The Occupation of Toulon – August to December 1793

by | Sep 27, 2019 | 1793, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Throughout the summer of 1793 there had been bitter factional disputes between those various groups seeking power in Revolutionary France, and when in June the Girondists found themselves expelled from the National Convention by the Jacobins many cities in the south of the country sought to rebel against the new regime in Paris.

One such city was the Mediterranean port of Toulon, where in the vacuum created by this rebellion against the Jacobins a strong royalist presence gained an ascendancy over the other revolutionaries. Within the French Mediterranean Fleet of thirty-one sail of the line, twelve frigates and thirteen corvettes based at Toulon the balance of power was more precarious, with the influence of the royalist commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Jean Honoré, Comte de Trogoff de Kerlessy, being countered by the overwhelmingly republican views of the seamen of the fleet, and in particular by his volatile second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Jean-Rene-Cesar Saint-Julien de Chambon.

Thus, when Vice-Admiral Lord Samuel Hood arrived off Toulon with the British Mediterranean Fleet of twenty-one sail of the line, he treated with his customary scepticism two French commissioners who came out bearing an invitation on 22 August to occupy the port in the name of King Louis XVII. The Frenchmen were in earnest however, for not only was the town suffering food shortages as a result of Hood’s blockade of the coast, but the people had also learned of General Jean Baptiste François Carteux’s massacres at Marseilles whilst taking that city for the Jacobins, and they had no wish for Toulon to suffer the same fate.

Lord Hood

The British were familiar with the formidable French works defending Toulon, as Captain Hon. Robert Stopford of the Aquilon 32 had ventured in before the war to reconnoitre the anchorage, so before committing his fleet to entering the roads, Hood demanded further assurances that he could rely on the royalists to suppress any threat posed by Rear-Admiral Saint Julien. The tenuous hold that the royalists had on the town was illustrated when a second emissary was prevented from visiting Hood by the republicans, but the possible occupation of the enemy’s main Mediterranean base was such an eye-watering opportunity that the admiral could not let it pass, so in an attempt to maintain a dialogue Lieutenant Edward Cooke of the flagship Victory 100, a fluent-French speaking officer, was sent into Toulon in the dark of a blustery night to make contact with the city authorities.

Having recently entered the port to facilitate an exchange of prisoners, Cooke was fully aware of the French laissez-faire attitude to vigilance, and he easily found a way through the disorderly fleet to make a rendezvous with the leading royalists. Even so, he was asked to remain concealed in his boat for the remainder of the night and then hidden away in the morning before being spirited off to the Committee General the next evening. Here assurances were given as to the strength of anti-republican feeling in the city, and a more tangible verification of the population’s sympathies was displayed when, after being arrested as a spy in the village of Le Bruxe, Cooke was sprung by a royalist mob and sent to rejoin the British fleet.

Seeking assurances that the French fleet would be neutralised by its removal from the Outer to the Inner Roads, Lord Hood requested Cooke to undertake a second trip into the city. This proved to be far more eventful than the first, for whilst rowing into the port in a boat provided by the Tartar 28, Cooke was seen by a French frigate which launched a longboat to pursue him. Despite coming under fire from her swivel-guns he managed to scramble ashore, but he was soon spotted amongst the rocks and subjected to a full broadside from the frigate. Somehow, he avoided the shot and found a path that carried him to the top of the cliffs where, in regaining his breath, he watched as the frigate continued to pour broadsides into the undergrowth. Shortly afterwards he was able to re-establish contact with the royalists, and on the 26th he returned to the Victory with Captain Baron d’Imbert of the Apollon 74, who as the newly appointed Royalist Special Commissioner had been vested with the authority to negotiate with the British. A treaty ratifying the terms of the occupation was then signed which authorised Lord Hood to land fifteen hundred men and take control of the dozen or so forts defending the port, the citadel and the French fleet in the name of the King of France.

By now the Comte de Trogoff, who was very ill with gout, had relieved himself of his duties, and in his absence Rear-Admiral Saint-Julien attempted to scupper the treaty on 27 August by sending his republican seamen to man the forts guarding the entrance to the harbour. Captain Hon. George Elphinstone of the Robust 74 with fifteen hundred men was quickly sent to attack Fort La Malgue, the key works on the promontory to the south of Toulon, and in the face of this move the ineffective Saint-Julien meekly surrendered his positions before fleeing inland with five thousand men.

