The Spanish Foreign Legion

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My "Pledge of Allegiance" (Spanish flag)   The Second Squadron

The Third "Tercio" of the  La Legion, "Don Juan de Austria" ( Sahara Spanish and later in the Canary Islands)

Photos from Pedro Marangoni


The Spanish Legión (Spanish: Legión Española, La Legión or colloquially El Tercio), formerly Spanish Foreign Legion, is an elite unit of the Spanish Army. Founded as the Tercio de Extranjeros ("Foreigners Regiment"), it was originally intended as a Spanish equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, but in practice it recruited almost exclusively Spaniards. The Spanish Legion's animal mascot is the Legión's goat.

The Spanish Foreign Legion was formed by royal decree of King Alfonso XIII on January 28, 1920, with the Minister of War José Villalba Riquelme stating, "With the designation of Foreigners Regiment there will be created an armed military unit, whose recruits, uniform and regulations by which they should be governed will be set by the minister of war." In the 1920s 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 preceded the modern Legion's formation in 1920. On 28 June 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 at Tarragona on 17 August 1835. This became the First Spanish Legion until it was dissolved on 8 December 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 11, 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 (e.g. 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.

The Spanish Legion's first major campaign, for which they are still famous, was in Spanish North Africa. In 1920 Spain was facing a major rebellion in the Protectorate of Spanish Morocco, led by the able Rif leader Abdel Krim. On September 2 of that same year, King Alfonso XIII conferred command of the new regiment on Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry José Millán Astray, chief proponent of its establishment. Millán Astray was an able soldier but an eccentric and extreme personality. His style and attitude would become part of the mystique of the Legion.

On September 20 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 (known as Banderas, or "flags"). 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 Ceuta on the Plaza de Colón. At its height, during the Spanish Civil War, the legion consisted of 18 banderas, plus a tank bandera, an assault engineer bandera and a Special Operations Group. Banderas 12 through 18 were considered independent units and never served as part of the tercios.

Francisco Franco was one of the founding members of the Legion and the unit's second-in-command, concurrently commanding the 1st Legion Bandera. The Legion fought in Morocco in the War of the Rif (to 1926). Together with the Regulares (Moorish colonial troops), the Legion made up the Spanish Army of Africa. In 1934 units of both the Legion and the Regulares were brought to Spain by the new Republican Government to help put down a workers revolt in the area of Asturias.

Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Juan Yagüe the Army of Africa played an important part in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side. The professionalism of both the Legion and the Regulares gave Franco's Nationalists a significant initial advantage over the less well trained Republican forces. The Army of Africa remained the elite spearhead of the Nationalist armies throughout the Civil War. Following the Nationalist victory 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. The Legion fought Arab irregulars in the Ifni War in 1957-58.

On June 17, 1970, Legion units opened fire and killed eleven pro-independence demonstrators at the Zemla quarters of El-Aaiun in the Western Sahara, (then still the Spanish Sahara). The incident, which came to be called the Zemla Intifada, had a significant influence on pushing the Sahrawi anticolonial movement into embarking on an armed struggle which still goes on up to the present, though Spain has long since abandoned the territory and handed it over to Morocco.

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 percent 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 it stopped accepting foreigners altogether and changed its name to the Spanish Legion.

In the 2000s, 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. Promotion prospects for foreigners were however reported to be limited.
Today acceptance to the Spanish Legion is based on the following criteria.

Be a Spanish citizen (although citizens from former Spanish colonies can join)

Be a citizen in good legal 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

In recent years the Spanish Legion was involved in Bosnia as part of the SFOR. It also took part in the Iraq War, deploying in Najaf alongside Salvadoran troops, until the new Spanish government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero fulfilled its electoral promises by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. The Legion units deployed in Iraq were involved in several combats against the insurgency. In 2005 the Legion was deployed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Stabilisation Force (ISAF). In 2006 the 10th Bandera was sent to Southern Lebanon as part of United Nations' Operation UNIFIL.

Millán Astray provided the Legion with a distinctive spirit and symbolism intended to evoke Spain's Imperial and Christian traditions. For instance, the Legion adopted the regimental designation of tercio in memory of the sixteenth century Spanish infantry formations that had toppled nations and terrorized the battlefields of Europe in the days of Charles V. Millán-Astray also revived the Spaniard's ancient feud with the Moors and portrayed his men first as crusaders on an extended Reconquista against the Islamic civilization, and later as the saviours of Spain warding off the twin evils of Communism and democratic liberalism defeating the dangerous spectre of 'Eastern Atheism'.

