The Combat of the Ordal Cross: 13th September 1813
By Miquel Miró
Events Leading Up To The Battle
The defeat of Vitoria in the Northern Spain made King Joseph Bonaparte to decide the retreat to French soil. Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean coast, the Army of Aragon under Suchet was still unbeaten and were feared by their counterparts on the Catalonian front: the Anglo-Sicilian forces of Lord Bentick and several divisions of Spanish troops.
On June 21st, Suchet was informed of the disaster at Vitoria and immediately become aware that a strategic offensive was no longer sustainable and that the best choice was to start the retreat towards the North. He left Valencia on July 5th and reached Vilafranca del Penedes twenty days later. During the retreat he ordered the destruction of the walls of the old city of Tarragona.
When a month passed, Suchet decided to leave Vilafranca and retired to Molins de Rei (on the Llobregat line) by the Ordal Pass road.
On September 5th, Lord Bentick's troops, in a slow and timid advance, occupied Vilafranca. There he made his headquarters. Bentinck was convinced that a full French retreat was underway and that Suchet could not put more than 10,000 men in line. On the morning of September 12th, he ordered General Adam's Advanced Guard Brigade to advance northwards and occupy the heights of the Ordal Cross. The whole of Adam's force was about 1,500 men. The rest of Bentick's command (10,500 men) was left in Vilafranca, about 15 kilometers from the Ordal Cross Pass.
However, Suchet decided to move south and attack the allied concentration that was growing stronger daily.
The Ordal Heights
The Ordal road from Vilafranca to Molins de Rei was the fastest route from Barcelona to Tarragona. It has a tough, upward slope from the Molins de Rei of the Ordal hills. This way was preferred to the western plain Martorell-Sant Sadurni route because it was a wide new road that was built to permit the movement of Spanish troops in the recent past. The road has its highest point at the Ordal Cross, where the Spanish army built entrenchments to protect a 4 gun battery. These redoubts were destroyed by the Spanish in 1810 for fear it would fall in the hands of the French. In that year, Marshal McDonald's French forces, retreating to Molins de Rei, completed the destruction as he too thought that the earthworks could be used for the Spanish to fortify the hill in this moving theater of war.
The road through the Ordal defile in front of the Ordal Cross was considered an unsurpassable point by the Spanish Army of 1808 if a small force occupied the heights of the Cross with four guns. The road was the only way to advance to Vilafranca due to the rocky, woody and steep hills of Ordal. In this case, the best choice was to avoid the Ordal pass and take it through the rear by coming from San Sadurni. (Picture 1: The Ordal File as Seen from the Allied Positions)
The Allied Army Deploys In The Hill
In the morning of September 12, Bentick led his vanguard in person to the Ordal defile and placed it in position on the downslope of the hill of the Ordal Cross facing northwards. There existed three ruined lines of trenches flanking the winding road. Three quarters of a mile in advance of them, the road passed across a deep ravine by a long viaduct called the Bridge of Lledoner. The ravine could only be crossed by the bridge and a narrow and steep path on its left side (if advancing to the Ordal Cross) that was so narrow, two men could not walk abreast. (Picture 2: The Ravine as seen on the start line of the path.)
A cavalry patrol was sent out five miles and did not find any trace of the French. Bentick felt his position was secure and told General Adam so. Additionally, 2,300 troops led by Colonel Torres from the Spanish Sarsfield's Division had joined them in the Ordal Cross coming from Sant Sadurni. This town was occupied by the master of raids, the Catalan General Manso. The arrival of these Spanish troops cause Bentick to decide not to reinforce his troops and he left General Adam in charge of the position.
The Spanish reinforcements made Adam change his dispositions and he moved the Calabrese Free Corps to the hill on the left of the bridge and placed his four guns across the road below the Ordal Cross. He placed his two rifle companies and two companies of the 27th Inniskillings Regiment in the trench in front of the guns and had the Spanish troops of Torres deploy in line along the centre of the position to the right of the road. The extreme right was to be occupied by the other eight companies of the 27th. A small force of 150 cavalry was left in the rear below the heights. Having done this, he ordered his forces to sleep in the same position where they were deployed.
Suchet, having assembled the divisions of Generals Harispe and Habert and the cavalry at Molins de Rei, started to move at 20.00 hours towards the Ordal Cross at a rapid march rate. His columns had 10,000 infantry and 1,500 horse. His intention was to ocuppy the heights and join General Decaen, who was marching through Martorell, and to descend on Bentinck at Vilafranca.
