|Part of Interwar period|
Spanish troops landing at Al Hoceima Bay on 8 September 1925
|Republic of the Rif|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Manuel Silvestre †
José Millán Astray (WIA)
Miguel Primo de Rivera
Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (POW)
|Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi|
|: 140,000 soldiers
: 325,000 soldiers
Total: 465,000 soldiers
(Never more than 20,000 with firearms) including less than 7,000 "elites"
autumn 1925: 35,000–50,000
March 1926: less than 20,000
|Casualties and losses|
|: 23,000 casualties (of which 18,000 killed in battle or died of disease)
: 10,000 dead (2,500 killed in battle)
|30,000 casualties (of which 10,000 dead)|
The Rif War, also called the Second Moroccan War, was fought in the early 1920s between the colonial power Spain (later joined by France) and the Berbers of the Rif mountainous region. Led by Abd al-Karim, the Riffians at first inflicted several defeats on the Spanish forces by using guerrilla tactics and captured European weapons. After France's entry into the conflict and the massive landing of Spanish troops at Al Hoceima, Abd el-Karim surrendered to the French and was taken into exile. Despite victory, controversy in Spain over the conduct of the war led to a military coup by General Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1923 and foreshadowed the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39.
The Berber tribesmen had a long tradition of fierce fighting skills, combined with high standards of fieldcraft and marksmanship. They were capably led by Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, commonly called Abd el-Krim, who showed both military and political expertise. However, the Rifian regular army was never a very large force. The elite of the Rifian forces formed regular units which according to Abd el-Krim, quoted by the Spanish General Manuel Goded, numbered 6,000 to 7,000. Other sources put it much lower, at around 2,000 to 3,000.
The remaining Rifians were tribal militia selected by their Caids and not liable to serve away from their homes and farms for more than 15 consecutive days. General Goded estimated that at their peak, in June 1924, the Rifian forces numbered about 80,000 men, although Abd el-Krim was never able to arm more than 20,000 men at a time. However, this force was largely adequate in the early stages of the war. In the final days of the war Rifian forces numbered about 12,000 men. In addition Rifian forces were not well armed, with weapons badly maintained and in poor condition.
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Initially, the Spanish forces in Morocco were largely composed of conscripts and reservists from Spain itself. These "Peninsular" troops were poorly supplied and prepared, few had marksmanship skills and proper battle training, and widespread corruption was reported amongst the officer corps, reducing supplies and morale. Even with their numerical superiority, they proved no match for the highly skilled and motivated Rifian forces. Accordingly, much reliance came to be placed on the mainly professional units comprising Spain's Army of Africa. Since 1911, these had included regiments of Moroccan Regulares, who proved to be excellent soldiers.
Following the difficulties and setbacks that it had experienced, the Spanish army began to adopt much in organization and tactics from the French North African forces garrisoning most of Morocco and neighboring Algeria. Particular attention was paid to the French Foreign Legion and a Spanish equivalent, the Tercio de Extranjeros ("Foreigners brigade"), known in English as the "Spanish Legion", was formed in 1920. The regiment's second commander was then-Colonel Francisco Franco, having risen rapidly through the ranks.
Less than 25% of this "Foreign Legion" were, in fact, non-Spanish. Harshly disciplined and driven, they quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. As their number grew, the Spanish Legion and the Regulares increasingly led offensive operations after the disasters that had been suffered by the conscript forces.
Course of war
As an outcome of the Treaty of Fez (1912) Spain gained possession of the lands around Melilla and Ceuta. In 1920, the Spanish commissioner, General Dámaso Berenguer, decided to conquer the eastern territory from the Jibala tribes, but had little success. On 1 July 1921, the Spanish army in north-eastern Morocco collapsed when defeated by the forces of Abd el-Krim, in what became known in Spain as the disaster of Annual, some 8,000 soldiers and officers reported killed or disappeared out of some 20,000. The Spanish were pushed back and during the following five years, occasional battles were fought between the two. The Rifian forces advanced to the east and captured over 130 Spanish military posts.
By late August 1921, Spain lost all the territories it had gained since 1909. Spanish troops were pushed back to Melilla, which was their biggest base in the eastern Rif. Spain still had 14,000 soldiers in Melilla. However, Abd el-Krim ordered his forces not to attack the town. He subsequently told the writer J. Roger-Matthieu that since citizens of other European nations were residing in Melilla, it was feared they would intervene in the war should their citizens come to harm. Other reasons included the dispersal of Rifian fighters from several loosely allied tribes following the victory at Annual; and the arrival in Melilla of substantial reinforcements from the Legion and other Spanish units recalled from operations in western Morocco. By the end of August Spanish forces at Melilla numbered 36,000 under General Jose Sanjurjo and the slow process of recovering the lost territory could begin.
Thus the Spanish could keep their biggest base in the eastern Rif. Later Abd el-Krim would admit: "I bitterly regret this order. It was my biggest mistake. All the following tenor of events happened because of this mistake."
By January 1922 the Spanish had retaken their major fort at Monte Arruit (where they found the bodies of 2,600 of the garrison) and had reoccupied the coastal plain as far as Tistutin and Batel. The Rifian forces had consolidated their hold of the inland mountains and stalemate was reached.
The Spanish military suffered losses even at sea; in March the transport ship Juan de Joanes was sunk in Alhucemas Bay by Riffian coastal batteries, and in August 1923, while shelling Riffian positions, the battleship España ran aground off Cape Tres Forcas and was eventually scrapped in situ.
In May 1924, the French Army had established a line of out-posts north of the Oureghla River in disputed tribal territory. On 12 April 1925, an estimated 8,000 Rifians attacked this line and in two weeks over 40 of 66 French posts had been stormed or abandoned. French casualties exceeded 1,000 killed, 3,700 wounded and 1,000 missing – representing losses of over 20 percent of their forces deployed in the Rif. The French accordingly intervened on the side of Spain, employing up to 160,000 well trained and equipped troops from Metropolitan, Algerian, Senegalese and Foreign Legion units, as well as Moroccan regulars (tirailleurs) and auxiliaries (goumiers). With total Spanish forces now numbering about 90,000 the Rifian forces were now seriously outnumbered by their Franco-Spanish opponents. Final French deaths from battle and disease, in what had now become a major war, were to total 8,628.
For the final attack commencing on 8 May 1925, the French and Spanish had ranged 123,000 men, supported by 150 aircraft, against 12,000 Rifians. Superior manpower and technology soon resolved the course of the war in favour of France and Spain. The French troops pushed through from the south while the Spanish fleet and army secured Alhucemas Bay by an amphibious landing, and began attacking from the north. After one year of bitter resistance, Abd el-Krim, the leader of both the tribes, surrendered to French authorities, and in 1926 Spanish Morocco was finally retaken.
However, the unpopularity of the war in Spain and the earlier humiliations of the Spanish military contributed to the instability of the Spanish government and the military coup of 1923.
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