Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Napoleon's First Fight with the English


The first six months of the year 1793 were notable ones in France. No more fortunate than many others who did not wear the imperial purple, the King paid for his incompetency with his head. Louis XVI. was one of those weak persons who mean well but carry their good intentions to no practical issue. His execution on the 21st January brought more important and far-reaching results than his thirty-eight years of life. Republican France, proclaimed on the 22nd September 1792, was no longer a mere dream of enthusiasts, but a reality, although the foundations were insecure and the superstructure top-heavy. The seed of liberty had been planted, and it was fondly hoped that it would bring forth an increase which would blossom in every country.

In the previous April the luckless Louis had been reluctantly compelled to declare war on Austria, the latter Power receiving the support of Prussia. The attempt on the part of the half-disciplined French troops under General Dumouriez to invade the Austrian Netherlands signally failed. This poor beginning was amply retrieved at Valmy and by the seizure of the Netherlands after the battle of Jemappes on the 6th of the following November. Savoy and the Rhine Valley were also occupied, and promises of assistance made to all countries that cared to raise the standard of revolt.

With the execution of Louis XVI. monarchical Europe assumed a more threatening aspect. The Convention had already stated that its business was to drive out "tyrants "who occupied thrones, and such a proclamation was not pleasant reading for those whom it most concerned. Owing to an "attachment to the coalition of crowned heads "on the part of George III., France declared war against England on the 1st February 1793, and as the latter had allied herself to Holland, that country also received the same unwelcome challenge. The two Powers shortly afterwards joined hands with Russia, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for the purpose of mutual support. France had more than her hands full, especially as she was in an unsettled state within her own borders. The momentary triumphs of the Revolutionary troops did not last. The Convention supported the war in the Netherlands half-heartedly, and so enraged Dumouriez that he deserted to Austria and subsequently retired to England, where he spent his remaining days. Government passed into the hands of a select few known as the Committee of Public Safety. In the Convention were two parties, the Girondists or moderate republicans, and the Mountain, whose views were considerably more advanced and far less reasonable. They could not rule themselves much less the nation. The Mountain prevailed, and the cause of the Girondists was taken up with enthusiasm by the people of La Vendee, a department of Brittany, which had no sympathy with the extreme measures advocated by the Mountain. In company with several other populous centres Marseilles revolted, and it was to this city that the Bonapartes proceeded in September, 1793, after having led a dreary existence on the outskirts of Toulon. By this time affairs had quieted down again. Napoleon's sympathy was with the policy of the Mountain. Having been promoted to the position of capitaine commandant  he had joined his regiment at Nice in the previous June. He sent his family every sou he could spare from his meagre pay, but this did not suffice to keep its members from actual want, and the proud Letizia and her children were obliged to eat the bread of charity. Gradually things took on a rosier complexion, and Joseph, Lucien, and Joseph Fesch, who was of the party, obtained positions which presumably left a small margin for the benefit of their sorely-stricken relations. It seemed as though Dame Fortune were indeed smiling when small pensions from a fund which had been voted for Corsican refugees were granted to the mother and each child under the age of fifteen.

Being unable to get an appointment on active service, for which he ardently longed, Napoleon sought solace in literature. Had he failed in the army it is not at all improbable that he would have become a literary man; although it is doubtful if his achievements in this field would have made his name famous. For the moment he sheathed his sword and took up his pen, producing a pamphlet written in the form of a dialogue, entitled The Supper at Beaucaire. To quote the opinion of Sir John Seeley: "It is highly characteristic, full of keen and sarcastic sagacity, and of clear military views; but the temperature of its author's mind has evidently fallen suddenly; it has no warmth, but a remarkable cynical coldness." It was published at Avignon in August 1793. Like his previous publications it attracted little or no attention in the days when printing presses were turning out pamphlets by the thousand, but as if to counterbalance the failure, Napoleon was about to have an opportunity to show his talents along the line they were slowly but surely developing.

The inhabitants of the great southern seaport and arsenal of Toulon, the majority of them royalists to the core, had openly rebelled. Unlike those of Marseilles, who had raised an army against the Convention, they had gone so far as to call in the assistance of the enemy. English and Spanish fleets under Hood and Langara respectively, blockaded the harbour; in other words prevented or attempted to prevent the entry and exit of vessels; and troops which had been hastily landed were in command of the town. It soon became evident that the Convention would have to retake the place by force.

The commander of the artillery having been wounded, Napoleon, now chef de bataillon, was called upon to take his place. The army which he joined consisted of a motley crowd hastily gathered together. Trained officers were in the minority, for the simple reason that until the fall of Louis XVI. none but the nobility had been allowed to hold a command. Their plebeian successors endeavoured to make up for a lack of military education by a zeal which was not infrequently manifested in the wrong place and at the wrong moment. For instance, Carteaux, originally an artist, having been invested with the command of the army marching on Toulon and failing miserably, his place was taken by Doppet, a retired doctor who succeeded no better. Not until the amateurs had been tried and found wanting was the position given to Dugommier, a veteran who had served with the colours for half a century, and who was to meet his death by a Spanish bullet in the following year.

