Spanish Recruits in the British Army 1812 - 1814
"I never saw better, more orderly, perfectly sober soldiers in my life, and as vedettes, the old German Hussar did not exceed them." -Sir Harry Smith, 95th Rifles
One of the little known episodes of the Peninsular War was the active recruitment of Spanish men into the British Army in 1812 and 1813. For years the British looked with disdain at their Spanish counterparts and for most officers, it was unthinkable to have them in their regiments. As late as 1811, the Duke of Wellington was opposed to the idea. This negative attitude carried over into the 20th Century and neither Sir Charles Oman, in his definitive work on the Peninsular War, nor John Fortescue, in his massive study of the British Army, mentions their recruitment. But enlisted they were; and in some cases, almost 35% of the unit's recruits in 1812 were Spanish. By most accounts they served honorably.
The first question that must be asked is given the widespread scorn for the fighting abilities of the Spanish by the British officer corps, what were the circumstances that would drive them to recruit them into their regiments? It was a matter of numbers. The British had no conscription and relied upon volunteers to fill the ranks of its regiments. In 1811, the British Army serving overseas had 21,000 casualties. While this is small compared to the casualties of the French, Russians, or Austrians in 1805, 1807, or 1809, it placed an incredible strain on the British military system. In 1811, the British Army only recruited 26,000 men to replaced the 21,000 casualties, plus as replacements for ALL of the regiments on active duty, not just those serving in Spain and Portugal. To put it simply, the British Army was running out of men!
The situation in the first four months of 1812 placed a further strain on the system. Although Wellington gained two notable victories at the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, it was at a horrendous cost. During the two sieges, the British lost almost 4,000 of their own men not including Portuguese casualties. This was over 10% of Wellington's British soldiers before he fought a battle against the main French armies! Some of the best units in the army took tremendous losses and there were no replacements in sight. The two best divisions in the Army, the Light Division and the "Fighting" 3rd Division, were particularly hard hit. The 1/88 Regiment (the Connaught Rangers) lost 25% of their men and 14 of 24 officers in the two sieges. The 1/95 Rifles were in worse shape. Their strength at the beginning of 1812 was about 700 officers and men. By the time Badajoz was captured the 1/95th had 16 officers and 198 soldiers killed or wounded; a staggering 30% casualties!
These figures of course, only account for combat casualties. If 1812 was going to be anything like 1811, Wellington had to be worried! For by the Autumn of 1811, the British Army had almost 17,000 troops or 45% of the British troops in hospitals!
Nor could Wellington hope for reinforcements. There were less than 30,000 regular troops left in the British Isles. Many of the battalions were depots for their sister battalions and they were hard press to provide replacements, no less whole units. War with the United States was looming on the horizon and by July, Great Britain was once again fighting her former colonies. This ended any hope of major reinforcements for Wellington. In 1812, the British Army in the Peninsula was reinforced by only 3 cavalry regiments, one artillery battery, and an infantry battalion! This infantry battalion however, was considered so unfit for active service, it was sent to Gibraltar to free a more season battalion for the field.
A Deal is Struck
Wellington realized that he would have to find troops elsewhere. When it was first proposed in 1811, he was adamantly opposed, but by mid-1812 he had no choice. According to William Napier, an agreement was reached that in exchange for "a grant of one million of money, together with arms and clothing for one hundred thousand men, in return for which five thousand Spanish were to be enlisted for the British ranks." On 18 May 1812, Wellington sent the following letter to all of his divisional commanders:
Form of Attestion:
In communicating this arrangement to the several regiments, I request you to point out to the commanding officers of regiments how desirable it is that these volunteers should be treated with the utmost kindness and indulgence, and brought by degrees to the system of discipline of the army.
