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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 4b


These fortifications were all in good condition, and contained a garrison and an artillery fully adequate to prolong the defence, which was confided to the major-general Garcia Conde, a young and active officer, who indulged the hope of making the siege of Lerida last as long as that of Gerona, where he distinguished himself by introducing a convoy of provisions into the place. Independently of the regular troops, the town contained a population excited to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and a great number of the neighbouring peasantry, who, animated with the same sentiments, had hastened to bring arms and provisions into the place. It occurred to general Suchet, that during a popular war, such means of defence might turn to the advantage of the besiegers, if he could succeed in creating in the minds of the besieged an impression calculated to accelerate the surrender of the town.

Previously to quitting Mora, general Musnier could only come in contact for a few moments with the corps of marshal Augereau, which held temporary possession of Valls and Reuss towards the close of the month of March. The enemy having broken up their encampment under Tarragona, and carried off a French battalion at Villafranca, on the 3rd of April, marshal Augereau felt apprehensive lest they should relieve Hostalrich which was on the point of surrendering for want of provisions; he attempted to approach Barcelona, and gave up all idea of forming a junction with the army of Arragon. Spanish armed bands immediately afterwards made their appearance along the lower Ebro, a circumstance which confirmed us in the opinion that the 7th corps had retired, at the very moment when the 3rd corps was effecting the investment of Lerida. Thus it was, that general Suchet, instead of receiving any support in his expedition, was compelled to rely exclusively upon his own forces. This unforeseen position made him determine not to accelerate the opening of the trench, nor the arrival of the besieging train stationed at Monzon, but to keep his troops in reserve for a short time longer. He more particularly bestowed his attention to the object of forming a passage across the Segre, above Lerida, and within a league of that town. He directed, at the same time, some engineer officers to reconnoitre the approaches, and ordered all the preliminary works in the camp, such as gabions, fascines, &c. to be immediately begun. Of the twenty-two battalions of the 3rd corps which were collected on the frontiers of Catalonia, two were left at Monzon, and another was doing duty at Balaguer. The remaining nineteen were stationed as follows: on the right, general Verges, with three battalions of the 121st regiment covered the roads leading to Mariola and Varcalas ; and as the extensive plateau of Garden had a distant command of the road to Fraga, a battalion of the 114th regiment was placed on the Sierra de Canelin, and erected at this place an intrenchment, with two pieces of cannon. General Buget with two more battalions of the 114th of the line, and one battalion of the 3rd regiment of the Vistula, was stationed on the road to Monzon.

Towards the left and somewhat in the rear, was the engineer corps, at the windmill of Gualda, facing the village of Villanueva del Picat, the general-in-chief's head quarters. Still further to the left, towards the heights of San-Rufo, the two battalions of the 5th light regiment, and two more belonging to the 116th of the line, under the orders of general Habert, intercepted the road leading to Balaguer and Corbins.. On the left bank, three battalions of the 117th regiment, belonging to Habert's division, but on a detached service with general Harispe, surrounded the tete-de-pont. The general of division, Musnier, was at Alcoletge, in the rear of general Harispe, as well as generals Paris and Boussard, with the 115th of the line, the 1st regiment of the Vistula, and the cavalry; these troops formed the corps of observation.

It thus appears that the investment of the town was not complete above the bridge. The commanding position of Garden, over both banks, compelled the besiegers to keep at a distance from the river; it would have been impossible to cover the whole interval without giving a considerable extension to our line of troops. General Suchet confined himself to the object of causing the low grounds which adjoin that part of the Segre, to be constantly watched, night and day. The space occupied by the reserve was determined by the nature of the country at Alcoletge towards those points, which are either open grounds, or cover the roads leading to Barcelona and Tarragona. Independently of this circumstance, generals Harispe and Musnier, from the position which they occupied, not only protected our passage across the Segre between the fields along the banks, but also had every facility for retreating towards the bridge of Balaguer, which presented a safe passage in the event of the overflowing of the river, an accident which the season of the year and past experience naturally led us to apprehend.

The investment was scarcely completed, when a Spanish superior officer was taken prisoner by the advanced posts of the left bank. His object appeared to be to obtain admission into the place, and he represented himself as the bearer of a proposal for an exchange of prisoners, which enabled him to come over to us in the character of a flag of truce. Some suspicion seemed to attach to his errand; the commander-in-chief was not therefore in a hurry to send him back, being impressed with the idea, that he might have it in view to make some communication to the garrison. A rumour was gaining ground that general Henry O'Donnell was assembling forces at Monblanch; Campoverde had approached Cervera with a division of troops; and armed peasants had made their appearance on the upper Segre. General Musnier was ordered to proceed with the reserve to Balaguer on the 19th of April. The garrison, fancying that the moment was favourable, made a sortie in considerable numbers, and attacked general Harispe, who vigorously drove them back into the place.

