Napoleon first demonstrates his leadership skills: The Siege of Toulon

by | 7 Mar 2012 | Leaders from History


Napoleon’s first opportunity to demonstrate his exceptional leadership skills came with the French Revolution – the  dramatic social upheaval that swept away all of France’s previous power structures and hierarchies, giving this apparently unremarkable young man the opportunity to step onto the world stage.

The young student from Corsica

Napoleon Bonaparte was christened Napoleone di Buonaparte, the son of a family of minor Corsican aristocrats who had moved to Corsica from the Italian mainland in the sixteenth century. The governor of Corsica, a family friend, helped to secure Napoleon a place at the Royal School of Brienne in north-central France: a kind of French prep school for the aristocracy.

The education was provided by the state (which, at this time, meant by the monarchy) and the Buonaparte’s had needed to prove that they had the necessary four generations of nobility that would qualify them for admission. Though the school was not an officer-cadet school as such, many of the aristocratic French youngsters aspired, like Napoleon, to a military career. Young Napoleon began his studies at Brienne at the tender age of nine.

Napoleon went on to study at the military academy at Troyes, in Northern France, and subsequently won a place at the elite École Militaire Royale in Paris, completing the two-year course in only one year and graduating as second lieutenant of artillery in January 1786, at the age of sixteen. He had been a rather solitary student – mocked for his Corsican accent and gaunt appearance.

He studied hard, showing great ability in mathematics and geography and reading widely, especially in military history.  He was intrigued by the battle tactics and strategy of Alexander the Great, who had conquered most of the known world in the third century BCE. Alexander was to be a lasting influence on Napoleon’s military and strategic thinking.

‘I take but one meal a day, at three; that is good for my health.’

The Buonaparte family’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when Napoleon’s father died in 1785. His brothers Lucien and Joseph abandoned their own studies and returned to Corsica to support the family: Napoleon continued his studies under conditions of real hardship.

It is possible that the military academy had allowed Napoleon to take his examination early so that he would at least earn a meagre salary as a newly-commissioned officer. He passed his examinations at a less than impressive forty-second place, and took up his post with an artillery regiment. Even then, Napoleon’s army pay was barely enough to survive on.[1]

In a poignant letter to his mother, which attempts to put a brave face on his condition, Napoleon wrote: ‘I have no other resource but work. I dress but once in eight days; I sleep but little since my illness [Napoleon’s health had nearly broken down late in 1788]; it is incredible; I retire at ten (to save candles) and rise at four in the morning. I take but one meal a day, at three; that is good for my health.’[2]

For the rest of his life, perhaps as a result of the training provided by these hard times, Napoleon was able to maintain a punishing workload – both as a soldier and as an administrator – with little sleep and on a frugal diet.

When the revolution broke out, Napoleon returned to Corsica to support the Corsican nationalist movement. He became the leader of a group of volunteers, and appealed to the new revolutionary National Assembly in Paris for aid. He was ecstatic when the Assembly declared that Corsica was part of the new France. The newly-graduated officer in the army of  Louis XVI had become an ardent supporter of the Revolution.

To grasp the significant moment

It was not until 1793 that Napoleon was first able to demonstrate his ability to grasp the significant moment, to devise the successful strategy, to lead from the front and by example. In this year – the year in which Louis XVI  had been guillotined, at the beginning of what was to become ‘The Terror’ – Napoleon, now a twenty-four-year-old artillery captain, was given the opportunity to take control of artillery for the siege of Toulon.

At this time, there were still significant pockets of royalist insurrection against the revolution throughout the provinces, especially in the western Vendée region and in the South East. When royalist Marseille was retaken in August by the Jacobins, with appalling reprisals, the counter-revolutionaries holding Toulon called on the British Royal Navy to help them, along with their Spanish and other allies. Britain had been at war with France since the formation of the ‘First Coalition’ of European allies against revolutionary France, formed earlier that year after the execution of Louis XVI.

The English fleet anchored in the harbour at Toulon was commanded by Rear Admiral Hood. Captain Horatio Nelson was with Hood’s fleet, in command of the 64-gun ‘third-rater’ Agamemnon.


Geoff Hunt HMS Agamemnon

Geoff Hunt’s painting of the ‘third-rate’ HMS Agamemnon – Nelson’s first flagship – leading a squadron in the Mediterranean in 1796

First- second- and, indeed, third-raters

‘Ships of the line’, that is to say, ships of the line of battle, were rated by size. A ‘first rate’ ship of the line had more than one hundred guns, typically on three decks; a third-rate, like Nelson’s Agamemnon, had between sixty-four and eighty guns, usually on two gun-decks.

The terminology, as you will have noticed, has taken on an unfairly derogatory popular meaning: to be considered ‘second rate’ is now unfortunate, whereas there was nothing ‘second-rate’ about a second rate – a fearsome fighting ship with some ninety or more guns on three decks, which was merely a slightly smaller (and slightly cheaper) version of a  first rate.

The third rate Agamemnon had 64 guns on two decks; such ships could be argued to offer the best compromise between speed, handling, fire power and cost.

From King’s officer to revolutionary

Napoleon’s career – like that of many other young officers –  had taken him from being a member of the King’s army to becoming a member of the French revolutionary army. He was fortunate that his Corsican ancestry, though undoubtedly ‘aristocratic’, was too obscurely provincial to alarm the political sensibilities of the new revolutionary government in Paris.

A similar ancestry on mainland France might have cost Napoleon his head, once the extreme wing of the revolution began executing large numbers of its fellow citizens with that recently-invented, modern and humane killing machine, the Guillotine. In fact, Napoleon at the time enthusiastically embraced this extreme,  left-wing ‘Jacobin’ faction of the revolution.