Adam made a big mistake that night as he did not post any vedettes nor patrols at the Bridge of Lladoner, a place that could be easily defended with a few picked men (Picture 3: The Bridge of Lledoner from the French direction of advance.) The French passed the bridge without being discovered a little after 23.00 hours and started to deploy quickly in the short defile in front of the Ordal Heights. The dark night covered Suchet's forces from the sleeping Allies. The noise made by the huge French column alerted a Spanish cavalry patrol trotting down the road and the Allies immediately fired on it with grapeshot.
General Mesclop, who led the column of Harispe's Division, sent forward the voltigeurs of the 7th Line and then the remainder of the regiment to support them. Meanwhile, the 44th Line was deployed to their left. Unexpectedly, the sleepy soldiers were attacked from the front and right by French columns and the whole hillside blazed with gunshot and musketry.
Four companies defended the first entrenchment, halfway up the pass. These troops, after the first clash with the 7th, retired uphill towards the second entrenchment, where they were reinforced by nearby Spanish troops. There they decided to make a sudden counterattack with the bayonet. Due to this fiery countermove, the 7th Line retired, but rallied on the 44th. The French attacked again and retook the trench advancing uphill and always extending their left. Soon they encountered the three Spanish battalions of Colonel Torres: the Tiradores of Cadiz under Irish-Spanish Colonel Antony Bray, Voluntarios of Aragon and some companies of the grenadiers of Ultonia under Captain Rafael Larruda.
The Spanish counterattacked with bayonet charges twice with success and fought admirably against the overwhelming French columns. A higher redoubt manned by the four English companies were killing many French with their musketry, but Mesclop, sword in hand and beating the charge, stormed the lower Spanish redoubt killing the greater part of the defenders. Marshall Suchet kept moving troops forward, placing Habert's Division to the left of the road and the reserve brigade of Harispe in the rear of Mesclop's brigade. A battalion of the 116th Line led by Captain Bugeaud, that had crossed the Lledoner bridge through the narrow path, tried to turn the left flank of the last redoubt but were attacked in front and by fire from the 27th Regiment that was in the entrenchments that supported the flank on the crest of the hill on the extreme allied right. General Adams was wounded early on and left the command to Colonel Reeves, who decided to retreat. The guns were sent to the rear, and then Colonel Reeves was also wounded. The English troops, having been deprived of their commanders and under heavy attack, could not stand any longer.
Colonel Carey of the Calabrese, started to bring his unmolested battalion to the center in order to attack the French flank. However, when he was informed that the right wing was turned and broken, he decided to retire his Calabrese to the left, with hardly any loss, and retreat to Sant Sadurni past the hills. The remnants of the three Spanish battalions and the 27th Inniskillings tried to retreat to the heights by out-flanking the French. Under the command of Colonel Torres, they gained the heights closely pursued by the exhausted soldiers of Habert from the right and Harispe's from the front. They dispersed over the opposite hill side and tried to gain Vilafranca's road. There they were protected by a small force of Brunswick hussars and the same darkness than allowed Suchet to surprise them.
The overwhelming French gained the Ordal Cross heights leaving many killed and wounded behind them. Almost three hours of fighting and climbing over the bloody and rocky hill had exhausted the infantry. General Delort was sent in pursuit with the 4th Hussars and charged the Black Brunswick Death's Head Hussars, took four mounted guns, and brought back about five hundred prisoners. Suchet had cleared the way to Vilafranca.
The Aftermath Of The Battle
The French lost 171 soldiers killed, including 14 officers. No figures of wounded were given by Suchet's lists. but these figures can be substantiated by a Spanish memoir written in Catalan by a civilian. The landowner Isidre Mata del Raco was in charge of burying the dead on the bloody hill few days later. He reported that the local peasants had buried about 150 French bodies and approximately 140 Spanish and English soldiers. He also wrote that the French had between 600 and 700 wounded soldiers in the struggle. No Calabrese is known to have been killed in the combat of the Ordal Cross.
Official allied figures shows that the English Advanced Guard Brigade had two officers and 73 men killed, 109 wounded and 333 missing. The fierce Inniskillings were cut to pieces. Spanish losses were 87 killed, 239 wounded and 132 missing. The missing figures confirm number of prisoners reported by the French.
