Louis-Gabriel Suchet emerged as the most successful of Napoleon’s generals in coping with the difficulties of fighting in the Iberian Peninsula. After campaigning in Italy and Switzerland during the War of the Second Coalition, he fought with distinction as a divisional commander in the successful campaigns of 1805, 1806, and 1807. Al- though his early career brought him numerous laurels in conventional warfare, Suchet received no training in the complex task of fighting simultaneously against both guerrillas and regular enemy forces. But in 1808, Napoleon promoted the rising young leader to command a corps in Spain. There Suchet had a run of successes, pacifying the province of Aragon for several years and extending French control for a time into neighboring Catalonia and Valencia. His single greatest achievement, for which he won his marshal’s baton, was capturing the Spanish fortress of Tarragona in May 1811. Only when the Earl (later Duke) of Wellington had defeated other French leaders and driven them from Spain into southern France was Suchet compelled to agree to an armistice with the enemy. Rallying to Napoleon in the spring of 1815, he held a high-ranking post in the defense of France’s eastern border. Suchet survived the end of the Napoleonic era in France by a little more than a decade, dying in 1826.
Louis-Gabriel Suchet was a child of privilege, born at his father’s country estate near Lyons on 2 March 1770. The son of a wealthy silk manufacturer, the young man joined the National Guard, then entered a volunteer battalion as a private soldier in 1792. Within a year, his fellow soldiers had chosen him as lieutenant colonel of the same unit. Suchet’s battalion participated in the siege of the port of Toulon, where his battlefield exploits brought him to the attention of General Napoleon Bonaparte. During the 1796-1797 campaign in Italy, Suchet served at times in General André Masséna’s division, at other times in the division led by General Pierre Augereau. He was wounded in battle several times, displayed both tactical skill and bravery, and rose to the rank of colonel. When the French army left Italy to pursue the Austrian enemy into their homeland, Suchet commanded the advance guard of Bonaparte’s forces.
Although he reached the rank of général de brigade in 1798 and général de division in 1799, the years following the Italian campaign saw Suchet’s career lose some of its upward momentum. His personal relationship with Bonaparte was cool: Suchet exhibited no affection for his commander, and Bonaparte reciprocated by excluding the young officer from the list of associates marked for promotion to the top of the military hierarchy. Moreover, a paradoxical combination of political traits made him suspect to the government back in Paris. Suchet’s family background gave him the appearance of a sympathizer with the de- posed aristocracy. At the same time, Suchet’s extravagant rhetoric in favor of deepening the effect of the Revolution was seen as too radical for the post-Jacobin era.
Nonetheless, Suchet saw his reputation rise in the eyes of several senior commanders. Serving as a brigade commander under Masséna in Switzerland in the spring of 1799, he pulled his unit out of a perilous position after the bold French advance into eastern Switzerland. After returning safely to French lines, the young general received the post of Masséna’s chief of staff. Later that year, he served as chief of staff to General Barthélemy Joubert in Italy. In that capacity, Suchet advised his commander to avoid fighting a superior Russian force at Novi in August. When Joubert ignored the advice and was killed in the sub- sequent battle, Suchet helped to lead the defeated French army home.
Masséna’s 1800 campaign in northwestern Italy, which culminated in the siege of Genoa, brought Suchet mixed success. As commander of the northern segment of the French line, Suchet was unable to hold back an Austrian force, being pushed as far westward as Nice and beyond. His failure forced Masséna into a defensive position behind the walls of the important Italian port city. Suchet redeemed himself, however, by halting the Austrian offensive along the river Var west of Nice, thereby safeguarding the route into southern France. By holding down some 30,000 Austrian troops in Provence during May with his own meager force of only about 8,000 men, Suchet contributed to Bonaparte’s successful crossing of the Alps and subse- quent victory at the Battle of Marengo.
In the years following, Suchet received only modest rewards. Named the French army’s inspector general of infantry in 1801, he was passed over when several of his contemporaries received the title of marshal on 19 May 1804. With the formation of the Grande Armée, Suchet got the relatively lowly post of divisional commander. Fighting in V Corps under Marshal Jean Lannes, Suchet had a string of exceptional successes. His division advanced rapidly into Germany in the summer of 1805, thereby helping to confine and capture the Austrian army under Feldmarschalleutnant Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich at Ulm. At the subsequent Battle of Austerlitz in early December, Suchet’s troops held the French army’s northern flank against Russian attacks, permitting Napoleon to concentrate his forces in the center for the victorious strike against the enemy’s lines. In October 1806, Suchet’s division was the first to encounter the Prussian army and achieve a French victory in the fighting at Saalfeld; in the ensuing Battle of Jena, Suchet’s men again spearheaded the French advance.
