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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 1a - The Battle of Maria
Situation of the French armies in Spain.—Departure of the 5th corps of the grand army from Silesia and its arrival in Arragon.—Siege of Saragossa.—Occupation of Jaca and Monzon.—Departure of Suchet's division for Castille.— General Suchet relieves the duke d'Abrantes in the command of the 3rd corps.—Situation of that corps.—State of Arragon.—Arrival of general Blake in Arragon and of general Suchet at Saragossa.—Attack of Alcaniz.—Retreat upon Saragossa.—Reorganization of the troops and preparations of defence—Battle of Maria.—Battle of Belchite. —Occupation of the line of the Guadalupe and the Cinca.


In the early part of 1808, Spain was occupied by several French corps d'armee, which, having crossed the Pyrenees, established themselves in the frontier fortresses and penetrated to Madrid, and even as far as Andalusia; a French squadron was at anchor in the roadstead of Cadiz, and we had likewise an army at Lisbon. At the close of the same year the greater part of the Peninsula had been evacuated in consequence of political and military events already sufficiently known; the different corps d'armee retained possession of St. Sebastian, Pampelona, Barcelona and Figueras, and were concentrated behind the line of the Ebro. They were exclusively composed of young conscripts who were not in a condition to stand the test of a first reverse of fortune, nor to combat the Spanish insurrection. Napoleon was under the necessity of detaching a portion of his veteran troops from the grand army stationed in Prussia and in Poland. He came in person with the imperial guard, in the month of November, to place himself at the head of the forces he had collected upon the upper Ebro. By a comprehensive and rapid movement with the 1st, 2nd, and 4th corps,. he routed the Spanish armies at Espinosa, at Burgos, and at Somosierra, whilst marshal Lannes, with the 3rd and 6th corps, was defeating generals Castanos and Palafox at Tudela. The army of the latter general, amounting to 30,000 men, took shelter within the walls of Saragossa. Having obtained possession of Madrid, the emperor immediately directed the 6th corps to join him, in order that he might march with imposing forces upon the English general Sir John Moore, who was advancing too late to the relief of the capital. In the situation in which Napoleon had placed himself, his coming up with an English army and destroying it on a field of battle would have been a triumph better calculated than any other to promote his interests. But he had scarcely moved in the direction of Benevento, when the warlike preparations of Austria compelled him to return to France; marshal Soult was directed to continue the pursuit of the English. Independently of the 2nd corps which was under his immediate command, the 6th corps under the orders of marshal Ney was placed at his disposal with the view to insure the success of that expedition.

In the meanwhile, the 1st corps under marshal Victor was taking possession of Estremadura, and the 4th under general Sebastiani was occupying La Mancha; marshal Moncey was in Arragon at the head of the 3rd, and general Gouvion St. Cyr in Catalonia with the 7th corps. Although king Joseph had returned to Madrid, nevertheless he held no power over the surrounding country. All the inhabitants had taken up arms at the breaking out of the insurrection ; and in spite of our unexpected successes in the very first campaign, in which they had been signally defeated, they were making- fresh preparations for a general resistance ; armies were forming in all directions. Their numbers were more imposing than their discipline, and they exhibited all the defects of a precipitate organization ; but they were in the highest state of excitement, and derived their chief strength from the national enthusiasm. The new king could only establish his sway by the aid of the French armies, of which he was the generalissimo, in his capacity of lieutenant of the emperor his brother. The reinforcements arrived from the grand army had just reinstated him into his capital; but it required much greater ones, and often repeated efforts, before the whole kingdom could be brought under subjection.

The 5th corps, commanded by marshal Mortier, had quitted Silesia on the 8th of September. It crossed the Bidassoa on the 1st of December, and was marching to Burgos, when it received orders to proceed to Arragon for the purpose of replacing the 6th corps. The defensive preparations carrying on at Saragossa called for various and powerful means of attack; and although marshal Moncey had with the 3rd corps under his command several troops of artillery and engineers, and a large besieging train, he stood in need of a more numerous body of infantry before he could attempt to invest and lay siege to so extensive and populous a city, which was well supplied with provisions, was determined to defend itself, and had arrested the progress of the French a few months before, and compelled them to retreat, although they had come up to its gates, and forced their way into the very streets and squares of the city.

