1704 – Siege of Vercelli
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The siege lasted from June to July 1704
At the start of the campaign of 1704 in Piedmont, the Duc de Vendôme wanted to immediately lay siege to Verrua and thus open his way to Turin which he planned to capture during the same campaign.
On 6 May, FZM des Hayes was appointed governor of Vercelli.
On the night of 6 to 7 May, the Duke of Savoy sent des Hayes to Vercelli with 7 Savoyard bns, Harrach Infantry, 200 picked horse and 100 hussars.
On 25 May, Vendôme received a letter from Louis XIV, disapproving his project against Verrua. Louis XIV ordered to Vendôme to concentrate his attention on the blockade of the Allied army entrenched at Crescentino and to let M. de Las Torres, with some reinforcements, lay siege to Vercelli. According to these orders, Vendôme countermanded the artillery. He also decided to place his army with its right at Montonero, near the canal leading from Ivrea to Vercelli; and its left at Trino. He also intended to send 12 bns and 15 sqns to M. de las Torres to reinforce his Spanish troops for the siege of Vercelli, keeping only 30 bns and 40 sqns to cover the siege. To hide his design, Vendôme also ordered to reconstruct a bridge at Trino.
The Duke of Savoy managed to introduce 1 additional Savoyard bn into the Fortress of Vercelli.
The Fortress of Vercelli counted 14 bastions connected by courtines. The outer works consisted of 14 ravelins and the covert way was protected by palisades. The northwest front could be flooded with water brought from the Ivrea Canal. The small castle was located on the northeast front. A temporary bridge had been thrown over the Sesia River. On the south front, trees, bushes and gardens allowed to approach within 180 paces of the covert way. On the north, extended numerous sand hills and depressions. The place was well supplied with ammunition and provisions and could sustain a long siege.
The town of Vercelli was defended by FZM Des Hayes assisted by Lieutenant-General Count de Prèla. They were at the head of 13 bns and about 600 dragoons:
- Savoyard I./Guardie (1 bn)
- Savoyard II./Guardie (1 bn)
- Savoyard Savoia Infantry (2 bns)
- Savoyard d'Este Milizia (1 bn)
- Savoyard San Damiano Milizia (1 bn)
- Savoyard Trivier Milizia (1 bn)
- Savoyard Du Villar Milizia (1 bn)
- Savoyard (German) Fridt Infantry (1 bn)
- Savoyard (Swiss) La Regina Infantry (1 bn)
- Savoyard Nizza Provincial Militia (1 bn)
- Imperial Harrach Infantry (2 bns)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Sua Altezza Reale (1 sqn)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Genevois (2 sqns)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Piemonte (1 sqn)
On 30 May, Vendôme's Army marched from Fontanetto to Desana, 7 km to the south-west of Vercelli. However, the Sesia was not navigable and artillery had to be transported by land, thus causing delays.
On 5 June at daybreak, Vendôme's Army marched from Desana to Vercelli. At 7:00 a.m., it started to encamp in front of Vercelli with the right of its first line anchored on the canal of Ivrea at San Benedetto (unidentified location); and its left at the Castle of Larizzate, where the headquarters were established. The second line, facing Vercelli, had its left at Larizzate and its right on the Lower-Sesia, near the bridge which had been built there. Meanwhile, the corps under the command of M. de Las Torres passed the Upper-Sesia on a bridge recently thrown across the river. De la Torres placed his right at Caresana and his left at San Benedetto. Altogether, the Franco-Spanish army destined for the siege of Vercelli counted 39 bns and 58 sqns.
On 10 June, Vendôme wanted to open the trenches in front of Vercelli but his artillery had been delayed, the Po and the Sesia not being navigable. Using the waters of the Canal of Ivrea, the governor of Vercelli flooded the right and left of the Turin Gate. Vendôme put men to work to divert the canal in the Elvo stream. Major-General Lothringen sent Colonel Ebergényi with 120 hussars towards Vercelli. They captured 14 horses.
On the night of 14 to 15 June, Vendôme opened the trench before Vercelli. The main attack would be conducted from the south against the Santa Clara Bastion and the Sant Sebastian Bastion, between the monasteries of the Capuchins and Récollets by French troops. The first parallel (about 1 km long) was established by 1,000 workers at 185 m. of the palisade of the covert way. Meanwhile, the Spaniards led a diversionary attack on the left wing, near the San Benedetto Abbey.
