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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 8a
Description of Tortosa. – Investment of the fortress. – Opening of the trenches. – Operations of the breaches. – Occupation of the tete-de-pont. – Descent of the ditch. – The fortress offers to capitulate. – The firing re-commences. – General Suchet enters the town, and compels the governor to capitulate.

THE fortress of Tortosa is washed by the Ebro and its rear rests on a chain of hills that rise behind it. It is defended by an outer wall furnished with bastions, part of which takes in the elevated ridges of the Col d'Alba, which terminates in the town itself ; the other part encloses a portion of the plain which extends up and down the river between the foot of the heights to the bank. On the south side stand the two bastions of San Pedro and San Juan, united by a curtain without terraces which is covered by the half moon battery of the Temple. The outer wall then rises on the plateau of rocks where the three bastions of Santa Cruz, San Pablo, and San Juan are situated. On quitting the last named bastion, the outer wall descends into a deep ravine, and joins a precipitous rock on which the castle is situated. The space that remains between the castle and the river is shut up by a very narrow front, and the whole of this side, from the bastion as far as the suburbs and the Ebro, is enclosed by another wall of which only a few parts are terraced. The approaches to the castle are defended by works connected with the outer wall. The north side, moreover, is protected by a horn-work called the Tenaxas, placed on a height over the suburbs, and commanding both the plateau and the plain.

In the war of the succession the duke of Orleans took Tortosa by an attack in front, but the side thus assaulted was strengthened after the siege by the construction of a fort to which the name of Orleans is still attached. This fort is composed of a lunette with a ditch cut in the solid rock and a covered way, and of an irregular work on the right which descends and takes an opposite direction towards the plain of the lower Ebro. The town, which lies wholly on the left bank of the Ebro, communicates with the right bank, by means of a bridge of boats covered by a tete-de-pont, well defended and sheltered from all attempts at insult. The increase of the defences and the combination of the whole rendered the place much more difficult of capture than in 1708, especially when we consider that the duke of Orleans, who was supported in Catalonia by the duke de Noailles as we were by the duke de Tarentum, possessed an advantage which we did not. Not only had he nothing to fear on the side of the sea, but he had been master of the country of Valencia from the period of the battle of Almanza, and it was thence that he drew his principal means of attack, the corps of the chevalier d'Asfeld and its artillery.

Placed in a very different situation, general Suchet was obliged to leave the corps of general Musnier, for the purpose of observation at Ulldecona, during the whole course of the siege, because lie had every reason to fear that the Valencian army, by some manoeuvre, would endeavour to disturb his operations. On the 16th of December, general Abbe, with the 114th and 115th regiments, relieved at Roquetta, in front of the tete-de-pont, a part of the division of general Harispe. The latter, who left the 3rd of the Vistula there, took with him the 2nd of the Vistula, and the 44th of the line; and on the night of the 16th instant, reached Xerta, where there were three battalions of the 117th. In the course of the same night, general Habert, who had with him. the 5th light infantry, the 116th, and 300 hussars, occupied the convent of the desert, whence lie had driven some parties as far as Perello, and advanced by the mountains upon the Col. d'Alba, a commanding position, where the Spaniards were at the time intrenched. He was ordered to take possession of it as soon as possible, to capture or drive out the troops that held it, to establish a strong post there, and afterwards to come down upon the town with his division. Before day-break the commander-in-chief crossed over with all the forces that were assembled at Xerta to the left bank of the Ebro. Having assembled eight battalions on the tete-de-pont, together with the sappers, and 150 hussars, he formed his columns, and marched forward by the route of Tivenis and Biten, which runs along the Ebro, and the foot of the hills, directing his course towards the fort of Las Tenaxas, on the north side of the place. The 117th, which was in advance, having arrived in view of the fort, began the investment on the right.

A battalion was left in reserve, to cover the road of Xerta, and another was established in the ravine that approached nearest to the fort, observing at the same time the bank of the river; the third, which supported the right of the second, was placed at those points which commanded the fort, and the advance to the castle. General Harispe followed the movement of the 117th, across ravines and precipices that were very difficult to pass. He continued to prolong his march round the place, and was on the point of capturing a column of Spaniards that was coming down the mountain, and which was close pressed by general Habert. The latter, who was now master of the Col del Alba, advanced to fill up the interval on the left of the 117th, and occupied with the 5th light infantry and the 116th, a very favourable position, whilst general Harispe completing the same work, and finishing the investment to the bank of the Ebro below the town, established his camp near the road to Amposta, which forms the grand communication with Tortosa, and joins the royal road, of Barcelona and Valencia. A few reserves, the cavalry, the camps of the battering train and of the sappers, were placed in the rear of the camp of general Harispe; in front, on the right bank, were those of the 3rd of the Vistula, and of the 114th and 115th regiments, commanded by general Abbe.

