The Unbelievable Story Of The Siege Of Baler (Part 1)
by Jose Maria A. Cariño
The Katipuneros had neither the weapons nor enough men to engage the Spanish detachment in Baler. However, while the country enjoyed some peace and order because of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, Teodorico Luna N ovicio, the group's leader, was already recruiting as many as he could among the Baler town folks. The Katipunan was also recruiting soldiers from the people of Caranglan, Pantabangan, and Bongabon.
It had been two months since the detachment received any communications from outside Baler. All efforts by the Spanish detachment to communicate with the other detachments proved futile as Teodorico and his men intercepted all their mail and messages. All the time he pretended to be cooperating with the Spaniards, respecting the pact, when he was actually making his own preparations for the siege. Moises, another leader of the Katipuneros, kept up the pretense by working with the Spaniards during Teodorico's absence because the latter went to fetch arms for the attack. When the Spaniards could not find Teodorico, they asked his neighbor (who was Teodorico's lieutenant), Moises Sison, if he had a trusted person who could bring a message to the governor of San Isidro for forwarding to Manila. Moises promptly presented Ramillo, who was then entrusted with a coded telegram that he tied to his thigh, explaining that if the Katipuneros caught him, they would not be able to find the telegram. Ramillo returned to Baler claiming that he could not go through because the Katipuneros discovered the message and tore it up when they could not understand it.
Two sailboats arrived from Binangonan to sell rice to the people of Baler. The Spaniards convinced and paid the crew to bring another message to the detachment in that town. They accepted the message and sailed, leaving the Spaniards with hope of being rescued, but as soon as the boats left, the Spaniards were informed that the Katipuneros had taken over Binangonan.
Teodorico also planted two spies among the Spaniards to monitor their movements. They were kept as prisoners in the town jail and were moved to the town hall when the jail was burned down. On hindsight, Martin Cerezo wondered later why the two were not liberated during the first revolt of Baler, considering they were Balerenos. Captain de las Morenas took one of them, named Alejo, as his personal servant. As Alejo was free to roam around, he disappeared on 24 June and brought with him the saber of Dr. Rogelio Vigil de Quinones. De las Morenas asked Moises Sison to send someone to capture Alejo and Moises came back saying that Alejo had joined the revolutionaries in Pantabangan, and that the Katipuneros would be in Baler on 27 June to kill Teodorico, who had refused to rejoin the revolution. This elaborate ruse by the Katipunan had the Spaniards guessing what was going on and they only realized the truth when the town was abandoned by its inhabitants.
The First Casualty
Once all the Spanish soldiers were inside the safety of the Church, Captain de las Morenas positioned his soldiers in such a way that the church would be protected from all sides if the Katipuneros decided to attack.
A corporal and eight soldiers were assigned to the trenches outside the church to defend the two doors. The rest were distributed between the large and small windows. Two of the best sharpshooters were assigned to the tower, the most dangerous position but also the one that had the best vantage position from which all the surrounding areas could be seen and from where even the enemy trenches could be gleaned. The Spaniards awaited the attack impatiently and were surprised when the cornet of the Katipuneros sounded a request for parlay.
Allowing the messenger to approach, they received a letter signed by Cirilo Gomez Colonel and Teodorico Luna persuading them to surrender so that they would be treated as prisoners of war and given protection according to the stipulations of international law. The letter informed them that the Katipuneros were loathe to shed blood, that it was useless to resist as most of the Spanish detachments had already surrendered, and that those who had yet to give up would soon surrender too. The Spaniards were further informed that the Katipuneros had the town surrounded with three companies, a force that would be more than enough to attack and take over the church. Captain de las Morenas and his soldiers scoffed at the letter and challenged the Katipuneros to attack anytime they wished because they would be repelled. The Spaniards thought that the Katipuneros were surprised at their temerity, which explained why no attack took place, when in truth the Katipunan did not have enough materials and soldiers to launch a massive attack. The Spaniards surmised correctly that the Katipuneros were gathering forces.
