The First Carlist War (1833– 40)


Battle of Behobia, May 1837


Zones under Carlist military control (dark orange) and areas where they found popular support (light orange)

In this case, the conflict was a civil war, with the insurgents, or Carlists, fighting in the name of the rival Bourbon line of Don Carlos against Queen Isabel II and, more generally, in favor of ultraconservative religious and political values over the relative liberal- ism associated with the queen’s rule. Although they never succeeded in placing their rival dynastic line in power, the movement in support of Carlos and his descendants would cause several major civil wars and exercise significant political influence well into the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Over 65,000 government soldiers lost their lives in the First Carlist War, and total casualties on the government side (including wounded and missing in action) numbered some 175,000. The Carlists probably lost at least an equal number of soldiers, and the total military casualties for both sides—not including civilians—may have been as high as 2.5% of the total population. Given these figures, it is not surprising that the army under- went significant changes during the course of the conflict. Above all, the government army grew dramatically after the war ’s outbreak. By the war’s end, the government casualty count alone was more than twice as high as the number of men who had been in the Spanish Army in 1828.

Why did the insurgency prove so difficult to suppress? A multitude of social, economic, political, and cultural forces all played a role in the course and outcome of the war, and it is not possible here to cover them all. Yet the condition and performance of the government army itself should not be overlooked either. As we will see, the army entered the conflict unprepared for a civil war of this magnitude or character, even if its effectiveness did improve with time.

During the decade before the Carlists took up arms in 1833, leading Spanish officers devoted substantial efforts to raising the professional and educational standards of the army. Their main instruments were the various military academies and other instructional centers that they revived during this period, and the literature they produced often stressed the instruction of recruits, as well as military science in its more technical aspects. They did not, however, pay particular attention to mountain warfare, which is what the army would face in abundance in its struggle to subdue the Carlists. In late 1834, slightly over one year after the war began, a book on the subject finally appeared, most likely because of the sudden relevance of the topic. Although the work’s author, former general staff officer Santiago Pascual y Rubio, focused on mountain warfare, aspects of his analysis apply equally well in broader terms to many of the counterinsurgencies that the army would wage throughout the century.

The mountain warfare he described had little in common with the regular warfare for which the army had been preparing. According to Pascual, in the mountains extensive experience and knowledge of military science often means little, for such conditions entail ‘‘extraordi- nary qualities’’ in commanders far different from those needed in more traditional battles. Even the most skilled commanders, he wrote, can commit grave errors when they try to apply the principles of fighting on flat land to mountain warfare. At the more practical level, he advo- cated equipping the individual soldiers as well as the cavalry lightly, reasoning that the latter needed the ability to dismount easily and fight on foot if surprised. Pascual’s march tactics involved using columns to move through valleys and ravines, while light infantry provided cover by occupying high positions. In the case of enemy fire, only the skirmishers were to answer in kind, while the columns would stay in close formation and attack with bayonets. The main aim, however, was to outflank the enemy through the use of multiple columns, thereby obscuring the main thrust of the attack. The weakness of this method would become deadly clear in practice, as the Carlists learned that ascertaining the army’s intentions allowed them to take advantage of their interior lines and defeat the Spanish forces in detail.

When the war began, the government forces numbered only 45,000 veteran soldiers, not counting the militias and the 20,000 draftees who were soon raised. The army was widely dispersed, with some troops covering the Portuguese border to prevent Don Carlos himself from entering the country, some guarding penal colonies spread around Spain, others manning the cordon sanitaire that the government had created in response to cholera outbreaks, some guarding supply and ammunition dumps, and others disarming the Royalist Volunteers, whom the government quickly acted against when the war broke out, justifiably suspicious of their loyalty to the new queen.

The Carlists, on the other hand, had to create their own army from scratch; not one unit of the regular army went over to their side. Because they were scattered all over the peninsula, the Carlists ended up creating three major forces: the army of the north, the army of Cataluña, and the army of the Maestrazgo. Through a combination of volunteers and draftees, by the end of 1834 the Carlist armies had only about 18,000 troops all together, but by 1839 the three armies probably numbered over 70,000 men, in addition to perhaps some 15,000 guerrillas. For most of the war, there was scant communication between the three armies and most of the guerrilla bands, or partidas, that sprung up elsewhere across the country. Although the liberal army would always outnumber the Carlists, the insurgency would prove very difficult to break.

The war began in earnest in the Basque city of Bilbao, where word of Ferdinand VII’s death arrived around 0300 hours on October 2, 1833. By the evening of the next day, the Carlists had gained firm control of the city. They would receive some of their strongest support in the rural, more mountainous areas around Bilbao and elsewhere in the Basque Country and Navarre, areas that—not coincidentally—had supplied the guerrilla partidas with much manpower during the War of Independence over two decades earlier. The insurgents found it very difficult to hold on to cities, however, and they relinquished Bilbao without a fight in November with the arrival of the government forces, also known as the queen’s army or Cristinos, for their loyalty to the new queen Cristina. The Carlists also gave up Logroño and Vitoria, which they had initially controlled.

