Chapter 3

(July - December 1793)

The Battle of Toulon

 

The battle of Toulon

 

July 1, 1793

After setting up his family in La Valette, near Toulon, Napoleon rejoined his artillery regiment in Nice. The city of Marseille had risen up against the Convention. Toulon, under the Royalist influence, was on the point of following suit. The English fleet was cruising offshore, ready to support the insurrection.

 

July 3, 1793

Napoleon wrote to the Minister of War to propose a plan for a furnace that could heat cannonballs red-hot "to set enemy vessels alight."

 

July 29, 1793

Napoleon travelled to Beaucaire in Gard to ensure reception of and organize a convoy of artillery ammunition. In two nights, he wrote a play entitled "LE SOUPER DE BEAUCAIRE." This is a friendly dialogue between a Republican and a Royalist in which, through the verbal exchanges, it clearly emerges that the Republican form of government is superior to any other. The play was read very widely, and was greeted with enormous success by ministers, workers, peasants and soldiers.

 

August 25, 1793

Even though the army of General Carteaux liberated Marseilles, the Royalists surrendered Toulon to the English. The Royal Naval fleet now anchored in the harbour landed hundreds of soldiers, who with the support of their huge naval cannons, bolstered the already impressive defences; the combined fortifications formed what some thought to be an impregnable fortress. Carteaux, a former house painter, a fine patriot but a terrible general, laid siege to it.

 

September 16, 1793

Captain Napoleon Bonaparte, having learned that Salicetti  - the commissar of the Convention whom he had supported in Corsica at the time of the confrontation with Paoli - was at Carteauxís headquarters, decided to pay him a visit.

 

Salicetti greeted him with open arms and said: "You couldnít have come at a better moment. Dommartin, who was commanding the siege artillery, was wounded while we were taking Ollioules, and we need a skilled officer to replace him. Letís go and see Carteaux together."

 

Carteaux, proud of showing the "educated captain" the emplacements that he himself had chosen for the artillery, took Napoleon to visit the positions.

 

At the first battery, which was in fact well protected by an earthern levee, Carteaux explained: "the cannonfire from the English ships will not interfere with ours. We will sink them one after another."

 

Napoleon, who instantly saw that the battery was way too far from the harbour to reach the ships, requested a demonstration. With the maximum charge of powder, the cannonball did not travel half the distance.

 

Napoleon, just as any competent leader must do in a time of war, dispassionately demonstrated the uselessness of the entire set-up, and asked Salicetti to give him full power in all matters relating to artillery. Carteaux was angered, but he had to acquiesce; not however, without retorting to the young captain who told him that the fate of Toulon passed by the fort of líÉguillette: "Young man, I see that you are ignorant of geography."

 

Situated at the extremity of the peninsula that formed a bottleneck at the mouth of the harbour, the Fort of l'Éguillette was a key position from which cannons could control the passage of ships and destroy anyone attempting to set up a position in the harbour.

 

This was the goal towards which Napoleon concentrated all his efforts. In order to attain it, he had to remove several solidly defended positions one after the other.

 

September 19, 1793

Napoleon was recommended for the rank of major, a nomination that was confirmed on October 19. Carteaux, jealous of the ascendance that "Captain Cannon" (the nickname he gave to Napoleon) was daily gaining, attempted to thwart his plans. He denied him the infantry support he needed to advance his batteries. The siege came to a standstill. On October 14, Napoleon demonstrated to Barras, another Convention commissar, the importance of getting rid of Carteaux if they were to retake Toulon.

 

This was done by November 11, but his replacement, General Doppet, a former physician, had one serious shortcoming: he could not stand the sight of blood. During an attack which was on the point of succeeding, he saw a soldier cut in two by a cannonball and cried out "Stop, turn back. I wonít see any more!" Doppet was an honest man and recognized that he was not cut out for warfare. Nevertheless, he sung the praises of Napoleon: "He was extraordinarily active and demonstrated an uncommon degree of fearlessness. He was always with his men and if he needed a momentís rest, he took it on the ground, wrapped on his overcoat. He never left his batteries."

 

Doppet was replaced by General Jean-François Dugommier. This time Napoleon had a leader of quality, one who understood that the artillery major belonged to an entirely exceptional class of officer,  whose opinions should be followed and who should be supported in all his actions.

 

Napoleon knew how to talk to men. He knew how to transform cowardly privates, perennially dissatisfied with their fate, into pure, hard soldiers, proud of their lot, however miserable. "Iím going to create a battery of fearless men", he told them. "I need men, real men, men with balls, certainly not sissies. I would never ask them to take an enemy position, but I insist that they follow me to that position. If you are one of those men, raise your hand."

 

They all raised their hands, then lifted both arms into the air and shouted "Vive Bonaparte!"

 

November 30, 1793

The English attacked the battery en masse. They were repulsed in heavy numbers and Napoleon threw himself into hot pursuit of the retreating enemy and managed to take prisoner General OíHara, commander-in-chief of the English troops. This general recognized the value, courage and the intrepidness of the "fearless men", declaring "with an army of soldiers like these, you could conquer the world."

 

December 11 - 16, 1793

The artillery was preparing the way for the attack on the forts of l'Éguillette and du Balaguier, which commanded the channel. The enemy replied with counterbattery fire. Sergeant Juno was writing down the orders that Napoleon was dictating when a cannonball landed less than a metre away, covering the written page with dirt "Good". Juno remarked mildly. "I wonít need any sand to dry my ink." Napoleon smiled; he loved such shows of pure courage and Sergeant Juno later became the Duc d'Abrantès.

 

December 16, 1793

At midnight, Napoleon led an infantry battalion on an assault of the heights of Caire. He received a bayonet thrust in the calf and although his shoe soon filled with blood, nothing would stop him. He went doggedly on. The small Gibraltar-like fort was captured, and Lieutenant Marmont, the future marshal, turned the English cannons against the enemy. The infantry, again led by Napoleon, now attacked l'Éguillette and le Balaguir under torrential rain and a storm that broke out as if it sought to unite with the violence of an attack that was sweeping away everything in its passage. The English, panic-stricken, evacuated both forts, leaving behind their cannons intact. The fearless artillerymen of the battery used them right away against the ships in the harbour.

 

December 17, 1793

Napoleon and his men threw themselves against the fort of Malbosquet, gained entrance, took control of the cannons and once more turned them against the enemy vessels.

 

Aided by a providential breeze, most of the English ships managed to escape after setting fire to the French ships that had greeted them as friends only four months earlier.

 

The victory had been won. Toulon was liberated and everyone was looking for Napoleon to congratulate him and carry him off in triumph. He, however, apparently insensitive to the glory, was meanwhile sleeping in the rain with a drum for a pillow, confident of the protection of the fearless men who would not have hesitated to tear to pieces anyone foolish enough to wake him.

 

He was promoted to the rank of General on December 24, 1793. He was 24 years old.

 

 

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