The third siege of Gerona of 24 May-11 December 1809 was one of the great epics of Spanish resistance during the Peninsular War, which despite ending in a French victory would act as a rallying call for Spanish resistance for the rest of the war. Gerona was situated at a key point on the road from France to Barcelona. While it was in Spanish hands the French in Catalonia were always in danger of being cut off, and so the capture of the city had been a key French objective during 1808. The first (20-21 June 1808) and second (24 July-16 August 1808) sieges had both ended in Spanish victories, but by May 1809 the Spanish armies in Catalonia had either been defeated, or had been moved west under General Blake in an attempt to recapture Saragossa. The time was right for a third French attempt to capture the city.
Gerona in 1809 was built on the low ground alongside the River Oña, as it flowed north into the Ter. The main city was on the east bank of the Oña, with the suburb of Mercadel on the west bank. Gerona itself was not strongly defended. The Mercadel was protected by a circuit of five bastions, but without the required outer defences. The city itself was surrounded its medieval wall – 30 feet high but not wide enough to carry heavy guns. The only modern parts of the walls were the bastions of Santa Maria at the northern tip of the town and La Merced at the south. Some efforts had also been made to fortify the river bank, for the Spanish were aware that the Oña could easily be forded if the French captured the suburbs.
Gerona had been able to withstand the first two French sieges, and to hold out for so long in 1809 because the city was built on the lower slopes of a series of hills, each of which had been heavily fortified. To the south east were the Capuchin heights, crowned by the Capuchin, Queen Anne and Constable Forts, and with the City, Chapter and Calvary redoubts at their northern end. The hills were then interrupted by the deep, steep sided Galligan Ravine, before rising again to form the hill of Monjuich, topped by the fort of the same name. This was protected by four outer-works – the redoubt of San Juan between the fort and the town, St. Luis to the north and St. Daniel and St.Narciso to the east. As long as the Spanish held this line of forts, the French couldn’t even see most of the medieval wall, and even an attack on the western suburb was felt to be exposed to fire from the hilltop forts.
The third siege of Gerona began at a time when the French command structure in Catalonia was in flux. At the start of May Napoleon had decided to replace Marshal St. Cyr with Marshal Augereau. This news reached St. Cyr before the siege began, but Augereau himself suffered an attack of gout, and was forced to take to his bed at Perpignan, delaying his arrival for some weeks. At the same time command of the troops that would actually conduct the siege was transferred from General Reille to General Verdier. He had previously commanded the during the first French siege of Saragossa of 1808, and his experiences there are said to have made him overly timid at Gerona.
Verdier inherited 10,000 men from Reille, and immediately complained to both St. Cyr and Napoleon that this would not be enough to besiege Gerona. The approach to Napoleon angered St. Cyr, but he also realised that Verdier was correct, and so sent him Lecchi’s Italian division as reinforcements. This gave him a total of 14,000 infantry and cavalry and 2,200 artillery, sappers and engineers at the start of the siege.
Verdier was faced by 5,700 Spanish regulars, and 1,100 irregulars from the local levy (known as “the crusade”), all under the command of the very able Mariano Alvarez de Castro. Alvarez would receive very little help from the outside for most of the siege, and by August would be complaining that he only had 1,500 able bodied men left from his original force of regulars, but he would conduct an active, determined defence of the city.
Although the first French troops had reached Gerona early in May, Verdier did not impose a blockade of the city until 24 May. He posted Lecchi’s Italians to the west of the city, with the main part of the French army to the east and north east. St. Cyr with the main French army of Catalonia remained close by at Vich, to shield the besieging force against any Spanish intervention.
Verdier decided to concentrate his efforts against the fort of Monjuich, the strongest part of the defences, in the belief that the fall of Monjuich would inevitably be followed by the surrender of Gerona. This entirely logical point of view would turn out to be false, for Monjuich fell in mid-August, while the city held out for another four months, despite being dominated by French guns for that entire period.
The French opened their tranches on 6 June. Their job was made more difficult by the rocky nature of the ground, which meant that they were often forced to build up from the rock rather than dig down into it, but they were soon able to open fire on the redoubts of St. Luis, St. Daniel and St. Narciso. Alvarez responded at dawn on 17 June with the first of a series of sorties. This was aimed against the French positions in the suburb of Pedret, between the River Ter and the hill of Monjuich. The Spanish drove the French out of the suburb and destroyed three days worth of work, before retreating back up the hill. This bold attack cost the Spanish 155 men and the French 128, and did little to delay the fall of the redoubts.
By 19 June the French had reduced the redoubts of St. Luis and St. Narciso to ruins, and an assault that day captured them both at the cost of only 78 casualties. An attack on the St. Daniel redoubt failed, but the entrance to that redoubt was now commanded by the new French positions, and so on the night of 20 June the garrison was withdrawn.
