This is an account of the epic siege of Saragossa in early 1809:
The 27th January 1809 dawned drab and dismal. There was a light mist but the cold of the Spanish winter was intense. French troops gathered in the trenches before Saragossa, chatting nervously and shaking themselves ‘like dogs’ to keep warm. Napoleon’s soldiers had been encamped before the Spanish city for two months, enduring the wearisome monotony of siege warfare, fervently hoping for a breakthrough this winter day which might finish the ordeal. But the Spanish defenders were in no mood to capitulate. The silence of the early morn was occasionally broken by the sharp crack of a sniper’s musket. Some of the bullets whistled harmlessly overhead, others thudded into the breastworks of the French trenches. Soon that noise was itself drowned when the French siege guns opened up, directing their massive roundshot against the city’s ancient defences. By ten the bulk of the French assault force had gathered. The brusque General Pierre Habert inspected his veterans, moving through the ranks, encouraging cajoling. In the centre Major Stahl and 300 voltigeurs prepared to attack a breach laboriously pounded by the heavy French siege guns. On the right a second column under Captain Guttemann formed up to assault the battery of guns on the Spanish parapet, the Palafox Battery named after their illustrious leader. A third column, commanded by Colonel Josef Chlopiski and composed of Poles from the 1st Vistula Regiment, was selected to attack the Santa Engracia convent which formed part of the city’s southern wall.
At 11.00 the gigantic French guns switched to firing into the city, sowing chaos or dismay. The defenders had virtually ceased firing, perhaps waiting for the French, perhaps too busy plugging ruined walls with sacks of earth. Then the signal the entire French army had waited for came. At noon three field guns opened fire, one after the other. The French clambered noisily out of the trenches and began to run forwards across the frosty ground. The defenders opened fire from the walls, here and there Frenchmen and Poles were hit and fell whilst the rest pushed forwards sensing victory. But before they could reach the breach Stahl’s men were hit by canister and counterattacked by a strong force of 700 Spaniards. The voltigeurs reeled back from the shock and scattered. Some ran back to the trenches others fought hand-to-hand with their assailants.
Gutteman’s column was more fortunate, bursting through the breach into Pabostre Avenue and the greatcoated-Frenchmen barricaded themselves into some of the street’s battered houses. Throwing beams across doorways and furniture against windows they then fiercely resisted as Spanish reserves counterattacked and vainly swarmed around them.
Chlopiski’s four companies also attacked with vigour but were astonished to find a second wall had been built behind the breach in the wall of the convent. Undeterred the Poles forced their way through a tiny gap in this unexpected obstacle, broke into the holy building and took on the 1,200 defenders. Baron Lejeune, a colourful engineer officer accompanying the assault, was dazed by a hit in the face by one such defender’s musket butt. Nevertheless he still managed to witness the infernal scene before being wounded again ‘by a ricocheting bullet in the shoulder, causing me tremendous pain’. Like ‘furious lions’ the Poles clawed their way through the church before breaking out into the little square behind. As the Poles began to occupy the neighbouring houses the Spanish defenders along the wall found themselves cut off and switched round to face the new threat. The 5th Light seized the critical moment, ran forward from the trenches, scaled the walls and arrived triumphant on the rampart. Supported by the 115th they pushed on to capture 15 guns and penetrate as far as the Trinitarian convent. But the cost of such progress was high: 43 dead and 136 wounded. Even so the French were within the walls. Their assault had been a success and the city, by rights, should now have capitulated. But Saragossa was no ordinary city and this was no ordinary war.
On the afternoon of Friday 4 November 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte had crossed the Pyrenees and entered the kingdom of Spain. He and a veteran army had come to restore his fortunes in that unfortunate country for his brother, king Joseph, who had found himself almost ousted from his newly-acquired kingdom by a popular revolt.
