By Gary Oswald
African forces defeated European forces all the time during the Scramble. It was not remotely uncommon for Imperial patrols, columns and garrisoned posts to be wiped out. The nature of colonial rule was that there was almost always less soldiers than conquered people, so they were vulnerable to being overwhelmed. What was rare was for that momentary defeat to turn into a rout across an entire front.
Probably the best example of that second, more damaging, kind of European defeat happening was in 1921 in the Rif area of Northern Morocco. Spain had been granted the rights for a protectorate in Northern Morocco in 1912, after the Sultan of Morocco signed over his country to the Europeans to protect himself against a rebellion. But beyond a hand full of ports like Ceuta, Tétouan and Melilla, two of which the Spanish had already owned prior to 1912, this largely only existed on paper. A lot of Morocco was land which Spain privately viewed as an ungovernable anarchy and so had made no real attempt to take control over.
In 1921, this would change and they would launch a military advance into the Rif area of Morocco to attempt to enforce proper control and thus collect taxes. The Spanish Army advanced around 80 miles from their base at Melilla to the village of Annual, but didn't properly fortify their supply lines, leaving instead only a trail of small makeshift blockhouses manned by around 20 soldiers each of which had both poor communication with each other and limited water supplies.
The first warning that this would not go well, happened on the 1st of June 1921, when an outpost to the east of Annual was attacked and destroyed by a local Riffian militia, with around 180 Spanish soldiers killed. This warning was largely ignored by the Spanish leadership but gave huge confidence to the Riffians. Six weeks later, on the 14th of July, an outpost south of Annual was besieged and surrendered on the 21st of July due to a lack of water with another 200 soldiers lost for Spain.
The day after that, on the 22nd, the Riffians gathered a force of 3,000 men which attacked Annual itself where Spain had around 4,000 soldiers. The Spanish, low on both ammunition and supplies, retreated but the retreat became a rout, with Moroccan soldiers in their army switching sides and the Spanish conscripts losing all discipline under pressure. Only one Cavalry regiment made it out intact.
The Rifians then swept through the Spanish blockades, attacking them one by one and overrunning more than 130 of them before they could amalgamate their forces, eliminating another 2,500 Spanish soldiers. They then attacked the major garrisons at Zeluán, Nador and Al Aaroui, all of whom, suffering from low morale after this quick turn around, surrendered and were taken prisoner. 3,000 of these new Spanish prisoners were then massacred at Monte Arruit, in defiance of the terms of surrender. Exactly why this happened is debatable, the Riffian story was that an accidental rifle discharge made them mistakenly think there was a revolt among the prisoners, the Spanish blamed treachery by the Riffian leader on the spot, while some historians have suggested it was a revolt by low level Riffian troops who wanted revenge and were unhappy that a surrender had been accepted. Either way it was a clear war crime and something that went against the intentions of the revolt's overall leaders, who had repeatedly emphasised the need to not mistreat prisoners as they didn't wish to give Spain any atrocities to trumpet.
In purely Military terms, however Annual was a decisive victory for the Riffians, and proof of the genuinely terrible state of the Spanish Army in Morocco in terms of discipline and morale. By August 1921, of the 26,000 Spanish Soldiers that had advanced into the Rif, only around 1,000 were still fit for combat. Spanish estimates were that 13,192 had died and around 6,000 more were captured or had switched sides, while another 6,000 were injured or deserted. The Riffians had started the assault with an army of only 3,000 men and within two months of fighting they had entirely wiped out an army that outnumbered them in total by more than 8 to 1, and was vastly better equipped, by engaging it piecemeal. They had also recruited numerous new fighters, both from Spanish soldiers switching sides and potential rebels encouraged by this astounding success. And they had captured a huge amounts of weapons and ammunition, including 60 machine guns and 100 cannons which the Riffians had previously had none of, enough to fight the war for many more years.
