Siege of Tarragona, 3-12 June 1813

The siege of Tarragona (3-12 June 1813) was an unsuccessful British attempt to recapture the Spanish city and provide a distraction for Wellington’s campaign in the north of Spain.

Although most of the attention goes to Wellington’s main army, this wasn’t the only British force in Spain. In the east an Anglo-Sicilian army had been sent from Italy. Since this army had arrived in Spain it had established a secure position around Alicante, where it had become involved in a standoff with Marshal Suchet’s army. By the start of 1813 the army was commanded by of General Sir John Murray.

The plan was to use part of Murray’s army to mount an amphibious assault on Tarragona. This would force Marshal Suchet to rush north with most of his army, leaving at best a weak defensive line facing Alicante. The Spanish armies in Murcia would then attack the French lines in the south, hopefully capturing Valencia. Suchet might be able to save one or the other city, but unless things went very badly he should be unable to take both.

Unfortunately Murray turned out to be incapable of carrying out his part of the operation. In late May he withdrew his Anglo-Sicilian troops from the front line facing Suchet and replaced them with Spanish troops. He had enough shipping for 14,000 infantry, 800 cavalry and 24 field guns, along with a siege train that had been sent from Portugal for the operation. This was a larger force than Wellington had hoped for, and meant that Murray would easily outnumber the French garrison at Tarragona.

Murray’s fleet sailed from Alicante on 31 May and landed in the bay south of Cape Salou, eight miles south of Tarragona on 2-3 June. Murray sent two battalions to seize the Col de Balaguer, a key point that would block the best road from the south, but at the same time General Copons, the Spanis Captain-General of Catalonia, arrived at the British camp leading 7,000 men.

Tarragona was defended by 1,600 men under General Bertoletti. He had one French and one Italian battalion, one company of Spanish supporters of the French intervention and two companies of artillery, far too small a garrison to defend the city against a determined attack. The city sat on the coast to the east of the River Francoli. To the north of the city were the fairly gentle Olivo heights,. The city itself was split into the Upper City in the east, which was still strongly fortified, and the Lower City, in the west, where the fortifications hadn’t been repaired since the French siege of 1811. Most of Bertoletti’s men were in the Upper City, although he also had two isolated posts in the Lower City, Fort Royal and the Bastion of St. Carlos, which were meant to prevent British warships entering the roadstead of Tarragona. These two posts were separated from the Upper City by half a mile of ruined city.

At first Murray moved quickly. His men marched to Tarragona on the evening of 3 June, and the siege began that night. Mackenzie and Adam were posted to the west of the city, by the mouth of the river, Clinton was placed on the Olivo heights and Whittingham to the east of the city, extending the siege lines down to the coast.

After this things began to go wrong. Murray based his plans on the idea that Suchet would bring most of his men to save the city, and the French would also move troops from Catalonia. He expected a relief force of around 25,000 men to be concentrated against him, and dramatically underestimated the amount of time that would have taken, even if the French had seriously considered such a move. At his court martial in the aftermath of the failed siege, Murray made it clear that he had never expected to be able to take Tarragona, and that his main concern was to avoid the destruction of his army.  

Murray’s second mistake was the decision to lay siege to Fort Royal and the Bastion of St. Carlos as if they were the strong points of a regular line of fortifications and not two isolated and rather weak positions. He ordered the construction of two gun batteries, which were ready to open fire on 6 June. Another battery was constructed on the night of 6-7 June and all three opened fire on 7 June. By the evening the defences of Fort Royal had been battered and the fort could easily have been stormed.

At that point Suchet decided not to attack the fort after all, and instead keep the forts under bombardment while work began on a new set of batteries on the Olivo heights, this time aimed at the bastions of San Juan and San Pablo in the Upper City.  Murray’s chief engineer informed him that he would need fourteen days to reduce the defences of the Upper City, so any assault would be delayed until 21 June.

Two heavy batteries were constructed on 7-10 June. They opened fire on 10 June, and continued onto 11 June. The bombardment was so effective that General Bertoletti expected an assault to come on the evening of 11 June. However he overestimated his opponent. Murray was still convinced that French reinforcements were rushing to the scene from north and south, and was already considering abandoning the siege.

