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Riff Rebellion

The year 1921 will long be remembered in Spain on account of the signal disaster which befell Spanish arms and prestige in Morocco. The tribesmen of the Riff district, who had always in previous years shown restiveness after gathering in their harvest in the summer, this year organised revolt on a formidable scale, and the Spaniards, owing to over-confidence, mismanagement, and dissensions in the army, were taken quite unawares, so that they suffered one of the most severe reverses ever sustained by a European colonising power at the hands of natives.

The Spanish zone of Morocco is a strip of mountainous country situated where the corner of northwestern Africa comes to a head at Tangier, almost opposite to Gibraltar. It is some 200 miles in length and an average depth of sixty, or somewhere near 12,000 square miles, with 1,000,000 native inhabitants, many of them stout and wellarmed fighting men. The Spanish colonists, of whom there are 1SO,000, are planted for the most part in a few towns along the coast and in the settlements which have been made possible as the troops make their slow progress inland against the hostile tribesmen. How slow that progress is may be judged from the statements that the present reverse has been met with only thirty miles to the west of Melilla, the principal town of the zone, whereas, the first serious campaign was launched from Melilla as long ago as 1609. Since then the military history of the zone has been a constant warfare, waged on the whole with considerable success, against the Moorish tribesmen, together with a very slow penetration and organization of the country by the colonists.

The suddern Moorish rising in tho Melilla district of the Spanish zone of Morocco, in which rebellious tribesmen inflicted serious losses on Spanish troops, sent a political shock through Spain, for the Moroccan campaign has "never been popular in that country." The uprising caused a change in the ministry in Spain and evoked some curious contradictions in the Spanish press. For instance, some newspapers accuse German merchants in Spain of supplying the Moorish tribesmen with arms, ammunition, and military instructors. On the other hand, certain Spanish papers blame the French for inciting the Moors to rebellion.

After the earlier reverses suffered by the Spaniards, in which they were forced to retreat virtually to the gates of Melilla, Spanish forces began an offensive against the Moorish tribesmen by land and by sea through gunboat fire. It is stated that the Moors were completely routed in hand-to-hand fighting, and lost heavily in dead, wounded, and prisoners, leaving arms and munitions upon the field. But there is no question about the character of "disaster" which marked the Moors' flrst assault on the Melilla zone, we are told, for the Spanish Minister of War in his official statement admitted that the retreat of the Spaniards "was most disastrous and we had many casualties." What is more, he declared that instead of the usual irregular Moorish rabble the Spanish troops found themselves opposed by a "perfectly organized" force-"a fact with which we certainly did not reckon."

Early in May 1921 Spanish troops succeeded in opening communications between Sheshuan, which had been occupied in the previous autumn, and the sea. In the same month the Spaniards tried to open a road between Melilla and Alhucemas, on the coast. On June 7 a Moorish contingent of this force mutinied and killed five Spanish officers, and the Spaniards fell back to the fortified camp at Anual. The news of this created a painful impression in Spain, but its effect was more than counterbalanced by the encouraging reports which came from the Spanish troops in the west of the country who were engaged against Eaisuli. On July 12 they were reported to be closing in on him, and the date of his surrender was already announced, when the Spaniards were called off owing to the turn which affairs had taken in the eastern part of the country. When the Spaniards there had fallen back to Anual, the tribesmen had commenced to rise in force, and attacked Alhucemas and compelled its commandant to remain inactive while they advanced on the Spaniards at Anual. These soon found themselves in a desperate position, and a relief column under General Silvestre left Melilla to bring them assistance.

Plunging recklessly into the wild country, General Silvestre got into serious difficulties on approaching Anual, and was surrounded by the enemy. His force was practically annihilated, and he himself and several members of his staff were killed or committed suicide. In the first two days of the fighting the Moors had already inflicted some 4,000 casualties on the Spaniards, and captured forty guns and many machineguns. Most of the survivors were forced to wander about the mountains. Some seventy fortified Spanish posts soon fell into the hands of the enemy, including even that of Nador, six miles from Melilla, and by August 11 the last of the columns holding out had surrendered, and the disaster was complete. It was subsequently stated officially that the total Spanish losses from July 20 were 14,772 men, 29,504 rifles, 392 machine-guns, and 129 guns. Thus the work of twelve years was undone in three weeks, and the Spaniards were thrown back exactly to where they were in 1909, when they began the occupation of the Rif.

