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New Great War Episode: Outbreak of the Rif War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s July 1921, and Spain is trying to control the Berber tribes in its Moroccan protectorate. Spanish forces have advanced deep into the Rif mountains – right into a trap: https://youtu.be/bgTXDkwwz2o

By the early 20th century, Spain no longer ruled much of the world as it had in centuries past. One of its few remaining possessions was its Moroccan Protectorate, long a backwater of the Spanish empire that would take center stage in 1921 with the start of the Rif War. Today, we’ll take a look at how the war between the Spanish and the Berber tribes began, and a battle that would go down in history as one of the most dramatic moments in colonial history. And it all happened exactly 100 years ago.

By 1900, Spain had declined to a second-rate power, punctuated by its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898. All that remained of the once-global Spanish Empire were the colonies of Spanish Guinea and Spanish Sahara, and a few small enclaves on the Moroccan coast, including Melilla and Ceuta. These enclaves were leftovers from the medieval reconquista campaign, and drew little attention from the Spanish authorities for decades.

But French expansion in North Africa spurred the Spanish to take action. Spain’s leaders reasoned that if they also extended their influence in North Africa, they could restore some prestige, and counter the French. Liberal Party leader Eugenio Montero Ríos expressed these fears:

“Does the Government of his Majesty bear in mind that if the North West of Morocco comes under the domination… of a military or civil Protectorate of France, Spain would be reduced to seeing herself besieged perpetually in the North and South by the same power?” (Chandler 302)

The French and Spanish governments reached an agreement in 1904 which divided Morocco into spheres of influence, further weakening the Moroccan Sultan. In March 1921, France made its Moroccan territories into a protectorate and allowed Spain to do the same – as long as the Spanish kept German influence out.

The Spanish protectorate was much smaller than the French, and limited to slivers of land in the north and south which amounted to just 4.5% of Moroccan territory. The Spanish zone also extended into the Rif Mountains in the north, a region that would soon be touched by war.

So Spain was in possession of a small Moroccan Protectorate, but the Spanish didn’t actually know much about the area under their control – including the famous Rif mountains.

The Spanish authorities’ suspected that the mountains might be a source of mineral wealth, but there had been very few geological surveys done outside of the coastal enclaves. This was partly due to the rugged terrain, but also to the resistance of the local people. The Rif was inhabited by a number of non-nomadic Berber tribes, the largest and most powerful of which was the Banu Waryaghal. Most subsided on limited agriculture and herding, especially in the fertile central plain. Although the Berbers and Arabic-speaking Moroccans were both Muslim, Berbers were a distinct and separate cultural group.

Because the Berbers were fiercely independent and suspicious of the Spanish outsiders, they gained a reputation amongst the Spanish colonial authorities as uncivilized, barbaric, and even bloodthirsty. Since the area they lived was essentially free from government control, the Spanish believed that Rifi clans frequently engaged in vendettas and blood feuds as well.

In reality, the Rifi tribes had established a system of fines to keep infighting in check. Meanwhile, the fact the Rif was actually overpopulated compared to other areas of Morocco suggests Rifi society was not as violent as some outsiders believed.

There was however, a history of violence between the Berbers and the Spanish. In 1909, Rifi tribesmen formed a fighting force known as a harka, and attacked Spanish mine workers and troops around Melilla. Around 2,200 Spaniards were killed, including a general.

The Spanish responded by burning crops and homes, an act one British war journalist described as follows: “[The destruction is] part of the price barbarism pays for the coming of civilisation." (Pennell 42)

So the Spanish had a limited presence in rural and mountainous areas of their protectorate and shaky relations with the Berbers of the Rif. When rumours of the region’s natural resources began to grow, the Spanish hoped to exert greater control at a minimum cost in men and materiel.

The idea of a military occupation in Spain’s Moroccan protectorate was quite unpopular in Spain. The military had taken the blame for the lost war against the US in 1898. And leftist organizations and anarchists, especially in Catalonia, agitated against militarism. When the military attempted to mobilise reservists against the Rif tribes in 1909, violent riots broke out in Barcelona. Even the aristocracy was abandoning a Spanish military seen as lacking in prestige, and sending their sons abroad instead.

To control Morocco the Spanish Central Office for Native Troops and Affairs developed a system based on political penetration, including Spanish schools and the payment of special pensions. In exchange, the pensioners were expected to provide information for the Spanish.

These pensions became a lifeline for the poorer families of the Rif, and Spain hoped they would bind the pensioners closer to Spain, as well as break up the traditional social, political, and economic structures.

The Spanish also hoped to inflame tensions between tribes by encouraging the feuding Rifis were supposedly known for. To do this they tried to undermine the system of fines which managed inter-tribal justice. Colonel Riquelme, the head of the Central Office for Native Troops and Affairs, explained:

“[The] method was to prevent the fines from being paid, to break up the markets with fighting. Then came vengeance, blood debts, and a man from one village kill[ing] one from another and they could never join strength and swell the harka fighting us. Many years were passed in this way; they were in a state of continuous war, and they never came to fight us.” (Pennell 50)

The Spanish policy of divide and conquer seemed to work for a while. By 1917, Spanish informers were reporting quote “savage blood baths” in the Rif.