Earlier that year Napoleon, used to deciding the fate of nations and monarchs, had deposed the old Bourbon dynasty and installed Joseph on the throne. Such an act the Spanish people could not accept and, in the summer of 1808, they fought back. The French, victorious in battle against Spain’s regular forces, could never overcome popular resistance and the first year of the Peninsular War settled down into a costly, squalid conflict. Then, in July 1808, the French cause suffered a serious setback. General Dupont, commanding French conscripts, found himself surrounded at Bailen in Andalucia by Spanish regulars. To the astonishment of the Spaniards, and to the rest of Europe, he surrendered after scarcely a shot had been fired. This act of cowardice, as Napoleon saw it, sparked panic in the French administration; troops were withdrawn, the Spanish advanced, Joseph quit Madrid and the French fled northwards over the Ebro.
Napoleon was forced to act to restore French rule but such a campaign would not be easy. Spain was vast and the Spanish, already brutalised through popular resistance, were also now elated by their recent victories. Nobody quite knew whether the genius of the emperor would be enough to triumph but all were sure that more was at stake than the crown of Spain.
That November Napoleon’s moves were decisive; French veterans poured across the Ebro, stabbing at the motley Spanish field armies, routing them and pushing them back. Many of the Spaniards took to their heals or joined bands of guerrillas proclaiming liberty or death. Significantly, resistance was collecting at the Aragonese city of Saragossa, straddling the Ebro, which had earned a reputation by withstanding the French in the summer of 1808 and was now a focal point for the fugitive remnants of armies. After all if Saragossa succeeded now then Spain might just defeat the master of Europe.
On 23 November Marshal Jean Lannes smashed another poorly-led Spanish force, commanded by Francisco Castanos, victor of Bailen, at Tudela. Saragossa’s garrison was soon joined by survivors from the battle and they were feverishly impressed into strengthening the city’s defences, overseen by the energetic General José Palafox. Supplies were brought in from the surrounding countryside, troops were reviewed and armed, engineers – overseen by the talented Colonel San Genis, a native of the city – had walls and ditches repaired and houses fortified and loopholed. Barricades were thrown across streets, earthworks were dug and thousands of sacks filled with earth. The scene was set for one of history’s greatest sieges and Saragossa was readied for war to the death.
Meanwhile the French, composed of III Corps and elements of Marshal Michel Ney’s VI Corps, remained around Tudela to catch their breath and await imperial command. Such orders were not long in coming and the two marshals set off towards the city with their 25,000 men. Arriving beneath the walls and setting up camp they were disconcerted to receive further orders from Napoleon directing Ney to head for Castile, leaving Moncey’s III Corps alone to defeat an electrified city. That marshal, with just three of his four divisions, flinched from the task of fighting his way into a fortified city whilst beset by a hostile population. So, to the joy of that incredulous population, the French withdrew, retreating to Alagon to await reinforcements. Confusion shattered French morale and a devastated Alagon offered little by way of compensation. A Polish officer in III Corps, Heinrich von Brandt, recalled that ‘We camped in conditions of absolute squalor. The inhabitants had fled, the weather was atrocious – freezing northerly gales alternated with torrential downpours without respite.’
Reinforcements arrived two weeks later in the form of Marshal Adolphe Mortier’s V Corps and the siege train from Bayonne. The French, content not to be inactive, set off again hoping, perhaps, that Saragossa would cave in like so many collapsed field armies.
Palafox was convinced it wouldn’t. He had used the fortnight’s respite well and his garrison boasted 34,000 regular troops and militia as well as swiftly-organising bodies of determined civilians boosted by refugees – who had nothing to lose – from the surrounding area. His defence depended upon a series of well-defended strongpoints, many of them based on the city’s churches and monasteries, now fortified. The Saint Joseph monastery, just outside the southern wall, acted as a bastion in its own right as did the Santa Monica convent in the south east of the city and the Jesus monastery on the northern bank of the Ebro just beyond the suburbs. If the French did penetrate into the city then other substantial buildings – the University, Orphanage, Archbishop’s Palace and a score of churches and religious houses – would grind down their advance through the narrow streets and gain time for relief to arrive. There certainly seemed to be sufficient food – at least for the garrison – to enable the city to endure a three-month siege and, Palafox was sure, the necessary endurance to put up a courageous resistance.
The French began by storming Monte Torrero, an elevated position which dominated the southern side of the city. Just two hours of resistance were followed by the flight of the defenders into the city. That afternoon the understandably optimistic French attacked from the north with General Honoré Gazan’s men bursting into the suburbs. Canister, from some of the city’s 160 guns, and street-fighting cost them 700 men before they fell back.
