When the King of France Louis XVI betrayed his people by handing them over to foreigners, he had no idea what his fate would be. With the Prussian army at its borders and Austria ready to intervene, the days of revolutionary government seemed numbered. Worried by the imminent collapse, the French Government called all citizens to arms in defense of the homeland by proclaiming the famous levée en masse. The conscripts were all volunteers. Compared to the Austrians or Prussians soldiers, they looked like a bunch of tramps without discipline. Moreover, the French soldiers were dressed in blue cloth uniforms. Almost all were barefoot and many were drunk. Yet, the levée en masse marked the beginning of a new era in military history.
On September 20, 1792, a French national army defeated the fearsome Prussian army in the battle of Valmy. General Dumouriez’s artillery thus dashed Louis XVI’s hopes of returning to power by sacrificing his people. In Paris, after the victory, the Convention met and abolished the institution of the monarchy. From that moment on, all the laws and governmental acts would be dated An Ier (Year First) of the French Republic.
The fate of Louis XVI was sealed: traitors and homeland’s enemies were to be executed without mercy. On January 21, 1793, the king of France climbed the scaffold to be guillotined. The king’s last words to the people, as he was walking up the stairs to the guillotine were: “People, I die innocent!” The decision to behead the king was not unanimous. Moderates and the Girondins thought that imprisonment was a sufficient measure. But the Parisian Sans-culottes and the Montagnards wanted betrayal to be punished with the blood.
The death of Louis XVI and the fear that the revolutionary ideas would spread to other parts of Europe gave life to the first anti-French coalition. The coalition included England, Russia, Austria, Spain, Prussia, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and other Italian and German states.
The state of war and the fear of being invaded strengthened the Convention’s powers. Robespierre, together with Louis Antoine Saint-Just and other députées, plunged France into what is known as the period of Terror. The vengeful fury of the Sans-culotte spread through the Parisian streets: thousands of people were executed by the guillotine, including Queen Marie Antoinette.
The Convention had turned into a brutal dictatorship. In the various departments, the députée en mission strictly monitored the application of laws. Paris’s tyranny provoked the uprising of several departments including the Vendée, Lyon, and Provence where revolts erupted in Marseilles and Toulon.
Toulon was one of the most important ports in France: The merchant and military vessels that crisscrossed the Mediterranean moored in its harbor. Thus, the Toulon uprising could wreak havoc in Paris. Additionally, off the French coast was the Admiral Hood’s British flotilla, ready to intervene in support of the royalists.
At the same time, in Paris, a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, reflected on his future. He and his family had just been expelled from the secessionist Corsican party led by Pasquale Paoli. After fleeing from Ajaccio, the Bonaparte family took refuge in Toulon, while the young Napoleon went to Paris where he found the capital in turmoil.
Within the Toulon municipality, there were always tensions and disagreements. In 1793, Jacobins asked the Convention to repeal various measures. The Convention only partially accepted the Jacobins’ demands, thus unleashing the people’s wrath. The Girondins expelled the Jacobins from power, but those who truly ruled were the monarchy loyalists who could count on many French Navy’s aristocratic officers’ complicities. In town, there were also several pro-British agents who were in contact with Admiral Hood. In particular, Count d’Antragues aspired to persuade the British to recognize the Count of Provence as “regent” and support the loyalists to restore the absolute monarchy.
The monarchic loyalists, who now had control of the city, began negotiations with the British. They wished that the English fleet take the port in the name of King Louis XVII. The announcement that an enemy fleet would enter the Toulon military harbor bothered the Convention which ordered a violent reaction to any provocation.
At anchor, most of the French Navy’s officers were ready for the worst. Even though no one sympathized with the British, they did not want to hand over the fleet. The counterrevolutionaries took the decisive step: Admiral Trogoff (a Russian in the service of the old French Royal Navy) issued the white flag on the vessel La Perle as a sign of surrender to the British. Trogoff was an ambiguous character. His appointment in the French republican Navy was a mistake caused by a lack of control over official improvements.
Trogoff was declared a traitor, but it was too late: realists had conquered the main defenses and threatened to sink the fleet.
Rear Admiral Saint-Julien, loyal to the Paris government, had to flee leaving the port in the hands of the British. Admiral Hood, who had waited until then for the signal, took Toulon in the name of King Louis XVII; the Spanish and Neapolitan naval flotillas joined him. The coalition forces landed a 14,000-strong contingent, which took possession of the city and its fortifications.
