Marching log for the 2nd company of the 1st Battalion of bridge builders in Spain
Back to the bridge builders’ depot located in Strasbourg for the army of Spain reinforcements, the 2nd company was a seasoned unit that participated in the Battle of Eylau on February 8, 1807 with Davoust 3rd Corps. This company made 50% by bridge builders from either the Rhine department and by extra conscripts recruited in 1808, left its barracks on November 14, 1808 to Bayonne gathering place for the reinforcements set for Spain. It arrived there on November 25 without the equipment to build bridges but only the individual equipment for its men and 5 riding horses. Its sole officer was the captain Georges Adam, commanding 61 men, including non-commissioned officers. The civil status of these bridge builders are mentioned in the notes.
At Bayonne, the
company was assigned to the artillery park of the 6th
under the command of General Ney, who is involved in the past few days
first siege of Saragossa (Zaragoza). The allocated
equipment includes the material for crossing
rivers that means 5 boats
wheels, with beams, planks, anchors, ropes and other material. With
equipment, bridge builders are able to build a bridge of 33 fathoms or
55 meters. This means that for larger obstacles it will be necessary to
various number of companies based on this reference length. After a few
training, the artillery and the artillery park set for the siege are
for Saragossa where they are expected. However, the long road goes
Pyrenees and travelled through some 350 kilometres of rugged terrain.
of some sixty different carriages with their guns and supplies, the
spread over nearly 10 km and progresses 25 to 30 kilometres per day.
The convoy will make a stop for a few days in Tudela, then in Xiloca, where they leave at the end of December 1808. Finally, it arrives on January 17, 1809 in front of the besieged fortress of Saragossa where the regular troops of Spain are entrenched.
Preparation for the siege of the fortress of Saragossa (Zaragoza)
The troops from
settle in Ponferrada, near the Polish regiment of the Vistula, which
a dominant part in the assault. The next day, General Lannes comes in
to coordinate the preliminary work and to move the artillery park
Monte-Terrero to a place called "powder keg", in order to be closer
to the combat zone. For the combat, bridge builders must build two
the artillery (17) downstream and upstream of the city, so that the
24 be within shooting range (800 meters). As the matter
of fact, the trenches
surrounding the city do not allow the 60 French canons of inferior
already in the field, to get close to the fortifications. The bridge
locations are decided after a site check by General artillery
in charge of the army disposition, attended by captains bridge
the 2nd company and Kiffer of the 4 th who came
to help out
from the 5th Corps.
The latter has
brought 34 requisitioned boats from Tudela because the bridge crew
enough. By mutual agreement, it is decided firstly to build a bridge
upstream of Saragossa. The depth of the Ebro at this location being
more than 2
metres, bridge builders cannot build a trestle bridge and they resign
themselves to build a bridge of boats. Since it is the
2nd company that carried the 5 boats
from Bayonne, it is up to them to take charge.
Unloading the vessels is going smoothly as the men don’t work under enemy fire. Although they are trained, it is the first bridge the men built since Strasbourg. So Sergeant Major Daniel Gampter reminds the following instructions to the non-commissioned officers as well as beginners and expert bridge builders:
As the currant is not too strong because of the width of the river, Captain Adam decided to work by successively launching the vessels. They were placed perpendicular to the shore and connected by planks 10 metre long; But as the boats of bridge builders and those requisitioned were of different sizes, they were balanced out by loading stones to level them out before placing the beams and planks Accordingly, it took 5 to 6 hours to build this bridge of 200 metres when 3 hours are generally enough.
This done, it is up to the bridge builders and their officers to maintain order when the various troops cross over. It goes always smoothly with the artillery, since they are of the same class, although large pieces push the boat down when crossing, which is not to the liking of the bridge builders. So to avoid accidents, the regulation specifies that the crossing must be done slowly with horses lead by the bridle by a man on foot.
However, with the cavalry, this is never easy because the riders look down on the poor bridge builders and in most cases refuse to get off their horse. This is dangerous because a nervous horse can get away from the grip of his rider and starts galloping. If that is the case, it may break a leg because in most cases, bridges are temporary and the wood on the deck is not nailed but simply laid on.
For all these reasons, crossing a bridge is long, causing queues and irritation, each unit claiming to be first.
It was said that some riders hit the nose of the horses with the flat side of their sword in order to cross first. No need to say that in these cases, rapport between units of cavalry and artillery were sometimes strained! So, when it was possible, two bridges were built, one by the bridge builders for the cavalry and artillery, the other by sappers for the infantry.
The first bridge completed, the artillery pieces cross the Ebro on January 21, 1809 and get put in place in the 7 locations that were built for them by artillery workers and sappers. The guns are all in place on January 25 and the first shots are fired on the 26th by 60 canons.
The firing lasts part of the day, each piece firing around sixty rounds in direction of the walls of Santa Gracia, Capucins and Carmen gates.
During this firing, the 4th company of bridge builders sets up a temporary bridge south of the city which is a platform mounted on two boats and connected by a cable. Using this bridge, 600 infantrymen with their equipment can cross in one hour.
Once this bridge is built, the assault is given on January 27, 1809 by the infantry, consisting mainly of the 2nd and 3rd Polish Regiments of the Vistula and the 14th, 44th, 70th, 114th, 115 and 116th line infantry Regiment.
The Spaniards resist fiercely, and Santa Gracia and Capuchins convents are taken but with a huge struggle. The fighting often involved bayonets, but most frequently explosives placed in underground tunnels were used to blast houses.
While the infantry is fighting, the bridge builders build two other trestle bridges, one on the Huerba River, and the other in the Aragon channel. They are protected by a bridgehead made of traps filled with earth. The Engineers will also build a trestle bridge.
The map on the
left shows the
siege of Saragossa with the location of the 4 bridges launched by the
4th companies of bridge builders and one by the engineers.
In red, the progression ditches with arrow marking the position of the assault.
"La calle del assault" still commemorates this location. The bridge at the top of the map and marked in yellow still exists today.
The surrender of Saragossa (Zaragoza)
besieged ask to
surrender on February 21, 1809 to General Junot. This general had
general Lannes on January 2, who was recalled by the Emperor to serve
The surrender signed, 12,000 Spanish soldiers leave the city and lay down their weapons before being taken prisoner.
