The Spanish Foreign Legion in Spanish Civil War, 1936

The Spanish Foreign Legion in Spanish Civil War, 1936

Jose Alvarez

University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 2016, 307 pages

Book Review published on: May 12, 2017

“Long live death”—this was the chilling motto of the Spanish Foreign Legion during its bloody campaigns in the Rif War. Formed in 1920 from foreign and native Spanish volunteers willing to fight in Spanish Morocco, the legion soon emerged as a tough, ruthless, and effective fighting formation. However, in the annals of military history, the Spanish Foreign Legion languishes in the shadow of its more famous French counterpart. The Spanish Foreign Legion has a much shorter and less celebrated record than La Legion Etrangere (French Foreign Legion) and, unlike, the famous “white kepis,” it took no part in either of the world wars. Yet, in his new book on early days of the Spanish Civil War, historian Jose Alvarez argues that El Tercio (the regiment) played a decisive, if sometimes underappreciated role in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.

The summer of 1936 found the legion stationed as part of the Army of Africa in Spanish Morocco. When the uprising against the leftist Spanish Republic began, the legion’s six battalions—or banderas as they were called—were among the first units to join the rebel forces. After securing Morocco for the rebel cause, the Nationalist general, Francisco Franco, arranged for the legion to be transported to mainland Spain by improvised sea lift and on aircraft provided by Hitler and Mussolini. Upon arrival, Franco committed the Army of Africa, which included the legion and the fearsome Moroccan Regulares, to a powerful offensive drive from Seville north toward the capital of the Spanish Republic, Madrid.

The first weeks of the offensive saw Franco’s shock troops overwhelm the poorly trained loyalist militia forces arrayed against them. City after city—Badajoz, Toledo, and Talavera—fell to the Nationalist advance. Yet, each town captured cost casualties and bought time for the Republic to build the defenses of Madrid using aid from the Soviet Union and reinforcements from the International Brigades. In early November, the legion reached the outskirts of Madrid, where it became embroiled in a bloody, attritional fight. The war of maneuver was over, and what followed looked more like World War I.

Though it failed to capture Madrid in 1936, Alvarez believes the legion’s victories set the conditions for Franco’s eventual victory in 1939. This conclusion, as well as the author’s account of the early campaigns of the war, suggests his sympathy for the legion. Until Madrid, each battle narrative finds the legionnaires relentlessly brave and victorious. Yet, to be fair, Lopez is candid about the darker aspects of the legion’s record. The legionnaires executed thousands of prisoners and pillaged dozens of town on their way to Madrid. In this respect, the actions of the legion reflected the ferocious nature of Spain’s fraternal conflict.

In his book, Alvarez offers us a readable and informative description of a campaign and a fighting formation that are both routinely overlooked in English language historiography.

Book Review written by: Dr. Scott Stephenson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas