The Arab rebellion that swept the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula in World War I is often viewed as a transitional event that signaled the evolution of’small wars’ from failed prenationalistic resistance to European colonialism into successful post-World War II insurgencies, infused with nationalism and guided by Maoist revolutionary strategies.
T. E. Lawrence encouraged this perception. The hero of the ‘Arab Revolt’ proved—at least to his satisfaction—that with proper organization and strategy, indigenous resistance could triumph over modern, or at least modernized, conventional forces. Given the dearth of military heroes to emerge from the undistinguished butchery of the Western Front, the charismatic Lawrence, tirelessly promoted by Lowell Thomas, argued in the 1929 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica that under optimum conditions the pendulum of victory had swung conclusively to the insurgent: ‘Granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them the perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain.’
Lawrence’s belief in the inherent superiority of insurgency can hardly have been ‘algebraical,’ because by 1929, few resistance movements had triumphed. Successful uprisings, such as the revolutions in Santo Domingo and others in the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas, had succeeded because of contingent factors. Nor was Lawrence willing to acknowledge that in the final analysis the Turks in the Middle East had been defeated by a conventional British army, not submerged by the Arab Revolt. Nevertheless, Lawrence was probably on to something, even though he also appears to have ignored the rebellion that did signal the shift from prenational to ‘modern’ insurgencies: the Rif rebellion of 1921-26, orchestrated by Mohammed ben Abd el-Krim.
Spain had been an African power since the reign of Philip II, but barely. Its presidios at Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean had withstood Muslim sieges since the sixteenth century, and became the focus of indecisive skirmishes with local tribesmen in 1860 and 1893. Nevertheless, Madrid extracted some cosmetic concessions from the sultan of Morocco, while a penniless vanguard of Iberian immigrants trickled across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, where they enraged the locals by pig farming or selling alcohol.
Left to its own devices, Madrid probably would have been content with the status quo. However, in the twentieth century Spain was enticed into Morocco furtively, on the coattails of the French and by permission of London. In November 1912, after more than a decade of intensifying anarchy and armed scuffles followed by meaningless treaties that the sultan was powerless to enforce, Paris ceded a zone in the north of Africa to Spain. ‘The bone of the Jibala and the spine of the Rif’ was not a gift. Rather, it comprised a tortured sliver of mountainous, unmapped, austere topography stretching 225 miles along the coast from Larache on the Atlantic to the Moulouya River near the Algerian border, inhabited by murderously independent Berber tribes.
The Spanish promptly set about segmenting what one Spanish official judged ‘the most intractable people on earth’ into territories and comandancias, administered by a military high commissioner through the nominal authority of a caliph appointed by the sultan. Tétouan, nestled beneath a sweep of somber granite mountains dominated by the majestic Gorgues on the banks of the Martn River, was occupied in February 1913 and promptly designated the protectorate’s new capital.
The inevitable swarm of Iberian riffraff trailed in the wake of the ill-disciplined, infrequently paid Spanish army to populate this beckoning colonizadora. Led by specially recruited units like the Regulares, a Muslim force created in 1911, and the Spanish Foreign Legion, established in 1920 and popularly known as the Tercio in memory of the troops of Imperial Spain, lice-ridden Spanish conscripts directed by a claque of corpulent, corseted generals cautiously crept beyond the Mediterranean fringe in October 1920.
Their objective was Chechaouen, a picturesque collection of whitewashed houses under pointed red-tiled roofs that stood in a gorge forty mountainous miles from Tétouan in the central Rif Mountains. Sergeant Arturo Barea found Chechaouen’s twisted maze of narrow streets that echoed with the sound of donkeys’ hoofs charming, more Spanish than Moroccan, like medieval Toledo on a moonlit night. However, the hate-filled glances of the population combined with the wind ‘growling in the depths of the gullies’ to lend an air of intimidating melancholy to the place.
By 1921 three hundred miles of roads protected by blockhouses and diminutive posts crisscrossed the colony, a narrow-gauge railroad linked Ceuta with Tétouan, and Africanistas—Spaniards who supported Spain’s colonial vocation in Africa—boasted that Morocco glittered like an imperial jewel, a replacement for Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, colonies that the United States filched in 1898. Nevertheless, Barea found Spain’s civilizing mission in Africa a hollow enterprise, a combination of battlefield, brothel, and ‘an immense tavern.’ More ominous, other observers noted that Spanish authority over the fiercely independent tribes remained a fiction of ‘indirect rule’ so long as they were present in only one-third of the territory of the Riffians.
