This is taken from a thread in the British Medal Forum and was written by Steve Cobham
The “Syria” clasp to the Naval General Service medal 1793-1840 has, in my opinion, been unfairly treated. Many collectors
look down on it, not least because it is the most commonly encountered clasp, but because there is considered to be little
comparison between the actions for which it was awarded and those that were fought between the Royal Navy and its
opponents between 1793 and 1815. Lastly, the poor medal has been stigmatized as the source medal for the later
manufacture of some rare and highly desirable but completely spurious clasped medals. However, for the time being, it
represents a very affordable way for someone to form a collection of what is generally agreed to be one of the most
beautiful medals ever designed.
I would like to deal with each of these issues in turn. There were approximately 7000 SYRIA clasps issued to the NGS
(the Douglas Morris roll and British Battles and Medals say 6978). It is undoubtedly the most common clasp encountered
(just ahead of TRAFALGAR, funnily enough), but while in numismatic terms 7000 doesn’t exactly constitute “rare”, it’s not
at all certain that all of these medals are still in circulation. When survival rates are factored in, I would figure that
probably around 10% still exist. 10% seems to be the accepted benchmark for survivals of Victorian medals, which this is,
and which brings me to my next point.
Somewhat unfairly, the Syria clasp is considered a poor cousin and an afterthought to the other clasps issued for the war
against France (and others) from 1793-1815. However, it is probably time to reconsider the clasp in its full historical
context as the earliest naval campaign in the reign of the young Queen Victoria and should be considered in the context
of geo-political events in the mid-part of the 19th Century. It is not a Georgian or Nelsonic era medal and clasp – it
is a Victorian naval campaign medal.
It is an interesting clasp to research as it comes at a point in history where some recipients are beginning their naval
careers and about to go on to earn other awards, such as the various naval long service and good conduct awards, and
other Victorian campaign medals; whereas others received the medal after long, otherwise unrewarded naval careers.
There are recipients that began their careers in the ships of Nelson’s Navy and conclude them in new-fangled steam
driven ships of Victoria’s Navy. Some conducted other operations for which medals were not granted, participated in
anti-smuggling at home, or boarded slaving ships off the west coast of Africa. Like most campaign medals, the award
was made to both those troops that saw service at the sharp end, clawing their way up a well-defended seawall and those
that came no closer to the enemy than the rail of their ship would allow while conducting a long-range bombardment.
I think the clasp would be better respected if more was known about the campaign generally referred to in the “better”
auction catalogues as “operations on and off the coast of Syria 1840”.
The campaign which the SYRIA clasp commemorates bears some resemblance to the one undertaken by the Royal Navy in
1982 to the South Atlantic. Commonly represented as a “battle” in which the Navy sailed up and battered the opponent
into submission, the Syria campaign actually demonstrated the Navy’s expertise in conducting seaborne assaults against
heavily defended targets; landing large numbers of armed troops and Royal Marines, and providing strategic and tactical
firepower and pressure.
The origins of the conflict lie in the old British foreign policy problem of how to maintain the balance of power in Europe.
In the post-Napoleonic period in Europe, the Ottoman Empire became progressively weaker and more rotten. Its Sultans
were increasingly unable to maintain control over its vast empire. The Eastern Question, as it was called, referred to the
risk of war between the European powers (Great Britain, France, Austria, Russia and Prussia) as each tried to limit the
advantages that might accrue to the other if Turkey crumbled. The largest fear was that Russia would continue its
general expansion into the Black Sea region and possibly reach Constantinople securing a gateway of strategic
importance between the Balkans and Asia (ii).
Mehemet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt and nominally the vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, decided to take advantage of the
weakened state of Turkey to extend his own area of influence by invading Palestine in November 1831. He advanced
north, capturing Acre in May 1832 and Damascus in June. The Sultan, in desperation, turned for help to Russia and made
concessions to Mehemet Ali ceding him Palestine and Syria. In 1839 the Sultan decided to strike back at Egypt but his
army was routed at Nezib on 29 June and the Turkish main fleet deserted at Alexandria. In July 1840 Britain, Austria,
Russia and Prussia agreed to back Turkey and Admiral Sir Robert Stopford ordered Captain Charles Napier to
proceed to Beirut(i). France felt otherwise, but her fleet was unprepared for war.
Between August and November 1840, Commodore Sir Charles Napier, second-in command to Admiral Sir Robert
Stopford commanding the Mediterranean fleet, conducted a series of operations that forced the Egyptian troops of
Mehemet Ali out of the towns along the Syrian coast including Beirut, Sidon and Tyre, fought and won a major land
engagement against Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian Army commander and culminated in the bombardment of Acre on
November 3 1840. The tactical victory having been won, the fleet then sailed to Alexandria where it extracted
concessions from the Pasha. In exchange for hereditary rule in Egypt, Mehemet Ali ordered the immediate evacuation
of Syria and the return of the Turkish fleet.
