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The Moorish War

Frederick Engels

As the first, and possibly at the same time the last act of the Spanish war in Morocco has now been brought to a close, and as all the detailed official reports have arrived[a], we may once more return to the subject.

On the first of January the Spanish army left the lines of Ceuta, in order to advance upon Tetuan, which is only 21 miles distant. Though never at any time seriously attacked, or stopped by the enemy, it took Marshal O'Donnell not less than a month to bring his troops to within sight of that town. The absence of roads, and the necessary caution are not sufficient motives for this unparalleled slowness of march; and it is plain that the command of the sea possessed by the Spaniards, was not utilized to the full extent. Nor is it an excuse that a road had to be made for heavy guns and provisions. Both should have been principally carried by the ships, while the army, provided with a week's provision, and no other guns than the mountain artillery (carried on the backs of mules), could have reached the hights above Tetuan in five days at the utmost, and waited with the Rios division, which then, as well as three weeks afterward, could not be prevented from landing at the mouth of the Wahad el Jelu. The battle of the 4th of February might have been fought, and probably under still more favorable aspects for the Spaniards, on the 6th or 7th of January; thus thousands of men lost through sickness would have been spared, and by the 8th of January Tetuan might have been taken.

This seems a bold assertion. Surely, O'Donnell was as eager to get to Tetuan as any of his soldiers; he has shown bravery, circumspection, coolness, and other soldierly qualities. If it took him a month to arrive before it, how could he have done the same thing in a week? O'Donnell had two ways before him to bring up his troops. First, he might rely chiefly on the communication by land, and use the ships merely as auxiliaries. This is what he did. He organized a regular land transport for his provisions and ammunition, and took with the army a numerous field-artillery of 12-pounders. His army was to be entirely independent of the ships, in case of need; the ships were to serve merely as a second line of communication with Ceuta, useful, but anything but indispensable. This plan, of course, entailed the organization of an immense train of carriages, and this train necessitated the construction of a road. Thus a week was lost until the road from the lines to the beach had been constructed; and almost at every step, the whole column, army, train and all, was halted, until another piece of road had been made for the next day's advance. Thus, the duration of the march was measured by the miles of road which the Spanish engineers could construct from day to day; and this appears to have been done at the rate of about half a mile per day. Thus the very means selected to transport the provisions necessitated an immense increase of the train, for the longer the army remained on the road, the more, of course, it must consume. Still, when, about the 18th January, a gale drove the steamers from the coast, the army was starving, and that within sight of their depot at Ceuta; another stormy day, and one-third of the army would have had to march back to fetch provision for the other two. Thus it was that Marshal O'Donnell managed to promenade 18,000 Spaniards along the coast of Africa for a whole month at the rate of two-thirds of a mile a day. This system of provisioning the army once adopted, no power in the world could have very materially shortened the length of this unparalleled march; but was it not a mistake to adopt it at all?

If Tetuan had been an inland town, situated twenty-one miles from the coast instead of four miles, no doubt there would have been no other choice. The French in those expeditions to the interior of Algeria found the same difficulties and overcame them in the same way, though with greater energy and quickness. The English in India and Afghanistan were saved this trouble by the comparative facility of finding beasts of burden and provender for them in those countries; their artillery was light, and required no good roads, as the campaigns were carried on in the dry season only, when armies can march straight across the country. But it was left to the Spaniards and to Marshal O'Donnell to march an army along the sea-shore for a whole month, and to accomplish in this time the immense distance of twenty-one miles.

It is evident from this that both appliances and ideas in the Spanish army are of a very old-fashioned character. With a fleet of steamers and sailing transports always within sight, this march is perfectly ridiculous, and the men disabled during it by cholera and dysentery, were sacrificed to prejudice and incapacity. The road built by the engineers was no real communication with Ceuta, for it belonged to the Spaniards nowhere except where they happened to encamp. To the rear, the Moors might any day render it impracticable. To. carry a message, or escort a convoy back to Ceuta, a division: of 5,000 men at least was required. During the whole of the march, the communication with that place was carried on by the steamers alone. And with all that, the provisions accompanying the army were so insufficient that before twenty days had passed the army was on the point of starvation, and saved only by the stores from the fleet. Why, then, build the road at all? For the artillery? The Spaniards must have known for certain that the Moors had no field-artillery, and that their own rifled mountain guns were superior to anything the enemy could bring against them. Why, then, trail all this artillery along with them, if the whole of it could be carried by sea from Ceuta to San Martin (at the mouth of the Wahad el Jelu or Tetuan river) in a couple of hours? For any extremity, a single battery of field-guns might have accompanied the army, and the Spanish artillery must be very clumsy, if they could not march it over any ground in the world at the rate of five miles a day.