Even to venture beyond the city walls of Tétouan invited a bullet from pacos—snipers armed with Remington rifles easily purchased in the French zone, who lurked along the main road and who even potted the ‘fish train,’ so named because it brought the daily catch from Ceuta to Tétouan. Worse for the Spanish, the casual violence that punctuated everyday life in the Rif masked deeper currents of resistance that were organizing beyond the areas of imperial control.
That resistance was orchestrated and channeled by a remarkable leader, Abd el-Krim. At first glance, Krim appeared an unlikely Mahdi of mayhem. Short and bearded, with penetrating brown eyes, Krim graduated from Spanish schools, and after a period studying Islamic law at the celebrated medersa at Fez, served as editor of the Arabic supplement of Melilla’s Spanish-language newspaper, occupied important positions in the Spanish-run Bureau of Native Affairs, and acted as a cadi, or Muslim judge.
But those closest to their imperial masters often converted into their most tenacious adversaries. Krim proved to be no exception. In 1917 the thirty-five-year-old Krim was jailed for anti-Spanish views. Released the following year, he eventually took to the hills in 1919 because he feared that Spanish authorities might extradite him to the French zone. By 1921, as the Spanish congratulated themselves on the occupation of Chechaouen, Krim, together with his younger brother (his father had died after eating poisoned eggs allegedly supplied by the Spanish), collected between three and six thousand notoriously factious tribesmen for a campaign to free the Riffians from Spanish rule. It proved easy enough to do—many tribes had been driven to starvation, and to Algeria, by Spanish exactions and punative campaigns.
Krim’s plan was simple: Take advantage of the overextension of twenty-five thousand troops under impetuous Africanista general Manuel Silvestre, who prodded cautiously west from Melilla toward Alhucemas Bay with the objective of pacifying the Beni Urriaguel tribe. Silvestre was spoiling for a fight that would intimidate the Moors into submission. This was imprudent, given the state of his forces. Morale, never high among Spanish conscripts at the best of times, had bottomed out in Silvestre’s command, which was scattered along a road that had reached Buy Meyan, a couple of kilometers past the outpost of Anual, an inland camp that sprawled over three small hills encased in a dusty valley.
Along the Melilla to Anual road, soldiers festered for weeks on end in hundreds of filthy, poorly constructed, lice-infested twelve-man blockhouses interspersed with larger battalion-sized forts. Because the Spanish army’s limited medical services remained well to the rear, a wound or an all-too-common affliction like typhus carried with it a virtual death sentence. Many soldiers shivered with malaria.
Nevertheless, when a group of tribesmen presented themselves to Silvestre in May 1921 and asked him to cross the Amekran River to establish a post to protect them from Krim, he jumped at the chance. It proved to be a mistake. On June 1, when a 250-man force crossed the Amekran at a place called Abarran, they tumbled into a well-crafted ambush. Native police turned on their Spaniard paymasters and joined in the butchery. The survivors fled back to Buy Meyan leaving 179 bodies behind.
Among the Riffians, news of Krim’s victory at Abarran, especially as the Spanish abandoned their dead ‘tragically denied the delights of paradise,’ was like flourishing a fish in front of a famished cat. Tribesmen wandered out of the hills in the expectation of an encore. When on July 17 Krim led his harka, or war party, against the etiolated line of Spanish posts, he took Silvestre completely by surprise.
What happened next was to become a familiar story over the next five years: Posts, surrounded and cut off, heliographed desperate pleas for aid announcing the imminent exhaustion of munitions and water. The Riffians ambushed rescue columns and hacked those making breakout attempts to pieces. Survivors drank liquid from tins of tomatoes and pimentos, vinegar, ink, or cologne before they began drinking urine sweetened with sugar. Then, one by one, the posts fell silent.
At Anual Silvestre swore and chewed his ample moustache as his outposts succumbed. Finally, on July 22, he ordered a general retreat to Melilla. It proved to be among the last orders he ever gave. What was meant to be a measured and orderly withdrawal dissolved into panic as Spanish soldiers abandoned their blockhouses, jettisoned their weapons, and joined the sauve-qui-peut moving through the oppressive heat toward Melilla.
