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The Moorish War

Frederick Engels

The campaign in Morocco has at last fairly begun, and with this beginning disappear all the romantic hues in which the Spanish press and Spanish popular enthusiasm had dressed out O'Donnell, who sinks down into a passable average general; instead of the chivalry of Castile and León, we have the Princesa Hussars[417], and instead of Toledo blades, rifled cannon and cylindro-conoidal shot do the work.

About the 20th of December the Spaniards began to construct a road, practicable for artillery and carriages, which was to lead across the hilly ground south of the camp before Ceuta. The Moors never attempted to destroy the road; they attacked, sometimes, Gen. Prim, whose division covered the working parties, sometimes the camp; but always without success. None of these engagements rose beyond the dimensions of skirmishes of the advance guard; and in the most serious of them, on Dec. 27, the Spanish loss did not exceed 6 killed and 30 wounded. Before the close of the year the road, itself not more than two miles long, was completed; but a fresh onset of storms and rain prevented the army from moving. In the mean time, as if it was meant to give the Moorish camp notice of the impending movements of the army, a Spanish squadron of one sailing vessel of the line, 3 screw frigates, 3 paddle steamers, in all 246 guns, ran up to the mouth of the Tetuan River, and bombarded, on the 29th December, the forts at its mouth. They were silenced, and the earthworks destroyed in about three hours; it is not to be forgotten that they were the same forts which the French had bombarded about a month before with a far inferior force.[418].

The weather having become fair on the 29th, the Spanish army at last began to move on the 1st of January. The First Corps of two divisions, under Echagüe, which had been the first to land in Africa, remained in the lines in front of Ceuta. Although it had suffered much by disease in the first weeks, it was now pretty well acclimatized, and, with reenforcements received since, numbered 10,000 men, considerably more than either the Second or the Third Corps. These two corps, commanded, the Second by Zabala, and the Third by Ros de Olano, together with Prim's reserve division, in all 21,000 to 22,000 men, marched out on the first day of the new-year. Every man carried six days' rations, while a million of rations, or one months' provisions for the army, were shipped on board transports to accompany the army. With Prim for an advance guard, supported by Zabala, and Ros de Olano bringing up the rear, the high ground south of Ceuta was passed. The new road led down toward the Mediterranean within two miles from the camp. There a semicircular plain extended for some distance, the chord being formed by the sea, and the periphery by broken ground rising gradually into rugged mountains. No sooner had Prim's division fairly debouched from the camp than the skirmishing began. The Spanish Light Infantry easily drove back the Moors into the plain, and thence into the hills and brushwood, which flanked their line of march. Here it was that by some misunderstanding two weak squadrons of Princesa Hussars were led to charge, and did so with such a spirit that they passed right through the Moorish line into their camp; but getting everywhere into broken ground, and finding nowhere either cavalry or infantry in practicable ground at which they could charge they had to turn back with a loss of seven or nearly all of their officers, beside privates. So far, the fight had been carried on principally by the infantry in skirmishing order, and a battery or two of mountain artillery, supported here and there by the effect—more moral than physical—of the fire of a few gunboats and steamers. It appears that O'Donnell intended to halt in the plain, without occupying permanently, as yet, the ridge forming the boundary of this plain to the south. In order, however, to secure his position for the night, he ordered Prim to dislodge the Moorish skirmishers from the northern slope of the ridge and then to fall back about dusk[a]. Prim, however, who is the greatest fighting man in the Spanish army, engaged in a serious encounter, which ended in his taking possession of the whole top of the ridge, though not without severe loss. His advance guard encamped on the ridge and threw up field-works on its front. The Spanish loss amounted, that day, to 73 killed and 481 wounded.

The position gained that day was the one known by the name of Castillejos, from two white buildings, the one on the inner slope near the plain, and the other on the ridge conquered, in the afternoon, by Prim. The official designation of this camp, however, appears to be Campamento de la Condesa. On the same day, the Moors had attempted a slight diversion against the camp before Ceuta, by attacking both the extreme right redoubt and the interval between the two extreme left redoubts. They were, however, easily repulsed by Echagüe's infantry and artillery fire.

The active army remained three days in the Camp de la Condesa. The field artillery and a rocket battery, as well as the remainder of the cavalry (the whole cavalry brigade consists of eight squadrons of hussars, four of cuirassiers without cuirasses, and four of lancers, in all 1,200 men), arrived in the camp. The siege train alone (among which was a battery of rifled 12-pounders) was still behind. On the 3d, O'Donnell reconnoitered toward Monte Negro, the next range of mountains to the south. The weather continued fine, hot at noon. with very heavy dews at night. Cholera was still rife among one or two divisions, and some corps had suffered severely from sickness. The two battalions of engineers, for instance, who had been very severely worked, were reduced from 135 men to 90 men per company.