The commander-in-chief had also proceeded on the same day towards Balaguer, which he was desirous of reconnoitring, as he deemed its position to be of the highest importance to him. On his arrival, he directed a few works to be constructed for the protection of the bridge, and ordered the castle to be placed in a state of defence; he also ordered some artillery to be planted on the ramparts, and the bridge of Camarasa, at the distance of a league from the town, to be destroyed. From thence he advanced on the 21st as far as Tarrega, for the purpose of reconnoitring and procuring intelligence respecting the army of marshal Augereau, and O'Donnells manoeuvres. We had great difficulty in employing spies in a country so new to us, in which every inhabitant was our enemy. We were every where hated and every where deceived, unless- when pride or the confidence of success in the enemy led them involuntarily to betray their intentions. In general, however, all promises or threats were equally unsuccessful in eliciting any secret that one might turn to advantage. The French general was indebted to mere chance for the knowledge which he acquired of O'Donnell's march.

He was secretly informed of that officer's having quitted Tarragona, at the head of two divisions, and proceeded in the direction of Monblanch. If general O'Donnell should be joined by Campoverde's division, this manoeuvre on his part would place him in a condition to obstruct, and even to prevent the siege. General Suchet doubted the truth of the report, as he could not persuade himself that the 7th corps had completely retired ; nevertheless, it behoved him not to overlook such important intelligence. He hastened to bring his column back to the camp by forced marches; and on the evening of the 22nd, he placed general Musnier at Alcoletge, together with the cavalry of general Boussard, as a corps of reserve.

The Spanish general had actually encamped at Vinaxa on the 22nd, with the divisions of generals Yvarola and Pirez, amounting in all to about 8,000 infantry, and 600 cavalry, being the choicest troops of his whole army. He received there a note from the governor of Lerida, announcing that part of the French infantry, and nearly the whole of their cavalry, had made a movement, and quitted their encampment before the place. Deceived by this information, which was no longer correct at the moment of his receiving it, O'Donnell accelerated his march at an early hour on the 23rd. He halted at Juneda at ten o'clock, started again at noon at the head of his 1st division, and of his cavalry, and proceeded in the direction of Lerida, through the plain of Margalef, in the utmost security, not suspecting that his flanks were threatened in an open country where he could not discover the slightest trace of an enemy. Nevertheless, he formed his troops into three columns; the first consisting of light infantry, advanced by the high road; the other two on the right and left, but somewhat in the rear of the first, and preceded by sharp-shooters. The light infantry, on approaching the place, met our advanced posts, which fell back. On the first report of musketry, general Harispe mounted his horse, placed himself at the head of the 4th hussars, and followed by some companies of skirmishers belonging to the 115th and 117th regiments' proceeded to meet the enemy, when he discovered that their advanced guard alone had come up. It sometimes happens in war, that decisive moments are not slow in presenting themselves; a bold charge of hussars on that head of column, did not allow it time to form or to recover from its surprise. Being suddenly compelled to stop, and to fall back, it lost one half of its men, who were cut down or taken prisoners; and the relieving army no sooner arrived in sight of the place, than it found itself separated from it. The garrison was, at the same instant, endeavouring to debouch from the tete-de-pont, under cover of a general discharge of artillery from the castle, as well as from the town, and encouraged by the acclamations and other joyful demonstrations of the inhabitants, who were eye witnesses of an engagement in the result of which they were so deeply interested. Colonel Robert who was prepared to oppose the sortie, kept the enemy in check with the 117th regiment, and when he perceived that the garrison was dispirited by general Harispe's success, he instantly charged, and compelled it to re-enter the place.

