French Foreign Legion: Order of Battle during the First Carlist War

In 1830 the French both invaded Algeria and disbanded the seven regiments of Swiss and Germans in the French Army (Windrow, 1981) . To feed the former action and get the disgruntled ex-soldiers off the streets they created the ‘Foreign Legion’ for service outside continental France (9 Mar 1831). The battalions were organised in the same way as the French Line Infantry with eight companies of 112 men . Initially there were no flank companies, but in Apr 1832 the battalions were each permitted to convert two of their fusilier companies into elite units, one of Grenadiers and one of Light Infantry (Voltigeurs). The Legion entered combat on 27 Apr 1832. They received their first flag in Jun 1832.

The initial battalions had the following national mixes (Windrow, 1981):

  • 1st – trained ex-soldiers from the Swiss and Hohenhohe regiments.
  • 2nd – ditto
  • 3rd – ditto
  • 4th – Spanish (disbanded in Feb 1834 to release them for service at home in the First Carlist War)
  • 5th – Sardinians and Italians
  • 6th – Dutch and Belgians (who, in 1831, hated each other)
  • 7th/4th – Poles (not completed until Feb1834, where upon it replaced the Spanish 4th)

In Spring 1835 the French agreed to hand the Legion over to the Spanish government for use against Don Carlos in the First Carlist War (Windrow, 1981). The French saw this as an expedient way to fulfil their obligations in the Quadruple Alliance. The officers had a choice of going, but the men did not. They landed at Tarragona on 17 Aug 1835 (actually Windrow says 1832 but this is clearly a typo) with 123 officers and some 4,000 men. Colonel Joseph Bernelle, their commander in Spain until Aug 1836, was granted the local rank of general. He abolished the national battalions; he initially grouped national companies into mixed battalions, but soon even this was abandoned.

In Spain they were known to the locals as the Algerians (Argelinos) because of their previous station (Cairns, 1994b). Argelinos is always translated to Algerines in the sources, however, this term is not recognised by my spell checker. Field (1995) refers to them as the Franco-Algerine Legion.

Meanwhile, on 16 Dec 1835, as the old unit was fighting it out in Spain, the French government announced the formation of a second Foreign Legion of one battalion (Windrow, 1981). This, and subsequent units, was of mixed nationality. This new 7th Battalion was shipped to Spain in summer 1836, but they were the last to go and later units were sent to Algeria.

After three years of hard fighting, and with only 500 men left in the ranks, the old Legion was disbanded on 8 Dec 1838 (Windrow, 1981).


17 Aug 1835

123 officers and some 4,000 men in 6 battalions (Chant, 1983; Windrow, 1981). Colonel Bernelle commanding. Initially the battalions were Italian, Belgian, Polish, 3 x Swiss/German, but soon mixed.

Holt (1967) says initially 4,000 and reinforced by another 4,000 men, however, this seems too high for only 6 battalions. Windrow gives 4,000 men with one battalion as reinforcements.

Duncan (1997), says 3,000 and that they arrived at the end of Oct 1835.

Mar 1836

Bernelle formed a battery and 3 squadrons of Polish Lancers from existing personnel (Windrow, 1981). The lancers may well have been Polish by nationality as well as in style.

Summer 1836

Reinforced by the first battalion from the new Foreign Legion (Windrow, 1981). I’m not sure if this was kept intact or broken up as replacements for other units. In fact there were two drafts of replacement until Nov 1836.

Aug 1836

The French government relieved Bernelle of his command due to his constant complaints about governmental neglect of his men (Windrow, 1981).

Nov 1836

Colonel Conrad took over command of the Legion, which, despite the recent replacements was down to three weak battalions (Windrow, 1981).

Mar 1837

Down to 2000 including Lancers (??)

24 May 1837: Battle of Huesca

Down to a battalion of 800 men (Windrow, 1981). [Must try to find out where the figure of 800 comes from. This was mentioned by one of the sources for the Battle of Barbastro.]

2 Jun 1837: Battle of Barbastro

The remaining battalion was mauled in heavy fighting – the sources talk as though it was effectively destroyed (Cairns, 1995a; Windrow, 1981). Ironically it was a Carlist battalion of 450 Argelinos deserters who did this, although they were destroyed themselves. Colonel Conrad was killed during this action.

8 Dec 1838

Down to 500 when disbanded (Windrow, 1981). Surprisingly 400 of these reenlisted in France for service in Algeria.


Cairns, C. (1994b, November). A Savage and Romantic War: Spain 1833-1840. Part II: The Cristino forces. Wargames Illustrated, 86, 36-46.

Chant, R. H. (1983). Spanish Tiger: The Life and Times of Ramón Cabrera. New York: Midas.

Field, C. (1995, Sept). Some account of the British operations against the Carlists, 1836-1837. Tonbridge, UK: Pallas Armata. Reprinted from the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution LXII:446, May 1917, p209-223.

Holt, E. (1967). The Carlist Wars in Spain. London: Putnam.

Windrow, M. (1981). Uniforms of the French Foreign Legion 1831-1981. Blandford: Poole.

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