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At the beginning of October 1795, the government of the four-year old First French Republic was in crisis mode.
The Republic was already fighting the War of the First Coalition against Britain, Austria and several smaller states such as Sardinia and Naples. Additionally, it was engaged in a vicious civil war in the Vendee region, where a stubborn royalist uprising had occurred a few years earlier.
In the last days of September 1795, rumours had spread throughout Paris of an impending counter-revolutionary royalist insurrection within the capital, with the aim of overthrowing the democratic National Convention and the executive Committee of Public Safety.
Now, it should be pointed out that these royalists were not pushing for a return to the pre-Revolution monarchy, the so-called Ancien Regime, which was an absolute monarchy with no democratic aspects at all. The only people who did desire a restoration of the Ancien Regime were the King in exile himself and many of the more aristocratic Emigres.
What these royalists were pushing for was a return to the constitutional monarchy created by the Constitution of 1791 and later rendered void by the abolition of the monarchy in 1792 and the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793.
Now, this royalist uprising was slated to occur on 5 October or, as it is more famously known in the French Revolutionary Calendar, 13 Vendémiaire.
For their part, the Convention seemingly lacked the strength to withstand a major attack, due in large part to a reliance on the paramilitary National Guard in maintaining order in and around the capital. Unfortunately, discontent and bitterness amongst the National Guardmen over the orgy of political violence that occurred during the Reign of Terror led many units to either sit out the impending clash or even join the insurrection themselves.
However, by 4 October there were some regular troops from the army in Paris, but only a few thousand stationed at the Tuileries Palace, the seat of the Convention.
In contrast, the royalist mob was expected to number in the tens of thousands, casting grave doubts over whether the Convention would be able to defend itself.
Fortunately for the Convention, there was an individual residing in Paris at that particular time of crisis that was just the man they needed.
By this point, Napoleon Bonaparte was 26 years old. Already a rising star in the army, Napoleon had risen to the rank of Brigadier General of Artillery in only 10 years since he graduated from Ecole Militaire, the French military academy, in 1785, which is an almost meteoric rise through the ranks.
However, in late 1795, Napoleon was actually out of favour with the ruling factions, possibly due to his association with Augustin Robespierre, the younger brother of notorious Maximilien Robespierre.
Napoleon had been given a posting in the Army of the Interior, which was fighting to suppress the Vendee Revolt. However, he refused to accept it, falsely claiming that he fallen ill and thus could not assume his post. As a result, his career prospects had nosedived and his financial situation had deteriorated drastically. His circumstances were quickly becoming dire.
On 4 October, the politician Paul Barras was tasked with overseeing the defense of the Tuileries against the impending royalist attack. He quickly ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners who were then drafted into militia battalions and reinstated a number of army officers that had only recently been discharged.
Later that afternoon, while the royalist mob was coalescing in suburbs, Napoleon presented himself before the Committee of Public Safety in the Tuileries. Eager to have such a capable officer at his disposal, Barras reinstated Napoleon’s full army rank and ordered him to join the defense.
Napoleon replied that he was happy to do so, but only if he was given full operational control. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Barras was apparently content to let the young officer take over command.
Essentially given free reign, Napoleon’s first order of business was taking stock of the resources at his disposal.
He had under his command just 5,000 men, who were short of ammunition, and, most alarmingly in Napoleon’s eyes, no artillery.
Marshaled against him was a royalist force of around 30,000 men.
Despite the dire odds, Napoleon was confident that if he could remedy the deficiency in artillery, the numbers would count for little.
Fortunately, forces conspired to give him the means to rectify the situation. Though there were no guns at the Tuileries, there were 40 artillery pieces at the Camp des Sablons, some 10 km away. Retrieving these guns would be no easy task, as any detachment would have to pass through districts controlled by the royalists and, even if they made it to the depot, there was no guarantee that the royalists had not already seized the guns for themselves, in which case the situation was about to become substantially more dire.
