AN OLD WAR WITH A LESSON FOR TODAY

Diarmuid Breatnach

August 9th is the anniversary of the last blows struck in the Battle of Annual, which took place in the Rif, in the Maghreb region of North Africa in 1921. The battle was a major defeat for the Spanish military and part of the Rif people’s resistance which was suppressed with genocidal weapons ferocity by the Spanish and French imperialists, including the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction by the Spanish.

Illustration of the death of a Spanish General Margalla in a much earlier colonialist venture into the Maghreb, 1893 (source of imageL

Many features of this struggle bear important lessons for us today wherever we are in the world but perhaps in particular to the Catalans struggling for independence. And although the struggle of the Rif people was apparently noted by Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, who we are told learned guerrilla tactical lessons from it, it seems mostly forgotten and Wikipedia’s coverage (the Rif Wars) is modest.

THE BATTLE

In 1921 the Spanish State sent armed forces to extend their area of control beyond the coastal strip around Ceuta and Melilla and other bases in North Africa. They had penetrated 130 kilometres when they encountered light resistance of a skirmishing nature, which continued for five days.

At the end of that period, on August 22nd the Berbers attacked the Spanish Army’s encampment at Annual in force with 3,000 irregulars against Spain’s 5,000 soldiers. General Silvestre decided upon a withdrawal along the line of their earlier advance and that march began in order at 10am but soon turned into a rout, with Spanish soldiers killed by bullet or knife. The dead presumably included Silvestre, whose body was never found.

In the following days the Berbers overran more than 130 Spanish guard stations (containing up to 20 men), took a number of towns and reached the Spanish colony town of Melilla, which Abd el Krim did not attack for fear of other nations being drawn in to defend their resident nationals in the city, a decision he apparently regretted for the rest of his life. The Spanish evacuated fleeing colonists but soon reinforced some towns in particular Melilla, mainly with the Spanish Legion and Moroccan Regulares.

A somewhat menacing representation of the face of Abd el Krim in Time Magazine, 1925, during the life of the Rif Republic (image sourced: Wikipedia).

Analysis of the defeat tends to lay the blame on lack of military efficiency on the side of the Spanish without giving any credit to the tactics or leadership of the Berbers. If that were an accurate assessment one wonders why Guevara and Ho Chi Minh could be reputed to have learned lessons in guerrilla warfare from the conduct of the battle by the Berbers.

Wiki gives a Rifian casualty figure of 800 but reports that “final official figures for the Spanish death toll, both at Annual and during the subsequent rout which took Riffian forces to the outskirts of Melilla, were reported to the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament) as totaling 13,192 killed”; Wiki also says the Spanish may have lost up to 20,000.

As well as loss of men, the Spanish Army lost huge amounts of war material which were of course used against them later. Wiki: “11,000 rifles, 3,000 carbines, 1,000 muskets, 60 machine guns, 2,000 horses, 1,500 mules, 100 cannon, and a large quantity of ammunition.  Abd el Krim remarked later: “In just one night, Spain supplied us with all the equipment which we needed to carry on a big war.” Other sources give the amount of booty seized by Rif warriors as 20,000 rifles (German-made Mausers), 400 machine guns (Hotchkisses)) and 120–150 artillery pieces (Schneiders).”

Kaid Sarkash (Riffian leader) pictured in 1924 with another, both Berbers carrying captured rifles: Spanish Mauser & French Berthier Carbine.
(Photo sourced: Wikipedia)

The Spanish imperial-colonialists had lost all the territory they had gained in the region since 1909, lost some stature in the eyes of colonised people and lost face among its other imperialist and colonialist competitors, which might have mattered most to the Spanish authorities. Readers from the Spanish state can confirm or deny what Wiki states, that the defeat is seen there as the worst of the Spanish Army in modern times.

The victorious Berbers under Abd el Krim set up the Rif Republic in September 1921 and tried unsuccessfully for recognition from Britain and from France. There does not seem to be much written about the Republic or if there is, it is difficult to find.

Territory of the Rif Republic (outlined in red) next to “Spanish North Africa”
(image sourced: Wikipedia).

POLITICAL CRISIS AND CHANGE

In response to the Battle of Annual, PSOE delegate and prominent party member Indalecio Prieto declared in the Congress of Deputies: “We are at the most acute period of Spanish decadence. The campaign in Africa is a total, absolute failure of the Spanish Army, without extenuation.”  A War Ministry investigative commission (headed by a General!) although it detailed a number of military mistakes, due to political interference failed to lay the blame squarely on the Army.

