Home / Modern / The Battle of Annual
The Bogeyman Cometh: The Annual Disaster
By Comer Plummer

There is nothing on earth so stupid as a gallant officer. — Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington [1]

It was toward 2030 hours on July 21, 1921, when the sun dipped behind the mountains west of Annual, ushering the end of this ruinous day. Tomorrow promised to be no better. The Spanish officers knew that they were in a precarious situation. Annual was in a cul-de-sac. According to a description of the period, the place was “an almost semicircular valley, narrow and deep, closed on all sides by towering and inaccessible mountains, except by a narrow opening that overlooks the sea."[2] There was only one route into the position from the east, through Izumar. The camp was vulnerable to fire from the surrounding heights, and its line of communication could be easily cut. The defeats of the forward and flanking outposts the previous weeks had left the Spanish camp exposed. They were out there now, the Moorish devils, shielded by the gathering darkness and the buzz of the cicadas, moving into positions around Annual. As the evening wore on, additional reports filtered in with the news that tribes to their rear, in the occupied zone, were joining the rebellion. Soon, they would be entirely cut off. It seemed as though a siege was inevitable. Could they hold out until reinforcements arrived?

The crisis had begun on June 1, when the Riffians, the Berbers of the Riff Mountains of northern Morocco, began attacking Spanish outposts around Annual. This hamlet had become the main depot of Spanish forces on the eastern front of the occupied zone of Spanish Morocco. The conflict unfolded when Spanish forces crossed the Amekran River and established an outpost on a hill called Abarran. Scarcely had the last sandbag been filled when a harka (war party) of several hundred warriors began to pour a withering fire into the camp. Within two hours the Riffians were in possession of the Spanish position. Only 72 of the 225 defenders escaped to Annual.[3] This defeat stymied the plans of General Manuel Silvestre, the commander of the eastern theater, to establish a bridgehead west of the Amekran as a precursor for a thrust toward the ultimate objective, Al Hociema Bay and the heartland of the Beni Urrighel, the most powerful tribes of the Riffian coalition. Frustration turned into anxiety two weeks later, when the Riffians besieged a larger Spanish garrison on a hill south of Annual, Igueriben. The tribesmen held off several desperate attempts to resupply the position and, eventually, thirst drove the defenders to flight. Of the 354 men, at most 25 reached Spanish lines and the majority of them succumbed to heat injuries shortly thereafter.[4]iv In the meantime, the Riffians turned back a Spanish sortie to drive them off of a hill northwest of Annual, Sidi Bouyane.

All this came as an unpleasant surprise to Manuel Silvestre. Manolo, as his friends referred to him, was the archetype africanista, (a group of military officers and politicians who advocated Spanish colonialism in Morocco in the early twentieth century) brave, ambitious, and he cut a dashing figure in his polished cavalry boots, immaculate uniform, topped off with custom North African accoutrements, such as a Fez-like cylindrical peakless hat, and formfitting woolen overcoat with elaborate fasteners. His handsome face was dominated by an enormous dark handlebar mustache. He was trim, and not the paunchy figure of many of his peers. On substance, however, Silvestre was short. Impatient and theatrical, he was dismissive of his enemy, and, like so many of his fellow officers, he made no effort to understand the people and the culture of the land he endeavored to conquer.

It is astounding that, given its long history in Morocco, the Spanish were so ignorant of that country. They had first established themselves in Melilla in 1497; at the conclusion of the brief Iberian union with Portugal (1580-1640), the latter’s colony of Ceuta voted to join with Spain. Over the years, the Spanish had other coastal possessions in Morocco; they traded and warred with the Moors. And despite such interactions, by 1921 the Spanish had almost no Arabists and Arabic or Tamazight (Berber) linguists. They relied upon Spanish-speaking Moors to communicate with the locals.

Furthermore, the land the Spanish sought to control and civilize was probably the worst piece of real estate in a bad neighborhood. Under the Treaty of Fez (1912), the Western powers divided Morocco into two protectorate areas. The French were allocated the prime territory, including the Fez, Marrakech, and the agricultural heartland, while the Spanish zone was a sliver of territory along the Mediterranean coast extending about 30 kilometers to the south. While the French, under the inspired leadership of Marshal Hubert Lyautey, the Resident General of Morocco, quickly made inroads in the pacification of their zone, and subsequently building infrastructure, the Spanish struggled to advance from the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Their earlier forays into the interior had produced bloody confrontations, notably in 1909. The Spanish high command, therefore, envisioned an expedient way to join these two occupied zones through an amphibious landing at Al Hociema Bay; such was deemed preferable to a bloody slog through the mountainous interior. However, due to the costs and complexities involved, the operation had been postponed many times.

If the Spanish knew little about the people of their zone, they appreciated the challenges posed by the terrain. Their zone consisted of two regions: the Jibala in the west contained the few major population centers, namely Tétouan, Chefchaouen, and Ouazzane; and the Riff Mountain Range in the center and east. Both areas were characterized by unrelenting low mountains of heavy eroded rock, scored by steep ravines. Major Zinovi Pechkoff, a French Legionnaire who served in the region during the later stages of the Riff War, observed, “When one studies the maps, even knowing there will be much climbing and dropping, one cannot realize the difficulties these hills will present. The mountains are so close to one another that, having attained one ridge, one must immediately descend perhaps six or seven hundred yards into the bottom of a ravine. There are not even trails to follow.”[5] Inhabiting this moonscape were 66 of some of the most fractious Berber tribes in a land notorious for them. Boys learned to handle firearms and wield a knife at an early age and to despise the enemies of their forebearers. The blood feud was the national sport—a Moroccan version of the Hatfields and McCoys, albeit on a much larger scale.

