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A European army with tarbuch: 100 years of Spanish Regulares

The attire suggests an Arab origin: a red tarbuch on the head, a white sulham hanging down the back from the shoulders. The emblem of the marching military men is composed of a crescent lying on its back on two crossed rifles with a crown to top them all. The faces raise doubts. Are the soldiers Arabs or Europeans, or maybe both? But despite the strong first impression, the parading troops are not Arab, or at least do not belong to an Arab army. The territory in which they marching may be Africa, for the scene takes place in Ceuta, which still is Spanish territory, and the units are Spanish. They are the Regulares, the highest decorated units in the history of Spanish arms, and on June 30th they are celebrated their 100 year anniversary. But who are they? And why would European units carry Moroccan/Islamic symbols? This is a journey into the history of Spain’s semi-Muslim army.

The beginning

In 1906, the conference of Algeciras divided Morocco into ‘protected’ zones, one French and the other Spanish. What Spain eventually received was the northern Rif region, along with Jebala and the enclave of Ifni plus the Western Sahara. But dominating a territory on paper turned out to be a lot more difficult than establishing Spain’s authority. The first attempts to do so were met with trouble and failures which in 1909 led to internal turmoil in the Iberian peninsula. In the wake of protests against sending Spanish young draftees to Morocco to meet their death at the hand of Riffian rebels. This background was partly responsible for the foundation of a corps of native soldiers which, besides political benefits, the tactical advantage was that its members are familiar with the territory, language and culture. In 1911 the first Regulares Indigenas (native regulars) were founded. The soldiers were Moroccan, the officers mostly Spanish, a number of the soldiers were recruited from the Moroccan north whereas others were fugitives and ex-soldiers who had rebelled against the French and ironically saw themselves, because they knew no better profession, end up in the military service of yet another colonial power.

Against Ben Abdelkrim

The value of the Regulares manifested itself during the bloody and arduous struggle against the legendary Riffian rebel Mohammed Ben Abdelkrim Al Khattabi. In 1921 the Spanish army fell into a trap at Anoual. The Spanish lost between 8000 and 10.000 soldiers, one of the most severe defeats suffered by a European colonial army. Though the disaster unraveled when a number of Moroccan native police personnel started firing at their Spanish colleagues, there were more than 2000 Moroccans who defended themselves and their Spanish comrades to the death at that battle. The faith in the Regulares remained steadfast despite that military catastrophe. The reason was the generally good bonds the Spanish officers began to form with their soldiers. It was necessary to set examples by demonstrating personal bravery, and to try to learn the language and know the culture. The officers started outwardly to look very much like their soldiers, wearing the Jilabah and the tarbuch. In Ceuta, sergeant Rosado of the historical department of the Regulares group in the city, explains how Spanish officers in the past were expected to learn, within a certain period of time, one native language (either Arabic or Berber). Failing to do so, they were expected to serve somewhere else. The investment paid off, and the Regulares played an important role (along with the Spanish Foreign Legion and the French who were later involved in the struggle) in suppressing the Riffian rebellion, which in 1926 came to its effective end. Symbolic was the capture of Ben Abdelkrim’s home by a Regulares unit led by a Moroccan officer named Mohamed Amezian. This man had saved, years before, the life of Spain’s future dictator General Francisco Franco. The ‘pacification’ was complete in Spanish Morocco.

In the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

The founders of the Regulares may not have imagined that these well trained Moroccans could be one day given the task of eliminating enemies in Spain itself. In 1936, a group of rightist generals staged a coup d’état against the government of the Frente Popular which had won, a short time before, the elections in the Spanish Republic. Soon it emerged that the coup was not successful everywhere in Spain and especially not so in the large urban centers. The generals, under the leadership of general Franco, realized that they needed the efforts of the only soldiers with combat experience in the Spanish army: the Foreign Legion and the Regulares.

Soon the Regulares developed among their opponents a reputation of savage cruel warriors, sneaky men who favored the use of knives, a sign of their typical blood thirst. This reputation is partially based on truth and for another part, it appears, on fantasy. In El Ksar El Kbir is Al Filali Abdel Kader, who lost an eye during the war and won six medals. He recounts how he along with three others crawled on their hands and knees and managed to take a unit of Republicans by surprise, sowing panic and conquering the position, with the use of hand grenades, with their opponents fleeing the place. He was promoted with his three comrades to corporal. But there were almost no knife actions. ‘It just did not happen. We had rifles!’