French troops will only enter on February 24 because the city was virtually destroyed and needed a cleanup. The losses were enormous, 54,000 military and civilians. On the French side, 3,100 soldiers had lost their life, including a high proportion of Polish as well as many wounded who died in hospitals. Among the latter, the pontonnier Jacques Breton of the 2nd Company, died in hospital on February 17, 1809.
In the aftermath of the capture of Saragossa, whose siege was the most difficult of the entire war in Spain, the 5th corps lead by General Mortier returned to Madrid while a part of the artillery was recalled to Germany. As a result the 3rd Army corps sees its staffing reduced to 12,000 men, but gets the 2nd company of bridge builders originally assigned to the 6th guards. It will remain in the corps which will become the army of Aragon until the French retreat in 1814.
Using to their advantage this cut in the French army, the Spanish troops, helped by guerrillas resume the offensive and take back some surrounding cities, including Lerida and Monzon.
Then in February, typhus appears to Saragossa and claimed many victims among the population but also among military bridge builders including three of the 2nd company: Adam Martzlof, Elie Gutleben and Jean Margerie.
The siege park leaves for Pamplona and bridge builders are transferred to the field park
At the same
Huchet (19) replaces his counterpart Moncey and carries out the
of the 3 rd corps now called the Army of Aragon. He is helped by the
artillery Vallée (20) who replaced General Dedon gone with
the siege park for
The general then creates a field park, a mobile unit used as a reserve for the artillery. This unit will stay together for the duration of this war. It was as follows:
- 2nd company of bridge builders (captain Adam)
- 22th company of the 3 rd artillery regiment (captain Delaporte)
- 2nd company of artillery workers (captain Fontaine)
-Their barracks were in the moats surrounding the Inquisition Castle, located west of Saragossa
Bridge builders perform community work in Saragossa (Zaragoza)
The field park
will remain in
town until March 1809. Bridge builders are in charge of the upkeep and
of bridges they had built and are used daily, while the restoration of
Spanish stone bridge linking the Spanish city to its northern suburb
awaits. For their part, the artillery workers repair the powder
order to secure powder and ammunition.
Meanwhile Engineers proceed to repair walls and public buildings that have been destroyed, including barracks and hospital. This work is under the command of General Suchet, who is as good military as administrator. He understands that to keep Aragon, the army needs to be part of the population and cannot live at the expense of the occupied country. However, this was often the case in other Spanish provinces. He did succeed because this area had peace until 1812, the Aragon being one of the few Spanish provinces to be sheltered from abuses committed by both sides in this dirty Spanish war which had bad press in France. At that time, Spain was made of relatively isolated provinces, without any real central government. The French occupation has greatly contributed to the birth of the Spanish national feeling during this freedom war.
This did not prevent Suchet to launch from Saragossa military reconnaissance towards Lerida, Mequinenza and Tortosa where 15,000 Spanish soldiers were entrenched. These operations rarely exceeded the scope of one of the divisions made available to him:
Units available to the 3 rd Army Corps in 1809
1 st Division
114th and 121th Line
1st and 2nd Regiment of the Vistula
2 nd Division
7th, 44th and 116th Line
3rd Regiment of the Vistula
3 rd Division
16th and 117th Line
5th light infantry
A detachment of bridge builders taken prisoner by Spanish troops
supervision and in order to control the region, the general sends
reconnaissance missions towards Lerida and Mequinenza in April 1809. He also provides
general Mortier, commander of the neighbouring 5 th Corps (army North),
in Catalonia, part of his field park consisting of a detachment of
builders who must be involved in the siege of Girona. But the road is
secure and the detachment is attacked on May 9 around Caspé
by regular Spanish
the struggle, one of the boats is burned and 9 bridge builders are
prisoners: sergeant Jean Bertrand, Corporal Philibert Gagey and bridge
Henri Lafrance, Pierre Joannes, Constant Dropsy, Jean Valentin, and
Satabin (22). Prisoners were usually left to their own fate on board a
barge docked in a southern port.
At the end of May, Spanish General Blake, who operates in the south, moves towards Saragossa. To avoid being besieged, General Suchet leaves the city and consolidates his troops on the river Huerba. He will defeat the Spaniards in two successive battles known as Maria and Belchite on June 15 and 18. He has also take 4,500 prisoners. Left behind in Saragossa, the bridge builders did not participate in this battle.
The bridge builders in the channel of Aragon
These two victories will allow from now on control the channel of Aragon, located on the right side of the Ebro river, a vital asset. Indeed, this main waterway is used for the transportation of weapons and food, sparing the forces of the transport corps whose heavy horses from France is suffering in this country where mules are more at ease. From Tudela to Saragossa, this channel has suffered destruction including few bridges destroyed during the retreat of Spanish troops. In addition, the canal fed by the Ebro River, known for its flash floods and low-waters is hardly navigable, and virtually filled with sludge due to the destruction of its locks. Furthermore, available boats are limited, since people have hidden or sunk them in order to avoid to be requisitioned by the French army.
Refloating boats, repairing bridges and major locks in Saragossa (Zaragoza)
situation, and as directed in their daily work, the infantry must look
boats needed for transport. The bridge builders are in charge of
rebuilding them if they have been sunk.
In this case, the bridge builders moor 2 of their boats above the sunken vessel. Using a boathook, they run ropes under that vessel and attach them to their own boats that they fill with water. The latter sink and the bridge builders can again tighten the ropes. This done, they just have to empty their boats with hand pumps and as their own boats rise, it lift up the sunken vessel. Finally, they will row pulling the sunken vessel or will get a carriage to pull it to the shore.
Beside this type of work, the bridge builders are responsible to carry out major repairs to the locks of the Saragossa channel at the mouth of the Ebro. This was a lengthy process that took until February 1810 to be completed.
They also had to ensure supplies with their boats and repair bridges on the canal. With a staff of about 70 people, they weren’t able to carry out all these tasks. That is the reason why they will be first assisted by the sappers and later by sailors. As a matter of fact, the seamen (marines of the High Shore) stationed in ports could also help the bridge builders.
Bridge builders make a raft made of barrels and destroy irrigation canals
bridge builders had to use their own ingenuity to ensure their mission. So they were
surprised when they were ordered to build a wooden frame raft with
This unusual construction was transported by road to Monzon, north of
in order to double the capacity of the existing ferry on the Cinca
Indeed, this city held by French troops stopped the Spanish troops
in Mequinenza and Lerida to get supplies in the plain of Saragossa.
