Soldiers of Misfortune

 the history of mercenaries

The First Carlist War

Sell-off and annihilation of the Foreign Legion

After the Napoleonic wars European powers largely abandoned the use of mercenaries. These soldiers found a certain amount of compensation through colonial service and small proxy wars and revolutions, conflicts in which the great powers abstained from direct intervention. In such a climate, the First Carlist War in Spain (1833-1839) proved to be an irresistible attraction. Its official cause was a dispute over the throne between Carlos, the brother of the late king, and his widow, (Maria) Christina, who led the regency for her underage daughter Isabella. Far more important, however, than these dynastic quarrels were the enormous tensions between liberals and conservatives. To the regent Christina rallied the liberal bourgeoisie of the cities, while also keeping the army on her side. Carlos was supported by the conservative nobility, the clergy and the secessionist rural population in the Basque Country and Navarre. Both sides, especially the Christinos, were weakened by corrupt favoritism, zealous fanatics, inept military commanders, and they therefore looked abroad for support.

First Carlist War Liberal Infantry The Carlists were supported mainly by the conservative powers of the Holy Alliance (i.e. Russia, Austria and Prussia) and furthermore by Sardinia, Holland, and Naples. Support took the form of money, weapons and volunteers. Among these volunteers were many ultra-conservative aristocrats, who wanted to set out on a crusade against liberalism, but there were also young officers bored by tedious garrison duty and frustrated by the unlikelihood of promotion during peace time. As a result, the volunteers supporting the Carlists were never very numerous and arrived at their own expense.

The Christinos in contrast received from their protective powers of England, France and Portugal, not only money and weapons but also massive troop support. In order not to risk a larger military conflict with the Holy Alliance, this personnel support was restricted to newly recruited mercenaries who could passed off as "volunteers". A particularly bad reputation for looting and desertion had been acquired by the British or Westminster Legion, which consisted in good parts of Irishmen who had fled from famine and suppression. France took this opportunity to get rid of the Foreign Legion, which had made headlines after its formation in 1832 in Algeria, mainly through obscene drunken binges and mass brawls. As a result the Foreign Legion was not only sent off as support for the war, but was permanently ceded to Spain. The French officers were given the choice of taking their leave or remaining in France on half-pay, while the rank and file were not asked, but were sold off in good old mercenary tradition.

Much has been written about the performance of the Foreign Legion in Spain and some authors have spared no effort in glorifying it as truly heroic. But the writings of historian Douglas Porch and the memoirs of those involved draw quite a different picture.

Carlists shooting prisoners Immediately after the arrival of the Foreign Legion in Tarragona in August 1835, its commander Colonel Bernelle abolished the former division of the Legion into battalions along national lines. It had all too often been the cause of serious brawls and was difficult to maintain due to the uneven supply of recruits. Then the Legion was deployed against the Carlists in Navarre and Aragon. The war was waged by both sides with utmost cruelty. Prisoners were rarely taken, and after the Carlists ordered any foreigners to be shot without mercy, the legionnaires killed all of the Carlists who fell into their hands. Because the rural population was largely Carlist, a brutal guerrilla war was also waged in the hinterland. Legionnaires were murdered and mutilated, and their comrades in turn tortured farmers and burned villages and fields.

But above all else, the legionnaires overindulged the great passion of all mercenaries: looting. When invading abandoned towns such actions were officially forbidden, but the legionnaire Gottlieb von Rosen commented aptly in his memoirs: "Which meant under such circumstances something like: don't go too far." He witnessed scenes which reminded him of the "lansquenets of the Middle Ages." Not only did the legionnaires devour all the food and drink they could lay their hands on, they also ensured that anything that could not be taken with them was destroyed. In a small town, a group grilled a pig on a fire made out of valuable books from the library; others roasted an ox in the marketplace on a huge bonfire of fine furniture. In some streets the wine ran in the gutters and a legionnaire even drowned in a flooded wine cellar because it was good practice to open the barrels with musket shoots. Valuables, if they were not made of gold or silver, were of little use to the legionnaires. Thus the silken robe of a statue of the Virgin Mary was used for diapers by a pretty sutler, "whom the Lord had endowed a few weeks earlier with a little soldier", as Rosen remarks. No officer was to be seen; they had retreated to the finer houses where they did the same undisturbed.

