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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Dugommier hurries on the column of reserve


A few days later the tall soldierly Dugommier took the command: reinforcements began to pour in, finally raising the strength of the besiegers to 37,000 men. Above all, the new commander gave Buonaparte _carte blanche_ for the direction of the artillery. New batteries accordingly began to ring the Little Gibraltar on the landward side; O'Hara, while gallantly heading a sortie, fell into the republicans' hands, and the defenders began to lose heart. The worst disappointment was the refusal of the Austrian Court to fulfil its promise, solemnly given in September, to send 5,000 regular troops for the defence of Toulon.

The final conflict took place on the night of December 16-17, when torrents of rain, a raging wind, and flashes of lightning added new horrors to the strife. Scarcely had the assailants left the sheltering walls of La Seyne, than Buonaparte's horse fell under him, shot dead: whole companies went astray in the darkness: yet the first column of 2,000 men led by Victor rush at the palisades of Fort Mulgrave, tear them down, and sweep into the redoubt, only to fall in heaps before a second line of defence: supported by the second column, they rally, only to yield once more before the murderous fire. In despair, Dugommier hurries on the column of reserve, with which Buonaparte awaits the crisis of the night. Led by the gallant young Muiron, the reserve sweeps into the gorge of death; Muiron, Buonaparte, and Dugommier hack their way through the same embrasure: their men swarm in on the overmatched red-coats and Spaniards, cut them down at their guns, and the redoubt is won.

This event was decisive. The Neapolitans, who were charged to hold the neighbouring forts, flung themselves into the sea; and the ships themselves began to weigh anchor; for Buonaparte's guns soon poured their shot on the fleet and into the city itself. But even in that desperate strait the allies turned fiercely to bay. On the evening of December 17th a young officer, who was destined once more to thwart Buonaparte's designs, led a small body of picked men into the dockyard to snatch from the rescuing clutch of the Jacobins the French warships that could not be carried off. Then was seen a weird sight. The galley slaves, now freed from their chains and clustering in angry groups, menaced the intruders. Yet the British seamen spread the combustibles and let loose the demon of destruction. Forthwith the flames shot up the masts, and licked up the stores of hemp, tar, and timber: and the explosion of two powder-ships by the Spaniards shook the earth for many miles around. Napoleon ever retained a vivid mental picture of the scene, which amid the hated calm of St. Helena he thus described: "The whirlwind of flames and smoke from the arsenal resembled the eruption of a volcano, and the thirteen vessels blazing in the roads were like so many displays of fireworks: the masts and forms of the vessels were distinctly traced out by the flames, which lasted many hours and formed an unparalleled spectacle." [25] The sight struck horror to the hearts of the royalists of Toulon, who saw in it the signal of desertion by the allies; and through the lurid night crowds of panic-stricken wretches thronged the quays crying aloud to be taken away from the doomed city. The glare of the flames, the crash of the enemy's bombs, the explosion of the two powder-ships, frenzied many a soul; and scores of those who could find no place in the boats flung themselves into the sea rather than face the pikes and guillotines of the Jacobins. Their fears were only too well founded; for a fortnight later Freron, the Commissioner of the Convention, boasted that two hundred royalists perished daily.


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