At this point, the French lines were in Alcanitz, Jacca, Veneasquez and Monzon but 20,000 regular Spanish soldiers entrenched in Lerida constituted a permanent threat. So before attacking this city, the general had the bridge builders destroy the irrigation canals of Alfaraz to cut the water supply to the mill in Lerida used by the entrenched soldiers to grind their grain. This measure taken, General Suchet went to fight Lerida with generals Harispe and Habert, leaving the city of Saragossa to General Musnier.
The army of Aragon in the campaign of 1810
and his army of Aragon in control of the Ebro basin, taking Lerida and
especially the kingdom of Valencia occupied by regular Spanish troops
necessary to control the supply for troops. It is therefore
carry out a reconnaissance to judge the defences of Valencia. Gathering the
available infantry and cavalry at his disposal, General Suchet leaves
rich city that opens the doors to southern Spain. On March 4,
1810, he takes
hold of Murviedo, near Valencia, having met little resistance from the
troops who had to retreat to the city.
As he has only the light artillery at his disposal from the infantry, the general requests from Saragossa artillery pieces of 12, that come escorted by 2 battalions of the 14th line and the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Light infantry. At the same time, he requests support from King Joseph Napoleon but doesn’t succeed since the bulk of troops are engaged in the centre west of Spain against the Anglo-Spanish troops. After a week long siege held without success, he withdraws and has his troops go through the interior by Teruel, in order to demonstrate his force.
Preparations for the cordon of Lerida (Lleida)
the artillery field park and the bridge builders remained in Saragossa,
in order not to strip the city of its forces, and second, to avoid
Spanish command of any movement of the bridge builders and heavy
Returning to his headquarters, General Suchet asks his neighbour,
who commands the troops of Catalonia, to ensure the safety of his
between Pamplona and Tudela, as well as the surveillance of bridges and
regroup the available boats in Tudela for the future takeover of
These precautions taken, he sends 13 pieces of artillery on the road to Monzon, where they cross the Cinca on the ferry and on the bridge made of barrels made by the bridge builders. The garrison in Monzon is in the hands of Colonel Plicque. At the same time, General Musnier, under the command of Suchet, monitors the Ebro between Mora and Flix. Having launched these actions to take Lerida in a squeeze and to avoid all surprise, he can take the field.
on the right bank of the River Segre, in an arid and monotonous plain,
is protected by a single wall, two forts and a fortified castle. The
protects that city on its entire length. To
reach this city, one must take the road through
Fraga, suitable for carriages. However, the Spaniards took the
destroying the stone bridge on the Cinca. The second route is to go
Monzon on a very difficult road. Sent in a reconnaissance
mission with his 3rd Division, General Habert
pushed to the city of
Balaguer on the Segre which has been evacuated by the Spaniards who
being surrounded. However, they haven’t destroyed the bridge,
French to settle in Logueral.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the troops with the artillery, goes through Fraga where the bridge builders repair the stone bridge, while a dozen of them, under the command of a sergeant, goes with part of the artillery through Monzon, where they arrive on April 10 1810, with the raft mentioned above.
Launching a bridge to end the siege of Lerida (April 13, May 14, 1810)
This march was
difficult for the two columns. The rain leaving roads impassable, and
the mountainous terrain, counts for their slow progression. Gathered in
where Suchet has for the time being established his Headquarters, the
builders pass under the command of general Habert who is leaving for a
reconnaissance mission. During this
mission, the general
requests to have a bridge build over the Segre, but as they do not have
materials, he sends them destroy a bridge over Balaguer to recover what
As in all siege of this period it is up to the sappers, with the help of the foot soldiers, to dig parallel trenches in order to approach the fortification without unnecessary risks as well as to build shelters for the artillery. During this work the bridge builders return and settle camp in front of Lerida on April 28 1810, at the San Rufo mill. Once there, they need to build two barges attached to both banks of the Segre, about 1,500 metres from their camp in order for the artillery to cross the river to the other side. This is a fairly difficult task to achieve because the bridge builders have at their disposal requisitioned boats that need to be reinforced with timbers to support the cannons. Once this is done, a long rope needs to be in place across the river and through a pulley system, the boats linked together slide along the rope.
is just completed
when a violent thunderstorm breaks over the region, overflowing the
canals, flooding the trenches where the soldiers have water up to their
It is impossible to divert the current to prevent a
disaster and bridge builders, overwhelmed by the
hastily build a trestle bridge for the troops to access the trenches.
lasts one week as the current in the Segre is very strong and slows
Despite this delay, the batteries are put in place after many difficulties due to the mud and on May 7, 1810, 24 large calibre guns are firing at the walls (15 pieces of 24 and 9 mortars). The Spanish response kill 20 gunners. Encouraged by this success the Spanish sally that night on May 8 and are pushed back with difficulty by the 5th light and the 114 th Line.
At the same time, the Spanish troops of General O Donnel arriving from Mora, from the east, try to join the besieged. To avoid being caught in the crossfire, Suchet has a temporary bridge made by the bridge builders between Lerida and Villanova in order to position his troops in the plain of Margaleff. Defeated, the Spaniards do not insist and abandon the besieged to their fate.
On 12 May, the redoubt of Garden is taken, as well as the bridgehead protecting the stone bridge linking the city to the right bank. The final assault takes place the next day and the city falls with difficulty. 12,000 men are lost for Spain, including 7,750 prisoners and on the French side, 200 are killed and 500 are wounded. The besieged honourably defended the city against twice as many troops. In this siege, the 2nd company loses Sergeant Major Daniel Gampter and bridge builders Jean Dupuys and Bernard Nicot who are injured and will be discharged a month later.
Preparations for the sieges of Mequinenza and Tarragona
victory, General Suchet sends 2 battalions of the first Division to
around Fraga, in the village of Tome on the Segre, and requests from
builders to establish a ferry on the Cinca river in order to let troops
supply across for the future attack on Mequinenza. A Spanish
garrison has taken up
position in this town and threatens the back of the 5th Corps.
