When the King of France Louis XVI betrayed his people by handing them over to foreign peoples, he had no idea what his fate would be. With the Prussian army at its borders and Austria ready to intervene, the revolutionary government seemed to be on the clock. Worried by the imminent collapse, the French Government called all citizens to arms in defence of the homeland 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, those soldiers dressed in blue cloth uniforms, almost all barefoot and drunk, marked the beginning of a new era in military history. On September 20, 1792, a national army, made up partly of volunteers and somewhat of conscripts, 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 Valmy’s victory, the Convention met which, as a first step, 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.
For Louis XVI the fate 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 was: “People, I die innocent!”. The decision to behead the king was not unanimous. Moderates and the Girondin thought that the prison was a sufficient measure, but the Parisian Sans-culottes and the Montagnard wanted that the betrayal was 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 which included: England, Russia, Austria, Spain, Prussia, 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 députée, plunged France into what everyone remembers as the period of Terror. The vengeful fury of the sans-culotte invaded the Paris’ 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. The Paris’ 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 that harbour. The Midi’s riots were capable of wreaking havoc in Paris. Not least because off the French coast there was the Admiral Hood’s British flotilla, ready to intervene in support of the royalists.
In the same period, in Paris, a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, reflected on his future. He and his own family had just been expelled from secessionist Corsican party led by Pasquale Paoli. After the flight 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 and the revolutionary power, there were always tensions and disagreements. In 1793, Jacobins asked the Convention to repeal various measures. These including the arrest of the Girondins party’s leaders, the vote kept only to the Sans-culottes, the formation of an army, the arrest of suspects and lowering the bread’s price. The Convention only partially accepted the demands, unleashing people’s wrath. The Girondins expelled Jacobins from power, but who ruled were the monarchy loyalists who could count on many French Navy’s aristocratic officers’ complicities. Also, in town, several pro-British agents conspired and 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 monarchs 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 harbour bothered the Convention which ordered a violent react to provocation.
At anchor, most of the French Navy officers were ready for the worst, even though no one sympathized with the British, much less wanted 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 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 defences and threatened to sink the fleet.
Rear Admiral Saint-Julien, loyal to the Paris’ government, had to flee leaving 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 flotilla were joined. The coalited forces landed from the ships 14,000 soldiers strong contingent, who took possession of the city and fortifications.
The Convention first response was the sending to Toulon the generals Jean François Carteaux with 15,000 men and 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 has 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, the captain Bonaparte was appointed artillery’s commander.
In a short time, the young and arrogant Napoleon won him 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 harbour’s highest point – Le Caire and L’Eguilette– to force the enemy fleet to abandon it. Even general Carteaux considered the same way, 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 favourable point to strike Hood and to force it to approach Toulon. The infantry’s cooperation was essential for the success of the plan, but general Carteaux, envious of Bonaparte, employed only the least part of his soldiers. 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 behaviour constantly clashed with his superiors’s 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 purpose: to blast the hills’ defences and attack the height of Le Caire. Secondly, an artillery battery placed on L’Eguilette would beat Hood’s fleet with incendiary balls.
Meanwhile, the British archive Le Caire‘s hill strategic importance: they decided to fortify it by building a redoubt renamed Fort Mulgrave surrounded by others three small called Saint-Philippe, Saint-Côme and Saint-Charles. For the Republicans army, things got harder.
The coalition’s troops attempted a sortie against the so-called Convention redoubt, placed in front of Fort Mulgrave. The English commander O’Hara almost managed to conquer 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 (arrived the day before) and general Muiron 6,000 men strong brigade, authorized the attack on British trench positions, nicknamed “Little Gibraltar“. In a single stroke, Bonaparte and his soldiers captured the harbour’s key points and Toulon falls 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 to achieve his goals. A few years after the siege, the young Napoleon was appointed general and took the Armée d’Italie supreme command. 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, despite the Russian campaign tragedy, Napoleon never forgot his first victory in Toulon. During the Saint Helen exile, in his long conversations with Las Cases, Gourgaud and Montholon , the 1793’s Provence remembrance 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.