"The real Master to whom all is permitted" - The End of the Siege of Toulon in 1793

18 December 1793, the siege of Toulon ended with the evacuation of the occupying allied army, marking the beginning of the meteoric rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

"No, those men are not made so. The real Master to whom all is permitted storms Toulon, makes a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in the Moscow expedition and gets off with a jest at Vilna. And altars are set up to him after his death, and so all is permitted. No, such people, it seems, are not of flesh but of bronze!" (Fyodor Dostoevsky “Crime and Punishment”)

An illustration from 1816, showing the destruction of the French fleet at Toulon on December 18th, 1793.

When the Girondists fell in Summer 1793 and the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror ate counterrevolutionaries and the children of the revolution alike, it was especially the west and the south of France that saw a rally of Royalist forces. The Jacobins' answer was severe and Paul de Barras' punishment of Lyon and Marseilles, after recapturing the two hotbeds of the counterrevolution, draconic. The Royalist insurgents of Toulon, the main French naval base in the Mediterranean, took desperate measures. In August 1793, they began to negotiate with Lord Hood who commanded the Royal Navy and Spanish squadrons blockading the port and when the revolutionary army under General Carteaux made its advance towards the place, Toulon surrendered to the allies, including 80 warships and all the base’s supplies and forts. At one blow, French naval presence in the Mediterranean had ceased to exist and almost half of the French navy was now in the hands of the allies. On September 18th, the siege of Toulon began.

The allies occupy Toulon, August 1793

While the allies shipped 18,000 men, British, Spanish and Neapolitan, into the city and, together with the citizens of Toulon, easily repulsed every single one of Carteaux’s assaults, a young artillery captain named Napoleone Buonaparte wrote to his Jacobin friends Robespierre and Saliceti about the mess his commanding officers were making and finally got the permission to re-enlist retired artillerymen from the region as well as training the troops on the spot and when General Dugommier took over the command of the army in November and saw what Captain Buonaparte had achieved, things began to look bleak for Toulon and the allies. On December 11th Buonaparte, now promoted to Colonel and commander of the besieger’s artillery, brought his pieces close enough to the fortifications and a week later, the defender’s guns were silenced and the most important point of defence, dubbed “Little Gibraltar” was taken along with the allied supreme commander General O’Hara. Young Napoleon took the only wound here he would ever receive in battle, a bayonet stab in the leg from a British sergeant. Dugommier occupied the forts of l'Eguillette and Balaguier on Cairo Hill overlooking the harbour of Toulon as well and the allied fleet was in range of the revolutionaries’ artillery. Hood decided to pull out.

Édouard Detaille (1848 - 1912) "Napoleon à Toulon"

Hood’s twelve battleships-of-the-line and frigates, along with the Spanish and Neapolitan vessels present, took on board as many royalists as they could, as well as the remnants of the allied army, and Captain Sidney Smith, the man who made Napoleon “miss his destiny” at the Siege of Acre six years later, was charged with the destruction of Toulon’s naval base and the remaining French men-of-war. With support from the Spanish and Neapolitans failing to arrive in time, Smith and his men managed to destroy only half of the arsenal, a feat heavily criticised by Nelson and Collingwood afterwards, but it was nevertheless the heaviest blow the French navy received during the 18th century with 14 ships-of-the-line sunk and a further 15 captured and put into allied service. Barras and Fréron, the Jacobin’s representatives, arrived in Toulon on the following day, December 19th, and the royalist ringleaders, 800 persons all in all, were put up against the wall. Napoleon, treated for his injuries, was not present and travelled on to Nice to receive his promotion to Brigadier General and commander of the artillery of the French Italian army. His star was on the rise.

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