Yet the war was far from over. As Napoleon’s forces had discovered after 1808 and numerous regular armies have found out since, even loosely organized guerrillas with no formal training and inferior weapons can be very tenacious opponents. The Carlists in the Basque Country may have worn makeshift uniforms, including their signature red berets and hemp sandals, and lacked sufficient weaponry and ammunition, but they were mountaineers well suited for irregular warfare, and such tasks as casting bullets and making cartridges came easily to them. Even more importantly, the Carlists in northern Spain soon gained a very effective commander, Tomás de Zumalacárregui, who ended their early series of defeats. Zumalacárregui’s task was made easier by geography and the popular support he enjoyed, as he benefited from the help of local priests, community leaders, and the tradition of resistance to central authority that characterized the region in which he operated. He was certainly not adverse to employing force when necessary; it was, after all, a horribly brutal civil war in which civilians suffered greatly and both sides employed terror and shot prisoners. Nevertheless, Zumalacárregui endeavored to foster good relations with local leaders whenever possible, and his hearts-and-minds work in general was more profound and effective than that of the Cristinos.

He proved his leadership skills on December 21, 1833, at Guernica, the emblematic Basque town that would suffer a horrible air attack during another civil war a century later, its destruction famously portrayed by Picasso. Under Zumalacárregui, the Carlist forces at Guernica held their ground, inflicting some 300 casualties to their own 100. Although he decided to withdraw when government reinforcements approached, his withdrawal did not bring with it a strategic victory for the Cristinos. Instead, Zumalacárregui put into practice a more general, classical guerrilla approach that would prove effective: shunning battle except when conditions favored his own side. To the consternation of the Spanish Army commanders, he avoided battle and led his troops into the mountainous area around Navarre instead, where he organized them into battalions.

On December 29, he decided to take on the government’s army again, this time near the village of Asarta. His force of some 2,500 men, divided into seven battalions, was not well armed, but its location between Asarta and the neighboring village of Nazar fits well into his conception of what he thought might unfold. Not only did the terrain make his position difficult to outflank, but all the roads on which his troops might flee in a worst-case scenario led to the same place, thus making it easy for him to form them up again if necessary. Not unexpectedly, the Cristinos even- tually forced a general withdrawal of the Carlists.

Yet Zumalacárregui did not deem the battle of Asarta a defeat. His army had for a while stood up and fought against an enemy of roughly equal size but with much better arms, equipment, and training, and he believed that his men had suffered fewer casualties than the Cristinos. It was now clear that they could stand firmly against an initial attack, withdraw in a relatively orderly fashion if necessary, and then reassemble without much loss. Up until this point, Carlist soldiers had typically deserted after battles. This time, the battle’s end brought with it new volunteers, and some officers in the queen’s army actually went over to the Carlists. Zumalacárregui would continue to prove an insurmountable obstacle to the government army’s success until his demise in the summer of 1835, when he died from wounds suffered during his ill-advised siege of Bilbao—an action he had reluctantly undertaken under pressure from the ruling Carlist Junta and Don Carlos himself.

More important for our purposes, however, is how the regular Spanish Army responded to Zumalacárregui and the Carlist insurrection in general. Its counterinsurgency methods evolved over time, including certain methods that would repeat themselves in other wars during the rest of the century. Early in the war, after the battle of Asarta, Cristino army leaders wisely elected not to pursue Zumalacárregui, who took his battalions to the Navarrese valley of Amescóa, about thirty-five miles southwest of Pamplona. Surrounded by mountain ranges but relatively well connected with the Basque Country, it was good guerrilla terrain.

The strategy of the queen’s army was to build a line of forts at key points along the Ebro River between Pamplona and Logroño, thereby boxing the Carlists into the southwest corner of Navarre while also securing their own communications line with Madrid. But the forts were hardly sufficient to root out the insurgents, who may have lacked resources but benefited from superior local intelligence, knowledge of terrain, and a lack of burdensome supply trains. As a result of the failure of this counterinsurgency strategy, a new supreme commander, General Vicente Gonzalo de Quesada, took over the government’s army in February 1834. He came up with a new plan for subduing the Carlists in the north that, while theoretically sensible, in practice proved more difficult to realize than he had expected.