But there were also stories spreading about the sadistic lust of the Moroccans who would rape women in every place they came to conquer. That rapes took place is most probably true, but whether this was the rule or the exception is debatable. The surviving Regulares whom I interviewed always denied having committed rapes (which is expected) but also denied having seen or even heard of sexual harassments perpetrated by the Moroccans. On the contrary, they claim that Spanish officers always issued stern warnings with regard to conduct towards women in conquered regions. A number of military historians are of opinion that the Moroccan regulars were not more vicious than the other participants of the civil war, whether Spanish or foreign. In any case, Franco managed, with the use of the Regulares, but also through German and Italian military and technological aid to win his war and secure his power until his death in 1975. Until the mid 1950s Franco surrounded himself with the so-called ‘Moorish Guard’, a symbol for the importance of the Moroccan element in his victory.

Guerrilla war

After the end of the civil war, the role of the Morocccan Regulares was not completed yet in Spain. During a number of years and deep into the 1940s the Regulares provided backup to the Guardia Civil in its hunt for the anti-Franco guerillas, known as the maquis. One of those Regulares, Dandi Mohamed, was almost captured by the maquis. As a teenager and orphan, a son of a soldier killed in the civil war, he enlisted in the Spanish army. He sat one evening in a Spanish tavern with other Spanish locals and two other Moroccan young men. The three were unarmed and drinking. It was a nice party. At the end of the evening, one of the Spanish present takes out a submachine gun out of the inside of his coat, declares that he, along with others present are maquis, and order the Moroccans to go with them. But the Moroccan teenagers do not want to, One of them pleads that he would be leaving his mother with no one to care for her. After half an hour the maquis are tired of this and go on their way, surprisingly without killing the ‘Moors’. ‘Since then, we were not allowed to trust Spanish civilians’. In the early 1950s the danger of the maquis was a thing of the past.

After Morocco’s independence

In 1956 Morocco became independent. With it came the retreat of the Spanish units towards the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Thousand of Moroccan Regulares were passed on to the Moroccan Royal Army. But a number of them remained serving in the Regulares until somewhere in ’60s. Some of them remained in Ceuta and Melilla or even in the Spanish peninsula and received the Spanish nationality. Those who did so and their families, secured and maintained, a better financial position and pensions on the long term. Those who remained in the independent Morocco saw their pensions steadily shrinking in value, for the pensions did not keep up with inflation rates. The Moroccan Association for Ancient Combatants and Victims of War is working to redress this situation. One of its heads, Al Amien Arruqaibat, notices that Spanish military figures display sympathy for the cause, but the key remains in the hands of the politicians.

The Regulares today

Despite the end of the Moroccan connection, the Regulares units continued to exist. The reasons have much to with the will to preserve tradition. The Regulares are, individually and collectively, the best decorated segments of the Spanish army. The military historian in Ceuta, José Montes Ramos, notes that in the decades after the independence of Morocco and especially after Spain entered the NATO, there was a tendency to standardize the military uniforms of the army. Due to pressure by segments in the military and in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla this led to the restoration of the outer symbols of which the Regulares of today are so proud, and which are especially visible during parades (the almost only traditional piece of clothing which is always in use daily by Regulares soldier is the red tarbuch). Indeed the interior of the Regulares barracks (the Gonzalez Tablas barracks) gives a Moorish impression. Except those outer symbols, the Regulares still have a Muslim character (though less so than in the past) due to the fact that Muslim citizens, both male and female, serve in large numbers in these units. Some of them are sons or grandsons of old Regulares. The Regulares units of today take into account the Ramadan, provide their Muslim memebers with a halal diet, a Mosque in the barracks and an Imam who leads the Friday religous activities. The historical and cultural of the Regulares makes them, according to Montes Ramos, favorite candidates for international peace keeping missions in countries with an Islamic background like the Balkan countries or Lebanon. But it seems to me that the Regulares also contribute to the character of this city, Ceuta, as a meeting point between Africa and Europe, a meeting that has always had its pretty aspects but also often its less attractive ones.

I notice in the barracks the young Muslim Regulares together with their European comrades. The ambience is relaxed, the interaction between the two cultural components easy, and even for the untrained eye of a stranger, the impression of a true comradeship is vivid. In the afternoon of June 30th, the General who is the commander of the Ceuta military district, greets the old Moroccan soldiers, shakes the hands of each one of them, a couple of dozens of them, and thanks them for their ‘glorious’ past, and because they ‘taught us how to walk the path’. He leaves. There follows a military ceremony and parade at the Royal Walls in the city, followed by a toast, a Wine of Honor in the barracks. At the occasion a lady in her late 40s approaches a couple of old Civil War veterans and tells them that they, the old ones, are the real soldiers who did the job well. The first thought in my mind is: she must be a Franco fan. All the same, the old warriors will return to Morocco at the end of the evening. The young Regulares, both the Christians and Muslims are here to stay.


Ali Al Tuma is a Ph.D candidate at Leiden University

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One Response to A European army with tarbuch: 100 years of Spanish Regulares

  1. aissa says:

    soy nieto de un soldado marrouqe que estaba en la guerra civil . como puedo solicitar nacionalidad española

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