The combat of Margalef of 23 April 1810 saw the defeat of a Spanish army attempting to help the besieged garrison of Lerida. Soon after reaching Lerida, Marshal Suchet had heard rumours that a relief army under General O’Donnell was on its way. Accordingly, on 19 April he dispatched Musnier’s division, from the left bank of the River Segre (opposite Lerida) towards Barcelona, in an attempt to find this army. In fact on 19 April O’Donnell was still at Tarragona, although he was indeed planning to make an attempt to raise the siege. He actually left Tarragona on 20 April, at the head of a force of 7,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, one artillery battery and 1,500 local miqueletes, divided into the divisions of Ibarrola and Pirez. If this force had been able to combine with the 8,000 strong garrison of Lerida, then Suchet’s 13,000 men would have been significantly outnumbered.
General Garcia Conde, the Spanish commander of Lerida, soon discovered Musnier’s absence, and sent a message to O’Donnell informing him that the trenches opposite Lerida were almost empty. This message reached O’Donnell, who then acted as if he was about to make a virtually unopposed entrance into Lerida. On the morning of 23 April O’Donnell was at Juneda, twelve miles from Lerida. For the final march he split his army into its two divisions, with Ibarrola’s division and the cavalry in the front and Pirez’s division four miles to the rear. O’Donnell himself accompanied Pirez.
In fact Musnier had returned to Lerida on 22 April, having failed to find any Spanish forces in the direction of Barcelona. He had seven infantry battalions and 500 cuirassieres at Alcoletge, three miles north of the bridge into Lerida. The bridgehead itself was guarded by three infantry battalions and two squadrons of hussars under General Harispe.
Ibarrola’s division reached the bridgehead without encountering the French. Harispe sent a message to Musnier asking for help, and then sent his hussar’s to attack the regiment at the head of the Spanish column. With his advance towards Lerida already stalled, Ibarrola then discovered that Musnier’s division was approaching his right flank from the north. He decided to retreat back towards Pirez’s division, but Musnier caught him at Margalef, before the two Spanish divisions could come together.
Realising that he could no longer retreat, Ibarrola formed his division into line, with his 300 cavalry on the right and his half battery of artillery on the left. The Spanish were in a very vulnerable position, on an open plain with no cover for their flanks. Musnier sent his 500 cavalry against Ibarolla’s right, and the outnumbered Spanish cavalry broke and fled. The French cavalry then turned left, and attacked the Spanish infantry in the flanks. Exposed by the failure of their cavalry, the Spanish infantry was ridden down. Ibarrola’s division also broke and fled, suffering most of the 500 Spanish killed and wounded suffered during the fighting.
O’Donnell and Pirez arrived at Margalef just in time to witness this disaster, but too late to intervene. O’Donnell had no choice but to retreat back to Juneda, leaving one Swiss battalion to act as a rearguard. Although this battalion was broke by the French cavalry and most of its men forced to surrender, they did win enough time for a significant part of Ibarrola’s division to reform behind the rest of the Spanish force.
The French suffered very light casualties during the battle – Suchet reported his losses as 23 dead and 82 wounded. He also claimed to have taken 5,600 prisoners, significantly more men than were actually exposed to capture on the day. On 26 April part of Ibarrola’s division, originally 4,000 strong, was still present with O’Donnell’s army, suggesting that the French can not have captured much more than 2,000 men. In the aftermath of this victory, Suchet summoned Lerida to surrender for a second time. The Spanish refused to surrender and, and on 29 April the regular siege began.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.3: September 1809-December 1810 - Ocana, Cadiz, Bussaco, Torres Vedras, Sir Charles Oman. Part three of Oman's classic history begins with the series of disasters that befell the Spanish in the autumn of 1809 and spring of 1810, starting with the crushing defeat at Ocana and ending with the French conquest of Andalusia and capture of Seville, then moves on to look at the third French invasion of Portugal, most famous for Wellington's defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.|
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