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Millán Astray, the son of a lawyer, was born in La Coruña, Spain, on 5th July 1879. Astray entered the Infantry Academy in Toledo on 30th August 1894 and graduated as a second lieutenant two years later. After spending six months in an infantry regiment stationed in Madrid he went to the Escuela Superior de Guerra to study for the general staff diploma.
In November 1896 Astray left his course in order to volunteer for active service in the Philippines where a nationalist rebellion against Spanish rule was taking place. The following month he became a national hero when he successfully led thirty men against two thousand rebels at San Rafael.
After winning three medals for bravery, Astray returned to the Escuela Superior de Guerra in June 1897. He graduated in 1899 and by January 1905 had reached the rank of captain.
In 1910 Astray joined the staff of the Infantry Academy of Toledo where he taught military history and tactics. He missed the excitement of warfare and in August 1912 he was transferred to Morroco. Astray remained in Africa until 1917 when he returned to Madrid. The following year he began to argue that Spain needed a mercenary army to serve in Spain's colonies. Tovar Marcoleta liked the idea and in 1919 sent him to study the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.
Astray was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in January 1920 was named head of the Spanish Foreign Legion (Tercio de Extranjeros). He appointed Francisco Franco as his second in command. The first volunteers arrived in Ceuta in October 1920. Astray told his new recruits "you have lifted yourselves from among the dead - for don't forget that you were dead, that your lives were over. You have come here to live a new life for which you must pay with death. You have come here to die. Since you crossed the Straits, you have no mother, no girlfriend, no family; from today all that will be provided by the Legion." Astray added: "Death in combat is the greatest honour. You die only once. Death arrives without pain and is not so terrible as it seems. The most horrible thing is to live as a coward."
The Tercio de Extranjeros quickly developed a reputation for brutality. Astray and Franco encouraged the killing and mutilation of prisoners. Arturo Barea, who served under Astray in Morroco in 1921, later wrote: "When it attacked, the Tercio knew no limits to its vengeance. When it left a village, nothing remained but fires and the corpses of men, women and children."
Astray insisted on leading his men into battle. On 17th September 1921 he was hit in the chest by an enemy bullet. He returned to action three weeks later and on 10th January 1922 he received a bad leg wound.
In 1923 Astray was replaced by Francisco Franco as commander of the Tercio de Extranjeros. Astray was sent to France to study the organization of the French Army. The following year he joined the staff of the High Commissioner in Morroco. On 26th October 1924 he was ambushed by local rebels and his wounds led to him having his left arm amputated.
Astray returned as commander of the Tercio de Extranjeros in February 1926. He continued to lead his men into battle and the following month he lost his right eye when a bullet hit him in the face. In June 1927 he was promoted to Brigadier General and was given command of the Ceuta-Tetuán district. In January 1930 he was attached to the Ministry of War and eventually became a member of the Supreme War Council.
Astray held extreme right-wing political opinions. He fully supported the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and was dismayed by the abdication of Alfonso XIII and the establishment of a Republican government. In October 1934 he supervised the use of the Tercio de Extranjeros to repress the left-wing insurrection in Asturias. He later told a journalist that he was involved "a frontier war against socialism, communism and whatever attacks civilization in order to replace it with barbarism".
Involved in the military uprising against the Popular Front government in July 1936. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Astray was recruited by General Francisco Franco to join his staff in Seville. Soon afterwards he was placed in charge of the Nationalist propaganda operation. Astray also played an important role in persuading other senior officers that Franco should become commander of the Nationalist Army and chief of state of Spain.
In his speeches Astray openly claimed that he wanted to establish a fascist government in Spain. At a speech in Salamanca on 12th October 1936 he told the audience: "Catalonia and the Basque Country are two cancers in the body of the nation! Fascism, Spain's remedy, comes to exterminate them, slicing healthy, living flesh like a scalpel."
During the Second World War Astray was a great supporter of Nazi Germany. He encouraged men to join the Blue Division that fought with the German Army on the Eastern Front. Astray hoped that an Axis victory would lead to a new Spanish Empire in Africa.
After the war Astray went into retirement. Millán Astray died of a heart-attack on 1st January 1954.
