Second siege of Gerona, 24 July-16 August 1808

The second siege of Gerona was a second unsuccessful French attempt to capture the city of Gerona, which threatened their lines of communication between Barcelona and Perpignan. The French had seized Barcelona on 29 February 1808, but had not then occupied Gerona. After the outbreak of the Spanish revolt the French army at Barcelona had become dangerously isolated from the main French armies around Madrid, and so General Duhesme had decided to occupy Gerona. His first attempt, on 20-21 June 1808, had ended in failure, and he had retreated to Barcelona, but the general situation had not changed.

Gerona was not protected by strong modern fortifications. It lies on both sides of the river Oña. The larger part of the town was on the east bank, and was protected by a line of four forts that ran along a ridge just to the east of the town, with the main citadel of Monjuich at the northern edge of the. The town itself was defended by a twenty foot high medieval wall, with no ditch. The western part of the town, known as the Mercadal, was unprotected by any natural features, and so a more modern Vauban style wall had been built, defended by five bastions.

After his early repulse at Gerona, Duhesme had called for assistance. Napoleon was not particularly interested in the fighting in Catalonia, but he did scrap together a force of around 7,000-8,000 men, which assembled at Perpignan under General Reille. This force slowly took shape, and by the middle of July Reille had around 3,000 men at his disposal, with which he made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Rosas, on the coastal road between Perpignan and Barcelona. This attempt was cut short, for on 10 July Duhesme left Barcelona at the head of a column 7,000 strong, heading for Gerona, and at the same time ordered Reille to meet him there.

Duhesme left Barcelona with two brigades of French infantry, one regiment of Italian cavalry and twenty two guns (including ten siege guns). On the way to Gerona he joined up with another two battalions of infantry and a cavalry regiment under General Chabran. His combined force reached Gerona on 23 July, and on 24 July the first of Reille’s men arrived, beginning the siege. Eventually Duhesme would have around 13,000 men with which to conduct the siege.

Right up until the start of the siege, the Spanish had only had 400 men in Gerona, from the same Irish regiment of Ultonia that had been present during the first siege. However, the situation was about to be transformed by the arrival of a large continent of troops from the garrisons of the Balearic islands. Between 19-23 July 5,000 regular troops landed in Catalonia, and on the night of 22 July (or possibly 25 July), 1,300 light infantry from the 2nd Volunteers of Barcelona entered the town.

The French took up positions on opposite sides of the river, with Duhesme at Santa Eugenia on the left (western) bank, and Reille at Puento Mayor, north of the city, on the eastern bank. The two positions were well connected. During the short first siege, Duhesme had lacked a siege train, and so had been forced to make a series of unsuccessful attempts to storm the town. This time he had a stronger artillery train, and so decided to settle down to conduct a regular siege. The main target of the French assault would be the citadel of Monjuich, which dominated the town. Duhesme’s plan was to place his heavy guns on the northern slopes of the hill dominated by the citadel, but work on this was ridiculously slow, and the bombardment did not begin until 12 August, two weeks after the French arrived at Gerona.

This delay would have a disastrous impact on the French campaign. While Duhesme was slowly preparing to begin his bombardment, the Marquis of Del Palacio was appointed as Captain-General of Catalonia. He was considered to be a well-intentioned but not very capable leader, but his initial moves would save Gerona for the moment. He began a siege Barcelona, hoping that this would force Duhesme to abandon his own attack on Gerona. At the same time a small column under the Conde de Caldegues was sent towards Gerona, where they were to help the local levies harass the French. The delay also allowed news of the disastrous French defeat at Baylen on 19 July 1808 to reach both the French and Spanish camps.

Caldegues left the vicinity of Barcelona on 6 August at the head of a force that contained four companies of regular troops, three guns and 2,000 irregular troops. He was joined on the way to Gerona by a large number of local levies, which brought his force up to a total of 7,000 men. Outside Gerona he was able to meet up with the senior commanders from Gerona, and together they decided to launch a daring assault on the French lines. Their plan was to attack Reille’s men, on the eastern bank of the Oña, where they were bombarding the Monjuich. The hope was that Duhesme’s half of the French army would be unable to reach the battlefield in time to intervene effectively. At the same time as the relief force made its attack, as any men as possible from the garrison would make a sortie.

The attack began on the morning of 16 August. 1,400 men from the garrison attacked the siege works, overran the French regiment guarding them and captured the siege guns. Reille organised a counterattack, and was beginning to push the Spanish back towards the city, when Caldegues’s relief force made its attack. Reille was forced to pull back to the north bank of the River Ter.

Despite this setback, the French still outnumbered the Spanish, and Duhesme’s half of the army had not yet been engaged. Caldegues decided not to risk a second attack, and instead took up a position on the hills above Puento Mayor, on the south bank of the Ter, where he waited for a French counterattack. That attack never came. Duhesme was already aware that Barcelona was under siege. His own heavy siege guns had been lost, and the Spanish had driven his forces away from the areas that had been damaged during the four days of the bombardment. The Spanish were now in a reasonably strong position – the French would have had to attack them across the River Ter, and Duhesme was aware that his own army was not of the highest quality. That night the French army slipped away from their positions around Gerona. Reille returned to his base at Figueras, half way to the French border, while Duhesme made his way south, eventually reaching Barcelona on 20 August after a dangerous and costly retreat. 

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 (27 February 2008), Second siege of Gerona, 24 July-16 August 1808 ,

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