Few arrived, including Silvestre. The general’s body was never recovered, although Krim was rumored to have donned Silvestre’s colorful sash and even to have carried his severed head to the walls of Melilla. The avalanche of panicked soldiery in retreat brought out more Riffians who, with an admirable sense of economy, preferred to strangle or stab the sick, wounded, and merely exhausted, reserving their precious bullets for escapees who were more mobile. Regulares, sensing the way the wind was blowing, slit the throats of their officers and joined the mayhem. A few refugees bolted for the French zone, while the Spanish navy rescued others from the shore. Occasionally an officer attempted to organize a stand or foolishly negotiated a surrender, which merely handed his troops over to slaughter. Aviators flying over the road to Anual reported that broken rifles and bodies, gently decomposing in the July heat, lay everywhere.
By the second week of August, the Riffians were camped beneath the walls of Melilla, a town filled with terrified survivors defended by 1,800 ill-trained conscripts. The main Spanish outpost in eastern Morocco was there for the taking, but Krim’s harka melted back into the hills, as if satiated by the carnage and content with their booty.
The Spanish suspended operations in western Morocco against Raisuli, a wily warlord, and dispatched a rescue mission by sea to Melilla. Barea, a member of the relief party, discovered rotting corpses everywhere. ‘I cannot describe the smell,’ he remembered. ‘It saturated clothes and skin, it filtered through the nose into the throat and lungs, and made us sneeze, cough, and vomit.’ His indelible memory of Melilla in July 1921 was of ‘ceaselessly vomiting, smelling of corpses, finding at every step another dead body, more horrible than any I had known a moment before.’
The Spanish officially put their losses at 13,192 killed, although many thought this a gross underestimate. Worse, 20,000 rifles, 400 machine guns, and 129 cannons had been swept up by the enemy. The Spanish had suffered the worst military disaster in the history of European colonialism, besting by several thousand deaths the Italian debacle at Adowa in Ethiopia in 1896.
News of Krim’s humiliating victory, inflicted by fewer than four thousand warriors, hardly improved already tenuous relations between politicians and the military in Spain. Officers and their vocal right-wing supporters blamed government parsimony for the defeat. The antimilitaristic left and regional parties decried military incompetence, ‘praetorianism,’ and outright cowardice.
Spain’s Cortes ordered an investigation, uncovering mammoth army corruption, which ran the gamut from senior officers siphoning off money voted for roads and barracks to junior officers and NCOs selling rations and even weapons outright to the Riffians.
Among the soldiers, Barea noted that the Anual debacle reinforced an already pronounced sense of listlessness, passive resistance, and evasion of duty. He reported soldiers simulating illnesses by putting mustard paper up the urethra, eating tobacco to induce symptoms of jaundice, applying a heated copper coin to the leg to produce an ‘ulcer,’ or queuing up at a brothel known to hire diseased women. ‘When officers tried to tighten up discipline, matters only got worse,’ he wrote.
Moreover, news of Anual electrified the Rif. Surviving posts came under repeated assault by tribes eager to jump on Krim’s bandwagon. In March 1922, the Riffians even managed to employ a captured cannon to sink a Spanish warship that ventured too close to shore in Alhucemas Bay. Yet the situation for the Spanish was probably better than it seemed. Krim’s prestige hit its apogee. He created a flag, printed money, and even sent out diplomats to plead his cause with some success.
Despite these rudimentary trappings of a modern state, the Rif remained an outpost of medieval factiousness, its people notoriously difficult to organize and eminently corruptible. The Spanish began to orchestrate a comeback with a combination of bribery and cautious advances out of Melilla. They cut a deal with the roguish Raisuli in the Jibala above Tangier, which allowed them to focus on Krim in the east. Battalions of conscripts poured in from Spain, along with armored cars and planes, raising the Spanish occupation force to one hundred fifty thousand men.
However, the brunt of the fighting was to be carried out by Regulares and legionnaires under tough, even ruthless, officers like forty-two-year-old Colonel José Millán Astray y Terreros, a veteran of the Philippine campaign against the Americans, and young Francisco Franco Bahamonde. ‘Believe me, it’s sticky going with Franco,’ Barea was told by one of his messmates. ‘He simply looks blankly at a fellow, with very big and very serious eyes, and says: `Execute him,’ and walks away, just like that. I’ve seen murderers go white in the face because Franco had looked at them out of the corner of his eye….You know, that man’s not quite human.’
