Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


 

 

 

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Flags of the Defenders of Zaragoza during the 2nd French Siege (21 December 1808 to 21 February 1809): Introduction

By Luis Sorando Muzás

The heroic resistance of the city of Zaragoza against the French Armies, during two  bloody sieges in 1808 and 1809, is probably the most well known episode in the history of this 2,000 year old city. For that reason, the city welcomes being the object of multitude of studies and publications of all types.

Nevertheless, if one wants to do a serious study of the flags used by the by the defenders of the city plaza, one must avoid the exhibits like the of the great display cabinet existing in the Museum of the Army (Madrid) under the label "Flags of the Siege of Zaragoza", which has 6 flags that have absolutely nothing to do with the defense of Zaragoza. Yet in the same museum, there exist other semi-forgotten flags that were taken by the French after the fall of the city and returned to the Regency of the Kingdom in 1823.

Indeed, if today we were to count, the relatively high number of flags from the siege, we must thank our enemies, because they conserved them as testimony to their victory over their heroic, tenacious adversaries.  Unfortunately, the others, which remained in Spain, because the defenders were able to hide them when the city surrendered, have disappeared sadly without leaving any documentary trace.

Focusing on the flags taken by the French, we see that certain confusion exists about the exact number, since Bulletin Number XXXIII of the French Army in Spain, reproduced later by many historians, says in this respect "At the close of  21 February of 1809 all the city was occupied by our troops; 15,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry laid down their weapons at the Portillo Gate and surrendered 40 flags and 150 tubes of artillery."[1]

But one has to take into account that the bulletins and newspapers of the era were propaganda tools and one should not forget the contemporary saying of  “to lie like a Bulletin".  It is likely that the numbers of trophies are customarily exaggerated.[2]  Thanks to General Roquefere, Chief-of-Staff of the French Army conducting the siege, we know that on a final day there were only 8,200 prisoners taken (with another 2,500 taken in the Arrabal Suburb three days earlier) and that there were not 150 artillery pieces captured, but a  total of 145 taken throughout the siege, including 4 that taken in Lecinena, Zuera, and Alcaniz from  reinforcements that tried to help to those in the city.[3]

It is the same with the flags. We are fairly certain, that the Spanish defenders had a  total of 54 flags and 19 standards, many of them were destroyed or hidden before the capitulation.  Although the Bulletin reported the number of flags captured as 40when General Junot, Duke of Abrantes,[4] arrived at his house in Paris in May 1809,  with the trophies from the siege of Zaragoza, only 21 were those taken at the capitulation of the city, while some of the others, like with the artillery pieces, were taken throughout the siege or even in some of the combats outside of the city.[5]

For sure we know that a Coronela of the Province of Murcia was taken on 21 December 1808 in the taking of Monte Torrero,[6] one or two in the Stº de Ntra. of Magallón (Lecinena) on 23 January 1809,[7] one in the Convent of Jesus on 8 February[8] and 5 in the occupation of the Arrabal Suburb on the 18th of the same month.[9]  The remaining 12 were probably taken on the day of the capitulation.

On 29 December 1809, Marshal Berthier wrote to the Emperor informing him of  the existence in Junot’s house, the trophies and requested instructions from him about which to do with them. Napoleón answered in the margin of the same letter "Give them to Count de Segur, who will take them to the Legislative Body with those of the other campaign.”[10]

Thus it was ordered, and on the 31st of the same month, de Segur received an order to gather the trophies from Junot’s house and to transfer them to the Ministry of the War, to await the solemn ceremony that would be celebrated on 22 January 1810.

On that day, a total of 66 Spanish flags, carried by Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Imperial Guard, were presented to the Legislative Assembly. Among these flags were the 21 from the siege of Zaragoza. Over the following years another 26 Spanish flags were added, so that in 1814 deposited in the building were a total of 92 Spanish flags, all of which were taken between 1808 and 1812.

In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleón at Waterloo, the Prussians entered Paris. A conservator, named Mathieu, on his own initiative and at considerable risk, hid 44 flags, so that  in 1823, when King Louis XVIII, in a sign of good will, decided to give to the Regency of Spain the trophies existing in the Body Legislative, he only gave back 48 of them.  The trophies of Zaragoza were divided in two groups: those that were returned in 1823 and those hidden and forgotten in the Legislative Assembly in Paris, not reappearing until end of the 20th Century.

