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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 2b - Battle in Arragon


The spirit of the ancient Celtiberians still animated their descendants, when the emperor Napoleon, after having wounded their pride, attempted to conquer their obedience. It is well known that a people determined to defend themselves on their own soil present a mass of strength and a power of opinion, the absence of which would prevent hastily formed armies from offering any effectual resistance to an invading power. The armed and disciplined youth sustained with steady constancy a national struggle against the French armies on fields of battle and especially in besieged towns. But the greater part of the population, sometimes without any distinction of age or of sex, embarked in that active and obstinate species of contest which brought enemies upon us in all directions and exhausted us far more than regular engagements. Each district formed as it were its own Guerilla for the purpose of protecting its territory and co-operating in the common defence. Peasants, land owners, fathers of families, priests and monks, unhesitatingly abandoned their dwellings in which the greater part scarcely enjoyed more of the comforts of life than in the open country, in order to swell the Guerilla bands that were forming against us. Prepared to undergo every sacrifice, free from the wants of a luxurious life as well as from the attachment so generally felt for uniforms, for the mode of service or the peculiar nature of the weapons, they met in irregular bodies, selected their own chiefs, carried on operations according as their caprice dictated, never failed to attack when numbers and a favorable opportunity promised them success, fled without disgrace when they were the weakest, and occasionally, by a general dispersion planned before hand disappeared, so that it became difficult to discover any trace of them. These Guerilla parties naturally fell under the controul of a few enterprising chiefs, the remains of the numerous smugglers who covered the frontiers of each province of Spain. This is one of the traits of the national character which their celebrated Cervantes had no hesitation in pointing out as peculiar to them. The habit of bearing arms and of using them on the high roads too often made robbery an auxiliary to patriotism, and led us, with some colouring of justice, to confound them under the same denomination and in the same predicament when they violated the laws of humanity and of nations. We must acknowledge, however, that the chiefs of the Spanish army made: it a point to repress the excesses of these bands and punish them with as much rigour as it was in their power to exercise towards them.

Their isolated efforts were sufficient, seriously, to molest the 3rd corps in its occupation of Arragon. They assumed a greater degree of activity and became more formidable to us by the common impulse which was given to them. The insurrectionary juntas of the provinces and the central government assumed a controul over them, and ably combined their movements so as to render their services still more available to the common cause. General Suchet having established his forces on the Guadalupe and the Cinca, as well as in Saragossa, felt it necessary to take a wider range in order to occupy and organize the country. But his authority being confined within a small circle around those points' met with obstacles in every direction.

The corps of colonel Ramon-Gayan, as well as the one which had been raised in the principality of Molina had united, and occupied the valley of the Xiloca, Daroca, the mountains of Montalvan, and the environs of Carinena. The advanced guard had stationed itself at the convent of Nuestra Senora del Aguila, near Paniza, at the distance of seven or eight leagues from Saragossa. A camp for three thousand men surrounded that spacious edifice placed as an eagle's nest at the summit of a high mountain; it was intrenched, loopholed and barricadoed, and was provided with considerable supplies of ammunition and provisions. Aranda and Calcena at the foot of the Moncayo also became points of junction for those bands which infested Tarragona, the valley of the Ebro, and our line of communication with Navarre. A French regiment which had been. for a long time in possession of Soria, had at first kept the country in check to a certain distance ; but it was recalled to Madrid, and the regiments of Soria and of the Princeza, having been detached from the corps of La Romana, came to establish and organise themselves in the vicinity of Calatayud. Their force did not amount to less than three thousand men who became the nucleus of the corps of Villacampa, an active Guerilla leader who maintained himself in Arragon during nearly the whole war.

The bands which had formed on the left bank of the Ebro were perhaps more dangerous still, The insurrection of the upper vallies of Arragon which prided themselves in never having been conquered, was planned with a view to facilitate general Blake's operations. They had received money, arms and proclamations. The forced recruitings, the junction of several scattered bands, and the arrival of many officers sent from Lerida to command them, gave a character of steadiness to those armaments. One of these officers was Renovales, who after signalising himself in the defense of Buenos Ayres against the English, had recently been taken prisoner in the assault of St. Joseph during the siege of Saragossa. Whilst they were conducting him into France, he deserted from Pampelona where at his own request he had been allowed to stop, and was left free on his parole." He repaired to Lerida and obtained the command of all the vallies to the westward of Jaca. In organising that insurrection, he displayed all the activity and zeal which an officer could bestow on a cause in behalf of which he had not hesitated to break his word of honor. The convent of San Juan de la Pena, situated in a formidable position, became a principal depot which the enemy endeavoured to protect with intrenchments, and which served as a rallying point for all the bands of the neighbourhood of Jaca. To the eastward of this place, towards the frontiers of Catalonia, colonels Perena, Pedroza, Baget, Sarraza, and father Theobaldo were posted with their troops upon the mountains above Huesca and Barbastro and in the vicinity of the Cinca, thus surrounding, although at a distance, our camps or cantonments ; and communicating with the marquis de Lavalle the governor of Lerida.

