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The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII

Translated by Greg Gorsuch


In the first volumes of this work[1] we have already followed the marches and operations of the division of the Confederation of the Rhine in Spain, and witnessed its feats of arms in the Army of the Center; in a more recent volume[2] we dealt with the participation of our German allies in the campaigns in Catalonia: we return here to already known ground, to see fighting there the entire contingent of Nassau, as well as a regiment of infantry and a half-battery of Hesse Darmstadt; but to avoid repetitions or redundancies, the study of this complex and diffuse war that our armies waged from 1808 to 1813 in the Spanish peninsula will be reduced to the sole history of these last contingents, and there will be no mention of the general operations only to understand their consequences on the particular movements of our allies.

During the campaigns of 1808 and 1809, the Hessian regiment Crown Prince and the 2nd Regiment of Nassau almost always fought side by side; their history can be confused; they participated together in the glorious but sterile victories which did not succeed in consolidating the always threatened throne of King Joseph; during the two following years, the partisan war reigned in the whole of Spain, and, in the absence of great actions, there were incessant combats against innumerable guerrillas which wore out and consumed more men than pitched battles; finally in 1812, when the loss of Badajoz resulted in the falling into the hands of the English the whole contingent of Darmstadt, we will not have any more to follow but the troops of Nassau, of which the two regiments remained in our ranks until 1813: the one, in the Army of the Centre betrayed by its leader, will abandon our flags on the Nivelle, but will refuse to serve against us in this land of Spain which it had so generously watered with his blood; the other, in Catalonia, after the glorious episode of Manresa and all years of loyal service, will suffer with sadness the bitterness of a disarmament imposed by political necessity and by the collapse of the Confederation of the Rhine.


General situation of the Peninsula in August 1808. Formation of a German division for the army of Spain. The 2nd Infantry Regiment of Nassau, a squadron of mounted chasseurs of the same nation, the Hessian Regiment Crown Prince and a mounted half-battery from Darmstadt enter this division, in the 4th Army Corps (Marshal Lefebvre), Battles of Zornosa, Durango, Balmaseda. Occupation of Madrid.

Since the Peace of Basel (1795), the policy of Spain had been entirely directed towards France, and the Treaty of Saint-Ildefonso had united the two nations in an alliance at the same time offensive and defensive; a first consequence of this alliance was for Spain the loss of its fleet at Trafalgar, during the war against England; a second led to the dispatch of two Spanish auxiliary corps, one to Tuscany and the other to Denmark, to support French interests there.

After the defeat of Prussia, the rapprochement became even closer between the cabinets of Madrid and Paris: following an arrangement concluded in October 1807, a combined Franco-Spanish corps of 55,000 men was to invade Portugal, ‘this English colony of the continent ‘, where the Prince-Regent balked between the alliance of England and the alliance of France; at the same time as the Spanish General Caraffa was preparing to invade Portugal from the east, Junot, entering it from the north at the head of 2 French corps, arrived in Lisbon the day after the precipitated flight to Brazil by Prince John and the Portuguese court, to which the English fleet had offered shelter.

However, a French army came to occupy Pamplona, San Sébastien, Figueres, ‘to protect Spain against the landings of the English and to drive the latter from Gibraltar’; but the intrigues of England aroused the revolt of Aranjuez, and Charles IV abdicated in favor of his son Ferdinand VII: both coming to put themselves in the hands of Napoleon at Bayonne; we know the consequences of this historic interview: Ferdinand returned the crown to his father who ceded his rights to Napoleon on 5 May 1808, his son imitated him, the royal family retired to France, the throne of Spain was given to Joseph Napoleon…The same day, the Junta of Seville declared war on France, called the entire nation to arms, proclaimed the rights of Ferdinand VII and called Spain to freedom.

A general uprising occurred, followed by the massacre of many French; ‘national’ troops are organized everywhere, swelled by deserters from the Spanish regular regiments; the French, surprised by this explosion of patriotism, suffered resounding failures: the Cadiz fleet was captured by the insurgents, General Dupont was captured with 18,000 men at Bailén…Joseph evacuated Madrid on 1 July 1808, pulling our troops back to the left bank of the Ebro. The Junta, triumphant, then allied itself with England: mistress of the sea, the British fleet commanded all the coasts; henceforth it would inexhaustibly supply the Spaniards with money, men, arms and ammunition.

