The first siege of Saragossa, 15 June-13 August 1808, saw the Spanish successfully defend the almost unfortified city against a strong French attack, and was an early demonstration of the determination with which the Spanish would defend some of their cities.
When the Spanish revolt first broke out Napoleon and his commanders in Spain believed that they were facing a series of isolated uprisings, and so dispatched a number of small flying columns. Marshal Bessières, the French commander in north eastern Spain, sent General Lefebvre-Desnouettes to deal with the revolt in Aragon. His column eventually contained 5,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and two artillery batteries. Lefebvre would soon discover that the revolt was much more widespread than the French had believed, and that the entire province had risen against the French invaders.
The Spanish defenders of Saragossa were under the command of Joseph Palafox, the second son of an aristocratic family, who had been appointed captain-general of Aragon in late May. He had worked miracles in the city, created a munitions family and raising 7,500 new troops. His main weakness was a lack of regular troops – he only had 300 experienced cavalry and a small number of gunners, by no means enough to man all of the guns at Saragossa. The city itself was protected by its medieval walls and by two rivers – the Ebro to the north east and the Huerba to the south, leaving the west of the city exposed to attack. The main strength of Saragossa was that the city was a maze of strongly built buildings, each capable of being defending, while the narrow lanes could easily be blocked by barricades.
Palafox made a series of attempts to stop the French even reaching Saragossa. A force under the command of his older brother, the Marquis of Lazan, was defeated at Tudela (8 June 1808) and Mallen (13 June 1808). Palafox then led out a force 6,000 strong. This force was defeated at Alagon (14 June 1808), where Palafox himself was wounded. The defeated Spanish force fled back into Saragossa.
Lefebvre reached Saragossa the next day (15 June). He was badly outnumbered by the Spanish defenders of the city, who now numbered around 11,000, but half of the Spanish troops were entirely inexperienced and the other half had gained most of their experience at Alagon.
Lefebvre decided to launch an assault on the western walls of Saragossa on 16 June, expecting a quick collapse of Spanish resistance. This would certainly have been the case in most previous wars, but the French were about to discover that the war in Spain would be different. The defenders of Saragossa were prepared to defend every building inside the city – the French were about to blunder into urban warfare.
In the first assault the French were able to break into the western part of the city while their Polish cavalry broke in through the Santa Engracia gate, but neither force was able to make any progress once inside the city, and were forced to retreat. The French suffered around 700 casualties during this first assault.
Palafox himself was not present in Saragossa during this first assault. On the morning of 15 June he had left the city, to raise another army in Upper Aragon to attack Lefebvre’s lines of communications. Palafox was later much criticised for this decision, but he was captain-general of Aragon, not of Saragossa. He was able to raise a force 5,000 strong, but this new army was defeated by the French at Epila (23-24 June), and eventually Palafox returned to Saragossa on 1 July at the head of only 1,000 men.
The French were receiving more substantial reinforcements. On 26 June General Verdier arrived at the head of 3,000 men, and as the senior officer took over from Lefebvre. More reinforcements kept coming in, bringing siege artillery with them.
Verdier’s first target was the hill of Monte Terrero, on the southern bank of the River Huerba. This hill dominated the south of Saragossa, and should have been strongly fortified by the Spanish, but had not been. On 28 June Verdier launched an attack on the hill, captured with ease. The Spanish commander of Monte Terrero, Colonel Vincento Falco, was said to have led the retreat, and after the siege was court-martialled and shot.
Having captured Monte Terrero, Verdier used it as a base for his siege artillery. At midnight on 30 June thirty siege-guns, four mortars and twelve howitzers opened fire on Saragosssa, and kept up a twenty four hour bombardment as a prelude to a second assault.
This attack went in on 2 July. The French were twice as strong as on 16 June, and the fixed defences of Saragossa had suffered heavily during the bombardment, but the barricades were still intact, the defenders were confident, and Palafox had returned to take command.
This second French assault met the same fate as the first. The French were able to get into the city in several places, but were unable to make any progress, and Spanish counter-attacks eventually forced them back out of the city. The attack is most famous for the tale of the Maid of Saragossa, Agostina Zaragoza. Her lover was an artillery sergeant fighting at the Portillo Gate. The entire crew of his gun were shot down before they could fire their last round. Agostina ran forward, seized the lighted match from her lover’s hands and fired the cannon. The French were hit by a full load of grape shot at very short range, and their attack was broken. Palafox claimed to have witnessed these events in person, and Agostina was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant.
The French suffered 200 dead and 300 wounded during the assault of 2 July. Verdier decided not to attempt any further assaults and settled down for a regular siege, opening the first parallel on 3 July. His main problem was that he did not have enough men to blockade the city, and the Spanish were able to get men and supplies into Saragossa from the north bank of the Ebro during most of the siege.
During the second half of July the French concentrated on capturing the convents of San José, of the Capuchins and of the Trinitarians, all of which were outside the city to the west. By 24 July these positions were all in French hands and became part of their siege works.
A heavier artillery bombardment began on 4 August. This time the Spanish guns were silenced, a number of breaches were made in the walls, and terrible damage was done to the streets behind the walls. At two in the afternoon of 4 August Verdier launched his second major assault on the city. Thirteen French battalions in three columns attacked the city, and succeeded in forcing their way deep into Saragossa. Verdier sent a note to Palafox asking for his capitulation, to which Palafox’s response was “War to the knife” (these words were later chosen by Palafox to go on the rear of the medal issued to the defenders of Saragossa.
By the evening of 4 August the French were in possession of half of the city, but their attack had lost its momentum. The Spanish counterattacked and pushed the French back at huge cost to both sides. The fighting developed into the sort of urban warfare that became familiar during the Second World War, with the Spaniards having to clear each building floor by floor, slowly isolating and eliminating pockets of French resistance. When the fighting finally died down the French had been pushed back to a small wedge, jutting into the heart of the city but surrounded by Spanish held areas. The French had lost 2,000 men in the fighting (possibly 462 killed and 1,505 wounded). The Spanish had suffered similar or possibly higher losses, but still outnumbered the French.
Although fighting continued around Saragossa for several more days, the failure of this last great French assault ensured the failure of the siege. On 19 July a French army under General Dupont had been forced to surrender at Baylen. When news of this defeat reached the two commanders at Saragossa both realised that the French would probably have to retreat. Palafox responded by halting his own offensive operations, hoping the French would retreat without the need for any more fighting. Verdier responded with a massive artillery bombardment, using all of the ammunition he would be unable to carry away with him. Finally, on 14 August he blew up all the strong points he held outside the city, and withdrew. The siege was over.
The French suffered 3,500 casualties during the first siege of Saragossa. Spanish losses are harder to be sure of. 2,000 casualties were admitted at the time, but the real figure was probably higher. Despite this the first siege of Saragossa marked a significant change in the nature of siege warfare. A city unprotected by modern fortifications had been turned into one solid fortification, and its inexperienced garrison had fought off a series of determined assaults.