One Rifi clan responsible for carrying out the Spanish plan, was the al-Khattabi clan, especially the eldest son Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi - better known as Abd el-Krim. And while Abd el-Krim started out as a friend of Spain, he would eventually become its worst enemy.

Abd el-Krim was the son of an influential tribesman and was educated in Spanish schools in Melilla, where he eventually worked as a newspaper editor and for the Office of Native Affairs.

The Spanish saw him as an ideal agent, and paid his family 5000 pesetas a month to help weaken the Berber system of fines in the Rif. He became a Knight of the Order of Queen Isabella, and considered the French to be a bigger threat to the Rifi tribes than the Spanish. He also hoped the Germans would limit the spread of French power in north Africa.

But working for the Spanish changed his perspective. He witnessed the corrupt and exploitative colonial administration, and Spanish prejudice against the Berbers:

“[The Spanish] will never consider us as equals; they will always treat us like dogs.” (Woolman 77)

By 1918, he was arguing that Spaniards should return to their coastal enclaves. A small group of educated Rifis joined him and his brother, which resulted in his arrest – possibly at the request of the French, who were also trying to control the Berber population in their protectorate. He was released in 1919 and fled to the mountains. By October 1920, the al-Khattani clan formally revoked its Spanish protection, probably to win friends among the other tribes.

So trouble was brewing for the Spanish in the Rif, but they also faced internal criticism over their policy in the Moroccan Protectorate.

General Jordana, the High Commissioner of Morocco, was also disillusioned with Spain’s policy of political penetration. In late 1918, he wrote a report listing what he saw as Spanish failures – and promptly died at his desk. His report accused the government of inertia and urged the use of military force to pacify the protectorate. Jordana’s criticisms were taken up by King Alfonso XIII and a growing movement in Spain in favour of a military solution in the Rif.

In 1919, General Damasco Berenguer became High Commissioner, and he agreed with Jordana’s report. He sent troops against the Berber clans of the Jbala province, and tribal leader Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, called on the Rifi tribes for help.

But the Rif Berbers were suffering from a famine after terrible harvests in 1919 and 1920. Spanish and French authorities sent little help, according to rumours reported by the outspokenly anti-Spanish British Vice-Consul:

“I understand that matters were especially hard during the famine last winter when Riffians were dying of hunger in the streets of Melilla and little or no attempt was made to feed them excepting by private enterprise in return for which the charitable individual required the female beneficiary to prostitute herself to him.” (Pennell 65/66)

The lack of Spanish help during the famine increased anti-Spanish feelings in the mountains. Tribesmen forced Berber recipients of Spanish pensions to recant under threat of violence, and tribal leaders attempted to form a harka – though this was broken up by the bombs of the Spanish air force.

Abd El-Krim now emerged as a unifying figure among the Rifi tribes. He not only wanted to resist the Spanish, but also advocated for an independent Rifi state, or in his words, “a country with a government and a flag” (Pennell 75). He broke with the Arab-dominated Moroccan government and began speaking at markets and mosques. Abd El-Krim often used religious arguments to promote his goals, including jihad – but he also favoured a modern Islam connected to the nation:

“[I wanted] to form a national unity from tribes with different inclinations and aspirations. In other words, I wanted my people to know that they had a nation as well as a religion.” (Pennell Ideology and Practical Politics 21)

He looked to Kemalist Turkey for inspiration, and took similar steps to reform the Rifi bureaucracy, infrastructure, and military - Rifi soldiers even received salaries. In 1921, there were nearly 20,000 Rifi men capable of bearing arms, and Spanish repression caused many tribes to join the cause. A strong harvest that year also ended the famine and made it possible to mount a military campaign.

Although Abd El-Krim had gained support in the Rif, he knew he could confront the Spanish forces head on in their enclaves. He decided to wait for the Spanish to overextend themselves in the mountains, and the new Spanish commander did just that.


In May 1920, Lieutenant-General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre took command of Spanish troops in Melilla. He was known for his aggressive approach, and he quickly got permission from Berenguer to lead an expedition into the Rif with the promise that it would be an easy victory.

By early summer 1921, Silvestre’s 20,000 Spanish and 5,000 Moroccan troops, had advanced up to 130km into the Rif region, which nearly doubled the area under Spanish control. The troops were then placed in 144 small forts and outposts to garrison the area. But these defences were of the most basic construction, often isolated from the main roads, and lacked access to water and medical supplies. Most Spanish soldiers were conscripts who could not pay their way out of military service, and the officers were often absent from their posts. Spanish morale plummeted.

