The French invasion of Valencia of September 1811-January 1812 was the last major French success during the Peninsular War, and saw them virtually complete the conquest of eastern Spain, but at the same time they were forced to weaken their forces on the Portuguese border, allowing Wellington to begin the campaign that led to Salamanca, and the beginning of the end for the French in Spain. The way had been cleared for the French invasion of Valencia by the end of a series of sieges. Tortosa fell on 2 January 1881, Tarragona fell on 28 June and Figueras on 19 August, freeing up both the Army of Catalonia and the Army of Aragon. On the evening of 25 August Berthier, at Paris, issued the orders to begin the invasion.
The invasion of Valencia was entrusted to General Suchet, the French commander in Aragon, and since 10 March 1811 also in western Catalonia. From their distant vantage points Napoleon and Berthier believed that Valencia was in a state of panic, and that the city was fall without serious resistance if a major French army appeared outside it. Berthier expected that army to have captured Saguntum (Murviedro) and to have defeated a Spanish field army, both predictions which came true, but Napoleon and Berthier both underestimated the level of resistance they would encounter. Suchet was to make sure that he was on Valencian soil by 15 September 1811. Between them the Armies of Valencia and of Aragon contained some 70,000 men, but Suchet was forced to scatter most of them in garrisons. He started the invasion of Catalonia with 26,000 men.
Valencia was defended 36,000 men in the Army of Valencia, under the command of Captain-General Joachim Blake. This was possibly the least efficient of the Spanish armies, having suffered a series of defeated even against much smaller French forces. This army was supported by a large number of guerrillas and irregular troops, whose role would be to threaten the French in Aragon and to harass Suchet’s rear.
Suchet had a choice of three roads into Valencia – the coastal road from Tortosa, the main inland road from Saragossa, and a third minor road that ran between them. The last two roads merged at Castellon, and the third road joined it at Saguntum. Suchet’s heavy artillery was at Tortosa, and so part of the army would have to use that road, but the Spanish still had two strongholds on the road. The first, the castle of Peniscola, was isolated on a coastal peninsula and could easily be masked, but the second, at Oropesa, blocked the road and would have to be captured before the heavy artillery could pass. Suchet decided to use all three roads, but to leave his heavy artillery behind, bypass Oropesa and make a dash for Saguntum and Valencia, in the hope that Napoleon and Berthier were correct about Spanish morale.
Suchet’s three columns began to move on 15 September 1811, just as ordered by Napoleon. Suchet accompanied the column using the coastal road, which passed Peniscola on 17 September and Oropesa two days later. On the following day, 20 September, all three columns came back together close to Saguntum. Blake had remained entirely passive during this period, missing a great opportunity to attack one of Suchet’s isolated columns in overwhelming strength, and reinforcing the French view that Spanish morale was poor. In fact Blake simply had a realistically poor view of the fighting ability of his army, and had decided to fight an entirely defensive campaign. His plan was based on a string of fortifications built outside Valencia, and the newly refortified citadel of Saguntum, where he hoped to stop Suchet’s advance.
Saguntum is one of the most ancient sites in Spain. By 1811 the ancient acropolis on the hilltop had been long abandoned. The small town that remained at the foot of the hill was then called Murviedro, while the hilltop position had just been renamed San Fernando de Sagunto (on modern maps of Spain it is now named simply Sagunto). In March 1810 the hill of Saguntum had been unfortified – Suchet had even visited the summit to examine the ruins, but in the year that followed a great deal of work was done to improve the situation (sadly damaging many of the ancient ruins at the same time). By the time Suchet arrived on 23 September the citadel was surrounded by an irregular wall, made up from fragments of the pre-Roman Iberian fortifications and the Moorish walls, linked with stone taken from the Roman theatre. The weakest part of the hill was protected by a gun battery named the Dos de Mayo, to commemorate the original Madrid uprising of 1808, while the final strongpoint was the citadel tower of San Fernando, at the summit of the hill. The fortress was garrisoned by 2,663 men.
The combined French army reached Saguntum on 23 September without its heavy siege guns. Suchet had not expected to have to besiege the place, and so was forced to attempt to storm the fortress. On the night of 27-28 September two columns each of 300 men attempted to capture a week spot in the new walls, on the northern face of the citadel overlooking Murviedro. This attack came close to success, but the Spanish garrison held its ground, and Suchet was forced to bring up his heavy guns. His decision not to attack Oropesa on his original journey into Valencia would now cost him two weeks. The weak defences of that town were reduced on 10-11 October, and the heavy guns reached Saguntum on 16 October.
Suchet’s decision to settle down to besiege Saguntum caused Blake a serious problem. He had expected the French to threaten his lines around Valencia much more quickly, giving him a reason not to go to the aid of the garrison of Saguntum. Instead Blake found himself in a position where he had to take some action to help the besieged garrison. The Spanish had criticised Wellington for not coming to the aid of the garrison of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1810, not understanding that Wellington’s entire plan was for a slow retreat back to the Lines of Torres Vedras. As a result Blake could hardly act in the same way without bringing down just as much hostile reaction. His response was to move two detachments out of the lines around Valencia and post them at Segorbe and Benaguacil. These detachments threatened Suchet’s lines of communication into southern Aragon, but did nothing to threaten his far more important links up the coast. Even so Suchet was not willing to let the Spanish remain so close to his lines, and so on 30 September a French detachment attacked and defeated the Spanish force at Segorbe, and on 2 October Suchet himself led a successful attack on the detachment at Benaguacil.