Once there in early June 1810, the bridge builders set up ropes across the river and build a ferry with two boats requisitioned and assembled to form a platform, with railing. During the two days of work, an infantry company will each night attack the ferry controlled by the Spanish troops to prevent them from getting supplies outside of Mequinenza. The French ferry completed, a company remains in the field to protect it and the bridge builders move troops en route for the siege of that city. The troops are followed by a herd of beef cattle that the bridge builders are reluctant to have cross on the ferries. One must pay particular attention that no more than four or five animals cross at a time, because if one panics, the ferry can rock and it isn’t uncommon that one animal might jump into the water, which is always a source of accidents.
Meanwhile, in order to prepare the future sieges, general Suchet has asked Madrid to put at his disposal the bridge crew, who is in Pamplona. He is successful and the convoy of bridge builders made of about forty carriages and 250 horses, heads towards Saragossa, protected by the troops stationed in Navarre. This convoy must travel about 300 kilometers in mountainous terrain and moves 23 boats of all types including a dozen pontoons made of copper, totally flat. It is known that the bridge builders do not like to use these materials because, under the weight of heavy artillery crossing the water, the pontoons almost sank to the top, getting the men’s feet wet. Finally, on a funny note, it is said that the first seeing these copper pontoons shining in the sun believed that they were made of gold.
The siege of
Mequinenza May 16-31,
Protected by a fort and situated on a high plateau, difficult to get to, Mequinenza is accessible by road from Lerida, Fraga and Toriente and along the right bank of the Segre. In some places, this road is very winding, impassable for convoys of cannons and boats that can be up to 18 metres in length when pulled by 6 horses.
A path even more difficult, coming directly from Saragossa, is only accessible to mules.
The bulk of forces that is to say the 2nd and 3rd divisions protecting the field park with the bridge builders and 10 large artillery pieces, takes the first route. Everything goes well until Fraga, but the Spaniards have once again destroyed the repairs made on the bridge and it is judged more practical to build a bridge with the 4 boats available. But the river is torrential and the rain makes the level dangerously high. In that case the river becomes a difficult obstacle, and this is exactly what will happen, because it will take 11 days for the bridge builders to build the bridge. Indeed, water rose up to 3 meters per day, tearing the ropes and taking away the crates filled with cannonballs forming the bridge abutments.
Once this obstacle overcome, the sappers have to dynamite the rock to widen the road in Toriente to get the guns through.
On May 28, when the guns are in position, a portion of the inhabitants flee by boat. After a two-day cannonade, the attack is launched and the 1.500 defenders surrender and are made prisoners.
After the surrender of
Suchet decides to seize Tortosa, an important harbour on the
located at the mouth of the river Ebre, which allows the Spanish troops
only to navigate on both sides of the river but also to receive
and supply from the English fleet.
It is not an easy job since the army is already forced to spread out on a vast territory in order to keep the strategic positions in hand.
Preparations for the siege of Tortosa
To get to Tortosa, from wherever you are, except by the sea, you must go through a chain of rugged mountains, where the Ebro flows. This river appears more as a torrent than a river. It is in this region between Pinel and Xerta that is located one of the most formidable gorges in Europe.
Again, engineers have
to open a road
through the mountains for guns and the bridge crew between Favara,
Gandesa and Mora. But in order to minimize
the number of horses necessary to carry the load,
General Suchet decides to get a convoy
by the river, thus
indirectly giving new importance to the bridge builders and their
That is why, once they arrived to Méquinenza by the road, the bridge builders assemble their boats per pair to form platforms capable of carrying first the artillery and in a second stage to be assembled with other boats to build a bridge. The platforms completed, they go down the Ebro up to Xerta, which is the gathering place for the troops. They come up on July 6, 1810, escorted on the bank by detachments of cavalry and infantry, so that the guns found on the platforms are not being snatched by the enemy.
This provision has been decided by Suchet, who in a letter addressed to his general of artillery Valée stresses the importance of this weapon by declaring "I want to be sure of securing the artillery before things get serious."
Two days later, on July 8, the platforms arrive in view of Tortosa. However, as the bridge crew has not yet arrived with all its equipment, the bridge builders will transform the platforms into a temporary bridge at a place where the river is only 100 fathoms wide (l90 metres). Although this type of bridge makes the process slower for the troops to cross and the artillery than a bridge of boats, it is indeed safer.
It is faster to assemble this kind of bridge than a fixed one. Indeed, you just have to build on the platform a wooden portal frame, with a beam across pierced with a hole of 10 centimetres in diameter (called in bridge builders’ jargon a cat), in which you slide a long rope. This rope is solidly moored to the shore on one end, the other being wrapped on a capstan mounted on the deck of the platform.
The 6 bridge builders on duty have just to rotate the capstan, being sometimes helped by passengers of goodwill or those who are in a hurry.
But when they came to the dam in Flix, a troupe of Spanish ambushed the convoy, and killed a dozen men, while the Neapolitan, the size of a company, run away. Offended by this runaway the Neapolitan battalion counterattacks with a French battalion forcing the Spanish to flee. But the Spanish had time to take two boats taken by the current. In this event the pontonniers lost Jacques HILL, prisoner of the Spanish, Antoine VALIGNY injured and who will be discharged and Edmé ROUZOTTE, who drowned in the Ebro.
The bridge builders fail to burn a Spanish bridge
While a portion of the bridge builders remain to handle these two portable bridges, the others are ordered by General Suchet to carry out a delicate mission, which is still under their specialty. They are ordered to burn a bridge of Spanish vessel at the entrance of Tortosa. It is a difficult and uncertain mission as they don’t have at their disposal a delayed mechanism (although the hammer of a rifle was described described on "the guide du pontonnier") and must get to their target furtively. So they went with 3 boats, the first two loaded with dry wood and tar. Getting close, they need to direct the boats so that the current carries them to the bridge and then set it on fire while withdrawing. But the Spanish soldiers were on alert and opened fire when they saw the boats. During the skirmish which took place on July 20 l810, bridge builders Vincent LECHIEN was killed and a boat was lost. Thus, Edmé CONNAT, my ancestor, lost ‘to the enemy’ (as mentioned on the bridge builders’ report) the companion who had left Aillant-sur-Tholon with him.
failure angered General SUCHET’s who already didn’t
have a favourable
disposition towards the poor bridge builders as the following
addressed to General of artillery VALEE proves it;
-- July 9 "Your bridge builders have lost a boat in a fire. Fortunately, we found nearly 11 in Xerta. I need an artillery officer to control this. "
-- July 11, letter to General of Engineering Rognat: "In Lerida, experience has shown that the building of a bridge over the Ebro is uncertain when the bridge builders are left on their own."
