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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Military Might of the Kingdom of Spain

The Military Might of the Kingdom of Spain 
Although it may not seem so today, the Spanish have been a fighting nation and a country of great martial glory for the vast majority of their history. Perhaps because the Spanish had the good sense to stay out of the two World Wars, many people tend to forget this, particularly in the present when most of the countries of Europe have ceased to take the issue of national defense seriously. However, Spain is a country that was, in a sense, created on the field of battle, born out of the longest war in the history of the world. This produced a proud nation forged from the most intense flames of holy war. In the aftermath, innovation, a politically advantageous royal marriage or two and intense zeal surged the Kingdom of Spain rapidly forward as the most militarily powerful country in the western world, on land or sea, even though it had only recently freed itself from the shackles of foreign rule. The King of Spain had no equal in Europe and so looked to the west, from the “Land of the Setting Sun” to distant shores where the Spanish conquered the first empire upon which “the sun never sets”. This period of dominance was not able to be maintained but in the centuries that followed, the Spanish proved that they were perfectly capable of rising to the top again. Unfortunately, as with most great empires, the decline in Spanish fortunes only became disastrous when the Spanish started fighting each other rather than a foreign foe.


Don Pelayo de Asturias
It would be quite impossible to detail all of the military glories of Spain in a single article, so this will simply be a broad overview, looking at the major points and the major figures which too Spain from a conquered land of subject peoples to a unified nation that dominated entire continents. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions of the Vandals and Goths, the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain emerged. However, in 711 AD Visigothic Spain was invaded by Muslim forces from North Africa (with the help of non-Christian turncoats in Spain itself) and most of the Iberian Peninsula was swiftly conquered. However, the re-conquest of Spain (la Reconquista) began almost immediately with the critical victory of Don Pelayo at the Battle of Covadonga which established the Kingdom of Asturias as the one corner of the Iberian Peninsula that the Muslims never controlled. This was the beginning of the longest war in history, an often brutal conflict that would last for 800 years until the last Muslim stronghold was destroyed in 1492. Those centuries saw the emergence of several Spanish Christian kingdoms, all of them almost constantly at war with the Muslims and also, sadly, sometimes at war with each other.

This period of the Reconquista produced the great Christian warrior-culture of the Kingdom of Spain. It also produced a number of legendary military heroes such as “El Cid” and King St Fernando III of Castile as well as the great Spanish religious-military orders of knighthood; the Order of Calatrava, the Order of Santiago, the Order of Alcantara and the Order of Montesa. As it was a religious war, it also imbued the Spanish with a special regard for the ‘fighting faith’ with particular devotions such as to St James the Moor Slayer and Our Lady of Los Remedios. It was also this long era of struggle which produced the component parts of the Kingdom of Spain as we know it today. Eventually, the Christian states came to be dominated by two factions; the Kingdom of Castile (or Leon-Castile) and the Kingdom of Aragon. The driving force behind the final victory over the Muslims was Queen Isabella I of Castile, a formidable, pious and shrewd woman, and by her marriage to King Fernando of Aragon, Spain became united for the first time.

El Gran Capitan
Even before this was accomplished, however, mostly due to the Kingdom of Aragon, the Spanish had also taken control of southern Italy and when the French moved against them, the Spanish became embroiled in the series of conflicts known as the Italian Wars. It was there that arose one of the greatest soldiers in Spanish history and one of the most influential military commanders in the world; Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, known to the Spanish as “the Great Captain”. After an initial defeat, he was able to totally upset the French position without fighting a single major engagement and, once he was able, won a brilliant victory against them which was the first significant battlefield victory won by the use of firearms. This has impacted practically every war since up to the present day. It was Cordoba who set the standard, he was the example that the later Spanish conquistadores sought to emulate and he changed the way wars would be fought forever. To overstate the significance Cordoba has had on the art of war would be almost impossible and it was his lessons that influenced the men who would lead Spain to a position of military dominance in the western world.