Moncey chose this moment to inform Palafox that he should capitulate but Palafox was scathing, suggesting that the French should rather surrender to him. So General André Lacoste, the remarkable engineer officer, began work in earnest. He determined that in order to effect a breach the French should first seize the Saint Joseph monastery, just beyond the shallow Huerba stream. From there the French could reach towards the banks of the Ebro, thus communicating with Gazan, whilst also launching attacks against the Santa Engracia gate, thereby gaining access into the south of the city. Digging began on the 23rd December 1808, shivering conscripts breaking the icy ground and bemoaning their fate and the conditions they were being forced to endure. They were entirely justified for, when on the 29th, General Jean Andoche Junot arrived to replace Moncey he was shocked by what he found. He wrote to Napoleon that his III Corps was composed of too few troops to succeed and that these troops were ‘young men, exhausted by the campaign; they are virtually naked, they have no greatcoats and no boots. They fill the hospitals in their hundreds which, due to the poor conditions and the absence of staff, quickly become their tomb’. He outspokenly informed his imperial master that all reports previously sent from Saragossa were tantamount to lies. It was going to be a tough battle with no guarantee of success.
The early days of 1809 saw the French depleted still further when Moncey was ordered to march on Catalayud with General Louis Suchet’s division, depriving the besiegers of essential manpower. Still, the French were cheered by news of their army’s entry into Madrid; Palafox was swift to counter in the propaganda war with his own proclamation which boasted that he’ll ‘sweep this scum away from our walls’. Letters were even thrown into the French trenches where impressionable conscripts were sat shivering. Written in six languages it tempted the French to desert and join the defence.
But Palafox was being cautious and his apparent reluctance to risk his troops outside the walls meant that by the second week of January the first of the French siege batteries was completed and in position. On the 10th at 06.00 eight French batteries opened up on Saragossa with 32 guns, many of them giant 24-pounders which could hurl a projectile two kilometres. The Spanish suffered heavily from the shot and shell and their batteries in Saint Joseph were quickly reduced to silence. The onslaught prompted the first Spanish sortie of note, however, and at midnight a Spanish column raced for the French position. Taken in flank the Spanish were scattered and fell back, decimated. The French guns continued to fire barely uninterrupted whilst preparations are made to launch an assault against Saint Joseph. In the afternoon of the 11th French officers in the trenches agreed that the breaches seemed practicable and the Spanish suitably cowed by the bombardment. Mariano Renovales, inside the fort, described the fire as being ‘so intense that hardly a soldier could escape being hit by one projectile or another’. Troops from General Claude Grandjean’s division were now moved into position and two light guns rushed forward to open close-quarter fire against the Spanish whilst three columns of voltigeurs, led by Major Stahl and sappers, raced forward ‘only to find the ditch too deep’. Fortunately Captain Daguenet of the engineers discovered a wooden bridge the Spaniards had neglected to destroy and he and 100 hand-picked voltigeurs, managed to batter their way into the fort with axes. More French troops are rushed in and the Spanish 2nd Regiment of Valencia, suffering 30 dead and demoralised by the loss of their colonel, fled in disorder. Renovales reported to Palafox that they had abandoned ‘a position soaked in blood, covered in arms, legs and torsos’.
A few more days of bombardment followed, along with more blood-spilling, until the French felt confident that an attack on their next target – a tete de pont on the south side of the Huerba – was viable. On the evening of the 15th 40 Polish voltigeurs launched an assault. Despite the gloom Jose Garcia, a sentry, spotted the Poles running forward and the Spanish opened fire and detonated a mine for good measure. Moving at speed the Poles emerged through the smoke unharmed and stormed up their ladders and over the wall. Grim bayonet fighting followed before they flushed the defenders out and the Spanish fled into the city burning the bridge behind them.
