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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 1b - The Battle of Maria


Notwithstanding, however, that the capture of Saragossa had, in the first instance, compelled Arragon to submit to us, our position in that province, so far from improving, was beginning to assume a dangerous turn; for the 3rd corps, which was already weak and insignificant in point of numbers, had again experienced a great reduction by the removal of the 5th regiment. The inhabitants, even when they did not resist us, were perseveringly bent upon counting our numbers. ¹ They had quickly discovered the secret of our weakness, and the insurrectionary government was already preparing to take advantage of it. General Blake received the command of the troops and provinces of the eastern part of the kingdom. Having collected, within a short space of time, a corps d'armee on the frontiers of Valencia, he flattered himself with the hope of defeating the 3rd French corps, of driving it back to Navarre and the Pyrenees, and advancing upon the grand line of communication from Bayonne to Madrid, in order to separate from their basis of operations the French armies which had penetrated into the heart of the Peninsula.wtjThe same void which was occasioned in Arragon by the departure of the 5th corps, had been felt all over Spain when the emperor returned to France with his guard, on his way to Germany. Engaged in a remote war against Austria, he was struggling with fortune at Essling, during the month of May, the very period when Sir Arthur Wellesley was bringing the English army back to Portugal, and commencing operations with the view of driving us out of that country, and of afterwards attacking us in the heart of Spain. Blake was therefore seconded by circumstances, the effects of which were only developed at a later period. He did not venture upon an immediate attack of the French corps which defended Arragon; he prepared the way by again stirring up and arming the population. His efforts were crowned with a prompt and a widely extended success. Numerous partisans were organised on both banks of the Ebro, and commenced a petty warfare which unceasingly annoyed the 3rd corps in all its operations, and especially whilst it was engaged in any siege. General Suchet, therefore, though he afterwards succeeded in conquering far more formidable obstacles, had always to make head against those partial but annoying attacks, the origin of which dates from this period, and has its rise in the impulse then given to the nation at large.

When he arrived at Saragossa on the 19th of May, for the purpose of taking upon himself the chief command of the 3rd corps, the 1st division, which was established in a line running at right angles to the Ebro from Barbastro toAlcaniz, occupied along the Cinca and the Guadalupe, a line upwards of twenty leagues in extent. This line divided in two by the stream which could be crossed by means of a bridge at Saragossa, that is to say, at a distance of twenty leagues in the rear, was still more dangerous by the vicinity of Mequinenza, a town defended by a Spanish garrison. The 2nd division occupied Saragossa and the adjoining country. The 3rd division which was partly employed in Navarre, had five of its battalions detached from the main body, and could afford no assistance in case of need.

The dispersion of the troops, over so weak a position, greatly favoured the views of general Blake, who bore down, towards the middle of May, upon the 1st division commanded by general Lava, drove back his advanced posts from Beceyte and Val de Alforja, forced him to quit Alcaniz on the 18th, and compelled him to retreat towards Sanper and Ixar. General Habert, who was stationed at Barbastro, having at the same time received orders from the duke d'Abrantes to recover possession of Monzon, which had been imprudently abandoned after the departure of the 5th corps, sent, on the 16th of May, eight companies of choice troops, and thirty cuirassiers to the left bank of the Cinca. One of those sudden risings so frequently occasioned by the melting of the snow, or by violent falls of rain, which have at all times made this a dangerous river, suddenly compromised the safety of the detachment, by separating it from Habert's brigade; the cuirassiers alone succeeded in swimming back with their horses. The eight companies were surrounded by an armed population, and by regular troops from Lerida; and after gallantly fighting for three days, they found themselves without provisions or cartridges, or any means of retreating ; and being considerably reduced in numbers, they laid down their arms and were taken prisoners.

