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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 4a
Preparations for the siege of Lerida.—Investment of the place.—Details concerning it.—State of the fortifications.— Temporary junction with the army of Catalonia.—Approach of the Spanish army, commanded by Henry O'Donnell.— Battle of Margalef.—Fruitless attack upon the redoubts of Garden.—Opening of the trench.—The batteries are established.—First opening of the fire.—Renewal of the fire from the batteries, and opening of the breaches.—Capture of the redoubts of Garden.—Assault and taking of the town.—Capitulation of the castle and of the fort of Garden.


THE excursion of the 3rd corps to Valencia, which excited the displeasure of the French government, without accomplishing the views of the government of Madrid, had been for general Suchet the almost necessary consequence of his position. Having returned to Arragon after that movement beyond the limits of his own province, and being on the point of resuming, by the siege of Lerida, the course of operations which were within his immediate sphere of action, his whole attention was now directed to the object of rapidly pushing the siege forward, and repairing lost time. With the reinforcements it had just received, the 3rd corps then consisted of thirty-three battalions, and nine squadrons, amounting, in all, to about twenty-two thousand effective soldiers. Nearly one third of these forces would necessarily have to remain in Arragon for the purpose of keeping up our establishments in that province, and of defending it either against the detachments from Navarre, and upper Catalonia, or against Villacampa, who remained towards the frontiers of Valencia and Castille, with a corps of three or four thousand men. The rest of the army was very inadequate, in point of numbers, to undertake such an operation as the siege of Lerida, in presence of the Spanish army of Catalonia, commanded by Henry O'Donnell, afterwards count del Abisbal. But the government had ordered marshal Augereau to assist in the siege of Lerida, and to move the 7th corps towards the Ebro, for the purpose of affording aid to the 3rd corps. This was a prudent combination, the execution of which did not present any serious difficulty. Nevertheless, it proved unavailing, though not from any delay on the part of the 3rd corps. Our army of Catalonia had certainly acquired a greater freedom of action since the capitulation of Gerona; it was, however, under the necessity of never absenting itself for any length of time from Barcelona and its vicinity, and was kept in check by th e movements of Henry O'Donnell; we shall, accordingly, find that it had scarcely come within sight of the lower Ebro, when it was compelled to resume its position near Hostalrich.

On arriving at Saragossa, general Suchet immediately directed his attention to the completion of his warlike preparations at Monzon and of sending thither his besieging train. His troops, in the meanwhile, were resuming their march towards the centre, or towards some point of the circumference of Arragon. The 3rd division, under the orders of general Habert, moved from Saragossa to the Cinca which it had quitted a month before. General Laval, who was formerly stationed at Teruel with the 1st division, left general Chlopiski on the Xiloca and proceeded in person towards Saragossa with Montmarie's brigade. General Musnier, who commanded in Arragon during the march of the army to Valencia, had already a brigade of the 2nd division at Fraga under general Verges. He overtook his other brigade at Caspe and Alcaniz, where it was returning with general Paris from Teruel through the mountains ofMontalvan. He crossed the line of the Guadalupe at the latter end of March, threatened Tortosa and compelled all the troops to fall back which were covering the defense of that place. He was ordered after this feint movement, to re-ascend the lower Ebro as far as Mora and Flix, by taking possession of the boats and thereby securing the passage of the river, and to open, if possible, a communication with marshal Augereau's army..

The destruction of the bridge of Fraga had contributed to secure the town of Lerida from any immediate danger. Whilst that bridge was in existence, it had the advantage for us of being situated on the high road from Saragossa to Lerida, and of affording at all times a passage over the Cinca; it was therefore the most direct line of operations. With reference however to the siege of Lerida, it had the serious disadvantage of being too near Mequinenza where the Spaniards had a garrison of 1,500 men, which might easily be reinforced by troops from Valencia. In other respects moreover, the road through Alcubiere did not appear so liable to objection ; it was less exhausted of forage, and it led in a direct line to Monzon, where we established an hospital, ovens, magazines, and the besieging train which was to consist of forty pieces of cannon, each of them with a supply of seven hundred balls. A battalion of the Vistula took up a position at Gandasnos, with a view to protect this communication; and four squadrons of horse and foot gendarmes who were on their way from France, were immediately distributed, with some detachments of troops of the line, among'st our positions at Barbastro, Huesca, Ayerbe, Zuera, Pina, Bujaralos, and along the left bank of the Ebro. Whilst these preparations were in progress, general Habert engaged the attention of the enemy in front, by various movements between the Cinca and the Segre.