He too aimed to take away some of the Carlists’ mobility and force them to concentrate into smaller areas, where he could then wield his superior force against the insurgents on his own terms. To achieve this goal, he sought to place large and well-armed columns at key points, create smaller, mobile—or ‘‘flying’’—columns that could be brought together or separated as necessary, and build more forts to better secure his own communications. The problem lay in the human and logistical resources that such a strategy entailed. The mobile columns he envisioned would require 10,000 troops and 400 horses, and garrisoning the forts as necessary required another some 3,000 men. Maintaining security in the cities of San Sebastian and Pamplona, moreover, required about 2,500 troops. Such numbers were simply too high, even as the Spanish government called up another 25,000 men in addition to the regular draft in February.

In late June, José Rodil replaced Quesada as the Cristino commander in chief in the north, and he modified the government’s counterinsurgency strategy in the north once again. Believing that key individuals lay behind much of the rebels’ fighting spirit and success on the battlefield, he divided his forces into three parts, two of which he devoted to pursing Zumalacárregui and Don Carlos, respectively. The third’s task was to garrison the existing forts. Unfortunately for Rodil, the gamble did not pay off. Although at one point he came close to capturing Carlos, in general his strategy was counterproductive, as it exacted grueling marches from his men for little gain.

To make matters worse for the Cristinos, Zumalacárregui organized some of his best and most audacious officers and sergeants into very small, highly mobile units—or flying bands—that severely hindered government communications, and these units would grow in size with time. Taking advantage of their local knowledge, they made communications very dangerous for the Cristinos, harassing them, monitoring their movements, and intercepting messages. Much like the Spanish guerrillas fighting the French decades earlier, the Carlists thereby tied down an increasing number of the queen’s troops. In this way, the Carlists compen- sated at least in part for their relative lack of numbers, which were too small to blockade the government garrisons in a traditional fashion.

After Zumalacárregui’s death in June 1835 and the defeat at Mendigor- ri´a one month later, the Carlists in the north suffered a notable loss of momentum. They gained almost complete control of the interior of the Basque provinces, but the concurrent shift from Zumalacárregui’s strategy of roving operations to one of occupation also led to a decline in Carlist morale, and a stalemate ensued. After another failed attempt by the Carlists to besiege Bilbao and a major Cristino victory at Luchana at the end of 1836, the queen’s army attempted to break the stalemate with a decisive offensive in the north. However, their plan, which called for a simultaneous advance on Carlist territory in Guipúzcoa from Pamplona, San Sebastian, and Bilbao, presupposed an operational-level competence that the army simply did not have, and all three columns suffered high losses and had to return to their bases. From this point on, it was clear that the war’s center of gravity no longer lay in the north.

The army also failed in its attempts to crush the famous ‘‘expeditions’’ later launched by the Carlists, which consisted of several large columns—one led by Don Carlos himself—that made their way through various parts of Spain. Although they made their presence known all over the peninsula, motivating the existing guerrilla partidas and garnering much popular support, they did not change the military balance directly. They did, however, draw attention to the seeming impotence of the government forces that pursued them, thereby publicizing their cause in Spain and abroad and helping weaken the position of the Queen’s government in Madrid. To make matters worse for the Cristinos, in lower Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia the government forces struggled with increasing difficulty against not only independent guerrilla bands but also troops under the command of Ramón Cabrera, a former seminarian who proved to be one of the Carlists’ most effective military leaders. The Cristinos created a new force—the so-called army of the center—in response to the growing difficulties they faced in the east.

In the end, though, internal rivalries within the Carlist camp facilitated the end of this long and bloody civil war. In early 1839, the commander in chief of the Carlist forces, General Rafael Maroto, asserted his authority over the theologically extremist and intransigent faction of the movement by having four rival Carlist generals shot. Negotiations between him and the leader of the Cristino forces, General Baldomero Espartero, ensued. The two men signed an armistice on August 29, and the war-weary north could finally return to peacetime. In the east, Carlists continued to fight, but the queen’s army could easily concentrate on this area now, effectively crushing all remaining resistance by the summer of 1840.

Thus, when all was said and done, victory had come not through brilliant counterinsurgency planning or operations, but rather from improvised strategy and attrition. Yet during the course of the conflict, the Spanish Army had experimented with various counterinsurgency tactics, and its operations had improved over time. The question remained, then, what the army would learn from the experience. Did this victory herald institutional change in the Spanish Army? Unfortunately for subsequent Spanish governments, it did not. Instead, army culture remained very much oriented toward regular war. Moreover, political interests and conflicts continued to plague the officer corps, which only grew in size as promotions were handed out to reward loyalty.

Steven’s Balagan
Spanish and Portuguese Military History, Wargaming, and other stuff

1 thought on “The First Carlist War (1833– 40)

  1. Hi Steven, I ‘m researching an ancestor from Minorca, named Miguel Guerrero, b. 1810. Is it possible to know which side of the conflict he would have fought for, and are there any regimental rolls in existence where I might find his name listed in either the Carlist or Christino army?
    Is it possible since he lived in Minorca that he might have served in the Spanish navy?
    Thx for your help!


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