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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 6a
Our march on the lower Ebro.—General view of Catalonia.The 3rd corps receives orders to besiege Tortosa.—Opening of a road from Mequinenza to that city.—Supplies drawn from Arragon.—Military organization of the province during the siege.— Head quarters established at Mora .—Investment of the tete-de-pont at Tortosa.—Sorties of the garrison. Movements of the Spaniards against the forces of the besiegers.—The French army of Catalonia approaches the 3rd corps.—Junction of the duke of Tarenturn with general Suchet at Lerida.—First convoy by the Ebro.—Death of general Laval.—Partial actions.—The army of Catalonia returns to Barcelona.

ABOUT this period of the war in Spain, namely, in the summer of 1810, the grand French army took possession of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajos, and penetrating into Portugal under the orders of marshal Massena, advanced against the lines of Torres Vedras. The provinces of the north and of the centre were occupied; the army of the interior held Andalusia from Grenada to the walls of Cadiz. The Spanish regency, which was shut up in this last asylum, not only defended them selves there with the greatest obstinacy but cherished most carefully, through the medium of Carthagena and Alicante, the spirited resistance the provinces in the east.

No province in the Peninsula, in a military point of view, is so well organized as Catalonia. The number of strong places it contains is very great,-Roses, Figueras, Gerona, Hostalrich, Seu d' Urgel, Cardona, Lerida, Tortosa, Tarragona, and in the centre, Barcelona, the capital, whose dimensions and strength not undeservedly allow it to rank among the first fortified towns in Europe. This vast province presents such numerous obstacles both natural and artificial, that a French army entering by Perpignan, unless it were numerous and abundantly provided, can never make any efficient progress in it, either in the interior, or even on the coast by the grand route, unless it be supported by a fleet, or by another French corps d'armee operating on the lower Ebro. The 7th corps which was commanded in the first instance by general Gouvion St. Cyr, and afterwards by marshal Augereau, and which, at the period of which we are treating, had been confided to marshal Macdonald, had little or no communication with our other forces in the Peninsula. Its position in a mountainous tract and in the midst of fortresses which it was impossible to take, or to keep when taken, but by the assistance of magazines, compelled them to remain perpetually in sight of France, for the purpose of drawing supplies from it. The sea meanwhile was shut against them, and land convoys, which are ever so slow, so difficult, and so insufficient, were necessarily to be resorted to for the provisioning of Barcelona alone. Until that task was completed, the military operations of the 7th corps were limited to a very narrow circle, which was every day more and more contracted by the attacks of the enemy. Whilst the junta of the Manresa continued propagating insurrections throughout the whole of the province, the Spanish army, commanded by Henry O'Donnell, manoeuvred with the utmost facility at every point where it could hamper or interrupt our movements. O'Donnell was advantageously posted at Tarragona, an ancient city where new defences had been raised and old ones strengthened at a very great expence, and whose maritime position gave it additional importance in a war which the English, by their cooperation, cherished and maintained. Round Tarragona and at a short distance from it, are several wealthy and industrious towns, such as Valls and Reuss; the country, generally, is extremely fertile, well cultivated, and thickly inhabited, and the whole of its produce was deposited in safety, and as a resource in case of necessity in that city. Having his troops concentrated in this spot, as in an intrenched camp, with a formidable redoubt to protect it, O'Donnell could push forward his squadrons in any direction, as circumstances required, towards Tortosa by the Col de Balaguer; towards Lerida, by Monblanch by Villafranca and Montserrat, by Cardona, or Sen. d'Urgel; in a word, by the centre or the extremities of the provinces, as he saw fit. If at any time the 7th corps succeeded in penetrating to the environs of Tarragona it was only when combined and in force ; such approaches were merely temporary, and the army in making them, carried along with it neither the means nor had they any intention of undertaking a siege. O'Donnell in these cases, immediately divided his forces and made his escape from our troops by retreating in various directions, and in a short time the want of provisions compelled the French to withdraw once more to the neighbourhood of Barcelona. The Spaniards, in that case, were again left free to operate as they pleased; to seize or to avail themselves of opportunities for attacking us where we happened to be weakly defended or on disadvantageous ground; all which occasions they regularly employed whenever they occurred, and. though our men, when they could grapple with the enemy, maintained their wonted superiority in the fair field of battle, yet, in the long run, this painful, tedious, and petty warfare, accompanied with so many privations, was frequently attended with unfavourable and mortifying results.