Nevertheless, Spanish progress throughout 1922 remained intermittent, limited to lurches along the Anual road combined with small-scale amphibious operations on the coast designed, unsuccessfully, to pressure Krim into surrendering Spanish prisoners taken at Anual. Spanish troops reduced villages to heaps of smoldering straw, a few mangled bodies, and feathers of the chickens they liberated. Then they retreated to their camps that’smelled of jute from thousands of sandbags…of roast meat, of horses, and of soldiers, of sweaty soldiers with lice in every fold of their uniform,’ according to Barea.
These modest Spanish successes did not prevent Krim from consolidating power in the central Rif. He organized his mehalla, or army, around a core of six to seven thousand regular troops. He required them to pray five times a day, forego smoking kef (hashish), and suspend tribal and personal feuds. He supplemented these regular forces with tribal levies whose numbers were limited to around twenty thousand by the assortment of Mausers, old Remingtons, Chassepots, Gras, and even 1886 Lebels at his disposal. He also formed an artillery around two hundred 155, 75, and 65 mm guns captured from the Spaniards.
By 1923 he had established a hierarchy of rank, regular garrisons, and ammunition depots in designated strongpoints, with a system of distribution by mule trains and even a primitive medical service. Tangier, an international port, remained a sieve for the Spanish. There Krim could import supplies, weapons, and ammunition; court a crescendo of foreign sympathy; and raise funds, mainly by promising mining concessions to British and German firms. Furthermore, Spain was distracted by industrial and regional unrest and by political pressure to ransom the POWs.
The army reflected tensions in Spain. Juntas spawned in many mainland regiments to demand army reform. Increasingly acrimonious relations over pay and promotion, not to mention the future of Spanish presence in Morocco, developed between Iberian junteros and Moroccan Africanistas, a growing rift that culminated in Colonel Astray’s resignation as head of the Foreign Legion.
In February 1923, Krim proclaimed himself amir of the Rif, and by summer he had launched an attack on the Spanish outpost of Tizi Azza, tenaciously defended by the ‘Americans,’ as the Tercios were often called because so many of their recruits were pro-Spanish Cuban refugees. The standoff that resulted, combined with the fact that Spain’s high command obviously had no plan for winning the war, led to negotiations between Riffian and Spanish delegates in Melilla.
However, the war had caused ructions in Spain, where the abandonista position, enflamed by an antiwar press, was strengthened in August by mutinies in Barcelona and Málaga among conscripts bound for Morocco. So strongly was public opinion running against the ‘graveyard of the youth of Spain’ that when the army tried to discipline the mutineers, the government intervened and stopped the punishment. As Spain teetered on the brink of anarchy, fifty-three-year-old General Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaeja, marquis of Estella and captain general of Catalonia, intervened to set aside the constitution, dissolve the Cortes, and rule through a military directorate consisting of eight brigadiers and an admiral. Morocco had delivered Spain into the arms of military dictatorship.
In 1924 the Riffians increased activity against isolated Spanish posts. Worse for Madrid, a Krim protégé and ex-Regulare, Ahmed Heriro, emerged as an effective insurgent leader in the hinterland behind Chechaouen. Raisuli, whom the Spanish were now paying a princely sum to keep this territory free of rebellion, appeared powerless to stop Heriro. In retaliation for increasingly effective attacks on their armored cars—the Riffians dug trenches to stop the cars, then assaulted them with grenades—the Spaniards began to bomb Riffian villages indiscriminately.
By July Primo de Rivera had had enough. With the costs of war going through the roof, the number of Spanish casualties sky high, morale at rock bottom, and no victory in sight, he ordered a withdrawal from Chechaouen to the ‘Primo Line,’ a series of blockhouses sited on high ground to protect Tétouan and the coast. To appease the military, he pardoned and even promoted four officers implicated in the Anual disaster.
In September the evacuation of outposts around Chechaouen began. The Moroccans mounted no major opposition, but pacos picked off isolated soldiers, and on October 1 destroyed forty Spanish vehicles in an ambush. Africanistas oscillated between rage and depression; Franco had to be talked out of arresting Primo when he traveled to Morocco to supervise the evacuation.
On November 15, 1924, Chechaouen’s forty-thousand-man garrison began to filter down the mountain paths toward Tétouan and the coast, forty miles distant. The Moroccans, seven thousand Riffians and Jibalis commanded by Krim’s brother, bided their time, allowing the Spaniards to become strung out along the mountain trail before striking on November 19 in the midst of a thunderstorm. The result was predictable: Without proper maps, compasses, or good intelligence, officers of more than ordinary incompetence stumbled blindly at the head of their troops toward the coast.
