Thursday, November 3, 2011
Book review - The British Auxiliary Legion In The First Carlist War, 1835-8: A Forgotten Army
After reading about it on another blog (sorry, can't remember whose), I found it in the tertiary institutions' collaborative catalogue and ordered it in from Victoria University.
I'd read a general history of the Carlist Wars previously after reading references to it in other histories of the Peninsular War, and followed the historical trail by reading The Carlist Wars in Spain by Edgar Holt. It covered Carlism and it's wars from the original succession crisis of the early 19th century to the 20th century manifestations of Carlism in Franco's Spain. An intriguing brief mention referred to the minor part played by the British Auxiliary Legion that was raised in Britain with the blessings of the government of the day to fight on the side of the Queen Regent, the Infanta Cristina, in the cause of legitimacy. It always puzzled me as to why so many would volunteer to fight as mercenaries in a civil war that really didn't affect Britain's vital interests at all. This book goes some way to exploring the reasons as well as describing the appalling conditions they endured and the ferocious fighting they participated in.
Coming as it did, only twenty years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was still enough of a romantic view of the invincibility of British arms and of the glorious history of the Peninsula War won by Wellington and the plucky redcoat. This reading of history seems to have been uppermost in the minds of the Spanish government too, who initially sought to have the Duke of Wellington lead the expedition. Wisely, Wellington wouldn't touch it with a bargepole! There were veterans from all ranks who joined the Legion, whether to relive their glory days or to alleviate the grinding poverty that many rank and file veterans found themselves enduring. The younger volunteers also joined up to escape poverty, but many also joined, naively, in the hope of finding excitement and glory on the battlefield. Those who joined for the regular payment promised were sadly misled.
The fighting was brutal, but even more terrible was the fact that neither the Carlists or the Cristinos took prisoners; everyone captured was put to death. Prisoners from the British Auxiliary were treated no differently. Disease followed them, too. The first winter saw the ranks thinned considerably as the town of Vitoria became a city of death when a typhus epidemic swept through the army.
The British government's opponents in opposition painted the Legion as a bunch of mercenaries, or dangerous political extremists and did their best to denigrate the Legion in the press, especially as the commander, General de Lacey Evans was a sitting Radical member of parliament. When the soldiers of the Legion were returned to Britain they were treated almost as a contagion and shunned by all decent folk, while the authorities treated them like a public danger. The fact that they had not been paid or clothed resulted in masses of half-starved ragged vagabonds dressed in scarlet being dumped in the ports of Britain with no means of feeding or supporting themselves. Much wrangling with the British and Spanish governments ensued to clarify whose responsibility these men were. A more dispiriting and demeaning end for men who had given so much couldn't be imagined.
With my limited knowledge of modern Spanish history after reading about the Peninsular War, it seems that Spain's turbulent 19th century can be traced directly back to Napoleon's interference in the Iberian peninsula. The Spanish army involved itself in the political scene in the fevered lead up to Napoleon's coup with the French ensconced in Spanish cities ostensibly to guard their communications with Portugal. The hated favourite, Godoy, was toppled in the motin of Aranjuez in a confused and desperate attempt to forestall the removal of the Bourbons. The collapse of the ancien regime into guerrilla warfare and the rise of the liberals set the scene for the awful divisions of the future.
This book tells the grim tale of only a small part of the 1st Carlist War, about a group of outsiders with no stake in the future of the country besides their pay, but is nevertheless a gripping tale well told.