It is uncleared from this letter which regiments were authorized to enlist the Spaniards, since the units noted in the margins were not mentioned in the Dispatches. However in a letter to his brother, Sir Henry Wellesly, dated 27 May 1812, he states:
From these numbers it appears that Wellington authorized every British Guards and line regiment serving in his army to recruit up to 100 Spaniards. At this time, a British regiment serving on active duty usually only consisted of one battalion. There were 41 line battalions in the eight divisions of his army. Unfortunately he does not state why he forbade the foreign regiments (King's German Legion, the Brunswick Oels, and the Chasseurs Britanniques) to recruit them.
The Recruiting Parties Are Sent Out.
It is difficult to determine how Wellington's letter to his division commanders was received by the regiments, for very few of the officers and men who left memoirs, diaries, and letters, mention the Spanish recruits or actually served in a recruiting party. However, the project did not bring in the numbers that Wellington wanted. General William Wheatley, a brigade commander in the 1st Division, wrote on 27 June 1812
The Light Division was more successful. William Surtees, of the 2nd Battalion 95th Rifles, reported that:
William Napier, of the 43rd Regiment, who was initially very optimistic about the recruitment, wrote in a letter to his wife on 3 June1812:
Edward Costello, of the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, was a bit more successful:
By early July 1812, Wellington was ready to admit defeat in the project and wrote to the Military Secretary to the Duke of York, Colonel Henry Torrens, on 7 July:
Wellington may have been premature in his pessimism. George Hennell, of the 43rd Regiment, wrote home on 19 September 1812, that his regiment had 12 Spaniards. By the end of the year the 95th Rifles had recruited 46 Spaniards into its 1st Battalion, none into its 2nd Battalion (William Surtee's unit), and 9 into the 3rd Battalion. The Spanish recruits for the 1st Battalion comprised 34% of all replacements for the battalion in 1812! Things went better in 1813 for the Rifles. Willoughby Verner, in his History of the Rifle Brigade reported that when the campaign began in May, 1813 the Regiment had "134 recruits joined (mostly Spaniards)". Edward Costello reported that by 1814, 16 Spaniards had served in his company, but only 5 had survived the war.
Their Performance as Soldiers
Very few eyewitness reports survive detailing the performance of these Spanish soldiers. It must have been fairly good, since many were promoted to corporal. Sir Harry Smith, 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, gave them the following glowing praise:
Sergeant Edward Costello, 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, left the following description of one of the Spaniards in his company:
The Spaniards are Discharged
One of their conditions of service was that once the war in the Peninsula was over, all Spanish soldiers serving with in British regiments would be discharged and not be required to serve elsewhere. There is some question on whether this occurred in late 1813 when the Allied forces moved into France, or in 1814 after peace was declared and the British Army departed for the British Isles or other locations. Whatever the date, the Spaniards were released and in at least the 95th Rifles, their parting was not a happy one for either side. Once again Sergeant Costello records what happened:
So closed a little known story of the Napoleonic Wars. The number of Spaniards who served in the British Army in the Peninsula will probably never be known. William Napier, in his History of the War in the Peninsula states that no more than 300 served and these primarily in the Light Division. All evidence supports his claim. Those who served, were noted by their British counterparts for their steadiness, courage, and devotion to duty. Not bad traits in any soldier!
Contributors: This article demonstrates how effective the internet can be as a research tool. I first came interested in the Spanish recruits when I was reading Verner's History of the Rifle Brigade and came across a section dealing with replacements for the year 1812. There he mentioned that the Rifles had varying success in recruiting Spanish. This sparked my curiosity and I posted the question on the History Forum of the Napoleon Series. Several readers provided clues for further research and even did some research for me. I would like to thank the following for their assistance: Howie Muir, and Dean Carpenter. I must give special thanks to Rory Muir for pointing me in the direction of Napier and Costello; and to Ron McGuigan, who spent many hours tracking down obscure references for me and provided invaluable insights on the problems of finding replacements for Wellington's army!
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Placed on the Napoleon Series: 2000; updated August 2016.
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