These numerous bands, spread over so vast a circumference, began to operate in a simultaneous and uniform manner. They destroyed our stragglers, and frequently even our detachments when they were in small numbers and off their guard; they spread terror throughout the country, harrassed our partisans, compelled all young men to re-enlist in the Spanish armies, intercepted the , couriers, arrested the convoys, and obstructed the return of the contributions or provisions we had raised. On the approach of our troops, those bands withdrew without fighting, so that they made their appearance at every spot we did not occupy, and offered no opportunity for making a serious attack upon them in any position ; there existed no means of coming up with or even seeing them, unless we could succeed in taking them by surprise.

The numerical weakness of the 3rd corps, which had no means of repairing its daily losses, gave additional activity to the daily increasing influence of the insurgents. A reinforcement of fresh troops would from that moment have been requisite to repress that dangerous spirit, but the government of Madrid was equally in need of troops, and looked for them in vain ; it was not in a condition to relieve the threatened provinces. Though alarmed at Blake's movement upon Arragon in the months of May and June, it had not done any thing to enable the 3rd corps to conquer in the struggle. Navarre was nearly barren of troops; the public service in that quarter was carried on by means of that corps d'armee which was compelled to keep up detachments in every direction for the purpose of collecting provisions and securing its communications. General Caro had assumed the command of the kingdom of Valencia, and was engaged in reorganising its army, the strength of which began to exhibit an , imposing appearance. With respect to General Blake himself, as soon as he had collected at Tortosa the remains of his defeated army, he abandoned his views upon Arragon, rallied the garrison of Tarragona, and manoeuvred for the purpose of relieving Gerona, the siege of which would have been greatly protracted by a timely succour.

General Suchet, after having, on his return from Saragossa, thrown a glance at his position, perceived that the most urgent operation was that of relieving Jaca, which was blockaded as it were by the insurgent bands. This fortress secured our shortest communication with France. The operation was effected with great rapidity, and in order that he might be free from any further uneasiness respecting the safety of so important a post, he supplied it with provisions for ten months. He resolved at the same time to make an immediate effort against the hostile corps which were forming in all directions, in order that he might establish his authority over all the points of Arragon which he might have it in his power to overrun with his troops. He was aware that in endeavouring to act with vigour in one direction, he would be compelled to diminish his forces in another ; it would be necessary to attack the insurgent bands one after another, notwithstanding the disadvantage of such a kind of warfare. Being unable, however, to augment the number of his soldiers, he resolved multiply them by the rapidity of their movements; and their activity and courage thus supplied the place of the reinforcements of which he stood in need.

He began by occupying Almunia and Carinena. The works which were intended to give additional strength to the castle of Alcaniz were actively urged forward. The corps of Perena and Pedroza, which had come to threaten Barbastro and Huesca, were driven back; general Habert suddenly fell, on the 19th of July, upon the camp of the former chief, took possession of his headquarters, was on the point of carrying him off, and compelled him to fly for shelter to Viescas, Situated in the midst of inaccessible mountains covered with perpetual snow. The general-in-chief advanced in person, during the night from the 19th to the 20th, to Carinena, where he had suddenly assembled four battalions and a hundred cuirassiers. Before day-break, he caused Paniza and the position of Nuestra Senora del Aguila to be surrounded. Gayan's corps, which was stationed there, offered a very slight resistance, and evacuated the position without allowing us time to enclose him. He abandoned his camp and provisions, which were destroyed as well as the entrenchments erected in the convent. The general-in-chief returned the same night to Saragossa with the news of his successful expedition. The inhabitants, who scarcely had time to notice his absence, learned with surprise that it had only cost him a few hours to seize upon a position which they had considered impregnable.

