The Impact of the ‘Disaster’ of 1898 on the Spanish Army
By Charles Hendricks
The following is a paper that the author delivered at the 1998 Conference of Army Historians in Bethesda, Maryland.

Despite its decisive victory in the Spanish-American War, the United States at the end of the nineteenth century recognized that its military forces had faced serious organizational, logistical, and medical challenges in that conflict. The war clearly pointed to a need for military reform in the United States, and in its aftermath Congress enacted some critical reform legislation. The defeated Spanish Army, however, had as much, if not more, incentive for reform in the aftermath of the war whose centennial we now observe. The Spanish Army also had a profound need to defend its reputation, and this led to a series of conflicts with Spain’s civil government. I believe that it is important for U.S. Army historians to explore the impact of America’s wars not only on this nation’s forces but also on the military and political structures of our opponents. I will argue that the Spanish Army did change rather substantially in the decades after 1898. However, due to the weakness of Spain’s civil government, the reforms that were manifestly required in the aftermath of the difficult Cuban insurrection and the shocking defeat inflicted by the Americans came slowly and fitfully. Nevertheless within 25 years, a new, more effective, and more assertive Spanish Army had begun to evolve with decidedly negative implications for democratic evolution in Spain.

For much of the nineteenth century, the Spanish Army had been intimately involved in domestic political life. While the regime of Queen Isabel II, whose reign spanned the middle third of the century, maintained the robust and vigorous Army necessary to keep at bay the ultraconservative and persistent rival Carlist pretenders to the throne, that Army’s leaders did not submit easily to the direction of the queen’s ministers. On the whole, Spain’s senior Army officers derived from more middling backgrounds and were more liberal in their political orientation than were most ministers who served Isabel and her royal predecessor Fernando VII, who ruled from 1814 to 1833. Spanish military historian and sociologist Julio Busquets counted 34 pronunciamientos, or military interventions, in Spanish politics between 1814 and 1868. Of these, nine were successful, but participants were shot or hanged after an equal number. The successful interventions forced the Spanish crown to rule in a constitutional format, dramatically reduced the power of the Catholic hierarchy in Spanish politics, and ultimately overthrew Isabel and led to the formation of the short-lived first Spanish republic. Both the frequent coup attempts and the lengthy struggle with the Carlists impelled nineteenth-century Spanish governments to be very respectful of the perquisites of Spanish Army officers and to reward them generously when they aided the government.1

The restoration constitution of 1876 was carefully crafted by Conservative party leader Antonio Cánovas to assure that the competing Liberal and Conservative parties would share or alternate governmental power in Spain and thus hopefully obviate the cause for military intervention. The 1876 constitution also provided Spanish officers a forum for political participation in the Cortes, or Spanish Parliament. All Army captains-general and Navy admirals were automatically members of the Senate, and Army and Navy officers of all ranks were eligible for election to the House of Deputies. In a sample year, 1907, career military officers, both active and retired, comprised 8 percent of the deputies and 6 percent of the senators. Ministers of war were regularly selected from the officers serving in the Cortes. While Republican leaders attempted for a decade to induce military elements to overthrow the Cánovas constitution and proclaim a new republic, the unsuccessful 1886 rising attempted by exiled General Manuel Villacampa and two Madrid regiments showed that the new regime retained broad support within the Army. 2

The Spanish Army that fought independence movements and the United States Army in Cuba and the Philippines in the 1890s was a conscript army. It was raised under the draft law of 1877 which, like the constitution of the previous year, had been designed to satisfy the members of all politically active classes. While conscripts could be required to serve three years on active duty and eight more on a reserve list, the law provided a wide range of exemptions—for only sons, for specialized employment, for supporting grandparents, and even for illegitimate children supporting their parents. More generally, anyone could purchase an exemption for 1,200 pesetas, a substantial sum for a middle-class family, but one that 10,000 paid in 1882. While many Spaniards legally evaded the draft, few directly flouted the law in the nineteenth century, with only 4 percent of those called in 1897 failing to respond.3