This victory also meant that the road to Melilla was now open, but a planned assault on it was nixed by the Riffians new de facto ruler and the architect of the assault on Annual, Abd el-Krim. This was for two reasons. Firstly, Melilla was comfortably the strongest Spanish position in Western Morocco, they had held it since 1497 against multiple Moroccan sieges and it had huge fortified walls. It also had a largely loyal population, a coastline which meant it could be defended and supplied from the sea and around 14,000 troops there which had been rapidly bought in from Spain and elsewhere in Morocco in July of 1921, once news got out of the scale of the defeat at Annual. It was worried that an attack on that stronghold might result in a crushing Spanish victory that would undo all the advantages the Riffians had won at Annual. Secondly, Melilla was full of European citizens and international consuls. Given Abd el-Krim's inability to prevent the massacre at Monte Arruit, he was sincerely worried that if Melilla did fall, his troops would massacre those civilians and encourage an Eight Nation Alliance to come and punish him, as had happened to China.
Instead Abd el-Krim turned to internal consolidation, announcing the formation of the Rif Republic in September 1921. He wished to create, as he had said a year earlier, 'a country with a government and a flag'. In theory he already existed in one, the Sultanate of Morocco, which had never been destroyed as an entity even after it had been divided into French and Spanish areas of control in 1912. The Sultan was therefore still theoretically in charge of the Rif through his viceroy in Tétouan. In reality however the Sultanate's power had been fading for a century as European imports crashed its local industries and its economy increasingly came under control of European countries who had demanded trading privileges, huge reparations for minor border wars and control over finances as conditions for loans to pay those reparations. Morocco's tax system was both resented as illegal and overly harsh and was hugely inefficient and so unable to provide the money needed by the state, its army was both hugely expensive and incapable of winning wars, it lacked food security and suffered terribly from famines and its Sultans lacked popular support, which was why they had given away their country to the Europeans to protect themselves from rebellions. It was the European High Commissioners who advised the Sultan that called the shots and thanks to the economic domination of Europe, this had been true long before it had been formalised in 1912.
It was not just that the Moroccan state had been taken over by France and Spain. It was that the state had been resented and seen as failing for decades prior to that. Opposition to the French and Spanish occupation rarely came hand in hand with a desire for a return of power to their puppet Sultan. Instead the rebels far more often felt that a new state needed to be created, such as the Rif Republic.
And within the Rif area of Northern Morocco, central control by the Sultanate had always been something of a mirage. The true authority were family clan units which enforced order through the actions of councils consisting of the important men and the meditations of local religious orders. With little trade between the Rif and the rest of Morocco, the area was both economically and politically independent. It had accepted rule from Morocco largely because the people viewed light rule from a stranger outside the area as being less onerous than direct rule from a neighbour from a different clan. When Abu Himara attempted to launch a revolt he was defeated in 1908 not by the Sultan but by his rivals from within the Rif.
Spanish control was viewed similarly but as a Christian foreign power it was resented more and there was resistance from the start. Spain also knew from experience they had to tread carefully for domestic reasons. In 1908 they had bought mining concessions from the rebel Abu Himara and, despite the Sultan not recognising that sale, in 1909 they moved to start mining in the Rif. The Riffians attacked the mine workers, Spanish troops attacked Riffian towns in retaliation and when Maura’s government attempted to recruit more troops among the working classes of Barcelona to be sent to the Rif, the trade unions announced a general strike. This led to riots, then the killings of leading trade unionists and ultimately the dismissal of Maura and a change in government. The Spanish government therefore had good reason to think that a full out war in Morocco would be hugely unpopular back home.
So they attempted, at first, to fight in Morocco largely indirectly instead, paying money to hundreds of informers and agents, whose job was to prevent attacks on the Spanish ports and mines by ensuring warfare between the various clans. During this period, Abd el-Krim himself worked for Spain in stirring up blood feuds between different clans so they could not unite against their foreign enemy. But to an extent this only worked because Spain wasn't really hated to the degree that attacking them was a priority over fighting local rivals, rule from Madrid was seen as better than rule from the next village over. France, which had obtained control over the majority of Morocco in the 1912 deal, was seen as the real enemy and Spain was wise enough to not infringe too much on the Rif's traditional economic and political independence, not trying to move armed men into or collect taxes from areas outside the major towns and mines.