Although the Riffian attacks did not touch off a panic similar to that at Anual, the result was probably worse. Every stream ford, every twist in the road crawled with shadows. The attacks splintered the Spanish column into small packets of desperate men. Wounded were abandoned, and even Franco, commanding the rear guard, forfeited five hundred legionnaires. When the last of the survivors crawled into Tétouan a month later, Spanish losses were estimated at between seventeen thousand and twenty thousand men. Krim had not only captured Chechaouen but the Spaniards had handed him another major strategic victory to raise his prestige, unite the tribes of the Rif and the Jibala, and supply bounteous loot to distribute among his followers.
Krim sent Ahmed Heriro to capture Raisuli, who subsequently died in captivity, thus eliminating Spain’s important ally in the west. Tribes between Ceuta and Tétouan, hitherto loyal, rebelled, requiring a costly campaign of subjugation led by Franco, whose legionnaires regularly sent ‘a hideous collection of mutilated human parts—severed arms, bunches of ears skewered together, hearts, and so on’ of their foes, in the words of one observer, to be publicly displayed in Tétouan’s Plaza de Espaa. Muslims in the French zone and even in Algeria began to speak of Krim’s rebellion in tones of admiration.
At this point, however, Krim overplayed his hand. Why, exactly, he opted to attack the French remains speculative. Up to this point his quarrel had been with Spain. The French had remained passive as Krim inflicted drubbing after drubbing on Spanish forces. True, Krim refused to recognize the Ouerrha River frontier established by the 1912 Treaty of Fez, one that divided several tribes between the French and Spanish zones. Yet most of the tribes south of the Ouerrha were Arabized non-Berber tribes, unmoved by the example of the Rif Republic.
Nevertheless, the prospect of an independent Muslim state in the Maghreb (chiefly the area of modern Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) stoked French insecurity. It took but a small leap of Gallic imagination to envisage Krim’s revolt igniting a rebellion that might sweep them out of North Africa altogether. Primo de Rivera’s retreat from Chechaouen only increased their anxiety.
So in May 1924 the French moved twelve thousand soldiers across the Ouerrha River and began to build blockhouses along a seventy-five-mile front garrisoned by Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs, ostensibly to get a better handle on the Beni Zerwal tribe and protect them from Riffian intimidation. This was probably calculated as a preventive move rather than a war starter, a continuation of French attempts to strengthen control of tribes on the northern frontier.
True, the French advance did threaten to cut off a major source of grain for the Rif. Krim, already engaged in a two-front campaign against Spain, hardly needed a sustained war against a far more formidable French army. A general revolt in the French zone in his favor was out of the question given the firm hand with which the French controlled their territory. An attempt to seize a politically significant objective like Fez would simply offer up his army, whose strength lay with its mobility and dispersion, to French firepower.
Besides, inhabitants of Fez looked upon the Riffians as uncouth barbarians and were unlikely to rally to Krim. Moreover, the sultan, regarded as a holy figure in Morocco and whose attitude was critical to the success of any popular uprising, was a French puppet.
Pride, provocation by French actions, and overconfidence combined to cause Krim to hurl a four thousand-man mehalla at the French on April 13, 1925. His objective was most likely to prevent the French from consolidating their positions in the Ouerrha Valley, inflict a bloody nose on them, and force Paris to negotiate. At first it looked as if Krim’s strategy might succeed — although the attack did not catch the French by surprise, its ferocity threw them back on their heels. The French resident general, General Louis Hubert Lyautey, France’s veteran colonial administrator who preached the virtues of ‘indirect rule,’ using intrigue to control native politics rather than brute force, believed that he had the tribes in the French zone well in hand. Like all French in Morocco, he attributed Krim’s military success to Spanish incompetence rather than to the combat qualities of the Riffians. He felt the sixty-four thousand troops France had in Morocco, backed by modern artillery and air power, were more than sufficient to handle the scrapings of the Rif.
However, Spain’s defensive posture in Morocco allowed Krim to shift most of his forces toward the south. Furthermore, four years of fighting the Spanish had allowed the Riffians to perfect the art of blockhouse busting. By June, forty-four of sixty-six French posts had been overrun. Like their Spanish counterparts, the French came to understand that isolated posts were difficult to relieve once a siege had set in, because the Riffians etched siege trenches out of the unforgiving ground and laid ambushes along all obvious routes of approach. Relief parties had to march in tight formations over roadless hills, in the searing heat of the Moroccan summer with temperatures reaching 130 degrees, through gantlets of snipers.
