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G - 120 : Toulon - The Port that made an Emperor

Most careers are made when someone steps into a difficult situation and resolves it. In our second week of sailing, we will visit Toulon, today’s main harbor of the French Navy. In this sunny Mediterranean place, in 1793, a career took off that would shake the world. A young, energetic French artillery officer singlehandedly pulled-off a campaign which forced the Royal Navy off French territory. We talk about Napoleone Buonaparte, the son of minor Corsican nobles. He later became Emperor of France and Ruler of Europe.

Fort Balaguier at the Entrance of Toulon Harbor - from this Battery Napoleon bombarded the Royal Navy and forced it to pull out of Toulon

Before the Siege of Toulon, Napoléon’s career was going nowhere. Thanks to parental connections, he could attend military school in northern France and was commissioned second lieutenant in 1785. A year later he got his brevet as Artillery Officer in Paris. His fellow cadets did not like the young, ambitious up-start. They bullied him for his Italian accent and short height. He avoided social contact and spent most of his time studying math and history, something that would serve him well later. From the outset, he was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution and Corsican Independence. But this did not get him far. In 1792, when the Corsican Nationalist Paoli threw his lot in with England’s King George III, Napoleon, his parents and siblings had to flee the island. The one thing he would never do was betraying his fatherland.

Toulon in 1850 - I guess it did not look much different in 1800. The Fortifications are massive

Toulon, France's Mediterranean Naval Base, was the worst place to flee to. A few months after he arrived, the town’s citizens had enough of the Jacobins terror in Paris and rebelled. They opened the gates to England and surrendered the French Fleet to the Royal Navy. It was summer 1793. The Bonaparte family had to move again. Once safe outside Toulon, there was at least a job for ambitious, young Napoleon. The French revolutionaries had guillotined so many officers, that the army was short of leaders. The troops tasked with retaking Toulon had no artillery commander Before Captain Bonaparte knew it, the job was his. The French force was led by General Carteaux, an officer with few talents. His force was short of everything: men, muskets, guns, ammunition and ideas.

The Force Deployment in 1793: French in Blue and British in Red

Standing on the shores west of Toulon and looking at the mighty fortifications now manned with British and Spanish soldiers, Napoleon devised a brilliant plan. Instead of attacking the well dug-in enemy frontally and taking big casualties, why not bombarding the British ships with white-glowing cannonballs from the hills south of Toulon? Surely, the Royal Navy would have to retreat to protect their wooden ships. Without supplies, the town would fall.

Captain Napoleon in the Trenches before Fort Mulgrave


Whilst the plan was brilliant – the British Admiral Hood considered French Artillery on these hills his biggest risk – there was a problem in execution. Napoleon had only 4 guns and a few mortars. Hardly enough fire power to impress the Royal Navy. What would have been an insurmountable problem for a less energetic officer, these obstacles just thrilled Napoleon. He started to beg, steal and borrow guns from everywhere. The Army of Italy was asked to send surplus cannons (only a few came); his detachments stripped the walls of Marseille, Antibes and Nice of as much artillery as possible, depots deep in France were raided and French citizens whose royal sympathies were known forced to paying for making cannonballs and gun powder.

Admiral Hood, Napoleon's Opponent in Toulan

It was a highly controversial but effective strategy. By December 1793, Captain Napoleon had amassed 100 guns and trained infantry soldiers to fire them. He used his math skills to devise an elaborate fire plan and named the most dangerous gun emplacement where nobody wanted to go the “Battery of the Brave”. With the name change he suddenly had volunteers. His courage under fire was legendary. Believing he could not be struck, he exposed himself to great dangers as when he took the position of a gunner who was blown to pieces or personally led attacks on English trenches.

Not sure whether these guns fired on the British Ships but it was from this position at Fort Balaguier

On 12 December 1792, French Troops launched their attack on Fort Mulgrave which protected the inner harbour of Toulon. After fierce fighting, the Fort was taken. The bombardment of the Royal Navy started the next day. Admiral Hood had to move his ships to safety. The Spanish-English expeditionary force was evacuated together with 14’000 royalists who feared for their lives. Paul Barras, the French Commissioner and later friend and supporter of Napoleon, ordered the execution of 800 captured Royalists on Toulon’s Champ de Mars without further ado. There was no humanitarian law then.

The Royal Navy blowing up the French Fleet during the Retreat from Toulon

The French victory in Toulon was a strategic success for France. It allowed the revolutionary government to consolidate power, suppress other regional rebellions and prepare for the War of the First Coalition during which they would beat Imperial Austria and Russia. In Toulon, Napoleon achieved national prominence as war hero and got promoted to Brigadier General – at the young age of 24. The promotion gave him social status, money to support his family and personal confidence. His reputation as a brilliant strategist and energetic executive secured him a leading role in the following Italian campaign in 1795 which cemented his role as France’s best and most brilliant General. His innovative use of artillery carried the Italian campaign as well. Rather than letting infantry fighting infantry, he shredded Austrian and Russians with his mobile artillery.

Napoleon inspecting his Troops in 1804 amassed for the Invasion of England - but he lacked the Fleet to cross the Chanel

The second strategic consequence of the Siege of Toulon was the loss of the French Mediterranean Fleet. During the evacuation, demolition teams of the Royal Navy lit up Toulon’s arsenal and many French battleships. The French Navy would never fully recover from this blow and had to henceforth avoid direct engagements with the Royal Navy. When they happened like in Abukir (1798) and Trafalgar (1806) they resulted in devastating defeats. As a consequence, Napoleon never had enough ships to invade England as he indeed planned in 1805. Eventually, not being able to defeat his most powerful foe led to his downfall. The Battle of Waterloo was his last Hurray.

Fort Napoleon was built on the Ruins of Fort Mulgrave which dominates the Hill the British called "Little Gibraltar"

Find it amazing that both ascent and decline of Napoleon have their roots in Toulon. We are going to visit Fort Napoleon, built on the site of former Fort Mulgrave. It provides a spectacular view on Toulon harbor and reminds us that even brilliant careers will eventually end.

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