That acceptance of the Spanish presence first changed in 1919 and 1920 when Spain proved both unwilling and unable to offer relief to a brutal famine in the region. In 1921 Spain then tried to take advantage of that famine and moved armed forces in to collect taxes from a starving people. It was that combination of neglect and invasion that led to true resentment and anger against their rule. It was in those years that the Spanish agents, such as Abd el-Krim, defected and the clan feuds were put aside in favour of a larger alliance against Spain, which led to el-Krim leading an army against the invaders at Annual. But he knew as well as anyone how fragile that unity was. In the aftermath of his miracle victory at Annual, he needed to form the contentious bickering people who, when working for Spain, he'd been so easily able to get to kill each other, into a united centralised state that could resist the inevitable Spanish counter attack.
This was not easy, el-Krim's attempts to introduce a universal tax (to raise money for bribes of allies and to fund the military) and claim Spanish prisoners as belonging to the state rather than whoever captured them (so he could ransom them for four million pesetas, which raised him a lot more money than the taxes did) met huge resistance. There were numerous rebellions against his centralised rule, with even his supporters viewing it as at best a necessary evil while his enemies saw it as an authoritarian nightmare with secret police enforcing a much stricter Islamic law than they were used to, for example domestic violence was severely punished for the first real time. Through out the next five years el-Krim would find himself constantly fighting rebels, having allies sound out the Spanish about switching sides and having to win over men who fell out with him. He would also find himself building new laws and state apparatus largely from scratch, which is why he mostly concentrated on the new Riffian army, formed out of the victors of Annual, which allowed him to rule at gun point without having to win over his subjects.
The army was a professional one, built around a core of European trained artillery men and was the centre piece of the new state, but it was supported by a centralised government that was able through taxes and fines to enact its will in a way the Rif had not experienced for centuries. The new leaders of the Rif built roads and telephones to secure their rule and manufactured gas masks, bombs and ammunition in their central manufactories. And they conscripted huge numbers of men from all over the Rif into their army, the Spanish estimated around 80,000 Riffians were under arms at some point during the war, with women in turn increasingly taking over the majority of the work in industry and agriculture as a result. By 1925, the demand for bodies in the army was such that even this wasn't enough and the Riffian Army was openly recruiting children and women for the front line leading to increasing shortages and inflation of good prices due to the lack of any workers.
But, as grim as this was, Spain had its own troubles. In the aftermath of the disaster of 1921, it had been unable to recover the situation in Morocco despite its significant advantages in both men and material. It had exchanged victories and defeats pretty evenly with the rebels but not managed to actually regain any land. And anti war riots became increasingly common, with soldiers mutinying rather than going to the Rif. In 1923, with the Spanish Army investigated for their handling of the war, they revolted and overthrew the government, leading to the establishment of a right wing dictatorship under Miguel Primo de Rivera. Primo de Rivera openly discussed abandoning Morocco altogether and he also talked about ceding Spanish rights in Morocco to the UK in return for Gibraltar. But after the amount of blood Spain had spilt in the war so far and due to the feeling that the ruling classes Spain couldn’t afford to lose more face after the humiliation of the last century, the decision was made to stay the course and launch another assault on the Rif.
But rather than the 3,000 militia they had faced at Annual, the Spanish were now facing an army of 10,000 well trained men who had recent experience of fighting against those who had opposed the new centralised state, backed by at least another 15,000 more local militia. In 1924, Spain would meet that army outside the modern day city of Chefchaouen and it would be another disaster for the Spanish. Their armies would be mauled once more with more than 10,000 Spanish soldiers killed and all their outposts south of the port of Tétouan lost, with in particular the Spanish hospital in Chefchaouen captured and used as the Riffian's main medical building (the hospital would be bombed a year later, in one of the first aerial bombardments of civilians in history, by a rogue American volunteer air squadron who had signed up for the European side of the Rif War despite the American Government forbidding it).
Three years of overwhelming victories against the Spanish however led to increasing hubris among the Riffians and so the mistake that would doom them. Abd el-Krim feared food shortages due to a lack of free labour, he had already faced rebellions over that previously when the labour shortage was less bad, and he was aware that the inability to prevent famines was why he had turned on the Spanish and so why others would turn on him. But the best agricultural land was in the French protectorate and so there was increasing pressure on the Riffians to extend their control into that area, while also freeing their kinsmen there from European control and so increasing his labour force. Abd el-Krim after all had mauled two Spanish armies, he was clearly formidable. Why should he settle just for the Rif, when he could become the new Sultan of all of Morocco?
