Clarissa: Chapter Fourteen

After some time to prepare in Gibraltar, it was time for Roland and his regiment to move to Toulon. It is not my purpose here to describe the famous beauties of that well-known city in the south of France, or describe in detail the chaos and confusion that the city suffered when its highly royalist population sought to rebel against the revolutionary government. What was of interest to the British military during this time was the fact that the French navy was based out of this city, and its possible combination with the Spanish navy in an attempt to rule the Mediterranean was obviously unacceptable to British military and political leaders. On the other hand, a Toulon that was hostile to the revolution and was able to resist French control was very much in the best interests of British security, and so it was that a substantial body of British troops when to assist the citizens of the city in their efforts to resist the revolutionary army.

Equally naturally, as Roland was a capable messenger and a native speaker of French, it was unsurprising that he would be so frequently used to transfer messages from the British military command and the French royalists. This proved to be a worthwhile position, for it allowed Roland to gain an understanding of where the people of Toulon stood, and recognized that there were plenty of other Frenchmen like himself who wanted to be free of revolutionary misrule and anarchy, and it was beneficial to the French leaders of Toulon to recognize they had a faithful messenger and translator in young Roland, who although he came from a different region of France, was certainly a kindred soul to them and someone who understood their cause and felt the same sorts of feelings as they did.

The first part of the siege did not offer anything that was impossible for the people of Toulon to manage. The British were able to continue provisioning the city as well as sending troops and ammunition, so it did not appear as if the revolutionary forces were able to get a quick victory. Sieges in general were difficult and stressful, and the flying of cannonballs brought the threat of being gutted or decapitated or incendiary shell to burn down the wooden buildings of the town, all of which could bring sudden death, lingering incapacity, or the threat of ruin and homelessness. Even in the best of times such things brought unhappiness and anxiety to those subject to such conditions, and these were far from the best of times.

Roland was unable to convey the fulness of his feelings in his letters back home. He did not have the language to describe the sensations of being under constant threat but not suffering any physical pain as a result of the battle going on there. He did not know enough about sieges to determine whether or not Toulon could hold out against the French. Such matters were, as might be imagined, well above his paygrade. He simply delivered messages back and forth about what the citizens of the city needed, the reports of those on the walls about where the shots were coming from and where the French siege weapons were placed, and from his own observations of their effects within the city walls. And for a long time the city seemed like it would be able to stand.

It greatly surprised Roland to read, as he saw in the military classics he was reading from his superiors, that a siege was considered to be a certain victory for the besiegers, so long as they were able to completely cut off the supplies of a city. However hard a city tried to prepare enough food supplies, once it was cut off completely from outside support, so long as the besiegers were able to supply themselves, the capture of the city or fortress was considered to be inevitable. Roland tried to think of why this was the case, and it led him to understand that although sieges could last for many years, eventually food supplies would run out. Cities, after all, were not self-sufficient. They depended on food coming from the countryside or from trade, and if those were cut off, no amount of rationing could allow cities to sustain the amount of food necessary to keep citizens fed and keep soldiers fit to defend against the attacks of the armies outside.

Not only tactics and strategy, then, filled Roland’s studies of the military arts, but also the more subtle work of diplomacy and logistics. Diplomacy came somewhat naturally to him, and he was well practiced in being able to convey the goals of both the British army, which sought to deny to the French revolutionaries control of Toulon or the ships of the Royal Navy there, as well as the French citizens who wanted to be free but who did not have the strength to defeat the French army in the open field of battle. It remained to be seen whether the French had enough skill to bring the battle to its natural conclusion, at least natural in the sense that a siege was expected to either fall apart on a lack of will or cohesion on the part of the attackers or a lack of supplies and troops necessary to completely interdict the city.

Roland himself found the city of Toulon to be an immensely beautiful one. Many of the buildings were stone with the red barrel tiles that he associated with the beauties of the Mediterranean. The city itself surrounded a natural port of considerable importance that was filled with many boats, and was surrounded itself by hills upon which the town’s safety from attack by land depended on controlling. And so far, at least, the town had been able to hold onto that ground and secure itself from the armies of the Revolution that had been sent out by Paris. And as long as morale was high and the city could not be bombarded from above, there was hope, at least, that they would be able to remain free from the revolution.

From his conversations with the people of Toulon, it was also clear that the folly of Revolutions had no end. People claimed to be hostile to tyrannical authority until it became time for them to become tyrants themselves over others. Those who ruled over others strutted like kings, even if they were sans coulettes, while cringing if they should find themselves at the mercy of some other faction. Among those who had united against the ancien regime, the Girondins were the first to rule over the French revolutionary state, and they were irritating enough, although they were at least somewhat moderate and somewhat reasonable in their aims when compared against their more irrational and extreme rivals, the Montagnards. And, of course, to France’s shame and the horror of its own people, to say nothing of its neighbors, it was these more extreme elements that started to take power in the aftermath of the King’s failed flight, and that in turn precipitated more revolt among the different parts of France, and more efforts on the part of the French government itself to purify itself of impure elements.

Roland was a sensitive enough person, spiritually speaking, to know this was impossible. Revolutions inevitably ate their own, as disputes over power could not be seen in their proper light as competition over offices and spoils, but had to be seen as some sort of deep evil that must be eradicated. Once one got into the habit of lopping off the heads of one’s enemies, it was a hard habit to break when that habit was extended to former friends who had turned rivals, to those of slightly different political beliefs and emphases, and was a weapon that could even turn on the hand of those in power when they sought to extend their murderous ways beyond accepted streams. Anyone threatened with being considered to be hostile to the revolution and unworthy of drawing breath could turn and seek to overthrow those in charge with the combustible materials of violent and desperate people that were all around in cities like Paris and elsewhere. Enough information filtered through the good people of Toulon to let Roland know that France was like a patient in the advanced stages of cancer, with tumors spreading everywhere. What surgery would be necessary to bring it once again to health and stability? It was almost too much to comprehend.

Still, Roland was for his part too busy to be paralyzed by anxiety and fear about the dangerous situation he found himself in. There was always something that had to be taken care of, some message to deliver, some response to translate, some observation to be made, some requisition to deal with, something that could be done to bring food and arms and hope to the people of the revolting city, some means of countering the cannons that were being ably placed by the French troops by a Corsican of whom the world would later hear much, but who was making his military debut in this campaign. These efforts allowed Roland to be doing what could be done over the course of weeks and months, and so there was no time to be paralyzed by fear, because one had something to do.

And so long as action could be taken, one did not feel the despair and the anxiety of hopelessness that came about when one had nothing that could be done. If the military and people of the town had something that could be done, that thing was done. If it meant delivering food and ammunition to those fighting for their freedom and even perhaps their survival against revolutionary terror, that food and ammunition was delivered to make it possible for the resistance to survive. If it meant delivering messages that allowed troops to be moved here and there in places to best provide for the safety of the town and its people, those messages were delivered and those troops were moved. If it meant asking for certain buildings and ships to be used as hospitals for the wounded and sick, those buildings and ships served the cause of the well-being of those people who were fighting bravely. And that was as it should be.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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