Siege of Tarragona, 3 May-28 June 1811

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The Fortifications
The Siege Begins
Fort Olivo
The Lower Town
The Upper Town


The siege of Tarragona of 3 May-28 June 1811 was the second of three sieges that saw the French seize the last major cities in Spanish hands in the east of the country in a twelve month period, an achievement that seemed like it might given them a chance to finally secure their control of the area. By 1811 the port city of Tarragona was the most important part of Catalonia still in Spanish hands, but the fall of Tortosa on 2 January made Tarragone the next target for General Suchet, the commander of the French army of Aragon. In some ways his task had been made easier on 10 March, when he was given command of a large part of Catalonia, along with just over half of the French Army of Catalonia. This meant that both the siege and the covering operations would be under Suchet’s own command, rather than shared with Marshal MacDonald.

Suchet was able to raise a field army of 20,000 men for the siege, including 1,400 cavalry, 2,000 artillerymen and 750 engineers. The infantry were divided into three divisions, under Generals Habert, Harispe and Frère. Habert’s division was sent to Tarragona via Tortosa, to escort the siege artillery along the coast road, while the other two divisions followed the direct road from Llerida to Tarragona.

Suchet’s task was made somewhat easier by the surprise Spanish capture of Figueras in April 1811. General Campoverde, commanding around 12,000-15,000 men, had been in the vicinity of Tarragona, and could have made Suchet’s journey difficult, especially if he had attacked Habert’s isolated division and destroyed the siege artillery, but instead Campoverde took two of his divisions north east in an attempt to help retain Figueras against an inevitable French counterattack. As a result when Suchet approached Tarragone the city was defended by around 6,500-7,000 men, made up of the permanent garrison of the city and 4,500 men from Courten’s division.

The Fortifications

In 1811 Tarragona was protected by a combination of strong natural and man-made defences. The old town was built on a flat topped but steep sided hill, with its highest point (530 feet above sea level) at the eastern end. The summit of the hill slopes down gently to the west. This older upper city had been the capital of Roman Spain (as Tarraco), and was still surrounded by Roman and even older walls. At the western end of this hill a steep slope drops down into the lower (port) city. The western end of the upper city was protected by a line of modern fortifications, while the eastern end was protected by five forts built on the slope of the hill and the northern face by two more forts. The lower town was protected by two bastions and the Fuerte Real. To the west of the town, at the point where the River Francoli reaches the sea, there was another fort (Fort Francoli), linked to the town by a covered way. The only geographical weakness was a hill named Monte Olivo, which overlooked the lower town. The southern edge of the summit of this hill was protected by Fort Olivo. This major fortification was open on its southern side to prevent it being used against the city.

The Siege Begins

Suchet arrived close to Tarragona on 2 May, and on 3 May he drove the Spanish out of their outposts and back into the fortifications. The French then took a week to survey the defences, and to get their troops into place. They decided to concentrate their efforts against the lower town, after judging an attack on the steep northern and eastern slopes around the upper town as impracticable. The French intended to construct their siege works on the plain of the Francoli River. Before they could begin serious work in this area, the French had to find some way to drive off the Anglo-Spanish fleet, to prevent it from bombarding the trenches from one flank, and had to capture the outlying Spanish forts of Francoli and Olivo.

The fleet was the easiest to deal with. On 8 May the French began to build a fort on the shore, with the intention of arming it with 24-pounder guns. Despite coming under heavy fire from the ships (at this point the Allied fleet consisted of two British 74 gun ships of the line and two frigates, under the command of Commodore Codrington, and a number of Spanish gunboats), by 13 May the fort was able to open fire, and the fleet was forced to pull back to the southern end of the harbour.

This period also saw the garrison receive a major reinforcement, when on 10 May Campoverde arrived by sea, at the head of 4,000 regular troops. The garrison was now over 10,000 strong. The garrison of Fort Olivo was reinforced, and a number of large sorties were carried out.