Those returned in 1823 were deposited in the Ministry of the War and in June 1842 distributed between the Artillery Museum and the Museum of the Invalids of Atocha.[11] Unfortunately we know of no list that identifies the flags in either museum. It will require some detective work to identify the flags that were returned by France in 1823 and even more so to determine which were those that were captured at Zaragoza. In most cases, the catalogs that existed only provide a simple description of the cloth and makes no attempt to identify the unit.   Tragically, several of them were transferred from the museum at Atocha to the Royal Armory and were destroyed in a fire in 1884.  The rest, after diverse journeys, ended up in the present Museum of the Army, in which all the other museums were combined.

As far as those still in Paris, they were discovered in 1970 under the wise direction of Pierre Charrié. In 1990, they were donated by the National Assembly, the successive Assembly of the old Legislative Assembly, to the Army Museum in Paris in whose warehouses they are conserved at this time, out of the public view.

 

 

Notes

[1] The number of 40 is copied among others, by VERILLON. M, "Les Trophées de la France", París 1907, p. 68: "Quarante drapeaux espagnols sont remis au maréchal Lannes

[2] Another example of it is the Battle of Tudela, about which the Bulletin said that 7 flags were taken, whereas other sources state that only the flags of the Volunteers of Castile were taken.

[3] The detail is the following one: 7 at Torrero and Casablanca (21 December 1808), 3 at San José (11 January 1809), 4 at Magallón (refers to Ntra. Sra. De Magallón at Leciñena), Zuera and Alcañiz (23 - 26 January), 17 betwen Carmen and Trinitarios (27 January), 4 at the Convento de Jesús (8 February), 16 at the Arrabal (18 February), 4 at the Puerta del Sol (19 February), and 92 found in the city on the day it capitulated (21 February).

[4] Junot was the commander of the 3rd Army Corps, which with the 5th Corps which was commanded by Marshal Mortier, formed the French Army besieging the city. These two corps were under the command of Marshal Lannes. When the siege was over, Lannes left to go to Austria and Mortier with his 5th Corps went to Castile. Thus Junot was left in charge in Aragón, until being replaced by the General Suchet in May 1809.

[5] Although he does not mention the source, the number of 21 flags also is given by BELMAS, J. "Journaux des Siéges faits ou soutenus par les français dans la Péninsule de 1807 a 1814", París 1836, T.I, p. 323

[6] From Marshal Moncey to Headquartersl, on the taking of Monte Torrero, reproduced by BELMAS, ob. cit. p. 351: "la brigade Habert lui a pris un drapeau appartenant au régiment de Murcie".

[7] ROGNIAT, M. le Baron,"Relation des siéges de Saragosse et de Tortose pàr les français", París 1814,  p. 20: "L'ennemi perdit un millier d'hommes, et laissa en notre pouvoir deux drapeaux et quatre canons".  BELMAS,ob.cit. T.I, p. 206 : repite exáctamente lo mismo; VERILLON, ob. cit. p. 68 dice "un drapeau espagnol est enlevé par le sergent de voltigeurs Roblat, du 64 de ligne, et 6 autres par le 10 e. hussards et le régiment polonais de la Vistule". CHARRIÉ only mentions 1, taken by the Sergeamt Roblat of 64th Line, and adds that Mortier, in his correspondence with Berthier, says to have taken also another 4 or 5 flags of his type. Could he have been talking about the flags captured in the Arrabal Suburb by his men? (Mortier was the head of 5th Corps and had the mission of covering the siege from relief forces.)

[8] LEJEUNE,General Baron, "Siéges de Saragosse" París 1840, p. 157: "..et nous prîmes tout le couvent, plusieurs canons, un drapeau et quelques prisioniers". FIJALKOWSKI,Wieslaw Felix "La intervención de las tropas polacas en los Sitios de Zaragoza", Zaragoza 1997, p. 115, al parecer copiando a Caballero: "tomaron todo el edificio con dos cañones y una bandera".

[9] Según Charrié indicates it was Marshal Mortier who directed the attack.

[10] Fond Berthier, Archives Nationales 173 AP 2.

[11] The flags were returned without their poles, and a greater number were given to Atocha than to the Artillery Museum.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2002

 

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