Murat’s End

The Battle of Tolentino by Vincenzo Milizia. The Battle of Tolentino was fought from 2–3 May 1815 near Tolentino, Kingdom of Naples in what is now Marche, Italy: it was the decisive battle in the Neapolitan War, fought by the Napoleonic King of Naples Joachim Murat to keep the throne after the Congress of Vienna. The battle was similar to the Battle of Waterloo. Both occurred during the Hundred Days following Napoleon’s return from exile and resulted in a decisive victory for the Seventh Coalition, leading to the restoration of a Bourbon king.

News of Napoleon’s return had arrived at the Congress of Vienna on 7 March and initially the delegates treated it as a joke. But very soon it became clear that the joke was on them, and they agreed a joint statement proclaiming Napoleon an ‘Outlaw’ and declaring war on him personally. The entire continent was now committed to defeat and destroy Napoleon and his army once and for all. However, mobilising troops that had already marched home, and even disbanded in many cases, was not going to be an easy task. Even so, Spain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Britain and a host of smaller countries signed the agreement to supply troops to this renewed pan-European effort to oust Napoleon.

The Ottoman troops returning to reclaim their hold on Serbia sparked a short but bloody revolt in April 1815, which led to negotiations and the establishment of an informal self-governance under the nominal control of the Sultan.

The war may have ended in April 1814, but Marshal Joachim Murat, as King of Naples, had felt so insecure on his throne, despite Austrian protestations of support, that he continued to build up his forces during the ensuing peace, whilst all other countries were actively dismantling their wartime establishments. Relations with Sicily remained frosty, with the flames of insurrection still persisting in the Calabrian mountains, reputedly fanned by recently disbanded Neapolitan troops, still retaining their arms, being transported from Sicily to the mainland by Ferdinand. Murat also continued to liaise with other factions throughout the peninsula that were seeking a united Italy, in the belief that Napoleon, unable to remain quietly on Elba for long, would seek to head a drive for Italian unification. Despite his recent treason, Murat remained hopeful that Napoleon would forgive him and utilise his forces to achieve their joint goal.

When news of Napoleon’s escape did arrive, Murat was quick to assure the British government that he still wanted peace, but when he learned that the Emperor was back in control in Paris, he immediately offered him his services. He dreamt of marching northwards with an army of 40,000 men, gathering support as he went, and driving the Austrians back over the Alps before establishing a unified ‘Kingdom of Italy’. Napoleon was initially hopeful of persuading the allies to allow him to reign peacefully in France, and the proposal from Murat could not have arrived at a more delicate moment. Even before Napoleon had a chance to reply, Murat, always impulsive, launched his attack, declaring war on Austria on 15 March. This unwelcome news shattered any hope Napoleon had of gaining a peaceful settlement, even if it had been a genuine desire on his part. It inevitably appeared to the allies that Murat was working in coordination with Napoleon, no matter how loud his protestations to the contrary.

Leaving Naples in the hands of his wife Caroline, with 10,000 troops to provide garrisons for his strongholds, Murat marched north with an army of 40,000 men and fifty-six guns. His inexperienced and poorly trained army left Naples on 17 March in two columns, one of which was to march into Tuscany via Rome, whilst the other advanced towards Bologna via Ancona. On the approach of Murat’s army, Pope Pius VII fled to safety in Genoa.

Murat’s troops met virtually no opposition to their advance and were warmly received by the populace, but worryingly, few actually sought to join his crusade. The small Austrian detachments retreated before the Neapolitans, and Murat was able to concentrate his whole force again at Bologna. The first part of his plan had now been achieved. At Bologna, however, Murat received disquieting news. General Macfarlane was reportedly preparing an Anglo-Sicilian force to land in Naples from Sicily, in his rear, and reports of the approach of two Austrian armies, one under General Neipperg with 16,000 troops and the other under General Bianchi with 30,000, caused him to hesitate.

An encounter with Bianchi’s force took place at Carpi, where the Neapolitan troops were forced out of the town, but then maintained a steady defence on the river line behind the town. Murat began to dream of victory, but the loss of the bridge at Occhobiello caused the complete collapse of his defences and a precipitate retreat followed, allowing the two Austrian armies to combine at Bologna.

Murat considered offering battle here but, receiving news that further Austrian reinforcements were at hand, and with the growing realisation that a popular rising in support of a unified Italy was not going to happen, he retreated into Naples. Fighting a string of rear-guard actions, some successful and others less so, the army retired to Tolentino, where battle was offered on 3 May and Murat’s army was completely destroyed. In the disorganised retreat that followed, many men deserted to return to their homes, and by the time Murat arrived at Capua he had barely 12,000 troops with him. Further news that the Anglo-Sicilian force was ready to cross the Straits confirmed that the situation was untenable and Murat handed command to General Carascosa and ordered his ministers to carry out negotiations.

