The Battle of Saguntum
25th October 1811

Colonel De Gonneville's Account

De Gonneville was, at this time, a captain in the 13th Cuirassiers and gives a very full account of the action in his memoirs...

On the 25th of October, Marshal Suchet received information that General Blake had left his position on the Gaudalaviar, and was advancing at the head of thirty thousand men to attack us and raise the siege of Saguntum. We advanced to meet him, turning the fort of Saguntum by our right, and making our way along paths that had certainly never before given passage to any but persons on foot. We led our horses by the bridle at full length, and they would be sometimes five or six feet above us, and could hardly be induced to come down, and then had to scramble like cats. A few guns were passed across to us, and made their way through unheard of difficulties. At last we found ourselves on a plain full of locust trees where the battle was to take place. We had scarcely twelve thousand men, and our left, when once the obstacle presented by Saguntum was turned, could extend beyond the road leading from Saguntum to Valencia, and rest upon the natural obstacles bordering the sea on that side. Our right crowned the heights that confine the plain near Murviedro.

The Spaniards advanced with resolution, and in capital order. They were confident in their numerical superiority, and besides excited by an energetic proclamation of General Blake, giving promise of victory, and telling them that the inhabitants of Valencia and defenders of Saguntum would have their eyes fixed on them during the battle, and would place all their hopes upon their courage and devotion. In reality an army could not be in a better situation to receive such a stimulant. Behind it was a splendid city of a hundred thousand souls with their blessings and cheers to reward a victory, or provide a safe retreat in case of reverse; in front Saguntum to be saved from imminent danger of capture, Saguntum with its walls in sight, and guns continually audible as a call and additional stimulus to conquer.

Our position was not equally good, besides our inferiority in numbers we had the fort of Sarguntum behind us, and defiles that would have made our retreat disastrous in case of a reverse; but we had confidence in the General who commanded us, and in ourselves, and we all advanced without hesitation. The enemy's first efforts were made on the right wing and made it retire. They occupied the village of Pouzol on the main road to Valencia, and in rear of the village was almost all their cavalry under the orders of General Caro, an active and enterprising officer, animated with peculiar hatred against the French. My regiment coming up to Pouzol on the right, the 3rd Polish regiment of the Vistula, and a little in front the 4th regiment of Hussars advanced towards the wood of locust trees in front that hid General Caro's cavalry. The first of our three squadrons supported the movement of the hussars, and at the same time orders were sent for the third regiment to go to the other side of Pouzol, as it was supposed they might be wanted there. I remained with the second squadron, almost entirely composed of men of my troop. A very few minutes had passed after these movements were put into execution when we heard an alarming sound of cries and shouts from the point the 4th Hussars had gone to, and very soon this regiment and our first squadron, flying in the greatest disorder, issued from the wood of locusts pursued by the whole cavalry of General Caro. This force consisting of fifteen hundred horses, was extending on my right, with a front of ten squadrons at least; but it was in disorder, and broken by an advance at full speed through the locust trees, as they are planted in no regular order and are an obstacle to the lines of cavalry. At first I feared that my men would be discouraged by the rout of the 4th Hussars and our first squadron; but I was speedily reassured, and experienced the most intoxicating sensation that it is possible to feel on the field of battle. Not having any one on the spot to give me orders, and perceiving the necessity of stopping this body of cavalry that was comings upon us, I cast a glance upon the squadron behind me with anxiety whether I should find the determination in it that was required under the circumstances. At this glance which was understood, for they were watching me, and looking for the word of command, all the swords were raised and brandished so energetically, and there was something so formidable and intrepid on the bronzed features of the men that I had not a doubt of success, and at the moment I write these lines, fifty years afterwards, I feel my old heart beat again at the remembrance it recalls.

At the signal I gave, the squadron leapt a low wall of dry stone and a ditch before us, and rushed upon the enemy. Everything before us was literally crushed, and for some cause that I never could make out everything that was coming down upon our right began to fly in the oblique direction that we were pursuing, and for half a league we were galloping in the midst of this crowd and decimating it, while they seemed to think of nothing but getting out of a ground that they had been careering over as victors a few minutes before. In this charge we recaptured three of our guns that had fallen into the hands of the enemy, and took five of his that had advanced to support the movement of his cavalry, with the idea that by this movement he would very quickly secure a speedy victory, also rendering the success of his left wing decisive, whereas it also was only temporary. General Caro, commanding the cavalry, received a sword cut on the head, was thrown from his horse and remained in our hands.

After a pursuit of nearly two miles we were obliged to rally, and to stop on the brink of a steep ravine that only permitted of slanting paths, giving room for one horse alone, and that with risk. We watched the fugitives filtering through whom we had passed on our right, without the notion ever coming into the heads of their officers, while moving in the same direction, of attacking us in the rear and surrounding us, though they were ten to one, and they would have found it very easy; for the 4th Husssrs and our first squadron, on whom I had counted thinking that as soon as they were rallied they would come to our support, had been despatched in another direction to attack a body of infantry whom they defeated completely, making two thousand prisoners. So we were one squadron alone among more than twelve hundred of the enemy's horse, and half a league from any assistance. However this cavalry had crossed the ravine, had halted and was keeping up a fire of carbines upon us that might have serious results. Besides, on our left, fifty paces on our side of the ravine, a young lieutenant-colonel of dragoons had collected a hundred men and was preparing to attack. A small hedge of aloes separated us. I thought it wise to be beforehand with him, and we had no trouble in dispersing men demoralised by the former attack. But to my great regret the young lieutenant-colonel, whose high bred and calm appearance I had admired, remained upon the ground. His efforts to encourage his men had excited my warm sympathy, I went up to him; he had received a severe sword cut on the right side of his head, and that head, a few moments before so full of life and nobility. was lying in a pool of blood with the face three parts hid in it. I asked him in Spanish if he was wounded in the body; he made an effort to raise himself upon one arm, but fell back without being able to answer me. A shower of bullets which fell around without touching myself or my horse, interrupted me in the midst of my feelings of compassion, The last of the fugitives had got to the other side of the ravine, they had seen me by their lieutenant-colonel, and probably gave the word to fire upon me all together in hopes of laying me beside him. This discharge was followed by that of several pieces of artillery that we did not see, though they were at a very short distance; but as the gunners that served them could not see us, for the trees hid us from each other, they fired by estimation and fired too high ; so though there were several of these discharges of grape, they wounded only one of my men, whom I liked very much, and he died of the wound, his name was Orifel and he came from Provence.

