Reign of George I page 19
In Sicily, for the conquest of which Spain had been thus left exposed, the war was now, too, beginning to run heavily against the Spaniards. Through 1718 the campaign there had been wonderfully encouraged and invigorated by the presence and activity of Byng and his fleet. After the capture of Messina, general Lede, though compelled to retreat thence, marched upon Melazzo, a place of great natural strength, built upon a narrow headland jutting far into the sea. The town would probably have been compelled to surrender, but general Caraffa, with eight thousand Germans, was earned by Byng to its relief, and en its arrival, the garrison making a smart sally, there was a vigorous action fought, and there the two armies entrenched themselves, and thus contrived to face each other without further fighting through the winters of 1717-18. Great numbers on both sides perished from lying on a low, marshy ground, and enduring severe want of provisions. The Spaniards could procure supplies from the interiors, but the Germans and Neapolitans were dependent on supplies by sea, and here Byng served them most essentially. It was an unheard-of thing for vessels to keep these dangerous seas during winter, but Byng braved all the hardships and perils of it. He had posted captain Walton to prevent Cammock and his ships coming out of the Faro of Messina whilst he carried supplies to the imperial army; but Walton being thrown by a tempest from the station, Cammock slipped out, and appearing before Tropea, where the provisions were stored, had nearly obtained an ample supply by writing a letter to the governor as an English officer, at the same time carrying English colours. The ruse was, however, discovered, and Cammock had the luck to regain his retreat before Walton was able to recover his station.
In the spring of 1718 the emperor, having ten thousand foot and three thousand horse liberated through the peace with Turkey, brought them to Naples, in order to be conveyed over to Sicily. Byng engaged to carry them to the bay of Patti, a little to the westward of Malazzo, as the best landing-place; but he strongly represented that a g 'eater number of troops would be necessary to cope with the Spaniards, who were brave soldiers, and under an able general. So far, however, from getting these, he found the army, which was under the command of count de Mercy, almost destitute of artillery, and still more so of money. He stripped his Spanish prizes to furnish them with a train of artillery, and gave powder and ball from his own stores. He landed the German troops safely at Patti on the 28th of May; and the Spaniards at Melazzo, though twenty miles off, immediately decamped in such haste, that they left behind them their sick, two thousand bags of flour, some artillery, and ammunition. De Mercy led his army to Melazzo, Byng sailing along the shore to support them, and anchoring off the town. On arriving, count Seckendorf was dispatched with a sufficient force to clear the Lipari isles of the piratical inhabitants, who had continued to intercept the supplies of the army; and that service being thoroughly performed, De Mercy prepared to follow the Spaniards, who had retreated inland to Villa Franca, and there entrenched themselves. It was the 27th of June, however, before the Austrians were ready to march, for they were proverbially slow, and their army very ill supplied, not only with stores, but with all kinds of requisites. They had few surgeons, and those very bad; and it was remarked by the author of an account of this expedition, that there was little difference betwixt being wounded and killed in action, except that of a lingering or sudden death.
The Spaniards had made their retreat to Villa Franca in a day; but the weather was now become intensely hot, and the Austrians found it a most fatiguing march over rugged and wild mountains, conducted by unwilling guides, and harassed by the armed peasantry of the district. They were worn down by carrying in the burning heat not only their arms, but their ammunition and six days' food. At length, from the heights of Tre Fontane, they descried the camp of the Spaniards below on the plains of Villa Franca, and raised a shout of exultation at the sight, for fighting appeared infinitely preferable to their sufferings on the march. The Spaniards, though on a plain, had posted themselves in a strong position, their front defended by the steep banks of the river Alcantara, their wings by entrenchments, and their rear by the little town of Villa Franca, and rocky hills covered by armed peasants. In front of the enemy was a hill crowned by a convent of Capuchins, and on this De Lede had posted Villardarias with five battalions of his best troops. De Mercy was said to be very short-sighted, and he was by no means aware of the strength of Lede's position, and especially of the force occupying the advantageous position on the Capuchin hill. He had no friendly guides, either, to make him aware of the real dangers, for the whole population was on the Spanish side. Byng had warned him not to imagine the Spaniards weak, or easily to be defeated, because they had made a rapid retreat, and he now found this only too true. They were attacked by the troops of Villardarias as they were advancing on the town, and taken by surprise. Night came down on them before they could recover their order. The next morning, however, they advanced in their attacking columns, and there was stout fighting on both sides; but the troops of Villardarias on the hill defended that post most gallantly, and the choicest troops of the emperor were necessarily thrown forward to drive them back. As a second night was fast approaching, De Mercy put himself at the head of the attacking column and made a desperate charge, but it was in vain. * After having one horse killed under him and two others disabled, he received a severe musket-wound, and was carried off the field. De Mercy, still undaunted, ordered a renewal of the attack on the following morning; but when the army was drawn up at the foot of the Capuchin hill, the officers represented the strength of the place, and the severe losses they had already received from it, and De Mercy retired. The Austrians had upwards of three thousand men killed and wounded, the Spaniards not above half so many. De Mercy then drew off his troops, in order to renew his communication with the English fleet, and prevent the march of De Lede and his army towards Messina.