Arriving at Naples on 18 May, Murat learnt that Bianchi had refused to negotiate and was determined to oust him from his throne, whilst a British squadron lay in Naples Bay ready to disembark troops. Caroline had already been forced to surrender all the shipping in the bay, including two Neapolitan ships of the line, to HMS Tremendous when the British ship threatened to bombard the city. Beset from all sides, Murat fled the following night, with as much money and jewellery as he and his small entourage could carry, and successfully crossed to Ischia on a fishing vessel; from here he secretly secured his passage on the Santa Caterina to Cannes, arriving there on 25 May. He remained there, ignored by Napoleon but still hoping to be recalled to his side, reading about the Emperor’s exploits in Belgium. Murat’s presence during the Waterloo campaign may well have been decisive, but Napoleon did not trust him. Naples was quickly defeated, but the fortress of Gaeta held out and was formally besieged by Austrian forces, eventually capitulating on 8 August.

But then came the disaster of Waterloo and the fall of Paris, and the ‘White Terror’ spread across the country,in which royalists sought out prominent Bonapartists; the lucky ones were arrested, but many others were massacred by the mob. Worried for his own safety, Murat moved to Toulon. Here, he arranged a safe passage on a Swedish merchant vessel and had the majority of his goods and treasure loaded on board, but for some unexplained reason he then failed to catch the vessel himself before it sailed, leaving him bereft. He was now living in terror of being discovered and wandered aimlessly along the coast, sleeping under the stars and living off stolen fruit, until he happened upon a group of veterans and ex-naval men who sought to help him. On the night of 22 June they sailed in a small coaster they had hired, but a storm caused them to transfer to a packet ship bound for Bastia. On arrival, the group quickly raised suspicions and the ex-navy men were arrested; Murat fled and was secretly housed by a retired Corsican officer. When his presence was betrayed, ten gendarmes were despatched to arrest him, but the villagers sounded the tocsin and defended him en masse, causing the gendarmes to retire in haste.

Despite the rush to arms, the conference at Vienna had continued to sit until it finally disbanded on 9 June, just before the fighting actually began. Before it broke up it reached agreement on many issues, a number of which impinged on the situation in the Mediterranean. Austria regained the Illyrian provinces and Ragusa, as well as Lombardy and Venetia in northern Italy; the Grand Duchies of Tuscany and Modena were reinstated with Hapsburg princes at their head; the Papal States, minus Avignon, were restored to the Pope; Piedmont, Nice and Savoy were reinstated to the King of Sardinia, and the former Republic of Genoa was also added to his kingdom; the Duchy of Parma was given to Napoleon’s ex-wife Marie Louise; and Ferdinand was reinstated as King of Naples and Sicily, Murat having lost his crown by siding with Napoleon once again.

The Battle of Waterloo, of course, occurred on 18 June. Defeated, Napoleon abdicated again on the 24th and Paris surrendered on 8 July. Napoleon was exiled again, this time to St Helena, where he eventually died six years later, on 5 May 1821.

There was little further fighting in the Mediterranean, as the renewed war was mercifully short, but there are a few incidents worthy of note. On 30 April, for example, the 74-gun Rivoli, now a British ship, encountered off Ischia the French frigate Melpomenne, which had so recently failed to prevent Napoleon escaping from Elba. She was sailing to Naples, where she was due to collect Madame Mere, Napoleon’s mother, and transport her to France. The outcome was not in doubt and the frigate was forced to surrender having exchanged broadsides with her much more powerful adversary for a mere quarter of an hour.

On 17 June the Pilot (18 guns) encountered the Legere (22 guns) off Cape Corse. The French ship was beaten with the loss of twenty-two killed and seventy-nine wounded (nearly half the crew), but escaped when the Pilot lost steering and could not manoeuvre to force her opponent to strike her colours.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Hudson Lowe was despatched from Belgium in May 1815, having apparently fallen out of favour with Wellington, to command the British troops at Genoa, whilst General Macfarlane was in Sicily. Lowe received instructions on 29 May that he was to refuse to combine his operations with either the Austrians or the Sardinians in any proposed invasion of France over the Alps. He was instead to assist in the liberation of key strategic ports in the south of France in the name of the King of France. He was to cooperate fully with Admiral Lord Exmouth and the British navy in seaborne operations with this aim.

Exmouth possessed a huge cache of arms with which to supply royalist insurgents in the south of France, and the British remained ready to act if the mobs in Toulon or Marseilles declared for the king, but at no time must they leave Genoa so poorly defended that it might be in danger of being lost.

