Jorge Martínez Reverte died on March 24, days before he could celebrate the publication of his latest book, ‘The Flight of the Vultures’ (Gutenberg Galaxy), which unravels the Annual debacle and the Rif war, and which appears like this with posthumous character. Written in collaboration with Sonia Ramos and M’hamed Chafih, it is a revealing approach to the battle of Annual, situated in the collective memory as the disaster. A massacre that changed the course of the history of Spain a century ago and precipitated the Civil War, according to its author.
As he did before with the battle of Jarama, Reverte thoroughly investigated the defeat of the Spanish Army in Morocco on July 22, 1921, under the command of General Manuel Fernández Silvestre, before the Riffians led by Abd el-Krim. His essay “changes the Spanish and Riffian views on those events,” according to his editors.
The title alludes to the infernal landscape visible after the disaster, when the vultures that flew over the battlefield launched themselves to devour the thousands of corpses of Spanish soldiers that rotted under an inclement sun in the desolate place where the Africanist troops suffered their most humiliating defeat.
Finishing the book was an exhilarating endeavor for the journalist and writer, who spent the last months of his life polishing it. He wanted to publish it last fall “but he wanted so much that he wrote too much,” explains Mercedes Fonseca, Reverte’s widow. Finishing it was “difficult and complicated”, according to its editor, María Cifuentes, who celebrates that its author could see a layout of an essay with which he enjoyed the facet of his work that he liked the most. “He was above all a military historian who recounted the great battles of the Civil War and left us an important legacy,” says Cifuentes.
Reverte set out to show the underside of that carnage, reveal the history of the other party and gauge its consequences. He was helped by his old friend M’hamed Chafih, born in Al Hoceima and a compiler of documentation and autochthonous testimonies, oral accounts that are almost never included in manuals. Sonia Ramos was in charge of unifying Moroccan names and place names. Conceived as a detailed journalistic chronicle, to write it Reverte consulted Spanish and Moroccan archives, press of the time, doctoral theses and some poems that the Riffians dedicated to their victories and that Chafid translated from Arabic for the first time for the book, which includes a chronology and a glossary with terms of Arabic origin.
It is estimated that between 8,000 and 13,000 Spanish soldiers perished. Terrified, they fled in disarray, abandoning their forts and positions. “Some died at the hands of the Riff and others due to thirst, hunger, malaria and exhaustion,” Reverte lists. He believes that the responsibilities “were sufficiently clarified by the impeccable instruction of General Picasso”, charged with investigating the defeat and whose file “with hundreds of statements from the survivors, is an invaluable source for anyone seeking to reconstruct the history of Annual.”
Reverte believes that the great defect of the Spanish military, encouraged by an imperialist spirit, “was to presuppose their superiority over the Riffians,” whom they considered “disorganized and inefficient.” It narrates how the Spaniards suffered a defeat by chapters – first in Abarrán and Igueriben, then Annual, Nador and Monte Arruit – “in the face of a chaos of mass desertions by the Rif police, used as shock forces.” He lays the responsibility for the disaster on General Silvestre, an “egomaniac” in command of the Army in the eastern part of the Protectorate, as the part that corresponded to Spain was called in its division of North Africa with France in 1912.
After the massacre, in March 1922 the Government would fall. The front stabilized and General Juan Picasso’s report called for the prosecution of 39 soldiers. The parliamentary debates were bitter, the high command of the Army was divided, since one part did not want the civil power to judge them. Among them, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, who with his coup, on September 13, 1923, put an end to parliamentarism and the process opened by Picasso. “It was a direct consequence of Annual,” says Reverte. King Alfonso XIII, affected by the tragedy, relies on Primo de Rivera and gives the defendants amnesty.
The imprudence of Abd el-Krim to attack the French Protectorate led to the Spanish-French landing in Al Hoceima (1925). Months later, the warrior surrendered to the French and General Sanjurjo declared the end of the war in Morocco on July 10, 1927. “A war episode ends, but one of its consequences will open another war in less than ten years.” Reverte points. “In Morocco the Africanist military were formed, many of whom were the protagonists of the 1936 uprising, and already in the Civil War they used methods and approaches applied in the Rif”, concludes the author.