When the legionnaires had their reins loosened a bit, they transformed almost instantly into an unbridled soldiery. In their case, alcohol was the point around which everything else revolved. Their greatest praise for a new location was always that the wine was good and cheap. As drinking buddies they appreciated Spanish muleteers, because these could hold almost more than a legionnaire. Everything possible was converted into wine and drunk as soon as possible. A German officer wrote that one hour after the weekly wages were paid almost all the legionnaires were lying dead drunk in the gutters, and were completely broke for the remainder of the week until the next binge. He came to the final verdict: "The trooper cannot tolerate any money in his pocket, it presses and it burns him until it's wasted."

Many of the problems that had seemingly been overcome with the military reforms of the Napoleonic era resurfaced in this cruel and chaotic war. But there was at least one thing that distinguished the Foreign Legion from similar formations: it was a regular elite unit. During offensives the legionnaires formed the vanguard, while in retreats they took up the rear. Many times their fierce bayonet charges or their stubborn endurance in desperate situations saved the day. But this was not due to the profound patriotism of the Basques or the idealism of the European volunteers. The wild bunch which had formed in Algeria had been transformed to a unit of seasoned veterans. They were accustomed to hardships and to cohesion in combat. Also of importance was the trust they placed in their sergeants, officers and commanders. Ultimately it was this experience and command structure that made the difference between the Foreign Legion and other formations which had been swiftly assembled in London and Paris.
Foreign Legion in the Carlist War

But even here some things were amiss. Many officers who had obtained their posts through privilege and patronage distinguished themselves with their negligence, arrogance and corruption. Rosen complained several times about these "miserable wretches". An officer entirely to the taste of the legionnaires was Captain Johan Albrecht Hebich. As a former cavalry officer of the German Kingdom of Württemberg he had fought under Napoleon in Russia, before his restlessness had driven him to join the Revolution in Greece until he finally ended up in the Foreign Legion. He was violent, drunken, stubborn, undisciplined and lazy, but ferocious in battle. He carried scars from numerous conflicts and duels, spoke little French and had "the unlimited devotion of his soldiers." Once during a retreat his company was cut off and attacked by an overwhelming enemy force. Despite severe losses the legionnaires under his leadership beat off one attack after another. When Rosen reported the death of a sub-lieutenant Hebich replied: "Silly fool, here nobody dies, he has only gone on ahead of us." His words were understood by the legionnaires and they held until relief came.

Probably the best example of the importance of the officers is the attitude of the legionnaires towards their two commanders Bernelle and Conrad. Bernelle, the first in command, was certainly a brave officer but was hated by the rank and file above all for his pomposity and arrogance. Like so many other leaders of mercenaries throughout history he enriched himself with food and other supplies, and furthermore promoted visiting relatives from France to officers. The situation was worsened by his wife, who loved military pomp and ceremonies even more than Bernelle himself. While both held court at each garrison the legionnaires went hungry or had to bring out the lustre of their tattered uniforms for lavish parades. A very special bitterness was caused by the bonus Regent Christina paid for every legionnaire upon their arrival in Tarragona, which Bernelle kept with the not entirely unjustified argument that he wanted to avoid an orgy lasting days. Again and again, especially when their salaries were yet again blown, the legionnaires brought up these 25 francs, and all the drunkenness they could have afforded with them.

Camp of Liberal soldiers In the course of the campaign Bernelle got the idea to form a corps of lancers, not least because cavalry was much more prestigious and glamorous. After the Spanish government refused to fund his new project, he simply used the withheld bonuses and declared that the legionnaires had voluntarily waived them. To endow the parades so beloved by his wife with the necessary lustre, he want as far as procuring resplendent Uhlan uniforms, all with the money of the legionnaires. Rosen called the cavalry "a toy for the vain Bernelle and his dame." That Bernelle and some of the officers also earned good money trading horses and equipment is self-evident.

Colonel Conrad however was of a totally different kind, having first led a battalion before becaming Bernelle's successor when the latter was dismissed for embezzlement. As an old warhorse from the Napoleonic wars he liked to drink with common soldiers, and on marches he could be heard encouraging Germans and Swiss in his Alsatian dialect, while in battle he always led the charge with his legionnaires. These men called him "father" and had gone through fire for him.

