Siege of Baler

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The Siege of Baler was the last stand of Spanish forces in the Philippines. It is one of the world’s longest in recorded history, and its lessons turned into a survival manual in the United States’ West Point.

The town of Baler, located on the eastern coast of the island of Luzon is quite isolated from the nation's capital city, Manila, some 225 kilometers distant. In 1898, it was reachable only by ship or by traversing on foot through nearly impassable jungle trails that were often washed out by torrential tropical rains.

The commander of a fifty-seven-man Spanish detachment of the Second Expeditionary Rifle Battalion, Captain Enrique de Las Morenas y Fossi, knew nothing of the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Cavite by Commodore George Dewey on 1 May 1898. As they were cut off from communications with their government and the military, they were not aware that the Spanish-American War had ended. They continued their heroic defense against the Philippine forces.

Fully aware of the threat posed by Filipino insurgents in northern Luzon, Captain Las Morenas began to dig a well on 1 June 1898 and started stocking food supplies and ammunition. He also started to fortify the church compound of San Luis de Toledo in Baler's town square against a possible attack. The church was the only stone building in the area.

Las Morenas received a report on 28 June 1898 saying that the town residents had fled into the surrounding jungle. The following day, Filipino troops bombarded the church with their “Lantaca” cannons made of hollowed-out palm tree trunks strengthened with bands of iron. They caused little damage to the building but made a tremendous noise when they hit the church's metal roof.

The town's priest, Father Candido Gomez Carerro, carried a flag of truce which also bore a message from Filipino commander Colonel Calixto Villacorte who had a force of 800 men. His note said, in part, "surrender now and you will be treated as gentlemen and if you do not, I will leave no stone standing in your stronghold."

The Spanish held on to their fortress for the next 337 days despite continuous assaults and worsening conditions inside the church. The church building was small. Its windows and doors were shut and there was little air circulating. The heat and humidity and the stench from latrines in the churchyard magnified the problem. Deafening missiles were showered on them every day.

The food supply began to diminish through usage and spoilage. Diseases such as beriberi, dysentery, and fevers did more damage than enemy rifle fire.

In September, Captain Las Morenas came down with beriberi. His second in command, Lt. Juan Alonzo Zayas, died of wounds. Command fell to Lt. Saturnino Martin-Cerezo.

By the middle of November, Villacorte left newspapers on the church steps. It featured the story of Spain's planned departure from the Philippines as the war between the Spanish and the Americans was over. Lt. Martin-Cerezo refused to believe it thinking it was simply a Filipino ruse.

Villacorte brought in Spanish civilians and a uniformed Spanish officer to wrap up Spain's affairs on the island. However, the Lieutenant thought that they were just Spanish turncoats in the employ of the Filipinos.

With 35 Spanish left, Martin-Cerezo embarked on a bold plan to replenish the dwindling supply of food. He sent Privates Chamiso and Alcaide into a nearby house and set it afire. The fire spread to adjoining houses used by Filipino troops. They were forced to move further from the church. The fire also burned trees that deprived the Filipinos of needed cover. In the confusion of the fire, the Spanish recovered a considerable amount of food as well as vegetable seeds.

On 10 December 1898, the Treaty of Paris which transferred the Philippines to the US for a payment of USD 20 million, was signed. Spanish defenders at Baler were technically fighting to defend US territory.

In April 1899, Lt. Commander James Gilmore and US Marines from the gunboat USS YORKTOWN attempted to rescue the Spanish. However, shortly after coming ashore, they were ambushed by Filipino forces.

By May, the Filipinos had more modern artillery. One of their shells hit the improvised cell that held three Spaniards who had attempted to desert earlier in the siege.

On 28 May 1899, another Spanish officer appeared under a flag of truce and was turned away. He left among other items, a copy of a Madrid newspaper which the lieutenant dismissed as bogus. The paper contained a special column concerning an upcoming wedding of a fellow officer he knew in Malaga. He realized that the paper he held in his hand was genuine and that Spain indeed had lost the war.

On 2 June 1899, he communicated to the Filipinos that he was ready to give up the fortress-church he held for so long. On 1 September 1899, he and 32 other survivors arrived in Barcelona where they were received and honored as heroes. Of the 57 men who entered the church of Baler, 35 survived the siege that lasted for 337 days. 19 men died, fifteen from diseases. Only two men died from wounds, the only battle casualties. 5 men deserted the garrison. Two men – Antonio Menache Sanchez and Vicente Gonzalez Toca – were imprisoned at the baptistery of the church for helping in the desertion of Alcaide and executed on orders of Cerezo.




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