But these discharges of artillery taking place half a league in rear of Pouzol had a great influence on the fate of the day. The enemy's defence on the important line, that had till then been vigorously sustained, ceased all at once, and the three battalions to whom it was con~ded laid down their arms, being convinced that their retreat was cut off and that no help could come to disengage them. So the road to Valencia was open, and we saw our 24th Regiment of Dragoons coming in by it followed by infantry. I received orders to go as quickly as possible towards the right to find the 4th Huasars and our first squadron engaged with a column of Spanish infantry that was retiring by the road to Bettera, a large village on the Guadalaviar, a few leagues above Valencia.

I soon joined them, guided by the firing, and had nothing to do there but to be a witness of the most complete rout. More than four thousand muskets lay on the ground, and the prisoners were roughly brought back by the hussars, taking revenge upon them for the disgrace of having fled before Caro's cavalry. However, the head of this column of infantry had managed to get to the continuation of the dry bed of a torrent that had stopped me; had crossed it, and come back to the spot whers,the high and steep banks of the torrent left no room for anything but the road to Bettera ; they formed a line of sharpshooters there, and showed a firm resolution to stop us. Having no infantry it was impossible for us to go any further, and very clumsily General Boussard, instead of keeping us at a distanae from the ravine, took us quite up to the brink of it, and was kind enough to expose us to a fire that we could not reply to. In,this position, which is a good specimen of the aptitude of General Boussard for war, we had an otficer and twenty-six men wounded. A ball cut my spur leather on my right instep and gave me a contusion.

Night came at last, and we received orders to return to the bivouac we had left in the morning. All our wounded and those of the enemy had been taken up, as we left them behind us, and thanks to the care of Marshal Suchet, never was battle-field more promptly cleared than that. After this day I understood the part played by chance in battles better than I had done before. It may be said that prudent measures had been taken on both sides. General Blake, confident in his superior numbers, had extended his front so as to be able to outflank our wings, and throw forces on our rear, able to seize the defiles that had led us to the plain, and had this manoeuvre been successful, it might have caused anxiety in our ranks and injured the dash of our soldiers. As our right wing gave way, there was at first some chance of this object being accomplished, and it was probably at that moment that General Blake flung all his cavalry upon our centre, hoping rather prematurely that he had gained a success, but his advantage was on the contrary soon changed into a defeat. On our side the General-in-chief, who very well knew the force of the enemy, and also knew what dependence he could put on the valour and devotion of the troops under his orders, had marched on resolutely to the front, without taking much notice of what might be going on upon his right wing-- the only one that could be turned, probably knowing very well that when once the Spanish centre was broken, its flight would cause that of all the rest. And this is exactly what took place, but it must also be said that the success of our centre was due to causes that chance had very much to do with, as I have related above. Besides, the English General Napier, in his History of this war in 8pHin, attributes the victory of Saguntum to the charge of cuirassiers I have just described, a charge that he terms furious.

In order to fulfil my promise of making known a military career in all its details, I must relate my personal adventures of this day. I hope that no signs of conceit may be perceived in this; for if, on my entrance into the army I had too much admiration for what Madame de Sévigné calls "grand sword strokes", I very soon came to value them at their proper worth, and to understand that they only come within the duty of a cavalry officer in action in the most minute proportion. But this is what took place: when I was engaged in rallying my men on the brink of the ravine and forming them up, a Spanish lancer was crossing our front to join his party who were rallying very near us, and he cast a threatening look at us that angered me. I was heated and overexcited by the action; I dashed at him, parried the lance thrust he aimed at me with my sabre: and ran him completely through. He fell; and this took place at an equal distance between the two bodies of troops that were there.

The fame of this "sword stroke" cannot he imagined, though so many more were given during the day. The cuirassiers talked of it in the evening at their bivouac; and having occasion to go to head-quarters next day, it was the first thing the officers of the head-quarter staff spoke to me about. At last, in 1833, and so twenty-two years afterwards, an officer of the depot for remounts at Alençon that I was then commanding, going his round, met an old quartermaster of the 13th Cuirassiers, who, knowing him to be under my command, had nothing better to do than to tell him the story of the "sword stroke". I must also say that on the evening after this business, I was surrounded and warmly congratulated by the oflicers of the 3rd Regiment of the Vistula, who were on my right just as I gave orders for the charge. I felt this testimony very much. It was one of the flowers of the profession.

We returned to our bivouac, and next day the garrison of the fort of Saguntum, eighteen hundred men strong, capitulated, and went to swell the column of prisoners on the road to France.

During the continuance of the siege of this fort, the wife of Marshal Suchet was living in an isolated tower built by the Moors, and this tower was within range of the heavy guns of the fort. After the surrender, the Marshal asked the commander of the garrison why no shot had been fired in that direction; and the reply was, that, knowing his wife was there, the gunners had received orders not to fire any shot in the direction of the tower. This act of courtesy was a rare exception to the usual practice of this war of extermination.

Source

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