This unpleasant intelligence reached the duke d'Abrantes at Saragossa, on the 20th of May, at the moment when he was surrendering the command of the 3rd corps to general Suchet. This new chief therefore found, on his first arrival, his army engaged in difficulties; his career opened with the very danger he had most apprehended ; and he saw, as it were, every thing escaping from his grasp before he could lay hold of it. It became necessary to march, in the first instance, to the relief of general Laval. Being invested with the chief command, general Suchet quitted Saragossa on the 21st of May, only leaving a few troops in the town for the purpose of maintaining order, of guarding the parks of artillery, and of securing the communications. He sent orders to general Habert to abandon the left bank of the Ebro, and to proceed to cross that river at Fuentes, so as to be made available as corps of reserve. He advanced in person, with the disposable part of the 2nd division, towards the banks of the Guadalupe, and overtook Laval's division on the heights in the rear of lxar. He soon perceived that those troops, being dejected by recent events, did not deem themselves safe in that position. Nevertheless, he passed all the corps in review, reminded them of the glory they had acquired in the trenches of Saragossa, and the hope which their native country placed in their valour: he announced to them his firm resolution, now that he had quitted one of the finest and most gallant divisions in the whole army, thenceforward to unite himself irretrievably to them by a common fate, to extricate them from the deplorable condition in which they appeared, and to leave no exertion untried that might be calculated to secure to them a glorious career for the future.

In his anxiety to lose no time in reconnoitring the enemy and trying the mettle of his own troops, he ordered the 1st and 2nd divisions to march in the night of the 22nd of May, and on the morning of the 23rd he appeared before Alcaniz, where Blake occupied a position at the head of his forces. In our approach we took an advanced guard of thirty men prisoners.

On a close examination of the position, it was hoped that by seizing upon the hill of Las Horcas, which from its situation before the defile of the bridge and the outlets of the town, covered the enemy's line, it would require no effort to silence the wings, by which means we should take a great number of prisoners. Two movements were accordingly directed towards the extreme lines, in order to keep in check the forces of which they consisted and to engage their attention, whilst general Fabre at the head of the 114th of the line and the 1st regiment of the Vistula, advanced in a column of attack towards the hill which was defended by some pieces of artillery and a line of infantry. The troops, animated by the example of their chiefs, showed at first great steadiness, and, notwithstanding a brisk and murderous fire, they reached the foot of the hill. A broad ravine, which had lately been dug in this place , suddenly arrested the progress of the column, which soon began to waver and to fall back in a state of disorder. All efforts made to recall it to the charge proved ineffectual. The general suspended the action, and in sight of the enemy he rallied his troops within a short distance from the spot, on the line of ground where they had been drawn up previously to the attack. They maintained a calm attitude until evening, when they carried off tlie wounded, and at nightfall they retired, a battalion of the 64th regiment forming the rear-guard.

The non-success of this attack was tantamount to an absolute defeat in the eyes of troops, which were already a prey to fear and dejection. Nevertheless, it was not without its advantage for the general who obtained, by means of a few prisoners taken in the morning, some information respecting the numbers and character of the troops against which he had to contend, his efforts having hitherto failed in acquiring any positive knowledge on this subject. In all other respects the attempt upon Alcaniz proved abortive, and we were compelled to resign to the enemy, independently of the moral effect attending a victory, an advantageous position which the slowness of our retrograde movement fortunately induced him not to relinquish for the prospect of harassing us in our retreat.

We had already distanced the Spaniards by nearly five leagues, when the 1st division, which formed the advance, was seized with a sudden panic. The terrified soldiers fancied that the enemy was close at their heels. The alarm rapidly spread under favour of the darkness ; they fired upon each other and took to flight in the utmost confusion. Men, horses, caissons, and field-equipages were hurried along pell-mell towards the point of retreat, and reached the village of Sanper, to which the general-in-chief, who had been slightly wounded in the foot, was proceeding with the intention of establishing a camp. The light of day, however, had the effect of dispelling the phantoms which the night had created; the soldiers, ashamed of their cowardice, rallied again and resumed their ranks.