Conquistadores
The year that King Fernando and Queen Isabella defeated the last of the Muslim forces in Spain, 1492, was also the year that a certain Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery which ultimately opened the Americas to European colonization. The Kingdom of Spain would ultimately come to dominate the whole of South America, other than Brazil, all of Central America and much of North America though this last point is sometimes forgotten. Spanish control encircled the Gulf of Mexico, reached the Great Plains and farther north in California than is generally known. However, in all of this conquest, two incredible victories stand out as the most dramatic and these were the conquest of the Aztecs of Mexico by Hernan Cortez and the Incas of Peru by Francisco Pizzaro. Today these men, particularly Pizzaro, tend to be vilified but what they accomplished was unparalleled in the history of the world. With only a few thousand men they were able to conquer entire empires and the victory of Cortez over the Aztecs, won by a combination of superior weaponry and tactics as well as diplomatic skill in winning over native allies, represents what is quite possibly the greatest single military campaign in world history. With less than 2,000 Spanish soldiers, Cortez was able to prevail over hundreds of thousands of Aztec warriors. That is a feat unparalleled in military history. This was, of course, a long affair with military campaigns ranging from what is now the United States to Chile and Argentina, with some defeats along the way of course, but ultimately the Spanish were successful in conquering a vast, bi-continental American empire.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Spanish combination of pikemen and musketeers quickly rose to dominate the battlefields of Europe. Habsburg Spain possessed the most powerful navy in the world and, contrary to some assertions, this did not end with the defeat of the mis-named “Invincible Armada” in 1588, though that was certainly a blow. One of the most important naval victories was, of course, the Battle of Lepanto which was fought by a largely Italian fleet against the Ottoman Turks, however, there was a sizeable Spanish contingent and it was a Spaniard, Don Juan of Austria, who was in command. On land, the Spanish were also heavily engaged in the Dutch Revolt and The Netherlands really became, for a time at least, the epicenter of the Catholic-Protestant war that was raging across Europe. The Dutch proved to be extremely formidable foes, yet they seemed to have met their match in the person of the Italian soldier Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, who commanded the Spanish army (and was the son of a natural daughter of the King of Spain).

Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma
The Duke of Parma is widely considered the most brilliant soldier of his day and he led the Spanish forces to victory after victory. Under his command, the Spanish army recaptured all of Belgium, securing it for the Catholic side and continued to push on into The Netherlands itself until the Dutch were cornered and facing certain doom. It was only the timely intervention of the English fleet which saved them. However, across the border in France, the Wars of Religion were still raging and when the Protestants began to gain the upper hand it was the Spanish army of the Duke of Parma which defeated the Protestant forces besieging Paris and then another Protestant army that was besieging Rouen. However, soon after a minor wound ultimately brought about Parma’s untimely death in 1592. As the Catholic-Protestant conflict continued, Spanish soldiers also saw extensive service in the Thirty Years War across Germany and central Europe aiding in significant Catholic victories such as the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Battle of Stadtlohn in 1623 and the Battle of Nordlingen in 1634. After the intervention of the French, the Spanish forces won a number of victories and came close to capturing Paris itself in 1636. The French backed a Portuguese revolt against Spain which, combined with the emergence of the great French commander the Prince de Conde, forced the Spanish on to the defensive.

The era that followed saw a decline in Spanish fortunes which coincided with the rising power of France and during this period, any Spanish loss was usually France’s gain. Spain was also badly hit by the War of Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War for Americans) in which Spanish forces were engaged on both sides. Spain lost numerous territories in Italy, the Mediterranean and had to hand Belgium over to Austria but the loss of Gibraltar would prove the point that has hurt the most, obsessing Spanish governments ever since. However, this overall period of decline did not go on indefinitely and during the reign of King Carlos III, the Kingdom of Spain was able to regain that glorious reputation from the past. During the American War for Independence, Spanish forces were almost everywhere successful, taking back total control of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, repelling a British invasion of Central America, retaking Minorca and capturing Pensacola, Florida. Spanish forces in North America raided British outposts to a greater extent than most are aware, even capturing a British fort in southern Michigan. The only Spanish operation which failed was the effort to re-take Gibraltar. Other than that, though, the Spanish forces had achieved every goal on their agenda.

El marques de la Romana
Unfortunately, this great victory was not capitalized upon but was followed by a period of decline which saw the Spanish military, particularly the army, reduced to a disastrous condition by the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The top Spanish general of the period, Don Gregorio de la Cuesta, was not the best and certainly not a “team player” in working with the British in the campaign to free the Iberian Peninsula from French rule. There were some heroic defensive battles in certain cities but, overall, the regular Spanish army performed quite poorly. However, there were still bright spots and signs that, with the proper care, Spain could have accomplished much more. It is generally agreed that the best Spanish commander of the period was General Pedro Caro, Marquis of La Romana. When King Carlos IV had been forced into an uneasy alliance with the French, La Romana led the Spanish contingent which served in northern Germany and Denmark. However, when Spain joined the Allies, La Romana used his considerable espionage talents to successfully withdraw most of his men to British ships where they were sent to join the fight for their homeland. La Romana faced a no-win scenario when he got home but still fought with great tenacity and secured numerous small-scale victories against the French before his untimely death in 1811. However, even at this time, the martial spirit of Spain survived among the people and while the regular army may have been lacking, the Spanish guerillas behind the lines waged an unrelenting campaign against the French which drained Napoleon’s forces considerably and played an absolutely crucial part in the ultimate Allied victory.