The garrison at Aulai held out for twenty-two days under sustained mortar fire until it could be rescued, even though the Riffians overran some of the outlying fortifications and butchered their garrisons. The two posts that crowned a horseshoe-shaped hill called Biban changed hands several times before they could be secured by a grenade attack in September that cost the French Foreign Legion 103 dead and 300 wounded. At Beni Derkul, a few miles from Biban, Lieutenant Pol Lapeyre ignited his magazine and perished with his few surviving Senegalese after a two-month siege pushed him beyond the brink of endurance. Many posts were abandoned without a fight, while those that held out suffered great deprivation despite efforts to resupply them by air.
‘This Riff campaign of May 1925 in the Wergha Valley was exceptionally hard,’ wrote the future general André Beaufre, who served with Algerian tirailleurs. ‘Newcomers like myself did not realize this, but Moroccan veterans shook their heads: we were up against trained fighters who manoeuvred skillfully.’ The elusive Moroccans unsportingly refused to defend ground, preferring to inflict casualties and vanish.
‘The column halted at the foot of a hill from which the partisans (goums) had just withdrawn,’ Beaufre remembered of one attack. ‘The advance guard had made contact. The hills ahead of us appeared deserted but soon the air was filled with shrill cries which echoed from rock to rock, and sporadic firing broke out. In front, a battalion of the Legion in their white képis deployed as regularly as though they were on an exercise. The artillery (four 65 mm. mountain guns) opened up. We had to attack through the legionnaires. We clambered over rocks and through olive trees, bullets whistling past us; then there was nothing except a few dead Riffs lying in their holes. We climbed on, out of breath. Then a deserted village—a poor village smelling of rancid oil, the sole sign of life a flurry of scrawny chickens destined for the pot that night. We reached the crest, regrouped and called the roll: a handful of wounded, one man killed.’
Night brought no respite. Constant sniping kept the campsite awake with cries of ‘aux armes!’ Riffians worked in pairs against sentinels, one drawing his attention while the second murdered him. After some French troops woke up to discover that their rifles had been stolen from the middle of their bivouac, soldiers began sleeping with their rifles strapped to their wrists. This only caused the stealthy Riffians, stripped and oiled, to slit French throats before appropriating their weapons, a practice that put severe psychological strain on the invaders.
Not surprisingly, the morning found the soldiers ‘exhausted, pulling our swollen feet back into our boots, we drank scalding coffee, buckled our equipment, loaded the animals, folded the tents, stowed the kit and, as the day broke, set off on another day just like the last,’ Beaufre remembered.
Artillery failed to find productive targets among Riffians dispersed in gullies and behind boulders. Air power, upon which the French had placed great faith, also gave disappointing results, especially after the rebels overran the forward air base at Ain Mediouna. Planes could not reprovision the isolated posts. Nor was their bombing effective, because it was seldom coordinated with objectives on the ground. So while the French suffered no debilitating Anuals nor Chechaouens, Krim’s offensive was humiliating nonetheless—he drove to within twenty miles of Fez, in the process obliging chiefs loyal to the French to defect, flee, or face death. This advance netted the Riffians 51 cannons, 16,000 shells, 35 mortars with 10,000 rounds, 200 machine guns, 5,000 rifles, 60,000 grenades, and about 2,000 prisoners, mostly Moroccan ‘irregulars,’ while inflicting numerous casualties on the French.
Franco-Spanish peace feelers in the summer of 1925 offered the Rif a degree of autonomy that some of Krim’s advisers urged him to seize. Instead, Krim, backed by his brother, insisted upon full recognition of the Rif Republic. In retrospect this seems a foolish stipulation brought on by his distrust of the imperialists and his conviction that continued resistance would wring more concessions from the colonial powers.
However, perhaps Krim realized that he faced an insoluble dilemma: Peace could only have been a truce. Paris could never tolerate a successful independence movement that would threaten the sultanate and require a huge garrison in the French zone. Perhaps, too, he calculated that peace would simply encourage the Riffian penchant for creative anarchy, temporarily suspended by the wartime requirement for solidarity, to reassert itself. Krim had reached his culminating point of victory. He probably realized it, but he was powerless to back down. His military success, while spectacular and unprecedented in colonial warfare, had bought time but yielded no strategic benefits.
