Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Defence of Saragoza

"Her lover sinks—she sheds no ill-timed tear;

Her chief is slain—she fills his fatal post;

Her fellows flee—she checks their base career;

The foe retires—she heads the sallying host."


W HILE the world, growing more human, was raising its voice against slavery abroad, Napoleon was turning his attention to Portugal, the traditional friend of Great Britain. He sent a force to invade Portugal, and her capital Lisbon was soon occupied by the French. Now Spain must be conquered too; Spain, with her many valuable possessions in South America, must be added to the growing empire of Napoleon.

On the throne of Spain, was an old and now almost imbecile king, Charles IV., a descendant of Louis XIV. of France. His son, Ferdinand, was little better than himself, and the court of Madrid was a mass of intrigue and scandal.

Napoleon himself travelled to Bayonne, a town on the borders of France and Spain. Here he stopped, and sent for the royal family of Spain. Charles and his queen arrived with the rebellious Ferdinand. Angry scenes took place. The old king brandished his stick over the head of Ferdinand. At last he was persuaded to abdicate his tottering throne in favour of Napoleon, and retire on a pension to France. There was still Ferdinand to be settled.

"Unless between this and midnight you too abdicate," roared Napoleon to the young man, "you shall be treated as a rebel."

Ferdinand was terrified into yielding. Napoleon was triumphant. He had bought the crown of Spain and all her possessions. It was a masterpiece of skill. It was also a tremendous blunder: he did not know the Spanish people. Such high-handed conduct goaded them to madness.

When the news became known, that Joseph Bonaparte had been made King of Spain, one general heart-broken cry rang from end to end of the Peninsula. Then, like a volcano, all Spain burst forth in an explosion of fury and indignation. In one day, in one hour, without signal, without watchword, the whole nation rose, as one man, to withstand the power of Napoleon. From the mountaineers of Asturias in the north, to the sailors of Carthagena in the south, from the Pyrenees to the sea-coast of Portugal, the battle-cry rang out, as, with the pride of ancient Rome, the Spaniards prepared fiercely to defend their country. The story of how they defended Saragoza, is one of the most famous in the history of the world.

Saragoza, the capital of Aragon, was one of the oldest cities of Spain. The very name—Cæsar Augustus—speaks of Roman times. The town stood in an open plain, covered with olive grounds and closed in by high mountains. Standing on the river Ebro, it was entered by twelve gates. It was built wholly of brick: the streets were narrow and crooked. When the French soldiers began to besiege the town in the end of June 1808, there were but a few hundred Spanish soldiers there, sixteen cannon, and a few muskets. But the citizens themselves, under their leader Palafox, set to work to defend their town. They placed beams of timber together, endways, against the houses, in a sloping direction, behind which the people might shelter themselves, when the shot fell. To strengthen their defences, they tore down the awnings of their windows and formed them into sacks, which they filled with sand and piled up before the gates to serve as a battery. All the women helped. They formed themselves into companies—some to nurse the wounded, some to carry food and water to the brave defenders. Monks bore arms, and nuns made cartridges for children to distribute.

Among the heroic defenders was Augustina Saragoza, a young woman of twenty-two. She arrived one day to bring food to the defenders at one of the gates, to find every man had been shot dead, so terrific was the fire from the French guns. Among the dead artillerymen was her lover, so says the story. So desperate was the scene, that for a moment even the Spaniards seemed to waver before they remanned the guns. Augustina sprang forward over the dead and dying, snatched a match from the hands of her dead lover, and fired off a 26-pounder. Then, jumping upon the gun, she swore she would never quit it alive, while the siege lasted. Such heroism put fresh courage into all hearts. The Spaniards rushed into the battery, renewed their fire, and repulsed the French. Augustina kept her word. She was the heroine of a fight, where all were heroines, and she is known to history as the Maid of Saragoza. At the end of forty-six days, the city was completely surrounded, food was failing, and no place was safe from the enemy's fire. On August 2 the hospital took fire, and again the courage of the women was shown, as they carried the sick and wounded men from the beds and fought their way through the burning flames. Two days later the French forced their way into the town and occupied a large convent called St Engracia. The French general then summoned Palafox to surrender.

"Headquarters, St Engracia. Capitulation," was the brief message.

"Headquarters, Saragoza. War to the knife," was the heroic reply.

Terrible was the conflict now the French were in the town. The war raged not only from street to street, but from house to house, from room to room, for eleven days and nights. Stories of heroism are too numerous to tell. A Spaniard managed with difficulty to fasten a rope round one of the French cannon, but in the struggle that ensued, the rope broke, and the prize was lost at the moment of victory. By August 13, little of their city was left to the Spaniards, and things seemed at their worst when, early one morning, the French were seen in full retreat. The men and women of Saragoza had saved their town. True, it was taken by the French after another terrible siege, but the famous courage of the Spaniards was spoken of throughout Europe, and their spirit of patriotism helped to bring them that help from England, which, after years of fighting, freed their country from Napoleon.

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