The Spanish counted on using tribal rivalries to their advantage. Divide and conquer through “peaceful penetration.” They never imagined that the Berbers might unite against them. This changed in April 1921, when key Riffian tribal chiefs met to anoint a man to lead them in jihad against the Spanish, the thirty-eight-year-old Mohammad Abd el-Krim al-Khattabi. It was response to outside stimulus. As long as the Spanish remained holed-up in their ancient coastal enclaves, the Riffians were content to fight amongst themselves; however, when the Spanish began a sustained campaign of penetration the Riff after the Great War, the tribes gradually overcame their rivalries. It would be to Mohammad Abd el-Krim to forge a nation from the common framework of xenophobia and Islam.

Mohammad Abd el-Krim was a curious choice to lead such a rebellion. This man had no military experience, and he came from a family that had long collaborated with the Spanish. Mohammad Abd el-Krim’s father had been an agent on the Spanish payroll for decades. Mohammad Abd el-Krim had served as district judge in Melilla and a journalist for a local newspaper. His younger brother, Mhamad Abd el-Krim, had been lured to Madrid to study mining. The explanation lies, in part, with the family’s position of influence within the Beni Urrighel and with the brothers’ education, experience, and leadership abilities. In a world where most education was limited to the Qur’an, and where most men never ventured beyond their canton, these Abd el-Krim fellows were impressive figures. They had been to Fez and to Madrid; they spoke foreign languages; they could hold forth on a range of topics, such as economics and politics. And, critically, they understood the Spaniards; and they knew how to fight them.

On paper, the Spanish had an overwhelming military advantage. They had thousands of men in the field and were equipped with all the implements of modern warfare: machineguns, artillery, and airplanes. At the time of Annual, Abd el-Krim had perhaps 3,000 fighters in his ranks, armed with old rifles and clothed on their long woolen djellabas and sandals.[6]

The reality was somewhat different. The Spanish military mirrored the national decline. Since the armada of 1588, Spain had endured a cascade of military defeats, culminating with the ruinous French occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, an event that would trigger rebellions in her Latin American imperium and the loss of these colonies. The final, jarring assault on national pride was the calamitous Spanish-American War (1898) that exposed to all the world the basket case that Spain had become.

Like the country, with its dysfunctional political system and backsliding economy, the military had degraded over the years to third-rate status. One of the central problems was a bloated officer class that consumed most of the meager defense budget. For example, from 1900-1910, half of the Spanish military budget went to pay, whereas for the French payroll accounted for less than 20 percent of the military budget. At this time, the army had 60 divisional generals to command 111, 435 men.[7] By comparison, the British army had 24 divisional generals for 374,000 troops. The Spanish navy was equally top-heavy. Even after 1898, when the navy had few capital ships left, a hundred admirals remained on active service.[8] With so much money devoted to payroll, military readiness suffered. Spain could not afford sufficient modern weaponry, most of which had to be imported. Artillery is one example. In 1909, Spain had a ratio of 3.9 artillery pieces to 1,000 men, which was lower than the armies of Greece (6.9), Portugal (5), and Bulgaria 4.6)![9]

Despite the apparently lavish expenditure, officer class was, on the whole, a sorry lot. Though Spain had its military academies, the financial situation was such that officers could not train their units with any frequency. Furthermore, since Spain had stayed out of the Great War, her officers lacked practical experience in modern technics of combined arms warfare. Culture was a more serious issue. While there were certainly conscientious officers in the Spanish military, all too many viewed the state merely as an employer, and the officer corps as a special interest group, its prerogatives to be vigorously defended. Poor pay for all but the most senior brass meant that many officers worked side jobs, embezzled funds, or stole supplies for resale on the black market. They were shirkers who spent as much time away from their posts as they were able, leaving the day-to-day affairs to their non-commissioned officers. Most damning of all, the Spanish officer tended to be utterly ignorant and careless of the soldiers he commanded. These self-absorbed men cared little for their subordinates, social inferiors at any rate. It followed that the pay and living conditions of the enlisted men, mostly conscripts, were appalling. No wonder the fighting spirit of the Spanish soldier was poor.

By contrast, the fighting man of the Jibala and Riff was tough, highly motivated, and a master of the challenging terrain. Pechkoff wrote, “We had not been in this post more than a half hour,” he marveled, “when we…were attacked heavily from all sides. We could not believe that there was anyone hiding, that anyone could hide behind these steep rocks. Yet, on all sides we saw white and gray burnouses [a woolen cape] creeping cautiously from one stone and another.”[10] These Berbers were also crack shots, and they were directed by men of demonstrated leadership ability.

But these truths had yet to be manifest in the spring 1921, when the Spanish high command optimistically sought to complete its long-standing strategic objective—a land bridge from Melilla to Ceuta along the northern coast. Silvestre was poised to do just that. He had pushed forward the front line to a distance of nearly 100 kilometers west of Melilla, with forward positions running from Sidi Dris on the Mediterranean south through the mountains to Zoco el Telata de Metalsa. Only a spine of mountains separated his forces from Al Hociema Bay.