While they awaited the attack, the Spaniards built an oven for baking bread and a grill for roasting meat. They dug a well that at a depth of around two-and-a-half meters produced water. Earlier, when the Spaniards saw that the only defensible solid building in town was the church, they had asked Maestro Lucio if there was water around the church and he replied that there were digging efforts around the building but no water was found. They also barricaded the two doors and every window of the church, leaving very narrow openings from which they could fire back at the Filipinos. At the baptistery, they made small openings as defense.
On 3 July, the Katipuneros launched a small attack to heckle the besieged soldiers by firing several rounds from a distance. The Spaniards did not fire back in order to save ammunition as they could not get a sure shot. It was not until the 18th when Teodorico's request for reinforcements was answered with the arrival from Nueva Ecija of 800 Katipuneros and 137 Mauser guns. This emboldened the revolutionaries so they undertook a massive attack on all sides of the church. Unfortunately, the walls of the church were quite thick and the bullets did not do any damage. Knowing this, the Spaniards again did not return fire and decided to just save their ammunition. However, one of the sharpshooters assigned at the tower, Julian Galbete Iturmendi, saw an opportunity to shoot at an exposed Filipino and fired his gun. Immediately the Katipuneros took aim at the tower and shot at it until it looked like a colander. One of the shots hit the barrel of the gun of Galbete and the bullet ricocheted into the right chest of the Spaniard. Mortally wounded, the soldier courageously asked his companion at the tower to take over his place, walked down the stairs calmly, and reported to Captain Morenas that he could no longer hold his position. Doctor Vigil de Quiñones dressed the wound and tried to save the life of the soldier, but on the 31 July, Galbete died and became the first casualty on the side of the Spaniards.
The Cat, The Mouse And The Waiting Game
On 18 July, the same day of the attack, the detachment received a letter from Father Leoncio Gomez Platero, who was assigned to Caranglan, asking them to surrender as had been done by many other detachments. The next day, Katipunero Calixto Villacorta again sent a message repeating the same request by Father Gomez and the reply of Captain de las Morenas was another resounding refusal and a promise that the Spaniards would rather die than surrender. on the 20th, an irked Villacorta launched another volley of shots on all sides of the church, again achieving nothing due to the church's thick walls. Knowing the futility of said attacks, Villacorta sent another message informing the Spanish soldiers that they would be willing to wait in siege as long as necessary, even if it took three years, until the Spaniards surrendered.
Villacorta received three cannons from the Katipuneros in Casiguran before the end of the month. On the 31 July, he tried another diplomatic ploy and asked the Spanish soldiers to surrender in 24 hours or else be bombarded, and the church would become nothing but rubble, with no stone left standing. To irk Villacorta, de las Morenas purposely waited five minutes before the end of the deadline to reply that the Katipuneros should begin the bombardment. To annoy the Spaniards, Villacorta purposely did not attack immediately, but instead waited for midnight to keep the Spanish soldiers at the edge of their nerves waiting for the cannons to fire and to disrupt their sleep. At midnight, the three cannons commenced firing from the east, south, and west sides of) the church. Each shot of the cannons was accompanied by a volley of fire from the guns of the Katipuneros and loud shouting from the revolutionaries. The Spanish soldiers grabbed their guns and ran to their respective positions, waiting for the Katipuneros to rush into the church. The revolutionaries knew that with the Spaniards' large supply of ammunitions and the strong fortifications of the church, the Katipuneros could suffer a grave loss of lives, thus they contented themselves to causing some damage to the walls, and greater damage to the doors and the windows of the church. The Spanish soldiers immediately repaired the damages. The bombardment went on for several days but not as intensely as the 1 August bombardment.
With nerves frayed by the constant siege, a quarrel broke out between two Spanish soldiers, Jaime Caldentey and Manuel Menor Ortega, on 3 August. De las Morenas punished the two offenders with four hours of watch duty for the graver offender Caldentey and two hours for Menor. The latter accepted the punishment meekly, but the former, while appearing to obey his superior, took his position at one of the openings and climbed down and surrendered himself to the Katipuneros, together with his gun and his allotted bullets. To test his loyalty, the Katipuneros forced Caldentey to join their artillery and help man one of the cannons. His luck ran out when after firing a shot, the recoil of the cannon mispositioned it and when Caldentey climbed out of the trench to help reposition it, he was killed instantly by a bullet coming from one of the windows of the church.
