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The battle of Alcañiz of 23 May 1809 was only the second major Spanish battlefield victory of the Peninsular War, and demonstrated many of the problems that would dog the French for the entire war. At the end of February 1809, after the fall of Saragossa, the French had two corps in Aragon – Mortier’s 5th Corps and Junot’s 3rd Corps. Together the 30,000 men in the two corps began to pacify Aragon, but on 5 April Napoleon decided to withdraw the 5th Corps from the area, in preparation for a possible move to Austria. This revealed the first French problem – they could not be strong everywhere. At the same time Junot was replaced by General Suchet. This news did not reach Saragossa for ten days. When it did, Mortier immediately called his corps back together and marched out of Aragon. This left Junot with 15,000 men, and the knowledge that he would be replaced as soon as Suchet returned.
This revealed the second French problem – poor communications. Suchet’s previous post had been as a divisional commander in Mortier’s corps. The order placing him in command of 3rd Corps arrived after he had left Saragossa, and despite the two corps still being relatively close together, it still took six weeks for the order to catch up with him, and for him to return to take command.
During these six weeks the third problem to face the French became clear – the only was to secure control of any part of Spain was to garrison every town, but if they did that then they exposed themselves to attacks by the Spanish guerrillas. Even quite strong French detachments could be forced to surrender – when the Spanish recaptured the town of Monzon, the French lost 1,000 men in their attempt to retake the place.
The fourth problem that the French faced was that never mind how many times they defeated and dispersed the Spanish armies, new armies always seemed to appear. At the end of the siege of Saragossa there had been less than 4,000 Spanish troops in Aragon, but by mid-May General Blake was gathering a new “Army of the Right”, which would soon contain over 20,000 men.
On 18-19 May Blake, with just under 10,000 men, captured the town of Alcañiz. This force contained the 4,000 survivors of the disaster at Saragossa and 5,000 men from the Army of the Centre. Another 10,000 men were known to be on their way, so Blake held his ground at Alcañiz, awaiting their arrival.
Suchet finally reached Saragossa on 19 May, and took command of 3rd Corps. By this point the corps was in a dreadful state. Morale was very poor, partly because of the suffering caused during the siege of Saragossa, partly because of the series of minor defeats at the hands of the guerrillas and partly because their pay was in arrears and the only way to find food was by constant marauding. Despite having a nominal strength of 20,000 men, when Suchet arrived the corps was at only half of this strength.
Despite the poor condition of his army, Suchet quickly realised that he would have to attack the Spanish at Alcañiz. On 23 May the depleted French force arrived in front of the Spanish position. Only two of Suchet’s three available divisions were with him, giving the French a strength of 8,138 men on the morning of the battle. Blake slightly outnumbered the French, with just under 9,000 men, and was in a strong defensive position, based around three hills outside the town of Alcañiz. The only weakness in Blake’s position was that he was fighting with his back to a river – if the French had forced his army to retreat, then the Spanish force might have been totally destroyed.
Suchet began by making two attacks on the strongest part of the Spanish line, the Cerro de los Pueyos, at the right of the Spanish line. These attacks were repulsed by General Areizaga, at the head of a division of Aragonese troops. Suchet would later claim that these had only been feints, but his entire account of the battle is somewhat unreliable (as is so often the case in the memoirs of defeated commanders).
If the attack on the Spanish right was a feint, then Suchet waited too long to launch his main attack, for by the time this began the fighting on the Cerro de los Pueyos had ended. The main French attack was made against the centre of the Spanish line, and was made by two regiments, formed into columns of battalions – 2,600 men from the 114th Regiment of the Line and the 1st Regiment of the Vistula. While French columns repeated failed against British lines, they had a much better record against the Spanish, but this time Blake’s line held. The French column reached within a few hundred yards of the Spanish line, but then the Spanish artillery began to hit it with grapeshot, its flanks came under long range musket fire, and the advance halted. This was always the moment of crisis for any column. After remaining static under heavy fire for a few minutes, the French column broke and fled back into the French lines.
This ended the battle. Suchet’s force had suffered 700-800 casualties, and he himself had been wounded in the foot. The French retreat began smoothly, but after a dark a rumour spread that the Spanish cavalry had captured the rearguard, and the army scattered, not coming back together until late on the next day.
Blake had suffered 300 casualties during the battle. If he had known about the chaos in the French camp, then he might have carried out a damaging pursuit of Suchet’s retreating men, but this news did not reach the Spanish camp. Instead Blake remained at Alcañiz to wait for his reinforcements. Three weeks later he had 25,000 men, and only then did he begin to advance towards Saragossa, hoping to cut Suchet’s lines of communication north towards France. If successful, this move would force Suchet to either abandon Saragossa without a fight, or to risk attacking Blake’s army on his chosen ground for a second time. Unfortunately for Blake, this second battle, at Maria on 15 June, would see the French perform with much more determination, while Blake had managed to split his own force into two separate columns. The Spanish victory at Alcañiz would be followed by defeat at Maria, and by an embarrassing rout at Belchite.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.|
|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.|
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