With the key forts now secured, instructions were issued for the French fleet to move into the inner harbour, known as ‘La Petite Rade’, and to discharge its powder. On 28 August Hood was joined by a Spanish fleet of seventeen sail of the line after the Romulus 36 had been sent to Rosas Bay to alert Admiral Don Juan de Langara of the developments at Toulon. There also arrived a number of other vessels and troops from Naples, Piedmont, Sicily and Malta, bringing the allied strength to about twelve thousand men. Pending the arrival of the diplomat Sir Gilbert Elliot, Rear-Admiral Samuel Granston Goodall was installed as the governor of Toulon on the 28th, whilst a Sicilian-born Spanish grandee, Rear-Admiral Don Francisco Gravina, was appointed the military commandant.

On the morning of 29 August,the British fleet moved into the outer harbour of Toulon. Meanwhile Captain Elphinstone progressed inland with his army, which had now been supplemented by the allied troops, and at Ollioules he defeated an advanced guard of Carteaux’s force from Marseilles. Soon, Rear-Admiral Saint-Julien surrendered himself to the allies, and those republican seamen who had not run off into the interior were imprisoned in four of the less serviceable sail of the line, these being the Orion 74, Apollon 74, Patriote 74 and Entreprenant 74.

For the moment the British and their allies were in control of Toulon, and the possibility of using the port as a base for developing a royalist uprising appeared promising. Unfortunately, the prime minister, William Pitt, also had his eye on a potential campaign in Flanders, and in falling between two stools he would fail to send a sufficient force to make an advance inland from Toulon. The new regime in Paris faced no such dilemma – they simply had to recover Toulon in order to prevent any royalist insurgency gaining traction, and to deny to the British the most important naval base in the Mediterranean. As a consequence, reinforcements poured south, so that by the early weeks of September some thirty-five thousand republicans were moving into position in the hills around the city. Anxious to neutralise the detained French republican seaman aboard the Orion, Apollon, Patriote and Entreprenant, Hood sent these vessels away on 17 September to Brest, Lorient and Rochefort. Here the men were rewarded for their loyalty to the Jacobin cause by being imprisoned or put to death as traitors who had failed to bring the captured British fleet with them.

By 19 September the republicans had opened two batteries against the sequestered frigate Aurore 36 and two pontoons that were protecting Fort Malbousquet, which was situated to the west of Toulon, and which covered the inner roads. At first the St. George 98 and a number of floating batteries successfully kept these batteries at bay, but the allies soon began to take on casualties from the enemy’s red-hot shot and one of the pontoons was sunk. On 23 September the Princess Royal 98 was warped up the harbour to replace the St. George, and with springs on her anchors she set up a ferocious bombardment on the town of La Seyne, which was further to the south-west, and on enemy batteries that were operating on the road that led around to Toulon. Albeit too briefly she was joined by one Spanish sail of the line, but that vessel soon took flight when she felt the weight of the republican fire. The Princess Royal was to remain in her position for the next six weeks, but any damage she did to the republican batteries was invariably repaired overnight, and in turn she suffered heavily from the enemy fire.

A young Napoleon Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon.

As the siege wore on into the autumn the French army gradually began to gain the upper hand, and prominent in its ranks was a young artillery genius from Corsica, one Captain Napoleon Buonaparte, who had taken command of the guns on 16 September after his superior had been wounded, and who was promoted major on 19 October so that he could have greater authority in the deployment of the ordnance. Soon the call was going out along the coast for any artillery and gunners to join the republican force above Toulon, and Buonaparte was developing plans to capture the key works of Fort Aiguillette, which was situated at the head of a promontory to the east of La Seyne, and which dominated La Petite Rade. Fortunately for the allies it would be some weeks before the overall command of the republican army would pass into the hands of a professional soldier who could appreciate Buonaparte’s plan, and in the meantime they were able to bolster the defence of Fort Aiguillette by constructing another works on the high ground of the promontory which they named ‘Fort Mulgrave’. Such was this stronghold’s perceived impregnability that the republicans quickly christened it ‘Little Gibraltar’.

On the allied side there were by now conflicts over the chain of command, as the Spanish had tried to assume the ascendancy after their King had promoted the violently anti-British Gravina, who had been wounded whilst commanding the troops, to the rank of lieutenant-general on 23 October. This seniority was intended to ensure that Gravina be installed as the new commander-in-chief of the combined forces at Toulon, but Hood countered the ploy, citing amongst other facts that the Neapolitan, Piedmontaise and Maltese troops had arrived at the behest of the British. Gravina even went so far as to anchor three ships, including his flagship, around the Victory in an act of aggressive posturing, but this failed to impress the phlegmatic Hood who carried on in command regardless.

