THE Spanish Legion is an elite unit of the Spanish Army and was founded as the Tercio de Extranjeros.
The Legion was formed by royal decree of King Alfonso XIII on January 28, 1920 and its five battalions filled primarily by natives of Spain and Cuba.
It was created as a corps of elite troops that could replace conscripts in colonial campaigns.
The Spanish Legion’s first major celebrated campaign was in North Africa. In 1920 Spain was facing a major rebellion in the Protectorate of Spanish Morocco.
King Alfonso XIII conferred command on Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry José Millán Astray. The Spanish officer’s style and attitude would become part of the mystique of the Legion.
During an earlier defence of San Rafael in the Philippines, the 18-year-old commander had fought off a rebel force of 2,000 with only 30 men.
He subsequently served in Morocco, where he lost his left arm and right eye for which action he acquired the nickname Glorioso mutilado (Glorious amputee).
Astray habitually wore an eye patch and a white glove on his right hand when appearing in public. Millán Astray provided the Legion with a distinctive spirit and symbolism intended to evoke Spain’s Imperial and Christian traditions.
The commander depicted his troops as crusaders on an extended Reconquista against Islam, and later as saviours of Spain by their thwarting Communism and democratic liberalism.
In 1934, units of both the Legion and the Regulares were brought back to Spain by the Republican regime to help put down a Spanish workers revolt.
Asturias striking miners were mercilessly slaughtered by the Stalin-backed régime; 3,000 workers were killed and 35,000 strikers taken prisoner during the terrible Stalinist repression that followed.
During Spain’s Civil War (1936 – 1939) the proficiency of both the Legion and Regulares gave Franco’s anti-Communist forces a significant advantage over less well trained Republican forces.
When Morocco gained its independence in 1956 the Legion continued as part of the garrison of the remaining Spanish enclaves and territories in North Africa.
After 1987 it changed its name to the Spanish Legion. Regardless of rank, Spanish Legion troops are titled Caballero Legionario (Knight Legionnaire).
Legionnaires are known as Novios de le Muerte (Bridegroom of Death). Contrary to usual military practice, Spain’s 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. This was part of the cult of austerity favoured by a unit that considered itself on more or less continual active service.
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.
Michael Walsh’s father, an associate of war correspondent Ernest Hemingway, fought in the Spanish Civil War. Michael’s mother was befriended by Dolores Ibarruri.