Modern authorities regard with suspicion the oft-repeated assertion that Napoleon persuaded the Council of War to adopt the plan he had drawn up for the purpose of capturing the wellnigh impregnable town. There is no doubt that he behaved with consummate bravery throughout the siege. He seemed to know instinctively what to do in a case of emergency. Examples could be multiplied, but one must suffice. A soldier who was serving a big gun was struck lifeless while Napoleon was standing near. Without hesitation he took the dead man's place and proceeded to ram home the ammunition until another artilleryman stepped forward. He did not expect others to do what he feared to undertake himself, and he was never backward in appreciating bravery and resource in others.

One day he was directing the construction of a battery when it became necessary for him to dictate a despatch. He called for some one to write it for him, and a young man named Junot offered to do so. A heavy shot came to earth within such a short distance of them that Junot was literally covered with dust. "Good," he exclaimed, "we shall not want sand this time," referring, of course, to the old method of blotting wet ink. Napoleon never forgot the incident, and Junot received his reward when Napoleon came into his own.

Victor Perrin also came under the notice of Napoleon at the siege of Toulon. He was twice wounded, but stuck to his guns, which he fired with much skill.

Having ordered a battery to be erected in an exposed position in the near vicinity of Fort Mulgrave, one of the most important of the English strongholds, Napoleon named this "the battery of the fearless." His keen sense of the dramatic told him that henceforth it would be deemed an honour to be there, either dead or alive. Doppet says that "whenever he visited the outposts of the army, he was always sure to find the Commandant of Artillery at his post; he slept little, and that little he took on the ground, wrapped in his mantle: he hardly ever quitted his batteries." Napoleon developed extraordinary initiative. He sent for the guns not in use by the Army of Italy, procured horses by requisition, established a repair shop, ordered five thousand sand-bags to be made every day at Marseilles to be used for purposes of defence, and had a small army of smiths, wheelwrights, and carpenters at his command. "Nothing was done but by Bonaparte's orders or under his influence; everything was submitted to him," Marmont assures us. "He made tables of what was required; indicated how this was to be obtained; put everything in motion, and, in a week, gained an ascendancy over the Commissioners almost impossible to be concealed."

Fort Mulgrave, called by its besiegers "the little Gibraltar," was the key of the position, for it commanded the inner harbour. Before dawn on the morning of the 17th December, three columns of soldiers set out to reduce it, a previous attack having failed largely owing to the premature sounding of the retreat. Twice the attacking party was all but successful, and as a last resource the reserves under Napoleon were called up. Although his battalion was not the first to scale the walls, young Bonaparte and his men did magnificent work, and soon the guns which had been trained on the French were firing in the direction of the enemy. On the same day the Tricolour waved over two more forts which had been evacuated, the enemy finding Toulon untenable and resistance impossible in the face of the 37,000 men who were confronting them; the English, Spanish, Piedmontese and Neapolitan forces not numbering more than 17,200. Napoleon began to bombard the now doomed city and the fleet which still lay in the roadstead. That night Sidney Smith, a gallant young English captain, with a little body of men equally brave, set fire to a dozen French ships in the harbour. The naval stores were soon well alight, the flames spreading with bewildering rapidity, and the Spaniards exploded two powder-ships. On the 19th, Lord Hood in the Victory  weighed anchor, and the British fleet left the scene of disaster with over 14,000 of the terror-stricken inhabitants on board, and four ships-of-the-line, three frigates and several smaller vessels as spoil.

The luckless Toulonese paid heavily for their defection. For hours the city was given up to pillage, the Republican troops losing all restraint and refusing to listen to the humane pleadings of Dugommier. Nor was this all, for about 1800 persons perished by the guillotine or were shot. The Reign of Terror was not confined to Paris.

"Who is that little bit of an officer, and where did you pick him up?" some one is reported to have asked Dugommier. "That officer's name," was the reply, "is Napoleon Bonaparte. I picked him up at the Siege of Toulon, to the successful termination of which he eminently contributed, and you will probably one day see that this little bit of an officer is a greater man than any of us."

It is certain that Dugommier was highly pleased with the conduct of his able lieutenant, indeed he "mentioned him in despatches," an honour for which every soldier longs. "Among those who distinguished themselves most," he writes, "and who most aided me to rally the troops and push them forward, are citizens Buona Parte, commanding the artillery, Arena and Cervoni, Adjutants-General." Generals Du Tell and Salicetti also said kind things of the Corsican. "Words fail me to describe Bonaparte's merit"; says the former, "to a mind well stored with science, he brings great intelligence and unlimited courage. Such is a weak sketch of the qualities of this incomparable officer."

For the services thus rendered Napoleon received another step in rank, and on the 1st February 1794, he became General of Brigade. His duties were to inspect the defences of the southern coast and to supervise the artillery and stores of the Army of Italy, commanded by General Scherer, whose headquarters were at Nice. Napoleon arrived at that town in the following March, and a month later was appointed General in Command of the Artillery.