By 5 November the fire from the republican batteries overlooking Fort Malbousquet was beginning to overwhelm the Princess Royal and she was ordered to kedge back down the harbour. Eleven days later General Jacques François Dugommier arrived to take command of the Republican Army, and Buonaparte’s plans for the assault on Fort Aiguillette were agreed. The erection of several batteries began to provide for an assault on Fort Mulgrave, and the balance tipped further in the republicans favour when the commander-in-chief of the allied armies, Lieutenant-General Charles O’Hara, was captured after an assault on one of the main republican batteries got out of hand on 30 November.

The republican assault on Fort Mulgrave began in earnest on 14 December with a massive bombardment that was answered in equal measure by the British and Piedmontaise defenders. Casualties mounted on both sides before the French took advantage of appalling weather forty-eight hours later to mount an attack with seven thousand troops. In the savage battle that followed the republicans were at first repelled, but the now promoted Colonel Buonaparte ordered them to regroup, and even though he was unseated from his horse and wounded by a pike thrust to his thigh he led his men to capture Fort Mulgrave, and thereafter Fort Aiguillette. Regrettably he then allowed his bloodlust to prevail when the surviving two hundred and fifty British soldiers and sailors were put to the sword.

With the republican army now understood to number forty-five thousand men, and with their artillery in a position to dominate La Petite Rade, Hood called a council of war. Meeting in the Toulon merchant’s house that had been his headquarters, it was agreed with the various nationalities that there was no viable option but to immediately withdraw. Those French ships under the partially restored Rear-Admiral Trogoff which were armed and ready to sail would be taken away, but the remainder of the French fleet, together with the arsenal and harbour facilities, would be destroyed. Fortunately, an attempt by the Spanish to subjugate the French fleet to their navy by insidiously appealing to Trogoff failed with that officer’s stubborn refusal to accept anybody’s orders but Lord Hood’s.

The enigmatic Captain Sir William Sidney Smith, who had arrived at Toulon a fortnight before with a vessel purchased in Turkey that he had renamed the Swallow, and which he had manned with unemployed British seamen, volunteered to undertake the task of destroying the arsenal and the French ships in the western basin, and to this Hood acquiesced. A Spanish force under Lieutenant Don Pedro Cotiella would destroy the French ships in the eastern basin adjacent to the town, and it was also agreed that the Spanish would scuttle and sink several vessels which had been loaded with the powder that had earlier been removed from the French ships on Hood’s first entry to the port, as well as the powder that had been extracted from any forts at risk from the republican advance. Captains Elphinstone, Benjamin Hallowell and John Matthews were charged with ensuring the embarkation of the remaining eight thousand troops and all the worthwhile stores.

On the morning of 18 December Buonaparte set up a battery on Fort Aiguillette that covered the inner harbour, and as Smith went to work that evening he was hindered both by this position, and by the flight from Fort Malbousquet of the Neapolitan troops who had ignored their orders to delay the French advance. With the support of his friend Lieutenant Ralph Miller of the Windsor Castle 98, and with Lieutenants Charles Dudley Pater and Robert Gambier Middleton of the Britannia 100, and Carré Tupper and John Gore of the Victory, Smith moved into the increasingly hostile inner harbour with the Swallow, three Spanish gunboats and three British gunboats. One of the gunboats was immediately detailed off to cover a number of houses where Republican elements were plying Smith’s volunteers with musketry, and also to keep a watch on some six hundred galley slaves who, even as they were knocking off their chains, were displaying every intention of disrupting the British operation. To add to the confusion hundreds of prisoners released from Toulon’s gaols were on the rampage, the dockyard workers were threatening to defend their installations, and the republican troops were infiltrating the town. As Smith’s men began planting their combustibles and barrels of tar in the storehouses, the mast-house, the hemp-house and other ancillary buildings, they knew that should the French become aware of the paucity of their force they would have little chance of escape.

At 8 p.m. the fireship Vulcan, Commander Charles Hare, was towed into the basin in boats commanded by Lieutenant Gore, and she was manoeuvred close into the anchored French sail of the line. Trails of powder were laid to the magazines and to the facilities ashore, the Vulcan’s guns were loaded, and at 10 p.m. she was ignited. The resulting blast catapulted Captain Hare into the water, and both he and Gore were badly burned. At the same time Smith’s men ashore set light to their combustibles, and soon the arsenal, the dockyard buildings and the ships in the western basin were being consumed by a raging inferno.

