Spanish Military Power – First Half of the Eighteenth Century I

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Spain was Europe’s foremost military power. By the later seventeenth century, however, it had lost that primacy. The War of the Spanish Succession represented a nadir of Spain’s military fortunes as war engulfed the peninsula and the Monarchy lost the territories which had hitherto housed two of its three main, permanent fighting forces, the Army of Flanders and the Army of Lombardy, the third being the Army of Catalonia. Indeed, Philip V’s triumph in the succession struggle owed much to the military support of his grandfather, Louis XIV. After the conclusion of that conflict, however, Philip’s Spain reemerged as a significant independent military power.

Spain’s military revival after 1713 owed much to the fact that Philip’s opponents in Europe, notably the Austrian Habsburgs, both were weak and prioritised other theatres of war. Those successes also owed something in the 1730s and 1740s to the support of allies, above all, France, who not only diverted Philip’s opponents in those other theatres, the Rhine and Flanders, but also collaborated with his forces in Italy. Yet Philip could not always find allies, fighting alone between 1717 and 1720, while allies had their own priorities, Louis XV ending the War of the Polish Succession before the Spanish court had achieved all of its objectives in Italy. Philip therefore needed an independent military capability rooted in Spain. He had gone some way towards achieving this in the succession struggle, during which Spain’s Habsburg military inheritance was transformed. The multifaceted overhaul included the replacement of the distinctive tercios by regiments; the introduction of a new hierarchy of ranks and the assertion of greater royal control over appointments; the adoption of new weaponry; the establishment of new corps, including that of engineers; the elaboration of a structure of royal commissaries; and last but by no means least, a marked expansion of the army, which by 1713 was not only larger than that which Philip had inherited but also a standing force stationed in Spain rather than in Flanders and Lombardy.

Unfortunately, however, while much attention has rightly been paid to these initial reforms, Philip V’s army after the War of the Spanish Succession is in many respects terra incognita. Spanish historians have enhanced our understanding of that army in recent decades. But other historiographical trends, including the prevalence of prosopographical studies, mean that they have largely ignored it as the fighting instrument abroad which so impressed contemporaries. They also neglect the sheer extent of the military effort represented by major operations in Africa and Italy and the impact of that effort not only on the army itself, in terms of additional reform and the way this contributed in turn to further progress in the direction of modernisation and state formation, but also on Philip’s subjects.

How far was Philip building on as well as overhauling the legacy of the Spanish Habsburg state? Just how he and his ministers responded to the logistical challenge of major operations and how far they innovated in preferring public, state administration over the private sector asiento favoured by the Habsburgs offer one area of comparison. For many later commentators Philip’s Spain was not only a fiscal-military state but also a nation-state, but it is not at all clear that the composition of his army fully justifies the claim. As for the impact of Philip’s military adventures on his subjects, some have suggested that early Bourbon Spain, echoing developments elsewhere, was militarised, but this too is questionable.

Commitments and Numbers

Philip V oversaw a substantial increase in the size of his army in Spain in the course of the War of the Spanish Succession, during which large numbers of his subjects were mobilised, to a total of 100,000 men in 1714. He continued to maintain large, permanent forces thereafter. As is true in the case of all armies in early modern Europe, it is not easy to be precise about the size of those forces. It is not always clear whether the figures given in contemporary sources or those used by later historians are complete: there was frequently a difference, for example, between a unit’s establishment, that is, the number of men when it was complete, and the number of effectives. This helps explain the widely varying figures sometimes given for the same forces. Nevertheless, as long as we recognise that the official figures, often derived from the periodic musters or reviews, do not always represent the true picture, they remain a useful indicator.

Philip V had lost Flanders and Italy by 1713, but his defence commitments thereafter continued to span the Atlantic. Before the reign of Charles III there was no permanent Army of America. Instead, apart from scattered garrisons in key fortresses there, men were despatched to the Indies as and when required. In 1726 troops were sent to Havana as Anglo–Spanish relations deteriorated between the alliances of Vienna and Hanover and following the departure of an English squadron to the Caribbean, while the outbreak of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739 triggered the departure of more units to Spanish America. Within a few years, however, the war in Europe—in Italy—was once again centre stage: Spanish troops no longer fought in Flanders, but in terms of military priorities Europe came first for the Spanish court, as it had before 1700.