The Emperor decided to ask his allies of the Confederation of the Rhine for part of their federal contingent to be sent to Spain: Baden provided 1 regiment and 1 battery, Frankfurt 1 battalion; Napoleon asked the princes of Nassau for 1 regiment of 1,700 men and a half-battery of artillery: but as there were no cannons in the Duchy, this artillery was replaced by a squadron of mounted chasseurs; the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Battalions of Nassau were put on a war footing on 2 August 1808, increased from 4 to 6 companies by the incorporation of companies drawn from the 1st and 4th Battalions; they formed, with a reinforcement of 300 recruits, the 2nd Regiment of Nassau placed under the orders of Colonel von Kruse.

For his part, the Grand Duke Louis of Hesse Darmstadt appointed to go to Spain the regiment Crown Prince (Gross-und-Erbprinz) and a half-battery of horse artillery. The 3 Hessian battalions incorporated the battalion of fusiliers of their regiment and were formed ‘à la française’ with 6 companies, including one of grenadiers and one of voltigeurs: the Regiment Crown Prince, 40 officers and 1,638 soldiers strong, was commanded by Colonel Ledeour and majors Hermanny and Damm. Lieutenant Venator led the half-battery which included 97 gunners and train soldiers, 51 horses, 4 pieces of 6 of the mounted battery, 4 artillery caissons and 3 infantry caissons.

This contingent, assembled on 21 August in Dornheim, crossed Mainz, Worms, Deux-Ponts, Metz; where it received French fusils in exchange for those which it left at the disposal of the Hessian government, continuing through Troyes, Orleans where Marshal Lefebvre reviews it, Mont-de-Marsan, and arrived in Bayonne on 13 October. A French training officer was attached to the regiment, in which corporal punishment was now ‘absolutely prohibited’.  The artillery, whose small choice and poorly trained horses could not withstand the 45 stages which separate the Rhine from the Adour, arrived in Bayonne harnessed partly with oxen…The Hessians took in this place cans, pots, all the camping utensils and a pair of shoes per man: but these shoes do not fit German feet, and most of them were too short for their recipients…

Nassau’s troops reached Bayonne on 11 October by the same route.

It is there that our allies found General Leval, appointed to command the German Division, 2nd Division of the 4th Army Corps placed under the orders of Marshal Lefebvre. The 4th Corps included the Sébastiani and Leval infantry divisions, with the Maupetit cavalry division.

The 2nd (German) Division had the following formation:

1st Brigade: { 2nd Regiment of Nassau.
Colonel von PORBECK 4th         — of Baden.
(Baden) 1 Baden battery.
2nd Brigade: { 1 Dutch infantry regiment.
General CHASSÉ 1 Company of Dutch sappers-miners.
(Dutch) 1 Dutch horse battery.
3rd Brigade: { 1 battalion of the Guard of Paris.
General GRANDJEAN Hessian Regiment Crown Prince.
(French) Battalion of Frankfurt.
1/2 Hessian battery.


The 4th Corps cavalry was made up of the Nassau Horse Chasseurs Squadron (not yet arrived), 2 Westphalian light horse squadrons and 4 squadrons of the Dutch 3rd Hussar Regiment.

Since the day of their exit from the territory of the Confederation, the German troops had been fed and maintained by France, only the pay remaining the responsibility of the princes; the French government also took into account the maintenance of the armament, the supplement of pay required for the passage on war footing and the gratuities in shoes for the extraordinary marches.

The regiments of Nassau and Hesse crossed the border between 14 and 16 October, went to Irun and reached Durango (15-16 October) where operations began immediately. By participating with our regiments in this long, difficult, cruel and merciless war in Spain, our German allies were writing with their blood the most glorious pages of their military history.

The Emperor’s thought was to contain the two wings of the Spanish armies and to push the army of Estremadura in the centre with a mass made up of the corps of Soult, Ney, the Guard and the cavalry reserve. While Moncey and Saint-Cyr watched Palafox’s army on our left wing and marched on Barcelona, Lefebvre and Victor on our right must contain Blake until the Emperor had executed his movement.

As the enemy seemed to want to turn the right wing of King Joseph’s French troops concentrated around Vitoria and had already driven General Merlin from Bilbao, the German Division was directed entirely to Durango to support and serve Merlin’s troops withdrawal. As of the 21st, the 3rd Company of the Voltigeurs of Hesse, in reconnaissance, had an engagement at Moparia with the outposts of Blake, which presented more than 30,000 men. A first successful fight took place in Zornosa on 25 October, in which the companies of German voltigeurs and the 1st Battalion of Darmstadt participated: in the evening, the Hessian Lieutenant von Schwartz carried out the perilous mission of maintaining the fires of the bivouacs with 50 men throughout at night, while the division withdrew by order to Durango.