In April 1925, the Riffians launched a surprise attack on French positions, destroying 43 outposts and forcing the French army to retreat to Fez with over 2,500 dead or missing and nearly 4,000 wounded. This represented losses of over 20 percent of French forces deployed in Morocco but also meant that French neutrality was no longer an option. Throughout May and June of 1925, France and Spain had numerous meetings about how to end the Rif War entirely. The Riffians were initially offered amnesty and autonomy if they simply surrendered but this was, of course, refused as they had yet to lose a major battle and had just increased the land under their control. Instead France and Spain would launch a coordinated two front invasion against the Rif Republic in September of 1925.
The allied forces used were massive, some of the largest European forces used in any war against an independent African state, and a sign of how much European logistics had improved by the 1920s. In total they consisted of 123,000 men supported by tanks and 150 aeroplanes. Against that the, increasingly manpower starved, Rif Republic could only muster about 12,000 trained soldiers, another 10,000 militia and no tanks or planes (they had bought a handful of planes in an attempt to form a Riffian air force, but in the end none of them actually got off the ground). The war was also fought to the knife with routine use of rape, torture, and the killing of civilians and prisoners by all sides, though the Spanish, radicalised by years of humiliation and the oft mentioned massacre at Monte Arruit, were far more guilty of this than either the French or Riffians. The Spanish also indiscriminately used chemical weapons against both military and civilian targets, dropping around 1,700 mustard gas bombs on villages and forts. The result was a foregone conclusion, Abd el-Krim surrendered in 1926 to the French and the last of the rebels were defeated in 1927, though the environmental damage done by the chemical weapons continued killing people long after that. Abd el-Krim himself was imprisoned in the French island of Réunion where he remained until 1947 and he would eventually die in Egypt in 1963, having never returned to Morocco.
There is however a coda to his story. In 1936, the Spanish Army revolted again against the Spanish government and Morocco, where 30,000 Spanish troops were stationed, became the centre of Nationalist power in the following Civil War.
Francisco Franco reached out to the elites of the Rif, who were largely the same people who had been conquered a decade earlier, to reassure them that he was aware his position relied on Morocco being quiet while he removed his army to Spain and so would offer them privileges and bribes. He also began a mass recruiting campaign to get more Moroccan Muslims into his existing forces. There were already many Moroccans in the Spanish Army of Africa, of course, it was pretty standard for colonial troops to use local recruits, but their numbers expanded quickly during the Civil War because of continuing famines and widespread poverty in the Rif. The army represented a steady wage that wasn't the hated labour in the mines in dreadful conditions. Franco also made much of the 'atheist communists' being ready to turn on Islam and shut down the mosques. And in the aftermath of Spanish planes dumping chemical weapons on their villages, many in the Rif relished a chance to in turn invade Spain. Thanks to this recruitment, the Army of Africa would therefore expand from 30,000 to 60,000, the vast majority of the new recruits being Riffians, and were the main force used in the 1936 Nationalist conquest of Andalusia.
With Moroccan troops making such a large part of the Nationalist armies, the Republicans therefore knew that a rebellion in Morocco would help them hugely by turning their enemy's most important troops against him. The Republicans drafted a plan to promise to recognise Riffian independence if there was a large scale Rebellion in the Rif along the lines of what had happened in 1921. The French however told the Republicans that they were entirely opposed to this, due to worries of the rebellion spreading into French Morocco once again and so Republican plans to smuggle weapons into the Rif were shelved. The Catalan leaders, who had proposed the plan, threatened to withdraw their forces from the front lines entirely if the Republicans weren't willing to give the Rif independence but they backed down after much debate and the Republican leadership remained officially committed to keeping Spanish Morocco.
Despite this decision, the longer the war went on, the more desperate the Republicans got and so there was action in Morocco regardless, with some contact made with existing rebel groups in the Rif. In 1938, there was an unauthorised planned raid into Morocco from Tangiers that was foiled by the Nationalists and at least one Spanish rebel did move into Morocco to attempt to raise up a rebellion but with little success. The problem they had, was a lack of credibility and trust, given that the Republic had been their imperial masters prior to the war.
