General Joachim Blake was a senior Spanish general of Irish extraction during the Peninsular War. He is widely considered to have been brave but careful, energetic, organised but unlucky – during his career he suffered a number of defeats that were not his fault, amongst them his first defeat at Medina del Rio Seco, where he was badly let down by General Cuesta. Prior to the outbreak of the Spanish uprising in 1808, he was colonel of the regiment known as the “Volunteers of the Crown”, and the largest force he had commanded had contained three battalions. His predecessor, captain-general Filanghieri, had been murdered because of his opposition to the uprising. The uprising in Galicia began on 30 May 1808, and Blake was promoted to command the new Army of Galicia.
His first achievement was to convince the Junta of Galicia to allow him to use the large number of raw recruits at his disposal to reinforce the existing battalions of the old army, bringing them up to strength. This allowed the experienced soldiers of the old army to train their new colleagues and give Blake one of the best of the Spanish armies at this stage of the war. Having created this army around Lugo, Blake then moved to the edge of the mountains that protected Galicia, and by late June had occupied the three main passes leading into Galicia. At this point Blake had 25,000 men ready to take to the field, organised into four divisions and a vanguard brigade. His intention was to take up a defensive position in the hills, and force the French to come to him.
Blake was soon forced to abandon this plan. The Army of Castile under General Cuesta had been badly defeated at Cabezon on 12 June 1808, but despite this Cuesta was still determined to take the fight to the French. He called on Galicia and the Asturias to provide him with troops for an attack on Valladolid. The Asturians refused, but the Junta of Galicia ordered Blake to move onto the plains and join with Cuesta. On 10 July Blake, with three divisions and the vanguard brigade, joined Cuesta at Villalpando. Unfortunately Cuesta had thirteen years seniority, took command of the combined army, and insisted on an immediate offensive.
The French responded by reinforcing the army of Marshal Bessières in north-west Spain, bringing it up to a strength of around 14,000 men. It was still much smaller than the combined Spanish army, by now 21,000 strong, but Bessièries was still able to win a significant victory at Medina del Rio Seco on 14 July. This was the first of that series of battles which saw Blake on the defeated side despite his best efforts. Cuesta made an appalling deployment before the battle. Blake, with half of his own army, was posted in an advanced position on the right, while Cuesta, with the other half of the Army of Galicia and his own Army of Castile took up a position to the left, so far back that it was out of site from Blake’s position. The French were able to defeat the two wings of the Spanish army one by one, starting with Blake’s. To make things worse, when the French turned their attention to Cuesta’s wing, he used Blake’s troops to launch a futile counterattack on the French, before ordering his own army to retreat almost intact. The Army of Galicia lost around 3,000 men during the battle (400 dead, 500 wounded, 1,200 prisoners and the rest probably deserting), the Army of Castile only 155. Only a lacklustre pursuit saved the Spanish army from a much more serious defeat
Despite this defeat a series of Spanish successes elsewhere soon forced the French to abandon most of Spain, retaining the area around Barcelona and the north eastern corner of the country, behind the Ebro. These setbacks also forced Napoleon to make his one appearance in Spain. By the autumn of 1808 Blake had command of a new army 32,000 strong, formed from Galicia and the Asturias. Unfortunately the Spanish had failed to appoint a supreme commander, and so each of their armies operated independently. Blake decided to advance along the north coast into Biscay. His first target was Bilbao, but his ultimate aims were the defeat of the French right wing, which he believed to be much smaller than it was, and the capture of the main highway linking the French armies on the Ebro to Bayonne.
Blake made his first move on 10 September 1808. Bilbao was liberated on 20 September, but the French responded by sending a strong force under Marshal Ney to dislodge him, and Blake was soon forced to abandon Bilbao. However Ney then returned to his original position on the Ebro, leaving only 3,000 men under General Merlin at Bilbao. Blake took advantage of the French weakness, and on 11 October recaptured Bilbao. This was his best chance to inflict significant defeat on the French – for the next few days General Merlin’s weak force was the only thing stopping Blake from reaching the highway, but Blake delayed for too long in Bilbao. By the time he began to move east, the first French reinforcements had arrived. Eventually Merlin’s army would be replaced by fresh troops under Marshal Lefebvre.