From 4th to the 7th of August there were no attacks, but the Katipuneros thought of a plan to attack the church at night under the mantle of darkness. The plan was to climb the wall of the church and burn the ceiling using petrol and cloth rags. At around eight o'clock in the evening, the Spaniards heard a loud voice, which appeared to be of one of the first Spanish soldiers to desert the detachment, Felipe Herreros who cried out,
"Cazadores, tonight you will all die, there will be no choice, so be careful."
While this appeared like a threat, it also sounded like a warning for the soldiers to be vigilant, thus the plan of the Katipuneros was foiled. At midnight, the sentry heard a faint noise coming from the zinc roof of the church and when he looked closely, he saw a bamboo ladder propped against the wall of the church. He warned the officials and he was ordered to fire at the ladder while the alarm was rung out and the soldiers took their positions in the church. The Katipuneros fled the scene, and the next morning, the Spanish soldiers found the abandoned petrol can, matches, and cloth rags. Frustrated about their foiled attempt to take over the church, the Katipuneros fired at the walls over the next few days. Due to the thickness of the walls, they only succeeded in slightly injuring one soldier, Pedro Planas, on 15 August.
Father Juan Lopez And Father Felix Minaya
In the meantime, while the Siege of Baler was ongoing, the Katipuneros attacked Casiguran on 20 July. The two Franciscan priests assigned their ran away separately to hide in the jungle and reunited in Colar where they had earlier agreed to meet should the town be attacked. They were, however, taken as prisoners and made to return to Casiguran, where they were held until the Katipunan decided to use them as emissaries to convince the Spanish soldiers in Baler to surrender. The two priests left Casiguran riding bancas on 16 August, their parishioners crying tears, fearing they would never see their priests again. They arrived at the cove of Baler on 19 August. The next day, the Katipuneros gave them instructions on what to say to the besieged soldiers inside the church. After further deliberation, the Katipuneros decided to send only one priest as negotiator, retaining the second as hostage. The Katipuneros asked permission twice before the Spanish side played its cornet and allowed the negotiator to proceed towards the church. Father Juan Lopez, led by a Katipunero waiving a white flag, was the first to enter the church. The Katipuneros then changed their minds and sent Father Felix Minaya into the church a few minutes later so that the two would try to convince the Spanish soldiers to give up their struggle. Inside the church, the priests recounted verbatim all the things that the Katipuneros asked them to tell Captain de las Morenas, who then asked the two priests if they actually sawall those victories claimed by the Katipuneros and if by their judgment everything about the defeat of the Spaniards at the hands of the Katipuneros were true based on information they had received. The two priests answered that they had only come from Casiguran, a town overtaken by the Katipuneros and could not be certain about other places. They also said that they gathered pieces of information from many sources but they could not confirm any of them as the sources were not that reliable, some of which were rumor and hearsay. De las Morenas decided that the priests would remain with them and that they should just wait for either the Spanish forces or the Americans (whoever was victorious) to rescue them. The two priests said that they were willing to stay but feared that if ever they fall in the hands of the Katipuneros they surely would be killed for not returning. De las Morenas and Lieutenant Zayas convinced them to remain, assuring them that they were safe inside the church, there was enough food and a doctor to cure them if they fell ill. The only one who did not wish for them to remain inside the church was Lieutenant Cerezo. In his book he wrote that the two priests were two more useless mouths to feed considering the dwindling supplies that they had.
