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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 6c

The duke of Tarentum was by no means disposed to remain for any length of time in this troublesome position, and with the brave troops that he commanded, he could cut his way in any direction that it was required to direct his operations. The government had instructed him to advance on Tarragona, in order to assist in the siege of Tortosa; but as he himself was not in a condition to besiege the first of these two places, he adopted the resolution of marching to Lerida, in order to communicate with the army of Arragon, and to concert measures with its commander. On the 25th of August, accordingly, he set out with his whole force, which was previously assembled. His advanced-guard took in the first instance the route of the Col de Balaguer, but afterwards changed the direction of its march for the defile of Ribas and Monblanch, where the French and the Italian infantry had a most brilliant affair; the army arrived before Lerida on the 29th of August. General Suchet was informed of this movement by the aid-de-camp of the marshal, and left Mora on the 23rd, passed through Mequinenza, and arrived at Lerida before the duke of Tarentum, in order to receive him at that city. The two generals had no difficulty in agreeing as to what was advisable, and what was practicable in the state of affairs. Before considering those more distant operations, contemplated by the government, it was absolutely necessary to occupy Tarragona and Tortosa, agreeably to the instructions of the prince of Neufchatel himself. Prudence, however, demanded that they should begin by the siege of Tortosa, and that they should mutually aid each other in that operation. General Suchet found himself quite capable of undertaking it with his own forces, provided he were supported, and Marshal Macdonald in a condition to protect the operations of the siege, if he were furnished with provisions, of which he stood much in want. It was arranged, therefore, that the former should hasten the arrival of his artillery before the fortress ; and that the latter should occupy Lerida, in order to collect the produce of the harvest and form magazines. General Suchet gave up to the marshal the amount of the requisitions for provisions agreed to by the communes of the plain of Seu d'Urgel, which is looked on as the granary of Catalonia. He did more ; be placed at his disposal 10,000 quintals of wheat, the stores of the 3rd division, which had been collected with great labour at Monzon and at Barbastro. By this distribution, which necessity demanded, he deprived himself of all the stores he might otherwise have procured from Mequinenza and the left bank, and limited his supplies to the remainder of Arragon. The environs of Tortosa offered nothing of the kind for his use ; the division of Laval bad consumed the whole crop of the left bank, after having got it cut down and thrashed out, and the left bank presented nothing but arid mountains and marshes. The army was in consequence compelled to draw its substance from Saragossa, Teruel, and a number of points in Arragon, at a distance from Tortosa of more than sixty leagues. The difficulty of getting transports very much enhanced the difficulty of provisioning the troops, for at Mequinenza there were but a very small number of barks, which had been collected for the use of the artillery. This service, which was become one of the highest importance, was attended with numerous difficulties, arising out of the season of the year and. circumstances which were well calculated to render the general uneasy.

The waters of the Ebro are generally low during the summer, and the enormous cargoes that we had to transport to Tortosa, might, it was foreseen, be detained for a long time on the voyage, or in the port where they then lay. Moreover, the march and the stay of the army of Catalonia, in the neighbourhood of Lerida, as they again left the Spanish army at liberty to manoeuvre between Tarragona, Monblanch, and Tortosa, made the navigation of the river extremely perilous. Previous to his quitting marshal Macdonald, who departed early in September, first for Agramont, and then for Cervera, general Suchet took advantage of a moment of security and of a rise of the stream, to despatch the first convoy of artillery from Mequinenza, under the protection of a Neapolitan division of 2,500 men whom the marshal placed for the time under his orders. This corps was composed of a set of fine fellows, but they were badly armed, worse clothed, and had been spoiled, in consequence of incorporating with them most imprudently, a mixture of vagabonds and of persons who had been condemned, or who had been punished as criminals. The discipline of the division felt the effect of this, and the example which was displayed of pillage and of desertion at times, was most fatal, although the valour of the great mass of the men, and the excellent conduct of the officers, frequently redeemed all their faults. The marshal proposed to the general to dove-tail, as it were, this division, which was commanded by prince Pignatelli, into the main body of his army, and to endeavour to derive some advantage from them, by giving them a stationary position, which is more calculated for supervision, and for the maintenance of order, than marching and countermarching are. The division sometimes, displayed the good effect of the pains employed in its behalf, but without entirely losing those vices which were inherent in its constitution. By marching from Lerida down the banks of the Ebro, by way of Llardican, they ensured the safe passage of a convoy of twenty-six breaching cannons of large calibre, which arrived by water at Mora, and were transported thence to Xerta, on the 5th September and there parked. The Neapolitan division was afterwards established at Garcia. On the 3rd the commander-in-chief retired to his head quarters at Mora. General Habert once more took up his old station at Tivisa, and Mas de Mora continued to be occupied by the reserve. As soon as the army of Catalonia had retired from Reuss, the Spaniards again established themselves in force at Falset.