Blake’s army was now in a very exposed position. Napoleon was about to begin his grand offensive in Spain. His aim was to break through the Spanish lines at Burgos, and then send armies sweeping north and south to trap the Spanish armies on the Ebro and Blake’s army on the coast. Marshal Soult would have the job of trapping Blake. Meanwhile, a smaller army under Marshal Victor had been sent unto the upper Ebro valley, where it too threatened to trap Blake. By late October Lefebvre and Victor were already in place to trap Blake east of Bilbao, but Napoleon was about to arrive in Spain, and so Victor remained where he was. Napoleon’s grand plan was more likely to success in Blake remained in his vulnerable position.
The trap was sprung too early. On 31 October Marshal Lefebvre attacked Blake at Zornoza, forcing him to retreat west of Bilbao. Lefebvre pursued Blake for a few days, and then turned back, returning to Bilbao and leaving a small force to watch the Spanish. This movement left a Spanish force 8,000 strong under General Acevedo trapped in the mountains south of Bilbao. He had been posted there to protect Blake’s right flank against an attack from the Ebro, and had received his orders to retreat too late. When his column approached Bilbao the French were already in the city, and so Acevedo retired back into the mountains and attempted to avoid detection.
Blake responded with a counterattack of his own. On 5 November his army attacked the French vanguard around Valmaceda, forced them to pull back far enough to allow Acevedo to escape to safety. This stung Lefebvre into action, and Blake was soon forced to begin a long retreat through the mountains towards the relative safety of the plains of Leon. At this point his army was largely intact, but the French were close behind. Marshal Victor’s army had finally moved north from the Ebro, and by 10 November was so close to the Spanish rearguard that Blake was forced to make a stand at Espinosa de los Monteros (10-11 November 1808). After holding their ground on the first day of the battle, the Spanish were overwhelmed on the second day and forced to retreat in some chaos to Reynosa. Blake lost around 3,000 men at Espinosa, but another 8,000 deserted after the battle. When the muster was taken at Reynosa, only 12,000 men remained in the army.
By now Napoleon’s grand plan was well underway. The road from Reynosa to Leon led south towards Old Castile, before turning to the west. Blake had hoped to use this road, and soon after reaching Reynosa sent a large convoy south along it on the first stage of the journey to Leon. On 14 November Marshal Soult’s advance guard destroyed this convoy. The road south was closed. Worse was to follow for Blake – on the following day he learned that after learning of the defeat at Zornoza, the Junta of Galicia had removed him from command in favour of General La Romana. Even worse, La Romana then decided not to take command until the army was back at Leon, leaving Blake to conduct the last desperate retreat across the mountains west of Reynose. His army was forced to abandon most of its baggage and heavy equipment, but despite terrible conditions 10,000 men reached Leon.
Blake was soon back in action. He was offered command of a new Army of the Right, recruited in the Coronilla (the old kingdom of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia). This was a small army, contained Lazan’s division and Roca’s Valencian division, but more troops were being recruited all the time – by the summer of 1809 Blake would have 25,000 men under his command. Blake began well in his new command. His small army began an advance towards Saragossa, which had only fallen to the French in February 1809. His opponent would be Marshal Suchet, newly appointed to command of 3rd Corps. He realised the threat posed by Blake, and advanced towards him at the head of 8,000 men. The first clash came at Alcaniz on 23 May 1809. Here Blake, with 9,000 men repulsed a French attack, but aware of the overall weakness of his position did not follow up.
After this first battle Blake was reinforced by a fresh column of troops from Valencia, bringing the total force under his command up to 25,000 men. With 20,000 men from this force he began to advance towards Saragossa, and by 13 June he was in the Huerba Valley, only 20 miles from the city. Rather bizarrely Blake chose to split his force in two, keeping the divisions of Lazan and Roca under his direct command and sending General Areizaga on a separate route towards Saragossa. Even so, when Blake’s vanguard clashed with Suchet’s on 14 June the Spanish had around 13,000 men, while Suchet still only had 9,000. However, Suchet knew that another 3,000 men were close behind, and expected them to arrive on 15 June.
The two armies clashed on 15 June at Maria. Blake launched the first attack at around noon, but this was soon repulsed. This raised Suchet’s confidence, and he responded with an attack of his own, which was in turn repulsed, before a hailstorm brought a temporary end to the fighting. During this period the French reinforcements arrived. When the hail ended, Suchet launched an attack on the Spanish right, and made a breakthrough, driving the Spanish off the only road that linked the main force with Areizaga’s division. At this point many Spanish armies might have collapsed, but Blake showed his coolness under fire and launched a counterattack that largely restored the situation. Even so, he was forced to retreat having lost 5,000 men in the battle and its aftermath.