In reality the French response was not as powerful or as coordinated as Murray feared. At first Suchet had no idea where Murray’s fleet was actually going. He decided to leave most of his men to defend Valencia, and lead a force of around 8,000 men to reinforce Decaen’s Army of Catalonia. Suchet’s forces were concentrated around Tortosa by 9 June, but by then the key fort of San Felipe de Balaguer had fallen to an Anglo-Spanish force, blocking the best road towards Tarragona. Suchet was unsure of what to do next, and so decided to sent Pannetier’s brigade (2,500 strong) on an armed reconnaissance along the inland roads. He reached the hills above Monroig (fifteen miles to the west of the city) on the night of 11-12 June, and could hear no firing from Tarragona. He assumed that the city had fallen, but in case it hadn’t ordered a line of bonfires to be lit on the hills, before retreating back towards Tortosa. Suchet remained static for several days.

The second French force that Murray feared, Decaen’s Army of Catalonia, was even less of a threat. Decaen was at Gerona when the siege began, and needed some time to gather together a sizable force, as his army was badly scattered. He expected to be able to gather a reasonable field army by 14-15 June, and ordered Maurice Mathieu (governor of Barcelona) to demonstrate towards Tarragona. He led a force of 6,000 infantry and 300 cavalry to Villafranca, half way between Barcelona and Tarragona, where he pushed back the Spanish outposts. He then advanced further south, getting to within twenty four miles of Tarragona on 12 June. However this was as far as he dared go, and on the night of 12-13 June he began to withdraw, ending up back at Barcelona.

Murray was thus in no real danger from the feared French relief forces, neither of which were heading towards him, and neither of which was as large as he feared. Even so he continued to act as if 24,000 French troops were just about to overwhelm him.

At noon on 11 June Murray’s engineers reported that the defences of the Upper City were crumbling, while Fort Royal could be taken at any moment. Murray went as far as issuing orders for an attack on the Fort, to be supported by a demonstration against the upper city. His troops moved into place, ready for the attack to begin, but the signal rockets were never fired. Murray had lost his nerve after receiving vague reports about Suchet’s progress, which actually referred to Pannetier’s isolated brigade. Murray believed that he was on the verge of disaster, and decided to abandon the siege.

To make things worse, Murray decided that he was in so much danger that the evacuation would have to be over by the evening of 12 June. At 9.30pm on 11 June he cancelled the planned assault, and issued order for the evacuation. He had also decided to abandon General Copons and the Spanish Army of Catalonia, and even went as far as telling them that he was planning to send six Anglo-Sicilian battalions to reinforce their position on 12 June. Murray’s officers protested about the rapid evacuation, and his artillery commander believed that he had been given more time to remove the guns from the Olivo heights.

On the morning of 12 June Murray’s nerve failed him altogether. He cancelled the plans to send six battalions to support Copons’ retreat, and at 9am sent an order to spike the guns on the Olivo. After a day of confusion, Murray’s troops and some of his guns were safely onboard the fleet by 2pm. Some of the siege suppliers were loaded during the evacuation, and the rearguard embarked in the evening. Murray left behind eighteen spiked guns on the Olivo heights, a disastrous loss of guns, made most embarrassing by having been suffered without any threat from the French!

Murray’s fears were of course baseless. The French were actually on the verge of giving up their relief efforts when the evacuation took place. Copons and the Army of Catalonia were able to escape safely, and returned to his previous base. Murray picked up the garrison at Balaguer on his way back towards Alicante. He briefly regained his nerve while there and landed his army once again in an attempt to catch an isolated part of Suchet’s army, but this failed.

On 18 June Sir Edward Pellew’s powerful fleet arrived off the Col, carrying Lord William Bentinck, who now took command of the army. He examined the situation and Wellington’s orders, and decided to return to Valencia as ordered. The return voyage ran into bad weather, but by the end June the army was back where it had started. Murray’s own reputation suffered from the disaster, and he suffered a court-martial in 1814, where despite plenty of evidence against him he was only convinced of an error of judgement.

The Peninsular War Atlas, Colonel Nick Lipscombe. A very impressive achievement, covering the entire Peninsula War from the first French invasion of Portugal to the final campaigns in France, and looking at just about every aspect of the war, not just the familiar campaigns of Wellington. Excellent maps, marred only by the lack of contrast between the colours chosen for Spanish and French units. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 September 2018), Siege of Tarragona, 3-12 June 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_tarragona_1813.html

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