Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, duc d'Albufera (2 March 1770-3 January 1826)

War of the Second Coalition
War of the Third Coalition
War of the Fourth Coalition
Peninsular War
1815

Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, duc d'Albufera (1770-1826) was one of the most able of Napoleon's marshals when given an independent command, and performed better than any of his contemporaries during the Peninsular War. He was also the only one of the French marshals who spent long periods in Spain not to have faced Wellington in battle, as Wellington's army never penetrated into north-eastern Spain.

Suchet was the son of a wealthy silk manufacturer, and was born on the family estate near Lyons on 2 March 1770. His military career began when he joined the National Guard, before in 1792 he enlisted in a volunteer battalion as a private soldier. In 1793 his fellow soldiers selected him as their lieutenant colonel.

In 1793 he took part in the siege of Toulon, where he came to the attention of Napoleon. However he was never a member of Napoleon's close inner circle.

Suchet fought in Napoleon's first Italian campaign of 1796-97, serving in both Masséna's and Augereau's divisions. He distinguished himself in battle, and was promoted to colonel. During the final advance into Austria he was with the advance guard.

Suchet was promoted to général de brigade in 1798 and général de division in 1799, but he lacked political backing at this period. His family background in luxury goods meant that many radical figures distrusted him, while his own radical views worried more conservative leaders.

War of the Second Coalition

In 1799 he commanded a brigade in Masséna's army in Switzerland. He saved his brigade after it became dangerously isolated in eastern Switzerland and was rewarded with promotion to Masséna's chief of staff. Late in 1799 he was transferred to Joubert's Army of Italy, where he held the same post. He advised Joubert not to fight at Novi (August 1799), but was ignored. Joubert was killed in the resulting battle, a defeat that helped to undermine the French position in Italy. In the aftermath of the defeat Suchet helped save the surviving French force.

1800 (Marengo Campaign)

Early in 1800 Suchet was appointed to Masséna's army in north-western Italy. At the start of April the French line ran along the coast, ending in the east at Genoa. In early April Melas broke through this line, isolating Massena in Genoa. The allies then turned west and pushed Suchet, who now commanded the left wing of the Army of Italy, back towards France. He suffered a series of defeats, at Bormida (20 April 1800) where an attempt to link up with Massena was repulsed, Borghetto (2 May 1800) where he was forced to retreat away from Genoa, Oneglia (7 May 1800) on the Italian Riviera and the Col de Tende (6 or 7 May 1800) on the border between the Maritime and Ligurian Alps.

Suchet was forced to retreat across the Var River, west of Nice, where he reorganised his army. At this point Melas had a chance to invade Provence, but only if he moved quickly. To the north Napoleon was about to cross the Alps, a move that would force the Austrians to retreat back into Italy to defend Turin. Melas decided to attack and defeat Suchet on the Var first, then retreat. He conducted a series of attacks on the French position on the Var (13-28 May 1800), but the Austrian attacks failed, and the confrontation ended with the French going onto the offensive. The Austrians were forced to retreat, and Suchet was free to advance back into Italy, sending one column along the coast towards Monaco and another towards the Col de Tende. On 1-2 June Suchet's men defeated the Austrians at Breglio and forced them to abandon the Col de Tende.

Suchet wasn't present at the battle of Marengo (14 June 1800), although a rumour of his approach did affect the Austrians at one point in the battle.

War of the Third Coalition

Although Suchet was appointed Inspector General of Infantry in 1801, he was overlooked when the first round of Napoleonic Marshals were created in 1804. He was given command of a division in the Grande Armée, and fought in V Corps (Marshal Lannes). Suchet's division took part in the rapid advance into Germany that ended with the surrender of Mack's army at Ulm. He was posted on the French left at Austerlitz, where he helped repel the Russian left, which was stronger than Napoleon had hoped. Suchet's success helped create the conditions for the Napoleon's decisive attack in the Russian centre.

War of the Fourth Coalition

1806

At the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition Napoleon decided to advance across the wooded hills of the Thüringerwald to attack the Prussians. He divided his army into three columns, each of which was powerful enough to deal with any likely opposition. Suchet's division was the lead unit in Marshal Lannes's V Corps, on the French left. On 10 October 1806, on the northern side of the hills, Lannes ran into the Prussians at Saalfeld. Suchet's men were first to be engaged, but they were able to pin Prince Louis Ferdinand's force in place until the rest of the column arrived. Prince Louis was killed in the battle, and the morale of his men suffered accordingly.