On 15 June at daybreak, the garrison of Vercelli opened a lively fire against the newly established parallel. It would maintain this fire until 19 June.
On 19 June, Vendôme having received his artillery, was finally able to establish batteries with 40 guns and 16 mortars, which soon silenced the artillery of Vercelli.
On the night of 27 to 28 June, a second parallel and a breaching battery were established at the foot of the glacis of Vercelli.
On 30 June, a breaching battery (15 guns) established in the second parallel at the foot of the glacis opened against the walls of Vercelli.
On 1 July, the French destroyed a mine directed against their main attack, and established a lodgement within 10 m of the palisades of Vercelli.
Illness had spread to a large part of the garrison of Vercelli, including Governor des Hayes. Lieutenant-General de Prèla, who commanded the defenders, could count on only 1,000 men fit for duty. Vendôme hoped that the Allies would try to relieve the place so that he could engaged them in an open battle.
In the night of 5 to 6 July, Vendôme established lodgements in two angles of the covert way. After exploding a few mines, the French established breaching batteries near the palisades.
On 6 July in the evening, the Duke of Savoy sent two other reconnaissance parties on the road between Vercelli and Trino. Vendôme detached some cavalry to observe the Allied corps and sent a few additional guns to Tricerro.
On 13 July, important breaches were made in a redoubt of Vercelli.
On 14 July, Vendôme established a second breaching battery of 22 pieces in front of Vercelli.
On 16 July, Vendôme made himself master of a demi-lune, which opposed only a feeble resistance.
In the night of 16 to 17 July, Vendôme’s troops stormed the breach, driving back the volunteers (20 men) and the reserve supporting them. Lieutenant-General de Prèla arrived with a detachment and opened fire on the advancing French troops but he was finally driven back and the French occupied the breach.
On 20 July, the breaches in two bastions of Vercelli were so large as to be practicable. At 11:00 a.m., the garrison offered to capitulate.
On 21 July, the garrison of Vercelli surrendered as prisoners of war. This garrison consisted of:
- Savoyard Guardie (first and second battalions for a total of 380 men)
- Savoyard Savoia Infantry (first and second battalions for a total of 555 men)
- Savoyard Militia (997 men)
- d'Este (1 bn)
- San Damiano (1 bn)
- Trivier (1 bn)
- Du Villar (1 bn for a total of only 277 men)
- Nizza Provincial Militia (1 bn)
- Savoyard (German) Fridt Infantry (73 men)
- Savoyard (Swiss) La Regina Infantry (1 bn reduced to only 265 men at the end of the siege)
- Imperial Harrach Infantry (420 men)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Genevois (2 sqns of approx. 200 men)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Piemonte (1 sqn of approx. 80 men)
- Savoyard Dragoni di Sua Altezza Reale (1 sqn of approx. 80 men)
French and Spanish troops immediately took possession of one of the gates of Vercelli.
On 24 July, the men of the captured garrison who were fit for duty (3,600 foot and 500 dragoons and horse) marched out of Vercelli and deposited their arms and colours on the glacis. They were then escorted to Milan, Alessandria, Valencia, Tortona and Serravalle, from where they would march to Genoa to be transported to France. In addition, some 2,000 untransportable sick and wounded remained in Vercelli.
M. de Vaubecourt occupied Vercelli with 3 bns. He captured 72 artillery pieces and a large quantity of weapons and provisions. This garrison immediately started to fill the trenches and to repair breaches.
During this siege, the Franco-Spanish army lost 200 men killed and 830 wounded. The Duke of Savoy lost 13 bns and the largest fortress of his duchy after Turin.
Louis XIV having given his authorisation to raze the fortifications of Vercelli, they were mined.
This article incorporates texts from the following book which is now in the public domain:
- Vault, François Eugène de: Mémoires militaires relatifs à la Succession d'Espagne sous Louis XIV, Vol. 4 pp. 220-238
- Abtheilung für Kriegsgeschichte des k. k. Kriegs-Archives: Feldzüge des Prinzen Eugen von Savoyen, Series 1, Vol. 6, Vienna 1879, pp. 231-237