Silvestre’s boss, General Dámaso Berenguer, the High Commissioner of Spanish Morocco, was confident that the bay would soon be in Spanish hands, and this he cabled to the Minster of War, Vizconde Ezra. The minister was fairly giddy, “We must reward Silvestre’s discipline. He has been able to contain his desire to advance [recklessly].”[11] Silvestre’s confidence certainly contributed to this rosy outlook. In an article appearing in Melilla’s newspaper, El Telegrama del Rif , on April 7, the general declared, “We will, this spring, cross the line that separates the river basins of the Nekkour and Amekran. Certain factions of the Beni Urrighel will probably bar our passage, and it will be necessary to do battle. But as soon as we have reached the other side, we will quickly take Al Hociema, which we can consider to be ripe fruit.”[12]

For this coming offensive, Silvestre had 25,700 troops (20,600 Spanish soldiers and 5,100 indigenous troops, called Fuezzas Regulares Indígenas, or simply, “Regulares”), however, in reality, only about 12,000 troops were available for combat operations. The rest who were not sick, on leave, or in the rear areas were apportioned to the 144 outposts and blockhouses securing the front and key points along the supply lines.[13] These positions were primarily small bastions of 15-20 men; but centers such as Batel, Dar Drius, Buy Meyem and Annual had garrisons of 800 men or more. Resupplying these positions, particularly with drinking water (most sites did not have a natural source nearby), was a major challenge.

Under the best of circumstances, Annual was not an easy place to defend, and the Spanish had put insufficient effort into their defensive works. A small tributary of the Amekran River, the el Hayar, ran through the position, segmenting it into a series of knolls upon which the Spanish had constructed three camps. In the center was the general camp, defended by a parapet, a triple-row barbed wire fence, and an artillery redoubt; on another hill to the right of the trail leading into the camp stood the sprawling camp of the Regulares; this position had only a single wire fence. On the other side of the trail was a third camp, for the Africa Regiment, which lacked a parapet and was sparsely wired; the heights of this position were occupied by battery of artillery and an infantry company. Linking these three camps were a series of lunettes, half-moon-shaped redans, that were occupied at night.[14] It was not a well-integrated defense, and an attacker might roll up each camp in detail.

At 0030 hours on July 22, Silvestre convoked a war council of his ranking officers, including Colonel Gabriel Morales, Chief of the Staff Directorate of Indigenous Troops and Police, and the chiefs of his principal maneuver formations, Colonel Corrales, Colonel Manella, Lieutenant Colonel Ortiz, and Lieutenant Colonel Marina, and Major Écija, commander of the artillery, Major Alzugaray, commander of the engineers, and the chief of staff, Captain Sabaté. Alzugaray, one of four of the group to survive, provided an account of this meeting. According to him, the general got straight to the point. “Gentlemen,” Silvestre began, “we are besieged at Annual; we [probably referring to the units at Melilla] have no elements with which to form a relief column; consequently, we have no other solution than to make do with what we have today. In such a grave situation, I wish you to help me decide whether to maintain or abandon Annual.”

Colonel Morales was the first to speak up, and he opined that it was too late to evacuate. He doubted that the army would be able to reach the nearest defensible position, Ben Tieb, 15 kilometers distant. The other officers voiced their support for an evacuation. They had no choice, as there remained only four days of rations, little water, and their stores of cartridges and artillery shells were insufficient for a prolonged fight. Faced with a united front, Morales eventually backed down and supported their view. Apparently satisfied with this advice, Silvestre ordered that preparations would begin at 0600 for a withdrawal to Ben Tieb. The general asked his officers maintain secrecy until that time, and he directed that the men should travel lightly, as if going into combat. The meeting concluded at 0230, and the officers returned to their commands for the remainder of a sleepless night.xv Silvestre probably mulled over the decision, since it was not until 0455 that he sent a telegram to the War Ministry and Berenguer, advising of his decision. Because he was “constantly harassed,” his supply lines were cut and with insufficient ammunition for prolonged combat, he was obliged to retire to Ben Tieb.[16]

The Spanish forces present at Annual consisted of three infantry regiments, the 45th Ceriñola (five rifle companies and a machinegun company); the 68th Africa (five rifle and two machine gun companies); the 11th San Fernando (four rifle companies and a reinforced machinegun company), the mixed force of the Melilla Regulares No. 2 (two tabors of infantry and two cavalry squadrons), and one cavalry regiment, 14th Alcantara (five squadrons). Additionally, there as a Disciplinary Brigade (a brigade in name only, since it numbered between 250 and 500 men), two mixed regiments of artillery, a section of mountain artillery, three quartermaster companies, six engineer companies, two signal companies, two health detachments, and 14 indigenous police companies, for a total of 6,500 men. About a thousand troops stationed in adjacent and rear positions, including Buimeyan, Talilit, and Izumar, would join the retreat, for a total of 7,600 men (5,100 Spanish and 2,500 indigenous troops and police).[17]

To reach Ben Tieb, the army had but one route out of the mountains, a serpentine track presently delineated by a narrow asphalt road, Route 610. It began on a downward slope from the camp, which after 4 kilometers channeled into a serpentine track of steep slopes with high ground on the north and a deep ravine to the south, a stretch of terrain the Spanish dubbed, “The Toboggan.” At the mid-point, Izumar, the trail funneled into a bottleneck between two peaks before spilling onto the plain at Ben Tieb, where the Spanish had a munitions depot. Here, Silvestre hoped to regroup and await reinforcements.[18]

When the sun cast its first rays over the Annual plain at about 0620, it revealed a camp in confusion. While some units leisurely breakfasted, others stirred themselves into action. Quartermasters and artillerymen brought up wagons to load supplies and munitions. Engineers began breaking out demolitions for stocks to be abandoned. The order of secrecy was no help. Certainly, the men knew of their impeding evacuation—even the greatest dullard could see that—but where they were going, what to expect en route, and what they would do when they got to their destination were unknowns. Since there was no plan, there was no particular sense of urgency. Precious time ticked by.

