The Anglo-Spanish fleet entering Toulon, 1793.
Major British naval action during the French Revolutionary Wars. In the Mediterranean theater, Vice Admiral Lord Alexander Hood commanded 21 ships of the line, including the 100-rates Victory and Britannia. Opposing him at Toulon, French Rear Admiral the Comte de Trogoff had 58 warships comprising nearly half of the French navy. Seventeen of these were ships of the line ready for sea, including the 120-gun Commerce de Marseille. Trogoff had another four ships of the line that were refitting, and nine that were undergoing repairs.
In August 1793 Hood was able to take advantage of royalist reaction in southern France against the radicalism of Paris. In July Toulon had overthrown its Jacobin government and declared for the monarchy. When Paris dispatched troops, Toulon’s counterrevolutionary leaders invited in Hood. Accompanied by a Spanish squadron of 17 ships of the line under Admiral Don Juan de Langara, Hood arrived off Toulon. Many of the French crewmen were willing to fight, but a great many simply deserted.
On 27 August Hood’s ships sailed into the port, and Spanish and other allied troops then went ashore. The British disarmed the French ships and put 5,000 captured French seamen on board four disarmed and unserviceable 74s to sail under passport to French Atlantic ports.
In September French Republican forces invested the port from the land side. The Republican troops did little until December, however, when young artillery Captain Napoléon Bonaparte convinced his superiors of a plan to use land artillery to force the British from the port. On 17 December French troops took the heights, and on the night of 18–19 December the British and Spanish sailed away, lifting off the allied land force and some French royalists.
Sir Sidney Smith, meanwhile, volunteered to burn the dockyard and those French ships that could not be gotten off. This improvised effort was only partially successful. Although some smaller storehouses were burned, the large magazine escaped destruction. In all, 19 French ships (11 of them ships of the line), including those under construction, were destroyed; the Spanish took off three small French warships and the British secured 15, including three ships of the line.
Few of the ships captured were of value. The Commerce de Marseille, which became the largest ship of the Royal Navy, was found to be too weak structurally for fleet service and became first a storeship and then a prison hulk. The French recovered largely intact at least 16 warships, including 13 ships of the line. Later these formed the nucleus of the fleet that carried Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt.
This action, in addition to signaling the beginning of the meteoric rise of young Bonaparte, marked the end of Spanish participation in the naval war on the British side. Following this fiasco the French had only their Atlantic fleet, and it was in poor repair.
Crook, Malcolm. Toulon in War and Revolution: From the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, 1750–1820. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Gardiner, Robert, ed. Fleet Battle and Blockade: The French Revolutionary War, 1793–1797. London: Chatham Publishing, 1996.