General Laval who had been ill for nearly twenty days, died on the 16th September ; he was deeply regretted by the army and left behind him a reputation of courage, and probity, which did honour to his memory. His division, during his absence had been confided to the brave general Harispe, an experienced campaigner, who knew well, not only how to lead his men, but, by the force of his authority and of his example, to make them follow him. The commander-in-chief was of opinion that he could not commit into more steady hands the command of Laval's division and the charge of the blockade of Tortosa; he accordingly requested, and obtained for that officer the rank of general of division, which he well merited by his services and his wounds. General Harispe was replaced in the duties of chief of the army-staff, by the adjutant commandant St. Cyr Nugues, who had filled the office of sub-chief, from the month of May, 1809. He had been formerly an aid-de-camp, the friend and companion in arms of the commander-in-chief, who entertained a real affection for him, and entirely confided in him. Rights so acquired to confidence and esteem, are perhaps with a general, who has charge of an army, the chief merit of the person whom he selects to be his second, before whom, and with whom, be meditates his plans and prepares his operations, and on whom he reposes for ordering their execution when he has matured them for that purpose by counsel and meditation.

As the Valencians whose army had not been .subdued, were continually watching an opportunity for advancing to disturb the blockade, count Suchet determined to leave a portion of the brigade of Montmarie, in conjunction with the troops commanded by general Boussard at Ulldecona, and placed this army of observation under the command of the general of division, Musnier, whose place at Saragossa he directed to be occupied by general Paris; general Verges came to Mas de Mora. Colonel Kliski, with whose activity the commander-in-chief was well acquainted, received the command of the detached corps that covered the right bank of the Ebro, alternately at Teruel, Montalvan, Daroca and Calatayud, to defend that portion of Arragon from the incursions of Villacampa. That indefatigable partizan was watching, on the frontiers of Castille, for an opportunity of disturbing the operations of the army of Arragon. He kept up a constant correspondence in Saragossa, which compelled the commander-in-chief to take measures of precaution, and occasionally to employ both severity and menaces. He obstructed wherever his influence extended, the supply of provisions to the French, and especially the requisitions of cattle necessary for the subsistence of the troops assembled on the banks of the Ebro. On the 7th of August at Las Cuevas, colonel Plicque, who was bringing 6,000 sheep with a detachment of the 114th regiment and of the 14th hussars, was surrounded and attacked by nearly four thousand men. He maintained an obstinate fight, in which he lost three officers and a number of soldiers, and only got back to Alcaniz by leaving his convoy behind him. The following evening captain Cantiloube, a brave officer, who commanded a detachment that was conducting some cattle, was surrounded and taken at Andorra, on the side of Montalvan. About the same time the Guerillas of Navarre, under the direction of general Reilly, who had just assumed the command in that quarter, penetrated into Cinco Villas, where they surprised and killed the war-commissary, Gondoin, who with a detachment of gendarmes, was occupied in collecting provisions. These several losses affected us very sensibly. The army of Arragon, which had been master of a fertile province, above all things in wheat and wine, had yielded to an auxiliary corps the whole of its magazines. It could neither send out to seek for provisions, nor bring them safely in when obtained; it was, in consequence, in imminent hazard of wanting food altogether, was reduced to drink water for want of boats to bring wine, and had, in fact, nothing on which it could safely reckon but its rations of bread, which were procured with great difficulty, and by efforts that were constantly to be repeated Chief commissary Bondurand, who had, for a long time, been attached to Suchet's division in the grand army, at length arrived, and took charge of the administration of the 3rd corps. His probity and intelligence were known to the commander-in-chief, who bad requested his services as head commissary, and who had afterwards the highest reason to congratulate himself on having obtained them. By thus surrounding himself with men who merited his confidence, and whose only aim was to justify his good opinion, he obtained advantages which his position, very frequently, did not entitle him to expect. The privations endured by the army were rare, and Dever arose out of imprudence or disorder, and when they were inevitable, the devotedness of the men, rendered them light, from the courage and patience with which they were borne.

