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


The battle was about to commence almost under the walls of Saragossa. It was of the utmost consequence that the command of that important city should be confided to an officer of acknowledged merit, whose vigour and firmness of character might make up for the inadequacy of the troops left under his orders, with a view to prevent all popular movements, and arrest the progress of the Spanish corps on the left bank. The general-in-chief selected colonel Haxo of the engineers who had displayed great military talents during the siege of that city. He placed at his disposal the several corps of engineers, and a thousand infantry.

On the 15th of June, general Blake deployed his army in front of the small rivulet, over which runs the main road, by means of a bridge near the village of Maria; his right extended to the Huerba, of which he occupied the banks, and prolonged his centre and left as far as the heights, which he lined with infantry and artillery. These arrangements were slowly carried into effect; and although the two armies were at a very short distance from each other, the morning was consumed in a mere firing of advanced posts which was kept up by the 2nd regiment of the Vistula, and afterwards by the 115th regiment, until noon-day. General Suchet, who only sought to gain time until the arrival of his two detachments, shewed no impatience to commence the action. General Laval's two regiments on the Monte-Torrero, which was separated by the Huerba from the field of battle, were considered as a detached corps, and so kept for the purpose of watching the road to Fuentes. Our safety depended in some measure on their retaining possession of the commanding point which they occupied ; for if the enemy had seized upon it, the presence of the latter would have sufficed to drive the population of Saragossa to arms, and place us in a most dangerous position. Thus it happened, that from the nature of the ground, and in spite of the measures which he had long been planning with the view of collecting his scattered forces, the general-in-chief found himself compelled to run the risk of a pitched battle, with thirteen battalions of infantry, seven squadrons of cavalry, and twelve pieces of cannon, forming together a force of less than nine thousand men. He was at last apprised towards noon, that colonel Robert had reached the neighbourhood of Saragossa, with the 116th and 117th regiments ; and he sent him instructions to proceed without halting towards the convent of Santa- Fe. He immediately ordered the first reserve to advance and form into line, and general Wattier was brought nearer to the left, commanded by general Habert. Musnier's division was spread upon the heights, forming the centre and right, the extremity of which was flanked by the squadron of lancers under the orders of the Polish colonel Kliski. The general-in-chief, finding that the enemy remained motionless in his position, had hitherto allowed a part of his troops to take rest, and the horses to be kept unbridled, in order to increase the confidence of his small army, which was beginning to long for the battle, and demanded to be led to the charge.

The order for attacking was given at two o'clock. The movement commenced along the whole line, at the very instant when the Spanish army put itself in motion, and extended its left as if with the intention to outflank us. General Suchet proceeded at once to the extreme right, for the purpose of preventing this manoeuvre; he detached the lancers and two hundred skirmishers to the flank, whilst a battalion of the 114th marched direct upon the enemy in a column of attack. Their charge threw into disorder the Spanish battalions, which were just putting themselves in motion; they fell back upon their line of battle, and had only time to assume an attitude of defense. The general-in-chief did not hesitate a moment in causing an immediate attack upon the whole left and centre of general Blake. The contending armies were separated by a ravine, which Musnier's division had orders to cross without firing, and with their arms shouldered. Colonel Chlopiski, at the head of the 1st regiment of the Vistula, formed in columns, forthwith marched up to the steep position of the Spaniards; the 114th and 115th regiments, which had deployed, made a similar movement under a murderous fire of artillery, which colonel Valee vigorously returned.