The general’s irresolution was a further drag on the operation. In the preceding hours, Silvestre had exchanged communications with Berenguer and the War Ministry, and their assurances of help, and probably the general’s concern for his career, apparently convinced the man that he could hold out until help arrived. At a hastily convened war council at 0900, Silvestre announced his intent to remain at Annual. The War Ministry, he explained, had told him that Berenguer had been ordered to dispatch all available troops to his aid. The High Commissioner had subsequently radioed that he was sending two battalions of the Spanish Foreign Legion and two tabors (battalions) of Regulares by ship to Afrau, which was much closer to Annual, being about 12 kilometers east of Sidi Dris.

The officers were doubtless stunned by their chief’s indecisiveness; moreover, with the preparations for departure well underway, the camp was more indefensible than ever. Alzugaray pointed out that it was going to be difficult for a relief force to fight its way through a zone that was now in open rebellion. There was some discussion about the suitability of Afrau as a landing spot. Morales maintained that Melilla was the only feasible point of debarkation; if the reinforcements landed there on July 24, the earliest they could expect help was on July 27—and that was too late given the precarious supply situation. There was some discussion about contacting Abd el-Krim, apparently for a truce, but that was determined to be illusory. During their discussion, a runner from the communications tent came to inform Silvestre that the High Commissioner was on the radio for him. As the general prepared to depart, an officer of the indigenous police, Captain Carrasco, barged in with a report that three columns of Riffians, each of some 2,000 strong, were converging on Annual. That decided the matter: they would evacuate.[19]

A fighting retreat is the most difficult of military maneuvers, but, with the resources, however diminished, at his disposal, Silvestre had the opportunity to make the attempt. A number of critical errors doomed him and the army. First, the junior officers, the men responsible for executing this challenging task, were uninformed of the tactical plan until the last moment, which guaranteed a disjointed effort. Moreover, had the troops grasped their perilous situation, they might have been more inclined to stick together and resist. Secondly, no plans were made for patrols in advance of the army, consequently Silvestre walked headlong into a trap. In addition, the operation kicked off too late, and several key positions were already in the hands of the enemy when it began. And, lastly, Silvestre entrusted flank security to troops who had already demonstrated dubious reliability at Abarren and Igueriben. Any one of these mistakes could have spelled defeat, but together they produced a historic rout, and the greatest defeat of a European army by an indigenous African force since the Italians were thrashed by the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.

The Metilla Front, June to August 1921

As the time passed, the temperature and tensions were rising. There was some consternation when a bell called the troops to the parapets. Perhaps this was due to the earlier appearance of a group of Moors, who, in a statement of hutzpah, presented themselves on the heights to the west of the camp to mock the Spaniards. The tribesmen, rifles slung on their backs, hurled insults and taunted the defenders as they continued to pack.[20] At the parapets, the Spanish soldiers waited, fanning at flies in the mounting heat, squinting at the surrounding hills, as a cacophony of retreat continued—scurrying officers, quartermasters preparing the mules, guns being limbered, caissons being loaded, and ambulance wagons readied for the seriously wounded. Silvestre strode about the camp, looking distracted. At one point, he walked into the medical tent and encouraged all those who were able to rejoin their units. A few moments later, the general’s staff car appeared. Silvestre put his son, a lieutenant, in the vehicle and sent him ahead to Melilla—a gesture that could not have inspired confidence in those who witnessed it. Shortly after that, a group of ambulance wagons followed down the track to Ben Tieb. The general’s son was fortunate that day, and he arrived safely in Melilla. The ambulance train was not so lucky. Several kilometers down the trail, Riffians took the wagons under fire, and one fell into their hands. Despite Abd el-Krim’s later avowal that he had prohibited, on pain of execution, the murder of the wounded and prisoners, his warriors slaughtered the occupants.[21] This was the first of untold numbers of atrocities this day.

Finally, around 1000, the officers began to herd the men and animals into the march column. Silvestre’s retrograde plan involved the police and Regulares guarding the high ground on respectively the left and right flanks, while the army retired down the trail to Izumar. To ensure the reliability of the former, the San Fernando Regiment would reinforce the indigenous police. Additionally, two companies of the Ceriñola Regiment were to guard the knoll of the Regulares’ former camp until the army had passed. The order of march was a vanguard force of a company of the Africa Regiment, a mountain battery, the engineer and signal companies, followed by the main body of ambulance wagons, heavy equipment and logistics, and, bringing up the rear, the infantry, the Alcantara Regiment, and the rest of the Ceriñola Regiment.

An hour later, the march began, with some 6,500 troops, hundreds of mules, cattle, vehicles, and wagons stretching out over more than a kilometer along the track. As the camp emptied, the engineers began to detonate the ammunition stores and set fire to the tents. Impassively, Silvestre watched the burning camp, reflecting, perhaps, on this metaphor for his career.