Nevertheless, this proved to be not enough. The Foreign Legion was worn out between the major offensives and the guerrilla war in the mountains. In rain and snow the Legion fought in the Pyrenees, fell into ambushes and struggled for single mountaintops. One legionnaire described a march in terrible cold. First, the steady rain turned into snow and at night the soaked clothes of the soldiers froze to their bodies. Eventually, completely exhausted, the men managed to fall asleep in the freezing mud, but come morning many didn't wake up and those who did were sick. The battalions slowly crumbled, and despite some reinforcements from France Conrad had to reduce the original six battalions to three. But along with the Legion's fighting strength the interest of the Christinos also faded. More often than not pay and rations were late or failed to materialise at all. The legionnaires went around in rags, suffered from cold and hunger and even had to renounce their weekly drunkenness. Increasingly they felt betrayed and sold out. Even the reassurances of their "father Conrad" couldn't lift their mood. More and more they depended on village raids to collect pay and food, but even these were no replacement for a regular supply.

Carlist Guerilla While the legionnaires' misery grew farmers secretly distributed pamphlets from the Carlists, in which each defector was promised regular pay and good food. What do mercenaries do in such situations? What they have always done: they defect to the enemy, even if some military "historians" tell totally different stories. So writes the French George Blond: "Here a phenomenon became a reality which cannot be explained by the laws of historical materialism: not a single legionnaire went over to the enemy." Of course this is all nonsense, a mindless hero cult, which does the Legion no justice. They went over by the score. If it is considered that in the beginning there had been only a few defectors but that finally nearly half of all legionaries had deserted, it becomes clear that there must have been a kind of mass desertion in the final stages. The rate increased slowly as frustration and discontent grew. When the supply situation become more and more disastrous the legionnaires even fled "in droves", as Rosen reported. By the end the outposts had to be manned with NCOs, but even some of these went over to the enemy.

Soon the Carlists had so many defectors under their command they formed their own foreign legion. They called it the "Argelinos", after the veterans from Algeria, deserters from the French Foreign Legion who formed the core; there were also deserters from the British Legion and some international volunteers. A Prussian officer who served with the Carlists and participated in the formation of this legion gave some reports about it. Most of the defectors arrived almost naked and without shoes. Since they had blown most of their bonuses and pay on alcohol, they had equipped themselves with peasant clothes or uniform parts scavenged from the dead and presented an accordingly pathetic picture. Only a few had coats or blankets, and almost all wore hemp sandals. He described them as a wild and motley band of thieves, "whose only bond was the common tendency for robbing and stealing and all other imaginable excesses." For the officers it was hard work simply to keep this "horde" even half in order. In battle, they fought bravely in the hope of acquiring loot, but their own population feared them at least as much as the enemy. Severe punishments had to be foresaken, for otherwise their combat strength would have been seriously compromised. The officers were therefore thankful for those daily skirmishes which could calm these frantic men down a little.

Battle iin the First Carlist War In June 1837, the two foreign legions clashed in the battle of Barbastro. The French Legion had by now shrunk to a single struggling battalion, which covered the left wing of the Christinian army. When the French advanced through an olive grove they suddenly heard German curses and recognized familiar faces. It was "the corps of our deserters, the Argelinos fierce pressing on us. This disgraceful offshoot of our once proud auxiliary corps was now stronger than the trunk," wrote Rosen. The Argelinos now asked their old comrades to switch sides as well, but received only curses in response. Then they exchanged fire, and after the opening salvo fought in close combat with rifle butts, bayonets and bare hands. The shooting, beating, stabbing and strangling stretched on for hours and was comparable in its mercilessness only with the battles between the Swiss and lansquenets in Italy. An officer experienced in many battles who observed the scene later wrote, obviously shaken, "In my eventful military life I have never, not earlier, not later, had such a bloody slaughter before my eyes as there. The soldiers recognised each other in battle, approached like old friends, talked and asked, and then shot each other down in cold blood."

Conrad fell in the front lines of his men, although the battle was lost anyway. At roll call the next day the Foreign Legion counted a total of 381 men. After two years this was the pitiful remnant of the 8,000 who had been sent to Spain with the subsequent reinforcements. After Barbastro the Legion was unusable, and the government completely lost interest in it and rescinded payment. Demoralised and begging, the last legionnaires languished for more than a year on the outskirts of Pamplona, until they were finally dismissed and sent back to France. From 875 Angelinos only 160 remained after Barbastro, and these were disbanded shortly after. So, in its last battle, the Legion had annihilated itself.