The political crisis however led to a great fall of confidence in the Spanish feudal-type military caste ruling class and in the monarch, King Alfonso XIII which is credited with contributing significantly to the birth of the Second Republic (1931-1939 – the one that was overthrown by military uprising and led to the Franco dictatorship, from which the current State has evolved).

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION

However, the loss of face for the Spanish imperial State also led to a thirst for revenge in sections of the Spanish ruling class and military. In 1923 Miguel Primo de Rivera1 led a military coup d’etat in Spain, blaming all problems on parliamentary democracy (such as existed) and was supported by the King, Alonso XIII. From the following year until 1927, Rivera took command of the campaign in the Rif and in 1925 the French, although competitors with the Spanish, joined the offensive.

Spain was an early user of chemical weapons against civilian populations and according to Wiki, “between 1921 and 1927, the Spanish army indiscriminately used phosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrin and mustard gas (known as Iperita2). Common targets were civilian populations, markets, and rivers.  In a telegram sent by the High Commissioner of Spanish Morocco Dámaso Berenguer on August 12, 1921 to the Spanish minister of War, Berenguer stated:

I have been obstinately resistant to the use of suffocating gases against these indigenous peoples but after what they have done, and of their treacherous and deceptive conduct, I have to use them with true joy.

The gases were produced illegally in Germany and sold to and bought illegally by Spain and later produced also illegally in Spain. The German chemist concerned, Hugo Stoltzenberg, was later granted Spanish citizenship but joined the Nazi Party during WWII and after the War continued his chemical weapons research in Hamburg. He sold his factory in 1969 and died in 1974.

The war was fought with ferocity on both sides but the Spanish and French had superior armament, aircraft and the Spanish at least dropped chemical weapons on civilian centres, killed domesticated animals and poisoned drinking water and fish. In two years most of the Berber resistance was crushed and in July 1927, Abd el Krim surrendered to the French, who exiled him. The French and Spanish abolished the short-lived Rif Republic, the first in North Africa.

An Association for the Defence of Victims of the Rif War considers that effects of the use of those chemicals have persisted and account for the high incidence of cancers in the population of the area.

There is a Catalan independentist sequel; according to Wiki: “On February 14, 2007, the Catalan party of the Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) passed a bill to the Spanish Congress of Deputies  requesting Spain to acknowledge the “systematic” use of chemical weapons against the population of the Rif mountains. The bill was rejected by 33 votes from the governing PSOE and the opposition right-wing PP who form the majority in the Spanish parliament.”

BACKGROUND – IMPERIALISTS DIVIDING PLUNDER

The Treaty of Fez 1912 was one in which Sultan Abdelhafid ceded Morocco to the French, who shared the spoils out thus: for recognising the treaty and land gained, Germany, which they added to their Cameroon colony but German also ceded to France and area which is now part of Chad. The Spanish got part of the Rif area including an iron mine and permission to build a railroad to it, which was the cause of riots and the start of the First Rif War. The Battle of Annual took place in what is called the Second Rif War and the joint French-Spanish offensive and use of chemical weapons in the Third Rif War.

But already in 1904 the UK, France and Italy in secret treaties had divided between them the Maghreb (that area covering almost the whole of North Africa and today including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and Western Sahara) into spheres of influence.

TODAY

What remains of that “Spanish North Africa” is Ceuta and Mellila, which Morocco demands Spain decolonise and the Spanish State denies are colonies at all. In 1965 the UN asked the Spanish State to decolonise the territory and in 1966 that it hold a referendum, neither of which it did. From 1973 the Saharawi people fought very successfully under the Polisario Front against Spanish occupation and in 1975/76 the Spanish State abandoned Western Sahara without handing it over to the Saharawi people but by agreement with Morocco and Mauritania which then moved in, since when Morocco has fought the Saharawi people without the latter’s surrender. Mauritania withdrew its claim in 1979 but Morocco has claimed the entire territory and its natural resources (which are significant) and attacked Saharawi settlements and jailed and tortured activists. Other Saharawi people live as refugees in Algeria. The UN does consider that the Saharawi are entitled to self-determination and recognises the Polisario Front as the legitimate representatives of the people and has stated that Morocco should withdraw; the UN maintains a post there but does not monitor Moroccan state actions towards the Saharawi, much less police them.

The UN does not list Ceuta or Melilla as areas in need of decolonisation.