Since the two priests did not return, the leader of the Katipuneros at the siege, Antonio Santos, asked for a dialogue with the Spanish soldiers. When given permission to approach the church, he asked for the priests to be returned and asked why they were not allowed to come out and inform them of the results of their mission. De las Morenas answered that the man they received as mediator was the one carrying the white flag and that they thought that the two priests were being surrendered because the Katipuneros did not have food to feed them. De las Morenas and his troops hoped that this would irritate the Katipuneros and cause them to launch another attack, but the Katipuneros reacted only by shouting and hurling insults at them and threatening them with all kinds of things if they surrendered, up until ten 0' clock in the evening, when they became finally hoarse from the effort.
It should be pointed out that leadership of the Katipuneros manning the trenches had changed hands several times. Teodorico led the attack at the start of the siege and when he left for Nueva Ecija to ask for more troops and arms, Lieutenant Colonel Cirilo Gomez took over. Seeing that he could not get the Spaniards to surrender, Gomez left Baler in frustration in July towards other missions where he certainly could find easier victories. Calixto Villacorta then took over. He too got tired of waiting for the obstinate Spaniards to surrender, and on 17 August he left Baler, bringing with him half of his troops and leaving an even more inexperienced Antonio Santos in charge of the siege. The Katipuneros thought that the Spaniards in the church were nothing but a bunch of hardheaded fools who, due to their ignorance, could not see the futility of what they were doing. This lack of enthusiasm for a frontal attack on the part of the Filipinos he Spaniards interpreted as cowardice. The Filipinos knew, however, that they had a bigger fight in their hands against the Americans and that they needed the arms and soldiers to fight the enemy that was ready to engulf the country.. The Filipino forces continued to dwindle, down to 200 men with only 70 guns, and they believed that this siege promised little benefit.. The Spaniards in the church were nothing more but an irritating itch that the Katipuneros were having a difficult time scratching as they did not want to risk men and weapons for such a useless and meaningless endeavor.. The Katipuneros had bigger fish to fry.
Smaller and Smaller Circles
The new man in charge of the siege, Antonio Santos, devised a plan to get closer to the church. To tighten the ring of Katipuneros surrounding the church and to ensure that nobody from inside the church could escape, Antonio Santos ordered that a new trench be dug at the back of the houses closest to the church, thus the Katipuneros were able to get as close as 15 meters. Seeing that the Filipinos were getting dangerously close, Lieutenant Cerezo ordered his soldiers to shoot at the slightest sound coming from that newly built trench. The trench was supposed to be extended all the way to the south of the church to form a circle, a dangerous development that Lieutenant Alonso knew must be stopped at all costs. The trench would have to go under the building that was used as the headquarters of the Guardia Civil, thirty meters from the church. To prevent the Katipuneros from closing the ring, the building had to be razed to the ground. For this mission, Lieutenant Alonso asked for a volunteer willing to burn it in the middle of the night. A soldier named Catalan stepped up to the mission. He got a bamboo cane, tied a piece of petrol-soaked rag at one end, and with matches in hand, set off in the evening of 2 September on his risky mission. Several soldiers positioned themselves at the south windows to cover him during his exit and return. The nipa roof of the building caught fire quickly and the wind blew in favor of the Spaniards, causing the nearby nipa-roofed school house to burn as well, and creating a clearing that favored the defensive position of the Spaniards. By the time the Katipuneros could react and shoot at the Spanish soldier, Catalan was safe, back inside the church.
On 6 September, there was an unexpected truce and dialogue between the two warring parties. Father Carreno and Lieutenant Alonso were in the trench near the church when the Katipuneros requested a dialogue. Lieutenant Canuto of the Katipuneros approached the two with a letter. Father Juan Lopez, who knew Lieutenant Canuto as one of his parishioners, came out of the church to greet Canuto. The latter offered the three Spaniards cigarettes and seeing that the conversation seemed friendly and in the hope that a surrender would occur soon, Captain Antonio Santos joined the group in order to encourage even further the surrender of the Spaniards. Seeing Captain Santos in the group, Captain de las Morenas decided to join the conversation, thus an impromptu meeting took place right in front of the church with the two groups separated only by the trench. As a sign of gallantry and friendship, Captain Santos told the Spaniards that they could gather some dalandan or native oranges from the many trees around the town plaza, which Captain de las Morenas and the Spaniards gladly accepted, bringing back with them three arrobas of the fruit. Again Captain Santos urged the Spaniards to surrender, citing the defeats that Spain was suffering all over the country. Captain Santos mentioned the fact that the U.S. was helping the Filipinos in these victories and that they would grant the Philippines independence. Captain de las Morenas answered that he did not believe Spain was losing the war and mentioned that should the Americans win, they would only enslave the Filipinos in the long run. Captain Santos insisted on their surrender and when he asked Captain de las Morenas what the decision was to his offer of safe passage should they surrender, Captain de las Morenas only grinned and replied,
"You go back to your trenches and we will stay in our church, so good bye and enjoy yourselves."