These enthralling pyrotechnics were to prove as nothing in comparison to an almighty explosion which suddenly erupted aboard the frigate Iris 32, an ex-British man-of-war that had been captured by a French fleet in the Chesapeake in 1781 when under the command of Captain George Dawson, and on which had been stowed over a thousand barrels of gunpowder. Oblivious or some would say treacherously aware that Smith and his men were making their withdrawal nearby, the Spanish had decided to set the Iris alight rather than sink her as agreed. The houses in the town shook as if they had suffered an earthquake, the British gunboat Union sank under the shockwave with the loss of one officer and three men, and Lieutenant Pater’s boat was blown to pieces, although his men were happily plucked to safety from the water.

The evacuation of Toulon

In the ensuing confusion Smith was able to make a rendezvous with Lieutenant Cotiella and his officers, who in claiming all sorts of impediments had failed in their task to destroy the French ships in the eastern basin. Smith led them back to the defensive boom, but musketry from the French flagship and from ashore prevented him from cutting through it, and despite Cotiella’s own best intentions the retreat of the three Spanish gunboats left the allies with but a felucca and a mortar boat, a force that was far too insignificant to attempt anything further. Quickly resorting to his personal skills, Smith went aboard the Héros 74 and Thémistocle 74, and advised the numerically superior French on board that in the interests of humanity he would allow their safe evacuation rather than let them suffer the same fate as the Iris. To this unenforceable threat the French meekly acquiesced and the two ships were set alight, although by remaining on board to ensure that the fire took hold Lieutenant Miller almost lost his life, and it was only with difficulty that Smith was able to take a boat back in and haul off his ‘very much scorched’ friend.

Shortly afterwards a second explosion, even greater than the first, rent their air as the frigate Montréal 32 was blown up by the Spanish. Somehow surviving the debris that showered from the sky, and avoiding the fire of Fort Aiguillette, Smith and his exhausted men aboard the Swallow and the remaining three boats made for the embarkation point at Fort La Malgue under the cover of the Alerte 14, Commander William Edge.

Regrettably the cowardice of the Neapolitans and what appeared to be the deliberate stupidity of the fickle Spanish had resulted in a far from satisfactory outcome to the intended destruction of the French fleet and facilities. In his despatch to Hood Smith would claim that ten sail of the line had been set alight, but altogether only eight were destroyed, these being the Triomphant 80, Languedoc 80, Suffisante 74, Centaur 74, Destin 74, Lys 74, together with the Héros 74, and Thémistocle 74. Three more ships of the line had already left the roads with the British fleet, these being the Commerce de Marseilles 120, Pompée 74, and Puissant 74, as had three frigates and several large corvettes. It would say much for the unpopularity of the endlessly vain but undoubtedly accomplished Smith that many of his contemporaries would blame him alone for the failure to destroy all of the French fleet.

On 19 December the last fort in British hands was blown up, and under the escort of Elphinstone’s Robust 74 the remaining troops were evacuated from Toulon without the loss of a man. Another late departee was the frigate Proselyte 36, Acting-Captain Joseph Bullen, which was carrying three hundred Spanish and Neapolitan troops; indeed, so late was her departure that Lord Hood indicated her as being lost in his despatches which would be delivered to the Admiralty on 15 January by Smith. With the allied forces sailed fifteen thousand townsfolk, but sadly many others were chased into the sea and were either slaughtered by the republicans or drowned whilst trying to reach the allied fleet. Thereafter the forces of the French Convention were still able to find another six thousand alleged royalist sympathisers to massacre over the next few months in Toulon.

Of the thirty-one ships of the line originally in Toulon, twenty, including the four previously despatched to Brest, Lorient, and Rochefort, survived to fight on another day. One of these, the Scipion 74 did not last long, for she was set on fire at Leghorn shortly afterwards, either deliberately by Jacobins amongst her crew or by the accidental igniting of a barrel of brandy. Many of her crew were rescued by the British ships in company with her under Rear-Admiral Phillips Cosby, although three hundred and ninety people, including Captain Hubert de Goy, perished.

British naval supremacy would eventually prevail over the vessels originally in Toulon, as bar the Dictateur 74 and Barras 74, they would all either be captured or destroyed within the next dozen years. Admiral William Hotham’s Mediterranean fleet captured the Censeur 74 at the Battle of Genoa in March 1795, although she was subsequently re-taken by the French. The Couronne 80, which had been renamed the Ça Ira, struck her colours in the same action, and the Alcide 74 was destroyed by fire after striking to Hotham’s fleet in the Battle of Hyeres on 13 July 1795. The Dauphin Royale 120, renamed initially as the Sans Culottes and then as the Orient, blew up at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the Tonnant 80, Heureux 74, Mercure 74, Conquérant 74, Peuple Souverain 74, Commerce de Bordeaux 74, which had been renamed the Timoléon 74, and the Guerrier 74, were taken or destroyed in the same action. The Généreux 74 was captured by a squadron under Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson off Malta on 18 February 1800, and the Duguay-Trouin 74 was taken by Commodore Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron in 1805.