This left the Monjuich exposed to short range artillery fire. On the night of 2 July the French built an enormous battery out of sandbags (naming it the Batterie Impériale), only 400 yards from the fort, and on the morning of 3 July they opened fire with twenty 16- and 24- pounders. These very quickly opened a breach in the walls. Commandant Fluery, in charge of the most advanced French trenches, was so encouraged by this that on the night of 4-5 July he launched an attack on the Monjuich using the two companies under his command. This attack was repulsed at the cost of 40 casualties,
Verdier made his first attempt to capture the Monjuich on the night of 7-8 July. On that night the fort was defended by 787 men. Verdier made his attack with the grenadier and voltigeur companies from his twenty battalions, a total of 2,500 men. They were able to cross the open ground in front of the fort without any problems, but when they attempted to climb up the breach came under very heavy musket fire. Although a small number of men reached the top of the breach, none entered the fort. Verdier ordered a second and third attack before admitting failure. The French suffered 1,079 casualties in the three assaults (amongst them 77 officers), while the Spanish defenders only suffered 123 casualties.
This defeat demoralised Verdier’s army, and so he decided to conduct a very long bombardment of the fort, which lasted from 9 July to 4 August. By the end of this bombardment the interior of the fort had been reduced to ruins. The garrison were forced to live in the casemates or the burrow out shelters in the ruins. On 4 August the French captured the outer defences, but even then Verdier moved slowly. On the night of 8-9 August the French exploded 23 mines under the lip of the glacis, opening a massive breach in the walls.
Alvarez responded with another sortie, at midday on 9 August. This time the Spanish captured two of the advanced French batteries, spiked their guns and burnt the gabions. This attack gained them at least one day, and Alvarez used the time to plant his own mines under the remaining fortifications. On the evening of 11 August, while the French were preparing for a second major assault, the Spanish evacuated the fort and exploded the mines. The advancing French occupied a pile of ruins.
During this period three attempts had been made to throw reinforcements into Gerona. The first two ended in disaster. On 10 July three battalions coming from Hostalrich under Ralph Marshall ran into Pino’s division at Castellar. Marshall and twelve men managed to get into Gerona, but 938 were forced to surrender while the remaining 700-800 escaped. On 4 August 300 miqueletes managed to slip past the French lines, and approached the city from the east, but unfortunately they were unaware that the convent of St. Daniel had just fallen into French hands, and tamely walked into captivity.
Six days after the fall of the Monjuich 800 miqueletes (the battalion of Cervera and reinforcements for the battalion of Vich) successfully reached Gerona from the west, slipping past the Italian troops guarding that front. It was at this time that Alvarez was complaining that he only had 1,500 able bodied men left.
From the hill of Monjuich the French could now attack the north eastern corner of Gerona. Here the city was defended by its original nine feet wide medieval wall, thirty feet high, unprotected by any moat or ditch, and too thin to carry heavy guns. This wall was reinforced by the bastion of Santa Maria, at the northern tip of the town and by the redoubt of the Gironella, on the southern side of the Galligan Ravine, while two guns platforms (San Pedro and San Cristobal) had been built up where the ravine reached the walls.
The French concentrated their attack on three parts of the walls – the Gironella, the curtain wall around the tower of Santa Lucia (the point nearest the Monjuich) and the San Cristobal platform. Although by 30 August the French guns were soon able to create four separate breaches in the walls, they were not yet in a position to take advantage of this success. As they built trenches down the south western front of the Monjuich hill, the French came under heavy fire from the un-conquered forts on the hills to the south, especially from the Calvary Redoubt, at the north-eastern top of the hills, overlooking the Galligan Ravine.
The French were also suffering heavily from exposure and from disease. Summer floods were followed by an outbreak of malaria in the French camps. Verdier had already lost 5,000 men to illness. To add to his woes, the Spanish finally made a serious attempt to help the defenders of Gerona.
The only force available to the Spanish at this point was the army of General Blake. This force had been badly mauled at Belchite on 18 June 1809. Although by August Blake had 14,000 men under arms, most of them were inexperienced recent recruits. Blake was determined to avoid a battle, and instead to use his forces to distract the French for long enough for a major supply convoy to reach the city. He would be helped in this by the French – St. Cyr, who was still in command in Catalonia, was equally determined to fight a pitched battle, had 12,000 men in his covering army, and would be joined by 4,000 of Verdier’s men. Even without those reinforcements Blake could be fairly sure that St. Cyr’s 12,000 could defeat his own inexperienced 14,000.
At the end of August Blake approached Gerona from the south, St. Cyr responded by ordering Verdier to bring his 4,000 French troops from the siege lines, and on 1 September the two armies faced off to the south of the city. While St. Cyr was preparing for a battle, Blake detached Garcia Conde’s division and sent it far around St. Cyr’s right flank. On 1 September Garcia Conde smashed his way through the Italian division west of Gerona, and entered the city, with a supply convoy of 1,000 mules and a herd of cattle. That night the Spanish reoccupied a number of their outlying positions, only to be forced to abandon them when the French returned. Garcia Conde soon left Gerona, leaving behind enough men to restore the garrison to its original strength.