This was only a temporary respite. The two armies clashed again at Belchite on 18 June. By now Blake only had 12,000 men and seven cannons, so the two armies were roughly equal in size. The Spanish were already being pushed back when a French shell detonated their ammunition store. Convinced that the French were attacking from the rear, Blake’s army was routed, retreating towards Morella and Tortosa. By this point Blake had only 9,000 of his initial 25,000 men left.
He would be given no time to record. The French were now in the middle of their third siege of Gerona. Blake’s was the only Spanish army that had any chance of relieving the siege. Blake was understandably reluctant to risk another battle with the French. He was able to find another 5,000 men, bring his total force up to 14,000, but most of the new troops were raw recruits. His main aim was to avoid a battle with the French under St-Cyr while also slipping supplies into the city. His first attempt to achieve this ended in success. St-Cyr decided to seek a battle, and so took most of his army out of the trenches around Gerona in an attempt to catch Blake. Over the next few days Blake managed to lead St-Cyr further away from Gerona, and on 1 September a supply column under Garcia Conde entered Gerona.
This was Blake’s only success around Gerona. His second attempt to run supplies into the city saw the French capture the convoy, while the third attempt in November ended with the French destroying Blake’s supply depot at Hostalrich. On 7 December 1809 Gerona was finally forced to surrender.
Blake’s next command was at Cadiz, which remained in Allied hands from 1810 until the end of the war, protected by formidable natural defences. From his secure base at Cadiz Blake was able to launch a series of expeditions back onto the mainland. His first, in November 1810, was an attempt to drive the French out of Granada, which ended in defeat at Baza on 4 November.
His next was more effective. On 6 May 1811 the first British siege of Badajoz began, but on 15 May General Beresford was forced to break off the siege to deal with a French relief army under Marshal Soult. A large part of Beresford’s 35,000 strong Allied army was made up of 8,000 men under Blake. This men, in the divisions of Zayas and Lardizabal had been landed on the coast and marched up the Guadiana River to support Beresford. Soult believed that Blake had not yet reached Beresford. On 16 May 1811 he attacked the Allied army at Albuera, hoping to defeat Beresford and then turn south to tackle Blake. In fact the two Allied armies were already together. Soult suffered a costly defeat and was forced to retire to Llerena.
Blake remained with the British and took part in the second half of this first siege. When Wellington was forced to abandon the siege in June 1811, Blake was sent east towards Seville at the head of a force 10,000 strong. Soult was forced to move east to protect Seville. He found Blake’s army besieging Niebla, and on 2 July forced the Spanish to abandon the siege. Blake’s army was able to reach the coast in safety and was evacuated back to Cadiz on an Allied fleet.
In the autumn of 1811 Marshal Suchet had an army over 70,000 strong, and was preparing to invade Valencia. Threats to other parts of the area under Suchet’s command meant that he could only take 20,000 men into Valencia. Blake was appointed to command the army defending Valencia. Blake had a larger army at his disposal, but most of it was made up of raw recruits, at best poorly equipped. His only experienced troops were in the same divisions of Zayas and Ladizabal that had fought at Albuera. When Suchet advanced to besiege Saguntum, Blake responded. Even though he outnumbered the French by around two-to-one, Blake suffered a heavy defeat at Saguntum on 25 October 1811, losing 6,000 men killed or wounded and was forced to retreat back to Valencia.
Blake attempted to hold a position just outside the city, but in late December he was outwitted by Suchet, who smashed his way through this defensive line, forcing Blake and his 17,000 remaining men to retreat into Valencia. This time there would be no lengthy siege. The French began to build regular siege works on 1 January 1812, but morale was crumbling inside the city, and after enduring a short bombardment Blake and his army surrendered on 8 January. This ended Blake’s military career and he remained in French captivity until after Napoleon’s first abdication.
|History of the Peninsular War vol.1: 1807-1809 - From the Treaty of Fontainebleau to the Battle of Corunna, Sir Charles Oman. The first volume of Oman's classic seven volume history of the Peninsular War, this is one of the classic works of military history and provides an invaluable detailed narrative of the fighting in Spain and Portugal. This first volume covers the initial French intervention, the start of the Spanish uprising, the early British involvement in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon's own brief visit to Spain.|