The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain 1810-13
The Barcelona Garrison
Translated by Greg Gorsuch
After the bloody expedition of Manresa, Marshal Augereau left the regiment of Nassau and that of Wurzburg in Barcelona to hold garrison there and went back north, giving up a junction with the 3rd Corps; he established his headquarters in Girona, and his troops, decimated by disease, finally took a little rest; the Emperor, dissatisfied with this last movement of the Marshal, replaced him in his command by Macdonald who arrived in Girona in the middle of May 1810 and led a new supply convoy to Barcelona.
The Catalans continued the partisan warfare throughout the province, and the Imperial troops on the line of communication with France were barely sufficient to provide escorts for the numerous convoys circulating between the border and the places occupied by the 7th Corps; it was constantly necessary to disperse the Spanish bands which suddenly appeared in the very vicinity of the army posts; the Barcelona garrison, particularly threatened, was in continual movements.
The 1st Regiment of Nassau had on 15 April an engagement with the guerrillas in Cruz-Cubierta; in October, it fought new battles in the immediate vicinity of the city, at Hospitalet on the 7th, under the city itself on the 25th, and at Saint-Andreu on the 31st; finally, on 19 November, it turned back a gang that had crept up to the gates of Barcelona.
During this time, the mobile part of the 7th Corps moved towards the Ebro and covered the siege of Tortosa executed by the troops of Suchet; this place finally fell into our hands on 2 January 1811, with 10,000 men, 180 guns, 2 million cartridges and 9 flags. Suchet was now going to conquer the province of Valence, to establish there and make people love the French domination -while the struggle would continue stubborn and fierce, between the Catalan patriots and the troops of the 7th Corps.
Fatigue, enemy fire, disease – especially endemic fever – had created such voids in the German corps of the Army of Catalonia that the Emperor recalled to their homeland the cadres of the Westphalian Division and those of the brigade of Berg; each of these two units was reduced in force to a simple battalion which remained in Spain; as for the Rouyer Division, it had only 450 soldiers present under arms in the three regiments of the Duchies of Saxony, Anhalt-Lippe and Schwarzburg-Waldeck-Reuss; these last two bodies had lost more than 1,000 soldiers made prisoners by O’Donnell in their posts of Bisbal, San-Feliu, Palamós and Calonge …The remains of this division would hold garrison for two months in Agde, Collioure and Port-Vendres and then return to Germany.
In 1811, the Army of Catalonia’s only troops of the Confederation of the Rhine remained in the Würzburg regiment, sent to Mont-Louis and replaced in Barcelona by the Berg battalion, the Westphalian battalion, detachments of artillery from Berg and Westphalia, and the 1st Regiment from Nassau. This one, still in Barcelona, had during the course of the year continual skirmishes with the guerrillas; in Trente-Passos (April), in Saint-Celoni (May), in Mataró where Colonel von Polnitz was mortally wounded; in Montserrat (July), in Diana (August), in Moncada (September) and in Mataró again (November).
The operations against the partisans continued without interruption for the soldiers of Nassau during the year 1812; radiating around Barcelona, they fought the Catalans in January at Altafulla; in May at Granollers, Saint-Vincens, Molins-del-Rey; in June in Pallejá and Martorell; in July, again at Martorell, and at Montserrat; in August in Saint-Celoni; in September in Mataró and Pallejá; in November in Vilafranca; in December in Mataró. Important reinforcements rallied the regiment; a strong battalion of 8 officers and 477 men from Wiesbaden arrived in Barcelona on 16 June via Mainz and Besançon; at the end of December, a second detachment made up of 4 officers, 12 non-commissioned officers and 249 soldiers, which left Mainz on 6 November, also joined Barcelona via Perpignan; finally, on 18 February 1813, 200 men were still sent from Nassau to the 1st Regiment, at the same time as 400 others were directed to the 2nd Regiment in King Joseph’s army, with a squadron of mounted chasseurs.
The year 1813, like the two preceding ones, brought back to the 1st Regiment of Nassau the same series of fatigue and combats; our allies were still fighting with the Catalans around Barcelona, in La Bisbal (May), in Tarragon (August), in Vilafranca (September).
We have seen above the events which forced our armies to evacuate the Peninsula: the sending to Germany of considerable reinforcements drawn from the Army of Spain, the abandonment of Madrid, the disastrous battle of Vitoria. Marshal Suchet, leaving Valence with regret “in the midst of the expressions of affection of the inhabitants”, went back to Barcelona where he rallied the troops of General Decaen, Macdonald’s successor; then, he brought his headquarters to Girona.
DISARMAMENT OF THE 1st INFANTRY REGIMENT AND OF NASSAU’S MOUNTED CHASSEURS
On 20 December 1813, the 1st Regiment of Nassau, still in Barcelona, was commanded by Colonel von Méder and had 41 officers and 1,707 men; the two squadrons of chasseurs à cheval of the same nation, with a strength of 12 officers and 231 cavalrymen, under the orders of Major Baron Oberkampf, were in Girona and Figueres, arriving from the army of Marshal Soult established under Bayonne.
This was the moment when Marshal Suchet received the Imperial decree of 25 November, ordering to disarm the Germans of the Confederation of the Rhine and to send them to the depots as prisoners of war; this disarmament gave rise, in Catalonia, to moving demonstrations which do the greatest honor to the brave troops on whom political necessities obliged the Imperial government to impose such harsh treatment. Here is the dispatch in which the Marshal gave an account of the execution of the Emperor’s orders:
Marshal Suchet to the Minister of War
Girona headquarters, 26 December 1813.