A key element of Blake’s plan involved the guerrilla bands of Durán, El Empecinado and Mina. He hoped that these bands would be able to overwhelm the weakened French garrison of Aragon, threaten Saragossa, and force Suchet to abandon his campaign in Valencia. The guerrillas certainly played their part well – Durán and El Empecinado managed to capture the town of Calatayud, while Mina managed to destroy a French column 800 strong at Ayerbe, but Blake had underestimated the number of French troops left in Aragon, and despite their best efforts the guerrillas were unable to force Suchet to move any troops away from Valencia.
The prolonged siege of Saguntum finally forced Blake to move out of his lines and attack Suchet. The resulting battle of Saguntum of 25 October 1811 saw Blake’s army suffer a very heavy defeat, losing 1,000 dead and wounded and nearly 5,000 prisoners. On the following day Saguntum finally surrendered, but Suchet was still not free to move against Valencia. One brigade had to be used to escort 8,000 prisoners back to Tortosa, while Saguntum had to be garrisons, leaving Suchet with only 15,000 men in his field army. Despite their awful performance in battle, the Valencian troops within Saguntum had proved themselves very capable of defending fortifications, and Blake had put a great deal of effort into the defences of Valencia.
Although modern Valencia reaches the coast, in 1811 the city was two miles inland, on the southern bank of the Guadalaviar River. Blake had decided to defend the line of the river, and had ordered the construction of a line of fortifications. These included a number of independent forts, lines of trenches, gun batteries and defensive positions at the northern end of the surviving bridges over the river. The city itself had been made into an armed camp. The fortifications ran west to the village of Manises, giving Blake a line eight miles long from Manises to the sea. There were two major problems with this plan. The first was that Grão, the port of Valencia, was on the northern side of the lines, and quickly fell into French hands. The second was that there was nothing stopping Suchet from crossing the river west of Manises and attacking Valencia from the south, and this is exactly what he decided to do. Unfortunately for the Spanish, Blake posted some of his worst troops at the western end of his lines, and made no real effort to keep scouts in place to spot any outflanking move.
Suchet’s advance into Valencia now placed the French in a difficult position. He needed reinforcements before he could risk attack Blake’s defensive lines. Severoli’s division from Suchet’s own army was still in Aragon, and could be moved without difficulties, but Suchet also needed Reille’s division, and this did not fall under his authority. Napoleon’s authority would be needed before Reille could be moved to Valencia. Worse, if both Reille and Severoli were moved out of Aragon, then new troops would have to be found to garrison Aragon. At first it was hoped to find some of these men from King Joseph’s Army of Portugal, but it soon became clear that the only possible source was the Army of the North. Napoleon also decided to send a flying column to Cuenca, to attack Blake from the rear. This force would have to come from Marmont’s Army of Portugal. Secure in the false belief that Wellington had 18,000-20,000 men sick and would be unable to act, on 21 November Napoleon ordered Marmont to provide enough troops to form a flying column 12,000 strong and 3,000 men to protect his lines of communication.
Joseph was able to provide only 3,000 men, and so this order reduced Marmont’s strength on the Portuguese border by 12,000. These orders reached Marmont on 13 December, and by the end of the year he had dispatched Foy’s and Sarrut’s divisions to aid Suchet. Just how badly Napoleon had misjudged the condition of Wellington’s army would soon be judged, for on 8 January 1812 the British began their siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, and the fortress fell eleven days later.
The French were finally ready to move on the night of 25-26 December. Two thirds of Suchet’s 30,000 men were sent to outflank the Spanish left, 5,000 to attack their right and the remaining 5,000 men to hold the line of the Guadalaviar. Suchet hoped that the two flanking attacks would be able to meet behind Blake’s lines, trapping the entire Spanish army. This plan came very close to success. On the morning of 26 December Blake was distracted by the attack on his right, and then by an attack against the centre of his line at Mislata. The French were allowed to carry out their main flanking move virtually unopposed, at least until their leading division clashed with the Spanish cavalry at Aldaya, forcing them to flee (although only after suffering an initial setback when one French cavalry squadron ran into the main Spanish cavalry force). Once he eventually realised what had happened Blake ordered his best divisions (Zayas and Lardizabal) to retreat back into Valencia, where they joined Miranda’s division. Suchet had trapped 17,000 of Blake’s men inside the city.
It was now only a matter of time before Blake would be forced to surrender. Valencia had not been prepared for a long siege. The port of Valencia had been abandoned to the French two months earlier, and food had been supplied by regular convoys from the south. The Spanish only had ten days worth of supplies within the city. Blake himself was hugely unpopular inside the city, where his conduct of the entire campaign was held in some contempt. The siege of Valencia would not turn into another epic.
Blake made one attempt to escape from Valencia. On the night of 28-29 December the three Spanish divisions attempted to break out to the west, and the leading companies managed to break through the French lines, but the escape attempt soon bogged down when Lardizabal settled down to build a bridge over the canal of Mestalla, wasting valuable time. Only 500 men escaped, and the rest of the army was forced to retreat back into the city.
On 1 January 1812 the French opened their siege trenches, and on 4 January they were ready to open fire. Blake abandoned his outer defences before a single shot had been fired, and retreated into the city itself. The French opened fire on 5 January. Blake turned down a first summons to surrender on 6 January, but at a council of war on 8 January it was decided that there was no point fighting on, and on the following day Blake surrendered.
The capture of Valencia was the high-point of French success in Spain, but it had effectively exhausted Suchet’s army. Reille’s 13,000 men soon had to return to Aragon, to restore order in that province. The southern part of the province of Valencia would never fall into French hands. Worse was to come. On 14 January 1812 Napoleon decided to withdraw the Infantry of the Guard and all Polish troops from Spain, in preparation for the invasion of Russia, weakening the armies of the North, of Aragon and of Andalusia, just as Wellington was going onto the offensive. The fall of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, defeat at Salamanca and King Joseph’s evacuation of Madrid would all follow on during 1812.