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Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic

Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic

Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic

John Marsden

Helion and Company (2021)

ISBN: 978-1-913118-98-3


Pages: 200

Images: 6 b/w illustrations, 8 colour plates, 9 b/w maps, 8 tables


Chapter 1: Napoleon Demands the Assistance of Spanish troops in the Baltic Region.

Chapter 2: The Story of Brother James Robertson, British Agent.

Chapter 3: The Revolt of La Romana’s Army in the Baltic.

Chapter 4: The British Naval Operation in the Baltic.

Chapter 5: The Men Left Behind in Denmark.

Chapter 6: The Transportation of La Romana’s Troops to Spain and the Battle of Espinosa.

Chapter 7: La Romana in the Wilderness, January 1809 to January 1811.

Chapter 9: Formation of the Régiment Joseph-Napoleon.

Chapter 10: Notes on the Russian Campaign by Manuel López and Rafael de Llanza.


The book forms part of the Helion Falconet series, which is roughly comparable in size or larger than an Osprey Campaign, with 6 black and white and 8 colour images, accompanied by general maps of strategic situations and breakdowns of the compositions of the regiments involved and where they were posted. Additionally other breakdowns represent casualties and prisoners of war.

Napoleon’s Stolen Army is the story of an event that is not easily found on the map; a place off the tourist trail so to speak. Here, in a scenario that sounds more like something out of the Second World War than the Napoleonic, a division of what might be called some of Spain’s best regular troops, that had been sent to serve with the army of Napoleon as an allied contingent escaped from the Danish coast and was sailed back to Spain by the Royal Navy.

This dramatic incident is not forgotten or unknown, it is mentioned in many books, but the detail is often sacrificed for the bottom line. After some initial service alongside their French allies as per the treaty of San Ildefonso, the Spanish division under the Marqués de La Romana, entered a period of crisis. Already mostly dissatisfied with their French allies, whom, most witnesses confirm, were loathed by the Spanish, news filtered through the French censors that some manner of revolution had occurred in Spain, and that they now served King Joseph Bonaparte. At this moment La Romana looked like he was about to face a mutiny.

After calming the passions of his regiments, the Marqués quietly began to look at his options. He had word from the British that they would help him escape, but it would take careful planning as Marshal Bernadotte’s army effectively had him trapped in Jutland. With the Marshal pressing the Spaniards to take their new oath of allegiance, La Romana settled on a plan to get his troops off the Jutland peninsula and onto the island of Funen and thence to Langeland where he could safely embark his men onto Admiral Keats ships which would take the division to Sweden.

Although not everyone got away, and indeed the level of patriotic fervor was not quite what it has been made out to be, a certain percentage quite content with the more liberal regime in Spain and indeed even La Romana’s motivations are not all that clear, (his decision to escape perhaps being a matter of escaping a lynching) the operation was successfully carried out and the division was shipped back to Spain. The book is also highly interesting for its portrayal of Spanish troops abroad on campaign.

John Marsden’s work, being the only one available that looks at the event as a central subject, is solidly based on the testimony of Spanish officers, and Royal Navy and diplomatic records, as well as local accounts from Danish citizens and French officers, all coming together to present a gripping and enlightening read. Although Helion’s Falconet titles do not include an index, there are ample footnotes and a bibliography, plus maps and some excellent images. They are also relatively easy to navigate when looking for references.

Although many might assume the escape of the Spanish from Jutland is a key part in the wider Peninsula War it’s effect on that theatre is somewhat difficult to ascertain in that the addition of La Romana’s veteran forces to the struggle in 1809 was certainly valuable, but they were obviously unable to thwart the French invasion.

Where the real importance of this event lies is in the context of the Baltic theatre and giving the Royal Navy an opportunity to inflict losses on the French, not by killing men, but by literally removing them from their army. At this time Britain was allied with Sweden, which was facing an invasion of Finland from Russia who, like Denmark and (ostensibly) Spain were allied to Napoleonic France. The successful extraction of so many men reinforced British control over the Baltic Sea at a precarious time.

Placed within its zone of importance, the La Romana affair can now be properly understood and investigated. But Marsden does not stop there, he goes above and beyond in ‘Stolen Army,’ not only telling us what happened to La Romana’s force when they got back to Spain but what happened to the sizeable contingent that was unfortunately left in Denmark. The story, as usual is driven by eyewitness testimony, especially those of two officers who were left behind.

Despite the common Anglocentric claim that the Spanish were a spent force by 1800, all who encountered La Romana’s division praised its discipline and spirit, even if its equipment was thought relatively poor. It might well be said that the cream of Spanish regular arms was sent to Denmark prior to the uprising in 1808. Napoleon was quick to see this as well and as Marsden shows us, he formed a new unit out of the prisoners La Romana left behind.

Easily the most fascinating portion of the book, therefore, is the last chapter, Notes on the Russian Campaign by Manuel López and Rafael de Llanza, officers of the newly formed Regiment of Joseph-Napoleon, 2 battalions of which served in Russia in 1812 (3 being formed all together), seeing action or observing operations at Vitebsk, Smolensk, Borodino, Mojaisk, Vinkovo, Maloyaroslavets and Krasny and into 1813-14. The accounts from these officers give a new and unique perspective of the famous campaign and reinforce the fact that Napoleon’s empire was not a French monolith, but indeed a species of coalition.

Napoleon’s Stolen Army is an excellent account of a celebrated but at the same time somewhat obscure part of the Napoleonic Wars and delivers all one might want in terms of study and non-fiction reading.

Josh Provan

August 2021