A Spanish Ulcer scenario: The Battle of Alcañiz

The Battle of Alcañiz on May 23, 1809, marked a significant Spanish victory during the Peninsular War, highlighting persistent challenges for the French. Following the fall of Saragossa in February 1809, two French corps, Mortier's 5th and Junot's 3rd, aimed to pacify Aragon. However, in April, Napoleon withdrew the 5th Corps, exposing the first challenge – inability to cover all fronts. Simultaneously, Junot was replaced by Suchet, but the news reached Saragossa late, leaving Junot with 15,000 men and the certainty of being replaced. The second problem emerged – inefficient communication, as Suchet's command order took six weeks to catch up with him. Here we look at playing the first of Suchet’s encounters with the Spanish as commander of 3rd Corps.

Richard Bird

1/18/20245 min read

Suchet Takes Command of 3rd Corps

At the end of April 1809, General Suchet was marching to Castile at the head of his division when a courier brought orders for him to assume command of the 3rd Corps, replacing General Junot, duke d’Abrantes. Suchet had commanded his division since Bologne. It was composed of the 17th Light Infantry and the 34th, 40th, and 64th Line Regiments, a united legion of veterans. Suchet regretted the separation, but as security for his return to Saragossa to take up his new post, he took with him the Voltigeurs from the 40th and a battalion of the 64th.

The 3rd Corps suffered greatly at the siege of Saragossa. The infantry was weak, and the new regiments were in a deplorable state, made up of young recruits. Most of the experienced artillerymen were now marching towards Germay, their replacements taken from the infantry. The pay was in arrears, the military chests were empty, and the supply of food was inadequate. Their uniforms are a mix of white and blue in varying degrees, adding to a discouraging state of destitution.

Things were not helped by the news that eight companies of choice infantry, along with thirty cuirassiers, had been forced to surrender after a bitter fight with the armed population bolstered by some regular Spanish troops. Apparently they had been cut off from Habert’s division after a river had swelled due to melting snow, making their retreat impossible. Only a few cuirassiers escaped.

Despite misfortunes, Suchet did not shrink from the responsibility; he later, set about reviving their military ardor, training and reorganising them, and restoring a semblance of order and discipline amongst his command. However, this was in the future, news arrived that required urgent action. General Blake was on the move, taking advantage of some recent information..

General Blake is Given Command in Aragon

Having taken command of a mixed bag of troops, Blake flattered himself with the idea that he could defeat the French 3rd Corps. The facts that Arthur Wellseley was bringing the English army back to Portugal and that the 3rd Corps was widely dispersed encouraged him in this view.

Blake decided to move to General Laval’s 1st division, driving back his advanced posts at Beceyte and Val de Alforja, forcing him to quit Alcañiz on May 18th.

Learning this news on the day he took over command, Suchet set out with what was available in the 2nd division and met up with Laval’s division on the heights behind the Ixar. After a lengthy encouraging speech, he marched to Alacañiz on the 22nd, reaching the area on the 23rd.

Suchet is determined to fight

After examining the position, Suchet decided to seize the hill of Las Horcas, which protected the bridge and the town. He would keep the Spanish wings in check and occupy them while the attack went in on Las Horcas.

The Spaniards were prepared for combat, arranged along a line of hills to the east of Alcañiz, safeguarding the town and its bridge. Although tactically advantageous, Blake's strategic position was perilous. Tempted by the strong terrain, he positioned himself with the Guadalope River at his back, with no means of crossing except the single bridge of Alcañiz and a problematic ford.

The highest hill held by the Spaniards, Cerro de los Pueyos, was occupied by Aragonese troops, while the central height, named the hill of Las Horcas, housed the entire Spanish artillery—nineteen guns—guarded by Valencian forces.

Initially, Suchet faced difficulty discerning the Spanish position as the hills obscured the Alcañiz bridge and town. After spending the entire morning making tentative movements, he only executed his primary assault in the afternoon. Laval's brigade was dispatched against the dominating hill on the right flank of the Spanish position.

Two assaults were made on Cerro de los Pueyos, termed feints by Suchet but regarded as serious by Blake, who redirected two battalions from his left wing and the entire cavalry to this flank. These movements, whether intended as demonstrations or a real attack, were unsuccessful and were repelled by General Areizaga, commander of the Aragonese, without much difficulty. However, the Spanish cavalry suffered significant losses when attempting a flank charge when Suchet's 4th hussars intervened during the enemy's retreat.

Following the fighting on the northern extremity of the line, Suchet initiated his main attack against Blake's center. His objective was to break the line, seize the Alcañiz bridge behind the hill of Las Horcas, and capture the majority of the Spanish wings, leaving them without a retreat. General Fabre of Musnier’s command led the three battalions of the 114th Line and the two battalions of the 1st Vistula Legion Regiment. The battalions were formed in columns of attack.

The columns advanced steadily but halted at the line of a recently dug ditch on the slope when exposed to musket fire and grape shot from the Spanish on the hill. Despite the officers' efforts to press forward, the attacking columns faltered, endured the heavy fire momentarily, then dispersed and fled disorderly. Although Suchet rallied them behind the five intact battalions he still possessed, he chose not to renew the attack and withdrew before nightfall, having sustained a foot injury during the engagement.

Wargaming the battle

Fight the battle with the rules of your choice. The battle did not begin until the afternoon, so time the number of turns to suit those rules. For instance, General d‘Armee uses 20 minutes maximum per turn. Assuming the battle begins around 2 p.m., you would have ample time to play up to 15 turns before sunset.

It is a fairly straightforward fight whereby Suchet needs to drive the Spanish army from Las Horcas and across or into the river. Capturing Las Horcas would therefore be a major victory point for the French and their main objective. This would split the Spanish army in two. The Spanish objective is to successfully defend Las Hocas and Cerro de los Pueyos. They are in a good position on the hills, but a perilous one if defeated.

I have compiled OBs (see below) from both Heythornthwaite and Oman. It is obvious that nearly all battalions on both sides are small to regular. In my view, the quality and condition of the troops are important in this scenario. That said, most of the infantry I would classify as Conscript to Regular. The only veterans would be Suchet’s escort of the 64th and 40th Hussars, the 4th Hussars, and perhaps the 13th Cuirassiers. The artillery on both sides is regular. You could classify the two small Spanish grenadier battalions as veterans if you are feeling generous.

On Oman's original map (which I have redrawn above), there is no indication of where the French artillery were positioned. I have made the assumption that they are with the relevant brigades (see OB). It was known that the Corp had 20 guns, so I followed Heythornthwaite’s OB and made another assumption that Musnier had a battery of 8 guns, Laval had the same, and 4 guns were attached to the Horse Artillery. I will update the scenario if and when I discover more detailed information.