General Suchet had soon an opportunity which he eagerly seized of repairing the injury inflicted by Villcampa, in carrying off his sheep. That partizan, in the month of September, advanced towards Montalvan with his troops, which were greatly augmented by recruits and armed peasants, and threatened to disturb the tranquillity of a part of Arragon. In the hope of getting up with, and defeating him, general Habert was detached front the camp before Mora, with the 5th regiment of light infantry.

By a rapid movement, he rallied round him the troops which colonel Plicque had at Alcanhiz, and those of Kliski at Muniessa, and marching straight upon Villacampa, the latter was compelled to disperse, and to re-cross the frontiers of Cuenca and Valencia. A general search that took place, in consequence of this event, gave us back the sheep we had lost, and furnished the army with the provisions they so much required.

The only thing that especially pressed on the attention of the commander-in-chief after this success, was, the transport of the artillery that had been used in the siege of Mequinenza, and that was now to be employed in that of Tortosa. At the former place every thing was ready : guns, ammunition, gabions, fascines, and every other requisite. An attempt was made to float another convoy of artillery, but the water was so low that it was found impossible, and the commander-in-chief determined to begin the transport of the guns by land. The new road, though exceedingly well made, traversed rugged hills and a desert uninhabited country, which presented no resources for the purpose ; a single convoy by water would have brought down more in three days than 15 or 1800 horses could in a month. But perseverance consists in always advancing towards its object speedily if possible, but if not at least steadily though slowly. Several convoys of guns were brought by land; some of the Valencians and Catalonians attacked one that was passing through the defile of Las Armas on the 29th; but captain Claudot of the l7th regiment, who commanded in that quarter, defended it with as much intelligence as courage, and nothing was lost..

During the months of September and October the army of Catalonia continued to occupy the plain of Urgel to considerable purpose, but notwithstanding a large quantity of grain it afforded them, they were not yet in a condition to approach the army of Arragon and to co-operate with it, and our corps in consequence found themselves shut up in the lower Ebro without the power of effecting any thing. The only chance of the commander was in a rise of the waters and in the assistance that circumstances might render him : his expectations were deceived. On the 28th of October marshal Macdonald wrote to him: " The governor of Barcelona has announced to me the approaching departure of a convoy from Perpignan between the 2nd and the 4th of November, and he presses me in the name of general d'Hilliers to favour its advance. Were this convoy taken or dispersed, Barcelona might be lost, and there can be no doubt that the enemy will try every means of intercepting it. My presence alone can ensure its safety, and you are well aware that even were the chances equal, we could not expose ourselves to this hazard which if it happened to be against us would be without remedy." The preservation of Barcelona was an object before which all others must of necessity yield. The passage of a convoy by Figueras, Gerona, and Hostalrich, might have appeared to be sufficiently assured by the body of troops which the duke of Tarentum bad left in upper Catalonia, but that corps had recently met with a check at Abisbal, which rendered it a matter of prudence not to leave it unsupported by the efforts of O'Donnell's army on so important an occasion. O'Dorinell had by a bold coup-de main just succeeded in cutting off general Schwartz and the men he commanded on the sea coast between Palamos and the mouth of the Ter; in the action he had received a severe wound which incapacitated him from acting, but not from commanding, and the vigour and activity of his men seemed rather increased than diminished by the accident. General Suchet who, with a view to soften the rigours of war, never allowed an opportunity to escape him of establishing honourable connexions with the generals of the enemy, sent a messenger to request the exchange of a wounded officer who had been taken prisoner, young Detchatz, lieu tenant of the 5th light infantry, and at the same time to make an offer to general O'Donnell of a surgeon. The Spanish commander did not accept it; but he expressed extreme gratitude on account of it, and sent back the officer on his parole.
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