Berenguer now realised Silvestre’s supply lines were stretched to their limit and advised caution in dealing with El-Krim. But Silvestre did not listen. When el-Krim warned him against crossing the Amekran river, Silvestre replied:

“This man Abd el-Krim is crazy. I am not going to take seriously the threats of a little Berber Caid whom I had at my mercy a short while ago. His insolence merits a new punishment.” (Woolman 88)

On June 1st, 1921 the Spanish crossed the river and established a new base at Abarran. The Berbers immediately attacked the outpost, and the Spanish-led Moroccan garrison mutinied. The Spanish abandoned the position, leaving 179 dead behind. Even so, Berenguer downplayed the defeat:

"Abarran was a painful episode, a misfortune of colonial war, but such a thing is a common occurrence in these wars and generally without consequence" (Pennell 81)

To El-Krim on the other hand, this victory appeared decisive:

“The Spanish have already lost the game. Look at Abarran. There they have left their own dead mutilated and unburied, the souls vaguely wandering, tragically denied the delights of paradise.” (Woolman 89)

In July, the Rif tribes attacked all along the Spanish line of control. The 300-man Spanish garrison at Igueriben was besieged. The desperate men there drank vinegar, cologne and even ink to stave off thirst. When the fort fell, there were only 25 survivors, most of whom died from drinking too much water after the surrender.

Spanish forces now began a general withdrawal, with many units converging on the fort at Annual. Silvestre arrived on July 21st to take control of the situation but was immediately overwhelmed by the crisis: eyewitnesses reported that he began to compulsively chew his moustache. When tribesmen began to fire into the fort, he ordered another withdrawal, which turned into a confused rout.

Spanish soldiers fled in all directions, in what one survivor described as a “human avalanche”. Those who escaped the fort were picked off by Rifi marksmen or killed by Berber swords. Silvestre’s fate is not clear, but an eyewitness claimed he was seen on the battlements screaming:

“Run, run, the bogeyman is coming!” (Woolman 91)

Whether he was killed, or committed suicide is still debated, but el-Krim was later seen wearing his sash.

Although the larger Rif tribes had launched the attack, many smaller groups joined in as the fleeing Spaniards crossed their territory. Airmen who flew over the area reported seeing the countryside strewn with mostly Spanish corpses. At Sidi Driss, only 5 of the 500 Spanish troops made it to the ships. At Monte Arruit the Spanish made a stand, but surrendered August 9th and were massacred by the tribesmen. It should be noted that on other occasions the Berbers treated their Spanish prisoners well, as Abd el-Krim had ordered.


So by August 1921, el-Krim had cleared the Spanish from all their recently occupied territory. The western world was stunned, and the so-called Disaster of Annual made headlines around the globe, and caused much soul-searching in Spain.

For Spain, the disastrous start to the Rif War at Annual marked a low point in national prestige. Tribal fighters had been victorious against Europeans before, but the Spanish defeat was so complete and so bloody, it is often considered the worst European defeat in colonial history.

The official report by the Spanish general staff recorded 13,192 killed, although estimates run as high as 22,000. In addition, 20,000 rifles, 400 machine guns and 129 cannons were lost. Even worse in the eyes of some Spanish leaders was the loss in prestige. Berenguer simply told journalists:

“All is lost, including honor.” (Woolman 96)

The report also revealed the poor condition of the Spanish army. Soldiers had been issued rifles that hadn’t been cleaned since the 1898 war, and one general complained that his rifles barely fired 100 yards. He even said his underpaid and underfed men sold their rifles at Moroccan markets to buy food.

The crisis also had a severe impact on domestic politics. Left wing groups, both in Spain and abroad, supported the Rif tribes, while the King’s popularity dropped even further. There were rumours that the King had little sympathy for his fallen working-class soldiers, since he reportedly reacted to the news at Annual with these words:

“Chicken meat is cheap.” (Woolman 102)

For El-Krim and the Berbers, Annual was an unprecedented victory, but they still faced serious problems. Spanish Melilla was impregnable, and the alliance between the tribes was fragile. Some tribal leaders resented El-Krim's central authority so much he threatened them with force, and there were arguments over the spoils of war. Some tribes assumed the Spanish were defeated and returned to their harvests, while others wanted to declare a holy war and invade Spain.

To el-Krim this was out of the question:

“We no longer live in the Middle Ages, nor at the time of the Crusades.” (Pennell, Ideology and Practical Politics 30)

In Spain, a new younger generation of army officers on the political right blamed the civilian authorities for the disaster. Among them was a young captain named Francisco Franco, who had led a relief column to Melilla during the disaster. For the future Spanish dictator, the Rif War was a truly formative moment:

“My years in Africa live within me with indescribable force . . . without Africa, I can scarcely explain myself to myself, nor can I explain myself to my comrades in arms.” (Balfour 315)

In the coming years, Franco would play other roles in the long and bitter Rif War, which in 1921 was just getting started.

1921 The Great War

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