The second son of admiral Byng was severely wounded in this battle, and the Austrians were in the greatest destitution of provisions. Byng got on horseback, and rode to meet the Austrians, and see provisions carried to them. He found the ground scattered with the bodies of men and horses, and the wounded left lying on the spot where they had fallen with their ammunition and bread set beside them. Other poor wretches were endeavouring to crawl down to the sea-side by the help of their wives. His own son was in danger of death from want of necessary attendance; and the general's own wound was only dressed by his valet. The different officers were upbraiding one another, each declaring that, had his opinion been followed, the battle of Villa Franca would have been a complete victory. Byng endeavoured to show them that there was no use in looking back, they must be united and look forward; and he undertook to persuade the emperor and the king of Sardinia to send six thousand troops - destined to drive the Spaniards from the island of Sardinia - to their aid. He made a journey immediately to Naples for that purpose, obtained his object after much difficulty, and completed the benefit by supplying their deficiency of cannon and ammunition out of his own fleet. On the voyage he was seized with an attack of fever, but he put back in all haste, and on the 28th of July came to anchor at Faro Point again, near Messina. That place was assaulted with fresh vigour, and compelled to open its gates on the 8th of August. But the strong citadel still held out, and, as it was clear that it could never be taken without heavier and more cannon, and without the better supply of the besieging army with all manner of necessaries, Byng made another voyage to Naples, and after much expostulation, and even menacing to withdraw the English fleet, he had the pleasure of once more reaching Messina with a tolerable quantity of artillery, ammunition, and stores, and the six thousand men originally destined for Sardinia. On the 19th of October the citadel of Messina surrendered.
Under the able advice and indefatigable assistance of Byng, De Mercy advanced to the strong fortress of Trapani, and in the summer of 1719 De Mercy mustered before it seventeen thousand foot and horse. He had left garrisons in Messina, Melazzo, and other places, and he soon reduced De Lede to such extremities that he entered into negotiations with De Mercy for the evacuation of Palermo and of all Sicily, on condition that the Spanish army should be allowed a free passage to Barcelona, or some other Spanish port in the Mediterranean. The Austrians were very ready to accede to this, which would have left Sicily in their entire possession; but Byng protested that not a man of that army should quit the island till a peace took place, as it would be immediately employed against England or against France in the war with Spain then raging. It was then proposed that the Spaniards should retire into Castro Giovanni, in the interior, or some other defensible position, and that a truce of six weeks should be granted in order for each party to consult their respective courts. These negotiations, however, were broken off in consequence of advices from Madrid; hostilities went on, and the Austrians, by the exercise of a little vigour, might have taken Palermo, and have finished the war in the island.