Despite the risks, Napoleon was determined that he must have those cannon or all was lost. To undertake this dangerous mission, he turned to the only cavalry force at his disposal, a squadron of the 12th Chasseurs under the command of Second Lieutenant Joachim Murat.
A charismatic and flamboyant cavalry officer from Gascony with a propensity for recklessness, Murat would turn out to be the perfect man for the job. Just after midnight on 5 October, Murat and his men set out for the Camp des Sablons.
By a stroke of good fortune or simply incompetence on behalf of the royalist commander, General Danican, when Murat and his men reached the depot, the guns were still there. A few hours later, the chasseurs rode back into the Tuileries with 40 artillery pieces in tow. They had encountered sporadic resistance on the way back but had managed to cut their way through without suffering a single casualty.
Napoleon immediately began positioning the cannon at strategic points around the perimeter. Not only did he personally position each gun, he also personally sighted them, deciding the exact orientation and field of fire of each piece himself.
Now, if the royalists had attacked at dawn, they would have likely caught Napoleon before he was fully ready. It is not known for sure why the royalists decided to delay their attack, but it seems likely that once again it was incompetence on the part of General Danican.
As it was, the assault did not begin in the morning. It did not begin at noon. It did not begin in the early afternoon. It wasn’t until the mid-afternoon that General Danican finally ordered the attack on the Tuileries and when the royalists did finally begin their assault, Napoleon was ready and waiting.
Once the royalists were fully committed to the attack, he unleashed his fury in the form of grapeshot.
Now before going any further, it is necessary to give a short explanation of the different types of ammunition used by artillery during this period.
The standard ammunition for large cannon was a solid, cast iron ball commonly known simply as a cannonball, but was technically called roundshot, This was ideal for long-range bombardment, but less so for short-range fire of the kind that would be necessary in an urban environment.
In order to effectively counter enemy troops at short range, alternative ammunition was developed. This was known as grapeshot and consisted of a number of smaller solid, cast iron projectiles that were loosely bound together and were named for their similarity in appearance to a bundle of grapes.
On ignition, the individual balls spread out from the cannon’s muzzle. This has lead to a cannon firing grapeshot often being described as a ‘giant shotgun.’ The effect is essentially the same. This was anti-personnel ammunition, specifically designed to create a lethal spray of iron balls that kills or wounds as many enemy soldiers as possible in one salvo.
Now, I’m pretty sure you can see where this is going.
When the royalists finally attacked the Tuileries at 4:45pm, Napoleon ordered his gunners to fire grapeshot directly into the crowd. The hail of lead and iron literally cut people to pieces. Between the artillery and the sustained fire of the Republican infantry, the royalists were mown down in droves.
An hour later, Napoleon delivered his coup de grace, unleashing Murat and his chasseurs on the faltering royalists in a decisive counterattack. The following couple of hours were spent mopping up the last remnants of royalist resistance.
When the smoke finally cleared, the Republicans stood triumphant. Despite being outnumbered 6 to 1, they had decisively repulsed the enemy while sustaining less than 100 casualties themselves.
As for the royalists, there is some debate as to exactly how many people were killed, with most estimates falling somewhere between 400 and 1000 dead.
By the end of the day, the streets around the Tuileries were a charnel house, littered with the dead and dying. Fortunately, heavy rains that night served to wash away the gore, in what some considered a kind of divine endorsement of the events of the day before.
According to tradition, Napoleon famously described his unprecedented use of anti-personnel ammunition in an urban environment as clearing the masses from the streets with ‘a whiff of grapeshot’.
In reality, this iconic phrase, which does just absolutely no justice to the horror of what grapeshot actually does to people, is most likely a fiction created by Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in the 1830s.
In the aftermath of the failed insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire, Napoleon went from a cash-strapped, out of favour decommissioned artillery officer with few prospects to a celebrity virtually overnight. Furthermore, he had earned the gratitude of the newly established executive, the Directory, which was headed by none other than Paul Barras.