In their defence, it must be stressed that in fact sergeants were virtually left to themselves since the disappearance of their sergeant-major and under the lack of officers. So in August, Captain Adam will see arriving Lieutenant Caupe and the Warrant Major Dufrasnoy, who came from Pamplona with the bridge crew ready for the siege of Valencia.
3rd and 7th Army Corps join: A problem of supplies
After this interlude, the Spanish troops in Tortosa attempt to break the siege on July 10 and 13 1810 but fail to do so. On August 20, and under orders of commandment, the troops of General Macdonald of Catalonia (7th Corps) join with the 3rd Corps and the two generals meet in Lerida. But the grouping of siege artillery is not yet completed and it is decided that the 7th corps will stay in Tarrega and Cervera until the arrival of the siege park. Also General Macdonald has time to be at the rendezvous on December 15 in Mora on the Ebro with his 15,000 men. But the supply is already difficult and becomes more problematic for two army corps of 40,000 soldiers including occasional reinforcements. It is therefore decided to use essentially the waterway, which involves the continuous monitoring of the Ebro and its banks, Zaragoza è Tortosa, approximately 200 km. Despite the number of units required for this protection, this solution prevails because, as General SUCHET wrote in his memoirs "one convoy of boats brought in a single trip as many as 1,500 horses in a month.
Uncertainties of supplies by waterway
month of September, the period of low-water in the Ebro prevents to use
boats for the supplies because they do not have enough draught
available. It is
only on September 5, 1811 that the first convoy from Zaragoza reaches
The bridge builders with the marine support are in charge of the
At this point in the story and to locate positions, the communication line of French troops was as follows; Xerta, Pinel, Gandésa, Batea, Fagara, with a garrison in each of these cities.
Thus, the first waterway convoy leaves from Xerta, a dangerous region because the banks often overlook the river, under the escort of an infantry division from Naples. This division is part of the army of Catalonia (at the time, the Kingdom of Naples is linked to France by a military alliance and its king is the General Murat, brother-in-law of Napoleon).
Difficult cohesion and coordination between army corps
To emphasize this lack of cohesion, here are some passages of letters from the Suchet’s correspondence (3rd Corps) sent to General MacDonald (7th Corps, Army of Catalonia). The general complained of not receiving enough supplies for the troops who were to be involved in the future siege of Lerida, a town that had been taken back by Spanish army.
10, 1810 - "Your engineer officer proposes to build boats, as if we had
waiting to begin. But the country lacks wood. This officer goes even
suggesting taking the ferry at Fraga for the transportation; while it
that we need the best of our boats."
October 14, 1810 - "We cannot do more for your supplies. Artillery convoys are on all the roads and one after the other. 1,200 horses and mules are constantly used, and despite this, they cannot carry in a month the 800 tonnes brought by one convoy in 3 days. What paraphernalia this siege park! we must carry 2 million and 300 tons of equipment. "
October 23, 1810 - in response to a complaint about ropes needed for the bridge builders’ work "You should know, Mr. Field marshal, that even though we would have been willing to remove the ropes to replace them, we would not have had time in a day. You have been misled when you said that we had removed 5 ropes in Mora (these ropes were l20 metres long). Before the siege of Lerida, I had all those who were on this part of the Ebro burnt because they came from France and belonged to the siege crew. We have some double, but they would be useless to you because the river is more than 180 fathoms (340 metres). 6 of these ropes are already in use upstream on the Ebro to ensure communications and are in Xerta for the last 2 months. I don’t like detours and that is why I speak to you frankly."
Bridge launched upstream of Tortosa
these arguments take place, the bridge crew coming from Pamplona
in early December. It is accompanied by the 4th company of bridge
are in charge of installing the bridge upstream of Tortosa in
with the 2d company. But first, engineers must build a bridgehead to
the workers from an attack or an assault by the Spanish infantry. This
the pontoons are unloaded from the carriage and launched with all the
available because as we know from the statements of SUCHET, the river
broad at this location..
The boats are arranged perpendicular to the shoreline, connected by beams of 10 meters, forming a bridge along the shore. Based on the archives, the bridge builders had at their disposal at this time 58 different vessels, including 15 pontoons made of copper, which are all of those available in Spain.
The bridge assembled, the most difficult part is to make a quarter turn. This operation begins by rowing a boat with a hemp rope, long enough to tie it securely to the shore across.
This done, the other end is attached to the upstream point of the bridge, and is untied from the shore, the downstream part being solidly moored to the shore. With the simple effect of the current, the upstream makes a quarter turn, an operation that must be carefully controlled.
When the bridge is across the current, the bridge builders launch anchors every second boat and tie it up. Then, moorings have just to be tightened and reinforced and later, assembling the gangways to the bridge from the bank.
Siege and surrender of Tortosa (December 21, 1810 to January 2, 1811)
launch was carried out under the Spanish firing batteries in Tortosa
day, high winds from the sea facilitated the operation of rotation.
mentions in his memoirs: "Neither bullets nor the decline in the water
level, nor the violence of the winds could tire out the courage of the
Thanks to the obscure work of these men, unknown players to this war of Spain, on December 21, 1810 the artillery pieces cross the Ebro and get to their location.
On December 28 and 30, 53 pieces of French artillery fire on Tortosa. The last shot is followed by an assault. The Lower Town is taken on the 30th and the sappers immediately begin digging saps. The Spaniards then require a halt in the combat to begin negotiations. These negotiations will culminate on January 2, 1811 with the surrender of Tortosa.
The campaign of 1811 begins with preparing the siege of Tarragona
taken, General SUCHET lets General MUSNIER and his 1st Division
city. This city must serve as a focal point in the operation against
Indeed, on March 19, 1811, the Emperor orders him to take control of
fortified city and makes available troops in Catalonia. To do so, the
gathers supplies and installs his reserve of food and ammunition in
Mora. The artillery park and the bridge builders stay with MUSNIER and
reinforced by artillery units from Catalonia, namely the 7th Company
Artillery Mounted Regiment and the 53th of the 1st
mounted regiment as well as elements from the Frère and
and coast battery set against
the English fleet
In April 1811, General SUCHET consolidates his forces and form two columns that take the road to Tarragona. The first, led by General HABERT, leaves Zaragoza, through the valley of the Ebro, and then by the coastal road more suitable for carriages. On his way, he takes back Fort San Félipe, an important position that controls a stone bridge over the Segre river.