The first care of the commander-in-chief was to establish communications between the two banks of the stream; unfortunately, the two or three boats and the pontoons that the army had in its possession, were not sufficiently numerous for the construction of a bridge. General Vallee provided, however, for this service with great celerity. On the night of the 15th, three flying bridges were established above and below the place, and the number was ultimately augmented to four. It was in fact necessary to ensure considerable means of transit, for almost all the guns, fascines, gabions, tools, and provisions had to be brought down behind the Roquetta, and in the front of the camps of general Harispe, and thence to be carried over from the one bank to the other, at a spot where the stream was at least 100 toises wide. Neither the fire of the garrison, the shallowness of the waters, nor the violence of the winds, all of which they had occasionally to encounter, could weary out the constancy, or conquer the courage of our pontoon-men.

The 16th and 17th were employed in rectifying our positions, in driving in the enemy's advanced posts, and sending reconnoitring parties towards divers points of the place, both by day and by night. The commander-in-chief published the regulations to be observed by the working parties, and the price to be paid for the digging of the trenches, as well as for the shells and balls that might be picked up, and brought to the depot of the artillery, and appointing the means for carrying off, and for attending to the wounded. On the 18th, after all the various reports had been given in, and the respective generals had been consulted, he determined to commence the siege, by the demi-bastion of San Pedro, conformably to the design left by general Haxo, of which we have already spoken. In fact, the surrounding surface presented a soil easy to be dug for our trenches, and by that point we could get at the outer wall, without being called on to take any advanced work. This bastion, as well as the half-moon battery in its neighbourhood, is commanded and enfiladed by the heights, in advance of fort Orleans; it was, therefore, an indispensable preliminary of the attack, to occupy those heights, where the enemy himself would otherwise have enjoyed over us, that very advantage which it was absolutely necessary that we should possess against them. They had already designed some works on these heights, but they were not sufficiently firm and compact to admit of being defended. On the 19th we took possession of them, and on the evening of the same day, the trenches were opened against fort Orleans by 500 labourers, supported by 400 grenadiers, or voltigeurs, who were protected by a flying sap and posted within eighty toises of the covered way, in a line extending about 180 toises. At every point however the solid rock was met with, and it was necessary, in consequence, to employ the miner, and to form parapets with bags of earth. Next morning, this very imperfect work was found to have suffered greatly by the fire of the fort; but no ground was lost in consequence. The chef de bataillon, Plagniol, who directed the assault, displayed great energy, and by his personal example, greatly encouraged his men; the captain of engineers, Sea, was on this occasion killed by a shot in the head..

On the 20th of December the principal attack against the demi-bastion of San Pedro commenced. Under favour of a violent wind and hazy weather, which kept the enemy from hearing or seeing, 2300 workmen and twenty select companies, under the orders of the general of brigade, Abbe, colonel Robert of the 117th, and colonel Meyer, first aid-de-camp to the commander-in-chief, were led to the ground arranged for the opening of the trench under the direction of the officers of engineers. The parallel was opened from the rear as far as the foot of the heights in front of fort Orleans, and terminated on the right, opposite to the left end of the trench that had previously been opened by the chef de bataillon, Plagniol. The whole work was 280 toises in length ; towards the left it approached within about eighty toises of the salient angle of the place of arms of the demi-bastion of San Pedro. We opened at the same time two communications; one, on the right of the parallel of 160 toises, terminating in a ravine, called the ravine of the Capuchins; a natural shelter of which it was thought right to take advantage, and the other on the left, which ran in a straight line to a hollow way about 800 toises in the rear, which connected our camps. These works, which were as bold as they were simple, were planned and directed by general Rogniat, and saved us a great deal of time, which the approaches would otherwise have cost us. The execution of them was confided to the chef de bataillon, Henry, who conducted the attack on the centre. The chef de bataillon, Chulliot , on the right bank with 400 labourers, supported by 300 grenadiers, caused at the same time a trench to be opened against the tete-de-pont, at l00 toises distance, with a communication in the rear. Next day these works were continued and completed. General Valee had the marking out of the batteries, and a large portion of the labourers was placed at his disposal.

Whilst our preliminary works were in progress at Tortosa, the duke of Tarentum marched on the 1st upon the village of Perello, to cover the siege and to stop any movements of the enemy from Tarragona. The difficulty of procuring a sufficient means of carriage to enable his army to subsist in the midst of a sterile and desert country, determined him, however, to return to Ginestar, whence he despatched a division of infantry to act under the command of count Suchet, commanded by general Frere, consisting of 6,000, which formed part of the Palombini Italian brigade, together with a regiment of cavalry, the 24th dragoons. This was a real service rendered to the besieging army. General Suchet placed these troops in the rear of the division of general Harispe on the Amposta road, by which the enemy, when coming from Tarragona must have advanced. Being thus placed in a condition to meet the enemy wherever he showed himself, and being at liberty to employ the whole of his infantry in the very fatiguing service of the trenches, his thoughts were now wholly bent on the means of accelerating the fall of Tortosa.
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