General Blake not only sustained the attack, but drew reinforcements from his right, and moved his line forward against the 115th regiment, which the obstacles of the ground towards the centre, and the violence of the enemy's line had compelled to stop. The efforts of general Boussard and colonel Dupeyroux succeeded in rekindling its ardour. The general-in-chief sent forward the 2nd regiment of the Vistula, and the battalion of the 64th regiment, without, however, bringing them into close action. He detached general Harispe, his chief of the staff, with a hundred grenadiers; that officer rushed into the ravine, and though wounded in the first onset, he brought his soldiers back to the charge, and restored the chances of the battle. A violent storm, which had burst over the two armies, almost concealed them from each other, though they were a very short distance apart. The movement attempted by general Blake on his extreme left, and the charge just made on the centre of the Spaniards, though apparently fortuitous and the effect of mere chance, were highly favourable to the views of the general in chief. On considering the plan of the battle, it will appear that the Spanish general, by establishing himself on the heights sloping down to the left bank of the Huerba, with ravines in his front and rear, had no means of retreat, if his positions should be forced, except by the road and the little bridge of Maria behind the extreme right of his line, thus evidently compromising the safety of his left and centre, and in particular of the artillery with which they were lined. This defective arrangement on the part of the enemy naturally pointed out the course we had to adopt. General Suchet feigned at first to neglect his left, and even avoided a display of the cavalry he was collecting on that point, whilst his centre and right were engaged. He no sooner found the contest in this quarter at its height, than he rapidly flew to the left. The Spanish cavalry, supported by a battery and by a small body of infantry, was stationed beyond the bridge. He ordered general Habert to send forward the 14th regiment of the line, preceded by the battalion of the 5th light regiment as riflemen. He then suddenly directed general Wattier, who commanded the 4th hussars and the 13th regiment of cuirassiers to gain the start of the infantry, make a rapid charge, drive in the enemy's right, and take possession of the bridge. This manoeuvre could not fail to be decisive of the contest, and it was executed with the quickness ot lightning. The Spaniards being thrown into disorder by the suddenness of the shock, took to flight, and their cavalry was completely routed. We remained masters of the ground, the bridge and the battery. Although deprived of the assistance of his right, general Blake did not abandon his position Collecting his masses of infantry and redoubling the fire of his artillery, he boldly stood his ground and waited the attack which he saw was preparing against him. General Suchet profited by the advantage he had just obtained on the flank of the enemy's last position. He sent general Habert against him in an oblique direction with the battalion of the 5th light regiment and the 14th of the line, whilst Musnier's division advanced in front to the charge. The contest was severe and obstinately maintained; but when French soldiers are once borne on the wing of victory, it is difficult to resist them. The enemy's infantry was driven back; it rushed into the ravines, and eluded our pursuit under favour of the darkness and of the raging storm. Twenty-five pieces of cannon and three standards fell into our possession. General Blake succeeded, notwithstanding the natural obstacles of the ground, in reaching the banks of the Huerba, and rallying the fugitives at Botorita, leaving a greater number of killed than of prisoners behind him. Amongst the latter was general O'Donohu, who commanded the cavalry, and colonel Menchaca, inspector of the infantry. Our loss consisted of about six or seven hundred killed and wounded. General Harispe's wound deprived the army for some time of the services of that gallant officer, who already held the rank of chief of the staff of the army.

The enemy having completely retreated during the night, the general in chief felt desirous of immediately availing himself of those troops whose only duty during the battle had been to occupy the Monte-Torrero, and to display from a distance to the hostile general that he could dispose of another corps of reserve against him. He sent orders to general Laval to move forward to Torrecilla by the plateau of Fuentes, for the purpose of threatening the enemy's rear guard. The general in chief came the same night to Saragossa in order to direct some important arrangements in that city, from which it was his intention to absent himself for a short time. At night, the city was surrounded at a distance by Perena's bivouacs on the left bank of the Ebro, this officer having imagined that he could by mere demonstration promote the success of his cause and of the engagement ; but the inhabitants who during the action had exhibited no other feeling than one of mere curiosity, altogether free from agitation or hostile indications, remained in a state of tranquillity and obedience, a prudent deportment on their part, from which they never swerved on any future occasion.

On the morning of the 16th, general Suchet beheld with surprise the army of general Blake still occupying its position at Botorita. Being still sanguine in his expectations of the effect which general Laval's march was calculated to produce, he reiterated his instructions to that officer; and in order to second him, he confined himself to the object of diverting- the enemy's attention by movements on the left of the Huerba, approaching his position without attacking him, and pushing forward detachments on the road of Villa-de-Muel and Carinena. He thus acquired a certainty that no Spanish corps had retreated in that direction. This was an additional motive for expecting the result which he had anticipated from his manoeuvre. General Laval, however, having been led astray by improper guides, found it impossible to reach the appointed spot on the 16th. Blake broke up his camp the following night, and his rear guard alone could be come up with at Tordecilla on the 17th; general Laval took a battalion of marines and a few camp-equipages. The general-in-chief commenced in person the pursuit of Blake on the morning of the 17th, and pushed on as far as Puebia d'Alborton. On the 18th in the morning, the two armies were again in presence of each other at Belchite. They immediately prepared for action; but their respective situations were greatly altered both in regard to their materiel and to the moral character of the soldiers. General Blake found himself compelled, after the loss of his artillery, to abandon all idea of conquering Saragossa, and was now on the point of fighting to secure his retreat. General Suchet having been enabled to assemble' the greater part of his forces, presented himself to the contest with twenty-two battalions and eight squadrons animated by their recent victory; he aimed at destroying, or dispersing at least, the enemy's army, with a view to complete his victory and to remain in undisturbed possession of Arragon.