It did not take long for the plan to unravel. By the time that the two companies of the Ceriñola arrived at the purportedly vacated camp of the Regulares, they found it occupied by a force of Riffians. So too did the indigenous police find their position on the left under enemy control. Without defensive cover, the march column was almost immediately subject to crossfire from these positions. Soon after, the indigenous police, judging their task to be hopeless, joined their Riffian brothers and turned their weapons on the officers of the San Fernando Regiment. After a melee of several minutes, the Spanish troops gave up and fled down the slope, joining the mass of soldiers on the trail. On the other flank, the Regulares continued to advance, but they too would melt away as the march continued.[22]

In a matter of minutes, the column devolved into a free-for-all of collective panic, with everyman for himself. The column became, as one survivor described, “a human avalanche.”[23] Soldiers quickly jettisoned any equipment that might slow their flight. In the words of the Spanish journalist Eduardo Gasset, “An army that is in its first steps outside the parapets of Annual throws to lighten its steps the weapons and cartridges with which it could defend itself is no longer an army and becomes a defenseless mass of unconscious movements governed by panic.”[24] And so it was. The infantry in the rear broke and crashed like a wave into the caissons and supply trucks. Captain Belda of the 4th Mountain Battery described his unit being literally "overwhelmed by those behind them," all struggling to make their way through the heavily laden pack animals. Each “detonation of a shot…increased the confusion, people pushing back and scattering everywhere."[25] A few officers tried to stem to tide of flight and to reform their units, but they were pushed aside, beaten, or trampled underfoot. The animals joined the panic, careering into wagons, artillery pieces, and one another. Mules disgorged their loads and choaking the path with tins of food, crates of ammunition, spools of barbed wire and telegraph cable, medicine chests, and regimental safes and their stacks of bank notes.[26]

As the Spanish army collapsed, an electric charge went through the Riffian ranks. Word spread quickly of the rout underway, and everywhere tribesmen rose from their positions to join the hunt. They ran past the Spanish camp in chase of their prey; there would be time enough later for booty. They galloped in chase of the tail of the swarm; others pushed east along the ridges, stopping now and then to fire, before moving on to cut off the horde and finish the job. A Riffian fighter had never beheld such a rich quarry. It was a shooting gallery.

A young Spanish soldier and Annual survivor, Bernabé Nieto, provided Gasset with a graphic account of the awful day. In one anecdote of the first moments of flight, Bernabé narrowly escaped death when a group of Moors rose to fire at him. He hit the ground, and the bullets meant for him crashed a mule laden with boxes of ammunition; he was nearly killed a second time when the beast came crashing down with its load. Hiding in a ravine behind a bush of prickly pear, Nieto beheld a curious spectacle. At the bottom of the gorge was a mangled staff car and an overturned motorcycle, their occupants lying dead nearby, except the chauffeur who, Nieto observed with an odd fascination, was still clutching the wheel, his head slumped forward, as if asleep. After the tumult and the shooting above subsided, Nieto crawled back to the road in time to witness a lieutenant stop and shoot himself in the head. Turning back in the direction of the camp, he saw it aflame, the most brilliant fire emanating from what must have been the ammunition depot. It was something out of a nightmare, but he suddenly felt “galvanized.” Nieto resumed his flight down the trial.[27]

The flight to Izumar was an eight-kilometer gauntlet of bullets and wreckage. As the mob channeled into the pass at Izumar, it condensed and expanded spasmodically in accordion fashion, generating a plume of dust obscured the comingled forms battling to the head of the line. At this point, heat exhaustion was taking a severe toll. The pitiless enemy and the certainty that each man was on his own kept them going. As one witness described, “he who fell was lost because no would stop to help him.” Just when the terrain seemed to be opening and the gloom lifting, the fugitives ran up against a supply column of 400 camels laden with food and ammunition that had been sent from Ben Tieb that morning. Many men spent their last energy in trying to fight through this latest bottleneck.

For the locals, the retreat was a bounty. As the mob passed, villagers emerged, women and old men, to fall upon those who were unable to continue. They dispatched the wretches with knives or farming implements and then stripped the corpses of clothing and valuables. In the days that followed, they would also round up many of the 300 or so camels (only 60 would return to Ben Tieb) and hundreds of mules that had dispersed into the hills.

After Izumar, the hysteria calmed a bit. The Alcantara Regiment held together, the only major unit that did so that day, despite the loss of their commander, Colonel Corrales, and they provided the flank and rear-guard support that enabled the flight to continue relatively unmolested. (For its efforts on this day and during the subsequent retreat to and defense of Mount Arruit, the unit would be awarded the Laureate Cross of Saint Ferdinand, the nation’s highest military honor.) Also, by then the attackers were themselves exhausted, and their ammunition must have been running low. Increasingly, they were lured to collecting booty.

Here and there, patches of men held out in hasty defenses. Nieto stumbled into one of these groups, men from the Africa Regiment, commanded by a captain. These men were among the few who had maintained their cohesion and resisted. The captain provided him with a rifle and ammunition and a position in the defensive perimeter. Despite the bone-weariness and swollen tongue, the affect was restorative. Nieto felt like a soldier again. There, they waited for an opportunity to resume their retreat, perhaps to join a larger force coming down the trail or for the cover of night.[28]

Toward 1300, the first signs of the stampede reached Ben Tieb, when three mules and a riderless horse galloped into the Spanish outpost. For some time, the commander, Captain Lobo, and his men had watched with apprehension the approaching cloud of red dust from the direction of Izumar. He had heard nothing from Annual for hours. Lobo had his men in their fighting positions, and they waited under the scorching mid-day sun. Shortly thereafter, the first group of fugitives emerged from the ravine, parched, dust-covered, and devoid of everything but their uniforms. He tried to rally them to join the defense, but they pushed him aside and staggered onward. Even the officers refused to remain. Every man had but one thought, to reach the safety of Melilla, or at least the nearest Spanish base at Dar Drius, 10 kilometers farther south. By around 1500, the last group of survivors trickled in. In the four hours of that frenzied retreat, an estimated 2,500 Spanish troops had been killed.[29] Colonel Morales was among the dead, shot just beyond the Izumar pass.[30]