Meanwhile, the other column goes through Lerida to prevent the Spanish troops from fleeing. The artillery and the bridge builders in Tortosa go down to Tarragona along the coastal road, well controlled by our troops. During their progress, these convoys are attacked by canons from English vessels. General SUCHET fears that these vessels will come to the rescue of Tarragona and Valencia. Also he orders the artillery to stop at Fort San Félipe and to build coastal batteries overlooking the sea. The bridge builders work on this project until May 1811. It will allow the coastguard gunners to push back the English vessels by firing cannonballs and dissuading them from approaching the coast.
Tarragona is now cordoned off and its siege can begin.
The siege of Tarragona begins (May 3, 1811)
the sea on top of heights looking over the rivers Gaya and Francoli,
is sitting on a steep cliff, accessible only by the coastal plain. This
also protected by 5 fortifications and is easy to defend.
What adds to its strength is the Olivo Fort, distant from the city by 400 fathoms (800 m) and built at the same height and surrounded by a moat of water dug out in the rock.
To take this city, one must take the fort in order to allow the artillery to move along the coastal road and push back the English ships. This is the reason why coastal batteries have been built by our troops.
Getting near the city on May 7, 1811, engineers built a fortification about 600 fathoms from the Francoli River (1,100 m) practically out of reach of Spanish guns.
bridge builders start building a
trestle bridge, against the stone bridge, which protects them from the
fire. At this point the river is about 2 meters deep and they cannot
Once this bridge is built, bridge builders and Engineers build one lighter at 400 fathoms (800m) from the first, so that infantry troops and convoys joining their camp don’t make a long detour. While this work is in progress, the besieged sally forth towards Alcover, but are pushed back. The first attack on Olivo Fort takes place on May 21, 1811, but it fails. The second assault takes place on the 29th and is successful despite fierce resistance from the Spanish garrison. Its surrender allows the sappers to safely dig trenches around the lower part of the town with the help of infantry. The cordon of the city is complete.
Final Assault and surrender of Tarragona (June
Thanks to this work, the Spanish fortification that interferes with the crossing of the river is taken on June 7, then the fortification of Prince on June 21, 1811. But the Spanish general CAMPOVERBE comes to the rescue of the town from the south and the French must push him back. Finally, the final assault takes place on June 28 and the Spanish garrison surrenders. This victory costs the lives of 4 500 French soldiers and many are injured, including bridge builder Bernard GAILLARD who dies of his injuries.
After taking Tarragona, General SUCHET goes northwards towards Barcelona and takes over the quasi-invincible fortress of Montserrat on July 28, 1811. However it will not be recorded that the bridge builders were still in Tarragona with their bridges and were in no way involved in this action.
the Emperor, satisfied with General SUCHET’s performance,
appoints him Field
marshal and Duke of Albufera on July 8, 1811 as well as Governor
Aragon. So, the general leaves behind garrisons in Tarragone and a
control of the navigation on the Ebro with his troops based in Lerida.
that time, the bridge builders return to Tortosa. However, they have to
down the bridges they had built, gather the materials, and these are a
reasons why the 2nd company will not return to their garrison in
July 15, 1811.
Meanwhile, the Emperor reinforces SUCHET’s army which becomes the "Army of Aragon." Its maintenance is now provided by taxes levied on Spain while the Administration is reorganized and that people of Aragon take part in the process. During this period, Field marshal SUCHET demonstrated his human and administrative qualities which will earn him, after the war, to be the only French general honoured by the Spaniards.
Emperor orders to take the port of Valencia
the Emperor knows how to reward his officers, he also demands from them
August 25, 1811 he orders General Suchet to take Valencia. He believes
fall of this fortress will lead to the pacification of Spain.
takes a series of measure that will reinforce the general’s
Suchet can count from then on the 7 th corps in Catalonia, and the
generals Montbrun and Darmagnac from Portugal and Central Spain as well
Field marshal Soult. All march towards Valencia where Spanish army
Blake and O’Donnel had taken position. It was a combined
operation, too, before
taking the leadership of this important city, Field marshal SUCHET
by the General VALLE a study on timing and means necessary to take this
This study recorded in the National Archives (384AP103) reveals that it
days to cover 550 kilometres from Sarragossa to Valencia with 1,130
of various materials (powders, bullets, weapons, shovels, hoes, food
and so on.
). Each carriage was pulled by 4 horses so a total of 4,520 horses,
horses for the artillery, including 20 canons of 24, 12 mortars of 4, 4
and 2 of 8.
As we read these figures, one realizes that they encounter problems in a country where forage is scarce. The regrouping of troops to take Valencia involved about 22,000 soldiers. The Musnier division stayed with its 8,000 soldiers in Aragon and the Frère division maintained its 6,000 soldiers to protect navigation along the Ebro and the channel of Aragon.
Finally everything is ready in Tortosa and this mass of men and horses forming 3 columns get on the road on September 15, 1811.
The first column, being the largest, includes general HABERT with his 3rd division, the cavalry, the artillery and the engineers. It takes the most suitable road for carriages, which is along the shore from Tortosa to Valencia. The 2nd company of bridge builders is among them and is relieved from the transportation on the Ebro, where 14 of their boats were used. Indeed, the work of this company was one of the most important: the priority was to let the artillery go through as well as letting the herd of cattle that every regiment took for its supplies. The second column, formed by general HARISPE with his 2nd Division went through the arid and desolate road inside the country, through Teruel. While the 3rd, entirely made up by the division of Italians and Neapolitans, under the command of General Palombini, went through the mountainsHarness and wagon(trolley) released from its boat and Morela.
On his way, the first column goes near the Spanish forts, Peniscola and Oropesa, which are taken easily. It then stops on the hills of Sagunto, which dominates and controls the coastal road as well as the town of Murviédo where the French troops enter on September 27.
Taking Sagunto (October 2, 1811)
bring the siege guns within range of this formidable fortress,
to blast an access road into the rock. Ready to fire on October 12,
open fire and break a hole in the wall. A first assault is attempted,
success, on October 18. The Spanish troops of General Blake try to
siege but are defeated and pushed beyond the river Guadalaviar. A
assault is successful on October 26 and because the Spanish troops knew
they were sacrified, they quickly surrendered.