“After the defection of the allies in the North, I wanted to know for myself the spirit of the leaders of the German troops who were part of the army. I had had the satisfaction of finding in them officers full of honor and desirous of glory; I wanted to test their fidelity, and, on the first day of December, while marching to the enemy, I ordered that the Westphalian light horse and the elite companies of the 1st Regiment of light infantry of Nassau be thrown alone in the vanguard; they served with great zeal, and not a soldier deserted.”
“At the time of carrying out the decree of the Emperor for the disarmament of all German troops, Colonel von Méder, of the 1st Regiment of Nassau, gave honorable and striking proof of his loyalty. Lieutenant-General Clinton, commanding the allied army in Catalonia, managed to deliver to him a letter urging him to surrender to the English army; he added to it a letter from Lord Wellington, and a much more urgent letter from Colonel Baron von Kruse commanding the 2nd Regiment of Nassau, who invited Colonel von Méder to follow his example. I have the honor to send you a copy of these three letters and of Colonel von Méder’s reply. This honorable conduct, this fidelity to his engagements will be appreciated by His Majesty the Emperor; I hope it will be good enough to give a flattering testimony to this colonel; he offers to devote his life to his service, and I dare guarantee that he will know how to make himself worthy of all the kindnesses of the Emperor.”
“I had to have the Imperial decree executed; disarmament has taken place on different points at the same time. The Nassau regiment laid down their arms in Barcelona; the Westphalian light horse have dismounted at Saint-Celoni; General Ordonneau reports that they wept bitterly and cried out: “Let them lead us to the enemy, and they will see if we are not determined to sacrifice our lives for the Emperor Napoleon!” Lieutenant-Colonel Baron von Plessen was the first to put back his saber, inviting his officers to follow his example. He is a handsome officer, of brilliant valor, who requested, with the approval of his king, service in the Imperial armies. His distinguished conduct and that of brave Captain Koenig urge me to keep them close to me until Your Excellency has obtained a decision on their request.”
Marshal Suchet (Based on a contemporary print)
“The Prince of Nassau’s Guard squadrons have dismounted in Girona and Figueres. Major Baron Oberkampf, who commands this regiment, was very desperate; but he, like the other chiefs, expressed his regrets in such a really interesting way: “For five years, – he said, -I am in the French ranks; I have obtained flattering testimonies for my conduct and that of my regiment, and I wish to preserve an eternal proof of this by obtaining the officer’s cross of the Legion of Honor.”
“The Würzburg battalion will have been disarmed at Puigcerdà. Voltigeur Lanz, of the 1st Regiment of Nassau, absolutely wanted to remain attached to the 18th regiment of light infantry: “I was wounded three times in Catalonia, while fighting with the French soldiers; I got the decoration, and I’m begging to be allowed to end my life with them.”
“Thus, monsieur le Duc, this measure, which has unfortunately become necessary, has been carried out with the consideration deserved by these brave soldiers, who are quite foreign to the delirium which afflicts their country.”
“The first column, made up of the chasseurs à cheval from Nassau and 50 Westphalian light horse, will arrive in Perpignan on the 28th of this month; the others will follow closely.”
“As for Colonel von Méder, commanding the 1st Regiment of Nassau, he replied with the following letter to the urgent invitation of the English General Clinton, urging him to pass with his soldiers to the camp of our enemies:
Barcelona, 20 December 1813.
“The letter you wrote to me from Vilafranca was brought to me on the 18th of this month. For a man of honor, this request is too outrageous for me to be able to consent to it. Never have I had anything more sacred than to fight for His Majesty the Emperor Napoleon the Great; this is what His Royal Highness my sovereign has committed himself and consequently me too. Your summons can only determine me and his brave regiment to make us, if possible, more faithful to our duty. As a man of honor and loyalty, I believe it my duty to transmit your letter to my general of division, and to assure him once again of the dedication of my regiment.”
Shako plaque (golden) of an officer of the 1st Regiment of Nassau (Confederation of the Rhine) (Collection of Dr. C. Kling, Weimar)
The Emperor, to recognize the loyalty of this brave and loyal officer, accepted his request to remain in the service of France. Colonel von Méder was appointed general – and his desire to give his life to his new homeland was only too soon realized; he was killed near Barcelona on 25 February 1814 …
According to Bernays, the losses of the contingent of Nassau in Spain, from 1808 to 1813, amounted to 4,081 men killed or died of diseases, as follows:
|Chasseurs à cheval||…||97||—|
Although these figures seem greatly exaggerated, especially with regard to the 1st Regiment, we must however recognize the importance of the sacrifice that Napoleon demanded, in Spain, from his German allies.
Why must the brilliant picture of brilliant actions and victories of the soldiers of the Confederations of the Rhine in our armies in Spain be overshadowed by the defection of the battalion of Frankfurt and the 2nd Regiment of Nassau? How could the leaders of these troops break their military oath, and thus mar their honor? The political situation of their fatherland blinded them, and, in the obscurity of their conscience, they disregarded the noblest and most sacred of their duties as soldiers. If Hesse and Nassau fought valiantly at our side, Fortune did not wish to crown their efforts; the troops of Hesse succumbed in the heroic defense of Badajoz and remained prisoners of the English; the soldier defectors from Nassau died for the most part in a terrible shipwreck, on the very threshold of their country, and the others, the faithful, they suffered, without understanding it, a disarmament which drew tears to those even who had executed it.
The Confederation of the Rhine sent 35,000 men to Spain: Nassau, Hesse, Frankfurt, Berg, the Kingdom of Westphalia as well as the Saxon duchies and the principalities of Thuringia, watered the territory of the Peninsula with the blood of their children. History should not forget it, and France will keep a grateful memory of these German corps which fought with honor under the eagles of the Empire.
 Costa de Serda, p. 181.