The events of that night and of the preceding day confirmed the general in the painful conviction that the moral character of the 3rd corps had received a severe shock. In his anxiety to repair it, he seized the opportunity of exercising one of those acts of severe and prompt justice which are from time to time called for in a camp life. A drummer had spread the cry of alarm, by declaring that he had seen the Spanish cavalry charging the 2nd regiment of the Vistula, and the latter surrendering to them. The arrival of that regiment proved the falsehood of his report. The drummer was brought before a military commission which was formed on the instant, and he was condemned to be shot in front of the army. This example proved quite sufficient, and order and tranquillity were immediately restored. After waiting two days for the enemy in front of La Puebla de Ixar, the army continued its movement of retreat to the very walls of Saragossa, where it took up a position on the 30th of May, six days after the unsuccessful attack upon Alcaniz.

Notwithstanding the perfect order and the slowness of our march, our retreat was, nevertheless, considered by the whole country as the prelude to our complete evacuation of Arragon. We were, in fact, involved in difficulties, which might be attended with consequences of the most decisive nature. The general in chief was a prey to a very painful state of uncertainty as to the course which it was most advisable to adopt. Entertaining, as yet, very little confidence in his troops, he feared that if the enemy should make a rapid advance upon him, he might not have it in his power to resist any determined attack from forces so far superior in numbers. Nevertheless, if at the moment of his assuming the command, he evacuated Saragossa, the siege of which had been spoken of all over Europe, and exposed himself to compromise by his retreat the position of all the French armies in the centre of Spain, such a course of proceeding was equivalent to a complete defeat. He accordingly adopted the resolution which would most redound to his honour, and was most consistent with his character. Stopping before Saragossa, he concentrated his small army on that solitary point, the preservation of which was well worth the risk of a battle. He determined that if Blake allowed him some respite, he should there wait the arrival of the 116th and 117th regiments, which he was led to expect would shortly return to join him. The 1st division was placed in advance of the Carthusian convent of the Conception, the 2nd division on the heights of Monte -Torrero. The soldiers no longer quitted the camp ;they were made to take up arms every morning at three o'clock , and they remained in a fighting position until the return of the reconnoitring parties which were sent to look out for the enemy. The general in chief, who was engaged in the two-fold object of re-organizing his army and regulating its plan of defence, passed the regiments in review, and attended to the most trifling details of their accoutrements and their wants. He thus acquired a knowledge of the causes to which the bad spirit prevailing in some corps was to be ascribed, distributed praises and punishments, and dismissed a few officers for neglectful or culpable conduct. In the meanwhile, we were constructing intrenchments and redoubts on the Monte-Torrero, and along the canal; the castle was put in a state of defence, with a view to our retaining possession of it, even in the event of our evacuating the town. The suburb was barricaded, the artillery and baggage which could be dispensed with were sent off to Tudela and Pampelona, as well as the sick and wounded, in order that the army should remain perfectly unfettered in its movements, whether it confined itself to manoeuvring, or ran the hazard of a battle.

The inhabitants who kept a close watch upon us for the purpose of discovering our projects, drew no other inference from our movements, than that we were anxious to conceal our immediate retreat. The general, however, was fully rewarded for his exertions and penetrating foresight by the improvement which took place in the moral character of the soldiery. Surprised at finding themselves the object of such assiduous attentions, at the frequency of the reviews, at the exercises at firing and the manoeuvres on an extensive scale, which now engaged the greater portion of their time, as if they were in a profound peace, they felt at once the improvement of their condition, and the revival of their expiring sense of valour and self-importance. Their being recalled to discipline and good order, had the effect of restoring their confidence in each other and in their chiefs. Fifteen days thus employed, whilst the troops were on the alert, and expecting every moment to be called into action, proved sufficient to accomplish this metamorphosis, and placed the 3rd corps in a condition to march up to the enemy and attack him in the open plain, instead of watching his approach under protection of their lines of defence.

