Clarissa: Chapter Seventeen

At some point it became obvious that the siege was not going well. Before it was talked about, one could feel the volume of shells increasing, the activity of the defenders slackening, the repairs failing to keep up with the damages from the surrounding French forces, and a decided lack of anything distracting those forces from the desire to retake Toulon. But while the knowledge that things were not going well remained only knowledge and not spoken or acknowledged knowledge for some time, eventually it became time to talk about what was going to happen.

Unless the British wanted to surrender thousands of troops to the French–and they did not–there was going to have to be some sort of evacuation planned. For this evacuation, boats would need to be gathered to bring people out of the city. For it soon became clear that it would be the height of cowardice to leave citizens who had loyally sought to rise up against their revolutionary and tyrannical government only to be abandoned to the tender mercies of an angry and returned authority when the British soldiers cut and run. British generals and admirals said to each other, if they admitted it to no one else at this time, that no one would or should ally with a nation who abandoned its allies to recrimination without trying to save as many of them as possible. Great Britain may not have always been successful in its counter-revolutionary activities, but the leaders of this expedition were not going to abandon the people of Toulon without trying to save as many of them as possible.

And it was this task which occupied so much of Roland’s time for weeks. If he was by no means high enough ranked to be the sort of person to help make the decisions or was even asked to participate in the discussions, he did faithfully deliver messages back and forth between the town’s leading citizens and the British forces, and eventually he came to understand the plan that was taking place and the cruel reality of what was about to happen. It made him sick to his stomach to think that the city was going to be left to the cruel and rapacious revolutionary armies who were sure to commit atrocities here like they did everywhere else their evil forces spread. Roland had thought that the British efforts in Toulon would help spread counter-revolutionary fervor through the peripheral regions of France and give emigres and neighboring kingdoms the space and the time to fight back the evils that were coming from Paris. But it did not appear that this was going to be the case, and it distressed Roland greatly, although he kept it largely to himself.

If Roland needed additional reasons for his mood to darken, it was because he found out over the course of time that not only he but also his fellow officers had stopped receiving their messages, or presumably being able to send them out. It was not as if there was very much that he wanted to tell about his experience in war, or thought that Clarissa would be able to understand, but it would have been nice to have gotten some words of encouragement. But instead, what happened is that just as the mood of the battle blackened, so too did the morale of men who were now in so dangerous a situation that they could not get their letters and read and reply to them. He hoped that when the evacuation came and they returned, hopefully, to Gibraltar, that there would be the chance to write to her again, but first he had to make it there.

Little by little, Roland’s world grew smaller and more constrained. He did not notice it coming on. Indeed, the same sort of mood was coming along all the soldiers and people trapped in the doomed city. Roland ran or rode horseback from the headquarters building, and then the headquarters ship to the town square, not even noticing when musket balls or artillery shot were launched his way. When he walked or ride through town he could not see much more than what was directly ahead of him, and still he traveled back and forth, back and forth, delivering messages and translating information both sides, without feeling much of an appetite for life or for anything, feeling exhausted day and night, often restless and unable to sleep, sometimes troubled by bad sleep, none of which made his waking life any easier. Nor was he alone in this. Some people even fared worse. Roland might have been aware of this had he felt better, but sometimes when he was out and about delivering messages and helping the people of Toulon find at least some hope of rescue from the impossible situation they were in, he even missed it when people were nicked by gunshots or beheaded or disemboweled by cannon fire. He could not see it, only noticing it when he returned to his bed to sleep and found blood or brains or other organs on his uniform, which was taken off to be washed.

None of this immediately troubled Roland, for he did not have the strength and will to do more than to drive himself through each day, doing what had to be done, not thinking about more than putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next task, delivering the next message. Everyone else was grimly focused on the same tasks, just doing what had to be done without thinking more. With the possibility of death or imprisonment–which for Roland would likely mean death–hanging over all of their heads, no one thought about the future at all. The grim present occupied whatever thinking was going on. Conversation dwindled to a minimum, words were hard to form, and when said, seldom reflected upon, and viewed merely as a source of information, mechanically listened to and responded to.

Finally, it came time to execute the plan to evacuate the soldiers and as many citizens as possible within Toulon. A group of soldiers was selected to be the forlorn hope with the task of holding on to the outside perimeter of the city as long as possible. Then the soldiers themselves were saved first, to live and fight another day. Roland wished his friends and colleagues farewell, for he was among those who was staying behind as long as possible to help refugees embark for the bitter life of exile, but preferable to the loss of life that was likely for those who were left behind. As ships gathered and took in refugees and aid out, more ships came to take their place, and eventually more than ten thousand citizens of Toulon were able to make their place on ships allowing them to escape from the horror of occupation and likely punishment by death for their daring to rebel against the revolution and their welcoming of the aid and presence of the British troops who had for so long sought to help them remain free of Paris’ cruel and erratic domination.

Somehow, Roland had the presence of mind to look out into the city of Toulon as the last boats were leaving the harbor and carrying people away from the malign care of their wicked government. As the ships sailed to safety and escaped the last few shots of canon and musket sent out after them, he saw the French troops rush into the city. He did not know that the hero of the day, that Corsican Bonaparte, was himself tending to his own injuries and unable to see the horrors that the angry French troops had in store for the people left in the city, but Roland himself was able to see the anger of those who had been held at bay for so long when presented with helpless captives and prisoners of war, who were shot at point blank range or speared to death repeatedly with swords and bayonets. Such is how glory is obtained, through violence meted out against the helpless and defenseless. Those who remained alive on the last ships shuddered to see fresh evidence of the atrocities of the humane and progressive government of the French people, as if any evidence was necessary at this point that the proclamations of evil politicians and corrupt rulers were mere words devoid of any real meaning and significance, except that they led people to commit brutality while feeling good about themselves as they did so, and thinking their victims to be less than human all the while.

For the British, this setback was not long remembered. That is not to say that it was soon or ever forgotten by those who survived it, for the brutal hand of war does not easily if ever let go of its hold on the soul of the soldier or the civilian in harm’s way. But by leaders and governments, the numbers of losses were acceptable enough not to see it as a true disaster, but neither did the war go well enough for the experience to be remembered as among the glorious retreats of the British army over its long and illustrious history. It had been barely ten years ago, after all, since the British had bravely evacuated East Florida after trading it for New Providence, so freshly regained from the Spanish who had taken it over. Cities and fortresses, to say nothing of whole large colonies, were nothing but colored bits of map to be traded like fish on a card table, so long as the price was right and something worthwhile in exchange was offered. And Toulon no longer remained a chip in the hand of the British players at the table. But Gibraltar did, and it was to Gibraltar that they were to go.

One of the unfortunate consequences of Roland remaining with the last of the French citizens of Toulon to escape and not with the remainder of his regiment was that he missed out on the chance to engage in that postmortem examination of the battle with those who were, like him, professionals in military affairs. The experience might have been better for him if he had been able to talk it out with those who knew it better than he did. As it was, he was in a ship with scared civilians who had narrowly escaped being put to death by the vengeful armies of revolutionary terror. He was the expert on how one would live in exile, and on what kind of care would be provided by the British to those who were now to live away from the homes they had come to know and love and cherish. If he felt gloomy and deeply unhappy himself, and he did, he was able to convey to them something of the opportunity that could be found in a new land for those who were willing to learn English and work hard, and the encouragement helped those who were nervously and anxiously looking forward to a new life abroad. Nor did his efforts to calm and settle the refugees go unnoticed by the crew of the ship that he was, which conveyed the information to the other ships in the flotilla that sailed through the Gulf of Lyon and the Western Mediterranean, bound for Gibraltar.

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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