First Siege of Zaragoza
|First Siege of Zaragoza|
|Part of the Peninsular War|
Assault on the walls of Saragossa by January Suchodolski, oil on canvas, 1845. (National Museum in Warsaw)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
The First Siege of Zaragoza (also called Saragossa) was a bloody struggle in the Peninsular War (1807–1814). A French army under General Lefebvre-Desnouettes and subsequently commanded by General Jean-Antoine Verdier besieged, repeatedly stormed, and was repulsed from the Spanish city of Zaragoza in the summer of 1808.
When the Dos de Mayo (2 May) uprisings took place in Spain in 1808, Napoleon at first thought that they were a series of isolated uprisings and despatched a number of small columns to quell them. In North Eastern Spain Marshall Bessières assigned General Lefebvre-Desnouettes to quell the revolt in Aragon. Eventually his column included 5,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and two artillery batteries. Lefebvre quickly discovered, however, that the revolt was much more widespread than had been believed.
The Spanish side was led by General José de Palafox who was the second son in an aristocratic Spanish family. He was appointed Captain-General of Aragon in late May. He successfully raised a force of 7,500 troops but was handicapped by the lack of experience of these troops with only about 300 experienced cavalry and a few gunners.
Palafox made a few attempts to stop the French from even reaching Zaragoza. His elder brother the Marquis of Lazan attempted to stop them at Tudela on 8 June 1808 and again at Mallen on 13 June 1808. Palafox then sent out a force of 6,000 but was defeated again at Alagon on 14 June 1808 and Palafox himself was wounded. Finally the remaining Spanish forces retreated into Zaragoza.
Zaragoza itself was protected by two medieval walls and two rivers – the Ebro river to the north-east and the Huerva to the south – but the west was exposed to attack. The strength of the city, though, was in its maze of strongly built defensible buildings with narrow lanes easy to block with barricades.
Lefebvre reached Zaragoza on 15 June 1808. At this time he was badly outnumbered by the Spanish, who had around 11,000 troops although only half had experience of battle from the Alagon defeat.
The next day Lefebvre assaulted the western wall of the city expecting that the Spanish would collapse quickly.
In the first assault the French broke into the western part of the city and their Polish cavalry broke through the Santa Engracia gate but could make no progress inside the city and were forced to retreat. The French suffered around 700 casualties in this first assault.
Palafox himself was not present on that day. He had left to raise additional troops in Upper Aragon to attack Lefebvre's lines of communication. Palafox raised an additional force of 5,000 troops but these were defeated at Épila on the 23–24 June 1808 and Palafox returned to Zaragoza with only an additional 1,000 troops.
The French, however, received more substantial reinforcements with a force of 3,000 led by General Jean-Antoine Verdier arriving on 26 June 1808. As General Verdier was senior to Lefebvre he took over command of all the troops. Further reinforcements continued to arrive including some siege artillery.
On 28 June 1808 Verdier attacked Monte Terrero on the southern bank of the Huerva river. Monte Terrero was a hill that dominated the south of Zaragoza and should have been strongly fortified but was not. As a result the hill was captured with ease and the Spanish commander, Colonel Vincento Falco, was subsequently court-martialled and shot.
Now that Monte Terrero was in his hands, Verdier was able to use it as a base for his siege artillery. Starting from midnight on 30 June 1808 thirty siege guns, four mortars, and twelve howitzers opened fire on Zaragoza and kept firing continuously.
A second assault was made by the French on 2 July 1808 with twice the strength of the first assault. Although the fixed defences in Zaragoza had suffered heavily from the bombardment, the barricades were still intact and Palafox had returned to take command.
The French penetrated the city in several places but were unable to make any further progress and once again were forced to retreat. This assault became famous for the story of the Maid of Zaragoza: Agustina Zaragoza. Her lover was an artillery sergeant at the Portillo Gate. The entire crew of his gun were killed before they could fire off their last round. Agustina ran forward taking the lighted match from her dead lover's hands and fired the cannon. The French were hit by a round of grapeshot at close range and their attack was broken. Palafox said he personally witnessed this event and Agustina was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant.
During this assault on 2 July 1808 the French suffered 200 dead and 300 wounded. Verdier therefore decided not to make any further assaults and settled down for a siege. Unfortunately for him he had insufficient men to fully blockade the city and the Spanish were able to be supplied from the north bank of the Ebro river most of the time.
In the second half of July the French concentrated on capturing the Capuchin and Trinitarian convents of San Jose, which were to the west of Zaragoza. By 24 July 1808 these were all captured by the French.
On 4 August the French began a heavy artillery bombardment and silenced the Spanish guns and made several breaches in the walls. At 2pm Verdier launched a massive assault with thirteen battalions in three columns and penetrated deep into Zaragoza. Verdier demanded Palafox's surrender to which he replied "War to the knife".
By evening the French had taken half of the city but the Spanish counter-attacked and pushed the French out except for a small wedge surrounded by the Spanish.
By this time the French had suffered around 462 killed and 1,505 wounded. The Spanish had suffered similar or even higher losses but still outnumbered the French.
The fighting continued for several days but the assault had effectively failed ensuring the failure of the siege. On 19 July 1808 a French army under General Dupont were forced to surrender at Bailén and this made both sides realise the French would have to retreat. Palafox halted his offensive operations, but Verdier responded with an artillery bombardment to use up all the ammunition he could not carry away.
Finally on 14 August 1808 Verdier blew up all the strongpoints he held and withdrew. This was the end of the First Siege of Zaragoza.
Palafox's resistance made him a national hero, a glory he shared with Agustina Zaragoza and many other ordinary civilians. Zaragoza would endure a second, longer, more famous siege starting in late December. When it finally fell to the French in 1809, Zaragoza had become a city of corpses and smoking rubble: 12,000 people would remain of a prewar population of over 100,000.
The siege was portrayed in the 1950 Spanish film Agustina of Aragon.
- Charles J. Esdaile in The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 871.
- Charles J. Esdaile in The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 872.
- "Guerra y cuchillo", which words later went on the back of the medal issued to the defenders of Zaragoza
- this section based on Rickard, J (17 January 2008), First siege of Saragossa, 15 June-14 August 1808