The Spaniards had shipping to carry at least one division at a time, as the landing of the Rios division at San Martin proved. Had the attack been made by English or French troops, there is no doubt that this division would have been landed at once at San Martin, after a few demonstrations from Ceuta to attract the Moors to that place. Such a division of 5,000 men, entrenched by slight field-works, such as might be thrown up in a single night, could have fearlessly awaited the attack of any number of Moors. But a division could have been landed every day, if the weather was favorable, and thus the army could have been concentrated within sight of Tetuan in six or eight days. We may, however, doubt whether O'Donnell would have liked to expose one of his divisions to an isolated attack for possibly three or four days—his troops were young, and not accustomed to war. He cannot be blamed for not having adopted this course.

But this he might undoubtedly have done. With every man carrying a week's provisions, with all his mountain guns—perhaps a battery of field guns, and as many stores as he could carry on the backs of his mules and horses, he might have marched off from Ceuta, and approached Tetuan as quickly as possible. Take all difficulties into consideration, eight miles a day is certainly little enough. But say five; this would give four days marching. Say two days for engagements, although they must be poor victories that do not imply a gain of five miles of ground. This would give six days in all, and would include all delays caused by the weather, for an army without a train can certainly do four or five miles a day in any weather almost. Thus the army would arrive in the plain of Tetuan before the provisions it carried were consumed; in case of need, the steamers were there to land fresh supplies during the march, as they actually did. Morocco is no worse country for ground or weather than Algeria, and the French have done far more there in the midst of Winter, and far away in the hills, too, without any steamers to support and supply them. Once arrived on the heights of the Monte Negro, and master of the pass to Tetuan, the communication with the fleet in the roads of San Martin was safe, and the sea formed the base of operations. Thus, with a little boldness, the period during which the army had no base of operations but itself, would have been shortened from a month to a week, and the bolder plan was therefore the safer of the two; for the more formidable the Moors were, the more the slow march of O'Donnell became dangerous. And if the army had been defeated on the road to Tetuan, its retreat was far easier than if it had been encumbered with baggage and field-artillery.

O'Donnell's progress from the Monte Negro, which he passed almost without opposition, was quite in keeping with his former slowness. There was again a throwing up and a strengthening of redoubts, as if the best organized army had been opposed to him. A week was thus wasted, although against such opponents, simple field-works would have sufficed; he could not expect to be attacked by any artillery equal to six of his mountain guns, and for the construction of such a camp one or two days ought to have been sufficient. At last, on the 4th, he attacked the intrenched camp of his opponents. The Spaniards appear to have behaved very well during this action; of the merits of the tactical arrangements we are unable to judge, the few correspondents in the Spanish camp dropping all the dry military details in favor of good painting and exaggerated enthusiasm. As the correspondent of the London Times says, what is the use of my describing to you a piece of ground which you ought to see, in order to judge of its nature! The Moors were completely routed, and the following, day Tetuan surrendered.

This closes the first act of the campaign, and if the Emperor of Morocco[b] is not too obstinate, it will very likely close the whole war. Still, the difficulties incurred hitherto by the Spaniards—difficulties increased by the system on which they have conducted the war—show that if Morocco holds out, Spain will find it a very severe piece of work. It is not the actual resistance of the Moorish irregulars—that never will defeat disciplined troops so long as they hold together and can be fed; it is the uncultivated nature of the country, the impossibility of conquering anything but the towns, and to draw supplies even from them; it is the necessity of dispersing the army in a great many small posts, which, after all, cannot suffice to keep open a regular communication between the conquered towns, and which cannot be victualed, unless the greater part of the force be sent to escort the convoys of stores over a roadless country, and across constantly reappearing clouds of Moorish skirmishers. It is well known what it was for the French, during the first five or six years of their African conquest, to revictual even Blidah and Médéa, not to speak of stations further from the coast. With the rapid wear and tear of European armies in that climate, six or twelve months of such a war will be no joke for a country like Spain.

The first object of attack, if the war be continued, will naturally be Tangier. The road from Tetuan to Tangier lies across a mountain pass, and then down the valley of a river. It is all inland work—no steamers near to furnish stores, and no roads. The distance is about 26 miles. How long will it take Marshal O'Donnell to do this distance, and how many men will he have to leave in Tetuan? He is reported to have said that it will take 20,000 men to hold it; but this is evidently much exaggerated. With 10,000 men in the town, and a local brigade in an intrenched camp at San Martin, the place should be safe enough; such a force might always take the field in sufficient strength to disperse any Moorish attack. Tangier might be taken by bombardment from the sea, and the garrison brought thither by sea also. It would be the same with Larache, Salé, Mogador. But if the Spaniards intended to act in this way, why the long march to Tetuan? This much is certain: The Spaniards have much to learn yet in warfare before they can compel Morocco to peace, if Morocco holds out for a year.

Written in early February 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5896, March 17, 1860


[a] This refers to the reports of the special correspondent of The Times from the Camp of Guad el Jelu, The Times, Nos. 23531, 23535 and 23548, February 1, 6 and 21, 1860.—Ed.

[b] Sidi Mohammed.—Ed.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.561-566), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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