The Spanish public, and a wide spectrum of Spanish political leaders from Republican to Carlist, supported the repression of the Cuban insurrection at its outbreak in 1895. However, that broad support soon began to erode. The heavy cost in manpower that the Cuban war entailed, not least as a result of tropical disease, and the economic dislocation caused by the rebels’ scorched-earth tactics and the policy of rural population concentration to which the most successful Spanish commander in Cuba, General Valeriano Weyler, turned in response, led the powerful Liberal party to undergo a dramatic change of heart by mid-1897. After an Italian anarchist assassinated Prime Minister Cánovas in August 1897, Liberal leader Mateo Sagasta assumed the reins of government, recalled General Weyler, and issued a broad Cuban autonomy decree. While not satisfying the surviving leaders of the fight for Cuban independence, this decree mollified U.S. President McKinley. It also enraged a group of hard-line Spanish officers in Havana, who felt that Spain’s political leaders had sold them out. In an action with significant precedents in the metropolis, the disenchanted officers and a coterie of civilian sympathizers ransacked the offices of a Havana newspaper that had been campaigning for autonomy and had denounced Weyler’s military methods. McKinley responded to this act of indiscipline by sending the USS Maine on a courtesy visit to Havana, and within ten weeks of its explosion on 15 February 1898 the United States intervened in the still unsettled Cuban conflict.4

The American declaration of war did not faze a Spanish public convinced that its military could defend Spain’s long-held Cuban and Philippine colonies. The Sagasta government, however, recognized that Spanish forces could not defeat the Americans. Having already conceded autonomy to the Cubans, it might have concluded that taking the additional step of granting Cuban independence in response to an American ultimatum would at least save Spain the human and financial toll of a losing war. But Sagasta also recognized that the Spanish Army’s acceptance of Spain’s restored constitutional monarchy was not unconditional. Were Spanish political leaders to capitulate to American demands without a test of arms, the politicians would likely turn the ire of the entire Army against them and their constitutional regime. Thus Sagasta’s government accepted the American challenge and sent Admiral Pascual Cervera and a substantial part of the Spanish Navy to the West Indies, where, as Cervera pointed out, its ultimate destruction was eminently predictable.5

The Spanish soldiers who defended Santiago de Cuba at the start of July 1898 fought bravely and, for their numbers, rather effectively. At the battles of El Caney and San Juan Heights, the Spanish suffered 593 casualties, the Americans 1,519. But the decisions of the Spanish Army’s generals could surely be second-guessed. The Spanish commander in Oriente province, General Arsenio Linares, had deployed on the heights overlooking Santiago only some 1,800 of the 30,000 troops under his command, or less than 2 percent of the Spanish army in all of Cuba. Moreover, he had not seriously opposed the American landings in late June at Daiquirí and Siboney. General Ramón Blanco, who in 1898 commanded Spanish forces in Cuba from his Havana palace, was responsible for the order that sent Cervera’s fleet from Santiago harbor to its demise in battle on July 3. Linares’ reputation in Spain benefited, however, from the serious wounds he received on San Juan Heights.6

In the aftermath of Spain’s disastrous defeat in 1898, Spanish intellectuals clamored for a thoroughgoing reform of Spanish politics; Spanish politicians examined which of their nation’s military leaders should be held responsible for the debacle; and a lieutenant general, Camilo Polavieja, contemplated a military coup. Polavieja, a one-time enlisted man from a poor family of aristocratic ancestry, had executed such a fiercely repressive approach as field commander in the Philippines in 1896–97, during the first year of the rebellion there, that Prime Minister Cánovas had recalled him to Spain. General Weyler and the queen regent thwarted Polavieja’s ambitions, and he settled for the post of minister of war. His efforts in that position to end special exemptions to the draft fell flat in the Cortes, and he soon resigned.

The responsibilities debate in the Cortes did little to clarify the army’s shortcomings, serving instead to antagonize and demoralize the officer corps. General Linares and most other Spanish military leaders in Cuba found their upward career paths unobstructed by the inquiry.7

The Army’s most serious problem remained its excessive number of officers, particularly generals, and the insufficient money available for weapons and equipment after the officers’ salaries had been paid. By 1900, after the award of the last wartime "merit" promotions, the officer corps numbered 24,700 in a standing Army authorized only 80,000 troops, and their salaries comprised 58 percent of the Army’s budget. The Spanish Army’s 471 general officers, meanwhile, were the oldest, on average, of any European army. 8

