The siege of Lerida of 15 April-14 May 1810 was one of a series of sieges that saw the French extend their control over eastern Spain, and removed a major obstacle on the road between Saragossa and Barcelona. In 1810 the town of Lerida was confined to the western bank of the River Segre. Just to the west of the river two steep hills rise from the plain. The citadel of Lerida was built on the northern hill, with the town between that hill and the river. On the southern hill were Fort Garden and the San Fernando and El Pilar redoubts. Unlike many Spanish cities at this period there was no suburb on the eastern bank of the river, but the eastern end of the bridge over the Segre was defended by a strong tête-du-pont. The only vulnerable part of the town was the northern wall, between the river and the citadel. In April 1810 the town contained a garrison of 8,000 men under the command of Major-General Garcia Conde, who had earned fame after running a supply convoy into Gerona during the third siege of that city.
Marshal Suchet was able to gather 13,000 men for the siege of Lerida. This did not give him enough men to surround the city with regular siege lines. Musnier, with 4,000 infantry and most of the cavalry, was posted on the eastern bank of the Segre, to guard the tête-du-pont, and watch for any relieving army coming from Catalonia or Valencia. A screen of cavalry was placed around the southern side of the city. Finally Habert’s, Buget’s and Vergès’s brigades were placed around the western and northern walls of the city. The two parts of the army were connected by a flying bridge two miles above the town. Suchet intended to attack the north western corner of the town.
The French army took up its positions around Lerida on 15 April, and opened their trenches on 29 April. Part of the delay was caused by the approach of a Spanish army under General O’Donnell. This force left Tarragona on 20 April, the day after Suchet had sent Musnier east to investigate rumours that an army was approaching along the road from Barcelona. Believing that Musnier was still absent, on 23 April O’Donnell approached Larida, apparently not expected a serious fight. Unfortunately Musnier had returned to Lerida on 22 April, and inflicted a heavy defeat on O’Donnell (combat of Margalef).
The French began their bombardment on 7 May, concentrating their fire on the Carmen and Magdalena bastions, the weakest part of the defences, and by 13 May they had created a breach in the walls. On the night of 12-13 May, at the second attempt, the French captured the San Fernando and El Pilar redoubts, at the opposite end of the town, apparently to prevent Garcia Conde from using Fort Garden as a final refuge.
On the evening of 13 May the French attacked the breach, and were soon inside the walls. As was becoming standard practice, the Spanish had created an inner line of redoubts and fortified houses behind the walls, but this time the French were able to fight their way past this second line and into the city. Garcia Conde withdrew his garrison back into the citadel, where he hoped to make a final stand. Suchet had prepared for this, and had a particularly cold-blooded plan in place to prevent a length siege of the castle. As his soldiers entered Lerida they formed a cordon around the city, and forced the civilian population, at gunpoint, to join the retreat into the citadel. According to Suchet’s own memoirs, scores of civilians were shot by the French troops during this phase of the siege.
Once the garrison and civilian population were trapped in the citadel, Suchet began to bombard it with his mortars and howitzers, killing most of the 500 civilians to die during the siege. Garcia Conde could only stand one night of this, and at noon on 14 May the citadel surrendered. Soon after the siege Garcia Conde decided to pledge loyalty to King Joseph, probably in the belief that the Spanish patriot cause was doomed. There is no evidence that he betrayed Lerida, or that his conduct was affected by any plans to change sides. During the siege he turned down two calls to surrender, including one after the defeat of O’Donnell’s relieving army.
The capture of Lerida was followed by that of Mequinenza, at the highest navigable point on the Ebro. The French were free to turn south to attack Tortosa, at the mouth of the Ebro. Suchet’s successes even began to demoralise the guerrillas of Aragon, but despite this they remained active, preventing Suchet from ever feeling entirely secure in Aragon.
|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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