Spain. Restoration 1900-1923. The Military.

Restoration 1900-23: The Military
In 1898, Spain suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the United States, losing in the process its last overseas colonies, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Its imperial dream collapsed dramatically at the same time that its historic rivals, England and France, were consolidating or expanding their empires. From its once influential position in world affairs, it was relegated to minor player.

Loss of influence was under way in the 18th century, but with its overseas empire still intact, Spain could still maintain the illusion of imperial power. That was dismantled during the chaos of the 19th century.  By 1825 all of Spain’s South American colonies had freed themselves from their imperial noose, so the loss of the last remnants of the empire in 1898 was all the more devastating.

In the soul searching that followed, politicians and military generals accused each other of incompetence with neither side acknowledging its own ineptness.

Cuba was an especially prized possession as the source of  lucrative sugar and tobacco industries in which Spaniards (notably Catalans) had invested heavily. However, Cuban nationalists, fretting at their slave-like conditions, had rebelled in 1868. The rebellion ended with an armistice in 1878, but the issue did not go away. In 1895 another revolt, inspired by the radical liberal poet José Martí, cost the Spanish military dearly.

Between 1895 and 1897, over 200.000 soldiers were dispatched from Spain, but corruption, poor morale and inefficiency undermined their efforts. Two thousand died in battle, but a staggering 53.000 from sundry tropical diseases! The end came for Spain when the United States –with its eyes on the sugar and tobacco industries– decided to intervene on the side of the Cubans.

Following the Disaster of ’98, the Spanish veterans arrived home demoralised, dishevelled and fever-wracked. There was no heroic welcome. In Madrid they were reviled for their inability to defend the imperial dream; in Barcelona they were scorned for failing to protect Catalan export markets and business investments.

In addition, many Spaniards found the army’s large, unwieldy, bureaucratic structure unacceptable –it had 80.000 soldiers commanded by 24.000 officers of whom 471 were generals.  It also swallowed almost half the national revenue at the beginning of the 20th century.

Offended army leaders retaliated against the attacks, charging incompetent politicians with betraying the armed forces, and with having left the troops in Cuba without supplies and adequate weapons.

Under public scrutiny, the army showed increasing sensitivity to the derision and lampoons that surfaced, and finally hit out. In November 1905, some young army officers in Barcelona trashed the offices of the Catalan satirical weekly Cu-Cut and the daily La Veu de Catalunya (The Voice of Catalonia) for having ridiculed military honour and national unity.

Emboldened by their success, they forced the resignation of the government, and succeeded, in March 1906, in having a law passed –the Ley de jurisdicciones (“The Law of Jurisdictions”)– that censored anti-military criticism on the grounds that it was unpatriotic.

What this meant was that the army was now empowered to try civilians in military tribunals for whatever it considered offensive to its honour! In effect, this was a form of military censorship, as well as breeding ground for contempt for and superiority over civilian society.

Divested of its role as guardian of Spain’s last imperial possessions, the army still retained its belief in a unitary state and rejected any regionalist sentiment, especially in Catalonia, as the Cu-Cut and La Veu de Catalunya episode showed.

It also clung tenaciously to the final remnant of its “overseas” territory in North West Africa, influenced by nostalgia for distant past conquests over the Moors.  Melilla (1497) and Ceuta (1580) had been Spanish enclaves for centuries and now that the transatlantic dream was shattered it seemed fitting for Spain to turn its attention more fully towards its historic neighbour across the Straits of Gibraltar.

But there was another reason for this: alarm at France’s expansionist plans along North Africa. Between 1902 and 1912, a series of international conferences and treaties confirmed Spain control over a narrow, inhospitable slice of Northern Morocco, known as the Rif. It was perhaps the best Spain could hope for in the complicated manoeuvres between Britain and France.

Britain didn’t want to share the control of the straits of Gibraltar with the French; Spain was far less of a threat. For Spain, however, that strip of land beyond Ceuta became a festering sore with tragic consequences later. But for the time being it left the country with its army busy, its pride intact and, equally important, prevented the French from gobbling up all of Morocco and controlling the far side of the straits of Gibraltar. Having both sides of the straits controlled by their old imperial rivals was enough to turn many Spaniards apoplectic.

Mountainous, poor, with virtually no roads, Spain’s Moroccan protectorate was the catalyst that brought the army into further conflict with Catalan politics, only three years after the Cu-Cut and La Veu de Catalunya trashing. The Berber tribes of the Rif Mountains were notoriously difficult to govern, and in the summer of 1909 they inflicted a crushing defeat on a Spanish column protecting Spanish mining interests in the area.

Map of the Rif, Morocco.

Determined to avenge this humiliation, the army hastily called up reserves garrisoned in Catalonia.  Anti-war demonstrations spread quickly in towns and cities as conscripts headed for Barcelona on their way to Morocco.

The protests culminated in late July 1909 in the “Tragic Week” of violence that shook the nation. Barcelona, already a tinder box of regionalist, socialist, anarchist and republican sentiments exploded in all directions. The brunt of property damage was borne by the church, as the demonstrations turned into anticlerical violence.