It was progress for the French but resistance was still determined. Even so the city’s civilians were suffering enormously. Epidemics were rampant and rations much reduced. Shot and shell daily rained down on Saragossa, death and disease stalked the streets. For the besiegers life that January was almost as grim. III Corps was reduced to just 13,000 effectives and General Honoré Gazan had just 7,000. A report of the 15th January noted that the 14th Line had 1,812 men under arms and 1,128 in hospital; the 115th 1,591 and 1,618 and the Poles of the 1st Vistula Regiment 1,218 fit and 952 sick. Bands of insurgents roamed the countryside, attacking French foragers, and supplies dwindled. The dour Colonel Joseph Rogniat of the engineers noted that:
‘Our most terrible enemy, at this time was famine. We lacked meat and our soldiers were reduced to half-rations of bread many times. No village sent in requisitions and the lack of troops since Suchet’s division left means that we were not capable of sending sufficiently large detachments out to bring back food.’
Joseph Rogniat: Engineering officer who served at many major battles of the Empire. Born: November 9, 1776. Place of Birth: Saint-Priest, Isère, France. Died: May 8, 1840.
And all the time come rumours that Spanish regular forces are on their way to attempt to lift the siege. As indeed they were. General Pedro Elola had gathered 2,000 militia and was now advancing in an attempt to break through to Saragossa. News of his army ‘bringing with it 5,000 muskets’ had lifted the citizens of Saragossa. The French response was quick: General Pierre Wathier dispersed the insurgents and Gazan sent 500 men, supported by the 10th Hussars, to prevent them from rallying.
Meanwhile Lacoste pushed ahead energetically with the placing of new batteries, working closely with General Francis Dedon of the artillery. To frustrate this work 24 Spanish volunteers under Mariano Galindo sallied forth to attack battery Number 6 at 16.00 on the 21st. They crossed the Huerba and rushed at the guns before being overwhelmed or killed. It was an act of defiance typical of the besieged Aragonese.
It was at this critical juncture in the siege that the obstinate and effective Marshal Lannes arrived before Saragossa to assume command of III and V Corps. His presence, coupled with news of a successful action by Suchet’s division of V Corps, which had scattered armed peasants and taken up a position to safeguard French communications, raised French morale and they celebrated his arrival with a discharge of artillery. Palafox, on the other hand, prepared his own reception for the marshal.
At 04.00 on the 23rd a single cannon fired from the Spanish ramparts. Three Spanish battalions ‘marching in order and silence’ according to Lejeune emerged through the gloomy mist to attack the bleary-eyed defenders of Saint Joseph. Sweeping past a company of Poles and trapping them in the Aguilar house just outside the monastery’s walls. The Spanish set fire to the building but a French battalion rushed forward and managed to force the Spanish back. Whilst this sortie was being contained a second was launched against batteries 5 and 6. Fifty valiant Spaniards broke into the trenches, killed three gunners and attempted to spike two 12-pounders. A French counterattack swept down onto them, pushing the Spaniards back, recapturing the battery and taking 30 prisoners. The defeat of the sortie prompted Lannes to write to Palafox and declare that further casualties would be the victims of his imprudent obstinacy. There was no reply and so Lannes prepared his men for an all-out assault of the kind the marshal preferred.
The morning of the 26th was dominated by the monotonous rumble of 50 French guns. Four batteries concentrated on opening a breach in the wall opposite the Saint Joseph monastery whilst two strong batteries targeted Santa Engracia. Despite a thick fog, the city’s defences were battered and pounded for 18 hours. The Saragossans, as ever, took the punishment but tragedy occurred when San Genis was hit by a roundshot and killed.
The grand assault the following day was a success in as much as the French had fought their way into the city. But, far from capitulating, the Spanish had lured the French into the city’s streets. There, a new style of urban warfare could begin. As the French attempted to expand their control along the Pabostre into Del Gato Avenue they not only met resistance but also heavy counter-attacks. A fierce one on the 28th was beaten off but the struggle cost 17 men are killed and 30 wounded. Rogniat witnessed the attack and noted that ‘The enemy used a considerable number of grenades and these frightened many of our troops and wounded scores’. That same day, at 14.00, waves more Spaniards assaulted the Trinitarian convent. General Claude Rostolland was shot and wounded and the 117th Line panicked. Only through the exertions of Captain Robert could a group of grenadiers be rallied and the position saved.