The commander-in-chief was aware that the Spanish brigadier-general Perena had stationed himself with four battalions at Balaguer, a position on the Segre, surrounded with old fortifications, and deriving great importance from its stone bridge; he resolved to take possession of it. General Habert approached the place on the 4th of April with a portion of his troops. Perena shewed at first an intention of opposing him, until he was informed that colonel Robert had crossed the Segre at Camarasa with the 117th regiment, when becoming apprehensive of an attack from both banks, he precipitately withdrew to Alcoletge, where he crossed the river by the bridge of Lerida and returned to take up a position at Corbins on the bank of the Noguera.

General Suchet finding that he could command a passage over the Segre, immediately accelerated his arrangements; and leaving general Laval in Arragon, transferred his head quarters to Monzon on the 10th of April, taking with him Verges' brigade and the 13th regiment of cuirassiers, six companies of artillery, one of pontoonmen, another of miners, and two companies of sappers. From Monzon he advanced on the 13th towards Lerida by the road of Almacellas, and established himself within view of the place. General Habert descended from Balaguer by the right bank of the Segre. The hussars led by lieutenant Monvel forded the Noguera under the enemy's fire. After a smart engagement, Perena retreated into the town, and general Habert took up a position on the heights of San-Rufo. On the same day, general Paris, who led the advanced guard of general Musnier, after having crossed the Ebro at Flix, made his appearance on the left bank of the Segre which he had reascended, and drove back all the enemy's troops that he found beyond the tète-de-pont. With the view of supporting his operations on that bank. General Harispe proceeded thither on the 14th, with three battalions and a portion of the 4th hussars. This regiment was greatly reduced in numbers, having left several detachments in Arragon; but the 13th cuirassiers formed an excellent reserve of cavalry. Although it had been newly raised, it had made such rapid strides under the skilful management of colonel d'Aigremont as to vie in experience with the oldest regiments; its appearance always inspired the French soldiers with confidence, and the Spaniards with a degree of terror which a most brilliant feat of arms soon proved to be well warranted.

The name of Lerida recalls to the mind a variety of recollections which the history of ancient and of modern wars has stamped with celebrity. Passing over the part which llerda acted during the campaigns of the Scipios, in the second Punic war, it is equally well known that, at the commencement of the civil war, Caesar besieged or rather kept in check, within the walls of this town, Afranius and Petreius, the two lieutenants of Pompey, who, notwithstanding they had five legions under their command, a number equal to his own forces, and had the advantage over him of being in possession of the town and of its bridge on the Segre, suffered themselves at last to be hemmed in while attempting to manoeuvre, and basely laid down their arms. In modern times, Lerida has held a place in the narrative of every campaign in Catalonia. In 1644, Don Felipe de Silva attacked the town, which was defended by 3,600 Frenchmen and 2,000 Catalonian peasants, and after a blockade of upwards of two months, drove it, rather by cutting off its supplies than by force of arms, to the necessity of capitulating. In 1646, the French, under the command of count d'Harcourt, attempted to starve Lerida into submission; but their lines were forced, and the town relieved after a protracted blockade. In 1647, the great Conde opened a trench against the north side of the castle; this isolated attack was delayed by the difficulties of the ground, and by the numerous sorties made by the garrison; and after a lapse of twenty days, the siege was raised, in consequence of the approach of the Spanish army with a determination to relieve the place.

