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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

A Deal is Struck

Recruiting Parties

Their Performance




Spanish Recruits in the British Army 1812 - 1814

By Robert Burnham

"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:

The Spanish Government having been pleased to allow a limited number of natives of Spain to serve His Majesty in the British regiments composing this army, I have to request that you will authorize the regiments named in the margin to enlist and bear on their strength 100 Spanish volunteers, on the following conditions:

First; the men must not be under five feet six inches high, strongly made, and not under nineteen years of age, nor older than twenty seven.

Secondly; they are to be attested according to the following form by the commanding officer of the regiment to serve during the present war; but in case the regiment into which they shall enlist should be ordered from the Peninsula the Spanish volunteers are to be discharged, and each of them is to receive one month's full pay to carry him to his home.

Form of Attestion:

I, A.B. do make oath that I will serve His Majesty the King of Great Britain and Ireland, in the --- battalion of the --- regiment of foot, during the existing war in the Peninsula, if His Majesty should so long require my services, and provided that the --- battalion of the --- regiment shall continue in the Peninsula during that period.

Thirdly; they are to be allowed to attend Divine service according to the tenets of the Roman Catholic religion, in the same manner as British soldiers, His Majesty's subjects are.

Fourthly, they are to be fed, and clothed, and paid in the same manner as the other soldiers; and they are to be posted to companies indiscriminately, as any other recruits would be.

Fifthly; they are to receive pay from the date of their attestation, but no bounty. The captain of the company to which any of these volunteers shall be posted, will be allowed eight dollars for each to supply him with necessaries, from which must be purchased a knapsack, two pair of shoes, and two shirts. The officer commanding the company must be accountable to the volunteer for the residue of the sum after purchasing these articles in the same manner, as for his pay. The shoes may be received at the usual rate from the commissariat.

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:

". . . the Government of Spain having signified to Mariscal de Campo Don Miguel Alava their consent that His Catholic Majesty's subjects, to the number of 5,000 might be permitted to enlist into His Majesty's army serving in the Peninsula, I enclose the copy of a circular letter I have written to the General Officers commanding divisions to permit the regiments in their several divisions to enlist His Catholic Majesty's subjects, and specifying the terms on which the enlistment is to be made.

You will observe that this letter provides for enlisting 4100 men, which is all that I have thought it proper at present to allow of; and I have not allowed the foreign regiments in the British service to enlist any Spaniards."

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 Spaniards. .  . About a month since we were authorized and required to enlist 100 of these heroes into my regiment [1st Foot Guards]. Not  a man have we got though we held out a great bounty and treble the pay they would receive from their own Government.”

The Light Division was more successful. William Surtees, of the 2nd Battalion 95th Rifles, reported that:

"I was sent in company with another officer into the mountains of Gata, not far from the city of Placentia. We were not successful, for although we obtained the names of some who promised they would follow us to La Encina, none made their appearance."

William Napier, of the 43rd Regiment, who was initially very optimistic about the recruitment, wrote in a letter to his wife on 3 June1812:

"This plan of enlisting the Spaniards I think fails, at least hereabouts; the young men already have been swept away, and the people who do offer are very few and for the most part unfit. It becomes a very painful business; if we refuse them, their answer is that they must go and die, for that they had but strength sufficient to carry them to us, many not having eaten for several days before: their appearance fully justifies their words. We are too nice in our choice, and we want men taller than they grow in the country; for my part, I would take women sooner than none, as I think the time is too short to admit of being fastidious."

Edward Costello, of the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, was a bit more successful:

"Our regiments, by constant collision with the French, were getting exceedingly thinned, and recruits from England came but very slowly, until we found it necessary at last to incorporate some of the Spaniards; for this purpose several non-commissioned officers and men were sent into the adjacent villages recruiting. In the course of a short time, and to our surprise, we were joined by a sufficient number of Spaniards to give ten or twelve men to each company in the battalion. But the mystery was soon unraveled, and by the recruits themselves, who on joining gave us to understand, by a significant twist of the neck, and a 'Carajo' (much like the breaking of one), that they had but three alternatives to choose from, to enter either the British, or Don Julian's service, or be hanged! The despotic sway of Sanchez, and his threat in the bargain, so disjointed their inclination for the Guerillas that they hastily fled their native 'woods' and 'threshold' for fear of really finding themselves noosed up to them and gladly joined the British regiments."

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: 

"The fact is, that I adopted it because any other that was preferred might be adopted in lieu of it; and I suspected what has turned out to be the case, that we should get but few or no recruits. We have not got enough in the whole army to form one company; and I am sorry to add that some have deserted."

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:

"We had also ten men a Company in our British Regiments, Spaniards, many of them the most daring of sharpshooters in our corps, who nobly regained the distinction attached to the name of Spanish infantry of Charles V.'s time. I never saw better, more orderly, perfectly sober soldiers in my life, and as vedettes the old German Hussar did not exceed them."

Sergeant Edward Costello, 1st Battalion 95th Rifles, left the following description of one of the Spaniards in his company:

". . . we had several Spaniards in our regiment. These men were generally brave; but one in particular, named Blanco, was one of the most skilful and daring skirmishers we had in the battalion. His great courage, however, was sullied by a love o fcruelty towards the French, whom he detested, and never named but with the most ferocious expressions. In every affair we had since the advance from Portugal he was always in the front; and the only wonder is how he managed to escape the enemy's shot, but his singluar activity and intelligence frequently saved him. His hatred to the Fench was, I believe, occasioned by his father and brother, who were peasants, having been murdered by a French foraging party. On this day he gave many awful proofs of this feeling by mercilessly stabbing and mangling the wounded French he came up to. In this massacre he was however, stopped by a veteran of our regiment, who, although suffering from a severe wound in the face, was so exasperated at the Spaniard's cruelty, that he knocked him down with a blow from the butt of his rifle. It was only by force we could prevent the Spaniard from stabbing him on the spot.

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:

"In a few days [31 May 1814] we received an order to proceed to Bordeaux, to embark for England. The delightful emotions of pleasure this generally induced throughout our men, after all their hardships and sufferings, may be better imagined than described. The second day's march we stopped at a village [Bazas, 11 June], the name of which I forget, where we had to part from our allies, the Spanish and Portuguese. Much, and even deep feeelings of regret, were particularly felt by the men of our battalion on parting from the Spaniards, who had been for so long a period incorporated in our ranks. They had been distinguished for their gallantry, and although sixteen had been drafted into our company, but five had survived to bid us farewell. Poor fellows, they had grown attached to the battalion, and express much grief on leaving! Even Blanco, the sanguinary Blanco, actually shed tears."


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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