The French continued methodically and on the 29th 90 Poles from the 2nd Vistula regiment were readied to assault the Santa Monica convent. Led forwards by 10 sappers, the Poles were showered by missiles thrown from neighbouring houses and were forced to scurry for cover. Alternate tactics to the all out charge are employed instead. A small charge blasted an entrance into a house next to convent and French troops quickly filled the building. From there they broke down the wall and swept into the convent’s garden, fighting their way among the cloisters. Captain Hardi at the head of 100 grenadiers finally managed to get into the church, wounding General Pedro Villacampa on the way.
Progress was also slow up Santa Engracia Avenue as each house had to be taken by assault. Sappers under Major Breuille placed five barrels of powder in the cellar of one house which was holding out against the odds, blocking the doors and windows and lighting the fuse. The blast brought down six houses but as the rubble and dust prevented progress; the sappers determined to use less powder in future. Charges are now to be sufficient to blow in walls to allow assault troops to quickly push through a breach.
Elsewhere 150 Frenchmen in the Trinitarian convent faced a particularly brutal attack when the monk Iago Sas led hundreds of Spanish forwards through the streets whilst snipers fanned out over the roofs overlooking the convent. The Spanish predictably attempted to smash down the convent’s door with an axe but sacks of earth placed behind the door prevented them from breaking in. Instead they brought up a gun but the gunners are shot down by the voltigeurs of the 50th Line. At 19.00 a second, smaller attack followed but it too failed, leaving a dozen Spaniards sprawling in the street.
But the French weren’t always successful in their own assaults. It was tough going as Brandt recalled:
‘We knew that in order not to be killed, or to diminish that risk, we would have to take each and every one of these houses converted into redoubts and where death lurked in the cellars, behind doors and shutters – in fact, everywhere. When we broke into a house we had to make an immediate and thorough inspection from the cellar to the rooftop. Experience taught us that sudden and determined resistance could well be a trick. Often as we were securing one floor we would be shot at from point blank range from the floor above through loopholes in the floorboards. All the nooks and crannies of these old-fashioned houses aided such deadly ambushes. We also had to maintain a good watch on the rooftops. With their light sandals, the Aragonese could move with the ease of and as silently as a cat and were thus able to make surprise incursions well behind the front line. We would be sitting peacefully around a fire, in a house occupied for some days, when suddenly shots would come through some window just as though they had come from the sky itself.’
Rogniat confessed in his journal that
‘The energy with which the enemy defends himself is incredible; the taking of each house necessitates an assault and these fanatics don’t only fight from house to house but from floor to floor or from room to room.’
Lejeune, too, stressed the difficulties encountered by the ordinary soldiers now finding themselves pitted against a determined enemy contesting every pile of rubble. The strain of life in the trenches was literally exhausting the French:
‘Engineer officers directed the men to spread out along a line and get digging, throwing the earth forwards whilst maintaining as much silence as possible otherwise the enemy would show us with canister. The troops hurry, despite the fatigue brought on by so many nights of such work, hoping to get some rest. And when they sleep even cannon fire can’t wake them. But they are not free from danger. There are enemy sorties, bombs, grenades and bullets to fear; the enemy send up shells to illuminate the area and allow marksmen to pick us off. There are stones fired into the air by mortars which come hurtling down, crushing all. Even so the soldiers sleep on perhaps not believing that this sleep might, for them, prove eternal.’
Far from being beaten, the Spanish acting en masse or individually seemed in their element, keeping the French on their toes, turning the besiegers into the besieged. French troops in houses could find themselves shot at through floors or ceilings. Those in a supposedly secure area might find themselves ambushed and watch as their assailants made off over the roofs of the houses. Mines, artillery, snipers all took a terrible toll on both sides and many questioned how much longer both sides could persist in this awful battle of attrition?
February began rudely when at 05.00 on the morning of the 1st a mine was detonated under the Augustinian church; grenadiers of the 44th Line surprised the dazed garrison and flushed them out. The Spanish recovered quickly and counter-attacked, a deadly battle flared up around the altar. French reserves were rushed in and tipped the battle in France’s favour. A few defenders found themselves trapped in the bell-tower and they made the most of the opportunity by throwing grenades down on the French below. A second counter-attack by 8,000 Spaniards frees the trapped men and allows them to escape.