During the war of the succession in 1707, the duke of Orleans finding himself master of Valencia and of Arragon, in consequence of the battle of Almanza, came to besiege Lerida, in spite of Lord Galloway's army, which was neither in sufficient strength nor adventurous enough to compel him to raise the siege. The investment took place on the 13th of September; the trenches were opened on the night of the 2nd of October, in front of the upper Segre, and an attack directed against the bastion of the Carmen, where the present enclosure came in contact with an old projecting wall, lined with towers, but without ditches, which wall is no longer in existence. The works were retarded by the rains and the frequent sorties ; on the 12th, however, at nightfall, every thing was in readiness to storm the breach and to form a lodgment in it. On the 14th, the French obtained possession of the town„ the plunder of which was directed by general orders and carried into effect, agreeably to certain regulations, during the space of eight hours, by two soldiers appointed from each company in the army. On the 16th, the castle was attacked from the country side. This second siege was longer and more difficult than the first, owing to the hardness and declivity of the ground. The artillery could scarcely open a breach; after twenty-five days' exertions, the wall being undermined in two places, and every thing in readiness, the assault was ordered for the night of the 10th of November, when the prince of Darmstadt, governor of the castle, finding it impossible to protract the defence any longer, beat a parley. The duke of Orleans caused fort Garden to be surrendered to him as well as the castle, and allowed the garrison to remove to Barcelona with all the honours of war. They had been reduced to 2,000 men. Thirty-three pieces of cannon, several mortars, 30,000 cannon balls, 10,000 pounds of gun-powder, and other ammunition, were found in the place.

Lerida is situated on the borders of the Segre, and on the main line of communication between Arragon and Catalonia, twenty-five leagues from Barcelona and as many from Saragossa; it has a stone bridge, and stands at a short distance from the Ebro and the Cinca; it exercises a powerful influence by its population, consisting of from 15 to 18,000 inhabitants, and by its position which commands a great extent of country. The town, properly so called, is built along the right bank of the Segre. The greater part is defended by the river itself; and a tète-de-pont had just been constructed on the left bank, consisting merely of a lunette surrounded with a ditch, and intrenched by a square building. The enclosure of the town on the land-side was formed by a wall without any ditch or covered-way, partly terraced and fortified with bastions, and partly flanked with towers. Its real strength, however, consists in the castle, which protects nearly the whole town, and commands it from the summit of a hill rising about seventy metres above the river. On the ridge of the hill stands a turret of great height, round which are grouped several large and well-constructed buildings. The fortification which surrounds the castle is an irregular square, measuring 250 metres in its external dimensions, flanked with strong bastions of twelve or fourteen metres in steepness. The western front alone is defended by a ditch ; every other part of the walls is unprotected; but their base is so elevated above the surrounding country that the besieger finds no favourable spot for placing his cannon and battering in breach. The south and east fronts, looking towards the Segre and the road to Balaguer, are built upon almost inaccessible declivities, The north front, which might be termed the relieving front, as it is the only one immediately connected with the country, is also very difficult of access, owing to its great elevation and the nature of its approaches, the ground being chiefly rocky. The west front alone presents a rather gentle slope, which might be approached by a regular attack; but the besiegers must first be in possession of the town, and of fort Garden, the rear of which would have a full view of the trenches. Garden is built on the top of a plateau, commanding the western extremity of the town, and standing at an elevation of 600 metres; Petreius and Afranius were encamped on this spot when Caesar laid siege to the place. The Spanish engineers having considered that this fort was too weak and too inconsiderable for securing to the garrison of Lerida the enjoyment of the gardens and pasture-grounds which line the river in that direction, as well as the possession of the plateau itself, had attempted to drive the besiegers to a greater distance. With this view, they had protected it by an extensive horn-work, which lined the declivity on its right, and was connected, on the left, with an old redoubt. Its ditches were dug in a very hard stony ground, and presented a perpendicular scarp and counterscarp, five or six metres high, which might be deemed proof against any open attack. They had also raised at the other extremity of the plateau two large redoubts, the one named del Pilar, the other San-Fernando, at a distance of upwards of 1,500 metres from the town, and 700 only from the new horn-work.

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