Africa Colonial Wars 1919–1939 Part I

Just as Africans were taking their first, tentative steps towards nationhood and independence, Spain and Italy launched what turned out to be the last large-scale wars of conquest on the continent, in Morocco and Abyssinia. Both nations were driven by greed and historic grievances which alleged that their legitimate imperial ambitions had been frustrated or overlooked by the great powers. Jealousy and bruised pride were most strongly felt by right-wing politicians, professional soldiers, moneymen and journalists who lobbied for imperial expansion, promising that it would yield prestige and profit. In Italy, aggressive imperialism and an infatuation with the glories of the Roman Empire were central to the ideology of Mussolini’s Fascist Party which snatched power in 1922. Like Spain, Italy was a relatively poor country with limited capital reserves and industrial resources, deficiencies that were ignored or glossed over by imperial enthusiasts who argued that in the long-term imperial wars would pay for themselves.

In 1900 Spain was a nation in eclipse. Over the past hundred years it had been occupied by Napoleon and endured periodic civil wars over the royal succession; it entered the twentieth century riven by violent social and political tensions. Spain’s infirmity was brutally exposed in 1898, when she was defeated by the United States in a short war that ended with the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, all that remained of her vast sixteenth-century empire.

National shame was most deeply felt in the upper reaches of a hierarchical society where the conviction took root that Spain could only redeem and regenerate itself by a colonial venture in Morocco. Support for this enterprise was most passionate among the numerous officers of the Spanish army (there was one for every forty-seven soldiers), who found allies in King Alfonso XIII, the profoundly superstitious and obscurantist Catholic Church and conservatives in the middle and landowning classes. The army had its own newspaper, El Ejército Español, which proclaimed that empire was the ‘birthright’ of all Spaniards, and predicted that ‘weapons’ would ‘plough the virgin soil so that agriculture, industry, and mining might flourish’ in Morocco.

Morocco was Spain’s new El Dorado. In 1904 Spain and France secretly agreed to share Morocco, with the French coming off best with the most fertile regions. Spain’s portion was the littoral of the Mediterranean coast and the inaccessible Atlas Mountains of the Rif, home to the fiercely independent Berbers. The war began in 1909 and jubilant officers, including the young Francisco Franco, looked forward to medals and promotion, while investors touted for mining and agricultural concessions. Optimism dissolved on the battlefield and, within a year, the Spanish army found itself bogged down in a guerrilla war, just as it had in Cuba forty years before. Reinforcements were hastily summoned, but in July 1909 the mobilisation of reservists triggered a popular uprising among the workers of Barcelona. Breadwinners and their families wanted no part in the Moroccan adventure, and henceforward all left-wing parties opposed a war that offered the workers nothing but conscription and death. Resentful draftees had to be stiffened by Moroccan levies (Regulares) and, in 1921, the sinister Spanish Foreign Legion (Tercio de Extranjeros), a band of mostly Spanish desperadoes whose motto was ‘Viva la Muerte!’ These hirelings once appeared at a ceremonial public parade with Berber heads, ears and arms spiked on their bayonets.

Resistance was strongest among the Berbers of the Atlas, who not only defended their mountainous homeland but created their own state, the Rif Republic, in September 1921. Its founder and guiding spirit was a charismatic visionary, Abd el-Krim, a jurist who had once worked for the Spanish, but believed that the future freedom, happiness and prosperity of the Berbers could only be achieved by the creation of a modern, independent nation. It had its own flag, issued banknotes and, under el-Krim’s direction, was embarking on a programme of social and economic regeneration which included efforts to eliminate slavery. The Riffian army was well suited to a partisan war. Its soldiers were chiefly horsemen armed with up-to-date rifles, supported by machineguns and modern artillery. The Riffians also had good luck, for they were pitched against an army with tenuous lines of communications and led by fumbling generals.

Riffian superiority in the battlefield was spectacularly proved in July 1921, when Spain launched an offensive with 13,000 men designed to penetrate the Atlas foothills and secure a decisive victory. What followed was the most catastrophic defeat ever suffered by a European army in Africa, the Battle of Annual. The Spanish were outmanoeuvred, trapped and trounced with a loss of over 10,000 men in the fighting and ensuing rout. Officers fled in cars, the wounded were abandoned and tortured, and their commander, General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre y Pantiga, shot himself. The circumstances of his death were ironic, insofar as his manly bearing and extended, bushy and painstakingly groomed moustache so closely fitted the European stereotype of the victorious imperial hero. A post-mortem on the Annual debacle revealed Silvestre’s reckless over-confidence, his obsequious desire to satisfy King Alfonso XIII’s wish for a quick victory, ramshackle logistics, a precipitate collapse of morale and the mass desertions of Moroccan Regulares.

Spain responded with more botched offensives, but now the deficiencies of its commanders were offset by the latest military technology. Phosgene and mustard gas bombs dropped from aircraft would bring the Riffians to their knees. This tactic was strongly urged by Alfonso XIII, a Bourbon with all the mental limitations and prejudices of his ancestors. Together, his generals persuaded him that, if unchecked, the Republic of the Rif would trigger ‘a general uprising of the Muslim world at the instigation of Moscow and international Jewry’. Spain was now fighting to save Christian civilisation, just as it had done in the Middle Ages when its armies had driven the Moors from the Iberian peninsula.