Four days later Suchet's division was part of Napoleon's army at the battle of Jena (fought on the same day as the Battle of Auerstadt). Suchet's division was one of two that launched the initial French attack, and despite veering off to the left in fog his attack was a success.

Suchet's division was still part of Lannes's corps during the winter war against Russia. It was one of two divisions in the corps at the battle of Pultusk (26 December 1806), an inconclusive battle that saw Lannes hold off a much larger Russian army. In the aftermath of this battle (and a second battle fought on the same day at Golymin), both sides went into winter quarters.

The twin battles of Pultusk and Golymin were a significant setback for Napoleon, who had failed to gain the decisive victory he required. Two months later he was unsettled by the Russians once again when they came out of their winter quarters. In January 1807 the Russians attempted to defeat Marshal Bernadotte's isolated corps on the French left, starting the campaign that ended with the drawn battle of Eylau (7-8 February 1807), Napoleon's first real battlefield setback. Suchet missed this campaign, having been posted on the right wing of the French line, as part of General Savary's V Corps. He took part in the combat of Ostrolenka (16 February 1807), a French victory that ended a parallel Russian offensive on that front. He was still on the French right during the Friedland campaign, and so missed that battle as well. By the end of the campaign he was commander of V Corps.

Suchet's efforts in 1805 and 1806 were recognised by Napoleon, who made him a Count of the Empire in 1808. In the same year he married Honorine St. Joseph, a niece of Désirée and Julie Clary. This gave him family ties to Bernadotte's wife Désirée and Joseph Bonaparte's wife Julie.

Peninsular War

Suchet was ordered into Spain in September 1808, where he joined Mortier and Junot in the French attack on Saragossa Peninsular War.

1809

In January 1809 Suchet was temporary taken from Mortier's command to support Lannes in the Second Siege of Saragossa. Suchet's task was to protect Lannes's forces against any relief effort during what was likely to be a period of bitter street fighting. Suchet's division was posted south of Saragossa, where on 26 January 1809 he defeated a force of Spanish regulars and militia at Alcaniz, and captured a supply depot.

In April 1809 Suchet was promoted from command of a division in Mortier's 5th Corps, to command of the 3rd Corps, replacing Junot. At the same time Mortier was ordered to prepare for a possible move to Austria. When this news reached the two French corps at Saragossa Mortier left Aragon. Junot was left in charge of 15,000 men who knew he was about to be replaced. Mortier's orders arrived before Suchet's, and it took six weeks for Suchet to move from his old post and take command of 3rd Corps. Suchet's new corps had a poor reputation, but his attention to detail and care for his men helped turn it into one of the most effective in Spain. He also had some previous experience of military rule, have served as military governor of Toulon in 1793 and military governor of Padua in 1801.

While Suchet was on his way the Spanish began to recover from their losses at Saragossa, and by the time he arrived at Saragossa on 19 May his new command was in a dangerous position. He only had 10,000 men, while the new Spanish Army of the Right, under General Blake, was gathering strength, and would soon be 20,000 strong. Suchet decided to attack before the Spanish could unite their forces, and advanced towards Blake at Alcaniz (23 May 1809). On the day the French had around 8,100 men, the Spanish just under 9,000. Suchet decided to attack, but his attack in column was repelled by the Spanish line, and he was forced to retreat after losing 700-800 men. Blake's victory at Alcaniz was only the second major battlefield victory for the Spanish armies during the Peninsular War, but he failed to take advantage of it. Instead of attacking while Suchet was off balance, he waited for reinforcements.

Blake finally began to advance three weeks after the battle, at the head of 25,000 men. His plan was to take Saragossa and cut Suchet's lines of communication with France. Suchet would either have to abandon Saragossa or risk another attack on the Spanish in a defensive position. Unfortunately for Blake, Suchet chose the second option. The French attacked while the Spanish were divided in two by the River Huerba, and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spanish (battle of Maria, 15 June 1809). Despite this setback Blake attempted to hold his ground, blocked an attempt to turn his flanks, and was able to begin a retreat towards Belchite. His army began to fall apart during the retreat, and when he attempted to stand and fight for the third time it collapsed (Rout of Belchite, 18 June 1809). The Spanish position collapsed so quickly here that Suchet was unable to inflict heavy casualties on them, but Blake's army split in two and retreated in different directions.