There were also a number of notable Spanish victories in the colonies during this period. In 1806-07, when Spain was allied to France, Spanish colonial forces successfully repelled a British invasion of what is now Argentina/Uruguay and in 1813 another Spanish colonial army defeated an army of Mexican revolutionaries and American land pirates at the Battle of Medina in Texas. In 1812 rebel forces in Venezuela were defeated by General Juan Domingo de Monteverde at the Battle of San Mateo, stopping the first republican effort at independence in that area. A year previously, the Count of Calderon, after a brilliantly fought campaign, led Spanish forces to victory at the Battle of Calderon bridge, defeating 100,000 Mexican rebels with only 6,000 royalists which put off Mexican independence for another decade. 1809 had similarly seen Jose Manuel de Goyeneche defeat rebel forces in Bolivia and blocked the expansion of the revolutionary movement out of Argentina until he was outflanked by General Belgrano and forced to retreat. Throughout all of this period, the Spanish forces were obviously capable of success and achieved incredible victories, however, the overall war effort was crippled by the internal divisions that would plague Spain for most of the rest of the century.

Tomas de Zumalacarregui
The original division, and one which was responsible for the success of numerous independence movements in the Spanish empire, was the conflict between those who favored a constitutional monarchy and those who backed King Fernando VII in restoring the absolute power. This lasted until the death of the King in 1833, by which time most of the empire had been lost and then followed a series of succession wars from 1833 to 1876 with brief respites in between the three major clashes. Spain stagnated while the country was locked in this bitter cycle of civil conflict. The Carlists (those who favored the succession of the King’s brother Don Carlos rather than his daughter Isabella II) came close to success on occasion but never quite achieved it. One problem was their lack of expert military leadership. There was, however, one man who emerged from the Carlist ranks who stood above the rest in talent and martial valor and that was General Tomas de Zumalacarregui who was devout, fearless and extremely skilled, winning one victory after another. However, Zumalacarregui was an asset that the Carlist leadership did not make best use of and following his death in 1835 there was really never another Carlist general that could measure up to his matchless talent.

The Carlist Wars also meant that focus tended to shift away from the remnants of the Spanish empire and major insurrections broke out in The Philippines and Cuba. The long, bitter struggle in Cuba eventually prompted intervention from the United States and the result was the Spanish-American War of 1898. Spain was outmatched and easily defeated at sea, however, if one looks at the battles fought in Cuba, one could still see the gallantry and determination of the glory days of Spain. The Spanish forces were defeated but they showed immense courage and inflicted considerably more losses on the enemy than they sustained themselves. Their valor and gallantry in the midst of a hopeless struggle was so impressive that they earned the admiration of their American foes. However, as the situation in Spain became, at least temporarily, more stable, military victories were still possible. In the First Melillan campaign (aka First Rif War) in Morocco, Spanish colonial forces won a decisive victory. The Second Melillan campaign (or Second Rif War) of 1909-1910 was a bit more intense and Spain took some heavy blows at the outset but, in the end, the Spanish army was once more victorious and the Spanish foothold in North Africa was expanded.

Spanish troops landing in Morocco
The Kingdom of Spain stayed out of World War I, showing better judgment than most European powers, but was soon forced back into another colonial conflict with the outbreak of the Third Rif War which lasted from 1920 to 1926. Once again, the Spanish were caught off guard and took the worst of it in the early stages of the conflict but, as before, in the end it was the Spanish forces that won the day, though this time they also had the support of the French who had a similar interest to seeing this problem dealt with for good. Not long after, the Spanish monarchy was overthrown and the horrific Second Spanish Republic was declared but the establishment, because of the last Rif War, of the Army of Africa and a Spanish Foreign Legion would prove important in the ultimate demise of the monstrous regime. The Army of Africa ultimately came under the command of General Francisco Franco and when a coup was launched in 1936 these forces were airlifted to the mainland and the Spanish Civil War ensued with the republican forces being aided by Mexico, the Soviet Union and communists and leftists from around the world (as well as subtle aid from France) while the nationalist forces, led by Franco received assistance from Germany and the Kingdom of Italy.