Polavieja addressed the officer excess by ordering that half of all vacancies that would occur over time not be filled. This quickly slowed promotions. The resulting pressure from younger officers led General Weyler, as minister of war in 1902, to cut the officer amortization rate to 25 percent. A proposal to reduce the retirement age by three years for major and brigadier generals merely to 64 and 62, respectively, was similarly dropped. Even in light of Spain’s disproportionate spending on officers’ salaries in lieu of equipment, it is perhaps surprising that by 1909 the Spanish army had the lowest proportion of artillery to troop strength of any European army, including that of Montenegro. In 1914, the army of Romania, which was about equally large as that of Spain, had only about one-third as many officers.9

The Cu-Cut! Affair in 1905 foreshadowed the type of renovation that the Spanish Army could achieve in the context of a civil government cowed by a fear of military overthrow. The industrialists and workers of Barcelona and the surrounding province of Catalonia, Spain’s most economically advanced region and the one that suffered most from the loss of protected exports to Cuba, were not similarly awed by the Army. Cu-Cut!—a beautifully illustrated humor magazine closely affiliated with the leading Catalan regionalist party—frequently turned for comic material to the travails of the Spanish military. Cartoons run by this journal over the course of 1905 provoked a violent military reaction and a governmental crisis.

One cartoon showed a Spanish military observer with the Russian Army in Manchuria being asked what he had learned there. The Spaniard replied: "What we already knew. How to lose battles." When General Julio Fuentes, Barcelona’s civil governor, ordered residents to take down Catalan flags they were displaying for a regional holiday, the magazine posed the question of whether he had nothing better to do and had him answer: "[Striking the colors] is all they taught us to do in Cuba." The magazine also commented that General Fuentes "has so little to show for himself that he does not even have what [other generals] like Linares, Weyler, Polavieja, Primo de Rivera and Augustins had to show for themselves, namely the merit of having lost some colonial possession or other." When the Spanish foreign minister visited Berlin, the Cu-Cut! cartoonist showed him talking to Kaiser Wilhelm. "Spain wants to be at peace with all nations," the Spaniard asserted. "That’s understandable," the kaiser replied, "no one likes to receive a whipping." On November 23, 1905, a Cu-Cut! cartoon depicted Army officers expressing surprise over a celebration by Catalan regionalists on account of their recent victory in local elections and then admitting ruefully that, in Spain, only civilians had victories of which to boast. On November 25, some 200 junior officers ransacked the presses of Cu-Cut! and the editorial offices of Barcelona’s leading regionalist daily. A committee representing the disenchanted officers then demanded that the Cortes include the press in the military code’s existing prohibition of all oral or written "offenses" to military institutions. Such inclusion would move the prosecution of press offenses against the military into the military courts.10

The Spanish government resisted this demand, although War Minister Weyler waffled, fearing that the junior officers who led the movement in Barcelona might broaden their attack to encompass the many privileges of the Army’s senior hierarchy. King Alfonso XIII, however, supported the disgruntled officers’ demands, and this forced the resignation of the cabinet. A new government resolved the crisis by winning Cortes approval of a new law for the "Repression of Crimes Against the Fatherland and the Army," which would largely stifle criticism of the Army in the press for the next 25 years.11

The war that was in various ways to resuscitate the effectiveness and image of the Spanish Army after the loss of Spain’s overseas possessions broke out in the Spanish zone in Morocco in 1909. The initial course of that war illustrated the desperate condition of the Army. The war developed after a Conservative party government headed by Antonio Maura supported some restless tribes in northeast Morocco in their attack on Abu Himara, known to the Spanish as El Roghi, a false pretender to the Moroccan sultanate who had nevertheless been a stabilizing factor in the Spanish zone. Weakened by these attacks, Abu Himara had fallen victim to a raid by the sultan’s army, which had captured him, brought him to Marrakesh, and, according to reports, fed him alive to the palace lions. The now unrestrained tribes then turned their attention to the Spanish firms working mining claims that had been approved by Abu Himara, killing six miners on July 9, 1909. Maura and his minister of war, General Arsenio Linares of Santiago repute, responded vigorously.12

