THE SPANISH FOREIGN LEGION
By Anita Bond
Bet you didn’t know that Spain has a Foreign Legion. These days known as the Spanish Legión, it is an elite unit of the Spanish Army. Founded as the ‘Tercio de Extranjeros’ (Foreigner’s Regiment), it was originally intended as a Spanish equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, but in practice it recruited almost exclusively Spaniards.
Legionnaires consider themselves ‘novios de la muerte’ - bridegrooms of death. When in trouble, a legionnaire shouts ‘A mi la Legión!’ - to me the Legion! Those within earshot are bound to help him regardless of the circumstances. Legionnaires are never supposed to abandon a comrade on the battlefield.
Contrary to usual military practice, Legionnaires are allowed to sport beards and wear their shirts open on the chest. Since being established, the Legion was noted for its plain and simple uniforms, in contrast to the colourful dress uniforms still worn by the Peninsular regiments of the Spanish Army until the overthrow of the Monarchy in 1932. This was part of the cult of austerity favoured by a unit that considered itself on more or less active service. The most distinctive feature of the modern Legion uniform is a khaki ‘gorrillo’ cap with a red tassel and braiding.
The Legion’s march step is faster than the Spanish military standard 90 steps per minute. And during the Holy Week processions, the ‘paso’ carried by legionnaires is held not on the shoulders but on their extended arms to show their faith, toughness, strength and endurance.
The Spanish Foreign Legion formed on January 28th, 1920 by royal decree of King Alfonso XIII. At that time, the Spanish Foreign Legion’s five battalions were filled primarily by native Spaniards (since foreigners were not easy to recruit) with most of its foreign members coming from the now independent Republic of Cuba.
Historically, there had been a Spanish Foreign Legion which proceeded the modern Legion’s formation in 1920. On June 28th, 1835, the French government had decided to hand over to the Spanish government, lock, stock, and barrel, the French Foreign Legion in support of Queen Isabella’s claim to the Spanish throne during the First Carlist War.
The French Legion, with around 4,000 men, landed in Tarragona on August 17th of that year. This became the First Spanish Legion until it was dissolved on December 8th, 1838, when it had dropped to only 500 men.
The British Legion (La Legión Británica) of the Spanish Legion also fought during the First Carlist War. This Legion fought for the fortified bridge of Arrigorriaga on September 11th, 1835.
The Spanish Foreign Legion was created along the lines of the French Foreign Legion as a corps of professional troops that could replace conscripts in colonial campaigns. There has been much confusion - even today - in the English-speaking countries over the Spanish title for this military unit ‘La Legion Extranjera’ which roughly translates in English as ‘The Legion of Foreigners’.
The misconception is over the Spanish word ‘extranjero’ which has a triple meaning and can be translated as ‘foreigners’ but also can mean ‘foreign’ or ‘abroad’. In this case, the translation is ‘abroad’. The Spanish title actually should be translated in English as ‘The Legion to serve abroad’.
While the Spanish Foreign Legion did accept non-Spaniards when it was first recruited (for example, the first unit recruited had one Chinese and one Japanese recruit), it was always intended that the majority of its members be Spaniards who were joining to fight outside of European Spain.
In September 1920, King Alfonso XIII conferred command of the new regiment on Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry José Milán Astry, chief proponent of its establishment. Milán Astry was an able soldier but had an eccentric and extreme personality. His style and attitude would become part of the mystique of the Legion.
On September 20th, the first recruit joined the new Legion; this date is celebrated yearly. The initial make-up of the regiment was that of a headquarters unit and three battalions. Each battalion was in turn made up of a headquarters company, two rifle companies and a machine gun company.
The regiment’s initial location was at the Cuartel del Rey en Cueta on the Plaza de Colón. At its height, during the Spanish Civil war, the legion consisted of 18 battalions, plus a tank battalion, an assault engineer battalion and a Special Operations Group.
Francisco Franco was one of the founding members of the Legion and the unit’s second-in-command. During the Spanish Civil War, following the victory of Franco’s Nationalists in 1939, the Legion was reduced in size and returned to its bases in Spanish Morocco. When Morocco gained its independence in 1956, the Legion continued in existence as part of the garrison of the remaining Spanish enclaves and territories in North Africa.
Through the course of the Legion’s history, Spaniards (including natives of the colony of Spanish Guinea) have made up the majority of its members, with foreigners accounting for 25 per cent or less.
During the Riff War of the early 1920s, most of the foreigners serving with the Legion were Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. After 1987, the Legion stopped accepting foreigners altogether and changed its name to the Spanish Legión.
At the start of the millenium, after the abandonment of conscription, the Spanish Army again accepted foreigners from select nationalities. Included were male and female native Spanish speakers, mostly from Central American and South American states. Recruits were required to have a valid Spanish residence permit. However, promotion prospects for the foreigners are reported to be limited.
These days, acceptance to the Spanish Legión is based on certain criteria. You must be a Spanish citizen; be a citizen in good standing; not be deprived of civil rights; be at least 18 years of age and not be turning 28 on the year of inscription; be able to pass psychological, physical and medical evaluations.
And if that sounds like you and you fancy yourself in a pillbox hat with a red tassel, you know where to go.
My thanks to Anita Bond for allowing us to make use her artical F.S.S.R.
At the last Veterans Day Parade in Torrevieja while we was waiting to form up, the contigent from the Spanish Foreign Legion walked passed (they have taken part in the last 3 vets days) ,and naturally we disscussed their Spanish Legion and surprisenly little we knew about them. Now with help from Anita Bond we will
The President of the International Veterans Association Terry Watson, with 5 retired members of the The Spanish Foreign Legion
The Spanish Legion, formerly known as the Spanish Foreign Legion, is the best known unit within the Spanish Army today.
Spanish Legion Today
Here are two video's you might like to view
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