Fort Olivo

Work on the main siege lines to the west of the city began on 16 May, when a first parallel was built opposite Fort Francoli. Suchet’s engineers reported that they would not be ready to make a serious attack on the western walls until late May, and so Suchet decided to attack Fort Olivo. Although it had been designed to protect Tarragona against attacks from the north, the fort’s guns could also fire on the French siege works in the plains to their south west. The French soon encountered the same problems that the British faced when attacking the fort of San Cristobal at Badajoz. The ditch protecting Fort Olivo was cut into the rocks of the hill, making it almost impossible for the French gunners to fill it with rubble.

Suchet decided to make a direct assault on the fort, before there was a practicable breach. He was taking advantage of two weaknesses in the fort – its relatively open southern front with its nine foot high wall and palisade, and a small gap in the main wall where the aqueduct carrying water into the city passed through the walls. This attack, on the night of 29 May, was a lucky success. The troops sent to attack the rear wall clashed with a Spanish regiment on its way into the fort, and in the dark the two units became mingled. This prevented the defenders of the fort from firing onto the attackers, and the French managed to fight their way into the back of the fort. At the same time the frontal assault also met with success. Despite meeting a fierce resistance within the walls of the fort, the French eventually took possession of the place. Various figures are given for the Spanish losses during this fight, but Oman’s estimated total of around 1,100-1,300 killed wounded or captured from a garrison of 3,000 is probably the most accurate. The French reported losing 325 dead and wounded.

On the following day the Spanish made an attempt to recapture the fort, hoping that the French had not yet had time to reinforce the southern defences, but this attack was beaten off. Fort Olivo remained in French hands for the rest of the siege, although they did not use it as a base for their own artillery.

The Lower Town

On 30 May General Campoverde called a council of war, and announced that he was going to leave the city to raise a relief army. On the following day he departed, leaving General Juan Senen Contreras in charge of the defence. Contreras was left with 8,000 men inside Tarragona. Despite his best efforts Campoverde was unable to raise the large army he had expected, and only after the arrival of 4,000 men from Valencia did his force total more than 10,000 men, and even then Campoverde would make no effective contribution to the defence of the city.

Two days after Campoverde’s departure the French began their attack on the lower city, with the construction of a first parallel aimed at the bastions of Orleans and San Carlos. On 7 June they began to bombard the outlying Fort Francoli, and within 12 hours had battered a breach in its walls. Seeing that it could not longer be defended, at 8.30pm Contreras pulled the garrison and their guns out of the fort. An hour and a half later the French launched an assault against the empty fort. Despite Spanish attempts to destroy the fort with heavy gunfire from the Prince’s lunette, now the westernmost tip of the defences, the French were eventually able to built a gun battery into Fort Francoli.

The bombardment of the city defences began on 16 June. That night the French captured the Prince’s Lunette, which also became the site of a gun battery firing on the San Carlos bastion. By 21 June the French had created breaches in both the San Carlos and Orleans bastions, had damaged the curtain wall between them, and were preparing to launch an assault. Contreras had posted 6,000 of his 8,000 men in the lower city, ready to face the assault, under the command of General Sarsfield, an officer with a fine reputation. Sarsfield would not be present when the assault was launched. On the morning of 16 June Contreras had received an order from Campoverde summoning Sarsfield to return to his division outside the city. Contreras passed on this order, gave Sarsfield permission to leave and appointed General Velasco to replace him. Sarsfield passed command onto the senior colonel in the lower town, wrote a note to Contreras reporting that the colonel was not competent to take on that command, and then at 3pm left without waiting for his successor to arrive. Despite there being a gap of four hours between Sarsfield’s departure and the French assault, Velasco only arrived in the lower city after the assault had begun. When the French began their assault there was no senior officer in charge of the defence.

Suchet made that assault at 7.00pm on 21 June with 1,500 men from the grenadier and voltigeur companies of his battalions, supported by Montmarie’s brigade. The French attack met with immediate success. The forlorn hope managed to capture the breach in the Orleans bastion, while the second attack did the same at San Carlos. With the French inside the lower city, the Spanish garrison offered a short resistance, and then pulled back into the upper town. The assault cost Suchet 120 dead and 362 wounded, while Contreras reported losses of 500 men.

