The siege of Astorga of 21 March-22 April 1810 was a preliminary operation in the period before the start of Masséna’s invasion of Portugal. Before the French could move against Wellington in Portugal, they needed to secure their starting position in Leon, where a number of fortresses were in Spanish hands.
One of these strong points was the town of Astorga, at the north western edge of Leon, and therefore on the right flank of any French advance. It was also a key point for any French campaign in Galicia. The French had last visited the town in 1809, when General Carrié had been repulsed by the small garrison of the town. Since then the Marquis of La Romana had greatly improved the defences of the town. Astorga was built on the south eastern end of a steep hill, and was surrounded by medieval walls. La Romana repaired those walls and built outworks in a northern suburb on the hill and in northern and eastern suburbs at the base of the hill. At the start of 1810 the town contained a garrison 2,700 strong under the command of José Santocildes.
The French were completely unaware of the state of Astorga. General Loison, commanding 10,000 of the reinforcements being moved to Spain to take part in the invasion of Portugal, was given orders to cooperate with General Bonnet in the Asturias, and was told to base himself in either Benavente or Astorga. He arrived outside the town on 11 February, and was surprised to find it defended against him. He did not have any heavy artillery, and so after Santocildes rejected a summons to surrender, Loison had little choice but to retreat to La Baneza, thirteen miles to the south east.
A few days later the next batch of reinforcements, Junot’s 8th Corps, reached Leon. Loison was moved south and replaced at La Baneza by Clausel’s division. A second summons to surrender was refused on 26 February. During this period Santocildes was busily preparing for a siege. By the time the French returned, 3,000 of the 4,000 civilians in Astorga had left, and the garrison had been resupplied with food and ammunition.
Even though he lacked a siege train, Junot was determined to begin the siege of Astorga without delay. Clausel was ordered to advance on 15 May, and invested the town on 21 March. Solignac’s division was moved up to support Clausel, while St. Croix’s division of dragoons were posted to watch out for any attempt at relief.
The French decided to attack the northern corner of the walls, close to the cathedral (significant sections of the wall still survive in this area). For the first three weeks of the siege the French could do very little to damage the walls, but they used the time to build up their gun batteries and siege works in preparation for the arrival of the guns.
Santocildes conducted an active defence, launching a number of sorties against the French trenches, but his only real hope was that General Mahy, the Captain-General of Galicia, could raise a big enough army to lift the siege. Unfortunately for the defenders, Mahy only managed to raise 5,000 men. Junot responded by moving Clausel’s division out of the trenches to face Mahy, replacing it with Solignac’s division.
The first French siege guns arrived on 15 April. Despite only consisting of four 24-pounders, one 16-pounder, four 12-pounders, eight 6-inch howitzers and one 6-inch mortar it was more than powerful enough to batter a hole in the medieval walls. By noon of 21 April a practical breach had been created in the northern corner of the walls. The Spanish were able to construct a second line of defence inside a damaged church, and turned down Junot’s summons to surrender.
On the afternoon of 21 April the French stormed the breach. Seven hundred men from the Irish Legion and the 47th of the Line managed to capture the breach and a nearby house built up against the wall, but they were unable to make any more progress, and after an hour the French took cover.
The next morning Santocildes surrendered. His men were running short of ammunition, and there was no chance of repulsing a second determined attack. The French captured 2,500 prisoners, but their success came at a heavy cost – in all Junot lost 160 dead and 400 wounded, most of them during the assault (113 dead and 294 wounded), while the Spanish only lost 51 dead and 109 wounded.
Having captured Astorga, Junot dispatched one regiment north to make contact with General Bonnet in the Asturias, left two battalions to garrison the town, and then returned south to support Ney’s 6th Corps in the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, a far more important preliminary to the great campaign in Portugal.
|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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