On the 13th May, the same day on which Lerida was assaulted, Hostalrich fell into the hands of the army of Catalonia. The coincidence of dates and the distance between the two places prove that marshal Augereau, so far from being able to carry on the siege of Lerida, had not the means of co-operating in it, although in reality it was the business not less of the 7th than of the 3rd corps. Lerida was the point d'appui of Mequinenza; it is a strong and commanding position which, although lying without the confines of Arragon, forms as it were a headland in that portion of the Arragonese frontier, and by its influence may easily disturb a country that has already submitted or is ready to do so. When general Suchet became master of it he saw himself fully secured in the occupation of the province of which he was governor, and in a condition to afford assistance to the provinces in his neighbourhood. The government, however, did not, as was the case in February, leave him for any length of time in doubt or ignorance of its intentions On the 29th May the head of the imperial staff wrote to him in the following terms: " The emperor supposes that you are now master of Mequinenza; in that case you will take immediate measures for getting possession of Tortosa also.

The marshal duke of Tarentum will at the same time direct his forces on Tarragona. Take care in the meanwhile to collect all your artillery and to adopt every measure necessary for marching on Valencia and for storming that city ; we must, however, in order to undertake that operation have Tortosa and Tarragona in our power."

When this mandate reached general Suchet, he was already master not only of Mequinenza but of Morella, and consequently in a condition to act as he was directed. His only fear, and that was strengthened by his recent experience at Margalef, was, that he should not be supported in so nice an operation as the siege of Tortosa ; the objection was removed by a promise of assistance on the part of the army of Catalonia. The sole object then contemplated by the general was to hasten the execution of his orders, well persuaded that the capture of Tortosa was the first and most important -result at which he could aim. This city, by its situation close to the grand route and to the mouth of the Ebro, served not only as a point d'appui. but as a connecting link with the Spanish forces of Valencia and Catalonia. To isolate these forces was to weaken them; and in consequence they combined most perseveringly in their efforts to prevent the fall of Tortosa; as they were favoured by circumstances they succeeded in doing so or at least, for a long time in retarding that event.

As we have already stated, the fertile plains of Urgel, which were subject to the influence of Lerida, offered a resource against the wants of the 3rd corps; and one of the first cares of the Commander- in -chief had been to levy requisitions there on the coming crop, and thus to ensure a considerable store of provisions for the operations to which he was destined. At the same time, general Vallee was instructed to prepare a battering train, which was accordingly formed of a selection of our own artillery, and of that which had been taken from the Spaniards, and when assembled, it amounted to more than fifty pieces of cannon of different calibres. Mequinenza was the principal entrepot for our ammunition and provisions. Between that town and Tortosa there exists a communication by the Ebro, but the course of that river is interrupted in numerous points by bars, and these it is very often impossible to pass over, unless when the river is accidently swollen by rains, or by the melting of the snows. The communications by land are, yet more difficult in a country where the hills are so numerous and become more and more precipitous, in proportion as you advance from Caspe or Mequinenza towards Favares, Batea, Gandessa and Mora, and thence towards Pinel Las Armas, Xerta and Tortosa. A road by which the operations of an army could be conducted, had in consequence almost to be created; although there existed some traces, or rather recollections, of that which had been formed, it was said by the duke of Orleans in the war of the succession.

On the 21 st June, general Paris, with a brigade of infantry, was sent forward in that direction to occupy the principal points, and the villages, to disperse the parties that infested the country, and at the same time to repulse the troops of the line, who still kept the field in the neighbourhood of Tortosa. General Rogniat despatched some officers of engineers and sappers after this brigade with implements to trace and open a road: the infantry furnished daily from 1,000 to 1,200 men as labourers for that purpose.

The soldiers who had been accustomed to this sort of work, entered on it with great zeal, quiting from time to time the pick-axe for the in musket, chasing the enemy and routing them, and then returning cheerfully to their task. It was both a long and tedious operation, to reestablish a road for great guns, which had been abandoned for nearly 100 years, and that for a length of nearly twenty leagues across precipitous mountains and deep vallies, and in some places entirely destroyed by land slips or torrents from the mountains. The burning heat of summer, added to the fatigue of the men ; they suffered severely from thirst, and what was in no degree less tormenting, although those who do not know warm climates by actual experience may not easily comprehend it, from the frightful clouds of gnats which were generated in swarms by the stagnation of the air and of the water in certain spots, and which pounced on the men, settled on various parts of the body especially on their faces, and prevented them, in a great degree, from acting, from seeing, or almost from breathing. Every precaution that human prudence could suggest was adopted in order to avoid these inconveniences, and in addition wine and vinegar were served out to the soldiers, and their day's labour was paid in the same manner as if they had been working in the trenches, so that over and above their rations, and their ordinary pay, they had wherewith to procure, so far as money could, whatever might be useful or agreeable to themselves in such a case.