The fate of General Silvestre is one of the enduring mysteries of Annual. That he went missing in action that day is all that is known; no one who was with him at the end lived. The last survivor who saw the general was his batman. The socialist deputy Indalecio Prieto, who met the general’s orderly, later recounted the fellow’s parting words with Silvestre. Turning to see his man hovering a few steps away, the general demanded, “What are you doing here?” “I await you, general,” the orderly responded. Silvestre glowered at him, “I do not want for you to attend me. Not you, nor anyone. Go join the others. Go!”[31] It was said that Silvestre, watching the column disintegrate, was heard to shout from the parapets, “Run, run, the bogyman is coming!”[32] With these parting words, Manuel Silvestre disappeared. Among the Spanish, one popular conjecture was that he committed suicide. According to another account, by Captain Fortea, one of the prisoners taken at Annual, Abd el-Krim wore Silvestre’s bright sash during the latter stages of the battle, and he had the general’s head taken and sent to throughout the Riff as proof of the rout. This is doubtful, since the sash does not appear on Silvestre in pictures taken on that day.[33] Mohammad Azerkane, who would serve as Abd el-Krim’s foreign affairs minister, claimed that Silvestre had been shot and killed in his staff car about 7 kilometers from Annual, but this is unsupported by any other source. As for Abd el-Krim, he claimed to know nothing about the man’s fate. The body, as he told the French journalist, J. Roger-Mathieu, was never identified. He said that a young boy provided him with a belt and insignia of rank of a general who was found dead among his officers; however, Abd el-Krim could find no trace of the body later when he visited the former Spanish camp. This is entirely plausible. The body might have been stripped, and it had probably been separated from its head. (Decapitation was a common Riffian practice to deny Christian dead entry into paradise.) He did come across Morales’s corpse, which apparently was recognized as important enough to be transported back to Annual. Abd el-Krim knew Morales from his days in Melilla and thought enough of him to send his body to the Spanish.[34] As for all the other Spanish dead, they would stay where they fell, shriveling into blackened husks under the broiling sun.

The Battle of Annual was really no battle at all. Despite superior numbers and equipment, the Spanish army made no serious effort to defend itself. As Abd el-Krim observed, “In reality, during this evacuation, there was no fighting of which to speak. The Spanish Army was retreating, literally in a panic, in such complete disarray that our warriors themselves had the difficulty, in progressing so rapidly, to believe in the reality of their victory [and], to the catastrophe sinking the enemy.”

On July 22, the Spanish lost 80 percent of their forces (killed, captured, or missing) during the retreat from Annual, and more would die in the days that followed. Precise numbers of Spanish losses in men and materiel were never established, and the figures varied widely between sources. According to Abd el-Krim, his men took 700 prisoners (presumably, this included those taken at Mount Arruit), as well as an enormous quantity of war materiel, including 200 cannons (65, 75, and 77 mm), 20,000 rifles, “incalculable stocks of shells and millions of cartridges,” as well as automobiles, trucks, stores of food, medicines, and camp equipment. Abd el-Krim failed to mention the many machineguns that fell into his hands, perhaps as many as 400. But whatever the figures were, the amount of materiel was very considerable indeed. “In short,” Abd el-Krim observed with satisfaction, “Spain furnished us overnight, all we lacked to equip an army and to organize a war of scale.”[35] Clearly, Silvestre had been criminally misinformed about his ammunition supply; just as he himself was negligent in the extreme in allowing such materiel, and all the other equipment and stores, to fall into enemy hands.

For the rest of Abd el-Krim’s life, people would marvel at how this unassuming man with no military education could so completely dismantle a European army that outmanned and outgunned him by a wide margin. As mentioned, at Annual Abd el-Krim had at best 3,000 warriors, and the Riffians had not yet learned to employ the machineguns and cannon captured earlier. Abd el-Krim’s army at Annual was still a traditional Riffian harka, a force of foot soldiers guided more by the hunt than by any operational plan or command and control. This was hard for a Western audience to comprehend, which assumed that great captains were behind great victories. In the months that followed these events, and for many years thereafter, historians and journalists would question to what degree Annual was due the proficiency of the Riffian commander. Abd el-Krim was cagey on the subject, not wishing to emphasize factors beyond his control (luck and Spanish ineptitude) or to claim undo credit. For example, when the American journalist Paul Scott Mowrer asked who had planned the attack on Annual, he responded, “God planned it, but I was there.”[36] Roger-Mathieu was equally intrigued and asked similar questions. The Frenchman asked how he could carry out operations on such a vast scale without even a headquarters. “You had no staff to help you?” asked the incredulous journalist. “No! No! Nobody!” Abd el-Krim waved a hand in emphasis, “I must repeat ceaselessly that courage and common sense are sufficient? I always found it easier to command troops before an enemy, that to treat with foreigners who came to see me.”[37] When describing to Roger-Mathieu what had precipitated the rout, Abd el-Krim remarked opaquely, “If General Silvestre had not given the order to evacuate his positions, perhaps we would not have attacked so vigorously,” leaving the journalist as uncertain as ever about the extent of Riffian command and control during the battle.[38] In the end, we can only speculate about Abd el-Krim’s generalship at this point of the war. One thing seems certain: as soon as the retreat from Annual got underway, no one was in control of either army.