Several corps had been sent from Paniza in pursuit of the corps of colonel Gayan, there being always some advantage in driving to a greater distance an enemy whom it was found impossible to destroy. Colonel Kliski occupied Daroca, brought the inhabitants under subjection, and took possession of a depôt of arms. The enemy rallied on the mountain of Uzed with some insurgents of Calatayud and Molina; he marched forward, defeated and drove them to the frontiers of Castille.

General Laval was dispatched to Calatayud and dispersed the bands assembled in that quarter; he also cleared the environs of Moncayo. A small corps of troops was likewise detached to the Cincovillas, a district, the possession of which is important from its adjoining Saragossa on the one side, and the frontiers of Navarre on the other. Wherever our troops established themselves, the general-in-chief began to put in practice tlie system of administration which he was laying down for Saragossa.

At this period of time, intelligence was brought to Spain of the crossing of the Danube, of the battle of Wagram and of the armistice of Znai'm. These events were communicated very opportunely to counteract the first impression created by the battle fought at Talavera on the 28th of July; the Spaniards claimed it as a victory over us; but the advance of marshal Soult having compelled the English to retreat towards the Tagus, and general Venegas having been defeated at Almonacid, Madrid was thereby relieved from the danger that threatened it. It became evident that the French army in the Peninsula would be no match for the English united to the Spaniards, unless they received those reinforcements which the war with Austria had hitherto rendered impossible: the change of circumstances henceforward justified the expectation of their being shortly sent to our relief, and the French government lost no time in announcing their proximate arrival.

If the Spaniards were not at first much discouraged by appearances so unfavourable to their cause, the French, on the contrary, entertained the sanguine hope that fresh combinations of a more effectual character than the former ones, would soon bring the war to a close. General Suchet determined to complete the pursuit and destruction of the Guerilla bands of Arragon, in order that he might afterwards dispose of his corps d'armee for any other operations he might be called upon to undertake..

He had succeeded in throwing provisions into the fortress of Jaca, but not in relieving it altogether ; for the armed bands which had collected in the neighbourhood, had resumed the blockade, and the garrison was in some measure pent up within its walls. The consequence was, that the communication with France was intercepted, and there was ground for apprehending that some treachery or surprise might deprive us of that highly important point. The insurgents occupied in front of Jaca, and at a short distance from it the convent of San Juan de la Pena, a. commanding position of very difficult access, which contained a garrison, ammunition, and provisions, and was placed in a good state of defense. Popular superstition and enthusiasm combined to attach great importance to that convent. In former wars, the rock of San-Juan de la Pena had always remained in the power of the Christians, who carried on an interminable struggle against the Moors in the mountains of Arragon. Its church contained the tombs of twenty-two kings of Arragon. The central junta, in its instructions to the inhabitants of the left bank of the Ebro, exhibited San-Juan de la Pena as the palladium of their independence. It was accordingly the rallying point for all the armed bands of the vicinity, who found there a safe asylum after their frequent excursions into the valley of the Gallego. Two detachments of twenty men each, who escorted thirty men belonging to the band of the 115th regiments, having stopped at the village of Bernues during the night of the 23rd of August, and failed to keep a proper watch, were surprised by Sarraza's band, and nearly all put to death. It was essential to prevent similar disasters for the future, and to destroy the den which allowed of their being committed with impunity.

General Musnier was entrusted with this expedition ; he assembled under his command a battalion of the 5th light infantry, another of the 64th , a third of the 115th of the line, and part of the garrison of Jaca. With these forces he attacked the position of San-Juan de la Pena on three sides at once, on the 26th of August. It was carried after a sharp resistance; the garrison was killed or taken prisoners, and every part of the convent which presented any means of defense, was either set on fire or destroyed. After this operation, general Musnier proceeded with one column to the vallies of Echo and Anso, whilst colonel Plicque penetrated with the remainder of his troops into the valley of Roncal. Renovales kept all those mountains in a state of insurrection, and fomented the movements which perpetually alarmed that portion of the frontiers. The vallies were subdued, disarmed, and punished ; that of Roncal capitulated after a rather obstinate defense. The general-in-chief left two battalions there for some time, as a detached corps, in order to secure the return of the corn and cattle which were required of the inhabitants for the support of the army. He gave directions at the same time, not only that the church of San-Juan de la Pena should be preserved, but that a fund should be specially set apart for the preservation and service of the tombs of the kings of Arragon. He thought it right to evince that mark of respect for an object held in veneration by the people of Arragon ; and the esteem they bore him in return, shewed their gratitude for his endeavours to prevent, after a victory, those dilapidations which the chances of war render almost unavoidable.

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