The Siege Of Toulon And The Revised Stature Of Napoleon Bonaparte
An essay on the arts of war and propaganda
Napoleone Buonaparte (Italian spelling) saw Toulon as his destiny, Phillip Dwyer writes in his 2008 Napoleon: The Path to Power. Two weeks after his arrival the delegates of the Committee of Public Safety, Augustin Robespierre and Antoine Christophe Saliceti, recommended the Corsican captain for promotion to major and chef de bataillon. It was his first foundation of political support from the new regime and the beginning of his path to replacing it as Empereror Napoleon Bonaparte. His promotion reduced the power of Jean Baptiste François Carteaux, “a vain, proud man with little military competence” who was particularly “incompetent in matters of siege warfare,” as Dwyer notes. Whereas “Toulon was considered to be one of the most impregnable fortified cities in the world” thanks to centuries of fortification and the concerted efforts of a British garrison, Carteaux could not even site his own fortress correctly.
“Buonaparte's first task when he arrived at Toulon was to organize the artillery,” Dwyer writes. “It was less than impressive, made up of four cannon, two mortars and only a few companies of volunteers to man them.”
There was also a total lack of command; everyone from the general-in-chief down to his lowliest aide-de-camp gave orders and changed siege dispositions at will. Buonaparte established an artillery park, put some order into the service, and employed all the non-commissioned officers he could get his hands on. Three days after he arrived, as a result of his own zeal and organizational skills, the army had an adequate artillery — fourteen cannon pieces and four mortars with all the necessary equipment. He produced a stream of orders for the cannon, horses, draught-oxen and stores necessary for the effective prosecution of the siege. He ordered 5,000 sacks of earth a day from Marseilles to build ramparts. He created an arsenal at Ollioules where eighty blacksmiths, cartwrights and carpenters worked, manufacturing and repairing muskets and incendiary cannon balls. He requisitioned skilled workers from Marseilles to make equipment for the artillery and took over a foundry in the region so that he could produce case shot, cannon balls and shells for his mortars. He reorganized the artillery company, obtained powder that was sadly lacking on his arrival, fought with suppliers, and scrounged more cannon from the surrounding region. Within a relatively short space of time, he had managed to gather almost one hundred guns and mortars, which worked twenty hours a day.
Carteaux ordered an attack on 22 September 1793 without the preparations Napoleon wanted, or in sufficient strength. Alerted to the danger of the position by the repulsed attack, British troops reinforced “Fort Mulgrave,” as they called it. The fiasco further undercut Carteaux’s authority and Napoleon took advantage. “His letters from this period are authoritative, not to say haughty, which suggests that he did not consider himself subordinate to Carteaux” despite still being nominally under his command, Dwyer writes. Following more than two months of preparation and a change of commander over him, Napoleon led the breakthrough in person. “On 17 December, under the cover of a bombardment and in pouring rain, the final assault began,” Dwyer relates.
Six thousand men stormed Fort Mulgrave and succeeded in taking it at about three o'clock in the morning, at the cost of over one thousand casualties. During this time, Buonaparte was given the order to take the lesser forts of Eguilette and Balaquier, and in the course of the operation, had a horse killed from under him and received a bayonet wound to the thigh. After these successful attacks, it was clear that the fleet's position was no longer tenable, and Admiral Hood ordered the evacuation of the port.
On their way out, the British destroyed the French fleet and the arsenal. Most of the public buildings of Toulon were burned in the resulting conflagration. A powder ship exploded during the evacuation, sinking two boats and killing four sailors. Thomas Whitcombe printed that dramatic scene in 1816, a year after Waterloo, using the explosion and fire to illuminate the night. A copy hangs in the Royal Navy Museum at Portsmouth today. The gathering darkness of the evening is appropriate to the aftermath of the withdrawal, for while many refugees had escaped, between 800 and 1000 French Royalists were butchered when the revolutionary regime entered Toulon the next day. By the time Whitcombe picked up his pen and brush, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had become a single, extended bloodbath in the mind of the British public — and Toulon had come to be seen as the moment of Napoleon’s genesis.
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