If you are walking the GR46 long-distance footpath, or simply enjoy exploring Toulouse beyond the Place du Capitole, you may encounter this imposing memorial column on a hill behind Matabiau railway station.
Whenever I see it, the word ‘folly’ comes to mind, not with regards to the monument but because it commemorates a pointless and bloody battle in which 1,000 men lost their lives and over 6,000 were wounded.
Spot the difference between French and Occitan
There are two plaques beside the column, one in French, one in Occitan, and anyone who can understand both languages will notice an intriguing difference between the two texts. Both tell us that the column was inaugurated in 1839 and designed by the architect Urbain Vitry to commemorate the Battle of Toulouse, 10 April 1814. The Occitan version then adds an extra phrase: ‘a battle lost by the armies of Napoleon against those of Wellington.’
This reflects the fact that at the time the column was being built, some French officers were disputing their defeat. Toulouse, in contrast, had retained a strong royalist sentiment throughout the Napoleonic period, as Wellington discovered for himself after the battle.
The fighting on 10 April lasted from dawn to dusk. A larger information board near the memorial shows how the battle unfolded, although anyone with that level of interest would be better advised to read Edouard Lapène’s, ‘Evènements Militaires devant Toulouse en 1814’ which can be viewed for free on Google Books, or my book ‘Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood’.
A royalist welcome for Wellington
The next day, Marshal Soult and his army slipped out of town along the Canal du Midi. On 12 April, Wellington and his troops entered the city to cries of ‘Vivent les anglais!’, ‘Vive Louis XVIII!’ and ‘Vivent les Bourbons!’ In the Place du Capitole the crowds tore down the bust of Napoleon and dragged it towards the river. Ladies distributed white royalist cockades from their baskets, and inside the Capitole building even the city officials wore the royalist symbol when they welcomed the allied commander-in-chief. Inside the Salle des Illustres, Wellington was visibly perturbed. He warned the assembled dignitaries that their royalist zeal was premature, and perhaps dangerous to their persons; he was still waiting for news from Paris, and a peace treaty with Napoleon remained a possibility; the return of the king was by no means certain.
Late news or fake news?
Within a few hours, Wellington learned the truth: he had fought an unnecessary battle. Two colonels – one English and one French – brought him dispatches and newspapers from Paris: Napoleon had abdicated unconditionally on 6 April, Louis XVIII had been declared king, and the provisional government had ordered all the armies of France to suspend hostilities. The messengers had left Paris on 7 April, but they reached Toulouse too late to prevent the battle.
It took another week to convince Marshal Soult that the news from Paris was genuine, a long week during which several bloody skirmishes took place in the fields of the Lauragais. On 19 and 20 April, copies of an armistice were shuttled back and forth along the Canal du Midi between Toulouse and Narbonne for signature by Wellington, Soult, and Marshal Suchet who commanded the French army in Catalonia.
Both sides claim victory
When the Napoleonic Wars were finally over, some French officers began to question who had really won the Battle of Toulouse. This dispute reached its height in 1837 when a French military engineer, Pierre-Marie Théodore Choumara, wrote a book in which he argued that because the allies lost more men, and because Soult remained in control of Toulouse and merely lost some defensive positions outside the city before choosing to withdraw, the French army was victorious. When Wellington was shown the book, he predictably wrote a long and indignant rebuttal.
Given that the battle had served no purpose, it is reasonable to wonder why anyone cared. The explanation lies, perhaps, in the broader historical context. Ever since the Norman Conquest of 1066, the kingdoms of England and France had usually been at war, and occasionally in a state of uneasy peace. The 26 years between the start of the French Revolution and the downfall of Napoleon was one of the most intense periods of this long conflict.