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Progress of the Moorish War

Frederick Engels

We have long been waiting for some decided move on the part of the Spanish army in Morocco, which might bring to a close the first or preparatory period of the war[416] But in vain. Marshal O'Donnell seems to be in no hurry to leave his camp on the hights of Serrallo, and so we are compelled to review his operations while they have hardly yet begun.

On Nov. 13, the first division of the Spanish active army, under Gen. Echagüe, embarked at Algeciras, and a few days afterward was landed at Ceuta. On the 17th it marched out of the town and occupied the Serrallo or White House, a large building about a mile and a half in front of the lines of Ceuta. The ground in that vicinity is very rugged and broken, and very favorable for skirmishing and-irregular fighting. The Moors, after an unsuccessful attempt, on the same night, to reconquer the Serrallo, retired, and the Spaniards began to construct an intrenched camp to serve as a base for future operations.

The War in Morocco, 1859-60

On the 22d, the Serrallo was attacked by the Anjerites, the Moorish tribe occupying the country near the Ceuta. This engagement opened a series of fruitless fights which fill up the whole of the campaign to the present moment, and of which every one is exactly like all the rest. The Moors attack the Spanish lines in greater or lesser force, and try by surprise or feint, to get possession of part of them. According to the Moorish reports, they generally succeed in this, but abandon the redoubts because they have no artillery. According to the Spaniards, no Moor ever saw the inside of a Spanish redoubt, and all their attacks have proved utterly unsuccessful. On the first attack the Anjerites counted no .more than 1,600 men. They received the next day a reenforcement of 4,000 men, and at once returned to the attack. The 22d and 23d were filled up with skirmishing, but on the 25th, the Moors advanced with all their forces, and a severe combat took place, in which Gen. Echagüe was wounded in the hand. This attack by the Moors was so serious, that it spurred a little the sleepiness with which Cid Campeador O'Donnell had so far carried on the war. He ordered at once that the second division, under Gen. Zabala, and the reserve division, under Gen. Prim, should be embarked[a], and left himself for Ceuta. On the night of the 27th, the whole Spanish active army was concentrated before that place. On the 29th, there was another attack by the Moors, repeated on the 30th. After this, the Spaniards began to think of their confined position; the object of their first move was to be Tetuan, about 20 miles south of Ceuta, and four miles from the sea. They commenced making a road toward this town; the Moors offered no opposition till Dec. 9. On the morning of that day they surprised the garrisons of the two principal redoubts, but as usual, abandoned them later in the day. On the 12th, another engagement' took place in front of the Spanish camp, about four miles from Ceuta; and on the 20th O'Donnell telegraphs that the Moors had again attacked the two redoubts, but were, as usual, gloriously defeated. Thus, on Dec. 20, matters had not advanced one jot further than on Nov. 20. The Spaniards were still on the defensive, and, in spite of announcements' made a fortnight or three weeks before, there were no symptoms of an advance.

The Spaniards, with all the reenforcements received up to the 8th December, were from 35,000 to 40,000 strong, and 30,000 men might be available for offensive operations. With such a force, the conquest of Tetuan ought to be easy. There are certainly no good roads, and the provisions of the army must all be carried from Ceuta. But how did the French manage in Algeria, or the English in India? Besides, Spanish mules and cart-horses are not so spoiled by good roads in their own country as to refuse to march on Moorish ground. No matter what O'Donnell may say byway of apology, there can be no excuse for this continued inactivity. The Spaniards are as strong now as they can reasonably expect to be at any time in the campaign, unless unexpected reverses should bring on extraordinary exertions. The Moors, on the contrary, are daily getting stronger. The camp at Tetuan, under Hadji Abd Saleem, which furnished the bodies attacking the Spanish line on Dec. 3, had been swelled to 10,000 already, beside the garrison of the town. Another camp, under Muley-Abbas, was at Tangier, and reenforcements were arriving constantly from the interior. This consideration alone ought to have induced O'Donnell to advance as soon as the weather permitted it. He has had good weather, but he has not advanced. There can be no doubt that this is a sign of sheer irresolution, and that he has found the Moors less despicable enemies than he expected. There is no question that the latter have fought uncommonly well, and the great - complaints arising from the Spanish camp of the advantages the ground in front of Ceuta gives to the Moors is a proof of it.

