The officer who has an absolute order to keep his post will do so at all costs”. This order is an excellent summary of what happened 124 years ago in the siege of Baler (June 1898 to June 1899) when a small group of Spanish soldiers led by Lieutenant Saturnino Martín Cerezo defended Spain’s sovereignty over the Asian archipelago for 337 days.
Monument to the heroes of Baler, in the Plaza del Conde del Valle de Súchil, in Madrid.
Their history, but above all their honour, will be remembered again this Thursday 2 June (the date of their retreat after hoisting the white flag in the church where they resisted) in the Conde del Valle Sunchil square in Madrid, where several people will gather at 20:00 at the foot of the sculpture of the Heroes of Baler, the work of the sculptor Salvador Amaya, who will attend the event. Since 2020 the Chamberí district has been home to this monument that pays tribute to those who went down in history as The Last of the Philippines.
The heroes of Baler
The author of Los últimos de Filipinas. Mito y realidad del sitio de Baler, Miguel Ángel López de la Asunción, explains that military personnel who were not members of the so-called Baler detachment took part in the defence, as well as three Franciscan monks. “Although it may be hard to believe, the famed 33 survivors of the siege of Baler were actually 35”, López de la Asunción points out.
The detachment had 56 men, including lieutenants Juan Alfonso Zayas and Saturnino Martín Cerezo. Of the 50 soldiers, two of them deserted before the siege began; thirteen of those soldiers had participated in previous sieges during the insurgency, so they brought their experience of the terrain and customs of the enemy to bear in these circumstances. “These soldiers broadly represented Spanish society at the time”, notes López de la Asunción in his article Claves para la exitosa defensa de la posición de Baler.
Among the fifty or so soldiers who took part in the fierce defence were at least sixteen volunteers who, before throwing themselves into the front line of combat, were engaged in different professions: farmers, stonemasons, locksmiths, cooks, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, doctors, labourers, bakers, tailors, servants, milliners, shoemakers, among others. The variety of these men during the resistance “enriched with greater resources an enterprise to which each contributed his best qualities in pursuit of a common goal”, the article continues.
Among the soldiers who were not members of the detachment were Captain Enrique de las Morenas, the provisional medical lieutenant Rogelio Vigil de Quiñones and the medic Bernardino Sánchez Caínzos. De las Morenas, Zayas and Martín Cerezo were able to maintain the unity and discipline of the group, becoming “true fathers to their subordinates”, as some of the survivors’ correspondence attests. The three Franciscans who were in the church of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in Baler acted with the same paternity and service: Fathers Gómez-Carreño, López and Minaya (the latter two were part of the group of survivors) who assisted at all times with spiritual support, as well as caring for the sick.
The fierce resistance
They were outnumbered by their opponents and the increasingly organised attacks by the Filipino rebels intensified the siege. The lack of fresh food was beginning to be felt despite the fact that the garrison doctor had managed to build a small vegetable garden near the church, and the psychological punishment to which the entire detachment was subjected due to the prolonged siege was beginning to weaken them. This situation meant that the document that arrived from the Philippine Parliament communicating the signing of the Treaty of Paris and, consequently, that the Philippines was no longer Spanish, produced more mistrust than hope, as they had already been deceived by the Filipinos on other occasions. The continuous clashes wore down the forces of the Spanish soldiers, and after 282 days of resistance they finally ran out of food. However, they continued to hold out, convinced that they were still protecting Spanish territory.
Doctor Rogelio Vigil de Quiñones (left), Corporal Jesús García Quijano (centre) and Second Lieutenant Saturnino Martín Cerezo (right). Photograph taken on 2 September 1899 in Barcelona.
Wary of the news of Spanish defeat, the soldiers of Baler continued to defend the siege. After 11 months in the Philippine village church, at the end of May 1899, after another attempt to make the Spanish soldiers give up their resistance and return to Manila, Lieutenant Martin Cerezo discovered a news item in the newspapers that could not have been an invention of the islanders, which made him recognise and realise, definitively, that the previous warnings that Spain no longer possessed sovereignty over the Philippines were true and that there was no point in continuing to resist in the church. Finally, on 2 June 1899, after hoisting the white flag in the church and hearing the bugle call to attention, the Spanish detachment in Baler surrendered after 337 days.
General Emilio Aguinaldo himself, the first president of the Philippine Republic, recognised in his decree of 30 June 1899 that “that handful of isolated men, without hope of any help, who had defended their flag for a year, had earned the admiration of the world for their courage, constancy and heroism, carrying out an epic so typical of the legendary courage of the sons of El Cid and Pelayo”. He ordered that they should not be considered prisoners and that they should be allowed to return to Spain.
This post was translated from:
Durwin, S. (2021) ‘Los héroes de Baler: una resistencia «propia del valor de los hijos del Cid y de Pelayo»’, El Debate, Madrid, 2 June. Available at: https://www.eldebate.com/historia/20220602/heroes-baler.html (Accessed: 2 June 2022).