The civil war was a brutal and nasty business but there still stands out numerous examples of the finest martial tradition of the heroes of Spain. One such illustration was the heroic stand of General Jose Moscardo Ituarte at the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo where a thousand nationalists held out against a republican force eight times larger and with the general’s own son as a hostage. Franco took his army to relieve the siege and the result was a decisive nationalist victory. In 1937 Spanish nationalists with Italian support won a decisive victory at the Battle of Malaga which opened the way for a major string of successes for the nationalist side. In fact, the 1937 Battle of Guadalajara would largely be the only major republican victory of the entire war. Even in battles in which they held superior forces on land and in the air, the republicans proved unable to match the nationalists whose ranks included most of the professional soldiers of the Spanish army. In March of 1939 the last major nationalist offensive was launched and by April 1 Generalissimo Francisco Franco was able to announce the end of the war and his ultimate victory.

Agustin Munoz Grandes
The Spanish Civil War was extremely significant, not just for Spanish history but for the history of Europe in general as a republican victory may well have enabled the forces of international communism to dominate the continent. It was also the conflict that has been called the “dress rehearsal” for World War II, where many men and tactics were first tried that later rose to prominence in the largest war in history. Again, the Spanish had the good sense to stay out of World War II but some Spanish soldiers were involved. Franco allowed the formation of a volunteer unit, the “Blue Division” along with air support in the form of the “Blue Squadron” to aid the Axis war effort on the condition that they only be used on the eastern front to fight the Soviets and never against the western allies. Eventually, Allied pressure forced Franco to withdraw the Blue Division but they performed extremely well on what was arguably the harshest front of the war. Led by General Agustin Munoz Grandes, the division served with Army Group North in the siege of Leningrad and surrounding engagements. Hitler himself said that the Spanish Blue Division was, “equal to the best German ones”. While critical of their habits, Hitler nevertheless said that, when confronted by the Russians, “…the Spaniards have never yielded an inch of ground. One can’t imagine more fearless fellows. They scarcely take cover. They flout death. I know, in any case, that our men are always glad to have Spaniards as neighbors in their sector.”

After World War II, Spanish military activities have grown increasingly limited but still achieved success in the modest operations undertaken. There was the “Forgotten War” in Spanish West Africa fought in late 1957 to early 1958, assisted by the French, which ended in a Spanish victory. However, the Western Sahara War which lasted officially from 1975 to 1991 saw Spain abandon the area which remains disputed by several native groups all claiming ownership of the region. In the decades since, Spain has undertaken no major military operations but has participated modestly in numerous NATO military campaigns. The Kingdom of Spain sent a medical team to the Vietnam conflict, a team of engineers to the First Gulf War, engaged several aircraft in the NATO interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. In the (ongoing) war in Afghanistan, Spain contributed a rapid response force, logistical support personnel and military instructors but operated under orders not to engage the enemy, not to leave their area of operations and to fight only when directly attacked. Leadership of this international force is on a rotational basis and the Spanish contingent has declined to take charge each time their turn has come. To date, 102 Spanish military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan from all causes.

Spanish troops parade in Afghanistan
From 2003 to 2004 the Kingdom of Spain was officially a participant in the Iraq War (Second Persian Gulf War etc, names vary) or at least the aftermath with 1,300 military personnel serving, mostly in policing duties with 11 being killed during their time in the field. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, once elected to power, kept his promise to withdraw Spanish military forces from Iraq though, by that time, only 260 remained in the country. None of this is much out of the ordinary for European countries which, in the last fifty years or so, have drastically increased spending on social welfare programs while just as drastically downsizing their military forces, confident in their NATO membership that the United States military will handle any significant defense crisis that should arise. In short, Spain, like most European countries, have largely stopped taking national defense seriously, preferring to focus inwardly and on the European project rather than making their own way in the world at large.

In conclusion, we can see that the proper will, ambition and unity is all that is holding Spain back from being as powerful as it once was. Like many others, the people today have become comfortable with being a less than top-tier power. Throughout its history, the Kingdom of Spain has accomplished some of the greatest military feats of all time and those heroes of the past like Cordoba or Cortez possessed no magic, their blood was the same as that which flows through Spanish veins today. No one now would consider Spain a significant military power and they would have a number of explanations for this and excuses for why it cannot be otherwise. However, consider that, in economic terms, Spain is about equal to Russia. Yet, Russia is much more militarily significant because they devote more of their economy to national defense and developed their own nuclear deterrent. In other words, even with an economy little if any more productive than that of Spain, they have made different choices, they have made their military and an independent foreign policy their top priorities. Spain, as these pages have shown, can be and has been an extremely strong nation, a top-tier power and there is no reason that Spain cannot be again with the right decisions, a united people and something more than the material to believe in. ¡Viva el Rey! ¡Arriba España!