The 1st of February also saw the death of General Lacoste. Lejeune saw it happen.
‘Lacoste had told me to detonate my mines two minutes after I head his mines go off. When the moment came we lit the fuse and ten or a dozen houses were blown into the air followed by a deep boom. It took some time for the dust to settle but no sooner than it had then Prost ran forward followed by the Polish assault party. Lacoste and Valaze arrived just as they went into the attack and we all clambered up onto the ruins of a house in order to get a better view. We cheered on the Poles but our shouts attracted attention from the Spanish hiding behind walls and peeking through gaps and hole. They opened fire hitting Lalobe and General Lacoste; the former died instantly but Lacoste followed him a few hours later.’
Colonel Rogniat assumed command of the engineers but he himself was wounded in the hand the following day.
The French continued to grind through the city. Some progress had been around Pabostre, and even some houses on the Quemada Avenue had been occupied, but the attackers failed to properly secure them. Ever watchful for an opportunity the Spaniards launched an attack and swept the French right back into the Pabostre. Palafox was quick to proclaim a victory but, the next day, the French were back in the rubble-strewn Quemada Avenue and pushing towards the Hospital of the Orphans. It was there that they met more determined resistance. Lieutenant Brenne, leading one attack, was wounded three times before his troops were finally repelled. An attack against the Jerusalem convent was also attempted; breaking into the church French voltigeurs were floored by Spanish fire coming from behind a loopholed wall. Working their way round, they outflanked the position, took revenge and secured the convent.
Another tactic called for the use of mines. With such infernal machines, charged with 500 pounds of powder, the French sappers successfully blasted their way along the Oleta Avenue and, for the first time, the besieging army reached the city’s main thoroughfare – the Coso, which runs along the length of the city. But virtually all the troops they had available were employed in securing their enclaves within the city wall and in battling to advance through the rubble and dust; too few could be spared for more offensive operations. Lannes hastily instructed Gazan to apply pressure on Saragossa’s northern bank but that general’s first attempted ended badly. The French, climbing out of trenches ankle-deep in freezing water, rushed forward but were picked off by Spanish marksmen on the roof of the Jesus convent.
Lannes did what he could to maintain the momentum, switching assaults from one quarter to another, keeping the Aragonese stretched and under fire. Nevertheless, it was proving difficult to become properly established on the Coso, let alone move beyond it. Brandt recalled that
‘our entire division took place in the assault on the Coso. Above the continual bickering of musketry the groans of much larger explosions could be heard – sometimes the booming of cannon and sometimes a mine going off. I was busy in the Coso with a detachment of some fifty men, setting up a barricade. Grenadiers, posted above us in the windows of neighbouring houses, covered this work, which was designed to protect a communications trench which ran from one side of the street to the other. Suddenly our ears were almost shattered by the familiar whistling and roaring noise of an exploding mine. A neighbouring house collapsed and unmasked a Spanish battery which blasted us with grape at point blank range. Miraculously, only three men were hit but the rest ran for it as quick as they could.’
Fortuitously, Gazan was not put off by his initial repulse and the general continued to launch attack after attack. Lejeune witnessed the decisive one: ‘200 grenadiers and 300 voltigeurs throw themselves forward in a number of columns and break into the Jesus convent. 400 Spaniards, demoralised by the bombardment, don’t wait to defend themselves. They turn tail and we seize control’. It’s an all too unusual success. Mostly, French officers such as Rogniat are convinced that ‘the only way to defeat such obstinate defenders is to kill them’. Want and disease are doing part of the job for them. Some 500 inhabitants are dying per day and lie unburied in the streets. Survivors cower in cellars or arcades or lurk in Saragossa’s shadowy streets. Shells rain down, fires spark into life among the city’s ruined buildings; smoke shrouds the infernal scene. And slowly, ever so slowly, the French increase their control over the city.