The French revolutionary army – like the Russian and Chinese Red Armies two centuries later – was monitored by powerful political ‘advisors’. Napoleon’s political activism gave him the ear of these advisers, especially that of a fellow Corsican called Saliceti; a Deputy to the National Convention (a later political derivation of the first revolutionary National Assembly) and an enthusiastic supporter of the Terror.

Political appointments and the siege of Toulon

Saliceti’s colleague was Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of the infamous Maximilien François Marie Isadore de Robespierre – the austere and terrifying member of the Committee of Public Safety and, many would argue, the intellectual father of the Terror.

In that year of 1793, Napoleon, the young artillery captain in the French revolutionary army, was in the south of France escorting a cargo of gunpowder from Avignon to the revolutionary army of Italy. En route from Marseille to Nice, he dropped by at the siege of Toulon to pay his repsects to his fellow Coriscan Saliceti, the powerful poltical advisor. It was a shrewd move.

The occupation of Toulouse – France’s most important Mediterranean naval base – by royalist forces, supported by Britain and the allies, was a threat to the whole revolution. The original commander of artillery at the siege had been  wounded, and Saliceti and Robespierre insisted that he should be immediately be replaced by the young Bonaparte, despite the reluctance of the military general in charge of the siege.

The young strategist

Toulon harbour

Toulon harbour

Napoleon carried out a reconnaissance and quickly sized up the strategic situation. He recommended training the artillery on the British encampment on a promontory overlooking Toulon’s harbour, rather than on the city itself.

He could see that seizing control of the British position would allow him to fire on the harbour itself, rather than the town, and to drive out the British fleet, leaving the defenders without a supply-line from the sea.

The general in charge, however,  made a half-hearted attempt on the promontory which succeeded only in alerting the British to their danger: they reinforced the promontory so heavily that it was dubbed ‘Little Gibraltar’.

 ‘The Men Without Fear’

Napoleon had been denied what was to become one of his later trade-mark routes to success: acting with great speed to surprise the enemy, exploiting a weakness that they had not recognised. Denied this, his next move represented another classic Napoleonic strategy: apply overwhelming force.

He requisitioned artillery from all around the region, and established a series of batteries that were given stirring patriotic names – ‘The Convention’, ‘Camp of the Republicans’, ‘The Jacobins’, ‘The Men Without Fear’. This in itself was a clever piece of leadership, demonstrating Napoleon’s instinctive grasp of motivation.

The battery of ‘The Men without Fear’ was indeed sited in a very exposed and dangerous position, but it never lacked for volunteers, keen to prove their bravery. Legend has it that Napoleon himself worked on this battery, wielding a ramrod alongside his gunners. He probably did.

The original general in charge of the siege was dismissed by the politicos; he was succeeded by a former doctor – a classic example of the danger of letting political cadres take control of an army. He in turn resigned in recognition of his own incompetence and was succeeded at last by an experienced soldier, Dugommier, who recognised the merit of Napoleon’s strategy and gave it his full support.

After repulsing one British attack on the French gun emplacements, Napoleon and Dugommier together led a counter-attack, during which Napoleon captured General O’Hara, the British commanding officer.  Napoleon was promoted to Colonel. Later he led the final, successful, attack on the British position and was wounded in the thigh by a bayonet.  It was, astoundingly, the only wound that he was ever to receive in battle, despite his legendary insouciance about exposing himself to enemy fire. As his career progressed, this insouciance (or bravery) seemed to come from a genuine fatalism: he believed that he would not be killed until he had fulfilled his destiny.

Napoleon meets Josephine

The British fleet were indeed driven out of the harbour by French artillery, Toulon fell and Napoleon was the hero of the day, emerging as General of Brigade. His success brought him further to the attention of the Committee of Public Safety. It also brought him to the attention of Paul Barras, then a member of the National Convention and Commissioner of the French Army.

Barras was (incidentally) to introduce Napoleon to a mistress of his, whose minor aristocrat husband had been killed in the Terror, and of whom Barras was growing slightly (but not yet irrevocably) tired – the young but far from innocent Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s future wife and, despite their infidelities and Napoleon’s later divorce of Josephine and remarriage, the love of his life.

Less than one year after the siege of Toulon, the revolutionary excesses of the Terror had burned themselves out. Barras was one of many in the Convention sickened by the excesses of the Jacobins and fearful of who might be its next victims: after a revolt of moderates in the Convention, Barras led the National Guard to arrest the Robespierre brothers, and others, on the night of July 27th 1794.

Augustin threw himself out of a window to his death; Maximilien was either shot in jaw by a member of the National Guard or wounded himself in an attempted suicide – he was guillotined the next day, without trial, with nineteen of his colleagues.  Napoleon subsequently spent two weeks in prison as a result of his friendship with Augustin Robespierre, but was released.

The following year, Barras had become a member of the French Directoire: one of the five members of the Directory, an executive body heading up two new parliamentary houses: the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients. Members of the two hundred an fifty-strong ‘Ancients’ were indeed ancient, having to be at least forty years old.

Napoleon set out to prove to the Directoire that he was the most important man in their lives.

Napoleon Bonaparte features in History Lessons: ‘Doing the Planning’


[1] David G Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, vol. 1, Scribner, New York, 1966 pp  6-9

[2] F.M. Kircheisen, Memoirs of Napoleon I, trans, F. Collins, London 1929, p 26, quoted in Chandler op.cit. p 12

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