Berenguer, pushing with the utmost urgency, arrived in Melilla aboard the Princesa on July 23. Several hours behind him, two other vessels carrying the Legion and Regulares were steaming toward the city (the Afrau landing was judged to be too risky). The High Commissioner had probably not left the wharf by the time he heard the first reports of the disaster at Annual. A few survivors had preceded his arrival, and the inhabitants of the city were in a panic. Berenguer was stunned to discover what had transpired the day before. As yet, he had no idea of what had happened to Manolo, but he feared the worst. It looked to be a calamity of 1898 proportions. The general’s distress was such that he unburdened himself before a group of journalists. “All has been lost, including honor,” he despaired.

The picture was grim indeed. After a short time at the general headquarters listening to the latest intelligence, it was evident enough that Berenguer’s mission had fundamentally changed. He was no longer to buttress a key position on the front because the front had been fatally breached. Furthermore, he had no ability to mount a rescue mission, let alone to prevent the Riffians from exploiting their success. What remained of the garrison were 1,800 demoralized and unfit troops. Furthermore, many tribes of the occupied zone were joining the rebellion. The job at hand was to defend Melilla, and as Berenguer took stock of his resources that too appeared to be a bleak prospect. Even with his 2,000 men form the Jibala front, this was not enough to defend the city. His staff hurriedly inventoried the military stores, and the report was alarming. Everything was lacking, probably pilfered by unscrupulous quartermasters. He cabled a report to the War Ministry and asked for urgent reinforcements and supplies.

Not everyone was full of gloom and doom. For Lieutenant Colonel Millán Astray, the founder and commander of the Legion, and his deputy and future caudillo of Spain, Major Francisco Franco, this was the long-awaited opportunity. On July 24, at 1400 hours, the Cuidad de Cadiz docked at the harbor in Melilla. From the deck of the ship, Astray addressed the gathering crowd. “People of Melilla,” he thundered, “The Legion, which comes to save you, greets you. We are ready to die for you. We find ourselves under the orders of the heroic General Sanjurjo, and we shall triumph. Forget fear! The chests of the Legionaries stand between you and the enemy! Viva España! Viva la Legion!

An hour after the Cuidad de Cadiz pulled alongside the quay, the Escolano arrived with her two tabors of Regulares de Ceuta No. 3. Their welcome was decidedly less cordial, since it was widely rumored that the disasters along the Annual front the previous weeks had been precipitated by the treachery of the Regulares of Melilla. The tabors marched without fanfare to the outskirts of the city, where they joined the Legion in manning the outer defenses.[39]xxxix

In Rabat, Lyautey received a phone call informing him of the news from Annual. In his view, this humiliation was attributable to a multitude of factors—the ineptitude of Spanish colonial authorities, misguided policies, incompetent leadership, and rampant corruption. He did, however, empathize with the common soldier. “The Spanish soldier,” he remarked, “who is as brave as he is long-suffering, can, under another command, know better days.”[40]

In the immediate aftermath of Annual, those better days were difficult to envision. As terrible as the events of July 22 had been, the disaster had only begun. Over the next two weeks, the Riffian tide rolled on. Each of the 144 outposts would be overrun, most of the defenders slaughtered to the man. On July 25, the Spanish commander at Quebani-Kandussi surrendered his 700 troops without a fight. After being disarmed, the tribesmen massacred them.[41] It was so at Dar Quebdani and other the locations, either out of touch with events elsewhere or driven to throw themselves on the mercy of the enemy. They found none. The fortunate were either killed in action or dispatched quickly after capture, others were tortured, hacked to bits, or burned to death. Many of the dead were horribly mutilated. A few breakouts were attempted; very few survived. The soldiers at Timayant, Sidi Abdallah, Tisingar, among other locations, tried to break out, but very few escaped to safety.[42] For example, at Dar Drius, only 37 of 604 defenders survived.[43] At Sidi Dris, the garrison of 500 men made a dash for the beach and the safety of awaiting warships, but the Riffians shot them down like rabbits. Five men were saved.[44] The front line shattered, the Riffians crossed the Kert River and advanced toward Melilla. They took Nador and then Zeluan where more than 500 hundred Spaniards were brutally murdered.[45] By August 3, only one Spanish position remained outside Melilla, Mount Arruit, where General Filipe Navarro and about 3,000 soldiers, many of them survivors of Annual, had taken refuge. Despite entreaties from Madrid, Berenguer refused to mount a relief operation. He was determined to hang onto Melilla. On August 9, Navarro, assured safe conduct to Spanish lines at Melilla, surrendered. Whether by treachery or the spontaneous reaction of unruly tribesmen, once the officers were removed from the camp the rest of the garrison, approximately 2,400 soldiers, were massacred. The 570 survivors, including Navarro and many of his officers, were herded into captivity. They would languish in hunger and sickness for more than 16 months, until the Spanish government finally bowed to public pressure to ransom them.[46] By then, only 326, including Navarro, were still alive.[47]

And so, the collapse that began at Abarran was over. In the 18 days since Annual, Spain lost most of its conquests in Morocco, some 5,000 square kilometers of territory, areas in which it had invested enormous amounts of money in fortifications, mines, agricultural concerns, roads, railways, bridges, harbors, and more.[48] The loss of life was no less staggering. The list of Spanish dead was initially tabulated at 13,192, but this was widely considered to be low.

