This war is known by several names: Rif War, First Rif War, Melilla War and the Margallo War. It was fought in 1893-94 between Spain and 39 of the Rif tribes (kabyles) of northern Morocco, and later the Sultan of Morocco (Wikipedia: First Rif War). Juan García y Magallo, the Spanish governor of Melilla, provoked the local tribes when he began redoubt near a Riffi saint’s tomb (Furneaux, 1967). In quite a spectacular show of discontent 6,000 Rif Warriors began the siege of Melilla on 3 Oct. They were soon reinforced when a Spanish shell accidentally destroyed a local Mosque, changing the character of the war to a religious Jihad. Spain also sent troops. Governor Magallo died in a sortie on 28 Oct. After the Sultan failed to intervene effectively Spain formally declared war on Morocco on 9 Nov. The war was quickly wound up in Spain’s favour after the army was increased to perhaps 25,000 Spanish regulars and militia under General Martnez de Campos. The Rif themselves peaked at 40,000. Hostilities formally ceased with the Treaty of Fez (25 Apr 1894).
Also see the separate timelines for the Second Rif War and Third Rif War.
Start of 1893: Margallo expands Melilla’s Fortifications
Rif raiding and piracy had been escalating over the previous years so at the started of 1893 Juan García y Magallo, the Spanish governor of Melilla, began to expand the fortifications surrounding the city (Wikipedia: First Rif War).
In particular the Spanish built new redoubts at Peuta de Cabiza and Punta Dolossos (Wikipedia: First Rif War). One of the redoubts was about 1,000 m from the walls, and more importantly near the tomb of a Riffi saint, Sidi Guariach (or Aguariach or Auriach) (Furneaux, 1967; Woolman, 1968). This activity provoked the local Berber population and Rif warriors began to muster in the mountains.
3 Oct 1893: Rif Besiege Melilla
On 3 Oct 1893 6,000 Riffi warriors attacked Melilla (Wikipedia: First Rif War). They had Remington rifles but lacked heavy weapons. The Riffi captured the unfinished redoubt near the saints tomb, and killed 20 men of the Spanish garrison as they retreated across the stony plain to the city (Furneaux, 1967). Both the citizen population and the garrison retreated into the citadel. The Spanish were heavily outnumbered with only 400 regular infantry and a rapidly formed civilian corps to defend the city, but they had the advantage of artillery. In the absence of heavy weapons the Rif were forced to frontally assaulted the citadel, charging up the road ways and scaling the walls. Spaniards gunfire inflicted 160 casualties on the attackers and drove them back. The Spanish lost 21 dead and 100 wounded on the first day. Spanish artillery also began to shell Rif bands assembling in neighbouring villages. An unlucky shot demolished a mosque outside of the city and changed the nature of the war, turning it into a religious jihad.
The Spanish government immediately put the fleet on alert, mobilized the Army of Andalusia for service abroad, and sent the ironclad Numancia and two gunboats to Melilla (Wikipedia: First Rif War). In addition about 3,000 troops were mobilised in the Spanish ports.
4 Oct 1893
The ironclad Numancia shelled several villages along the Moroccan coast (Wikipedia: First Rif War). A Spanish artillery detachment from Málaga arrived in Melilla.
5 Oct 1893
Following the incident of the Mosque, Moroccans across the province began to joined the Rif militants (Wikipedia: First Rif War). By 5 Oct the Rif force had possibly reached as high as 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.
During the next few weeks a contingent of regular Moroccan troops under Baja-el-Arbi arrived in the area, but failed to restore the situation (Wikipedia: First Rif War). This failure soured Spanish-Moroccan relations. Meanwhile the Rif captured and demolished the forts of Camellos and San Lorenzo. Under cover of the Spanish batteries small parties of Spanish infantry and workmen then erected new earthworks at Cabrerizas and Rostro Gordo.
22 Oct 1893
The gunboat Conde de Venadito steamed in the mouth of the Ouro, anchored there, shelled the Rif trenches, and then returned to Melilla’s harbour without sustaining damage (Wikipedia: First Rif War).
