the Prince Regent, as sometimes stated), with the simple legend ‘GEORGIUS TERTIUS REX’. The reverse, designed by G. F. Pidgeon, has a busy scene, with the date and name of the battle (the name broken over two lines for some reason) and a bellicose Britannia advancing with raised spear and shield, over crossed spears; a diminutive ‘Winged Victory’ hovers above, proffering a crown of laurel. To her right is the three-legged ‘trinacria’ (‘three headlands’), symbol of Sicily (much like that of the Isle of Man!).
The medals were held within a frame in glass lunettes, the naming details engraved around the rim, and hung via a bow-shaped swivelling suspension from a ribbon of red edged in blue. This ribbon became known as ‘the Military Ribbon of England’ and was used on the Waterloo Medal and the later Military General Service Medal (1847). However, its use as ‘the’ ribbon for military awards soon ended as more medals appeared after 1815, demanding separate ribbons as identifiers. Despite the original order that it was “to be worn from the button of the coat on the left side” many seem to have been worn around the neck.
Since so few Maida Gold Medals were awarded, they are understandably very rare and examples hardly ever turn up for sale. One is held in the National Army Museum (awarded to General Lowry Cole, commanding the 1st Brigade); one turned up on the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ in 2018 – so you never know your luck! Bronze specimens are known, as are silver versions; indeed one silver medal is known to a Lieutenant in the 4th Regiment but there is no known reason for its issue to him in this form and all other silver versions are simply specimens or collectors’ copies. Over the years, ‘gold’ replicas of varying quality have been made for the collectors’ market and nice examples in lunettes can fetch a few hundred pounds each.
When, over forty years later, the Military General Service Medal was belatedly authorised, a clasp MAIDA was issued. Recipients included survivors from the 20th Light Dragoons, a few from the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and Sappers and Miners, Commissariat and Medical staff and varying numbers from the 20th, 27th, 35th, 39th, 42nd, 58th, 61st, 78th and 81st Regiments, the Corsican Rangers and de Watteville’s Regt. There were only about 650 clasps issued in total.