The Alcantara Cavalry Regiment and the Disaster at Annual
Rif War, Morocco, July-August 1921 by Richard Baber
An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine of the SOTCW - The Journal
The advance of General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre`s forces into the Spanish western zone from the old presidio Melilla towards Alhucemas Bay had started well enough.
Silvestre had around 25,000 men and was well supplied, unfortunately he was not a clever man who took little or no advice from his subordinates and even his superiors! As his columns advanced they built a large number of blockhouses plus fortified encampments and supply bases along their path; local tribes were paid off (but not disarmed). Silvestre decided to move further into the Rif than planned and, against the direct orders of General Damaso Berenguer Fuste, the Spanish High Commissioner of the protectorate, he crossed the Amekran River and built an outpost on top of Mt. Abarran, a holy site to the local Riffi.
Militarily Abd el-Krim who was trying to raise a rebellion against the Spanish must have welcomed the Spaniards advance into the Rif as it took them away from Melilla and stretching out their supply lines making them vulnerable. But then building a post isolated across the river from the bulk of the Spanish troops on top of a holy mountain which enraged the locals was a gift too good to ignore. His men acting with the aid of some native troops who betrayed their Spanish officers, attacked the outpost and nearly 200 Spaniards and loyal Regulares were killed; more importantly a battery of guns was captured along with large stocks of shells and small arms ammunition. Abd el-Krim used this success to gather more tribesmen to his banner with the promise of more victories and further loot.
What followed was a series of defeats that led one after the other, domino fashion, to one of the largest disasters to befall a European army in Africa. The next Spanish outpost to be attacked was Igueriben. Situated three miles from Annual this position was quickly surrounded and cut off from the main base. General Silvestre rapidly gathered what forces he had and rushed to Annual to rectify the situation. There followed several attempts to break the siege including two cavalry charges led by Silvestre himself, but heavy fire from Riffian artillery and machine guns drove back these brave efforts. The Riffians stormed Igueriben and in so doing managed to isolate and cut off General Silvestre and his men from Melilla, Annual being situated in a valley and Iguerben actually overlooks it and dominating its approaches.
On July 22nd, after several days with ammunition and supplies running dangerously low, General Silvestre gave the order to abandon Annual and for the Forces there in to try and fight their way back to the coast. What should have been an orderly withdrawal turned into a rout. Here accounts vary, with some stating that Silvestre was killed in combat, whilst others claim he committed suicide. Whatever the truth about the Spanish commander, his force was ill-prepared, and the Rifians fell upon the fleeing Spanish soldiers, civilians alike, slaughtering all they caught.
One of the units involved in Silvestre`s advance across the Riff was; Regimiento de Caballeria Alcantara No14 (transl: 14th Regiment of Cavalry “Alcantara”), commanded by Colonel Mandella. A veteran of the campaign, the regiment had served in Morocco for 10 years. It was a very well respected unit with a proud combat history, made up of mostly volunteers with a high level of training and discipline. Col. Mandella was actually with Gen. Silvestre at Annual when the General decided to abandon the town, he never returned to his command and was killed during the retreat. Command of the regiment fell to Lieutenant Colonel Fernando Primo de Rivera and Orbaneja (regimental 2nd in command), cousin of Lieutenant General Miguel Primo de Rivera who would become Dictator of Spain a few years later. The regiment had six squadrons (five sabre squadrons armed with sabres and carbines and a machine gun squadron), with a compliment of 32 officers and 685 men.
The Lt. Col. himself led a squadron out to support an isolated post which protected a vital river crossing set in an high-sided gorge; if the position was lost, Izumar (the regiment's base camp) would be cut-off.
Unfortunately the colonel was met with the sight of a flood of men withdrawing from Annual. An army in name alone, little command or control, units intermixed, men just looking to escape east in complete disorder. To his credit Col. Primo de Rivera did not abandon his duty, he quickly abandoned his patrol and gathered the rest of his regiment and began to organise the fleeing groups into some sort of order forcing them to move as one body with his squadrons and troops on the flanks effectively boxing them in. Once order had been regained, the regiment sent out parties to occupy strategic high ground, both on the flanks and in advance of the retreat. These parties fought short bloody actions to first clear and secure their positions; then held them until the straggling column had passed. This continued all day until, the column reached Ben Tieb, it is noted that many of the cavalrymen dismounted allowing wounded comrades from the column to be carried on their mounts.
At dawn the colonel began a general withdrawal towards the next major Spanish position - Dar Druis, first he sent 5th squadron with some light guns ahead of the main body to scout and drive off any Riffi already in position. He then sent a couple of troops to the River Kert to collect as much water as possible (I assume they had mules and pack horses). Finally once the main column was on the move, the colonel together with two squadrons and a battery of guns formed up as a rearguard screen. As the column straggled across the countryside, sections of riders fanned out to collect the troops from various posts: Ababda, Ain Kert, Azib o Midar, Cheif, Karra Midar and Tafersit. These fighting patrols often encountered Riffi and were forced to fight both to and from their objectives, casualties among the cavalry were high, but many Spanish troops were able to join the main column because of this sacrifice.