The Upper Town

The French were now faced with the problem of attacking the western front of the upper town. This wall was built at the top of a steep rocky slope, but it was well over one hundred years old, and was unprotected by any ditch. The French decided to attack the northern end of the line, between the San Pablo and San Juan bastions, where their engineers found better ground for digging their trenches. Work on the new siege lines began on 24 June.

On the same day Campoverde made his only attempt to help the garrison. He planned a coordinated attack on Harispe’s division, at the north eastern corner of the French lines, using his own two divisions as well as 4,000 men from the garrison. This attack ended in farce. When General Miranda, commanding one of Campoverde’s columns, reached the French lines he decided they were too strong to attack. Campoverde gave him permission to retreat, and the entire plan collapsed. Contreras, who had moved his men outside the walls ready to join the attack, was forced to pull back into the town.

A small British contingent then made a brief, rather disastrous appearance at Tarragona. 1,100 men under the command of Colonel Skerret had been sent from Cadiz to help defend Tarragona, but with orders that would allow a timid officer to avoid running any risk. Skerret was only to land his men if there was no danger that the British troops would be forced to surrender. Unfortunately the fall of the lower city meant that the harbour was no longer usable. Skerret arrived off Tarragona early on 26 June, but he was not able to land until that evening. He then toured the defences with Contreras, who admitted that he did not believe that the inner walls could hold. At this point he was planning to make an attempt to break through the French lines and join Campoverde. While Skerret was apparently a brave officer once in battle, he was also rather cautious, as he would later demonstrate at the siege of Tarifa (20 December 1811-5 January 1812), where he was in favour of abandoning the town early in the siege. Faced with a choice between a risky but potentially crucially important intervention at Tarragona, or a safer option of sailing up the coast to join Campoverde, he chose the safer option, and on 28 June the British troops sailed away.

In the aftermath of this visit Contreras decided to make his attempt to break through the French lines on the evening of 28 June. The garrison was given their orders – 1,400 men were to try and hold the walls for as long as possible, while the rest of the garrison attempted to escape along the Barcelona road. This plan would probably have succeeded, for most of the French troops were concentrated at the western front of the city, preparing for the upcoming assault, but Contreras never had a change to try out his plan.

At dawn on 28 June the French guns opened their bombardment of the inner wall. By 4.00pm they had blasted a 30 feet wide breach in the walls. Suchet decided to assault the breach that evening. 1,200 men in three columns, supported by another 1,200 men in the second line, were given the task of storming this breach. The attack went in at 5.00pm, and even though Contreras had placed some of his best troops in the breach the attack succeeded after half an hour of fighting. The garrison pulled back to the Rambla, (a street running across the town that Contreras had fortified), where they put up a much better fight than on the walls.

Once this second line had been broken, the fighting degenerated into a number of separate actions, as the French tackled a series of individual strong points. Contreras was captured, Campoverde’s brother was killed and very few soldiers escaped. The fighting eventually developed into one of the more vicious sacks of any city during the Peninsular War. At the end of the fighting 4,000 bodies were found in the streets, of which only half were soldiers. Of the 10,000 Spanish soldiers in the garrison at the start of the Storm, Suchet captured 8,000, so around 2,000 civilians had been murdered during the sack (at the disgraceful sack of Badajoz the out-of-control British troops murdered around 100 people)

The fall of Tarragona came close to ending Spanish resistance in Catalonia. Two-thirds of the Army of Catalonia had been lost, along with the only major port in Spanish hands. The surviving Spanish forces in Catalonia were virtually cut off from British supplies. Suchet was promoted to marshal for his successful capture of Tarragona, and was free to turn his attention south to Valencia. After the siege Suchet attempted to tempt Contreras to change sides. Contreras refused, and spent fifteen months as a prisoner at Bouillon, before escaping in October 1812. Tarragona itself would remain in French hands well into 1813.


 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain. cover cover cover
A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 June 2008), Siege of Tarragona, 3 May 1811-28 June 1811 ,

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