The 3rd and 5th corps advanced on the 21st of December upon that capital by a combined movement. Marshal Moncey took possession of Monte- Torrero, a position which commands the whole town. Marshal Mortier caused the suburb on the left bank of the Ebro to be invested by the 2nd division of the 5th corps. The 1st division, which was under the orders of general Suchet, shared at first in the attacks on the right bank against the castle of Aljuferia or of the inquisition, and against the western side of the town. Shortly afterwards, general Junot replaced marshal Moncey in the command of the 3rd corps; and marshal Lannes came to take the chief command of both corps, and of the operations of the siege. On his arrival, he directed general Suchet to act with his division as a corps of observation, and to disperse the troops that were successively forming at Calatayud, and on various other points of Arragon. It manoeuvred on both banks of the Ebro, during the months of January and February. At Licinena, colonel Perena, who had brought together four or five thousand men in a position of some strength, experienced a signal defeat. General Suchet then drew nearer to Saragossa, which afforded a signal manifestation of Spanish obstinacy. Palafox had summoned to arms the vigorous and ardent portion of the inhabitants ofArragon. Pent up in the capital, it carried on a daily struggle from house to house, and wall to wall, disputing every inch of ground, and fighting man to man, notwithstanding the skill, the perseverance, the unbending valour of our soldiers, and of our undaunted sappers and engineers who led the way for them. The details of that memorable siege, to which no other can present a parallel, should be read in the account given of it by general Rogniat. On the 18th of February, the artillery opened a formidable and well combined fire against a convent of the suburb, which covered the entrance of the bridge. The capture of that point, of the whole suburb, and of its garrison, and our advance in another direction into the very heart of the town deprived the defenders of Saragossa of all further hope of relief or safety. The junta proposed a capitulation on the 21st of February: and was compelled to surrender at discretion. Marshal Lannes required it to take the new oath of allegiance, and Mariano Dominguez, the head of the junta, an old man full of energy, said upon taking it: we have done our duty against you, by defending ourselves to the last extremity ; we will henceforward keep our new engagements with no less constancy; a highly honourable language, the sincerity of which was proved by his subsequent conduct.

It would be impossible correctly to describe the spectacle which was then presented by the unfortunate city of Saragossa. The hospitals could no longer admit any more sick or wounded. The burying grounds were too small for the number of dead carried thither; the corpses sewed up in cloth bags were lying by hundreds at the doors of the several churches. A contagious fever had created the most frightful ravages. The number of deaths in the interior of the city during the siege, including those who were killed by the enemy, has been estimated at upwards of forty thousand human beings.

With a view to take advantage of the terror and dejection to which the country was a prey in consequence of the fall of Saragossa , the adjutant commandant Fabre, chief of the staff of Suchet's division, was sent to Jaca with the 34th regiment; he took possession of that town, as well as of the citadel in the early part of the month of March. During the same month, general Girard's division drove the enemy from the left bank of the Cinca, and took possession of the fort of Monzon. At the end of April, the 6th corps received orders to resume the road to Castille, and proceeded through Burgos towards Valladolid. General Suchet was in full march with his division, when he received a courier which brought him orders to assume the chief command of the 3rd corps in the room of general Junot, duke d'Abrantes.

Suchet's division, the formation of which dated from the time of the camp at Boulogne, and which consisted of the 17th regiment of light infantry, and of the 34th 40th 64th and 88th regiments of infantry of the line, resembled in all respects a Roman legion; animated by one spirit, united under a chief to whom it was strongly attached, it had grown to be a well disciplined, a skilful, and an indefatigable body of men. It had taken a glorious share in the battles of Ulm, of Austerlitz, and of Iena, and being the advanced guard of the 5th corps , it had bore the brunt of the attacks at Saalfeld and at Pultusk.wtjGeneral Suchet felt the deepest regret at separating from it. With the view of protecting his return to Saragossa, he took with him the rear guard of his division, consisting of a company of skirmishers of the 40th regiment and of a battalion of the 64th; who proved of the greatest utility to him, not only by their services, but also by the example of discipline and good order they exhibited to the 3rd corps, which was at that time wholly a stranger to that military spirit, of which it presented so perfect a model at a later period.

That corps d 'armee, which had at first entered Spain under the denomination of the 2nd corps of the army of observation of the Gironde, had been trained under marshal Moncey in the best school for valour and good discipline, and had honourably distinguished itself at Madrid, before Valencia, as well as in Navarre. But the young soldiers of whom it was principally composed stood in need of fresh lessons of discipline and experience. The corps was originally formed of two veteran regiments, the 14th and 44th of the line , of a battalion of the 5th regiment of light infantry, of sixty companies of infantry of the depots of the army, organised into five legions, which were soon formed into the 114th, 115th, 116th, 117th and 121st regiments, and of fourteen squadrons of cavalry, in like manner converted into the 13th regiment of cuirassiers. It had afterwards been reinforced by a Polish legion, organised into three regiments, of two battalions each, called the 1st, 2nd and 3rd regiments of the Vistula, and by a squadron of Polish lancers. To these must be added the 4th regiment of hussars and the companies of engineers and artillery which had been collected in considerable numbers for the siege of Saragossa; they consisted of three companies of miners, six of sappers, eight of artillerymen, one of these being a company of horse artillery, and of eight companies of the train. The field artillery did not exceed twenty pieces of cannon..