In Europe, Spain’s land frontiers and extensive coastline required constant defence, the new British presence at Gibraltar adding to Philip V’s commitments in this respect before, during, and after the siege of 1727. But the disposition of Philip’s troops in Spain itself was not determined just by external threats; a substantial military presence in the territories of the Crown of Aragon mirrored the fact that the exercise of greater royal authority from 1707 onwards rested on Philip’s assertion of a right of conquest. Throughout the reign large numbers of troops were deployed in Aragon, Valencia, and above all Catalonia. In the summer of 1717, 43 of 81 infantry battalions in Philip’s pay were stationed in the crown of Aragon, 35 of them in Catalonia. Twenty years later it was claimed that there were rarely fewer than 20–30,000 troops in Catalonia, in part to contain its population.

Philip could not neglect either the islands or the garrisons beyond the peninsula. After its reconquest in 1715, a large garrison was also stationed on the island of Majorca, whose strategic importance was increased by the British occupation of neighbouring Menorca and the threat it posed. Indeed, in 1740, following the outbreak of war with Britain, an expedition against Menorca was discussed in Madrid but was abandoned in favour of intervention in Italy. What was left of empire in north Africa and Italy, that is, the coastal garrisons, or presidios, also had to be manned. In Africa these included Alhucemas, Ceuta, Melilla, el Peñón, and, from 1732, Oran. In Italy the presidios meant Porto Longone, off the Tuscan coast. In 1734 Philip, as we have seen, ceded Porto Longone, along with Naples and Sicily, to Don Carlos, but it continued to be garrisoned by Philip’s troops.

The concentration of troops on Spain’s eastern seaboard also reflected the military thrust into the Mediterranean after 1713. Apart from the achievement of a large standing army in Spain itself, the most striking feature of Spanish military activity between 1713 and 1748 was the occasional expeditions overseas, which often triggered a more substantial military commitment. They also helped to determine the size of Philip’s army, which expanded and contracted with his changing commitments in Africa and Italy (table 1). In 1715, following the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, Philip effected a substantial reform, or reduction, but the first cycle of intervention in the Mediterranean triggered the recruitment of about 33,000 men between the summer of 1717 and 1720, an increase of almost 50 percent. There was another bout of cost cutting after 1720, in which most of the new units disappeared. But the War of the Polish Succession and Spanish intervention in Italy meant renewed expansion. In February 1734 José Patiño envisaged raising the number of troops in Philip’s pay by just over 40,000, an increase of 50 percent, to give an army of 123,900. In fact, 20 new regiments were raised, while existing ones were increased in size, such that this target was exceeded, the Spanish army peaking at more than 130,000 men. The end of the Polish succession struggle was followed by another round of reductions, so that war in the Caribbean from 1739 and in Italy from 1741 prompted another expansion. Initially, in 1741, this involved adding a third battalion to existing regiments of just 2 battalions—10 battalions in all, a total of 6,500 men—although all were disbanded by the end of 1744. By means of various separate agreements concluded throughout the war, other units were taken into service. Peace in 1748 was followed by the usual reform.

Recruitment of Foreign Troops

Philip V and Ferdinand VI found men in a variety of ways, some abroad, some at home, preferring volunteers but also using compulsion. Whereas the cavalry was levied almost entirely within Spain, simply because it was easier to recruit, the infantry was much more cosmopolitan. In general, more than 50 percent of the infantry were Spanish, as in 1716 and 1724, but these were years of peace, and the foreign component tended to expand and sometimes to predominate when overseas operations were undertaken. In 1731, for example, of 8 infantry battalions which were to accompany Don Carlos to Italy, just two were Spanish. The foreign component continued to loom large but may have fallen in the course of the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1745 Spaniards contributed 32,500 of the 49,000 infantry in the Infante’s army in Italy, while in the spring of 1747 the marqués de la Mina thought Spain’s contribution to an allied total in Italy of 75,000 infantry would comprise 591/2 battalions, of which 47 were Spanish and the rest, just 20 percent, were foreign. Whatever the explanation for the decline, in the latter stages of the Austrian succession conflict, the Spanish monarch may have been recruiting more of his own Spanish subjects.

Foreign troops were attractive for various reasons, the most important being Spain’s limited manpower. Establishing the population of Spain in the early eighteenth century is no easy matter. Nevertheless, the basic trends are clear and were positive. Spain’s population may have grown by two million between the late seventeenth century and the middle of the eighteenth to a total of about eight million around 1713 and to just over nine million by 1768. Certain areas were more populous, including Galicia, in the northwest, the capital, Madrid, which drew immigrants from the rest of the country, and Andalusia, making these attractive recruiting grounds. Nevertheless, Philip V’s Spain could not boast the demographic resources of France and this fact, as Spanish and foreign commentators made clear, limited the number of Philip’s Spanish subjects who could be diverted into the military without disrupting Spain’s economy and antagonising those same subjects. Foreign troops, on the other hand, were less likely to desert in Spain, where they had fewer kin and friends to shelter them, and, while costly, they might be easily raised in wartime close to where they might have to serve and just as easily disposed of, that is, be demobilised, at the end of a conflict. These factors helped ensure that, like his Habsburg predecessors, Philip relied on a substantial minority of foreign troops rather than on an entirely Spanish army drawn from the Iberian peninsula and islands: 15 of the 18 new infantry regiments levied for Italy in 1717–20 were raised in Italy and Switzerland. While Spaniards may have loomed larger between 1741 and 1748 (above), thereafter Ensenada saw the taking on of foreign units, 28 battalions, as a key part of the solution to the problem of recruitment.