The Convention’s first response was to send to Toulon General Jean François Carteaux with 15,000 men and General Jean François Cornu de Lapoype with 5,000 soldiers detached from the Armée d’Italie. The two commanders began a pincer maneuver to surround the port and hit it from two different points. However, the two armies acted separately and could not communicate because they were divided by the Pharaoh’s mountain range.
On September 7, 1793, Carteaux’s infantry attacked the small village of Ollioules. In the firefights, the commander of the artillery, Auguste Cousin de Dommartin, was wounded. For Carteaux, it was a significant loss because the artillery employment was crucial to continue the siege operations. It was necessary to find a quick replacement: a capable and ambitious officer, but above all, one who had the government trust.
Thanks to the Corsican deputy Antoine Christophe Saliceti’s support, Captain Bonaparte was appointed as the artillery’s commander.
In a short time, the young and arrogant Napoleon won the dislike of the two commanders who had different ideas on how to conduct the siege operations. For Bonaparte, the only way to take the city was to block it both by land and sea. The French had to secure the harbor’s highest point — Le Caire and L’Eguilette — to force the enemy fleet to abandon it. General Carteaux shared the concept, but he wanted to place the guns to Olliouels, too far to hit the target.
Saliceti and deputy Paul Barras chose Bonaparte’s plan. The artillery commander ordered the construction of two small forts (de la Montagne and des Sans-culottes) on a favorable point to strike Hood and to force him to approach Toulon. The infantry’s cooperation was essential for the success of the plan, but General Carteaux, envious of Bonaparte, employed only a few of his soldiers. Therefore, the first attempt to attack and conquer the Le Caire hill failed miserably.
Meanwhile, Bonaparte was amassing new cannons from Marseilles, Avignon and the Armée d’Italie.
Napoleon’s impetuous behavior constantly clashed with his superiors’ lowness. It was in Toulon that the future emperor showed his real character and resolution. In a short time, Bonaparte gathered over 100 pieces of artillery and had all the officers in the area recalled, assigning them to the batteries. At the helm of the Toulon’s besieging army, several commanders were alternated — each one worse than the other.
The last to arrive was General Jacques François Dugommier, who approved Napoleon’s plan to blast the hills’ defenses and attack the height of Le Caire. Additionally, an artillery battery placed on L’Eguilette would beat Hood’s fleet with incendiary balls.
Meanwhile, the British realized Le Caire‘s hill strategic importance. They decided to fortify it by building a redoubt named Fort Mulgrave surrounded by other three small ones called Saint-Philippe, Saint-Côme, and Saint-Charles. For the Republican army, things got harder.
The coalition troops attempted a sortie against the so-called Convention redoubt, placed in front of Fort Mulgrave. Commander O’Hara almost managed to capture the French deposits, but a counterattack led by Bonaparte himself and Dugommier repelled the British with severe losses. On December 17, General Dugommier, supported by Massena’s brigade, which had arrived the day before, and General Muiron’s 6,000-strong brigade, authorized the attack on British trench positions, nicknamed “Little Gibraltar.” In a single stroke, Bonaparte and his soldiers captured the harbor’s key points and Toulon fell in French’s hand.
Historians consider the siege of Toulon the military birth of Napoleon Bonaparte. The young Corsican artillery officer, for the first time, stood out to the government. But above all, he proved to be a skilled political manipulator in achieving his goals.
A few years after the siege, the young Napoleon was appointed general and took the supreme command of the Armée d’Italie. From that moment on, apart from the unfortunate 1799 Egypt expedition, General Bonaparte’s career was an escalation of victories. After years of battles won on the fields of half of Europe, and despite the Russian campaign tragedy, Napoleon never forgot his first victory in Toulon. During his exile in Saint Helen, in his long conversations with Las Cases, Gourgaud, and Montholon, Toulon always aroused pride and emotion in the Empereur des Français’ weary eyes.
– A. Thiers, Histoire de la Révolution Française, Paris, 1865.
– J. Godechot, La Contré-revolution (1794-1804), (It. translation La Controrivoluzione) , Milano, 1988.
– D. Chandler, The Campaign of Napoleon, (It. translation Le campagne di Napoleone ), Milano, 1988.
– G. Vitse, La Contré-revolution à Toulon 1793, Chaiers de la Méditerranée, 1970.
This article was originally published in 2019.