The siege of Valencia of 25 December 1811-9 January 1812 was the final major French success during the Peninsular War, and saw French power in eastern Spain reach its maximum extent. The French army under General Suchet had invaded the province in mid-September, in the belief that the Spanish were in a state of panic, but the prolonged siege of Saguntum had disproved this theory. General Joachim Blake, commanding the Spanish Army of Valencia, had made an unsuccessful attempt to lift the siege (battle of Saguntum, 25 October 1811), and on the next day the city surrendered. Suchet was free to advance towards the city of Valencia, but he no longer had enough men in his field army to risk attacking Blake’s extensive lines of fortifications. After detaching a garrison for Saguntum and a brigade to escort the prisoners captured after the battle and siege back to France, Suchet’s field army was only 15,000 strong.
It took two months for reinforcements to reach Suchet. Although the troops in question were relatively close by, in his own province of Aragon, they could not move until more troops had arrived to replace them, and that needed Napoleon’s approval. Eventually, in mid-December everything was in place, and Suchet ordered the divisions of Reille and Severoli to join him at Valencia. They reached Segorbe, west of Saguntum, on 24 December, where they received orders to make a forced march to the front, for Suchet intended to make his move on 26 December. On that day Suchet had 30,000 men.
Opposing him were Blake’s 23,000 regular troops and an unknown (but not very large) number of irregulars. Although the city of Valencia has expanded east to the coast, in 1811 it was two miles from the coast. The city itself was built on the southern side of the Guadalaviar River, and Blake had decided to defend the line of the river. The Spanish had built a line of fortifications along the river from the coast inland to the village of Manises. Their defensive works were further protected by a network of canals which also ran as far as Manises. Valencia itself had been turned into an armed camp, protected by a line of earthwork fortifications to the south.
Blake distributed his troops unwisely. His plan had one major flaw – his left flank was entirely exposed to being outflanked by the French, for there were no natural obstacles west of Manises to stop the French simply ignoring the Spanish lines. To counter this Blake should have placed his best troops – Lardizabal’s and Zayas’s divisions, at the left of the line, but instead he placed the Valencian divisions of Villacampa and Obispo in this crucial position. They had performed very badly at Saguntum, where they had been defeated by a single cavalry charge in only ten minutes of fighting. To their right was Creagh’s Murcian division, little better in quality. Blake did post his cavalry at Aldaya, behind his left wing, but rather than protect his flank, the cavalry would end up being surprised by the French.
Inevitably Suchet noticed the weakness of Blake’s left flank, and decided to make his main effort there. Two thirds of the French army – 20,000 men in Harispe’s, Musnier’s and Reille’s Divisions, were sent to cross the Guadalaviar at Ribaroja. Another 5,000 men under Habert were sent to attack the Spanish right close to the sea. Suchet hoped that the two wings of his army would meet up behind the Spanish lines and trap Blake’s entire army. Only 5,000 men were left to face the Spanish lines around Valencia – Compère’s Neapolitan brigade was to guard against any Spanish sortie across the river, while Palombini’s division was to attack the Spanish lines at Mislata.
This was an ambitious plan, and was based on Suchet’s low opinion of Blake – the French army was split into three columns, separated by significant distances and unable to support each other. If Blake had had more confidence in his troops, then he could have turned on the 10,000 French troops close to Valencia, greatly equalling the odds. If he had been more alert on 26 December, then the bulk of his army could easily have escaped to the south. Instead Blake remained largely static while the French carried out their plans, and then allowed the bulk of his army to be trapped in Valencia.
The French left their camps on the night of 25-26 December. The Spanish detected the French crossing the river at Ribaroja, but could not tell how strong this force was, and did not discover that Suchet’s engineers were building two trestle bridges across the river. Fighting soon broke out in three places – on the Spanish left, at Mislata and close to the coast. At first Blake believed that Habert’s attack on the coast was the main attack. Once it became clear it was not, he turned his attention to the fighting at Mislata. Here Palombini’s men made a determined attempt to break the Spanish lines without success, suffering most of the French casualties as a result. While Blake’s attention was distracted, Suchet’s main column was advancing towards the high road south to Murcia. Harispe’s column clashed with the Spanish cavalry at Aldaya, suffering an early setback before forcing the Spanish troops to flee. 20,000 French troops were now advancing behind Blake’s position. His lines had been turned. All that remained to be decided was how many troops Suchet would be able to trap.
Large bodies of Spanish troops escaped from the trap. General Mahy, commanding on the far left, decided to retreat south once he realised what had happened. Around 7,000 men from this flank rallied at Cullera and Alcira. Zayas and Lardizabal, next in line, came under Blake’s direct control. When it was clear that the French had turned his lines, Blake ordered these troops to retreat into Valencia, trapping some of his best troops. The irregular troops defending the Spanish right were dispersed, most of them escaping to the south. Finally, Miranda’s division, which had been posted in Valencia, had remained in the city throughout the day and was now trapped within the walls.
Blake now had 17,000 men with him inside the defences of Valencia. Despite all the work that had been carried out on the defences, the city was not ready for a siege. Blake had 100,000 civilians and 17,000 troops to feed, and only 10 days worth of food. The city had been supplied by convoys from the south, while the port had been lost to the French two months earlier. Blake himself was increasingly unpopular in the city, and was blamed for the poor conduct of the entire campaign against Suchet. There was even a chance that the people might have risen against Blake’s authority. The physical defences were little better. Valencia was protected by a mix of the original medieval walls and the strong ditch-and-bank earthwork fortifications around the armed camp. Neither the stone walls nor the earth fortifications would be able to withstand the French siege guns.
Blake and his officers were well aware of this. Soon after being trapped Blake held a council of war, at which it was decided to make an attempt to break through the French lines. This attempt was finally made on the night of 28-29 December, and came tantalisingly close to success. The Spanish advance guard, 500 men from Lardizabal’s division, managed to create a gap in the French lines at the canal of Mestalla, and escaped to the west. Unfortunately Lardizabal did not act with the urgency the situation required. When his main force reached the canal, he wasted time attempting to build a bridge. This gave the French time to concentrate against him, and Blake was soon convinced that the attempt had failed. The Spanish column retreated back into the city.
The French began to construct regular siege works on 1 January, and by 4 January were ready to open fire on the outer defences. Realising this Blake withdrew inside the city walls, abandoning the entire fortified camp south of Valencia. The French began to fire mortar shells into the city on the following day, and on 6 January summoned Blake to surrender. He refused, claiming that the French bombardment had hardened the resolve of the Valencians, but this was not the case. After only two more days of bombardment a council of war agreed to surrender, and on 9 January the French took possession of the city.
Suchet took 16,270 prisoners at Valencia. The French also captured 374 cannon and a large amount of ammunition, but very little food. Suchet kept his troops outside the city until 14 January, and so the place avoided being sacked, at least until Suchet began to levy his own fines on the city. Eventually the city and province were fined 53 million francs, of which only 3 million went to Madrid, which Suchet and his army kept the rest. Ignoring some of the terms of the capitulation, Suchet executed hundreds of people in Valencia, including a large number of people who had been involved in riots against the French in 1808.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.5: October 1811-August 31, 1812 - Valencia, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Madrid, Sir Charles Oman Part Five of Oman's classic history of the Peninsular War starting with a look at the French invasion of Valencia in the winter of 1811-12, before concentrating on Wellington's victorious summer campaign of 1812, culminating with the battle of Salamanca and Wellington's first liberation of Madrid.|
|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.|