A bridge builder killed during a scuffle with Neapolitan troops
builders took no part in this fight since they were far behind in
that time (the subject of the next chapter). We know that these men are
at the forefront because of their cumbersome equipment. By what
2nd company met the Neapolitan unit who had fled while escorting bridge
builders? We do not know. However, on December 3, 1811, a violent
breaks out between bridge builders and Neapolitans. A sergeant carrying
kills a bridge builder who died instantly (25). His identity has not
revealed in the report transmitted to Field marshal SUCHET who gave
instructions to the Military Justice to quickly deal with this case in
avoid bad publicity for the army.
This case is symptomatic of the animosity that prevailed among the different nationalities cooperating in the Napoleonic armies. On that subject, one can say that the Neapolitans were little appreciated by their French colleagues and truly hated by the Spaniards.
Preparations for the siege of Valencia (October 1811 - December 25, 1811)
capital of the kingdom of the same name, was protected by a continuous
earthworks turned into an army camp around the Old City. A large number
irrigation canals filled with running water are the cause of its
crops. These also form obstacles difficult to cross. 20,000 regular
commanded by Spanish General BLAKE protect it. In a first phase and as
mentioned above, the military tried to come to the rescue of Fort
having failed, they came to take refuge in Valencia.
When the bridge builders come to the Guadalaviar River, its spate makes a difficult obstacle to overcome. In this situation, Field marshal SUCHET takes a series of measures that reveal his sense of diplomacy, as it is known that engineers and artillery bridge builders are almost competing all the time. But instead of explaining this, it is better to convey the orders recorded on the register of correspondence (26).
On December 23, 1811- To
"You fear that the army crossing will be delayed if you only need to use beams of 6 feet (2 meters). I order the artillery general to build a bridge below Paterne. I think you can make one in Mislato and another in front of Grao. These two bridges will be used for the crossing of units in less numbers. Your equipment is sufficient, but since the artillery will have 48 hours to operate, I put you in charge, for the good of the army, to provide the bridge builders with the trestles that you have prepared in Paterna. "
-- The same day, to VALEE, artillery commander:
"I inform you and you alone (emphasis added) that I wish to cross the Guadalaviar at 6 am on December 26. I know that you have little time to get ready, but your zeal doesn’t have limits for the success of the army. "
As might be expected, these orders triggered a feverish activity among the bridge builders. Fortunately, their carriages are loaded and the road along the sea is flat, allowing the heavy horses to take the trot, since galloping with a mass of more than 2 tons to pull is out of question. Finally, after 2 months of observation and preparation for the siege, Reille and Harispe troops are in place on both sides of the Ebro on December 24, 1811. General Suchet decided it was time to take Valencia.
Launching three bridges on Christmas day 1811
the spot, the bridge builders start to work immediately. Thanks to the
prepared by sappers in Paterna, part of the bridge builders quickly
bridge from the left bank. Others put their boats into the water and
bridge of boats, placed parallel to the shore. The latter enabled the
from Catalonia as reinforcements, to successfully
100 artillery pieces from Tortosa. Engineers have also launched 2
bridges, one used by General Harispe and the cavalry divisions, while
served for the Habert Division.
The construction of the bridge boat carried out in one hour will remain a work of bravery for the bridge builders whose courage will be recognized on paper in a report of the army of Aragon by General Valée "We brought in haste a part of the bridge crew. A bridge of boats was built on the night of the 25th to the 26th of December 1811 by the bridge builders of the 2nd Company, 1st Battalion. The quickly built bridge below the place across the Lazaret was an example where the artillery was used with the greatest benefits ...." Of course, General Suchet followed up and wrote "The capture of the fort of Oropesa and Sagunto were the first operations in order to take Valencia. Two trestle bridges had been prepared by the engineering and a bridge was launched very quickly into the night of the 25th to the 26th, for the crossing of the artillery and the cavalry. CAPELLE, chef of the Battalion in charge of the Habert artillery division, who had just crossed a passage of great strength between the Grao and Lazareti, and Captain Adam, commander of the 2nd company of bridge builders, distinguished themselves by their zeal, their dedication and courage ".
Valencia (December 26, 1811 to
Once the French had dug a trench to attack and set up cannons for the siege, the city asks for capitulation. The surrender took place on January 9, and Valencia hands over 18,000 prisoners, including 23 generals and 393 guns. The besieged had honourably defended themselves against twice as many troops.
Here is the letter that Field marshal Suchet sent to prince Bertier Major General regarding the siege. Valencia camp, December 29, 1811.
As soon as part of General Reille corps arrived in Ségorbe on the 24th, I went to inspect the troops. By a forced march thirty hours long, the corps arrived on the shores of Guadalaviar on the morning of the 26th. On the night of the 25th to the 26th, two trestle bridges had been prepared on the river by the Engineering, while a bridge of boats had been built by the artillery in one hour."
Clearly, the bridge builders were quick and trained. As for the Emperor, he imposed a war contribution of 50 million francs for the city of Valencia.
Satisfied to have under his control Valencia and its fertile region, the Emperor appoints Field marshal SUCHET Duke of Albufera. An imperial decree on January 23, 18l2 assigns an allocation of 200 million francs to the Army of Aragon, at the great displeasure of the other generals. As a matter of fact, these generals are fighting in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula and on the Atlantic coast against the Spanish troops, but especially the English. In battle, the latter are more determined than the Spanish, whose artillery is the most effective. In addition, Field marshal SUCHET has the advantage of having a separate command, which protects him from the jealousy of other heads of Army Corps. The war in Spain was characterized by a lack of cohesion caused by the Emperor’s absence on the field.
The military situation is deteriorating, even in Aragon
established in Valencia, Field marshal SUCHET passes under the direct
of King Joseph and devotes himself to the administration of the vast
he has conquered (Aragon), part of Catalonia and the Kingdom of
collection of taxes and revenue are entrusted to the Spanish
"corregidors" under the control of French authorities. He does not
forget the services rendered by his soldiers and give to his gunners
collected in July 1811 after the capture of Tarragona and January 1812
of Valencia. In the latter case, it was the sum of 300,000 francs
through the purchase of bells by the residents of conquered cities.
payments were made according to the Napoleonic decree of September 22
1810 and regarding
the steeples in the cities conquered under siege.
