Military Wiki
Rif War
Part of Interwar period
File:Landing of Alhucemas.jpg
Spanish troops landing at Al Hoceima Bay on 8 September 1925
LocationRif region, Morocco
Result Spanish-French victory
Dissolution of the Republic of the Rif
Spain Spain
 French Third Republic (1925-1926)
Jebala tribes
Flag of the Republic of the Rif.svg Republic of the Rif
Commanders and leaders
Spain Manuel Silvestre
Spain Dámaso Berenguer
Spain José Millán Astray  (WIA)
Spain Miguel Primo de Rivera
Spain José Sanjurjo
France Philippe Pétain
France Hubert Lyautey
Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni  (POW)
Flag of the Republic of the Rif.svg Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi  Surrendered
Spain: 140,000 soldiers[1]
France: 325,000 soldiers[1]
Total: 465,000 soldiers[2]
+150 aircraft[3]
Spanish estimate:
80,000 irregulars[1][4]
Other sources:
autumn 1925: 35,000-50,000[5]
March 1926: less than 20,000[5]
Casualties and losses
Spain: 63,000 casualties (of which 50,000 killed in battle or died of disease)[6]
France: 10,000 dead (2,500 killed in battle)
8,500 wounded[6]
Total: 81,500
30,000 casualties[6] (of which 10,000 dead[7])

The Rif War, also called the Second Moroccan War, was fought in the early 1920s between the colonial power Spain (later assisted by France) and the Moroccan Berbers of the Rif mountainous region. Spain and France in combined action in 1926 won a decisive victory. Douglas Porch says the rebellion against Spanish rule was a precursor to the nationalistic, radical, anticolonial revolutions in the Third World after World War II. Led by Abd al-Karim, the Rifs at first defeated 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, el-Krim surrendered to the French and went to 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.[8]

Forces involved

Rifian forces

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 al-Karim, who showed both military and political expertise. However, the Rifian regular army was never a very large force.[9] 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.[9] The remaining Rifians were tribal militia selected by their Caids and not liable to serve away from their homes and farms for more than fifteen consecutive days. General Goded estimated that at their peak, in June 1924, the Rifian forces numbered about 80,000 men,[4] although Abd el-Krim was never able to arm more than 20,000 men at a time.[10] In the final days of the war Rifian forces numbered about 12,000 men.[3] In addition Rifian forces were not well armed, with weapons badly maintained and in poor condition.[3]

Spanish forces

Spanish Legionaires holding the heads of Riffian fighters, 1922

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 ("Regiment of Foreigners"), known in English as the "Spanish Legion", was formed in 1920. The regiment's second commander was General 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

Localisation of the Rif

Early stages

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.[11] 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.[11] Spain still had 14,000 soldiers in Melilla.[11] 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.[11] 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.[4] 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."[11] 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. Even Spanish command of the sea was uncertain and in March a Spanish warship was sunk in Alhucemas Bay by Rifian artillery. In 1924, during fighting at Dar Aquba, Abd el-Krim's men inflicted a staggering loss on the Spanish colonial forces, killing over 10,000 men.[12] In a bid to break the stalemate, the Spanish military turned to the use of chemical weapons against the Riffians.

French intervention

In May 1924, the French Army had established a line of posts north of the Oureghla River in disputed tribal territory. On 12 April 1925, an estimated 8,000[13] 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 the French forces deployed in the Rif.[14] The French accordingly intervened on the side of Spain, employing up to 160,000 well trained and equipped troops from Metropolitan, North African, Senegalese and Foreign Legion units. With total Spanish forces now numbering about 90,000 the Rifian forces were now seriously outnumbered by their Franco-Spanish opponents.[15] French deaths in what had now become a major war are estimated at about 12,000.[16]


Ruins of a Spanish camp in the village of Tanaqob, kilometres away from Chefchaouen.