  • Its members, regardless of rank, are titled Caballero Legionario ("Knight Legionnaire"). When women were admitted, they were titled Dama Legionaria ("Lady Legionnaire").
  • A "Mística Legionaria" (condensed in a twelve points "Credo Legionario" -Legionnaire creed-)
  • Legionnaires consider themselves novios de la muerte ("bridegrooms of death"). The nickname is also the title of one of the two official hymns of the Spanish Legion, the other one being La Cancion del Legionario ("Legionnaire's Song").
  • When in trouble, a legionnaire shouts ¡A mí la Legión! ("To me the Legion!"). Those within earshot are bound to help him regardless of the circumstances. In practice, Legionnaires are never supposed to abandon a comrade on the battlefield.
  • Contrary to usual military practice, Legionnaires are allowed to sport beards and can wear their shirts open on the chest.
  • From its establishment 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 continual active service. The most distinctive feature of the modern Legion uniform is a khaki "gorrillo" cap with red tassel and braiding.
  • The Legion's march step is faster than the Spanish military standard, 160-190 in contrast to the Army's 90 steps per minute.
  • 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 legion's motto was ¡Viva la muerte! ("Long live death!") It fell into disuse after the death of Francisco Franco.
  • The Legion had several mascots during its history, such as monkeys, chickens, capercaillies, wild boars, barbary sheep (Spanish, arruis), bears or parrots. The modern Legion however has a goat as mascot of the unit. It usually appears on parades, wearing a Legion cap and accompanied by a Knight Legionnaire, alongside the Legion's color guard on parades and ceremonies.

The Spanish Legion's composition today

The composition of the Spanish Legion today is as follows:

  • Legion Brigade "HM King Alfonso VII" with headquarters in Viator, Almeria and the 4th Legion Tercio and 2nd Legion Cavalry Reconnaissance Group in Ronda, Malaga
    • Legion HQ (Almeria)
    • 3rd Legion Tercio "Don Juan de Austria" (Viator)
      • 7th Legion Bandera "Valenzuela"
      • 8th Legion Bandera "Colon"
    • 4th Legion Tercio "Alejandro Farnesio" (Ronda)
      • 10th Legion Bandera "Millan Astray"
    • 2nd Legion Cavalry Reconnaissance Group (Ronda)
    • 2nd Legion Campaign Artillery Group (Viator)
    • Engineers Unit of the Legion (Viator)
    • 2nd Legion Logistics Group (Viator)
    • Headquarters Bandera (Viator)
    • Legion Communications Coy. (Viator)
  • 1st Legion Tercio "Great Captain Gonzalo Fernandez de Coroba" (Melilla)
    • 1st Legion Bandera (Light Motorized Infantry)
      • Anti-tank Defense Platoon
  • 2nd Legion Tercio "Duke of Alba" (Ceuta)
    • 4th-5th Legion Bandera "Cristo de Lepanto"
    • Anti-tank Defense Company
  • The Spanish Legion nowadays is mostly used in NATO peacekeeping missions. It currently numbers 5,000 in a Brigade of two tercios (regiments). It is directly controlled by the Spanish General Staff.
  • The Spanish Legion is currently deployed mainly in the Spanish African enclaves, namely Ceuta and Melilla but also in Ronda and Almería in Andalusia. Although the detachment at Málaga was transferred away, every Holy Week a platoon of legionnaires disembarks to procession the Christ of the Good Death, a figure of a crucified Jesus, venerated by the Legion.
  • The Legion remains a harshly disciplined elite unit. 
  • The Legion formerly had a special operations unit known as the Bandera de operaciones especiales de la legión (Legion Special Operations Company or BOEL). The members of this unit, who were volunteers from other banderas of the Legion, received training in: SCUBA/Maritime Warfare, Arctic and Mountain Warfare, Sabotage and Demolitions, Parachute and HALO techniques, Long Range Reconnaissance, Counter-terrorism and CQB, Vehicle insertion, Sniping and SERE (Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion. Much of the training was undertaken in Fort Bragg. In 2002 the BOEL was renamed Grupo de Operaciones Especiales "Maderal Oleaga" XIX and was moved to Alicante. GOE XIX currently accepts applicants from other light infantry units and no longer forms part of the Legion.



Articles and web sites of interest

The Spanish Foreign Legion (Men-at-Arms) BOOK