27 Oct 1893: Rif Capture Heights of Sidi Guariach
5,000 Rif attacked the heights of Sidi Guariach (Wikipedia: First Rif War). Fire from the gunboat Venadito and the Spanish batteries could not prevent the Rif from driving General Margallo and General Ortego back into the citadel and seizing the half-finished field works.
28 Oct 1893: Margallo Dies in Counter-Attack
2,000 Spanish under Margallo counter-attacked towards the works near Cabrerizas Altas and Rostro Gordo north of Melilla (Wikipedia: First Rif War; Woolman, 1968). The 3,000 Rif in the trenches held the Spanish as 6,000 reinforcements joined battle. The Rif attempted to outflank Margallo. Margallo seems to had misinterpreted t his, and thought the Rif were thinning out their centre. He immediately charged the Rif trenches but was thrown back with appalling losses. Margallo sounded the retreat but was shot dead moments later. The Spanish detachment collapsed although General Ortega led a rearguard action which prevented a complete Spanish rout and massacre. A young Lieutenant, Miguel Primo de Rivera, was distinguished himself in the action and earned himself the Cross of San Fernando (First Class) and a promotion to Captain (Fleming, 1991). Actual losses were probably higher but the Spanish officially acknowledge at least 70 men killed and 122 wounded. Ortega’s telegrams to the Spanish government resulted in reinforcements of three regiments of cavalry and four battalions of infantry the same day.
[(Furneaux (1967) believes the rumour that Rivera shot Margallo for selling rifles to the Rif. Woolman (1968) recounts this rumour but considers it unlikely. He says Margallo died when scouting the outworks; he was shot in the head by a tribeman.]
29 Oct 1893: Spanish Retake Cabrerizas
3,000 Spanish under Ortega drove the Rif from their trenches at Cabrerizas but the siege continued (Wikipedia: First Rif War).
Nov 1893: Bloody Stalemate
A stalemate ensued (Wikipedia: First Rif War). General Macias replaced Margallo. With ample building materials, engineers, and manual labourers the Spanish continued to enhance their fortifications. Spanish guns in the fortress blocked Rif advances and kept the town clear of invaders. The armoured cruisers Alfonso XII and Isla de Luzon also arrived, and the Spanish navy began an incessant bombardment of the Rif positions. On the other hand Rif forces on the beaches prevented the Spanish Navy’s efforts to disembark reinforcements and supplies, and Rif entrenchments and forts around the city blocked communication between the Spanish posts. Only desperate night time sorties kept the Spanish outposts supplied. The Spanish formed search and destroy units from convicts and penal labourers, although led by army officers, to ambush Rif patrols at night. Their combination of brutality and courage terrified the Rif and captured the imagination of the foreign press. During November he Spanish lost 12 officers and 100 men against Rif losses of 500 dead, mostly from bombardment.
6 Nov 1893: Failed Parley
The Rif asked to parley as a result of the Spanish naval bombardment, but refused to surrender (Wikipedia: First Rif War).
9 Nov 1893: War Declared
Despite the fact that operations began over a month before it wasn’t until 9 Nov 1893 that war between Spain and Morocco was officially declared (Wikipedia: First Rif War).
27 Nov 1893: General Campos and 7,000 Spanish arrive
General Martínez de Campos steamed for Melilla with 7,000 reinforcements, bringing the total Spanish presence to two Army Corps, perhaps 25,000 regulars and militia (Wikipedia: First Rif War). The Rif forces had peaked around 40,000. Campos clear the Rif from the city surroundings and rebuilt the redoubt the sparked the whole affair.
Apr 1894: Treaty of Fez
In April General Martínez de Campos was appointed Ambassador to Morocco and negotiated peace directly with Sultan Hassan, resulting in the Treaty of Fez signed 25 Apr 1894 (Wikipedia: First Rif War). The treaty favoured the Spanish. Morocco agreed to pay 20 million pesetas in war reparations, pledged to pacify the Northern provinces (i.e. the Rif), and ceded the Melilla hinterlands to Spain. The Spanish could had demanded more, but settled for less in an attempted to appease the British government, who were concerned about the security of Gibraltar.
Sultan Mulay Hassan died and the Court Chamberlain, Ba Ahmed, seized power (Woolman, 1968).
See my page on Rif War Sources for an annotated bibliography.
Woolman, D. S. (1968). Rebels in the Rif. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.