The technology for what are now called weapons of mass destruction had to be imported. German scientists supervised the manufacture of the poison gas at two factories, one of which, near Madrid, was named ‘The Alfonso XIII Factory’. Over 100 bombers were purchased from British and French manufacturers, including the massive Farman F.60 Goliath. By November 1923 the preparations had been completed, and one general hoped that the gas offensive would exterminate the Rif tribesmen.

Between 1923 and 1925 the Spanish air force pounded Rif towns and villages with 13,000 bombs filled with phosgene and mustard gas as well as conventional high explosives. Victims suffered sores, boils, blindness and the burning of skin and lungs, livestock were killed and crops and vegetation withered. Residual contamination persisted and was a source of stomach and throat cancers and genetic damage.4 Details of these atrocities remained hidden for seventy years, and in 2007 the Spanish parliament refused to acknowledge them or consider compensation. The Moroccan government disregarded the revelations, for fear that they might add to the grievances of the discontented Berber minority.

Conventional rather than chemical weapons brought down the Rif Republic. Worrying signs that Spain’s war in the Rif might destabilise French Morocco drew France into the conflict in 1925. Over 100,000 French troops, tanks and aircraft were deployed alongside 80,000 Spaniards, and the outnumbered Riffian forces were broken. Newsreel cameramen (a novelty on colonial battlefields) filmed the captive Abd el-Krim as he began the first stage of his journey to exile in Réunion in the Indian Ocean. He was transferred to France in 1947 and was later moved to Cairo where he died in 1963, a revered elder statesman of North African nationalism.


Spain had gained a colony and, unwittingly, a Frankenstein’s monster, the Army of Africa (Cuerpo de Ejército Marroquí). Its cadre of devout, reactionary officers assumed the role of the defenders of traditionalism in a country beset by political turbulence after the abdication of Alfonso in 1931. Politicians of the Right saw the Africanistas (as the officer corps was called) as ideological accomplices in their struggle to contain the trade unions, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists. The Moroccan garrison became a praetorian guard that could be unleashed on the working classes if they ever got out of hand. They did, in October 1934, when the miners’ strike in the Asturias aroused fears of an imminent Red revolution. It was forestalled by application of the terror that had recently been used to subdue Spanish Morocco. Aircraft bombed centres of disaffection and the Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops were summoned to restore order and storm the strikers’ stronghold at Oviedo. Its capture and subsequent mopping-up operations were marked by looting, rape and summary executions by the Legionaries and Regulares. Franco (now a general) presided over the terror. Like his fellow Africanistas, he believed that it was their sacred duty to rescue the old Spain of landowners, priests and the passive and obedient masses from the depredation of godless Communists and Anarchists.

Red revolution seemed to come closer on New Year’s Day 1936 with the emergence of a coalition government which called itself the ‘Popular Front’. It was confirmed in power by a narrow margin in a general election soon afterwards, and the far Left began clamouring for radical reform and wage rises. Strikes, assassinations and violent demonstrations proliferated during the spring and early summer, the Right trembled, acquired arms and covertly sounded out the Africanista generals. Together they contrived a coup whose success depended on the 40,000 soldiers of the Moroccan garrison who made up two-fifths of the Spanish army.

On 17 July 1936 Africa, in the form of Legionary and Regulares units from Morocco, invaded Spain. They were the spearhead of the Nationalist uprising and were soon reinforced by contingents flown across the Mediterranean in aircraft supplied by Hitler. Combined with local anti-Republican troops and right-wing volunteers, the African army quickly secured a power base across much of south-western and northern Spain. From the start, the Nationalists used their African troops to terrorise the Republicans. Speaking on Radio Seville, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano warned his countrymen and women of the promiscuity and sexual prowess of his Moroccan soldiers who, he assured listeners, had already been promised their pick of the women of Madrid.

The colonial troops fulfilled his expectations. There were mass rapes everywhere by Legionaries and Regulares, who also massacred Republican civilians. Later, George Orwell noticed that Moroccan soldiers enjoyed beating up fellow International Brigade prisoners of war, but desisted once their victims uttered exaggerated howls of pain. One wonders whether their brutality was the result of their suppressed loathing of all white men rather than any attachment to Fascism or the Spain of the hidalgo and the cleric. Muslim religious leaders in Morocco had backed the uprising, which was sold to them as a war against atheism. As the Regulares marched into Seville they were given Sacred Heart talismans by pious women, which must have been bewildering.

When the Republicans were finally defeated in the spring of 1939, there were 50,000 Moroccans and 9,000 Legionaries fighting in the Nationalist army along with German and Italian contingents. Although necessity compelled him to concentrate his energies on national reconstruction, Franco, now dictator of Spain, harboured imperial ambitions. The fall of France in June 1940 offered rich pickings and he immediately occupied French Tangier. Shortly afterwards, when he met Hitler, Franco named his price for cooperation with Germany as French Morocco, Oran and, of course, Gibraltar. The Führer was peeved by his temerity and prevaricated. Fascist Spain remained a malevolent neutral; early in 1941 the tiny Spanish coastal colonies of Guinea and Fernando Po were sources of anti-British propaganda and bases for German agents in West Africa. Spanish anti-Communist volunteers joined Nazi forces in Russia.