Siege of Madrid, 1-4 December 1808

The siege of Madrid was the final French success during Napoleon’s only campaign in Spain. Having successfully defeated the Spanish armies on the Ebro at the battles of Gamonel, 10 November 1808 and of Tudela, 23 November 1808, and Blake’s army in northern Spain at Zornoza 31 October 1808 and Espinosa de los Monteros, 10 November 1808, the French were free to advance on Madrid. After brushing aside the last line of Spanish resistance at the Somosierra Pass on 30 November 1808, the first French troops arrived outside Madrid on 1 December.

Madrid was almost entirely impossible to defend. The town had no fortifications; it lacked the winding narrow streets of Saragossa and was overlooked by a hill known as the Retiro. The only gates were ornamental gates designed to ease the collection of duties. There were less than 3,000 soldiers in the city, and most of them were new levies who had arrived on the same morning as the French. The only asset possessed by the defenders of Madrid was the enthusiasm of a large part of the population, who for a few days believed they could emulate the heroes of the first siege of Saragossa. At least 20,000 people found some sort of weapon and prepared to take part in the fighting. The enthusiastic crowds constructed a massive but essentially useless wall around the city, partly made out of paving slabs. During the short French bombardment chips from these slabs would do more damage than the French fire. Hardly any effort was made to fortify the crucial Retiro heights.

Napoleon himself arrived at Madrid at noon on 2 December. This was the anniversary of Austerlitz, and Napoleon hoped that the city would surrender without a fight, but the Junta turned down his first demand that they surrender informing him that the “people of Madrid were resolved to bury themselves under the ruins of their houses, rather than to permit the French troops to enter their city”.

Over the night of 2-3 December the French began to prepare for their attack on Madrid. Gun batteries were placed in front of a number of the northern and eastern gates, but the main attack was to be made against the Retiro. Napoleon still hoped that he could enter his brother’s future capital without a fight, but the Spanish turned down a second demand to surrender on the morning of 3 December. This time Captain-General Castelar, one of the commanders of the defending forces, responded with a suggestion for a twelve hour long truce, but the main purpose behind this was to give the surviving Spanish field armies a little longer to reach Madrid, and so Napoleon turned down the request, and ordered the start of the assault.

The main attack, against the Retiro, was made by Villatte’s division of Victor's corps. It came after the artillery had created a number of breaches in the weak defences of the area. The French soon overran the defenders of the hill, and chased then all the way into the heart of Madrid, captured three of the recently fortified gates and reaching the palace of the Duke of Medina Celi. At this point Napoleon halted the assault, and issued a third demand for surrender. By now the mood in the city was fragmented – the populace was still ready to fight on, but the military leaders were increasingly aware of how vulnerable the city was, especially now Napoleon was now able to move his artillery onto the Retiro.

General Morla, another of the commanders of the defending forces, was sent to negotiate with Napoleon. He was subjected to a string of abuse, which undermined his already limited enthusiasm for the fight. Napoleon ended with a threat that unless the city surrendered by 6am on the following morning, every man found under arms would be killed. This was enough to convince the Junta that it was time to surrender. Their main problem now was disarming the populace. They were greatly aided by the speed with which events had unfolded. The blockade was by no means complete, and several thousand of the most determined of the defenders were able to escape from the city. The Junta then drew up a capitulation agreement with eleven articles and sent it to Napoleon. He agreed to all eleven of the articles, although once he was actually in control of Madrid he broke most of them. On the morning of 4 December the French finally re-entered Madrid and accepted the surrender of the defenders. Madrid was one of the few cities captured during the fighting in Spain that was not promptly sacked - it was after all to be the capital city for Napoleon’s, King Joseph.

The short defence of Madrid had an unexpectedly dramatic impact on the fighting in Spain. General Sir John Moore, commanding the British army in Portugal, was deciding whether he could risk remaining in Spain when he received false reports that Napoleon was stuck outside Madrid. This encouraged Moore to begin a move towards Marshal Soult’s army around Burgos, in the hope that this threat to Napoleon’s lines of communication would force him to abandon Madrid. The plan worked almost too well – when Napoleon learned of Moore’s movement, he abandoned his plans for the invasion of Portugal, and began his pursuit of Moore. Once it was clear that Moore had escaped from the trap, Napoleon left the chase to Soult and returned to Madrid. Events elsewhere in Europe soon called him away, and he would never return to Spain.

History of the Peninsular War vol.1: 1807-1809 - From the Treaty of Fontainebleau to the Battle of Corunna, Sir Charles Oman. The first volume of Oman's classic seven volume history of the Peninsular War, this is one of the classic works of military history and provides an invaluable detailed narrative of the fighting in Spain and Portugal. This first volume covers the initial French intervention, the start of the Spanish uprising, the early British involvement in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon's own brief visit to Spain.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 February 2008), Siege of Madrid, 1-4 December 1808 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_madrid_1808.html

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