Saturday, 23 May 2009

The battle of Alcañiz (may 23, 1809)

The battle of Alcañiz of 23 May 1809 was the second major Spanish battlefield victory of the Peninsular War , after Bailén in 1808, and was fought between the Spanish "Army of the Right" commanded by the General Blake and the General Suchet's French third Corps.
At the end of the siege of Saragossa (see
previous post) there had been less than 4,000 Spanish troops in Aragon, but by mid-May General Blake was gathering a new “Army of the Right”, which would soon contain over 20,000 men. On 18-19 May Blake, with just under 10,000 men, captured the town of Alcañiz. This force contained the 4,000 survivors of the disaster at Saragossa and 5,000 men from the Army of the Centre. Another 10,000 men were known to be on their way, so Blake held his ground at Alcañiz, awaiting their arrival.
Suchet finally reached Saragossa on 19 May, and took command of 3rd Corps. By this point the corps was in a dreadful state. Morale was very poor, partly because of the suffering caused during the siege of Saragossa, partly because of the series of minor defeats at the hands of the guerrillas and partly because their pay was in arrears and the only way to find food was by constant marauding. Despite having a nominal strength of 20,000 men, when Suchet arrived the corps was at only half of this strength. Despite the poor condition of his army, Suchet quickly realised that he would have to attack the Spanish at Alcañiz. On 23 May the depleted French force arrived in front of the Spanish position. Only two of Suchet’s three available divisions were with him, giving the French a strength of 8,138 men on the morning of the battle. Blake slightly outnumbered the French, with just under 9,000 men, and was in a strong defensive position, based around three hills outside the town of Alcañiz. The only weakness in Blake’s position was that he was fighting with his back to a river – if the French had forced his army to retreat, then the Spanish force might have been totally destroyed.

Suchet began by making two attacks on the strongest part of the Spanish line, the Cerro de los Pueyos, at the right of the Spanish line. These attacks were repulsed by General Areizaga, at the head of a division of Aragonese troops. Suchet would later claim that these had only been feints, but his entire account of the battle is somewhat unreliable (as is so often the case in the memoirs of defeated commanders).
If the attack on the Spanish right was a feint, then Suchet waited too long to launch his main attack, for by the time this began the fighting on the Cerro de los Pueyos had ended. The main French attack was made against the centre of the Spanish line, and was made by two regiments, formed into columns of battalions – 2,600 men from the 114th Regiment of the Line and the 1st Regiment of the Vistula. While French columns repeated failed against British lines, they had a much better record against the Spanish, but this time Blake’s line held. The French column reached within a few hundred yards of the Spanish line, but then the Spanish artillery began to hit it with grapeshot, its flanks came under long range musket fire, and the advance halted. This was always the moment of crisis for any column. After remaining static under heavy fire for a few minutes, the French column broke and fled back into the French lines.
This ended the battle. Suchet’s force had suffered 700-800 casualties, and he himself had been wounded in the foot. The French retreat began smoothly, but after a dark a rumour spread that the Spanish cavalry had captured the rearguard, and the army scattered, not coming back together until late on the next day. Blake had suffered 300 casualties during the battle.

Extracted from
Military History Encyclopedia on the Web

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