In a subsequent report to the Cortes (the Spanish legislature), the military authorities placed the number killed at between 19,000 and 20,000. [49] (Moroccan losses were never recorded, but probably number in the hundreds.) And, as has been noted, the army lost an enormous quantity of war materiel, which promised to make any reconquista a long and bloody one. Finally, the government, already confronted with a political crisis at home, faced the humiliating prospect at having to negotiate for the ransom of hundreds of captives—money that would represent a formidable war chest for the enemy.

The Annual disaster was the opening salvo in what became a six-year war for Riffian independence, the so-called Riff War. For a time, Mohammad Abd el-Krim succeeded brilliantly. He organized a rudimentary republic with himself as emir; he built road and telephone networks; he organized taxes and a treasury; and he cultivated foreign ties and trade. His brother, Mhamad, as chief of the army, fashioned a national army based upon a core of professional soldiers, with a code of conduct, trained in the use of captured machineguns and artillery, and augmented by tribal reserves. By late 1924, the Riffian army had forced the Spanish into a strategic retreat. Recriminations over responsibility for Annual helped to bring down the parliamentary government, and the king appointed General Miguel Primo de Rivera to lead a military directory to right the ship of state. Primo was a closet abandonista, one of many Spaniards who favored giving up the protectorate. He admitted to a journalist friend, “Abd el-Krim has defeated us.”[50] And he might have allowed the project to die on the vine, despite the opposing views of strident imperialists like Millán Astray and Francisco Franco. The French, however, were not prepared to countenance an independent Muslim state in her North African imperium. Such might serve as an unhealthy example for nationalists in Morocco and, more importantly, the jewel in her colonial crown, Algeria. And so, in 1925 Lyautey goaded Abd el-Krim into attacking the French zone. By then, the emir was convinced of French hostility to his government. If war was inevitable, it was better that he strike the first blow. Perhaps he might raise a rebellion in the French zone. Also, leftist and anti-colonial sympathizers in Europe, urged the Riffians to fight, which they predicted would bring down the imperialist French government and lead to English mediation.[51]

For a time, it looked as though the Riffians might succeed. Once again, initially they ran roughshod over their Christian foes, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. By early July, 43 of the 66 French outposts along the southern frontier of the Riff had been lost or evacuated and the Riffians were within 40 kilometers of Fez; the French had suffered some 6,200 casualties, including 1,000 missing in action.[52] By then, Mohammad Abd el-Krim’s notoriety as a progressive Islamic leader, nationalist, and freedom fighter reached its zenith in the Muslim world. The valiant underdog, the emir and his cause engendered sympathy in many Western capitals as well, notably in London; and he was the darling of the Socialist and Communist parties of Europe. Foreign correspondents trod a well-worn path to the Riffian capital of Adjir, near Al Hociema, to document this curious movement and its obscure leader. Emblematic of this notoriety was Abd el-Krim’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine on August 17, 1925.

This gamble, however, would fail. In attacking the French, Abd el-Krim provided the impetus for Franco-Spanish military cooperation that had hitherto been lacking. The following year, the allies coordinated a massive counteroffensive, the centerpiece of which was the Al Hociema amphibious landing. Faced with a two-front war against 275,000 well-armed European troops supported by all the implements of modern warfare, including tanks, bomber aircraft, and poison gas shells, their villages burned and crops destroyed, Riffian resistance finally broke.[53] On May 27, Mohammad Abd el-Krim, his brother, and ministers, surrendered to the French. Most of them would accompany their leader into exile in far off La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. The Riff War was effectively over, although isolated bands of fighters would continue an insurgency for another year.

Annual had been avenged; the honor of Spain had been redeemed. If the Spanish army had not been transformed, at least one element had been forged into an effective fighting force, the Army of Africa (the Legion and the Regulares). As the Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset observed, “Morocco made the fragmented soul of our Army into a clenched fist, morally ready to attack.”[54] That fist, wielded by the remorseless Francisco Franco would smash Spain in 1936 and usher in a cataclysmic civil war that would reduce much of the country to ruins, and subject this unhappy land to four decades of authoritarianism and repression.

The French had intended that Mohammad Abd el-Krim was to be, in the words of Théodore Steeg, Lyautey’s successor as Resident General, “neither be exalted nor humiliated, but in time forgotten.”[55] They were to be disappointed. In defeat, he became a kind of Quixotic figure and a heroic symbol, not only of Islamic nationalism, but also an inspiration for freedom fighters everywhere. Over the years, his example stirred many prominent guerilla leaders, including Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Mihn, and Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Abd el-Krim died in Cairo in 1963 at the age of 80. (He had escaped his tropical exile years earlier.) His dream of an independent Riff remained just that, but he had lived long enough to see the French chased from their beloved Algeria, which gave him much satisfaction. While in the post-colonial world, his name has lost some of its luster, Mohammad Abd el-Krim continues to inspire his Riffian countrymen in their desire for greater autonomy and economic opportunity and the Moroccan Berbers on the whole in their search for more inclusiveness in society. In that, the man has staying power. In the words of historian Zakya Daoud, “This phoenix is constantly reborn from its ashes, because it is an essential part of the conscious revolt of the Moroccan people: one sees only in him he who, with his Republic, throws a skipping stone into the authoritarian pond. But he is far more than this in reality. And it is why his shadow still floats over Adjir.”[56]

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Show Notes
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© 2024 Comer Plummer

Published online: 04/05/2022.

Written by Comer Plummer. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Comer Plummer at: comer_plummer@hotmail.com.

About the author:
Comer Plummer is a retired US Army Officer.  He served from 1983 to 2004 as both an armor officer and Middle East/Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He is currently employed as a DoD civilian and living in Maryland with his wife and son.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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