Of the sail of the line that were brought away from Toulon by Lord Hood the massive Commerce de Marseilles 120, Rear Admiral Trogoff’s flagship, sailed to Portsmouth under the orders of Vice-Admiral Cosby, but she was too large to be docked there and instead was moved around to Plymouth where she remained out of commission bar a short voyage in Rear-Admiral Hugh Christian’s ill-feted expedition to the West Indies in 1795. The Pompée 74, which some years later bore Smith’s broad pennant, was accepted into the British Navy, whilst the Puissant 74 was never commissioned and instead saw duty as a receiving ship and hulk at Portsmouth before being sold off in 1816. Three frigates, the Perle 36, Aréthuse 40 and Topaze 40, were bought into the British service. The Perle became the British Amethyst and the Aréthuse the Undaunted 38, but both proved to be unlucky ships – the former being wrecked on Alderney on 29 December 1795, with Captain Thomas Affleck being dismissed the navy at the resultant court martial, and the latter being wrecked on the Morant Keys, Jamaica, on 27 August 1796 under the command of Commander Robert Winthrop.

Similar ill fortune awaited the two principle naval commanders involved in the occupation of Toulon, for the sickly Comte de Trogoff died at Elba in February 1794, and Lord Hood, who would be openly condemned for failing to effectively plan the destruction of the French ships and the evacuation of the town, was instructed to strike his flag after falling foul of the Admiralty in the following October. Needless to say, the career of the young Corsican artillery officer, Napoleon Buonaparte, would take a different trajectory.

Mediterranean Fleet:

Victory 100 Vice-Admiral Lord Hood
  Captain of the Fleet Rear-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker
  Flag Captain John Knight
Britannia 100 Vice-Admiral William Hotham
  Flag Captain John Holloway
Windsor Castle 98 Vice-Admiral Phillips Cosby
  Flag Captain Sir Thomas Byard
Princess Royal 98 Rear-Admiral Samuel Granston Goodall
  Flag Captain John Child Purvis
St. George 98 Rear-Admiral John Gell
  Flag Captain Thomas Foley
Alcide 74 Commodore Robert Linzee
  Captain John Woodley
Robust 74 Captain Hon. George Keith Elphinstone #
Captain 74 Captain Samuel Reeve
Terrible 74 Captain Skeffington Lutwidge
Colossus 74 Captain Charles Pole
Courageux 74 Captain Hon. William Waldegrave *
Berwick 74 Captain Sir John Collins
Fortitude 74 Captain William Young
Egmont 74 Captain Archibald Dickson
Leviathan 74 Captain Hon. Hugh Seymour Conway
Bedford 74 Captain Robert Man
Illustrious 74 Captain Thomas Lenox Frederick
Intrepid 64 Captain Hon. Charles Carpenter
Ardent 64 Captain Robert Manners Sutton
Agamemnon 64 Captain Horatio Nelson
Diadem 64 Captain Andrew Sutherland
St. Albans 64 Captain James Vashon
Romney 50 Captain Hon. William Paget

# temporarily replaced by Acting-Captain Benjamin Hallowell
* Sent home with despatches and replaced by Captain John Matthews

Aigle 36 Captain John Nicholson Inglefield
Leda 36 Captain George Campbell
Romulus 36 Captain John Sutton
Iris 32 Captain George Lumsdaine
Aimable 32 Captain Sir Harry Burrard Neale
Meleager 32 Captain Charles Tyler
Aquilon 32 Captain Hon. Robert Stopford
Juno 32 Captain Sam Hood
Lowestoffe 32 Captain William Wolseley
Mermaid 32 Captain John Trigge
Castor 32 Captain Thomas Troubridge
Nemesis 28 Captain Lord Amelius Beauclerk
Tartar 28 Captain Thomas Fremantle
Amphitrite 24 Captain Anthony Hunt
Dolphin HS Commander James May
Gorgon SS Commander Charles Paterson
Camel SS Commander Benjamin Hallowell
Eclair 20 Commander George Henry Towry
Scout 14 Commander Joseph Hanwell
Bulldog 14 Commander George Hope
Speedy 14 Commander Charles Cunningham
Weazel 12 Commander William Taylor
Conflagration fs Commander Edward Brown
Tisiphone fs Commander Thomas Byam Martin
Vulcan fs Commander John Matthews