The Eastern Question continued to dominate European diplomacy. The Straits Convention of 1841 between Great Britain,
France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Turkey reached a consensus to prop up the sick man of Europe rather than risk
dismemberment and to prevent any European power from seeking to have exclusive influence within the Ottoman Empire.
The Convention kept the peace for a decade, but in 1852 tensions came to a head over the question of Christian rights
within the Ottoman Empire.
Napoleon III, seeking to have France play a larger role in European diplomacy, demanded that the Sultan restore Roman
Catholic rights in the Holy Places in Palestine which had been placed in the custody of Christian Orthodox priests. Russia
demanded that Turkey follow the letter of the Kuchuk Kainarji treaty(ii) allowing Russia to protect all Christians in the
Ottoman Empire. The other European powers feared that Russia was trying to re-establish exclusive influence within
Turkey in defiance of the terms of the 1841 Straits Convention. Soon, the mood of confrontation escalated, troops were
mobilized and the Crimean War began.
Operations On and Off the Coast of Syria September – December 1840
In the Treaty of 15th July 1840 for the Pacification of the Levant, the four Powers offered Mehemet Ali that if, within
a given time, he would evacuate Arabia, Syria, Crete, and other possessions of the Porte(iii) which he had occupied, and
would make certain additional concessions, he should be made hereditary viceroy of Egypt, and might hold St. Jean
d'Acre and some other territories during his life. If not, he would be deprived of all his dominions; and the four Powers
would execute the sentence (iv).
Napier, by this time off the coast of Syria, wanted to force the issue but considered himself to be in a tricky situation.
The Treaty guaranteed 20 days for Mehemet Ali to consider its terms. If Napier commenced hostilities against Beirut
before the 20 days expired, he thought that he could be accused of the precipitation of violence and the unnecessary
loss of life. However, if he did nothing and the terms were refused, he thought he could be accused of doing nothing.
The following chronology is taken from Napier’s account of the war “The War in Syria” (1842).
August 12th 1840 - To reinforce the message, Napier placed his squadron (Powerful, Edinburgh, Ganges, Thunderer and
Castor) off Beirut and positioned them to threaten the defences.
August 27th - Reinforced by the Benbow, Revenge and Magicienne. Left Cyprus and reconnoitered the coast of Syria
– Acre, Tyre, and then anchored off Beirut.
September 9th - Admiral Sir Robert Stopford hove into sight aboard the Princess Charlotte.
September 10th - The Powerful, Pique, Castor, Carysfort, Daphne, Wasp and a Turkish line-of-battle ship and frigate
supported the landing of several battalions of Turkish troops at D’Jounie Bay near Beirut. Reinforced with a couple of
companies of Royal Marines, these troops were placed to stop the advance of the Egyptian army. Napier came ashore and
established his base of operations.
September 11th – Opened a bombardment of Beirut to convince Souliman Pasha to accede to the demands of the European
powers to withdraw his troops and yield possession of the town to the Sultan of Turkey. Souliman refused and the
squadron was withdrawn.
September 12th – 220 marines under Captain Martin were landed from Benbow, Hastings, Castor, Zebra and the Cyclops
to turn the Albanians out of the castle at D’Jebail. This was not easily done and the small force suffered a loss of 5 killed
and 18 wounded in advancing against the strongpoint.
September 13th – Castor and Pique re-embarked their marines at D’Jounie Bay and went off Acre, Caiffa and Tyre;
Bellerophon took her station with the Revenge to cover the Nahr-el-Kelb pass.
September 16th – The squadron off Beirut was withdrawn except for the Edinburgh and the Hastings which kept up an
occasional fire on the town. Pique and Castor under the command of Captain Edward Collier bombarded and landed marines
against Caiffa which capitulated. The guns of the fort were spiked and thrown over the walls in the full view of 500
Egyptian troops drawn up near the Acre gate.
September 22nd – Napier marched with a battalion of Turkish troops and a Battalion of marines towards Merouba in
search of Osman Pasha’s camp.
September 24th – 3 battalions of Turkish troops, a battalion of marines and an Austrian rocket troop engaged the
Albanians on the heights of Ornagacuan, driving in their skirmishers and forcing the main body to retire after firing two
volleys. The Turks pursued and captured three or four hundred prisoners. The marines retired back to the camp at
September 25th to 26th – a detachment of marines were embarked from Princess Charlotte into the steamers Gorgon
and Cyclops and proceeded off Sidon. At daylight on the 26th, they were joined by Thunderer, Wasp and Stomboli and
by the Austrian frigate Guerriera and a Turkish corvette. After a bombardment, the Turkish troops were landed and
the marines from Gorgon under Captain Henderson landed on the north beach. The Turks and marines entered the town
from opposite sides. The marine detachment from Stromboli was thrown into the castle abreast of them. A garrison of
Turks was left behind and the marines re-embarked, returning to D’Jounie Bay.