The Spaniards say that in brushwood and ravines the Moors are very formidable, and, besides, they know every inch of the ground; but that, as soon as they get into the plains, the solidity of the Spanish infantry will soon compel the Moorish irregulars to face about and run. This is a rather doubtful way of arguing in an epoch where three-fourths of the time spent in every battle is devoted to skirmishing in broken ground. If the Spaniards, after halting six weeks before Ceuta, do not know the ground as well as the Moors, so much the worse for them. That broken ground is more favorable to irregulars than a level plain, is clear enough. But even in broken ground, regular infantry ought to be vastly superior to irregulars. The modern system of skirmishing, with supports and reserves behind the extended chain, the regularity of the movements, the possibility of keeping the troops well in hand, and making them support each other and act all toward one common end—all this gives such superiority to regular troops over irregular bands, that in the ground best adapted for skirmishing, no irregulars ought to be able to stand against them, even if two, to one. But-here at Ceuta the proposition is reversed. The Spaniards have the superiority of numbers, and yet they dare not advance. The only conclusion is that the Spanish army do not understand skirmishing at all, and that thus their individual inferiority in this mode of fighting balances the advantages which their discipline and regular training ought to give them. In fact, there seems to be an uncommonly great deal of hand-to-hand fighting with yataghan and bayonet. The Moors, when the Spaniards are close enough, stop firing and rush upon them, sword in hand, in the same way as the Turks used to do, and this is certainly not very pleasant for young troops like the Spaniards. But the many engagements that have occurred ought to have made them familiar with the peculiarities of Moorish fighting and the proper mode to meet it; and when we see the commander still hesitate and remain in his defensive position, we cannot form a very high estimate of his army.

The Spanish plan of campaign as it is shadowed forth by the facts appears to start with Ceuta as the base of operations, and Tetuan as the first object of attack. That part of Morocco immediately opposite the Spanish coast forms a kind of peninsula, some 30 or 40 miles broad by 30 long. Tangier, Ceuta, Tetuan, and Larache (El-Araish) are the four principal towns on this peninsula. By occupying these four towns, of which Ceuta already is in the hands of the Spaniards, this peninsula might be easily subjected, and made a base of further operations against Fez and Mequinez. The conquest of this peninsula, therefore, appears to be the object of the Spaniards, and the taking of Tetuan the first step toward it. This plan seems sensible enough; it confines operations to a narrow region, bounded on three sides by the sea and by two rivers (Tetuan and Lukkos) on the fourth, and, therefore, far more easy to take than the country further south. It also obviates the necessity of going into the desert, which would be unavoidable if Mogador or Rabat had been taken for the base of operations; and it brings the field of action close to the frontiers of Spain, there being only the Straits of Gibraltar 'between them. But whatever may be the advantages of this plan, they are all of no use unless the plan be carried out, and if O'Donnell goes on as he has done hitherto, he will cover himself and the reputation of the Spanish army with disgrace, in spite of the high-sounding language of his bulletins.

Written about December 10, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5846, January 19, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1529, January 29, 1860
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] O'Donnell's order was reported in L'Indépendance belge, No. 334, December 1859 ("Nouvelles d'Espagne").—Ed.

[416] In October 1859 Spain declared war on Morocco, and a Spanish force under General O'Donnell invaded Morocco. The campaign, which lasted until March 1860, met with stubborn resistance and brought the Spaniards no success. In April 1860 a peace treaty was concluded under which Spain received indemnities and insignificant territorial concessions.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.548-551), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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