In the meanwhile, general Musnier had marched from his position at Alcoletge, and having discovered the object of the enemy's movement, instantly adopted the wisest course he could resort to in the existing emergency. Instead of proceeding to join general Harispe, he took the direct road through which O'Donnell was approaching. His infantry accelerated its march in order to keep up with the cuirassiers, who were advancing in all haste under the orders of general Boussard, and without meeting with any obstacle to impede their progress. O'Donnell was at a short distance in one of the houses of Margalef, an old village, or rather the ruins of one, which had been destroyed in former wars. He ordered the 2nd division to halt, which was but just leaving Juneda, and the first to fall back. The light infantry, of which general Navarre's brigade consisted, had already lost its battalion of advanced guard, in consequence of general Harispe's charge ;; had barely sufficient time, on its return, to form in column near Dupuig's brigade, which was ranged in order of battle on the high road, having the artillery on its right, and the cavalry on its left. The 13th regiment of cuirassiers deployed in presence of that line, and under its fire $ our artillery hastened to draw up, and briskly returned the enemy's fire. The Spanish cavalry made a demonstration of moving forward ; but the cuirassiers did not allow them time to try that movement; they rapidly closed with and defeated them. The Spanish cavalry fell back in disorder on the light infantry, and on the line of battle, which was beginning to waver. The cuirassiers did not slacken their charge; the Walloon guards in vain attempted to form into a square : the whole Spanish infantry being taken in flank, in consequence of our following up the charge, were surrounded, and, after a fruitless resistance, laid down their arms. Our cuirassiers met, at the further extremity of the field of battle, a Swiss battalion just arrived, and forming the advanced guard of the division of general Pirez, and made it share the fate of the eight battalions of the 1st division. General O'Donnell was hurried along by the fugitives, who only rallied on coming up to the 2nd division ; he there restored order amongst his troops, and hastened his retreat. Notwithstanding the sharp pursuit directed by the commander-in-chief, and carried by the chef-d'escadron, Saint- George, as far as Borjas -Blancas, General O' Donnell retreated in good order, and reached before night-fall some positions on the road to Monblanch , where he found shelter from the enemy..

The action fought at Margalef was, like all cavalry engagements, as sudden as it was quickly decided; the credit of it was chiefly due to the 13th regiment of cuirassiers, which happening to occupy a favourable position, resolutely took advantage of it. Our wounded exceeded the number of our slain, and we had only to deplore the loss of one officer, young d'Houdetot, a lieutenant of cuirassiers. He had received two bayonet wounds, which were not at first considered desperate; but as we were re-crossing theSegre on the following day, the commander-in-chief, who was in conversation with him in the boat and entertained sanguine hopes of his recovery, from the calmness and confidence which he displayed in the midst of his sufferings, had the mortification of witnessing the dying moments of this interesting and highly promising young officer, who, at the age of eighteen, had already won the cross of the legion of honour on the field of battle. The Spaniards lost three pieces of cannon, a pair of colours, three standards, a great number of muskets, and, independently of their slain, 5,6l7 prisoners, including general Dupuig, eight colonels, and 271 officers. They were sent over to the right bank of the Segre , on the 24th of April, in the open day, and brought within sight of the place, on their way to the headquarters of Villanueva del Picat. They were then passed in review in the presence of the Spanish officer who had been detained as the bearer of a suspicious flag of truce, although he was treated with becoming consideration he was immediately afterwards restored to liberty, and dismissed by the road to Cervera..

On the night after the action, general Suchet, who still adhered to his first idea of making an impression upon the minds of the garrison, and was fully persuaded that the armed population, being more ardently excited than the regular troops, would also be sooner discouraged, ventured upon a double attack which was not attended with the success he anticipated. He first sent orders for general Verges to advance against the redoubts of San-Fernando and del Pilar, which greatly obstructed our investing the place, to make a sudden attack, and take possession of them. At midnight, a battalion of the 114th regiment boldly came up to the redoubt del Pilar, and established itself in it, the enemy, who was taken by surprise having abandoned their post, after a very trifling resistance. A battalion of the 121st regiment found greater difficulty in penetrating into the redoubt of San-Fernando; it was larger, and in a better condition than the other, and was defended by fifty resolute men, who had just been put upon their guard by the attack of the 114th regiment. On finding the gate shut, our soldiers instantly rushed into the ditch; but they were unprovided with hatchets and ladders, and must have suffered a severe loss in that position, if the ditches had been better flanked, or if the Spaniards had not been in want of grenades. Owing to the impossibility of coming to close quarters, or of injuring each other, a kind of armistice ensued, during which a parley took place. The Spaniards, apprehensive that a last effort of our gallant troop might be fatal to them, offered, on their word of honour, not to fire, if it would consent to withdraw. This proposal was accepted, and our men returned before day-light to the camp. The redoubt del Pilar, which could not have withstood the commanding fire of the redoubt of San-Fernando, was also evacuated; a twelve-pounder, which was found there, and which it was impossible to remove, was hurled down the declivity. The Spaniards resumed possession of the redoubt on the following day. About the same time, the commander-in-chief addressed a letter to the governor of Lerida, and in order to add some positive fact to the commonplace language of every summons, which is a mere expression of a desire to avoid any useless effusion of blood, he proposed that the governor should send one or more commissioners to the field of battle of Margalef, and to the headquarters, in order that he might satisfy himself as to the number of killed, wounded, and prisoners. The reply was truly laconic, and faithfully pourtrays the character of a nation which cannot be denied the possession of dignified and elevated sentiments. It was, word for word, as follows:

Lerida, 24th April, 1810. General, this town has never reckoned upon the assistance of any army. I beg to assure you of my distinguished consideration.
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