  1. Marshal Lefebvre, Commander of the 4th Corps of the Army of Spain (After the medallion by David d’Angers)


Marshal Lefebvre has just arrived; he united below Durango the troops of Merlin, those of Leval, of Sébastiani and the Villatte Division of the 1st Corps (Victor); at the head of these forces, he attacked the Spanish army on 31 October. Leval led the right column, 27th Light, 63rd Line, regiments of Nassau and Baden; Sébastiani was in the centre; Villatte on the left, with the 94th and 95th, the battalion of the Guard of Paris, the Dutch regiment and that of Hesse. Assaulted with vigor, the enemy was put to flight with a loss of more than 1,500 men: we only had 200 out of action.

The German troops had shown themselves well; therefore Lefebvre, who had himself led the attack at the head of the regiments of Baden and Nassau, placed on guard, on the evening of the affair, a battalion from each of these two contingents to show them his satisfaction.

‘… I have a lot to praise myself for all the French and foreign troops, particularly the 27th, 28th, 32nd, as well as the Baden, Nassau and Dutch troops; I am asking for the decorations of the Legion of Honor for the Dutch General Chassé, for the colonel of the Baden regiment, for that of the Nassau regiment, and four stars for the Baden, Nassau and Dutch regiments, all of which are distinguished.’[3]

On 1 November, all the 4th Corps bivouacked around Bilbao, abandoned by the Spaniards, and the next day moved to Balmaseda. But Napoleon, dissatisfied with having seen his intentions disregarded by Marshal Lefebvre, ordered him to fall back, to conform to the original plan; the Duke of Danzig therefore left Balmaseda where only the Villatte Division remained: there this one having been attacked and jostled in Bilbao by Blake, reinforced by the La Romana Corps recently returned from Denmark, the Emperor ordered the 4th Corps to retake Balmaseda, wanting to have his flanks secured before the execution of his movement on the centre of the line of operations.

After a light fight at Salas delivered on 7 November by a Hessian company in reconnaissance, Lefebvre, almost without artillery or cavalry because it could not be brought into such wild terrain attacked with 18,000 footmen General Blake stationed at Balmaseda: Leval marched through the bottom of the valley. Villatte on the left and Sébastiani on the right; the German Division overwhelmed everything in front of it, the Spaniards abandoned their positions and the 4th Corps was established on the 8th at Nava, in contact with the 1st.

Marshals Victor and Soult, united, beat Blake at Espinoza on the 10th; Lefebvre marched on Burgos and bivouacked that same day at Quintanilla-Sopena, after a painful march during which more than 1,200 Germans fell exhausted along the road; it was the 11th in Villarcajo (Leval in Villacanes) and sent on the rear of his army corps a reconnaissance made up of a company of voltigeurs from Hesse, 2 companies of grenadiers from Nassau and Baden, with 50 Dutch hussars, to bring back the stragglers and the crippled: many of these unfortunate people were found slaughtered by the dispersed bands of the Spanish army. To scout his march and protect it against these dangerous enemies, Lefebvre then organized an advanced guard regiment formed of 12 companies of voltigeurs (the 2 companies of voltigeurs from Nassau entered this provisional corps) and arrived on the 16th at Reynosa where the 1st Battalion of Crown Prince remained posted until 23 November.

The 2nd Battalion of the Hessian regiment, as well as the Dutch regiment, had remained in Bilbao, charged with occupying this important point; it had then participated on the coasts of Biscay in the operations of the 2nd Corps with Marshal Soult: the latter, reinforced by the Baden and Nassau brigade led by General Leval in person, took the German troops to Santander; it was only in Madrid that Leval was finally able to join the 4th Corps between 9 and 12 December.

The German Division was then dispersed: the 1st Battalion of Hesse in Reynosa, the 2nd in Bilbao, Nassau and Baden in Biscay, the battalion of Frankfurt in Durango; the artillery of Hesse, as well as 2 pieces from Baden, detached to Vitoria since 23 October, in the large park, which included more than 100 pieces of cannon; when the artillerymen of Darmstadt left Vitoria on 9 November, they could, for lack of horses, harness only 2 guns which were joined to the 2 Baden guns to direct them on Logrono with the corps of Marshal Ney; after the battles of Tudela (23 November), when the artillery of Hesse arrived in Madrid, it was reinforced by 18 mules and 2 horses taken from the Spaniards; the equipment was in a terrible state, almost all the wheels having had to be replaced, because of their wear, by wheels taken from peasant cars.