Lowe finally arrived at Genoa on 16 June to find that Macfarlane’s troops would not return for some weeks yet and that he had sent advice to Lowe to proceed with caution. Lord Bathurst had, however, written to Lowe from London to insist that he acted independently of Macfarlane and the Austrians, which he did.

Lord Exmouth arrived with his squadron off Genoa having received news that Marseilles had declared for the king and that the rest of the south of France, with the notable exception of Toulon, was strongly royalist. Therefore, Lowe embarked 3,000 troops4 on board Exmouth’s squadron and sailed for Marseilles on 4 July. The convoy arrived safely at Marseilles on 14 July, having observed on their passage the royal standard flying everywhere except Antibes and Toulon. Lowe quickly assessed the situation and sent off requests for reinforcements, mules, tents and siege artillery to be sent. This would allow him to besiege the city of Toulon, which was garrisoned by some 5,000 troops under Marshal Brune. Unfortunately, few additional troops or mules could be spared and there was no siege artillery available to send, but an Austrian army under General Nugent with some 6,000 men had recently arrived at Genoa and was about to be shipped to Savona; this force could be diverted to support Lowe’s operations.

When Marshal Brune was summoned to surrender, he acted erratically. Initially he asked to be allowed to surrender on similar terms to the recent convention at Paris, and then he appeared to be ready to surrender on 24 July (on condition that he would pledge allegiance to the king but would be allowed to continue to fly the tricolour!), but three days later a cannon shot just missed a British frigate and negotiations were suspended. Lowe moved troops onto the hills surrounding Toulon and into the outskirts of the city. Finally, an agreement was signed, under the terms of which the royalist and British troops would be allowed to take control of the city and its fortresses. It was agreed that Brune could leave and go wherever he wished within France, and that those French regiments particularly loyal to Napoleon could march out of the city. On 1 August Lord Exmouth sailed his ships into the harbour and the city was handed over, but Lowe did not stay to witness the event, for that very day he received notification of his new job as custodian of the ex-Emperor Napoleon, whose destination was yet to be decided, and he was to return to London as soon as possible.

News of an insurrection on Corsica, and the arrival there of Murat, led to a detachment of British troops being ordered to the island under General Montresor to aid the rebels in ousting the French, but they did not actually go there as events had moved on5 and most of the rest of the troops were then sent back to Sicily or Gibraltar.

Left in peace on Corsica, Murat convinced himself that if he landed in Calabria, the country would rise immediately in his support. In mid-September he marched to Ajaccio, gathering some 400 recruits on the way, and seized the shipping in the port in preparation for his landing in Calabria. Just as he completed his preparations, however, a Mr Macirone arrived from Paris, offering Murat safe passage and an offer from Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, for a safe residence within Austria for him and his family; as a sign of good faith, Macirone had brought with him the valuables that had so mysteriously sailed on the Swedish ship without Murat.

Murat mistakenly thought that Caroline had abandoned him and this bitter belief, although completely wrong, seems to have set him on the road to final destruction. He refused Macirone’s offer and thought only of his daring enterprise. On the night of 28 September his little expedition sailed on six small vessels, but storms and desertions caused three of the ships to leave him, halving his little force. Finding that his men had lost heart, he talked of making his way to Trieste and accepting Metternich’s offer; he then sailed his ship alone to Pizzo, where the captain assured him he could exchange it for a larger vessel, to make his way to Trieste.

Arriving at Pizzo, Murat changed his mind yet again and landed in full uniform with twenty-six of his men. Marching into the market square, his escort proclaimed him king. After a few moments of incredulity, the crowd turned nasty and threatened the Corsicans with their knives; one Corsican was killed and most of the others wounded in the ensuing scuffles. A woman struck Murat full in the face, declaring ‘You talk of liberty and you had four of my sons shot!’ The Corsicans retreated to the harbour only to find that their vessel had already fled and they were all captured, Murat bleeding from a cut on his forehead.

A detachment of troops arrived, led by General Nunziante, and Murat was questioned. He denied attempting to start an insurrection and stated that he intended to travel to Trieste under the protection of the Emperor of Austria. He was tried by court-martial on 13 October, but refused to enter a plea or make any defence. He was found guilty by a unanimous verdict and sentenced to be shot within the hour. He wrote a last letter to his wife and children, before being marched into the courtyard of the castle. He refused a blindfold and ended with the words ‘Soldiers, do your duty. Fire at the heart, but spare the face.’ He fell dead, pierced by six balls, one of which struck his right cheek, and was buried in a common grave in the churchyard of Pizzo, perhaps the final casualty of the war.

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