On the news of the disaster at Anual consternation reigned at Melilla, but confidence was soon restored by the arrival of reinforcements by sea. The town was fortified, but was not regarded as being in danger, as the tribesmen in the immediate neighbourhood remained faithful. In the rest of the country, however, many tribes joined the rebels.

The news of the disaster, as was natural, created a profound commotion in Spain. One of its first effects was to cause the fall of the Ministry which had allowed matters to be so mismanaged. A new Cabinet was formed under Senor Maura, with the declared policy of re-establishing the protectorate by political action seconded by armed force, but with the avoidance of hazardous military enterprises.

The Rifis, meanwhile, had offered the supreme command to Raisuli, on condition that he would declare himself anti-Spanish and help to drive the Spaniards from the country. The negotiations between the Rifis and Raisuli did not lead to anything, as the rebel chief was suspected of being secretly in league with the Spaniards. Anarchy, however, began to increase in the western zone, and on August 24 the Moors captured a Spanish port near Alcazar, killing a colonel and over fifty men. Spanish reinforcements were poured into Laraiche (on the west coast), and at the same time an attempt was made to allay discontent by a promise that taxation would be abolished and direct control over native affairs by Spanish officers abandoned.

The Spaniards in Melilla, meanwhile, had taken the field against the Moors, and on August 23, with a force of 10,000 men, inflicted a severe defeat on a body of tribesmen estimated at 6,000 to 8,000. On September 9 news was received at Madrid of a serious engagement at Casabona in which 11,000 Spaniards had been engaged. Troops had meanwhile been pouring into Melilla from Spain, and on September 12 a systematic advance began, under the supreme direction of General Berenguer. The objective was to drive the Moors from the slopes of the Gurugu hills, from which they could shell Melilla, and capture the summit. The troops first marched south of Melilla and immediately gained a success at Ras Quiviana, about 30 miles away. Soon after they occupied Nador, and turned the Moorish position which had been threatening Melilla.

On September 29 a fierce action took place at the west end of the Melilla promontory, in which some 15,000 Spanish troops fought their way through to Feizan. It was in this engagement that the veteran cavalry officer General Cavalcanti, Commandant of Melilla, sallied from the town, and in person'led an infantry charge into the Moorish trenches, an action for which he was severely criticised in the Spanish Press. Soon after an advance was made from Nador up the south side of the Gurugu hills. There were by this time about 75,000 Spanish troops in the country, with reserves up to 100,000, and 120 guns. The summit of Gurugu was finally occupied on October 10, and on October 19 the censorship was raised in Spain, and full details of the situation were allowed to be published.

On October 24 the Spanish Army occupied Mt. Arruit without opposition, and found there over 2,000 unburied Spanish corpses. On November 2 six columns, totalling 25,000 men, began to advance towards the river Kert, and occupied the south flanks of Gurugu. By November 13 the line of the Kert was under the Spanish guns.

On November 10 Seuor Maura stated the Government's policy to be the exemplary chastisement of the rebel Moors, the cessation of military operations on a grand scale, the extension of the Protectorate by the occupation of points on the coast, and the helping of the natives to govern themselves.

Meanwhile trouble had broken out in the west, not far from Tetuan, and General Berenguer went there from Melilla. Consternation was caused at Tetuan, by the kidnapping of Sid Ali Slawi, a high official in the Spanish Protectorate Government. The Spanish columns, however, operating from Tetuan, Ceuta, and L/araiche, occupied various points, and placed Eaisuli and his followers in a very difficult position.

In the Nineteen Twenties, air forces were employed inat least three widely-separated counter-guerrilla campaigns: in the Riff Rebellion in Morocco, in the British Middle Eastern campaigns, and in the U.S. Marines' "Banana Wars"in Central America. In Morocco, where Abd-el-Krim's tribes-men stood off an expeditionary force of 280,000 French and Spanish, the French employed 14 air squadrons. However, they were misused, primarily because they were tied to escortingArmy columns, and were otherwise defensively employed. Also, for a time French aircraft were forbidden to cross into the Spanish zone of Morocco, giving Abd-el-Krim the guerrilla's boon: sanctuary. The French victory in the 1925 Riff Rebellion in Morocco cannot entirely be explained without the considerable contribution, in all facets of that war against Abd el-Krim, of the 39th Aviation Regiment of Colonel Armengaud,

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:21 ZULU