26 September 2010

Alcalá vs Napoleon Bonaparte

This post is an abridged translation of an article by Gabriel Almagro published in El Alcornocal, our local paper. You can read the complete article in Spanish here.

The War of Independence in Alcalá de los Gazules, 1808-1813
In the build-up to the celebrations for the bicentenary of the 1812 Constitution, this is a good time to examine life in Alcalá de los Gazules during the years of French rule.  Knowledge of the events which took place here helps bring us closer to the actions of our ancestors who risked their lives fighting the French invaders, preparing the ground for the writing of the Constitution which formed the basis of a new era in Spain's history.

The French invasion began in the summer of 1808, when the Spanish people took up arms against the appointment by the Emperor Napoleon of his brother Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain, following the abdication of the Bourbons in Bayona. Napoleon hoped to suppress the uprising by sending an army of 170,000 men who, on their arrival, found a much stronger resistance than they had imagined,. This led to an armed confrontation which we now call “La Guerra de Independencia” [known in English as the Peninsular Wars].

General Castaños
In the first enlistment organised by the town, on 7 June 1808, sixty-seven Alcalá men lined up to set off immediately for Seville. In addition 259 had already enlisted as riflemen in the local militia, so we are talking about a total of 326 volunteers, from a town of scarcely 1,000 inhabitants. Very soon Alcalá  had to make new appeals to arms because, as that great chronicler of that era, Pérez Galdós, tells us, the war was fought by “provincial regiments who were ignorant of war, but who were willing to learn; honest countrymen, many skilled in the art of hunting, and who were on the whole excellent marksmen … converted into warriors in the heat of that patriotic fire which inflamed the whole country”. On 19 July 1808, Alcalá men fought with General Castaños who defeated the French troops in open country at the Battle of Bailén - a victory celebrated across Europe as evidence that the French were not invincible, and in Alcalá by the release of a bull.

That victory inspired the hearts of Andalucians, who continued to attack and harass the French armies, but the advantage did not last very long. In November 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Spain at the head of his Grand Army of 250,000 men, led by his most celebrated generals. Its advance across Spanish soil was total; only Andalucía put up serious resistance. From that moment all the French efforts were centred on Andalucía and in January 1810, after Marshal Soult's victory at Ocaña over the Spanish troops commanded by Areizaga, King Joseph Bonaparte ordered the invasion of Andalucía.  In less than a month the French had occupied all its principal cities except Cádiz, which with the arrival of the Supreme Central Junta of Andalucia, became the capital of Spanish resistance against the French.

The French Army in Alcalá de los Gazules (February 1810 - September 1812)
According to Madoz, the first French troops to arrive at Alcalá consisted of a detachment of fifty mounted dragoons, who entered the town on 10 February 1810. However, based on contemporary testimonies, the number is believed by the author of this article to be more like 200.

After the initial shock to the few Alcalainos remaining in the town (the majority had dispersed to the surrounding countryside) once the town had been taken it was necessary to accommodate the French army. This was resolved by converting the monasteries of La Victoria and Santo Domingo into lodgings for the troops, while the leaders were given rooms in private houses.

On 2 March 1810, a party of between 500 and 600 men armed with blunderbusses, daggers and axes entered the town, taking the French by surprise and assassinating eighteen of them. The intervention of the monks of La Victoria prevented a greater massacre. A few days later the French army, having found out what had happened, carried out their reprisal.  As well as cutting the throats of whoever crossed their path, the French committed acts of destruction on public buildings and private houses alike. Among the first to be ransacked were the public granary, the churches and the nunnery; they even burned the extraordinary library of Santo Domingo and and did extensive damage to the monastery of La Victoria.  In the private dwellings, they plundered whatever food and money they could find.

The search for supplies was continuous throughout the war, by the French and the Spanish armies alike. Both were continually passing through the area - the French because they liked to entrench themselves in their barracks at Medina Sidonia, and the Spanish because of their great mobility, following the strategy of General Ballesteros [the term "guerrilla warfare" dates from this period].

Life in Alcalá was greatly affected by the war, not only because of the increasingly frequent recruitment drives by the Spanish army, but by the continual demands for horses and beasts of burden, materials of war, food, grain, firewood, money ...  These petitions came from both the French and Spanish armies, neither of which occupied the town permanently.  Eventually, faced with the impossibility of sheltering there, the French army decided to blow up the castle, which they did in September 1811.

In August 1812, when the French defeat at the Battle of Arapiles (Salamanca) forced them to retreat from Andalucia, General Ballestero and some of his troops visited Alcalá to ensure that the region was free of the invaders.  This was achieved on 30 September, when the last French troops were pursued through the sierras and Alcalá was finally liberated from the French yoke.

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