The battle of Saguntum of 25 October 1811 saw the defeat of a Spanish army under General Joachim Blake which was attempted to raise the French siege of Saguntum. When General Suchet had led the French army of Aragon into Valencia, Blake had planned to defend a line of fortifications close to Valencia, but the French had stopped to besiege the citadel of Saguntum, north of Valencia, and as the siege dragged on Blake came under increasing pressure to make an attempt to lift the siege. Eventually, in mid-October he yielded to that pressure, called up all of his reserves and prepared to leave his lines around Valencia.
Blake decided to make yet another over-ambitious attempt to envelop a French army. He split his army into two unequal wings. The left wing was 17,700 strong, and was made up of Obispo’s division, which was sent on a long march around the French right, and two Valencian divisions under Charles O’Donnell which were to outflank the French right on the battlefield. The Spanish right, under Blake, was much smaller, with 10,500 men, but contained the most experienced of Blake’s troops – the 5,500 men in the divisions of Zayas and Lardizabal. This wing was to engage Suchet’s army directly, pinning it in place to give the left time to complete its outflanking move.
Suchet was badly outnumbered. He was only able to bring 14,000 men into his line, for he had to leave a strong force in the trenches outside Saguntum, and another part of his force was detached to protect his lines of communication to the north. Despite this he was still happy to risk a battle, in the belief that the Valencian troops would perform badly on the battlefield. The French took up position on the plain south of Saguntum, three miles of very level ground, well suited to cavalry. Suchet posted his men on either side of the high road from Valencia, with Habert’s division on the left, Harispe’s division on the right and Saint Paul’s division as a reserve. Finally Robert’s reserve brigade was posted to the right rear to protect again the very out-flanking manoeuvre that Blake was planning.
What Suchet had not expected was that Blake would make his left flank so strong. The first line of the Spanish left contained 7,000 Valencian infantry and 1,700 cavalry, with a Murcian infantry division in reserve. The French were outnumbered by two to one, but they completed routed the Spanish left. As the divisions of Miranda and Villacampa began to climb up a slope towards the French position, General Chlopiski, commanding on the French right, ordered his men to advance. One regiment of Italian dragoons hit Villacampa’s men, and within ten minutes they had turned and fled. Seeing this Miranda’s division also turned and broke, without even being attacked! 450 Italian cavalry had driven off 7,000 infantry! The Murcian reserve and the cavalry did little better. The Italian dragoons charged the Spanish cavalry, and drove them off, despite being outnumbered by more than three-to-one. The Spanish cavalry ran straight into the Murcians, and the entire Spanish left collapsed. After only just over ten minutes of fighting the Spanish had lost 2,000 prisoners and 400 dead and wounded.
The Spanish right performed much better. On the extreme right Zayas’s division advanced along the coast, and became involved in a fierce fight with Habert’s division. Further inland part of Lardizabal’s division took up a strong position on a hill at the western edge of the coastal plain. Suchet realised that this position was the key to the battlefield, and ordered Harispe to retake the hill. This attack succeeded, but Lardizabal’s men took up a new position at the base of the hill. Suchet ordered Harispe to attack down the hill, and a fierce fight soon developed.
Blake attempted to break this deadlock with his cavalry, and for once the Spanish cavalry performed well. Loy’s 1,100 men swept away three squadrons of hussars and cuirassiers who were defending Harispe’s left flank, and came close to breaking the 116th Regiment of the Line. Harispe’s line was close to breaking, when Suchet threw two squadrons for the 13th Cuirassiers into the fight. This fresh force swept away the Spanish cavalry, which was now badly disordered after its earlier successes.
The retreat of the Spanish cavalry exposed Lardizabal’s flanks. Suchet attacked with his reserve - Saint Paul’s Italians – which hit Lardizabal’s right flank and forced his division to retreat. This left Zayas’s division as the only intact part of the Spanish army, and Blake was now forced to order it to retreat. Most of this division escaped intact, and although it suffered heavily in the fighting, lost less prisoners than any other. The Spanish lost 1,000 killed and wounded during the battle itself, and 4,641 prisoners during the rout that followed. The divisions on the left suffered very few casualties, but lost half of the prisoners. Suchet reported his own losses as 130 dead and 590 wounded, although other estimates give a total of nearer 1,000 casualties.
The survivors of Blake’s army made their way back into the lines outside Valencia with their morale dramatically reduced. Saguntum itself surrendered on the following day, the garrison having watched the defeat of the relief army from the walls of the citadel. Despite this victory, Suchet was now not strong enough to risk an immediate attack on Valencia. He had to place a garrison in Saguntum itself, and another brigade was detached to escort the prisoners back to Tortosa. As a result his disposable force was down to only 15,000 men, and so was forced to ask for reinforcements before he could move again.
|The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.|
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.5: October 1811-August 31, 1812 - Valencia, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Madrid, Sir Charles Oman Part Five of Oman's classic history of the Peninsular War starting with a look at the French invasion of Valencia in the winter of 1811-12, before concentrating on Wellington's victorious summer campaign of 1812, culminating with the battle of Salamanca and Wellington's first liberation of Madrid.|
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