Flag of the Rif Republic design (source: Wikipedia)
Currency note of the Riffan Republic – note conversion rate into English or French currency but not Spanish!
(image source: Wikipedia)

LESSONS

The Rif War has a fair bit of overall coverage on Wikipedia but very little on the Berber leader Abd el Krim and even less on the Berber Republic. I look forward to finding more material about it for my education. I came across this whole struggle by accident and indeed, by strange coincidences, I have family and personal connection to Arab and Berber anti-colonial resistance in the region.

However, the lessons for us and in particular for the Catalans are these, I believe and, given what is at stake now and the enormous human cost paid to obtain those lessons, we should be prepared to study them:

  • The Spanish ruling class was a ferocious one in modern times even before the Franco regime. It showed its ferocity again during the Franco years, during the Transition and, when it felt it necessary, in years since – including under a social-democratic government. It has not at all changed.

  • Capitalists and imperialists will cede no territory unless it is absolutely unavoidable to do so or unless they gain some alternative territory elsewhere. This was true of Spanish North Africa – how much more so will it be true of what they consider as their territorial base and one of the most economically successful parts of that ‘base’!

  • The imperialists of the world, including long-established democracies, come to mutual arrangements which are often kept secret from their own populations.

  • Even competing imperialists will join with other imperialists or their atrocities will be ignored by competitors when they find it in their imperialist interests to do so. As the EU President has already shown, there is no help coming from the European capitalist and imperialist states for Catalan independence – not even a public condemnation of Spanish police violence.

  • Liberals and social-democrats who espouse anti-colonial feeling have a tendency to end up, however reluctantly, supporting their state’s repression of colonialised people’s resistance. This has been seen and will continue to be seen in the PSOE but may also come to be seen in sections of Podemos – with the latter, one can certainly not expect energetic defence of self-determination.

  • A serious defeat for the ruling class can destabilise it sufficiently for revolution or radical reform to take place and to succeed. In this way, should the people of Catalunya succeed in establishing and defending an independent republic there, it could be the spark that sets off detonations throughout the state and allows a genuinely democratic Spanish Republic to emerge. Which means that all genuine democrats in that state should support and strive for the victory of the Catalonian people, both for the rights of the Catalan people but also in their own self-interest.

  • The imperialists violate rights but also language: just as they claimed then and still claim that Ceuta and Melilla are not colonies, so they claim that Catalunya and southern Euskal Herria are not either.

APPENDIX

COINCIDENCES

My father, Deasún Breatnach (1921-2007) worked in Tangiers in journalism for a short period, probably 1947-1949 (he married in Madrid in ’47 and seems to have been back in Ireland in ’49 or at least soon after). Tangiers at that time was by treaty (another imperialist one!) under the joint control of the British, French and Spanish. Deasún told a story that an Arab acquaintance contacted him saying he had an important friend who wished to meet him. Deasún attended by arrangement and the man, who was a muslim religious and temporal leader, wished to get a story of Spanish Army atrocities against people in the Rif, including electric shock torture, out to the world. Deasún took down the report and protest letter in English as requested and sent one copy to a world leader (I forget now but possibly Churchill) and another to the United Nations and filed a story about it to the Irish Press. The Press did not print it because, according to the Editor, they had no corroboration. Deasún said that the Gibraltar Times (if that is the correct name) had run a story on it also but by the time they had this discussion it was about a year later.

Unrelatedly, about a decade ago I joined a small group of activists in a solidarity campaign, Western Sahara Action Ireland, which ran a FB page and took a number of street actions (on a number of occasions harassed and threatened by thugs sent from the Moroccan Embassy). We also set up a “Sahara tent” at an Electric Picnic festival which was visited by Michael D. Higgins. The Coordinator of the WSAI group left to take up work elsewhere and, as a number of us were also active in other struggles we were unable to keep the group going but the page is still maintained and can be accessed at (see Links).

LINKS

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Annual

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rif_Republic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_weapons_in_the_Rif_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rif_War

Western Sahara: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Sahara

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Fez

https://www.facebook.com/groups/256377861125569/

 

FOOTNOTES

1Whose son Manuel Primo Rivera was a prominent fascist in 1930s Spain.

2After Ypres, where the Germans used it in WWI for the first time.

2 thoughts on “AN OLD WAR WITH A LESSON FOR TODAY

  1. Pingback: “THE LAST COLONY IN AFRICA” — REPRESENTATIVES SPEAK IN DUBLIN | rebelbreeze

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