(1) Millán Astray, speech made at meeting of new recruitsto the Spanish Foreign Legion (10th October 1920)
You have lifted yourselves from among the dead - for don't forget that you were dead, that your lives were over. You have come here to live a new life for which you must pay with death. You have come here to die. Since you crossed the Straits, you have no mother, no girlfriend, no family; from today all that will be provided by the Legion.
Death in combat is the greatest honour. You die only once. Death arrives without pain and is not so terrible as it seems. The most horrible thing is to live as a coward.
(2) Arturo Barea served under Millán Astray in Morocco in 1921. He later wrote about Astray in his book La Forja de un Rebelde (1951)
Millán Astray's entire body underwent an hysterical transfiguration. His voice thundered and sobbed and howled. He spat into the faces of these men all their misery, their shame, their filth, their crimes, and then he dragged them along in fanatical fury to a sense of chivalry, to a renunciation of all hope beyond that of dying a death which would wash away the stains of their cowardice in the splendor of heroism.
When it attacked, the Tercio knew no limits to its vengeance. When it left a village, nothing remained but fires and the corpses of men, women and children. Thus, I witnessed the villages of Bern Aros razed to the ground in the spring of 1921. Whenever a legionary was murdered on a lonely cross-country march, the throats of all the men in the neighbouring villages were cut unless the assailant came forward."
(3) Millán Astray was interviewed by Rafael Abella about his experiences as commander of the Tercio de Extranjeros.
My war cry is 'Legionaries to fight, Legionarios to die'. And when we Legionarios fight and we see death nearby, we sing the 'Hymn of the Legion' and when we are happy and content, we also sing it because in the 'Hymn of the Legion' can be found the purest essences of our soul: not just in the words but in the music, in the singing of the rhythm and in the vibrant notes of the bugles. That is why, when I undergo painful treatment for my wounds in hospital, I place a piano in the next room and have a Legionario play the 'Hymn of the Legion' and 'El Novio de la Muerte' so as not to feel the pain. Once, when they had just amputated my arm, the wounded Legionarios who were in the hospital threw themselves from their beds, whether they could walk or not, and with the latter dragging themselves along the floor, they all came to my room to sing me the 'Hymn of the Legion'. I also jumped out of bed and, standing rigidly to attention, I sang with them. Another time, when I was being taken on a stretcher from one hospital to another, wounded by a cruel bullet which had gone through my temple, as we went through Riffien where the Legion has its headquarters, everyone came out to sing the 'Hymn of War' and I jumped from the stretcher and I sang with them.
(4) Millán Astray, speech in Salamanca (12th October 1936)
Catalonia and the Basque Country are two cancers in the body of the nation! Fascism, Spain's remedy, comes to exterminate them, slicing healthy, living flesh like a scalpel.
(5) Miguel de Unamuno, reply to speech made by Millán Astray, in Salamanca (12th October 1936)
Much has been said here about the international war in defence of Christian civilization; I have done the same myself on other occasions. But no, our war is only an uncivil war. To win is not to convince, and it is necessary to convince and that cannot be done by the hatred which has no place for compassion. There has been talk too of Catalans and Basques, calling them the anti-Spain. Well, with the same justification could they say the same of you. Here is the Bishop, himself a Catalan, who teaches you Christian doctrine which you don't want to learn. And I, who am a Basque, I have spent my life teaching you the Spanish language, which you do not know.
General Millan Astray is a war invalid. It is not necessary to say this in a whisper. Cervantes was too. But extremes cannot be taken as the norm. Unfortunately, today there are too many invalids. And soon there will be more if God does not help us. It pains me to think that General Millan Astray might dictate the norms of mass psychology. An invalid who lacks the spiritual grandeur of Cervantes, who was a man, not a superman, virile and complete despite his mutilations, an invalid, as I said, who lacks that superiority of spirit, is often made to feel better by seeing the number of cripples around him grow. General Millan Astray would like to create a new Spain in his own image, a negative creation without doubt. And so he would like to see a mutilated Spain
You will win but you will not convince. You will win because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And to persuade you need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. It seems to me useless to beg you to think of Spain.