An unprecedented 3,000-pound mine was carefully placed under the St Francis monastery. The fuses were lit and Lejeune was there to see the explosion and to watch the subsequent attack go in:
‘Brave Colonel Dupeyroux with his regiment and Valaze and his engineers were waiting in the ruins of the hospital for the signal. Breuille detonated the mine and it blew in part of the convent’s walls. The bell-tower, which we had expected to see collapse, remained standing. Although the dust still billowed in choking clouds Valaze and his troops swept into the building, flushing out the defenders with the bayonet. The assault was so brilliant that Palafox called the entire garrison to arms, fearing that we would break into the very centre of the city. We had hoped that Spanish resistance would collapse with shock but our attack seemed instead to rather provoke their ire.’
Despite the blast the fighting in the church was savage. Spaniards and French, mingled together, fought their way down the nave and up the stairs of the bell-tower. Refusing to surrender the Spanish were thrown down to their deaths. Masters of the tower the French took time to look down on the smoking city, seeing the barricades across streets and gallows in public squares. Their success has led to a state of alarm across the city, the tocsins dolefully sound out, drums are beaten, and as many men as are available are mustered in the central market place. Palafox hesitated to launch an attack but instead issued a proclamation; among other things he promised to hunt down defeatists and that ‘our friends in America’ are ‘preparing enormous sums for the repair’ of the city’s buildings. Just as well, the St Francis monastery, for one, has been written off by the fighting:
‘The explosion had not only destroyed a large part of the building but also many of the cellars in which families had been sheltering in order to avoid the bombardment; in addition more than 400 defenders, including an entire company of grenadiers from the Regiment of Valencia had been blown to smithereens. The gardens and the surrounding land were a horror to behold, strewn with masses of human remains. It was impossible to make a step without standing on something.’
The area around the University was much the same. The French are still determined to take it, the Spanish to defend it as Brandt recalled
‘the first attack on the University buildings failed due to the fact that the miners had not been able to place their galleries close enough under the walls, the result being that the explosion failed to make a breach and our columns were exposed to a galling fire from which they fell back with the loss of about forty men’.
Recovering quickly, a 12-pdr gun was brought up along with a mortar to complete the breach but Lieutenant Vecten, directing these guns, was picked off by a sniper. The 12-pdr opened up but the defenders plugged gabions and sandbags into the breach making it impossible to use.
Such tenacious resistance in part stemmed from despair but also from rumours that a large relief force had gathered at Lerida under Palafox’s two brothers. Some 12,000 men were on the march and Lannes was now forced to strip Gazan of troops and march north to defeat this last attempt to break through. For many in the garrison it seemed one promise too many; a company of Swiss mercenaries, fighting for the Spanish, took their chance and desert to the French. More drama followed when 100 desperate citizens broke out of the city and approached the French lines asking to be taken prisoner; the French commanders cleverly turned this to their advantage by issuing them with bread and sending them back into Saragossa to spread the word that the French will treat the citizens honourably and, more importantly, feed them.
Spanish morale deteriorated further when the promised relief did not arrive. On the 16th Lannes received a letter from Paris promising everything he might need to prosecute the siege: reinforcements, supplies, soldiers’ pay for January and surgeons. The scales, it seemed, were slowly swinging the French way.
Still the defenders were fighting back, contesting every house, every garden. A particular problem was sniper fire. Artillery and engineer officers were favoured targets. On the 17th, Lannes, having driven the Spanish field army off, returned to be almost hit by a sniper. Furious he scaled up the bell-tower of the Jesus convent and had fifteen loaded muskets brought up. He fired them off but was soon targeted by a Spanish cannon; a roundshot killed Captain Lepot right next to the Marshal.
The next day – almost in retaliation – the French opened up a massive bombardment at 08.00; 52 guns pulverised the Archbishop’s Palace and cathedral. Gazan’s men launched three columns forwards in an attack on the shattered Lazarus monastery. Two failed outright but the third broke into the monastery’s church and on towards the bridge over the swift Ebro. This dramatic move cut off a considerable number of Spaniards on the northern bank and whilst some 300 forced their way across the bridge, and others jumped into boats and fled across the river, still more surrendered and 2,500 become French prisoners. Colonel Dode of the engineers capitalised on the French success by having the entrance to the bridge quickly barred and fortified.