At the position called Cheif the column met another withdrawing column commanded by General Navarro, held up by a strong Riffi force. Col. Primo de Rivera led his men in a massed, mounted charge through rifle and machine gun fire; once through the lines; they wield around and charged back towards the enemies rear. These two ferocious charges forced the Riffi to break contact allowing the combined columns to move on and finally reach Dar Druis; but at the cost of over seventy casualties to Alcantara and many dead horses. In the same battle the Alcantara fought a proper mounted action against native Metalsa horsemen, Alcantara`s discipline and training drove the enemy cavalry from the field.
The road to Melilla was cut by the Riffi, a convoy of ambulances was shot up with many fatalities among the already wounded, drivers and medical staff. Upon getting this news, General Navarro seems to have lost his nerve and instead of digging in and trying to hold Dar Druis, he ordered the base evacuated and his command to withdraw to Mount Arruit via Batel.
Leading the withdrawal was of course Alcantara, though many men now carried wounds and almost all the horses were spent. But, the regiment (or what was left of it) continued to show great spirit and bravery, troops and sections moving out to clear Riffi from blocking positions and protect the more vulnerable column. At the Igan River (where the convoy of ambulances had been attacked earlier); the Riffi had dug in a strong blocking position. Col. Primo de Rivera called his survivors together:
""Soldiers, the hour of sacrifice has come. Let each one do his duty. If you do not, your mothers, your sweethearts, all Spanish women say they are cowards. We will show that we are not".
With that, supported by machine guns and a few cannon he led the remaining men (about two squadrons) in another mounted charge to clear the Riffi who were defending the ford. After a savage fight which included much hand-to-hand combat, the Alcantara broke through, drove off the Riffi and then held open the ford for the rest of the column pass through to Batel.
El Alcantara move forward protecting the flank of the straggling Spanish column
20mm figures from the authors collection
When the Spanish finally reached Mount Arruit, Col. Primo de Rivera and the remains of his regiment continued to sally forth and harass the enemy. On July 30th, Lt. Col. Primo de Rivera`s left arm was severely lacerated by grenade fragments, but the colonel refused to abandon his command. Finally in a desperate attempt to prevent gangrene he ordered one of his officers to remove the arm and stuffed his handkerchief into his mouth to muffle his own screams whilst the operation was done without any anesthetics.
Lt Col. Primo de Rivera died of his wounds at Monte Arruit a few days after the survivors arrived at the base, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Cross of San Fernando.
This regiment literally fought itself to destruction as part of the rearguard, charging again and again into the teeth of the Riffian fire attempting to protect their comrades. When the retreat was over and the survivors paraded and a roll was called:
Of the four troop commanders – three were dead, the other a wounded prisoner.
Of the 29 other officers – 21 dead, 3 wounded, 2 prisoners (one wounded)
Six warrant officers – 5 dead
20 sergeants – 18 dead
63 corporals – 53 dead
13 trumpeters – all dead
14 farriers – 11 dead
17 privates 1st class – 14 dead
524 troopers – 403 dead
Out of the entire regiment there was less than one full troop left!
On July 2nd 2012, The Spanish government issued a Royal Decree (No 132) granting Armoured Cavalry Regiment
Recreating the action on tabletop
Now I`m not into playing elites, I tend to run history, based games, but I have wanted to do this on tabletop for ages since the first time read about it.
Scenario 1: Convoy escort
Set your table up with a windy track with wooded hills and deep wadis. The Spanish convoy start at one end and must exit the other. Either place or randomly generate warbands (Harkas) of Riffi along the trail to ambush this convoy. The troopers of Alcantara must protect the convoy at all cost, attacking any Riffi encountered or aggressively patrolling to keep the harkas away from the vulnerable convoy.
Set a time limit for the Spanish (if you don`t cross the table by "X" the rearguard are overwhelmed and you all die!) and a casualty limit for the Riffi (too many casualties among your warriors will lose you loyalty among the tribes).
Scenario 2: Blocao relief mission
A couple of platoons from Alcantara are sent to bring back the garrison of an isolated blocao. Again a simple table with the blocao set at roughly halfway across.
The patrol from Alcantara must make their way to the blocao and then escort the garrison off the table. The Riffi could appear from random directions in varying numbers to make things interesting. The cavalry should be encouraged to act aggressively, but protect their charges at all costs. Bonus points for heroic acts, saving wounded, killing Riffi.
Scenario 3: Massed battle
The Riffi have blocked the column, General Navarro calls upon the Alcantara to save the day "for the glory of Alfonso XIII and Spain"!
Set up the table with the Riffi set to block the columns retreat with entrenchments, using any buildings, farm walls, etc. The terrain can be as open or constricted as you want, but give the cavalry some opportunity for movement and charges.
If you give the Riffi any machine guns, limit the ammunition.
You could give Alcantara some artillery support (65mm mountain guns) as well as their own machine gun squadron. If your short of cavalry, have some of the saber squadrons start on foot.
Painting and figures
Alcantara cavalry wore an olive green uniform and floppy sun hat (like a jungle booney hat), some illustrations I`ve seen also show them in a light blue pillbox cap. All the colour sketches I have seen show the uniform colour to be similar to GW "Castellan green", I mix this with Vallejo "Russian Uniform Green"; brown leather webbing and pouches; badges were bronze, NCO stripes and officers stars bright yellow; horse furniture was usually brown leather.