Sunday, June 09, 2013

Battle in the snow (3)


El Bruc, 8th December 1713

Behind the hills where the Catalan Artillery was staked, Marquis of Poal had arranged all the Horse he had available --four squadrons of Dragoons and another two of Hussars. All this wing was put under command of General Ortega, along with the mentioned artillery and a battalion of pioneers. As the Infantry General he was, Ortega felt plainly uncomfortable at commanding that heterogeneous force, as well as at the pioneers poor quality --they were in fact a poorly armed and even less motivated punishment battalion. This made him feel unsecure from the very start.

His reluctance at the commission became evident when two full Spanish squadrons of Horse suddenly came from behind their position, charging right away against the Catalan Dragoons --a whole squadron of which was volatilized at the very first engagement. When Ortega finally managed to align the three remaining squadrons for facing the new threat, the Spanish Foot main line had already reached the hill foot. The last battery that could defend the position was then destroyed by the devastating fire from the enemy siege battery. The Catalan right wing seemed hopelessly doomed.

But the unexpectable then happened. In one of his few right decisions of that day, Ortega ordered the Hussars not to get involved in the fight for neutralizing the Spanish Cavalry, but to deal with the advancing Foot instead. It was the opportunity young Colonel Gaspar de Portolà (*) expected. True that little could do his Hussars face to an entire Infantry brigade, Portolà thought, but if they were at least capable of inspiring some fear on the enemy, perhaps... In a bold gesture, he ordered both Squadrons to quickly form into a broad line along the hill crest, well in sight of the Spanish Infantry.

Veteran Ramón Lanuza, who was in command of the second squadron as Lieutenant Colonel, immediately understood Portolà's intentions. He then watched at their feet --at the human tide painfully climbing up the hill. "--A charge downhill? Hum, perhaps...". Lanuza grinned wildly when Portolà gave the order, a few seconds later. Roaring an old battle cry, Lanuza threw his horse downhill, followed by the whole Regiment:

--Saint George and Aragon!! --Half a thousand throats also roared with him.

Colonel Portolà's gamble wasn't just right --but brilliant instead, for it literally saved the day. Scared at the frightening vision of a massive Horse charge, the first Spanish battalion facing them lost nerve and fired a too premature volley. The terrifying charge made the line to waver and fall back in disorder. A second battalion following them at short distance was fatally disordered by their retreating comrades --and they were also charged in turn. Bewildered, they had to fire hurriedly at the thundering Hussar tide, so that their own volley was plainly unable to stop the charge, in spite of being slightly more effective than the former's one. Again, the battalion fatally wavered and fell back in disorder too, to the astonishment of Marquis of Aitona, who helplessly watched the scene from the opposite wing.

The nearly suicidal Hussar charge had effectively stopped the Spanish advance, for a while enough to prevent them to resume the attack. For day was coming to an end, so that the fighting slowly softened up all along the front. Marquis of Aitona's troops had secured the highlands at one flank, but had been uncapable of reaching the Catalan entrenched main line. Perhaps the next day.

However, Lanuza himself became one of the few Hussar casualties in that enchained series of charges. His lifeless body stayed all night in place, along with all those who died during that crucial day.

(*) Not to be confused with his own son, Gaspar de Portolà Jr., who was viceroy of California between 1767 and 1770.