So far, we have detailed accounts; for what follows, we are reduced to meager and not quite consistent telegrams. On the 5th, the army advanced. On the 6th, it was encamped "to the north of the Negro valley, having traversed the passes without opposition"[b]. Whether, this means that the Monte Negro Ridge had been passed, and the army was encamping on its southern slope, is very uncertain. On the 9th, the army was, we are told, one league[c] from Tetuan, and an attack of the Moors had been repulsed. On the 13th, the whole of the positions of Cabo Negro were carried, a complete victory was obtained, and the army was before Tetuan; so soon as the artillery could be brought up, the town would be attacked. On the 14th, the division of Gen. Rios, ten battalions strong, which had been concentrated at Malaga, landed at the mouth of the Tetuan River, and occupied the forts destroyed by the fleet a fortnight before. On the 16th, we are informed that the army was on the point of passing the river and attacking Tetuan.

To explain this, we may state that there are four distinct ridges of hills to be passed between Ceuta and Tetuan. The first immediately south of the camp and leading to the plain of Castillejos; the second closing that plain to the south. These two were taken by the Spaniards on the 1st. Still further south, and running perpendicular to the Mediterranean shore, is the ridge of Monte Negro, and parallel to this range, only further south still, comes another and higher ridge ending on the coast, in the Cape called Cabo Negro, south of which flows the Tetuan River. The Moors, after hanging on the flanks of the invading army during the 1st, changed their tactics, removed further south, and attempted to bar the road to Tetuan in front. It was expected that the decisive fight for the possession of this road was to come off in the passes of the last or Cabo Negro ridge, and such seems to have been the case on the 13th.

The tactical arrangements of these combats do not appear very creditable to either party. From the Moors we cannot expect anything but irregular fighting, carried on with the bravery and cunning of semi-savages. But, even in this they appear deficient. They do not seem to show that fanaticism which the Kabyles of the Algerian coast-ridges, and even of the Riff, have opposed to the French[419]; the long, unsuccessful skirmishing in front of the redoubts near Ceuta seems to have broken the first ardor and energy of most of the tribes. Again, in their strategical arrangements they do not come up to the example of the Algerians. After the first day, they abandon their proper plan, which was to harass the flank and rear of the advancing column, and to interrupt or menace its communication with Ceuta; instead of this, they work hard to gain a march upon the Spaniards, and to bar their road to Tetuan in front, thus provoking what they ought to avoid—a pitched battle. Perhaps they may yet learn that with such men, and in such a country as they have, petty warfare is the proper way to wear out an enemy who, whatever his superiority in discipline and armament, is hampered in all his movements by immense impedimenta, unknown to them, and which it is no easy matter to move in a roadless and inhospitable country.

The Spaniards have gone on as they commenced. After lying idle two months at Ceuta, they have marched twenty-one miles in sixteen days, advancing at the rate of five miles in four days! With all due allowance for difficulties of roads, this is still a degree of slowness unheard of in modern warfare. The habit of handling large bodies of troops, of preparing extensive operations, of marching an army which, after all, scarcely equals in strength one of the French army corps in the last Italian campaign, seems to have become quite lost with Spanish Generals. Otherwise how could such delays arise? On the 2d of January O'Donnell had all his artillery at Castillejos, with the exception of the siege train, but still he waited two days longer, and only advanced on the 5th. The march of the column itself appears to be pretty well arranged, but with such short marches this could scarcely be otherwise. When under fire the Spaniards appear to fight with that contempt of their enemy which superior discipline and a series of successful combats cannot fail to give; but it remains to be seen whether this certainty of victory will hold good when the climate and the fatigues of a campaign, which is sure to end in -harassing, petty warfare, will have reduced both the morale and the physique of the army. As to the leadership, we can, so far, say very little, the details of all but the first engagement in the field being still deficient. This first fight, however, exhibits two conspicuous blunders—the charge of the cavalry, and the advance of Gen. Prim beyond his orders; and if these things should turn out to be regular features of the Spanish army, so much the worse for them.

The defense of Tetuan will very likely be a short but an obstinate one. The works are no doubt bad, but the Moors are capital soldiers behind ramparts, as has been proved in Constantine[420] and many other Algerian towns. The next mail may bring us the news that it has been stormed. If so, we may expect a lull in the campaign, for the Spaniards will require time to improve the road between Tetuan and Ceuta, to form Tetuan into a second base of operations, and to await reenforcements. Thence, the next move will be upon Larache or Tangier.

Written about January 18, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5863, February 8, 1860 as a leading article


[a] Telegraphic message from Madrid of January 7, L'Indépendance belge, No. 10, January 10, 1860.—Ed.

[b] Telegraphic message from Madrid of January 7, L'Indépendance belge, No. 10, January 10, 1860.—Ed.

[c] The Spanish league is equal to about 5.5 kilometres.—Ed.

[417] Princésa Hussars—a light cavalry regiment in the Spanish army.

[418] In November 1859 the French Government made a further attempt to violate Morocco's frontier with Algeria, but encountered Moroccan resistance. In reply a French squadron bombarded Fort Tetuan.

[419] The reference is to France's aggressive wars in Algeria and Morocco in the 1830s-1850s, in particular to the military expeditions in Algeria in 1830 and in Morocco in 1851 and 1859.

[420] In the autumn of 1836 at Constantine an Algerian force under Bey Haji Ahmed repulsed the attacks of the French troops trying to take the city by storm, and inflicted heavy losses on them. It was not until the autumn of 1837, during the second military expedition, that the French managed to capture the city after a siege.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.552-556), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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