On 2 September St. Cyr was forced to send 4,000 men back to Gerona. The two armies were now equal in size, but Blake was still not interesting in risking yet another defeat, and as the French advanced the Spanish retreated. After two days Blake reached Hostalrich, where a lack of food forced him to disperse his army. St. Cyr was also forced to disperse his troops for the same reason. Blake’s intervention would greatly extend the length of the siege, but he was unable to alter its final result.
The siege was reopened on 11 September when the French bombardment was resumed. In the intervening ten days the defenders of Gerona had repaired much of the damage done in the earlier bombardment, and had destroyed the most advanced French trenches. Even so, by 19 September Verdier was ready to make an assault on the town, although he was concerned that he did not have enough men. After four months of the siege he only had 6,000 infantry left, but despite this St. Cyr refused to provide any reinforcements.
On the afternoon of 19 September 3,000 French troops launched an assault on the four breaches in the walls of Gerona. The attack lasted for two hours. The French and German troops attacking the two breaches at La Gironella managed to get through the breach, but came under heavy musket fire from a second line of defences inside the walls. The Italian troops attacking the St. Lucia breach reached the top of the breach only to discover a twelve foot drop into the town, and despite holding their position for some time were eventually forced to retire. By the end of the assault the French had lost 624 killed and wounded, the Spanish 251.
In the aftermath of this failure the morale of the French army collapsed. Over the next two weeks 1,200 men entered the hospitals, while Verdier, Lecchi and Morio all abandoned the army and returned to France, Verdier after writing three letters to Napoleon blaming St. Cyr for the failure.
This forced St. Cyr to take command in person. He decided not to make any more assaults on the town, and instead to rely on starvation. He merged his covering army with the surviving 4,000 men of Verdier’s army, and surrounded the city with 16,000 men.
St. Cyr’s plan would end in success. The supply convoy of 1 September had only contained eight days worth of food for the 5,000 troops and 10,000 civilians of Gerona, and food soon began to run short. Blake made a second attempt to run a supply convoy into the city. On 26 September the head of the convoy managed to break into the city, but most of the supplies were captured by the French.
St. Cyr soon followed Verdier back to France. He had decided to visit Perpignan, in an attempt to recover some of the 4,000 convalescents believed to be fit to march. On his arrival at Perpignan he discovered that Marshal Augereau, appointed to succeed him in May, had recovered from his gout some time again, but had preferred not to take up his command until Gerona fell. Having discovered this St. Cyr declared himself to be unfit, and returned home.
Augereau finally reached Gerona on 12 October, somewhat ironically at the head of the convalescents (amongst them Verdier). On his arrival Augereau realised that he would have to continue St. Cyr’s policy of starvation, although he did initiate a more active bombardment of the town. In mid October Blake reappeared, with more supplies, but he was unable to find a way into the town, and at the start of November Augereau launched an attack on his supply depot at Hostalrich (7 November 1809), easily capturing and destroying them. After this setback Blake retreated to the plain of Vich, where he began to gather supplies for a fourth time. This would take so long that the siege would be over before Blake was ready to move again.
As winter set in the defenders of Gerona were reduced to a desperate condition. By mid-November things were so bad that on 19 November eight Spanish officers deserted to the French camp. This encouraged Augereau to begin active operations again. On 2 December his attacked and captured the southern suburb of La Marina, and at midnight of 6 December Pino’s division captured the redoubt of the city, between the city and the Capuchin heights. Alvarez responded with the last Spanish sortie of the siege (7 December), but this ended in disaster when the Calvary and Chapter redoubts fell to the French. This failure drained Alvarez’s last strength. He was so ill that on the morning of 9 December he received his last rites.
The command passed to General Juliano Bolivar. He called a council of war, which decided to seek terms from the French. On the morning of 10 December Brigadier-General Fournas met with Augereau, and the terms of the surrender were soon agreed. On the next morning the 3,000 remaining able bodied men in the garrison marched into captivity (another 1,200 invalids remained in the city).
The French somewhat disgraced themselves in the aftermath of their victory. Alvarez recovered from his illness, and was taken as a prisoner to Narbonne. Napoleon then decided that he should be tried as a traitor against King Joseph, and returned to Figueras, dying in a cellar on the day after his arrival.Both sides suffered very heavy casualties during the siege. Of the 9,000 men involved in the defence, only 4,248 survived. The French did even worse, losing around 13,000 men during the eight months of the siege. Although they had cleared a major obstacle on the road from Barcelona to Perpignan, very little of Catalonia was in French hands.