Suchet was responsible for one of the few clear-cut French victories over the Spanish guerrillas. Late in 1809 he sent the Polish General Chlopiski to find and defeat a guerrilla band under General Villacampa. The Spanish retreated, but Chlopiski followed them and defeated them at Tremendal (23-24 November 1809). This was only a temporary setback for Villacampa, and his men were soon back in Aragon.

1810

In April 1810 Suchet failed in his first attempt to capture Valencia, mainly because he lacked the resources for such an ambitious attack.

In the spring of 1810 Suchet turned his attention to Lerida, on the road between Saragossa and Barcelona. This was a fairly strongly fortified town, with a good garrison, 8,000 strong. Suchet was only able to bring 13,000 men. This wasn't enough to allow him to surround the city with regular siege lines. The start of the siege was further delayed by the short-lived intervention of a Spanish army under General O'Donnell. This was sent from Tarragona, to help defend Lerida, just at the same time as Suchet detached Musnier's division to investigate a possible threat from Barcelona. Musnier returned just in time to defeat O'Donnell at Margalef (23 April 1810). Suchet was able to begin the bombardment of Lerida on 7 May. The city fell on 13 May and the citadel on 14 May.

After the fall of Lerida, Suchet's attention turned to Mequinenza, at the highest navigable point on the Ebro. His engineers built a road onto the top of the Sierra de Montenegra in order to attack the castle of Mequinenza. The town fell on 5 June and the castle on 18 June. Suchet was then able to use Mequinenza as his artillery depot as he prepared to attack Tortosa. He was then able to float his heavy guns down the Ebro to take part in the siege.

By the end of 1810 the most active Spanish armies were in Catalonia and Valencia, and the cities of Tarragona and Valencia remained in Spanish hands. Napoleon decided to capture them, but the first step was to take Tortosa, on the road between the two. Suchet was given command of the siege itself, while Marshal MacDonald's Army of Catalonia was given the job of stopping the Spanish Army of Catalonia from intervening.

Suchet began to prepare for the siege in August 1810. He established a magazine at Zerta, only ten miles from Tortosa, and posted Musnier's division twenty miles to the south, at Uldecona, to guard against the Spanish Army of Valencia. The siege of Tortosa began when Suchet's army arrived outside the city on 16 December. The French worked rapidly, and Governor Alacha lost his nerve. Tortosa surrendered on 2 January 1811. The Catalan Junta convicted Alacha of treason in his absence.

1811

After the fall of Tortosa, Suchet moved on to attack Tarragona. This port city was the most important part of Catalonia in Spanish hands at the start of 1811, and in order to aid in its capture Napoleon gave Suchet command of half of the French Army of Catalonia and part of Catalonia, so he wouldn't have to share command of the siege.

The siege of Tarragona began on 3 May 1811 when Suchet drove the Spanish out of their outposts. The French then built a fort on the shoreline which drove away an Anglo-Spanish fleet that might have been able to bombard the siege lines. On 29 May the French captured the outlying Fort Olivio. Two days later the Spanish commander left, officially to try and raise a relief army. A second outer fort, Fort Francoli, fell on 7 June, and the lower city fell on 21 June. Finally, the upper town fell on 28 June, just as the Spanish were planning to try and break through the siege lines and escape.

Suchet was promoted to Marshal as a reward for the capture of Tarragona, which was a major blow to Spanish resistance in Catalonia. The French position was also helped by Suchet's moderate policies. He generally avoided the atrocities committed by many of his colleagues across the rest of Spain, and as a result the areas under his control saw less guerrilla activity that most others.

The fall of Tarragona and Figueras meant that by the summer of 1811 Valencia was the only major province in eastern Spain not in French hands. Napoleon believed that it could be captured easily, and on 25 August Berthier ordered Suchet to launch the invasion.