Foreign troops included entire units such as companies, battalions, and regiments as well as individuals, some of them drawn from foreign communities long resident in Spain. There had long been a substantial French contingent in Spain, one swelled during the succession conflict, and this was one source of men. Portuguese, too, were frequently recruited, in large part along the frontier with that state. Another source of foreign recruits was the Irish resident in Spain. Their numbers grew in the early eighteenth century with the influx of many of those who had abandoned Ireland following the Williamite conquest in 1689–91 and who, often after a brief residence in France, moved to Spain during and after the War of the Spanish Succession. For some of these Irish exiles military service was a stepping-stone to high office in Spain. Exemplary in this respect was the career of Ricardo Wall: having fought in the marine corps on the Sicilian expedition in 1718, he served in the army in Italy in the War of the Austrian Succession before being appointed secretary of state by Ferdinand VI.

Some of the foreign units in Philip V’s service were essentially the inheritance of the past and served a nonmilitary as well as military purpose. Thus units of both the Flemish, or Walloon, Guards and the Italian Guards (below), which helped maintain the connection between the Spanish court and the elites of the former Flemish and Italian territories of the Monarchy throughout the century, fought in most of Philip’s African and Italian campaigns. So, too, did various units raised in Italy in the War of the Spanish Succession, units which followed Philip to Spain when Spanish Italy collapsed. Some other Italian units were raised during the later Italian expeditions, between 1718 and 1720 (above), from 1734, and in 1741–42.

Other foreigners served in whole units which Philip V took into pay for a fixed period. This meant above all the Swiss Catholic regiments, whose attractions included the proximity of their recruiting ground(s) to the theatres, notably Italy, where they would serve. In 1720 a capitulation for such a regiment was agreed with one Charles Ignacio Niderist and was renewed in November 1724, and in May 1725 another, for 3,200 men in 16 battalions of 200 men each, with one Charles Alfonso Besler. In 1732 more agreements of this sort were agreed with a number of Swiss officers. The Swiss could be problematic: they were expensive and sometimes effectively went on strike until paid their arrears, as happened on campaign in Italy in 1735. However, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, and in 1737 Philip renewed the capitulation with Besler for ten years. In the summer of 1742 a number of Swiss officers already in Philip’s service agreed to raise a further 10 battalions, most of which served in Italy. This helped ensure that in the summer of 1745 there were at least 14 battalions of Swiss in Spanish service in Savoy and Nice, totalling about 3,500 men. Spanish commanders and ministers continued to debate the value of the Swiss, but they remained an essential ingredient of Spain’s fighting machine.

The distinction between Spanish and non-Spanish troops should not be exaggerated: between 1717 and 1720 some of the supposed Spanish regiments in Sardinia and Sicily were, necessarily, recruited locally, either from the population of those islands or in adjacent mainland Italy. By the same token non-Spanish units include Spaniards. In 1717 Philip allowed his Irish, Italian, and Walloon regiments to recruit in Spain, in view of the difficulties they faced in recruiting in their home territories, and he did so again during the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1745 all 4 battalions of the Milan and Brabant (Walloon) infantry regiments were recruiting in Spain and Italy. As for the Irish regiments, which, according to privileges granted to the Irish community by earlier Spanish monarchs, were treated as native Spaniards, they recruited more widely in Britain. In 1733, for example, Colonel Raimundo Burk was allowed to complete his Limerick regiment by recruiting English and Scots as well as Irish. Those Irish units also included many Spaniards by 1748. War had thus facilitated, even accelerated, the hispanisation of some of the foreign units in Spanish service.

Whatever their nationality and arguably more important in giving the army of Philip V, the Catholic King, an identity was that it was overwhelmingly Christian and, above all, Roman Catholic. The association of Philip’s cause with Roman Catholicism had played an important role in his winning the succession struggle and remained influential after 1713. In October 1746 deserters from the Irish Ultonia regiment were condemned to the galleys, but that sentence was commuted to perpetual military service following their conversion to Roman Catholicism.


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