Just as the Spanish were surrendering on the northern bank a massive detonation was heard from the centre of the city. Having put in a series of attacks, and ensuring that the buildings are packed with defenders, the French detonate a huge mine planted in the University cellar. Resistance was so dazed by the ensuing explosion that Polish and French attackers not only broke into the gutted compound but were able to push on as far as the Trinity church. The next morning the French detonated a mine under that sacred building, occupied it and captured two guns. This progress pushed a deep wedge into the Spanish position and Palafox, by now seriously ill, felt he can do little about it. No relief force was forthcoming, nothing more could be done. Few others seemed to want to shoulder the awful responsibility of resisting against such odds and so the Spanish general finally took it upon himself to send one of his aides to Lannes to ask for a cease-fire. Lannes rejected the proposal and, to underline his words, formed a powerful battery close by the bridge over the Ebro. Palafox resigned in response and left his command to a Junta of 40 notables; they deliberated throughout the night to the tune of detonating mines and thundering artillery.
Fearing popular hatred, and hardly daring to whisper the word surrender, the Junta was divided. Epidemics were killing 500 people a day. The French were stubbornly, if slowly, ploughing their way through the rubble and their noose grew tighter and tighter. They summoned up the courage, for it took courage to surrender after such a siege, to despatch a second messenger to Lannes, asking for a suspension of hostilities. At 16.00 the marshal ordered the artillery to stop firing and sent an officer into the city demanding surrender within two hours. Lannes revealed that he had prepared six mines, all of 3,000 pounds, beneath the Coso. The Junta bowed its head to the inevitable and accepted Lannes’ terms.
The day of glory, if it could be called such, was long in coming. On the morning of Tuesday the 21st February 1809 the Spanish garrison marched out of the Portillo gate and piled their arms before marching off into captivity. Brandt watched
‘After about an hour the vanguard of the famous defenders of Saragossa began to appear. Not long after we witnessed the arrival of the rest of the army: a strange collection composed of humanity of all shades and conditions. A few were in uniform but most were dressed like peasants. Most of them were of such non-military bearing that our men were saying aloud that we should never have had so much trouble in beating such a rabble.’
There were just 8,500 of them. A few thousand more were flushed out from hiding in the following few days. The city was a horror to behold. The narrow streets were choked with dead, heaps of ashes and rubble. Makeshift hospitals were clogged with the dead and dying, as are cellars and houses – anywhere, in fact, where the populace had attempted to shelter from the 32,700 shells and roundshot fired into the city. The central market place resembled a cemetery, the cathedral a charnel house. The French army camped outside the city for fear of epidemics, counting their loses. Lannes had lost 3,000 dead and 15,000 in hospital, mostly dying. A heavy loss but as nothing compared to that of the Spaniards – a staggering 53,873 dead according to the city authorities.
Aragon’s capital had undergone a holocaust quite unlike any city had ever seen, a siege ‘extraordinary and terrible’ according to Rogniat. Nothing quite like it would be seen again until Stalingrad. The city’s surrender seemed to break resistance in Aragon, four years of occupation followed. But the example of Saragossa to the rest of Spain was inspirational and it was with immense pride that the Spanish recalled the siege. Outside of Spain, Saragossa earned Spain almost universal praise and not only from those countries at war, or soon to be at war, with France. Europe caught its breath that February as French power had been stretched to its limit by one gallant city.
Although it would be Spanish gallantry that would be remembered the siege had been a heroic feat for the French as well; Lejeune wrote that 13,000 men had braved hunger, fatigue and danger to force 100,000 citizens to capitulate. But the victory came at a terrible cost in morale. Outwardly laughing off Spanish resistance and fanaticism, French martial confidence was shaken to its core by the siege of Saragossa. How could they, the liberators of Europe, be so despised as to provoke such resistance? How many more Saragossas would be needed to pacify such a country? Questions such as these weighed heavily on the hitherto enthusiastic soldiers of Napoleon’s empire. There could be no glory for them in Spain.
Far away in Paris, Napoleon heard of the surrender on the 27th February but he had already turned his back on the peninsula and was already planning to march his legions against Austria. He, for one, wouldn’t be returning to Spain but would entrust his generals to find what glory they could in war-torn Iberia.