If general Blake had moved rapidly forward after the action of Alcaniz, without allowing time for the 3rd corps to recover from its defeat, he would, perhaps, have compelled it to evacuate Arragon. It is probable, however, that this general was unwilling, by too much precipitancy, to compromise a success which he considered as almost infallible. He was expecting some reinforcements from Valencia, and with a view to promote his intended operation, he accelerated on various points the breaking out of local insurrections. In consequence of the impulse thus given by him, colonel Ramon-Gayan approached Almunia and the valley of the Xalon with two thousand men. Brigadier-general Perena who had been defeated four months before, had reappeared with his troops, and pushed detachments forward as far as the bridge of the Gallego. On the left bank of the Ebro, we only occupied the fort of Jaca and the suburb of Saragossa. General Blake did not determine upon the movements he should adopt until the beginning of June, when he put his army in motion. Instead of advancing along the Ebro by the road of Fuentes, he proceeded towards Belchite at the head of twenty-five thousand men. He felt convinced that the troops which had been defeated at Alcaniz would decline fighting before Saragossa, and that by approaching the valley of the Huerba, and threatening the road of Alagon, he would compel us to retreat. Such, however, was not the intention of general Suchet, who waited for his antagonist; leaving his cavalry for the present at El Burgo, he divided his infantry between Monte-Torrero, and the convent of Santa-Fe on the road from Saragossa to Madrid; and detached a body of twelve hundred men to Villa-de- Muel, under the orders of general Fabre, for the purpose of scouring the country to the right of the army, and obtaining timely information of the grand movement which the enemy indicated an intention of carrying into effect.

The main body of the Spanish army, under the orders of lieutenant general Arizaga, took up aposition at Botorita on the 13th of June, whilst general Blake, the commander in chief, moved with the remainder of his forces from Carinena to Longares and Villa-de-Muel, which were occupied by general Fabre. On crossing the Huerba, general Arizaga captured a convoy of provisions and cut off general Fabre from Saragossa ; the latter being attacked in two different quarters at the same time, opposed as much resistance as his position allowed him, and effected his retreat upon Placencia without experiencing any loss. General Suchet ordered the 2nd division, commanded by general Musnier, to advance to the support of general Fabre, but the approach of night prevented him from extricating that officer and restoring the communication. On the 14th, Musnier's division again attacked the enemy's advanced guard, compelled it to re-cross the Huerba, and was preparing to pursue it in order to seize upon the position of Botorita, when it was compelled to retire, owing to the arrival of the forces from Villa-de-Muel under Blake's immediate orders. The main body of the Spanish army having crossed to the left bank of the Huerba, and threatened our line of retreat, it now became necessary to arrest its progress; general Suchet accordingly determined to oppose him, and adopted for the action of the 15th a new order of battle. The 44th regiment and the 3rd of the Vistula, remained in the camp of Monte-Torrero. Habert's division and the 2nd division were drawn up in a line, and encamped partly at the convent of Santa-Fe, partly on the heights to the right. The battalion of the 64th regiment was stationed in the rear upon the main road; this reserve of veteran soldiers, of the old division of general Suchet, though weak in point of numbers, maintained by its steady attitude and discipline, an imposing appearance in the midst of the 3rd corps. The brigade of cavalry commanded by general Wattier was placed contiguous to it. An officer was sent off to Alagon the same night, for the purpose of accelerating the return on the next morning of general Fabre, who on leaving Placentia, had descended the banks of the Xalon, and of hastening the march of the 116th and 117th regiments, which were on their way from Tudela to join the army.

¹ In the month of January, l809, a period when the national animosity against the French was at its height, a battalion of the 34th regiment of the line, belonging to Suchet's division, was sent from Calatayud to a neighbouring town for the mere purpose of reconnoitering, and with strict injunctions not to commit any act of hostility. It met, on its arrival, the inhabitants who, according to their custom, were basking in the sun outside the walls of the town, and, wrapped up in their cloaks, silently bent their looks upon the troop as it filed along. The chief of battalion on perceiving a numerous population collected together, very prudently kept his troop under arms, sent for the alcalde, and after some preliminary arrangements, entered the town. On arriving at the alcalde's house, the commandant demanded provisions for his battalion. It was the general practice of officers to exaggerate a little their numerical strength, either with the view of over-awing, or of securing a. more abundant supply for the detachment. He called for a thousand rations of provisions and a hundred rations of forage. I am aware, said the alcaide to him, that I must supply rations to your troop ; I shall order you to receive 780 rations of provisions and 60 rations of forage. This was in fact the precise number of men and horses. Return to text
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