In the subsequent offensive into Poland in late 1806 and early 1807, Suchet received orders to guard the area around Warsaw. Although his troops saw action at Pultusk and Ostrolenka, Suchet had no role to play in the great battlefield dramas of Eylau and Friedland. Nonetheless, his solid, sometimes brilliant leadership now brought him ap- propriate rewards. In March 1808, Napoleon granted him several large estates and named him a Count of the Empire. Moreover, after fifteen years of service, Suchet ascended to command of an army corps. In September 1808, he received orders to take this force into Spain.
Suchet had never fought guerrillas as he was to do so often in Spain. But he had experienced enough leadership challenges to help him cope better than many of his con- temporaries in the French army with the problems of both conventional and irregular warfare in the Peninsula. Campaigning in an area in which he was unlikely to receive reinforcements, Suchet saw the need to preserve the strength of his army at all costs. Ever since his service with the ragged troops of Bonaparte’s Army of Italy in 1796-1797, Suchet had been a stickler for obtaining adequate supplies of food for his men. And he insisted on suitable medical care for them. At the same time, he had become convinced of the advantages of unwavering discipline in the army. He was also equipped by experience for the delicate task of occupying a hostile area. As military governor of Toulon back in 1793, he had begun to acquire experience in ruling over a civilian population, and he had served as military governor of the Italian city of Padua in early 1801.
Suchet arrived in Spain in December 1808. He was ordered to Aragon to join other commanders like Marshal Adolphe Mortier and General Jean Andoche Junot in besieging the key Spanish fortress of Saragossa. Dispatched to northeastern Spain at this early stage in the Peninsular War, Suchet was to spend most of the following five years here.
In helping with the siege of Saragossa, a major city on the river Ebro, the young general soon faced the problems of guerrilla warfare. His role was to hold the road center of Calatayud, to the southwest of Saragossa, thus maintaining the besiegers’ supply line with Madrid. In dealing with the local population, Suchet tested some of the policies that served him well throughout his posting in the Peninsula. In particular, he worked to win over the Spanish under his jurisdiction by avoiding the harsh requisitioning policies that elsewhere provoked fierce popular resistance.
With the fall of Saragossa in February 1809, Suchet replaced Junot as commander of V Corps and received the assignment of pacifying Aragon. Although the three divisions he now led were notoriously ill-disciplined, Suchet transformed them into a potent fighting force that later received the title of the Army of Aragon. The French leader shook off an initial defeat at the hands of General Joaquin Blake at Alcaniz in late May. Dismissing incompetent officers and reconstituting his forces, he led his troops to victories over Blake in battles at Maria and Belchite the following month, thereby freeing Aragon of conventional Spanish forces.
Suchet’s next task was to cope with insurgents within the Aragonese population. His success came from a mixture of conciliation and firmness. He capitalized on separatist feeling in Aragon and the willingness of the local population to disavow allegiance to the old Spanish monarchy. He saw no need to harass local religious leaders, and he was comfortable calling on representatives of the population to offer him advice and suggestions. In forming a police force, he tried to rely on the local population for recruits, and he had some modest success in bringing local notables into the French administration. Meanwhile, Suchet made every effort to maintain discipline among his own troops by paying them regularly and providing them with adequate rations. By employing an entire army corps in controlling the people of Aragon, Suchet assured that local insurgents, who had not yet organized effectively, could not get a foothold in the region. He soon gained a reputation for unmitigated harshness in dealing with guerrillas who fell into his hands.
Success in counterinsurgency received a boost from the fact that, starting in mid-1809 after defeating the Austrians at Wagram, Napoleon did not face organized opposition elsewhere. Since the Emperor had no need to draw troops from Spain for a number of years, Suchet was allowed to keep his forces intact. He even received a stream of reinforcements from across the Pyrenees. On the other hand, cooperation among the generals in charge of individual provinces in Spain was conspicuous by its absence. While Suchet could clear Aragon of insurgent opposition, the elusive enemy could easily slip over into a neighboring province. Nor was Suchet, for all his abilities, willing to cooperate with his fellow French generals.
Pursuing a policy certain to rouse popular feeling against the occupiers, Napoleon insisted on draining away the resources of the Spanish countryside. The Emperor directed Suchet to undertake other responsibilities that undercut the successes in Aragon. By requiring Suchet to advance into the neighboring provinces of Catalonia and Valencia in February 1810, Napoleon began to spread Suchet’s troops perilously thin. Insurgents in Aragon took notice.
Suchet failed in an initial attempt to take the port city of Valencia in April 1810, but he then produced a series of dramatic successes. His troops captured two main Spanish strongholds in southern Catalonia-Lérida and Tortosa- and Suchet became recognized as one French commander who could produce good results against both enemy regulars and enemy insurgents.