September 25th – the day before Napier took Sidon, Captain Houston Stewart with the Benbow, Carysfort and Zebra
attacked Tortosa but failed in consequence of the boats grounding on an unknown reef. In the action that followed the
landing party from Benbow and Zebra,, despite great gallantry were unable to penetrate the fort and were forced back
into their boats, suffering losses of 5 killed and 17 wounded.
October 2nd – One boat from Hastings and two from Edinburgh conducted an armed landing at Beirut under enemy fire.
Cut a powder train on the eastern bridge with slight casualties, and entered the castle throwing barrels of powder over
the walls. Napier conducted a reconnaissance of Tyre and Acre, concluding that there were no obstacles that could not be
overcome in attacking it.
October 4th – Emir Bechir “the Little Prince” and Syrian commander destroys Osman Pasha’s army and enters the
province of Kata. Napier moves the Turkish troops forward, and begins preparations for attacking Souliman Pasha
October 9th – the Princess Charlotte taken in tow by a steamer to Beirut and two more steamers with a battalion of
marines and a battalion of Turks taken to St George’s Bay. Napier moves to the convent at Ornagacuan with five
battalions of Turkish troops. The Egyptians under Osman Bey make a bold assault on this position and Souliman Pasha
takes up a second position against Napier’s right flank leaving Beirut unoccupied.
October 10th – Beirut is taken possession of by the marines in St George’s Bay. The Sultan appoints Sir Charles Smith
as General in command of all forces in Syria and Sir Robert Stopford orders Napier to cease activities unless under the
orders of Smith. Napier ordered to embark.
October 11th – Battle of Boharsof. Napier writes:
“It was rather a new occurrence for a British Commodore to be on the top of Mount Lebanon commanding a Turkish army
and preparing to fight a battle that would decide the fate of Syria; but the very novelty was exciting to a degree. I was
in my glory; standing on an eminence, surrounded by the general officers and my own staff, I fancied myself a great
“Commander,” and surveying the enemy, who had not quite so brilliant an appearance as the Scottish host.”
Ibrahim Bey, the Egyptian commander, is defeated and flees leaving behind 600 or 700 prisoners. Napier rallies the
Turkish troops and turns to meet Souliman Pasha but is again ordered to withdraw to D’Jounie on the coast
October 12th – 2000 Egyptian soldiers from Souliman Pasha’s army give themselves up at Beirut to Smith and Stopford.
Napier returns for an interview with Smith and Stopford and resolves to take no further part in military affairs. Troops
are stationed in Sidon, Tyre and Beirut and seeing no prospect of active operations, Napier and the other officers
consider the propriety of an attack on Acre.
October 24th – Admiral Walker (Turkish Navy) makes a demonstration off Acre where he is joined by the Revenge,
Thunderer and Pique.
October 25th – the Princess Charlotte and the rest of the squadron, except for the Powerful, get under weigh toward Acre.
November 3rd – before Acre are the 4 steamers: Gorgon, Stromboli, Phoenix and Vesuvius; and 7 line of battle-ships:
Princess Charlotte, Powerful, Bellerophon, Revenge, Thunderer, Edinburgh, and Benbow. In addition are Castor,
Carysfort, Pique, Wasp and Hazard. The Powerful, followed by the Princess Charlotte, Thunderer, Bellerophon and
Pique got around the shoal, bore up and ran along the shore towards the north angle. The southern division was also
soon in position and a fire opened on the gun positions of Acre at 2:00 pm. The Egyptian batteries were angled too
high and did little damage to the British squadron – although some damage was done to the Powerful. Total casualties
on the British side were 18 killed and 41 wounded. After two hours, Acre’s magazine exploded causing a considerable
loss of life and damage to property. The squadron’s fire was continued until 5 pm, when it was ordered to make sail. The
Governor of Acre abandons the town.
November 15th – Napier sails to take command of the squadron off Alexandria.
November 21st – Napier arrives off Alexandria where he finds Rodney, Revenge, Ganges, Vanguard and Cambridge, and
begins a blockade.
November 25th – Napier enters the harbour; has an interview with Mehemet Ali. Negotiations between the four Powers
and Egypt settle on hereditary rule in Egypt for Mehemet Ali in exchange for the evacuation of Egyptian troops from
Syria and the return of the defected Turkish fleet (v).
In conclusion, I hope I have convinced others (never going to persuade everyone) to take a second look at the Syria
clasped NGS. Placed in its rightful context as a Victorian campaign, disassociated from the other Napoleonic actions
commemorated by this medal and worthy of respect in its own right.
ii Agreed in 1774 between Russia (Peter the Great) and Turkey during an expansion of the Russian Empire which
granted independence to the Crimea (annexed by Catherine the Great in 1784) and granting the vague right to Russia to
protect all Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
iii Also known as the “Sublime Porte”, conventionally used for the Turkish Government. Translated from the French
of the phrase used by the Turks themselves for the ‘lofty gateway’ which gives access to the sultan and his officials.
iv Adapted from Clowes
v Summarized from Commodore Sir Charles Napier: The War in Syria, 1842