But the territory under his control is very broad and he has to disperse his forces and especially his artillery in many garrisons. As a result, farmers resumed guerrilla warfare and our troops are confined in cities. The situation is worse in other provinces occupied by our troops. In view of this, King Joseph goes to Paris to ask his brother for reinforcements. He is turned away and receives nothing, not even some relief to stop the famine in Castile.
As the situation deteriorates, SUCHET takes maximum precautions and put in place in Valencia a defence system including engineering and field park artillery. Fortified batteries are also installed in Benicarlo, Oropesa and Benicassim to protect the vital coastal road for communications. He then sends the furthest south general HARISPE with his division to protect Alcira, Denia, Alcoy, San Felipe and the valley of the Yucar River.
To promote liaison between his command and the troops he sent to the south, he orders the 2nd company of bridge builders to establish a bridge over the Yucar River for his 2nd division (Harispe) in Mogente (Moixente) located towards the pass of la Fuente Atalaya and the Higuéra. As for the 3rd (Habert) it is in Albrayat, Benigam and the pass of Aizaneta. Reconnaissance missions are also conducted near Alicante. These cities are the most southern point of the army of Aragon. Although in previous phases of this war, we often found proof in the archives of the method of construction used, we only know here that it was a bridge of boats " located on the Yucar towards the shoreline road ", between Alcira and Cullera.
deterioration for the French troops in 1812
However the situation in other provinces is deteriorating rapidly and after the defeat of our troops in Arapiles (July 22, l812), King Joseph evacuates Madrid and goes towards Valencia and the Army of Aragon for refuge. Followed by a procession of 2 to 3,000 carriages of all sorts, carrying his followers, his court and "afrancesados" (Spanish having collaborated with our troops) with their families, this disparate troupe arrives in Valencia on September 5, 1812. It stays in the city a few days but supplies are scarce, and the army of Aragon cannot feed everyone. The convoy is sent to Catalonia for his trip back to France. As SUCHET mentioned in his correspondence, ‘these useless mouths’ leave by convoys on September 11 and 13, 1812 and go through Montserrat, a city that has been taken by generals Decaen and Mathieu. During this time, the bridge builders are coming up from Yucar because a bridge crew cannot be left behind the military. It was a wise measure because on October 5, English ships land troops with some artillery pieces south of Denia. However, they are pushed back towards Alicante.
Also field marshal SUCHET leaves some of his troops in Valencia and sends the others to Fort San Felipe which is an important fortress protected located between Tortosa and Tarragona. He also has the material carried up to Tortosa, because he knows based of the reconnaissance mission conducted by General Harispe that the English who landed in Denia are the vanguard of a corps of 40,000 soldiers Anglo-Sicilian moving northward.
Valencia becomes the fold back centre for field marshal Soult and the French troops in retreat
field marshal SOULT evacuates the centre of Spain after the departure
Joseph. Under the emperor’s instruction, he is taking command
of the Army of
Spain. He also comes for refuge in Valencia since the army of Aragon is
of haven for French troops. Of course, SUCHET, on the contrary, does
to let his army corps go and strongly protests in these terms on
1812 "your excellence knows the ambition of this field marshal who
with his desire for combat and at the same time to overrun. I am in
a small army well-organized, well kept and well dedicated and he wants
all." Of course, he receives no reply and, under duress, he steps aside
front of SOULT. It's nearly the end of the army of Aragon.
Guerrilla and sabotage
the Spaniards become bolder. While they never attacked the soldiers of
of Aragon who they called "our people" because they were aware of
SUCHET’s efforts to administer the province, they start to
distinction all isolated units. In addition, they engage in sabotage,
not been seen since 1809 in Aragon (explosion of the powder keg in
poisoning tanks in Barcelona, destruction of 20,000 rations of bread
and so on
Since the month of September 1812, faced with the deterioration of the overall situation, the army of Aragon lacks of food and repatriates all injured and lame to Tortosa to send them back to France. They then move to Bayonne and France, escorted by troops and many officers who join the Great Army in Russia. One can only travel in convoys due to Spanish acts of "guerrilla".
It was during his daily work that my ancestor, carpenter Edmée Connat, was accidentally wounded near Valencia (he had been ran over). He consequently went before the Commission on Reform in Tortosa and was discharged on October 11.
He was repatriated with another bridge builder of the 2nd battalion and left Spain on October 21, 1812, under the protection of two infantry companies and a convoy of 1,411 troops, 66 officers from all arms travelling aboard 110 carriages drawn by 431 horses. (27)
This unpopular war had ended for him. However, he did not know then that he would see the Prussian occupation troops in 1814 coming to his village in the Yonne region.
2nd company of bridge builders retreats
But the tribulations of the 2nd company of bridge builders were not finished. The situation was hopeless for the army of Aragon made of just 10 000 men from 20,000 men, had to be transferred to Germany between January and March 1813. The situation was difficult everywhere and in Spain 197,000 men were left demoralized. Then it was a series of defeats: Pamplona was taken back by Spain in February, Madrid was evacuated on March 17, and King Joseph Bonaparte and his court, escorted by 3,000 men took refuge in Valencia. He will leave in June, blocked by Spanish troops who took back Pamplona, a prerequisite en route to Bayonne. The English victory in Vitoria on June 21 1813 gave the signal for the general retreat for French troops. General Suchet abandoned Valencia and went northward to France with his artillery and his bridge builders. On June 12, he had to fight in Tarragona against Spanish troops. Suchet begins retreating to Barcelona on July 5 with all the equipment, while on the Atlantic coast, French troops are defeated on November 10 in Nivelle and Bayonne is under siege.
December 11, 1813 marks the end of Spanish war. The Treaty of Valencay gives the throne of Spain to Ferdinand VII.
The French troops begin the battle of France in 1814It is the general retreat with still some fighting like the battle of Orthez from January to February 27 1814 in which participated the surviving bridge builders of the 4th and 10th companies of the 1st Battalion (8) on their way to Mont-de-Marsan. For his part, General Suchet has become entrenched in Toulouse with the survivors of the 2nd company of bridge builders. But the advance of British troops is irresistible and on April 10 they take Toulouse.