Suchet invaded in mid-September. The assumption that the Spanish were in a state of panic proved to be false, and Suchet's invasion was held up outside Saguntum (23 September-26 October 1811). The French were delayed by the need to capture Oropesa (19 September-11 October 1811), a coastal town that blocked the coastal road and stopped the French from moving their heavy siege guns to Saguntum.

The Spanish Army of Valencia, under General Blake, attempted to lift the siege. First Blake sent out two detachments to try and cut Suchet's lines of communication, but Suchet counterattacked. The first detachment was defeated by General Palombini at Segorbe (30 September 1811) and the second by Suchet in person at Beneguacil (2 October 1811). Blake then made a major effort to lift the siege, but was defeated at the battle of Saguntum (25 October 1811), despite outnumbering Suchet's army. On the following day the city surrendered, and Suchet was free to march towards the city of Valencia. However his army wasn't strong enough to conduct a siege, and so he was forced to wait nearby until reinforcements had arrived. Suchet was finally ready to move on the night of 25-26 December. Blake was caught out, and was forced to retreat into the city (a minor Spanish victory at Mislata was negated by a defeat at Aldaya, both 26 December 1811). This marked the start of the siege of Valencia (25 December 1811-9 January 1812). The city was poorly prepared for a siege, and Blake surrendered on 9 January 1812, after one of the shorter sieges of the Peninsular War.

The fall of Valencia was the last significant French success in Spain. On 14 January 1812 Napoleon withdrew the Infantry of the Guard and all Polish troops from Spain, to prepare for the invasion of Russia. This left his generals in Spain too thinly spread to deal with Wellington's renewed offensive. The year saw Wellington capture Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz and defeat Marmont at Salamanca. Madrid was temporarily liberated, and the siege of Cadiz ended. Although Wellington was eventually forced to retreat back to Portugal the French never returned to large parts of Spain.

1813

Suchet's position began to weaken during 1813. Napoleon withdrew his Italian troops, formed them into a division and moved them to Italy. A combined Anglo-Sicilian force attempted to capture Tarragona, but was repulsed in August 1813, but once again events elsewhere undermined Suchet. In June Wellington defeated King Joseph at Vitoria, and in October the Anglo-Portuguese army entered France.  Suchet was forced to withdraw to northern Catalonia, where he refused to cooperate with Marshal Soult.

1814

In January 1814 Suchet won a minor victory at Molina del Rey, but he was slowly forced back to Gerona, and then to Figueras close to the Pyrenees. At the same time Napoleon withdrew another 20,000 men from Suchet's command in a desperate attempt to bolster the defence of north-eastern France against massive Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies. When Napoleon abdicated Suchet was based at Narbonne, from where he negotiated an armistice with Wellington.

After the first restoration Suchet declared his support of Louis XVIII. He was made a member of the restored Royalist peerage, and was commander of the 5th Division at Strasbourg when Napoleon returned from exile.

1815

Remarkably Suchet's time in Spain meant that he hadn't actually met Napoleon since 1808, but in 1815 he decided to return to the Emperor's side. Napoleon recognised that he was one of the few marshals who could be trusted with an independent command, and put him in command of the Corps of Observation of the Alps, with 8,000 regular troops and 15,000 National Guards. Suchet was opposed by Austrian and Sardinian (or Piedmontese) forces.

On 14 June Suchet advanced into Savoy and soon defeated the Sardinians, but his success was short-lived. Field Marshal Ferdinand Bubna, at the head of 30,000 Austrians and Sardinians invaded Savoy and forced the French to retreat. The news of Napoleon's second abdication reached Suchet more than a week after Waterloo, and once again Suchet was forced to arrange an armistice.

After the second Bourbon restoration Suchet lost his peerage and was expelled from the army. He was restored to the peerage in 1809, but not to military command. He died near Marseilles on 3 June 1826. After his death a mass was said for him in Saragossa cathedral, a sign of the respect he had been held in during his time in Spain.

Napoleon also recognised the quality of Suchet's services in Spain, saying that with two Marshals of such sound judgement, military and administrative skills and bravery, he could have won the Peninsular War. Suchet's moderate rule had certainly reduced the opposition to the French in north-eastern Spain, but he was also able to take advantage of the separatist tendencies in the area, an option not available to Napoleon's commanders elsewhere in the country.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 September 2015), Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, duc d'Albufera (2 March 1770-3 January 1826) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_suchet.html

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