On 12 September, Captain Santos received the news that Colonel Villacorta was returning to Baler, so he ordered a volley of shots towards the church resulting in the slight injury of the Spanish soldier Juan Chamizo. On the day of the arrival of Colonel Villacorta, Captain Santos again ordered a more vigorous volley of shots, to show his leader that the Katipuneros were doing their tasks. Again the shots just hit the church without much damage and only one Spanish was wounded, Ramon Mir, who later recovered from the gunshot injury.
In Increase In Casualties
It was mid-September and the effects of over fifty people cooped up in a small space of approximately 300 meters with little ventilation due to the boarding up of the windows and doors as a defense, as well as the poor nutrition that the besieged men inside the church were getting from their food supplies, began to show when one by one the soldiers inside the church began to suffer from beriberi, a debilitating disease.
The first casualty from this disease was the parish priest Father Carreno who could not recover due to an intestinal flu that hit him at the same time as the beriberi. He died on 25 September and was buried at the church's presbytery. Three other soldiers were already suffering the same disease, resulting in the death of another soldier, Francisco Rovira y Mompo, who died on 30 September. On the same day, the Katipuneros gave Captain de las Morenas a letter from the former Spanish Governor of Nueva Ecija Dupuy de Lome, informing the Spanish captain that the Philippines no longer belonged to Spain. Although Captain de las Morenas was a friend of de Lome and familiar with his handwriting, he thought the letter spurious and treated it as another desperate effort from the Filipinos for the Spanish soldiers to surrender. This letter was followed by the surrender agreements of Juan Genova Iturbe, Captain Federico Ramiro de Toledo, Commander Ceballos in Dagupan (with 750 guns), and General Agusti whose wife was made prisoner by the Katipuneros. At this time, Teodorico was already in Baler and he forced Father Mariano Gil Atienza, parish priest of Palanan, to write the last letter that the Baler detachment received. In it Father Atienza stated that Spain had lost the Philippines, that it was useless to keep on fighting and that if they surrendered they would be treated well. During the siege, Father Atienza officiated the burial of four Filipino Katipuneros killed by the Spaniards.
By October, more Spanish soldiers suffered from beriberi, and on 9 October, Corporal Jose Chaves died. A few hours later, at ten in the morning of the 10th, another soldier, Ramon Donat, died of the sickness. To make matters worse, Doctor Vigil de Quinones was gravely wounded on the 13th while the soldier Ramon Mir suffered another slight injury and Lieutenant Cerezo a contusion. The next serious blow to the detachment was the death of Lieutenant Alonso Zayas, leaving Lieutenant Cerezo in charge of the detachment. On the 22nd, Jose la Farga died, then Ramon Lopez Lozano three days later. Seeing that the deaths were caused by the lack of sanitation and poor nutrition, improvements were made in the cleaning of their quarters, food in very bad condition was disposed and rations of food in good condition for the soldiers were increased. The additional food restored some of the strength and health of the soldiers. During this month, there were days when only 18 soldiers were able to fulfill their sentry duties inside the church, while the rest were greatly debilitated by beriberi. The only event that lifted the spirits of the Spanish soldiers during this month was the successful attack and burning of a house on the west side of the church, from which the Katipuneros would attack and create much damage. Two soldiers, Juan Chamizo and Jose Alcaide Bayona, undertook the operation.