In early 1937 Pierre Besnard of the French Anarcho-Syndicalist League proposed that the easiest way to start a rebellion in Spanish Morocco was to bring back Abd el Krim, the man who'd done it last time and so had that credibility. Besnard proposed that if the Spanish Republicans could agree on a deal, Besnard could visit Reunion, deliver the proposed agreement and then violently break el Krim out of prison if the latter accepted it. This was a very bold plan given it involved Spain authorising an attack on the neutral country they had the longest border with and unsurprisingly Largo Cabalerro, the head of the Republicans, refused Besnard permission. Ultimately Abd el Krim remained in prison and, while some Moroccans did work with the Republicans and enlisted in their armies, there was no widespread rebellion in the Rif, the Army of Africa remained loyal to Franco and the Nationalists won the Civil War.
It is unlikely that Besnard could have pulled it off and its difficult to imagine enough trust existing between the Riffians and the Republicans for a true alliance to be formed (beyond the bad blood of the colonial relationship, Moroccan soldiers in Spain had both committed atrocities while conquering Republican held towns and were significantly more likely to be killed as Prisoners of War than Spanish Nationalists), even without accounting for the problem with France. But these plans illustrate just how important Spanish Morocco was to the Nationalist war effort and so how different the 1930s could have gone had it and the Army of Africa not existed because Spain had lost the Rif War.
So could Abd el-Krim have won and the Rif Republic endured? Yes, I think it's entirely possible for Spain to give up and agree to recognise their independence if no assault is launched on France in 1925, given how badly the war was going for them. I certainly also think the Spanish had a chance of winning even without France, mind, because the manpower shortages in the Rif were crippling and Spain was already planning a massed amphibious landing involving the use of tanks and massive seaborne air support, which would allow them to avoid the overextended resupply lines that had hurt them at Annual. But, while this landing at Alhucemas succeeded in our reality and certainly could do so even without France, it did so at least partly because el-Krim had to also defend against the French. He had been pre warned about the landing and if the Spanish do not have French support, it is not impossible, given the quality of the Spanish Army, that he could stop it in the same way the Ottomans stopped the British landing at Gallipoli if he could commit his full forces to it. After all, fear of that very event had led to Primo de Rivera actively delaying the landing until after the French could get involved. And if that last roll of the dice fails, then Spain almost certainly packs it in.
The Spanish after all did not know how many men the Rif was losing in clashes with Spain, France and rebels (best estimate is that the Riffians saw around 40,000 men be either killed, captured or injured during the five year lifespan of the Republic) and how crippling that slow bleed of manpower was. All they would see was constant losses of trained experienced Spanish soldiers and a long casualty-intensive slog in front of them and I simply don't think the Spanish people would have endured another major loss and the prospect of another 4 years like the 4 they just had. Without France, the mood was already moving towards negotiation and the last holdouts in the Army probably give in after a loss at Alhucemas. However it's probable that instead of just withdrawing Spain would instead try to sell its rights to the UK or France. France might go ahead and accept that rather than allow an independent Rif given their interests elsewhere in Morocco, which takes us essentially to OTL as far as the fate of the Rif Republic goes except, since all of Morocco would be French, Franco would be stuck in the Canaries with significantly less recruits. Or alternatively France might turn down any offer to get involved. After all, even after the Riffian attack on French positions, the war was not universally popular in France, most of the left wing French parties condemned it, so without that casus belli it would be even more controversial. In that case the Rif Republic might endure which has significant changes in itself while still removing troops from the Nationalist cause.
The Republic might endure as long as they don't just attack France later, anyway. Abd el-Krim becoming Sultan of all of Morocco is stunningly unlikely given the French Army, but the same desires for more fertile land and alliance with fellow Muslims will still apply even after peace with Spain. And if he does attack Fez, then unless he times his assault to coincide with a major crisis elsewhere, such as 1941, it's difficult to see that ever going well. And if he doesn't attack France, and food and labour shortages continue, how long do the famously independently minded Riffians accept his authoritarian centralised rule?
Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.