The French war machine rumbled into action, slowly building deliberate but crushing momentum. Sultan Mulay Yussef, revered in Morocco as a descendent of the Prophet, traveled to the front to shore up the loyalty of wavering tribes and to lend credence to the French argument that they were defending Moroccan territorial integrity, Islamic legitimacy, and internationally recognized agreements. Krim blamed his subsequent defeat on the’saints,’ local holy men who were probably worked by the French and Spanish to throw their influence against the rebellion. With that, Krim’s tribal coalition was unraveling.
In June 1925, Paris and Madrid began to lay down joint plans to master the rebellion. The following month, Paris dispatched a World War I hero, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, to Morocco to take command in the French sector, which was beefed up with one hundred thousand fresh troops. For Lyautey, Pétain’s arrival was the last straw. He rightly saw the appointment of a man celebrated for his symphonies of crushing firepower on the Western Front as a deliberate and pointed rejection of his nuanced emphasis on persuasion rather than force. Humiliated by the clear message that he no longer had the confidence of the government, Lyautey resigned as resident general and returned to France.
By the end of summer, three hundred sixty thousand French and Spanish troops were concentrated against a rebellion weakened by poor harvests and by a typhus epidemic that swept the mountains. Besides, the Riffians were raiders rather than conquerors, men capable of inflicting great carnage but who then moved on, failing to organize the ground they held. On September 10, Pétain’s forces rumbled forward in a crushing advance that recaptured Biban and reclaimed all the territory lost to Krim since April.
The French were gradually getting the measure of their foe. They abandoned their costly daylight assaults once they realized that the Moroccans usually retired at night to caves and villages, leaving positions undefended. Instead, they would move forward under cover of darkness and throw up a wall of rock and concertina wire around high ground. Then they would send out swarms of ‘partisans,’ some of the roughly five thousand Moroccan irregulars supplied by tribes loyal to the French, who were meant to keep the Riffians at bay. The efficiency of partisan warfare might be in doubt—these men were extremely reluctant to sell their lives for France, although they might sell their weapons, or at least some of their precious bullets, to the rebels. For the Europeans, it was reassuring to see their own Muslims wheeling and galloping over the hills, looting villages with admirable thoroughness before setting fire to them, then dashing off to the next place of pillage.
Meanwhile, Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera planned, rehearsed, and supervised an amphibious landing along Alhucemas Bay. On September 8, sixty-three ships, some of them French, landed eight thousand Spanish troops spearheaded by Franco and the Spanish Legion on the beach at Cebadilla. Backed by naval artillery, they began to advance over the seven miles of rocky terrain that separated the invasion beaches from Krim’s ‘capital’ at Ajdir. Riffian fighters, secreted on Monte Malmusi, fiercely resisted the Spaniards with artillery and rifle fire.
The Spanish captured Monte Malmusi on September 23, but it cost the Legion seven hundred men. Planes, naval artillery, and poison gas were lavished on the defenders, who finally abandoned Ajdir on October 2. Spain rejoiced at the first positive news from Morocco in years and celebrated Francisco Franco, the thirty-three-year-old brigadier whose steely courage and seeming immunity from enemy fire had made it possible. To appease Spanish public opinion and send the message that the rebellion was being mastered, Primo de Rivera began to draw down the Spanish presence to around one hundred thousand men.
The onset of winter gave Krim time to catch his breath. Shifting his capital to Tamasint, he could still count on an estimated twelve thousand warriors dug into the crags of the central Rif. In February he launched a large raid on Tétouan to demonstrate that the rebellion retained offensive punch.
However, it was obvious that with roughly half a million enemy troops in the Ouerrha Valley and camped out on Alhucemas Bay, defeat was only a matter of time. Morale plummeted in the Rif. The allied squeeze on Tangier had cut off the flow of weapons to the Riffians, so that as many as eight rebels shared each rifle. Starvation stalked the mountains, and prices skyrocketed.
As Riffians grumbled, Krim grew testy and treated counsels of compromise as treachery and defeatism. His only hope was that Paris and Madrid, both with vocal peace factions that saw Krim as a noble resistance leader, would seek negotiations. When he offered to talk peace in the spring of 1926, the allies were bound by international and domestic opinion to accept. (Indeed, pressure from the United States had caused Paris to disband the Escadrille Cheériffian in November 1925 after a public outcry over their bombing of Chechaouen. Charles Sweeney, an American soldier of fortune and Notre Dame graduate, had led that raid.)
