The battle of Maria of 15 June 1809 was a French victory that ended a brief Spanish threat to Saragossa. At the end of the second siege of Saragossa the French had two army corps in Aragon, but in April 1809 Napoleon decided to withdraw the 5th Corps, leaving Junot’s 3rd Corps to hold down the entire kingdom. Junot himself was to be replaced by General Suchet, but poor communications meant that there was a six week period in which Junot remained in command of the corps. During this period his corps suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Spanish guerrillas, as well as being forced out of the town of Alcañiz (south east of Saragossa) by a new Spanish Army of the Right, under General Blake. When Suchet finally arrived to take command of the 3rd Corps, his first move was an attack on Blake. The resulting battle of Alcañiz of 23 May was only the second Spanish battlefield victory of the Peninsular War.
In the aftermath of the battle Suchet retreated back to Saragossa, where he spent the next three weeks attempting to restore the morale of his corps. While Suchet was doing this, Blake remained at Alcañiz, awaiting reinforcements, and three weeks after winning at Alcañiz with only 9,000 men was in charge of an army 25,000 strong. In contrast Suchet received very few reinforcements, although 3,000 men were promised. The total force available at the start of the battle of Maria would be larger than that defeated at Alcañiz, but only because one division that missed the first battle was available for the second.
Once his reinforcements arrived, Blake made his move. Rather than advance along the main road from Alcañiz to Saragossa, along the Ebro, he decided to cut west across the mountains to the Huerba valley, and then advance north along that river towards Saragossa. Alcañiz had convinced him that his army could fight a defensive battle. The move to the Huerba threatened Suchet’s lines of communications north west towards Tudela and onwards to France. He would have to either abandon Saragossa without a fight, or attack the Spanish on ground of their own choosing.
By 14 June Blake had reached the Huerba, and his outposts were within ten miles of the city. For some reason he had deliberately divided his army in two. One division, under General Areizaga, was advancing down the right bank of the Huerba, while the other two divisions, under Blake, were on the left bank. The two armies were separated by a gap of six or seven miles and by the river.
This gave Suchet a chance to defeat the Spanish in detail. Of the 10,500 men available to him, 1,000 were left guard Saragossa against any surprise attack. 2,000 were posted on the right bank of the Huerba with orders to stop, or at least slow down, any attack by Areizaga. This left Suchet with 7,500 infantry, 800 cavalry and twelve guns to attack Blake’s two divisions.
On the morning of 15 June Blake’s army formed up in line of battle on a series of ridges that run down from the hills towards the Huerba. Roca’s division was on the northern-most ridge, with Lazan’s on the next ridge to the south, and the cavalry in the gap between the two. The French formed up on another line of hills one mile to the north. Suchet then held his ground, waiting for the promised 3,000 reinforcements, which by now were only a few miles from the battlefield.
Despite have chose to fight a defensive battle, Suchet’s inactivity provoked Blake into launching an attack on the French lines. The first Spanish attack, on the French left, was a minor affair, involving the Spanish skirmishers, but the second attack, on the French right, was made in more strength. Suchet responded by ordering the Polish lancers to attack the flank of the advancing column, while the 114th Regiment of the line attacked from the front. The Spanish attack was soon repulsed.
Suchet then responded with an attack of his own, using the 114th and 115th Regiments of the Line and the 1st Regiment of the Vistula, made against the same troops who had just attacked the French lines. The Spanish managed to hold off the French, and even forced Suchet to send in part of his very limited reserve, but this phase of the battle was brought to an end by a heavy hailstorm which blocked all visibility. During this hailstorm the French reinforcements finally arrived at the Abbey of Santa Fé, behind the French left. This convinced Suchet to launch a second attack, this time using his left to attack the Spanish right close to the Huerba. Three French infantry battalions were used to soften up the Spanish lines, before the French cavalry charged through gaps in the French lines. The Spanish cavalry fled without offering any resistance, exposing the infantry on the Spanish right. The French cavalry turned on this infantry, destroying Blake’s right wing, and at the same time blocking his line of retreat back towards Areizaga.
Blake managed to partially save the situation. He formed a new line across the ridge, at ninety degrees to his original line, and conducted a fighting retreat, eventually escaping to the south at nightfall. Despite this his army had suffered dreadfully, losing 1,000 dead and at least 3,000 wounded. The French suffered between 700 and 800 casualties.
Somewhat to Suchet’s surprise, the Spanish did not immediately abandon their campaign. Blake’s army concentrated at Botorita, upstream from Maria, and then spent the next day in that position. Suchet responded by attempting to turn both Spanish flanks, but failed, and Blake was able to begin a retreat south-east across the mountains towards Belchite unhindered by the French. His army began to disintegrate during the retreat – 3,000 men deserted in two days, but despite arriving at Belchite with only 12,000 men, Blake decided to attempt to fight a third battle. This time his army simply collapsed (rout of Belchite), and when it came back together another 2,000 men had disappeared. The French grip on Saragossa had been saved.
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