As for the Nassau mounted chasseur squadron, it had left its garrison at Biebrich on 15 September and arrived in Burgos on 13 November, where orders maintained it for the garrison service and the surveillance of communications.  In his Memoirs, General Thiébault, who was governor of Burgos, recounts that one day he received a visit from his friend General Lasalle joining the Grande Armée, and that he wanted to have him escorted by 5 chasseurs à cheval from Nassau. “I said I don’t want an escort! — And I, I see you are an escort! — Donnerwetter!” — exclaims Lasalle, beating the chasseurs in German,– “if you escort me , I’ll jump on the postilion’s horse and I charge you! “ — And Thiébault had to order the Nassau horsemen to follow Lasalle 50 paces away …[4]

Napoleon had opened the way to Madrid by the victory of Somosierra (30 November) and entered there on 4 December; that same day, Marshal Lefebvre coming from Valladolid arrived in Segovia where he left the 1st Battalion of Hesse who settled in the Alcazar for the whole winter; then, the 4th Corps descending on the Escorial (6 December) came to quarter on the 8th at Pardo, in the suburbs of Madrid: Leval arrived there the next day and the Emperor reviewed the German Division on the 10th.

From the start of the campaign, Lefebvre had had bad relations with the commander of the Hesse regiment, Colonel Ledebour: the latter had to return to Germany ‘for health reasons’, as well as Major Hermanny; the Marshal had also in a previous inspection manifested his bad impression caused by the mixture, in the Hessian companies, of the green clothes of the old fusiliers with the blue clothes of the musketeers; in addition, General Merlin had in one of his reports accused the Hessians of having looted Bilbao on 2 November: in short, the Darmstadt troops did not give a good impression at that time, and the inspection of the Emperor made it clear; in the manoeuvres executed in front of him, the regiment of Hesse presented itself badly…






Madrid Observatory transformed into a redoubt.



‘…His Majesty today reviewed the troops of the Confederation of the Rhine…  The regiments of Baden and Nassau behaved well.  The Hesse-Darmstadt regiment did not support the reputation of the troops of this country and did not respond to the opinion they had been given to them in the Polish campaign …[5]

In this review, Napoleon finding a soldier from Nassau without bayonet said to the battalion commander who presented this troop to him: “You will make known to the captain of this company that the Emperor likes better to see a soldier without pants than without bayonet!” The material of the Hessian artillery having been judged out of service, the 4 pieces of 6 brought from Darmstadt were replaced by pieces of 4 French ones, like the Baden pieces, moreover. The Dutch Major van Steinmetz commanded the artillery of the German Division, all of whose gunners had received a fusil and cartridge belts on the order of Marshal Lefebvre.

The Emperor reorganized the 4th Corps which then included 3 divisions:

1st Division (French): General SÉBASTIANI.
2nd     —     (German):        — LEVAL.
          3rd    —         (Polish):        — VALENCE.
Artillery { 3 French batteries.
1 Baden      —
1 Hessian    —
1 Dutch       —

It was, with the cavalry, a total of 12 to 13,000 men that the Emperor reviewed on 14 December.

The presence of the army ensuring the tranquility of the country, King Joseph returned to Madrid on 22 December. But Junot suffered a setback in Portugal, whose towns were handed over to the English:  the latter landing in Lisbon an army led by General Moore; the latter advanced through Salamanca and threatened Valladolid and the rear of the French army. Leaving the German Division to guard Madrid, Napoleon immediately marched against him. The 3rd Corps (accompanied by the Hessian artillery) had for its mission to go on the line of retreat of the English, by pushing by Plasencia on the road of Ciudad-Rodrigo; Lefebvre descended on the Tagus at Talavera, and from there, via Almaraz, went to Navalmoral: during this time Moore was beaten by the Emperor; retreated with great difficulty; Napoleon, then entrusting Soult and Ney with the task of finishing the campaign, left on 21 January 1809 for Paris where he was recalled by the imminence of hostilities with Austria. But like Lefebvre, instead of carrying out the Emperor’s intentions, bringing his army back to Madrid via the mountains of Guadarama, it remained relieved of its command and replaced privately by Marshal Jordan, Chief of Staff of King Joseph. The 4th Corps was then divided between Madrid (German Division), Toledo (Hessian artillery) and Talavera.

In spite of their incessant marches during this first campaign and the great number of sick and crippled which they already counted, the German troops had made a good figure and had happy engagements; to combat the voids produced in their ranks, reinforcements were organized in the States of the Confederation of the Rhine: on 24 November, 258 men destined for the 2nd Nassau Regiment arrived in Bayonne and took the road to Madrid without delay.









The Lion of Guadarama.



[1] The Frankfurt Regiment and The Baden Contingent.

[2]  The Regiment of the Duchies of Saxony.

[3] Report by Marshal Lefebvre following the fight at Durango.

[4] Thiébault, v. IV, p. 334.

[5] 17th Bulletin of the Army of Spain.