In putting down this uprising, Napoleon had not only crushed royalist dreams of a restoration of the monarchy, but also annihilated the Parisian mob as a major political force. At virtually every major event in the Revolution, dating back to its beginning in 1789, the Parisian mob had wielded decisive political influence. On 5 October 1795, Napoleon obliterated that mob such that it would never again be a major political faction.
By the end of October, Napoleon had been promoted to Commander of the Interior, responsible for the internal security of the Republic.
Perhaps afraid of the meteoric rise of this essentially unknown political quantity, five months later the Directory gave Napoleon the dubious honour of commanding the Army of Italy. While certainly a promotion, in reality this was a comparatively obscure command intended to remove the young general from the political limelight while the majority of military resources on both sides were deployed in the Rhine river region in Germany.
Of course, the Directory massively, almost comedically underestimated the man with whom they were dealing and this was a decision that would backfire spectacularly.
On 11 March 1796, Napoleon took command of an army that was severely undermanned at less than half of its notional strength, cripplingly undersupplied and underequipped and whose pay was months in arrears. It is said that some of the soldiers were only recognizable as such because they carried standard issue army ammunition pouches. Many had no shoes at all. Thousands of men didn’t even have muskets to fight with. The troops had not been supplied with meat for several months and even bread was an irregular pleasure. Mostly, they survived on hard tack. Little wonder then that by the time Napoleon arrived, more than a few units were on the verge of mutiny.
By pretty much any measure, this was an army that was in a wretched state.
The reason it is worth noting just how pathetic the condition of the Army of Italy was is so that we can properly appreciate what happened next.
Despite the aforementioned seemingly crippling deficiencies, Napoleon being Napoleon, he immediately went on the offensive.
Now, the Kingdom of Sardinia, supported by the Austrians, had stubbornly resisted French incursions for three years.
In April, Napoleon moved aggressively against both the Sardinians and the Austrians and achieved a series of rapid victories that knocked the Kingdom of Sardinia out of the war completely. It took him just two weeks to accomplish what his predecessors had failed to do in more than three years.
At the conclusion of this initial campaign, Napoleon gave a speech to his soldiers.
“Today you equal by your service the armies of Holland and the Rhine. Devoid of everything, you supplied everything. You have won battles without guns; passed rivers without bridges; accomplished forced marches without shoes; bivouacked without brandy and often without bread. Today, you are amply provided for. Now, I promise you the conquest of Italy.”
It was the Duke of Wellington, Britain’s premier general in this period and one of the eventual victors of the Battle of Waterloo, who once said that Napoleon’s mere presence on the battlefield made the difference of 40,000 men, such was his tactical acumen and the sheer confidence he inspired in his soldiers, from the lowest private to the highest marshal. Even if we only look at that remarkably short campaign in April 1796, it is easy to see why.
But his triumph in Piedmont was but the first step in a career as a general that would make him the most powerful man in Europe, cement his place as one of the greatest military leaders of all time and ensure a legacy as one of the most influential figures in European history.
As for Joachim Murat, he metaphorically hitched his wagon to Napoleon’s rising star and eventually rose to become a Marshal of the First French Empire and even married into the Bonaparte family when he wed Napoleon’s sister Catherine. Like many of the Emperor’s Marshals, he was rewarded for his service with lofty noble titles, in this case as King of Naples in 1808 and though he was deposed in 1815, his descendants still hold the title of Prince Murat. Not bad for the son of an innkeeper.
And this was all made possible by the events of a single day in October, for which there are no memorials, no plaques and no signs, save for the façade of the Church of Saint-Roche that to this day still bears the scars from a ‘whiff of grapeshot’.
- Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon the Great, Penguin UK, 2016.
- Lefebre, Georges. Napoleon, Routledge, 1969.
- McLynn, Frank. Napoleon: A Biography, Pimlico, 1998.
- McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution 1789-1799, Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Knopf, 1989.
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