For the final attack commencing on 8 May 1926, the French and Spanish had ranged 123,000 men, supported by 150 aircraft, against 12,000 Rifians.[3] 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.

See also

  • Zaian War, the 1914–21 conflict between the French and Berber tribesmen in Morocco.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Timeline for the Third Rif War (1920–25) Steven Thomas
  2. David H. Slavin, The French Left and the Rif War, 1924–25: Racism and the Limits of Internationalism, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 1991, pg 5–32
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Pennell, C. R.; page 214
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Rebels in the Rif" pages 149–152 David S. Woolman, Stanford University Press 1968 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "woolman" defined multiple times with different content
  5. 5.0 5.1 David E. Omissi: Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939, Manchester University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-7190-2960-0, page 188.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Micheal Clodfelter: Warfare and armed conflicts: a statistical reference to casualty and other figures, 1500–2000, McFarland, 2002, ISBN 0-7864-1204-6, page 398.
  7. Meredith Reid Sarkees, Frank Whelon Wayman: Resort to war: a data guide to inter-state, extra-state, intra-state, and non-state wars, 1816–2007, CQ Press, 2010, ISBN 0-87289-434-7, page 303.
  8. Douglas Porch, "Spain's African Nightmare," MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History (2006) 18#2 pp 28-37.
  9. 9.0 9.1 C. R. Pennell - A country with a government and a flag: the Rif War in Morocco, 1921–1926, Outwell, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, England: Middle East & North African Studies Press Ltd, 1986, ISBN 0-906559-23-5, page 132; (University of Melbourne - University Library Digital Repository)
  10. Woolman, page 149
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Dirk Sasse, Franzosen, Briten und Deutsche im Rifkrieg 1921–1926, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2006, ISBN 3-486-57983-5, pg 40–41 (in German)
  12. Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1910–1945, Richard P. Hallion, University of Alabama Press, 2010, ISBN 0-8173-5657-6, page 67
  13. Martin Windrow, p15 "French Foreign Legion 1914–1945, ISBN 1-85532-761-9
  14. The French empire between the wars: imperialism, politics and society, Martin Thomas, Manchester University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-7190-6518-6, page 212
  15. "Abd el-Krim". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A-Ak - Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. 2010. pp. 18. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8. 
  16. "French Foreign Legion 1914–1945, Martin Windrow, ISBN 1-85532-761-9

SACANELL, Enrique. "El general Sanjurjo". Editorial La Esfera de Los Libros, Madrid (2004) ISBN 978-84-9734-205-6

Further reading

  • Balfour, Sebastian. Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War (Oxford 2002) online
  • Chandler, James A. "Spain and Her Moroccan Protectorate 1898 - 1927," Journal of Contemporary History (1975) 10#2 pp. 301–322 in JSTOR
  • La Porte, Pablo. "'Rien à ajouter': The League of Nations and the Rif War (1921—1926)," European History Quarterly (2011) 41#1 pp 66–87, online
  • Pennell, C. R. "Ideology and Practical Politics: A Case Study of the Rif War in Morocco, 1921-1926," International Journal of Middle East Studies (1982) 14#1, pp 19–33. in JSTOR
  • Pennell, C. R. "Women and Resistance to Colonialism in Morocco: The Rif 1916-1926," Journal of African History (1987) 28#1 pp. 107–118 in JSTOR
  • Pennell, C. R. Country with a Government and a Flag: The Rif War in Morocco, 1921-1926 (1986)
  • Porch, Douglas. "Spain's African Nightmare," MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History (2006) 18#2 pp 28–37.[citation needed]

External links

  • David Montgomery Hart, The Aith Waryaghar of the Moroccan Rif : an ethnography and history. Published for the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research [by] University of Arizona Press, c1976. xxiii, 556 p. : ill. ; 28 cm. ISBN 0-8165-0452-0 :

Series Viking Fund publications in anthropology ; no. 55, Notes. Bibliography: pages 533-546. Tucson, Arizona, (1976)

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