Arragon was now the field for general Suchet's army. The civil authorities of this province had been instructed beforehand to make provision for facilitating the distant operations that were in contemplation; their physical resources, however, would have been insufficient, had they not been backed by the good-will of the people, which it was found necessary to conciliate. Brute force is, indeed, limited in its application, and is of little avail ; and therefore, whenever it is practicable, persuasion ought to be, made to take its place. The species of anarchy, partly military, partly civil, which harassed Catalonia and Valencia, joined to a pretty marked spirit of rivalry that exists in Spain between the different provinces, rendered the Arragonese, by degrees, more and more inclined to submit to, and even to confide in general Suchet. In order to bring about this most desirable end, he designedly moderated the use of his authority, by committing it to the hands of Spaniards, men whom he knew to be most capable of exercising it with intelligence, and with equity. He supported and encouraged their zeal, by his friendship, and noticed their useful services both at Madrid and at Paris. Under these circumstances, he was able to reckon when he removed to a distance from Arragon, upon all the resources which he had been careful to husband there. He succeeded not only in forming magazines, but what was far more difficult, in organizing means of transport. Alcaniz and Caspe, as well as Mequinenza, became the stations for most important depots, whence wheat, flour, oats, and biscuit, were regularly conveyed to the troops by convoys of mules, with Spanish conductors, or by the bat horses attached to the army. Saragossa, and all the rest of Arragon, poured in upon those points the provisions necessary for the supply of our men.

The commander-in-chief confided the care of the province to general Musnier, with whom he left general Buget, who was stationed at Huesca, in order to watch the left bank of the Ebro, with twelve squadrons of foot gendarmes, and a couple of battalions of infantry. General Verges was posted at Daroca with four battalions, and 100 horse, and covered the, right bank, as well as occupied Teruel and Calatayud. In addition to the forces that were left at Saragossa, as well as the garrisons of Lerida, Mequinenza, Jaca, Monzon, and Venasque, a connected series of fortified posts, or of strong barracks, had been established along all the principal roads, which served at the same time as lines of operation, and of communication. The object of these stations was to ensure the safety of troops that had charge of the passage of couriers, and to protect the posts of isolated and detached parties, as well as to see to the furnishing of provisions, the collection of contributions.. and the due obedience of the Corregidors and alcaldes, who were intrusted with the execution of the general's orders. This system was pursued in every possible direction ; on the right bank of the river at Alagon, Mallen, Tudela, Boya, Taracona Epila, Almunia, Maria, Villa de Muel, Carineria, Fuentes, Zeila Sanper, Alcaniz; and on the left bank, at Pina, Bujaralos, Candasnos, Fraga, Zuera, Ayerbe, Anzanigo, Canfranc, and several of the Cinco Villas. The officers commanding these fortified points, together with a garrison, and a supply of ammunition and provisions proportionate to their wants, had instructions to be most vigilantly watchful in every case, to defend themselves to the last extremity against any party that might attack them, and to keep up a frequent communication with the posts in their neighbourhood, and with Saragossa, in order that they might be able to give every information of any movements, or reported movements, that might come to their knowledge.. The whole of this army of stations, which we were compelled to leave in our rear, did not amount to much less than 12000 men, of every description, scattered to a certain degree over the country ; but all of them occupying essential Points, and supported by sufficient reserves, to act promptly and combinedly, should circumstances render it necessary.
These dispositions being made, general Suchet proceeded first to Alcamiz and then to Caspe, in order to direct the movement upon Tortosa with such a portion of his acting forces as he had destined for the siege of that place. In the commencement of July, general Habert assembled the 3rd division at Belpuig in the plain of Urgel, and after a demonstration, the object of which was to induce a belief that he was about to take the direction of Barcelona, he suddenly turned off to the right, directing his march to the banks of the Ebro by Garriga, and arrived on the 5th at Garcia, without being for a moment disturbed or even followed in his movements. He had under his command eight battalions and a part of the 4th hussars, and received orders to hold himself in readiness to proceed to Tivenis and Tortosa by the left bank of the Ebro, and in the mean while to keep his men together and in a proper state to meet the enemy should any make their appearance.
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