The Moorish Wanderer

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 2

Today’s piece is about an often disparaged event, with a historical significance that is sometimes overlooked in the standard-issue Moroccan history textbooks: the Battle Of Isly.

A word perhaps about the doxa among Moroccans (especially, I should say, among those better educated in French or American schools) that the Battle of Isly brought down the myth of military invincibility the Moroccan army (whatever it was at the time) acquired vis-à-vis the European military since the Battle of the Three Kings. But then again, that was almost 3 centuries before Isly, and as we shall see later on, military techniques and hardware improved markedly in Europe, but not in Morocco.

Moroccan flags captured at Isly, displayed at the Les Invalides Museum (Military Chapel)

The Battle of Isly finds its roots in the French invasion of AlgiersAyala in 1830. Although Morocco already experienced European raids on its soil as well as durable occupation of some of its coastal cities, the French invasion was a prelude to a radical shift in the European threat: During the 17th century, countries like Spain or Portugal did plan to occupy all North Africa, but that was more of a rhetoric than serious military strategy, so they end up partly due to no serious planning, and partly due to stiff resistance from local tribes (and not from the Makhzen) to either satisfy themselves with a couple of cities (Larache, Mazagan, Mehdia, etc…) or to focus on the much more lucrative conquest of the new world. But the 19th century brought the seeds of modern colonialism, i.e. advanced planning and the accumulation of large resources for a military total victory.

And right after 1830, the French military campaign put the Makhzen in a difficult position: Moroccan elite knew, from various diplomatic visits to and accounts from Europe, as well as the regular skirmishes with their navies, well about their military weaknesses and had a realistic understanding of the growing European (especially Spanish and French as well as British) colonial hunger for new territories. Furthermore, the Makhzen rulers were in a quandary on the Algerian case: on the one hand there was a religious duty to support resistance (like the epic Emir Abdelkader resistane) as well as a popular support for this defensive Jihad. On the other hand, a direct support meant French reprisals, and the possible threat of British naval intervention as well. And just as John Waterbury noted, Makhzen elite sat on the fence and ended up alienating both sides: Emir Abdelkader was not given full support, and irate French forces started bombing and shelling Moroccan cities and territories from the sea and on the borders.

Depicts the Battle of Isly on 14 august 1844

The Battle of Isly on 14 august 1844

In August 1844, on the eastern frontier, A French army corps routed the Imperial forces. It was a blatant rebukal of outdated military tactics from the Moroccan side, and a textbook victorious outcome for the Bugeaud column.

Let us consider the balance of forces here: The French had 11,000 troops against 30,000 Moroccan troops (with 2,000 irregular volunteers on the French side, and auxiliary tribes amounting to 30,000 Moroccan troops). But the main feature of the Moroccan army was its disproportionate use of cavalry forces: about 20.000 cavalrymen, a handicap not only in view of battlefield configuration, but also the inefficiency of cavalry concentration against compact fire from the enemy side. Besides, most of the Moroccan corps was made up of irregulars, just like the expected reinforcement (that showed up only at the later stages of the battle, and dully withdrew into their mountains without taking part of rear-guard operations). The French troops, on the other hand, were mostly made up of professionals or well-trained volunteers and a higher grasp of military engineering and artillery.

The Moroccan forces had never fought a large-scale engagement with a foreign power since 1578. Except the ‘Abid guardsmen and Guich tribes, there is no regular army, i.e. in the sense of fully-fledged -and regularly paid- professional corps of soldiers and officers.

'Black Guardsman'. The 'Abid Guard moved from a crack unit status to that of a Pretorian guard involved in palace coups and intrigues at the expenses of its military value. (Image LIFE)

There was however an extensive experience in punitive expeditions against rebellious tribes (Harkas), an experience in civil war that was forged in a very codified ritual: first, the army rabble meets the rebellious tribe(s), and by using the crude advantage of numerical superiority, force them to surrender, slice them or feed them to the Imperial lions. Then comes the looting, raping, killing and other mediaeval victors’ perks. In contrast, the French forces accumulated priceless experience in battlefields and rational military organization: French armies were fighting all over Europe for half a century and adapted military tactics and hardware for more efficient use. The heavy influence of Napoleon Bonaparte’s core training (Artillery) came in handy in 1800’s tactics (i.e. the use of intensive artillery barrage to break the enemy lines, the application of principles of fire superiority.)

Even though Moroccan troops outnumbered the French forces with a ratio of 4 to 1. What the Moroccan high command perceived as its decisive advantage turned out to be a heavy handicap: Of all the 60,000 troops, about 25,000 of them were cavalry, and these were the ones attacking the French column. The attack itself was very stylized, merely a fantasia with real bullets. The trouble is that the other side had adopted tactics to face large cavalry charges, thus rendering them ineffective and costly in human lives: the use of ‘redoubt squares‘ with a battery at the centre made all the cavalry charges look heroic, but fundamentally silly, ineffective and costly in human lives. As it happens, the French army had a vivid memory of futile cavalry charges; the Battle of Waterloo, among others, saw the slaughter of the Emperor’s ‘Dragons’ (the British Empire experienced a similar bloody disaster with the Charge of the Light Brigade, almost a exactly decade later)

'Fantasia' put the fear of God in the rebellious tribes' hearts, but it had little effect on a disciplined western army.

Tactics and military hardware went hand in hand: both sides had made extensive use of firearms, and even though Moroccan warriors were much better marksmen than French soldiers (and renown for that), their rifles had smaller range, and were more rustic than their French counterpart’s. The ‘line’ was not part of Moroccan tactics, and that provided the French with a decisive advantage in keeping a well-disciplined and rhythmic fire on their enemy. On artillery and military engineering, the French army had, by far, the upper hand.

The Battle Of Isly was a prelude to a series of blows (the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-1860 where the Imperial troopers fared no better) and a signal to all western powers on what they have already assumed: the Moroccan military potential did not evolve much over 3 centuries, thanks to the perpetual state of quasi-civil war the Imperial Sultan waged against His subjects.