The bulk of the defeated Allied force, almost 2.000 Spanish soldiers and 150 Inniskillings, managed to join the outpost of Spanish Colonel Manso at San Sadurni, where they started the retreat to Vilafranca. Carey's Calabrese took the same way through the western hills that they had come from earlier, but detoured slightly to the north. There they ran into the head of Decaen's column and had to turn again. Thanks to darkness were able to pass through the rear of Suchet's army and gained the eastern coast. There they found boats and, with only 51 men short from its original force, sailed south.
At daylight on the 13th, Suchet started to advance, with fresh cavalry and horse artillery, and took Vilafranca. Bentick, learning of the fate of the Ordal Cross defenders and discovering that Decaen was also marching against him, decided to leave the town. Bentinck left a cavalry force commanded by himself behind the town to cover the retreat. The cavalry clash of that day was a costly French victory known as the combat of Vilafranca and it ended Suchet's pursuit. He felt that he would exposed his forces to fire from the English fleet along coast if he continued south.
After his double defeat, Lord Bentinck had to declare to Wellington the loss of the initiative in the Mediterranean Theater of the Peninsular War. He stated about the battle: "The only good notice I can give is the bravery of the English and Spanish soldiers and the valiant steadiness of the last." He turned the command of the Anglo-Sicilian force to General Clinton and went back to Sicily.
The combats of the Ordal Cross and the cavalry clash of Vilafranca del Penedes were the last victories of the French eagle on Spanish soil. The strategic situation forced the undefeated Suchet to retire again to Molins de Rei and to make his headquarters in Barcelona. There he stayed and faced the continuous menace of raids by the Catalonian guerrilla (called Sometents) and the Allied and Spanish Divisions. In May of 1815, the Spanish soldiers headed by Colonel Torres where all honored with the distinction Cross of the Battle of Ordal with the legend "Rey, Patria o la Muerte" (King, Our Country or Dead). Colonel Antony Bray was distinguished with the highest Spanish military honor: the Cruz Laureada de San Fernando.
How To Reach The Battlefield
The easiest way to reach the battlefield is to take Highway A-2 from Barcelona to Tarragona. This road was the line of advance of Decaen's column, avoiding the Ordal hills that appear at the left when you see the Sadurni de Noia village in the right. Leave the highway at the Vilafranca del Penedes way-out, 50 kilometers south of Barcelona. At the first roundabout, take N-340 in the direction to Barcelona for about 15 kilometers. This straight road follows exactly the same way that the British Advance Guard took to occupy the heights of the Ordal Cross and that Suchet took after the battle to enter in Vilafranca (Picture 4: The Road to Vilafranca, South of the Ordal Heights). At the Cross, there is a good view of the defile and on the hillside below, the winding road and the difficult terrain that the French forces had to climb. (Picture 5: The Ordal Cross Heights)
Unfortunately, the Ordal Cross Battlefield is now very damaged because of the new layout in construction of the N-340 road (Picture 6). The extreme right of the position, which was defended by the Inniskillings has been destroyed by the new layout. However, the center of the position still exists as the N-340 road follows exactly the same winding route as it was in 1813. The Ordal Cross is still thereon the heights, where few people today are aware of the bloody struggle that occurred there in 1813. The ruins of the redoubts have disappeared below the tough vegetation of the rocky hillside. The Bridge of Lledoner, the northern gate of the battlefield, was blown in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War but it was reconstructed in the same position and in the same style as before.
Order Of Battle
Allied (General Adam):
2 Battalion 27th Inskilling Regiment
De Rolls Regiment (1battalion)
4th Light KGL (1battalion)
Tiradores de Cadiz (1 battalion)
Granaderos de Ultonia (1 battalion)
Voluntarios de Aragón (1 battalion)
Calabrian Free Corps (1 battalion).
French (Marechal Suchet):
General Harispe 2e Division: 7th Line Regiment, 44th Line Regiment, 116th Line Regiment (2 battalions each);
General Habert 3e Division: 14th Line Regiment, 16th Line Regiment and 117th (2 battalions each);
4e Hussards (3 squadrons)
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Rovira i Virgili, Antoni; "Historia Nacional de Catalunya;" Editorial La Gran Enciclopedia Vasca; 1980.
Smith, Digby. The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book Greenhill Books: London; 1999.
Soler, Raimon. "Els mons D'Isidre Mata del Racó" Institut d'Estudis Penedesencs, Vilafranca; 1997 ( A copy of the original manuscript is at the Biblioteca Municipal of Vilafranca del Penedes)
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Thanks for their valuable help to Robert Burnham, Editor-in-Chief of The Napoleon Series and Adolfo, webmaster of the Spanish site La guerra de la Independencia.