The government seemed impressed with the idea that the whole strength of the 3rd corps did not fall far short of twenty thousand men. Nevertheless, the losses experienced during the siege, the great number of sick and wounded, the dispersion of the 121st regiment of the line and of the 3rd regiment of the Vistula over the surface of Navarre; and, above all, the removal of the 116th and 117th regiments which had been sent to Valladolid from Bayonne, where they had escorted a number of prisoners; these causes had actually reduced the number of fighting men then under arms, and available for service, to about 10,000 men, exclusively of the companies of artillery and engineers, as may be seen by the sketch of our situation towards the month of May, 1809.

The 3rd corps had suffered considerably at the siege of Saragossa. The infantry was much weakened ; the newly formed regiments in particular were in a deplorable condition, owing to the defects necessarily attendant upon a recent and hasty organisation, and the inexperience of the soldiers who were young in the profession. Nearly all the men belonging to the artillery had left for Germany, and were replaced by others drawn from the infantry, and, generally speaking, very ill clad. The recruiting of the corps was incomplete; the pay was in arrears, the military chests were without funds, and the receiver of the province had fled; the means of subsistence were barely adequate to its wants; nor did there exist either magazines or establishments of any kind .in the midst of a country wholly exhausted by the ravages of war.

In so discouraging a state of things, that army was far from compensating by its moral strength for the dangers to which it was exposed by its numerical weakness. White and blue uniforms of different shapes, which presented to the eye the offensive remains of a variety of alterations recently attempted to be introduced in the dress of the troops, actually occasioned in the ranks a confusion of colours which banished all sense of military consideration from the minds of an already desponding and weak soldiery. The appearance of misery degraded them in their own estimation, at the same time that it encouraged the pride and boldness of a hostile population. They deeply lamented the state of destitution into which they had been thrown, and complained of an act of injustice from which their gallantry should have protected them. After having taken a principal share in the labours and dangers of the siege of Saragossa, they had seen the customary rewards bestowed upon soldiers of the 5th corps, whilst they alone had failed to receive such rewards ; owing to an untoward misunderstanding between the chiefs. The unity of command was broken by the departure of marshal Lannes for Paris. A great number of general officers and others, who were anxious to be engaged in the campaign about to be opened in Austria, solicited and obtained the favour of proceeding to that country. The duke d'Abrantes himself had solicited leave of absence on the score of ill health.

General Suchet was aware of these circumstances, and the increase of difficulties which necessarily await a new chief, when he is unacquainted with the men he is appointed to command, was calculated to discourage the most undaunted spirit. This consideration would no doubt have justified, on the score of reason and of prudence, a refusal to take the command. Guided, however, by his zeal, and by a love of glory, satisfied moreover, that a failure of success is not unattended with honour, when all the means which courage and perseverance are wont to supply have fallen short of their object, he did not shrink from the responsibility which was imposed upon him. Nevertheless, in taking charge of fresh troops, he felt anxious, before leading them into action, to pass them in review, to address and become acquainted with them , form them to his views, train them to military manoeuvres, raise their moral courage, revive their confidence, and restore order and discipline amongst them. He had every reason to expect that the opportunity for so doing would not be wanting to him in the new position he was about to enter upon. Arragon, in fact, appeared to be subdued by the fall of its capital, under the ruins of which lie buried its choicest troops and inhabitants; every thing, therefore, presented an appearance, at least, of tranquillity in that quarter. Levies of troops had taken place at Valencia and in Catalonia, as well as in the other provinces; but hitherto their exertions had been confined to the defense of their respective territories. In Catalonia, the forces which the Spaniards had succeeded in organising were kept in check by the 7th corps of the French army. There did not exist, therefore, the slightest indication of the proximate entrance of a Spanish army into Arragon; and general Suchet entertained the more hopes of being enabled to organise at leisure the 3rd corps, as the events subsequent to Napoleon's departure, the re-embarkation of the English at Corunna, and the battles of Medellin and of Vails had given to our affairs in general a favourable aspect throughout the Peninsula.

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