The highpoint of Suchet’s command in Spain came in 1811 with the capture of Tarragona; on 8 July he received the baton of Marshal of the Empire as a reward for this achievement, becoming the only French general to win this distinction in the Peninsula. As a major port and key fortress, Tarragona enabled regular Spanish forces to maintain themselves in lower Catalonia. A difficult siege began in early May, with the defenders aided by the presence of a Royal Navy squadron. British warships directed artillery fire against the French attackers, and British transports brought Spanish forces by sea to reinforce Tarragona’s garrison. By the close of June, Suchet’s Army of Aragon had breached the fortress walls, fought through the streets of the city, and captured a garrison of 9,000. But even Suchet, the disciplinarian and advocate of moderate treatment for Spanish civilians, found himself helpless to control his victorious French forces. Filled with excitement and post-battle exhilaration, Suchet’s troops sacked the city and murdered thousands of Tarragona’s population.
Suchet faced a new challenge when Napoleon ordered him to move against the city of Valencia. The city was the last base of support for Spanish regular forces in eastern Spain, and it provided crucial supplies for guerrillas operating in that part of the country. In October, a new victory over Blake at Sagunto, north of Valencia, put the Army of Aragon in a position to advance on Valencia itself. Suchet took the city in January 1812, capturing his longtime adversary Blake along with 18,000 troops. Napoleon recognized the feat of arms by naming Suchet duc d’Albufera, after a small body of water near the captured city.
But Suchet’s success at Valencia had negative consequences. For one thing, concentrating the army for a conventional campaign enabled insurgents back in Aragon to renew their activities. Moreover, Napoleon diverted troops from the Army of Portugal in western Spain in order to reinforce Suchet. With the shrinkage in French troops there, Wellington received a golden opportunity to strike at his enemy’s border fortresses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. With these in his hands, the British commander in chief was able to advance into the center of Spain and even to take temporary possession of Madrid.
Reconstructing the Grande Armée in 1813 after his disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon desperately needed troops in Germany. The Emperor transferred units from Italy to Germany, leaving a gap that Napoleon filled by drawing troops from Suchet’s command. Thus, Italian regiments serving under Suchet were reconstituted as a single division and sent back to Italy. Besides his diminished resources, Suchet found himself confronted with the potent opposition of the Royal Navy. In the spring, a landing force of British and Sicilian troops tried to recapture Tarragona. He was able to bring sufficient forces together to relieve the city in August, but by then the overall situation in Spain was growing increasingly unstable.
After the defeat of French forces at Vitoria in June 1813, and Wellington’s invasion of French territory in October, Suchet realized that holding extensive territory in northeastern Spain was no longer possible. He withdrew to northern Catalonia, and, in a controversial decision, refused to join Marshal Nicolas Soult in a counteroffensive Soult had planned against Wellington. In early 1814, Suchet was pushed northward to Gerona and then to the approaches to the Pyrenees at Figueras. At this time, new demands from Napoleon that troops leave Spain for the campaign in France deprived Suchet of over 20,000 troops, leaving barely 12,000 soldiers under his command.
Suchet’s troops remained a disciplined, if small fighting force in southwestern France when Napoleon’s resistance to the invading Allies collapsed in the spring of 1814. With his headquarters at Narbonne, Suchet negotiated an armistice with Wellington. It was his only important con- tact with the distinguished British commander. Alone among the senior French military leaders who served years in Spain, Suchet never faced Wellington on the battlefield. The French marshal also declared his allegiance to the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII and received a number of rewards. Elevated to the peerage, Suchet obtained a succession of prestigious military commands. Napoleon’s return from exile in March 1815 found Suchet as commander of the 5th Division stationed at Strasbourg.
Suchet joined several of the other marshals in rallying to Napoleon’s service. Although Suchet had not seen the Emperor since 1808, Napoleon showed that he was aware of the talents of this Peninsular veteran, awarding him a significant independent command. Suchet was sent to Lyons as Napoleon prepared to thrust his army into Belgium, and he was given the mission of defending south- eastern France. His “Corps of Observation of the Alps” consisted of some 8,000 regulars and 15,000 members of the National Guard. With this meager force, Suchet had to shield France from an Austrian and Piedmontese attack expected to advance from Switzerland or Savoy.
Suchet took the initiative away from the enemy by driving into Savoy and seizing the key military routes through the Alps. His offensive began on 14 June, the day before Napoleon’s troops entered Belgium. Facing a well- led, veteran Austrian army of some 48,000 men, however, Suchet was compelled to order a retreat, which most of the army carried out in a disciplined manner. More than a week after Waterloo, he learned about Napoleon’s defeat and abdication, and he followed orders from the provisional government in Paris to negotiate an armistice with the enemy.
As a penalty for having renewed his ties with Napoleon, Suchet was deprived of both his peerage and his military post at Strasbourg. His peerage was restored in 1819, but he never again received any military responsibilities. After living his last decade in obscurity, Suchet died at his chateau near Marseilles on 3 June 1826.