But by this time the failure of the great plans of Alberoni had produced their effect in Spain. That country was become dreadfully tired of the war. It had received nothing but disasters and humiliations instead of the proud triumphs which Alberoni had promised it. He himself was become convinced by woful experience that his proud spirit had soared far beyond the power and resources of Spain. He had himself snatched at the opportunity afforded by the little gleam of success - the victory of Villa Franca - to propose terms of peace. They were terms which the allies would have accepted at the moment when Stanhope visited Spain, and was even ready to surrender Gibraltar. But the time for these had gone by for ever. Alberoni dispatched his countryman, the marquis Scotti, to Paris, with the message that Spain was desirous to appoint the States-General as mediators betwixt herself and the allied powers; that she was ready to surrender Sicily and Sardinia on condition that France retired from the Biscayan provinces, and the English from Gibraltar and Port Mahon.
When the regent of France had read these propositions, he refused to grant Scotti passports to visit the Hague till he had first consulted the emperor and the king of England. George was still at Hanover, and Stanhope with him. Dubois wrote to Stanhope there, enclosing the Spanish propositions, and Stanhope replied that it was no longer time for the entertainment of such ideas; that nothing now, it was clear, could secure the peace of Europe but the expulsion of Alberoni, not only from the Spanish cabinet, but from Spain altogether; that his unbounded ambition had been the sole cause of the war; that to gratify it he had broken through the most solemn treaties, and that there was no security, so long as he continued in Spain, against his breaking any new ones; that it was necessary to hold forth this example to Europe, as a means of intimidating wicked and turbulent ministers, who might wish to violate treaties and embroil kingdoms.
France and England being thus determined, the day of Alberoni's fall was at hand. His own conduct hastened the catastrophe. As things went wrong, his temper became more imperious, and the grandees of Spain, never very well pleased to see the son of a foreign gardener exalted above their heads, now exerted themselves in coalition with France and England for his overthrow. His old friends began to fall away, his enemies to acquire double activity. Several of the grandees entered into secret engagements with the French regent to procure his dismissal. The king of Spain's confessor, discovering that Alberoni was trying to introduce another into his office, immediately became a dangerous ally of the discontented; but the finishing stroke was given by the restless and clever lord Peterborough. Though neither employed nor trusted by his own government, he saw how the most effectual blow might be given to Alberoni's influence, and he at once put the idea into operation. He entered into a private correspondence with the duke of Parma, whose niece, Elizabeth Farnese, was queen of Spain. With his usual impressive eloquence he soon convinced the duke of the necessity for the dismissal of Alberoni, in order to contribute to the peace of Europe, and that the casting die was in his hand. He refused to proceed to the duke's court to complete this negotiation in order to avoid suspicion, but he agreed to meet a confidential agent of the duke's at Novi, in Piedmont. There it was arranged that the duke should privately write to the queen of Spain, urging the necessity of the cardinal's dismissal; and about the time of the arrival of the duke's letters at Madrid, the marquis Scotti, Alberoni's agent to the regent of France, returned, having been induced, by a bribe of fifty thousand crowns, to desert his employer, and exert his influence over the queen against him.
These united schemes succeeded. Alberoni was suddenly dismissed, and ordered to quit Madrid in eight days and Spain in twenty-one. It was in vain that he sought interviews, and wrote letters to the king and queen: audience was refused him, and his letters remained unanswered. He was compelled to set out according to the royal command, and at Lerida he was overtaken by an officer sent to search his baggage for papers missed from the government offices, which, unfortunately for the reputation of the cardinal, were discovered upon him. The grandees, once assured of being rid of him, paid him great honours at his departure, but the abstraction of the government papers seems to have greatly embittered the king and queen against him. They made heavy accusations to the pope against him. He was arrested at the instance of his holiness in the Genoese territories, and various charges preferred against him to the Genoese senate by the king of Spain, as an enemy to the church, amongst which his having made war on catholic princes was impudently enough put in the foreground. The Genoese declined going into these charges, and Alberoni published several spirited defences of himself, flinging the charges with only too much truth upon the king and queen of Spain. The court of Spain, therefore, pursued him with redoubled acrimony, and endeavoured to deprive him of his cardinal's hat, aud to prevent him finding an asylum anywhere. They did not succeed in degrading him from his rank of cardinal, but they compelled him to seek refuge in Switzerland. Alberoni, however, was not the man to remain long in secluded inactivity, and we shall soon again find him busy in the cause of the pretender, thus endeavouring to avenge himself on England.
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