The disappeared and gigantic fortified city that Napoleon built in the center of Madrid




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«It is child’s play, these people do not know what a French army is; Believe me, it will be fast », he assured Napoleon in the fall of 1807. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor tricked Prime Minister Manuel Godoy into signing the Fontainebleau Treaty and obtained the King’s permission to traverse Spain with more than 110,000 soldiers with the official goal of allegedly conquering Portugal. But it was all a hoax. On his way through the peninsula, the ambitious general conquered almost all the Spanish cities he found in his path.

When on March 24, 1808, Fernando VII entered the capital through the Puerta de Atocha, acclaimed by his people, the scene was not as beautiful as he described it Benito Pérez Galdós in his “National Episodes”: “It seemed like a day in June, when nature smiled like the Nation.” While the people of Madrid celebrated the arrival of their new King, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and head of his Army in Spain, the famous general Joaquín Murat, were stationed at Chamartín. Your new chief of staff, Augustin Daniel BelliardHe was deployed to prepare the headquarters for the headquarters with twenty-five thousand men.

The streets remained relatively calm in the following weeks thanks to the presence of the Gallic soldiers, who strolled freely through the rest of the capital without the Madrilenians having noticed the disdain with which they treated their Monarch. “It is hard for us to believe that the purposes of the French were not evident in the eyes of our fellow citizens. Witnesses to that situation tell us insistently about the growing discomfort of the Madrid population. What to do? Because the French had in Madrid and its surroundings 25,000 men occupying the Retreat with numerous Artillery “, explained the historian José Manuel Guerrero, commander of the Spanish Army, in his article “The French Army in Madrid”, published in the “Military History Magazine” in 2004.

“Weapons, weapons, weapons!”

The capital was already a city completely taken the famous the May 2, 1808, when Madrid was blown up and the War of Independence began. “No more voices were heard than weapons, weapons, weapons! Those who did not shout on the streets shouted on the balconies. And if a moment before half of the people of Madrid were simply curious, after the appearance of the artillery they were all actors, ”said Galdós. The Spanish people soon rose, convinced that they could and should drive the invader out. The government called up its citizens and managed to gather 30,000 men, the vast majority of them militiamen with no combat experience.

The sieges to the cities remembered to those of the Antiquity. Reducing them involved months of fighting, street by street, house by house, fighting against men, women and children. All these scenes plunged the French soldiers into a hell they had never known before, with an army made up of young recruits hastily organized and forced to invade, in lamentable conditions, a country that was supposedly an ally. It was divided into three bodies: one bound for Portugal, under the command of Jean-Andoche Junot; another to enter Spain, with the aim of reaching Cádiz, and the third, called «Observation of the Coasts of the Ocean»Under the pretext of reinforcing the southern coasts against the British, but whose covert mission was, in fact, to occupy Madrid.

First, in tents

And in mid-June, in the face of uncertainty and continuing casualties, the French decided to fortify the entire Retiro. “In spite of everything, they did not have the slightest demonstration of courtesy”, recalled years later Mesonero Romanos, who was five years old when he lived through that immense deployment of forces, distributed by the San Bernardino convent (current University City), Leganitos streets and Fuencarral, the neighborhood of El Pardo and Carabanchel, in addition to the famous park where the artillery and cavalry encamped, with its memorable Brigade of Dragons of Moncey, using the stores confiscated from the Spanish army in Ciudad Rodrigo and Zamora.

Since El Retiro, the Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy on the day of the uprising to walk the Calle de Alcalá and the Carrera de San Jerónimo up to Puerta del Sol. In the vicinity of the plaza – Mayor, Alcalá, Montera and Carretas streets – most of the rebels and neighbors gathered. “The evacuation of the streets did not stop the lively shooting and the rain of stones and tiles that, from the windows and the roofs of the houses, reached us and hurt many people. I have tried in vain through French and Spanish officials to have the inhabitants cease fire, but the bearers of these words of peace have been received with rifle shots, ”detailed the report of the enemy collected by Guerrero.

In view of the situation, Belliard’s order to build the huge complex came about like this: “You must take command of the Retiro[[general lagrange]and consider it as a dependent citadel of the Plaza de Madrid under the command of Grouchy ». The following day, the latter stressed: «His Imperial Highness orders that the entire administration be established in El Retiro. You should particularly take care of the establishment of the Retreat, which from this moment must be considered a French colony. It is necessary that this citadel shake the town and that it can safely house all the French if the circumstances require that the troops leave to dispel some concentrations ». And later an unknown captain Boulart recounted in his memoirs: «I was in charge of the armament of the Retiro fortifications, which had been set at 50 fire hydrants, a high number, because it wanted to contain the population of Madrid by means of vigorous measures […]. The temperature was 28 degrees in the shade, and all work was done in this sun. “

Plan of the Retiro and Fortifications qe. the French made in the Years of 1808, 1809, 1810, 1811, 1812 and 1813
Plan of the Retiro and Fortifications qe. the French made in the Years of 1808, 1809, 1810, 1811, 1812 and 1813 – LIBRARY OF THE MINISTRY OF DEFENSE

Napoleon’s men soon built a gigantic fortification on that site, so large that it almost completely occupied the famous park, now considered Madrid’s main lung. A complex of which there is absolutely nothing left today. We know of its existence, in fact, thanks to a series of graphic documents that reveal the enormous number of soldiers that inhabited it and the activity that it concentrated.

It became the French headquarters, from where the French commanders made the main decisions regarding the occupation of the city and the country. It is hard to imagine such facilities today, with their streets, houses and warehouses full of batteries and artillery pieces, in a haven of peace such as the famous 1,180,000-square-meter park. Murat also built a large citadel within it, taking advantage of the fact that it was one of the highest points in the city of Madrid.

The facilities erected in the Retiro Park were so large that more than 2,000 soldiers lived in them until the end of the War of Independence in 1814. Six years in which they even had to draw the plans of the place, for the record. of the roads, gardens and houses built inside, with the aim that the military did not get lost walking inside. All this while in the rest of the city the news of the confrontations followed one another with expressions like this collected by the «Diario de Madrid»: «In all the neighborhoods, the people of Madrid murdered the French they found alone».

Since it was raised in June 1808, the Gallic population that lived in the Retiro caused enormous damage to the famous park. Virtually every tree was pruned to feed their bonfires. The nerve center of the fortification was where the Fountain of the Fallen Angel is located today. But, after six years of bustling activity, the English took it upon themselves to make it disappear. Upon entering Madrid in support of the Spanish, the first thing they did was to march on the fort and raze it. They were aware that if they took it, they would take over the entire city. And when the latter left, the residents of Madrid went to El Retiro to finish destroying what was left standing. It had all been a nightmare and he wanted to get rid of any remnants of his remains.


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