Over the protests of the civil governor, the army moved in and declared martial law.  When it was over, 8 members of the security forces and 150 civilians were dead, and 2,500 people arrested, five of whom were executed by firing squads. One of them was Francisco Ferrer, a free thinker with anarchist leanings and founder of secular schools in Barcelona. He was also was well known abroad and his execution became a cause celebre among European liberals.

To the army, the “Tragic Week” rampage smacked not only of anti-military and anti-church feelings, but confirmed increasing Catalan alienation from the patria (“fatherland”).  The military decision to intervene despite the protests of the civil governor underlined the widening split between military and civilian society and the growing contempt of the military for civilian government. Like the Law of Jurisdictions episode of 1906, it also had a direct impact on political events, precipitating the fall of the Prime Minister, Antonio Maura, and a change of government.

Unfortunately, the debacle in Morocco in 1909 did nothing to lessen the Army’s enthusiasm for continued colonial presence in the protectorate. But Morocco contributed not only to the widening tension between the military and the people, but also to internal frustration within the army itself. 

On the mainland, officers were poorly paid, often posted in some isolated provincial garrison, and forced to take a part-time job just to buy the uniform that would mark their social status.  Many lower officers chafed at the lack of promotional opportunities based strictly on seniority. War might mean death but it also offered the possibility of rapid promotion.

The problem was that those who had not been called up to fight in Morocco and therefore remained on the mainland (they were known as the peninsulares) were denied that possibility and resented the speedy rise and accompanying salary increases of those fighting in Morocco (the africanistas). This bubbling squabble might have remained an internal matter but for events outside Spain: the First World War (1914-18).

What happened was that Spain’s economy initially took off because it was able to provide industrial and agricultural products to both sides in the war.  But the side effect of this was a shortage of goods within the country, zooming inflation and tumbling living standards.

Protesting peninsular officers in several garrisons formed Juntas de Defensa (a kind of military union) to demand better pay, and improved opportunities of promotion. However, their complaints were not presented in such bald terms, but couched in the language of regeneration, anti-corruption and anti-caciquismo**.

**The cacique was an important individual who,
at the local level, could ensure that those in his
area would vote according to the orders he
received from Madrid.

But the protest became in effect a military rebellion when it spread and defied government attempts to break it up. Again the civil government caved in; the protesters (junteros) won the day.

Many Spaniards –especially members of the workers’ parties– thought that the juntero calls for regeneration against political corruption signalled social revolution.  In fact, the junteros were concerned only about their own grievances and were not about to defect and join a proletarian uprising.

Misreading the situation, workers went on a general strike in August of 1917. It was the most serious social turbulence of Alfonso XIII’s reign, and effectively heralded the beginning of the end of the gobierno de turno political system. 

The army, with its own demands satisfied, now set about crushing the strike ruthlessly throughout the country. In Asturias, command of one column was given to a young major who had already seen action in Morocco and made something of a name for himself: Francisco Franco de Bahamonde**.

** It wasn’t the only time Franco confronted the
miners of Asturias; he did so in 1934 during the
turbulent years of the Second Republic.

The future dictator of Spain was having his first taste of military action against his fellow citizens, the miners of Asturias.

In three days the general strike was broken, and military power was ominously strengthened. Indeed, the liberal politician, the Count of Romanones, was moved to declare that the armed forces had become “the masters of Spain” (Carr 81). Not quite, but it only required one more event, and for that we return to Morocco.

Under the leadership of a highly respected scholar and former member of the Spanish administration, Abd el Krim, Rif Berbers were trying to establish an independent republic in the Spanish protectorate.

At the same time, the Spanish Minister of War, General Dámaso Berenguer, had drawn up a three-year plan to control the land linking Melilla and Ceuta. His preference was for slow occupation, playing off different tribes against each other.  However, the ambitious military commander of Melilla, Manuel Silvestre, preferred all out conquest. In July 1921, Silvestre led his troops to a traumatic military disaster which resulted in the slaughter of over 10.000 soldiers.

Bodies of Spanish soldiers after the Battle of Annual, July 1921.

Although censored, the news soon spread to the mainland, and reaction in a shaken nation was swift. Several governments fell in succession and demands were heard –especially from the liberals and socialists– for an investigation into the debacle.

Although touching a raw nerve, an inquiry was set up under a General José Picasso. His report was then examined by a civilian commission (July 1923) which was to announce its findings to the Cortes (Parliament) when it reconvened in September.

In the meantime, rumours were rife about military corruption, and suggestions circulated that the king himself may have encouraged Silvestre, a close friend. A few days before parliament reopened, however, the Captain General of Catalonia, Miguel Primo de Rivera –with the approval of the king– engineered a coup against the government. The report was never made public. Now the military really was in charge.

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1039 Oxford 1966
Ellwood, Sheelagh Franco New York 1995
Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Herr, Richard An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Berkeley 1974
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Phillips Willliam D & Carla R Phillips A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010
Preston, Paul Franco: A Biography London 1995
Image after the Battle of Annual: 
Map of the Rif from: