Pétain, Franco and chemical warfare in the Rif

French President Emanuel Macron has recently courted controversy through his valorisation of Marshal Pétain – leader of Nazi collaborationist Vichy France – as a hero of World War I.

In the following essay, Louis Witter describes how Pétain and the young Spanish colonel Francisco Franco broke Africa’s first anti-colonial state, the Republic of the Rif in the 1920s. Originally published by the Morocco-based Le Desk, introduced by Joe Hayns, and translated by Nick Evans.

Marshal Lyautey (Resident General of the French Protectorate) meets Marshal Pétain as he lands in Morocco during the Rif War (Photo Meurisse: 17 July 1925).

On the edge of Imzouren, the Rif’s second town after al-Hoceima, the Hassan II hospital stands unfinished, sun-bleached against the dusk. The subject of some of the most arresting photographs of Movement of the Rif were taken there over the summer of 2017 (including by Louis Witter), as protestors walked from the town’s centre, through its residential neighbourhoods, towards an instance and a symbol of the Moroccan state’s abiding failure.

The hospital is mentioned in the Charter of Demands of the Popular Movement of al-Hoceima (‘Expedite the works in Imzouren Hospital and open an investigation into the violations that occurred’), after another ‘urgent demand’ – to ‘Build a hospital for cancer treatment in the near future, and supply it with adequate equipment and staffing.’ As Witter’s essay explains, if these failures are immediately domestic, their history is international.


In his 1917 essay The African Roots of War, W. E. B. Dubois wrote that, ‘the greater the concentration the more deadly the rivalry. From Fashodo to Agadir, repeatedly the spark has been applied to the European magazine and a general conflagration narrowly averted’ – and whilst there is indeed a shared appreciation amongst the Marxist left that the rivalries of ‘high’ imperialism generated, in turn, war in Europe itself, there is perhaps less understanding of the relationship between that imperialism, and the fascism that followed World War I.

Militarily, the revolutionary right’s wars between rationally organised militaries and civilian populations were practised features of European expansion – and it is remarkable how many French, Spanish, and Italian fascists served in the Maghreb. Ideologically, fascism’s first victims – communists, socialists, trade unionists – became, somehow, ‘indigenous’ through the 1910s and 1920s, as the racisms of empire were re-imported. For Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the Second Republic was a ‘new Berber invasion’; for the royalist José Calvo Sotelo, the socialist Francisco Largo Caballero was a ‘Moroccan Lenin’.

While the economic impetus was different – state-backed capital’s overseas expansion in the first instance; in the second, its domestic, lurid self-defence – high imperialism and fascism formed a a procession, the beginning and end of a three-act tragedy, with a failed revolution (Germany), a putsch (Spain), and a military defeat (France) as intermediary scenes. Against Macron’s attempt at partially resurrecting Pétain, the following essay shows the need to comprehend the Rif, Verdun, and Vichy together.

 Joe Hayns


Pétain: the little-known role of ‘the Marshal’ in the Rif War by Louis Witter

Abdelkrim fights the Spanish at Annual, 1921.

‘Marshal Pétain was, during the First World War, also a great soldier’:  with these words, spoken whilst touring the Ardennes during centenary commemorations of the Great War, the French President sparked heated arugments in France and beyond.

Marshal Pétain, viewed as the ‘hero of Verdun’ in the years after WWI, went on to  lead the Vichy regime, and was the principal collaborator of Nazi Germany in France, introducing antisemitic laws and abolishing a great number of fundamental liberties. While the history books explain his role in these two wars at length, they are, by contrast, silent on his direct involvement in the conflicts in northern Morocco and the cordial, even warm, relations that he developed there with Francisco Franco.

Seeing  the Spanish army suffer numerous defeats at the hands of the resistance fighters in the Rif from 1921 onwards, France began to sense that the Republic established by Abdelkrim al-Khattabi was threatening its own colonial projects in North Africa, and decided to intervene in the Rif War. The key Spanish defeat in July 1921 at Annual eventually prompted a ferocious Franco-Spanish counter-offensive several years later The Spanish General Sylvestre lost some 20,000 men at Annual , and killed himself on the battlefield. In a directive of 20 December 1924, the Resident General of the French Protectorate (1912-25), Marshal Lyautey, expressed concerns about an eventual withdrawal of Spanish troops, and hence advocated a campaign by the French army to reassert the power of the colonial armies in the region.

When Pétain replaced Lyautey

Lyautey regarded the situation in the north of Morocco as, ‘serious and complicated’. All it took was a French-Spanish conference in Madrid, July 1925, to decide on the action against El-Khattabi. Lyautey was ill, and had been asking for some time for another general to support him in his mission in Morocco, who could replace him in case of need. In numerous letters, he voiced his worry that, after undergoing major operations, he would not be able to continue his mission, if he were to be immobilised again. A dry response came back from above: ‘…a leader such as you, with such a record, a Marshal of France, does not abandon his post at the hour when danger threatens yet’. In the corridors of the French government of Prime Minister Paul Painlevé (April – November 1925), one name circulated: that of the conqueror of Verdun, Marshal Pétain.

He landed in Morocco in August 1925, and as soon as he arrived, decided to change the strategy that Lyautey had been employing thus far. Unlike his predecessor, Marshal Pétain was in favour with the government in Paris, which gave him all the logistical support and personnel that he asked for. He assembled a total of 150,000 men to face the tribes fighting under the authority of Abdelkrim, who added up to a mere 20,000 fighters, drawn from various tribes. On 21 August, Pétain met Primo de Rivera, the dictator (1923–30) who had taken power in Spain after the defeat at Annual. Together, they put in place a military strategy for the Spanish and French armies, including plans for the most important operation of this war, at Al Hoceima on 8 September 1925, considered to be the first amphibious landing in history.

Franco, Pétain and Moroccan history

Francisco y Ramón Franco in Morocco, 1925

The landing at Al Hoceima was long planned by Marshal Pétain and the dictator Primo de Rivera. In this joint operation of the two armies allied against the Rif rebellion, a particular role was played by a man who would become infamous. On the night of 7–8 September, the young colonel Francisco Franco, leading the troops of the Spanish Legion, landed on the beaches of Cebadilla, a few kilometres from Ajdir, the rebel fiefdom of Abdelkrim.

13,000 infantry followed Colonel Franco, accompanied by a Franco-Spanish fleet of 80 boats, nine warships and numerous fighter planes. Franco, who distinguished himself in this battle, was decorated with the Légion d’honneur in France on the recommendation of Marshal Pétain. Franco and Pétain already knew each other: they had already crossed paths in Ceuta 1923, at the time of the first meeting between Pétain and Primo de Rivera.

The battle of Al Hoceima would reinforce their ties, and in early 1939 Pétain would be named the first French ambassador to Francoist Spain. For this decisive offensive for the colonial powers, 160 aircraft were mobilised on the Moroccan shores. Among the arsenal deployed that night was an impressive squadron of French Goliath bomberst,each of which could carry up to six 100 kg bombs each.

Chemical weapons used by France and Spain

Spanish troops landing at Al Hoceima Bay on 8 September 1925.

From November 1921, the Spanish army started using chemical weapons, in particular phosgene, in its bombing raids on the outskirts of Tangier. After the defeat at Annual, a Spanish General called Damaso Berenguer even wrote that he had experienced the desire to ‘use them with delight’. For his part, Lyautey  looked askance at their use; the sultan Moulay Youssef (r. 1912–27) of Morocco shared his own discontent with him:

…the Sultan has spoken to me many times, and again today, reminding me that, as the spiritual and temporal leader over all Morocco, he cannot ignore the pleas from the Muslims in the zone subjected to such treatment. He insisted that his conscience forces him, with regard to his subjects and the whole Muslim community, to show himself willing to make known by means of a Sharifi [noble] letter, to be read in the mosques across his whole empire, expressing his disapproval of such behaviour.

Despite Lyautey’s posturing , it was in fact a French business, Schneider, which in 1922 helped to open a plant for the production of toxic shells in Melilla, and indeed  Lyautey himself had made an official request to his superiors for provisions of chemical weapons in June 1925, justifying that ‘the use of these munitions, with their toxic power allows us to spare human lives during our attacks’. In the face of these bombs, dropped on the most populated regions of the territories controlled by Abdelkrim, the Rifians tried to fight back with non-explosive projectiles, as well as making shells charged with pepper powder, without little success. Right up to the end of the Rif War, the Spanish army would continue using these lethal gases with the support of the French forces, withf Marshal Pétain at their head in Morocco.

The consequences of chemical weapons a century later

According to many historians and experts, this massive use of chemical weapons by the Spanish armies led by Primo de Rivera and French armies led by Marshals Lyautey and Pétain against the Rifian rebels is the root cause of the very high number of cancers and malformations to this day among the inhabitants of the towns of  of the north and west of the country. In 2015, a deputy from the left-wing USFP (Socialist Union of Popular Forces) party for Al Hoceima even made an official demand to the French President at the time, Franc̡ois Hollande, that France apologise for the support that it had given the Spanish army in the Rif War.

One of the key demands of the Hirak, the protest movement in the Rif region between 2016 and 2017 was, for the opening of a cancer hospital for the region of Al Hoceima. According to the Association for the Defence of Victims of Toxic Gas in the Rif, the region has been affected by cancers due to the Spanish and French bombardments. Mimoun Charqi, author of the book Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Rif (Armes chimiques de destruction massive sur le Rif), 70% of adults and 50 % of children who received cancer treatment in the hospital in Rabat in 2015 were originally from the north of the country, and in particular from the towns of Al Hoceima and Nador.

In July 2017, the Minister of Health El Houssaine Louardi told the French news agency AFP about the completion of a study concerning the causal links between the mustard gas used during the Rif War and the cases of cancer which have resulted from it. However, a year after his declarations, there is no trace of the study.


For further reading on the 1920s Rif War (in French) see the bibliography in the original article.

For further reading on the Hirak Movement, see:

  • Miriyam Aouragh, ‘Fishy neoliberalism in Morocco’, Historical Materialism (10 November 2016)
  • ‘Fighting for justice in the Rif’ (solidarity statement by rs21, 19 May 2017)
  • Joe Hayns, ‘A “total” movement: what next for Morocco’s Hirak after 20 July’ (rs21.org.uk, 23 July 2017)
  • Al-Hirak interviews, ‘Morocco: an interview with Hirak activist Yassmin B’ (reposted on rs21.org.uk, 8 July 2017)



  1. Interesting article highlighting a war I knew nothing of. The use of chemical weapons is obviously a tactic carried on from the first world war and the danger of such weapons being used still exists. The Russians & Syrians used them in the current civil war and We’ve seen our own country attacked by the Russians using such vile weapons against dissidents and defectors.

    Interesting as your article was I waas struck by the failure of your site to mention his role in the Holocaust and alongside you have an advert attacking the worlds onlyJewish state of being racist. Anti-Zionism morphed into something more dangerous a long time ago. I no longer trust the “left” to defend me or my fellow Jews from anti-Semitism. That includes David Rosenbergs so-called Jewish Socialist Group. The anti-Zionist movement is riddled with anti-Semites and any instances from Islamic sources ignored as an inconvenience. Just like Corbyn .

    Now that you have broken with the SWP might it be time to reconsider your ideas?


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