Mercenaries' tales

The human face of the Battle of Bailén

Civil Guard historians unearth Swiss mercenaries’ recruitment documents

Reding regiment soldiers in a recreation of the Battle of Bailén in 2010.
Reding regiment soldiers in a recreation of the Battle of Bailén in 2010.José Manuel Pedrosa

Polish infantryman Pedro Imovitsch — age 24, snub-nosed, large-mouthed, wide-faced, unmarried, with no profession and illiterate — would surely never have imagined that his personal details would be subjected to the scrutiny of historians 200 years after he enlisted in the 3rd Swiss Regiment Reding in 1809. But thanks to a chance find on the internet, Imovitsch’s records, along with 84 other soldiers who fought against Napoleon, are now being studied by the Civil Guard’s Heritage Group.

Earlier this year, Civil Guard historians came across a website offering historic documents for sale. These were official forms with the seal of the 3rd Swiss Regiment Reding, a unit of Swiss mercenaries in the Spanish Army and one of several Swiss regiments serving the Spanish Crown in the 18th century that fought at the Battle of Bailén on July 19, 1808 against the French occupying forces of Napoleon.

The first lot on sale consisted of 21 well-preserved documents, each with an asking price of between 200 and 300 euros.

Civil Guard historians checked with the Army’s Institute of History and Military Culture, which confirmed that the documents had originally been in its custody, but could offer no clues as to who had taken them or why.

But the historians were not put off, and began trying to piece together the puzzle. Eventually they learned that the documents had been in the possession of the family of a collector from Seville, and then sold to an bookseller, who in turn had sold them to three collectors in Cádiz, Málaga, and Seville, since when the 84 other documents have been found, according to the Civil Guard.

The documents provide invaluable information and insight into the recruits. They include the names of both parents, place and date of birth, height, and other physical characteristics. This information is very useful when it comes to identifying those who fell in combat, which many would have done. By the 1790s there were about 13,000 mercenaries in the Swiss contingent of a Spanish army that totaled 137,000 soldiers. Their final role in Spanish service was against the French in the Peninsular War under Theodor von Reding.

The Kaiser Regiment was based in Málaga when the Spanish rose up against Napoleon, and was active throughout Andalusia, but also fought in other engagements throughout Spain.

Von Reding was born in Switzerland in 1755. He served in Spain as a governor and general, leading Swiss and Spanish troops against Napoleon’s forces, earning the admiration of the Spanish for his leadership and bravery. He was appointed Governor of Málaga in 1806, and in 1808 his 3rd Swiss Regiment Reding fought under Spain’s General Castaños at the Battle of Bailén.

The following year he was wounded during the Battle of Valls, and died in Tarragona 11 days later from fever and the consequences of his wounds.

The Battle of Bailén marked the turning point in Napoleón’s European wars, forcing him to withdraw from Spain.

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