Unfortunately for the Rif Republic, the allies understood that any concession that rewarded Krim’s defiance threatened the stability of North Africa and, indeed, of the imperial enterprise. The Spanish army burned to avenge Anual and Chechaouen, while French soldiers had a few scores to settle as well. They demanded that Krim surrender strategic points in the Rif to Franco-Spanish occupation and refused to compromise on the issue of autonomy—positions calculated to undermine negotiations. Talks collapsed in the first week in May.
France had not waited for Krim’s representatives to walk out of negotiations. In mid-April three French divisions pushed north and west, a strike joined by the Spanish on May 1. Krim’s tribes made a stand against the Spanish at Aith Hishim (Hill of the Saints) southeast of Ajdir. Although they inflicted over a thousand casualties on the Spaniards and continued to resist the Iberian advance in small-scale battles, the rebels had been exhausted. Soon five columns of French and Spanish troops circulated through the gorges and valleys of the Rif, accepting submissions of the villagers, a ceremony sealed by the ritual slitting of a calf’s throat. On May 22, when Spanish troops reoccupied Anual, the rebellion had come full circle.
Krim, now clearly on the ropes with his coalition melting away and a price on his head, became increasingly desperate. On May 18, the French, possibly tipped off by Krim’s secretary, had bombed his hideout. Krim toyed with the idea of seeking asylum with the American or Italian legations in Tangier. However, with the Spanish closing in and certain to execute him, he opted to throw himself on the mercy of the French. On May 26, he released 283 Spanish, French, Senegalese, and Algerian captives, all pathetically malnourished and suffering from pneumonia. (All Spanish officer POWs had been shot in retaliation for Spain’s bombing of Riffian villages.)
At dawn on May 27, Krim rode into the French camp at Targuist at the head of his family, trailing a mule train of possessions that allegedly included a quarter of a million dollars. To the bitter indignation and fury of the Spaniards who demanded a war crimes trial for the Riffian leader and his important lieutenants, the French exiled Krim to a comfortable estate on the island of Réunion with an annual pension of one hundred thousand francs. In 1947 the French government decided to transfer Krim and forty-two members of his entourage to an even more elegant and opulent exile on the French Rivera. On May 31, as the ship carrying him to France called briefly at Port Said, Krim slipped his surveillance and sought asylum in Egypt. He died there in 1963.
With Krim out of the picture, pacification of the Rif proceeded with relative ease, although isolated opposition could still produce a lively firefight. Most of Krim’s close collaborators had taken French offers of exile. Once they had surmounted their desire for revenge, even the Spanish understood that the best policy was to offer positions in the imperial administration to their erstwhile enemies. The Rif was pacified, and Paris and Madrid rejoiced at the end of the ‘Moroccan problem.’
Those who cared to look closely recognized a new phenomenon. Krim’s revolt became a symbol that guided and inspired Morocco’s desire for independence. Morocco had seen pretenders before, men who masqueraded as descendants of the Prophet to build a following. While Krim certainly built on that tradition, he had taken it a step further by attempting to construct a new state in northern Morocco that combined Muslim tradition with European innovation, a rudimentary government, and an organized military force, underpinned by a semblance of modern nationalism.
Krim’s movement exerted a strong influence on young Moroccan idealists and nationalists who, although they did not join the Riffians, began to form clandestine nationalist organizations in Morocco’s major cities. These groups became the precursors of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party that emerged in the 1940s. In 1958, two years after Morocco’s independence, Sultan Mohammed V declared Krim a national hero, restored his confiscated property, and invited him to return to Morocco, which Krim declined to do.
The impact of the Rif rebellion was also felt north of the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain had paid a huge price for victory, one not just tallied in lives. The Rif War had politicized the Spanish army. The disaster at Anual upended Spanish democracy and justified Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état of September 1923, terminating the most durable constitution that Spain had yet experienced and irretrievably undermining the Bourbon monarchy. Africanistas in Melilla initially hatched the July 1936 conspiracy against the republic, and it spread through the protectorate, orchestrated by the high commissioner in Tétouan, General Francisco Franco, before it jumped the strait into Andalusia, spearheaded by sixty-two thousand Regulares and legionnaires.
Many of the Nationalist commanders put their Rif War experience to good use against the Republican forces. In that way the colony had come back to dominate the politics of the fatherland, much as the Algerian conflict of 1954-62 served to convince important constituencies in the French military that France’s prestige and security hinged on the maintenance of empire.
This article was originally published in MHQ Winter 2006. Douglas Porch, a specialist in French military history, is an MHQ contributing editor and author of The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II.
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