Under the leadership of Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi, Morocco’s heroic Riffian tribes inflicted on Spain one of the worst military disasters a colonial power has ever suffered.
Rabat – Morocco celebrates Wednesday, July 22, the 99th anniversary of the epic Battle of Annual—a day that Spain remembers as the “Disaster of Annual.”
The Battle of Annual was the first major clash of the Rif War from 1921 to 1926. The five-year conflict was one of many that colored the Spanish occupation of Morocco from 1912 to 1956.
Rising tensions in the Rif
Leading up to the Battle of Annual, tensions had been high between the population of the Rif and the occupying Spanish power.
Spain had long encroached on the territory but officially laid claim to Morocco’s north in 1912, a result of France accommodating Great Britain’s demand for a buffer zone between the French protectorate in Morocco and the British territory of Gibraltar.
By virtue of the French-Spanish agreement of October 1904, France granted Spain spheres of influence in northern and southern Morocco. The territory included the enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, which came under Spanish control in 1497 and 1580, respectively.
Keen to reassert itself as a colonial power after the disastrous Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain accepted the territory. However, the largely mountainous, iron-rich region was home to the Riffian people, who had enjoyed a long history of autonomy under the Moroccan sultanate up until Spanish occupation.
Spain spent six years attempting to pacify the Rif but only managed to assert its influence throughout three-quarters of the territory. In 1919, General Damaso Berenguer and General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre launched campaigns to occupy Chefchaouen and Al Hoceima’s strategic bay and subdue the Beni Urriaguel Rif group.
Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi and the Battle of Annual
Renowned Moroccan military leader Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi is remembered today as a national hero and anti-occupation icon for his role in the Battle of Annual.
The Abd el-Krim family was influential in the Beni Urriaguel group and, until 1919, collaborated with Spanish authorities in Melilla. But upon learning of Spain’s true colonialist and expansionist intentions in Morocco and its campaign to “pacify” Beni Urriaguel, Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi rallied the local tribes against the invading forces.
After five days of skirmishes, on July 22, 1921, Abd el-Krim led a 3,000-man force of Riffian Amazigh (Berber) tribes in an attack on Spain’s fortified frontline post in Annual (Anwal).
Spanish General Fernandez Silvestre wielded an army of more than 20,000 troops. But despite being under-resourced, untrained, and vastly outnumbered, Abd el-Krim’s forces pushed Silvestre and his men to retreat.
Following the Battle of Annual, the Spanish army fled to its stronghold in Melilla while the Rif forces continued east, destroying Spanish forts and garrisons.
After a series of guerrilla attacks spanning several weeks, Spain lost all of the territories it had occupied in the mountainous Rif region since 1909. More than 13,000 Spanish troops died in the attacks, along with General Silvestre himself.
Morocco’s heroic Riffian tribes inflicted on Spain one of the worst military disasters a colonial power has ever suffered and delivered Morocco’s National Liberation Movement one of its proudest victories.
As Abd el-Krim and the Rif earned international admiration from other liberation movements, Spain, embarrassed by the loss, investigated the battle. A commission produced the Expediente Picasso report, exposing the colonial army’s poor military leadership, troop morale, training, frontline logistics, and equipment.
The legacy of Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi
After his victory at the Battle of Annual, Abd el-Krim worked to extend the liberation movement to the rest of the region.
Despite Spain forging an alliance with France to retake the Rif from 1921 to 1926, the Moroccan hero resisted the colonial powers’ coordinated offenses.
However, in May 1926, after enduring months of heavy attacks from 250,000 French and Spanish soldiers, Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi had little choice but to surrender.
Scholars such as Sebastian Balfour and Maria Rosa de Madariaga have concluded that Spain used chemical weapons and toxic gas against the Riffians. This may have significantly influenced Abd el-Krim’s decision to surrender.
The colonial forces occupying Morocco deported the hero to the island of La Reunion, where he lived until 1947. He managed to seek asylum in Egypt during a stopover in Port Said en route to southern France, where he was meant to remain in exile for the rest of his life.
Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi died on February 6, 1963, but his legacy is immortalized around the world. Some scholars believe his guerrilla tactics during the Rif War influenced revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, with some historical records claiming Guevara met Abd el-Krim in 1959 in Cairo.
While Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi is undoubtedly a national hero and a symbol of Morocco’s resistance to colonial occupiers, the country only seems to recall his bravery on the anniversary of the Battle of Annual.
With only one year until the centenary of the Battle of Annual, the people of Morocco should take the opportunity to better learn and understand the role of Mohamed Ben Abd el-Krim Al Khattabi in shaping the country as we know it today.