Blake having been reinforced in the night by four thousand men of the army at Valencia, had taken up a position on the heights of Belchite. His right was stationed towards the height of the Calvario, with some cavalry in front in the direction of the road to Saragossa; his centre leaned upon the town and the convent of Santa- Barbara; his left extended across the heights towards the hermitage of El Poyo in several lines, with reserves in the rear and some pieces of artillery regularly drawn up. Those lines were connected by barns, loop holed houses and intrenchments. The whole ground in advance of our front, and especially of our centre, was lined with olive trees intersected by ditches and canals for irrigation which rendered it of difficult access. General Suchet deemed it sufficient to cause the centre to be watched by light troops supported by a few reserve battalions; he directed Habert's brigade and the 13th regiment of cuirassiers to turn, from a distance, the enemy's right between Codo and Belchite, and personally superintended the main attack against the left. General Musnier received orders to march in columns by battalion, and to charge as soon as the artillery should have made an impression upon the line. This movement was executed by the 114th regiment, the 1st of the Vistula and the 4th hussars, whilst the 115th was advancing still further to the left.

The Spaniards abandoned the hermitage of El Poyo ; their wing retired in a body and took up a concentrated position round Belchite and Santa Barbara. They now opened a brisk fire of artillery ; formed themselves into imposing columns of attack and with the support of their cavalry they advanced to meet us. General Wattier, however, succeeded in checking their movement, and general Musnier resolutely persisted in bearing down upon the infantry. The action was gradually becoming obstinate on both sides, when two pieces of our light artillery, which lieutenant Auvray had brought forward, directed their fire against the artillery of the enemy's army, with so much boldness and precision, that a howitzer shell falling upon a caisson set fire to it. Several caissons blew up, and spread terror in the Spanish ranks ;wtjthe flight of one battalion caused the retreat of the remainder. Both wings followed the example of the centre, rushed through Belchite, and precipitately fled in the utmost confusion through the plains beyond the town. The defile leading to it, and the distance of the cuirassiers, who had not yet had time to come up by the left, prevented our taking advantage of this dispersion of the enemy, or taking a considerable number of prisoners. The 1st regiment of Valencia was the only corps which succeeded in ralying at the distance of two leagues from the field of battle ; it was instantly charged and taken prisoner. Nine pieces of cannon, which were the only artillery remaining to the Spanish army, a standard, twenty three caissons, and a quantity of small arms and baggage fell into our power. General Blake's army was completely dispersed.

On the following day, the 19th, we occupied Galanda, Alcaniz and Caspe, where we found stores and provisions in abundance. The general in chief sent four columns in pursuit of the enemy in all directions ; one of these approached Tortosa, another entered Morella, a town situated in the kingdom of Valencia. General Musnier was left in command of the troops on the Guadalupe, with orders to place the castle of Alcaniz in a state of defense.

The general-in-chief crossed the Ebro at Caspe on the 23rd of June, caused a reconnoitring to be made in the environs of Mequinenza, advanced upon .Fraga, crossed the Cinca, and took possession of the fort of Monzon. Another reconnoitring was also affected in the direction of Merida; which so alarmed its governor that he shut himself up in the place, at the very moment when, according to common report, he was preparing to proceed to the relief of Gerona; the danger, with which he was now threatened, compelled him to renounce all idea of a distant operation, and to confine himself to the defense of his post. General Habert remained on the Cinca with the 3rd division.

The general-in-chief having completed these military arrangements, which were intended to protect the 3rd corps from danger, and to promote the success of his future operations, he crowned them by a first attempt at introducing a system of justice and moderation, which he calculated would enable him, whilst he held possession of Arragon, to subdue the animosity of its population. He exerted himself at Alcaniz and Caspe, two influential towns on the right bank, to cairn the apprehensions of the inhabitants, and to hold out to them a prospect of future prosperity after the unavoidable disorders of a state of warfare, from which they were about to emerge. The same language and conduct were productive of a salutary effect at Barbastro and Huesca, chief towns of the principal corregimientos on the left bank, through which he passed on his way back to Saragossa. In this capital, in particular, he endeavoured to pave the way for the success of his plans by the most cautious conduct. The clergy, the public authorities, and a crowd of inhabitants, came to meet him at the bridge of the Gallego, and received him with every demonstration of joy and confidence. Rejoicings spontaneously took place in this city during several successive days ; an unlooked for spectacle, well worthy of attracting attention, occurring as it did in the midst of the ruins of a siege, still exhibiting its appalling effects in every direction. In the principal street, along the Cosso, were heaped and guarded the guns lately belonging to Blake's army, and now become the trophies of the battles fought at Maria and Belchite. This sight, which was calculated to impose upon ardent imaginations, was tempered by the no less imposing spectacle of the religious ceremonies which were celebrated in all their splendour in the venerated church del Pilar; and the general- in-chief made it his duty to contribute to it by the pomp of military display. This harmony had the effect of impressing the inhabitants with the idea that all further resistance on their part would be unavailing, and that it behoved them to submit to a regular order of things, which held out a prospect of peace and security. Upon these sentiments of the inhabitants of Saragossa general Suchet built his hopes of improving the condition of the 3rd corps d'armee and of Arragon itself.

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