Linares quickly mobilized the Third Mixed Brigade, comprised of regulars and reservists from still volatile Catalonia, where Linares had until recently been captain general and as such personally responsible for the brigade’s training. But Spain’s growing Socialist party responded with vigorous anti-war agitation. Party leader Pablo Iglesias suggested in a Madrid speech that Spanish soldiers should point their rifles not at Moroccan Berbers but at the Spanish government. On July 18 military officials had one battalion of the Third Brigade march through Barcelona to the dock from which it would embark. A crowd encircled the soldiers amid cries of "Throw away your guns" and "Let the rich go, all or none." Some soldiers threw into the sea medals given them by society ladies, whose sons could buy draft exemptions. The following day, the government announced the end of troop debarkations from Barcelona, and workers began a series of nightly street demonstrations. On July 22, civil governor Angel Ossorio cut Barcelona’s telephone and telegraph contact with Madrid, but on the 24th newspaper readers in Barcelona learned that Berber tribesmen had broken Spanish supply lines in fighting to which some seasick, or perhaps simply nervous, Spanish reservists had been marched straight from their ships. The Socialists called a general strike for Monday, July 26. The strike shut down Barcelona but proved ineffective in most of the rest of the country. Barcelonans could not learn this, however, due to the cut-off of communication lines. 13

The anti-war Socialists soon lost control of Barcelona’s streets to older Radical party, which redirected the crowds into an orgy of attacks on the city’s Catholic churches, convents, and schools, more than half of which were burned during the ensuing week of rioting. Before the "Tragic Week" ended, 104 civilians had been killed along with 28 police and Civil Guards, but Barcelona’s Captain General Luis Santiago proved unwilling or unable to apply any effective military force against the rioting, which subsided more or less on its own. Meanwhile in Morocco on July 27, Brig. Gen. Guillermo Pintos, ignoring his instructions, pushed his First Madrid Chasseurs across Wolf Ravine on the slopes of Mt. Gurugú, where he was ambushed and killed along with dozens of other officers and troops. Not until the second half of September did the Spanish gain control of the western and southern approaches to this commanding peak, and only on September 29 did Colonel Miguel Primo de Rivera lead a detachment to the summit. By then the Spanish had suffered at least 2,500 casualties, or as many as 4,000 by some estimates, among the 40,000 troops deployed. Mining operations could now safely resume.14

Spanish historian and Air Force General Alfredo Kindelán later saw the ultimately successful 1909 Moroccan operation as ending the depression endured by the soul of the Spanish military in consequence of its defeat in 1898.15 There can be little doubt that the uncompromising determination of the Spanish military to use the Moroccan war to revive its flagging reputation in Spain effectively forced a series of governments with little commitment to that conflict to underwrite a long and costly military involvement in that North African land. But the turn-around achieved by the Spanish military involved a slow and gradual process. Intermittent conflict with various Moroccan tribal groups persisted for a decade and a half, and over this period the Spanish army introduced a number of innovations that created a new, more fully professional force to replace the conscript army that had performed so imperfectly in Cuba and the early Moroccan fighting. In June 1911 the Spanish organized the first of several companies of Regulares, Moorish volunteer troops led by a group of Spanish officers that initially included the ambitious young Second Lt. Francisco Franco. Another officer in the Regulares, Maj. José Millán Astray, who had served in the Philippine campaign of 1896–97 as a teenage second lieutenant, convinced the cabinet and king in 1920 to approve the creation of a Spanish Foreign Legion, or Tercio de Extranjeros. Foreigners were not easy to recruit, however, and the legion’s five battalions were eventually filled primarily by native Spaniards with most of its foreign members coming from the now-independent Republic of Cuba. The Tercio was distinguished, however, by the severe discipline to which its troops were subjected in vice-plagued Spanish Morocco.16

Over the two and a half decades following the outbreak of fighting in Morocco in 1909, Spain’s army would make a fitful transition from a lower-class conscript force led by career officers who preferred to remain safely in Spain and focus on parliamentary politics and cabinet reshuffles to a new, more disciplined and professional army that learned from and built upon its experiences in Morocco. The old bureaucratic army did not die quietly, however, and in its fight for survival it undermined the restoration constitution and facilitated its demise. The hesitancy of career officers to volunteer for service in Morocco and the preference of the government to induce rather than force them to serve there led to the reinstitution of merit promotions in Morocco in 1910. One of those who benefited from the merit promotions was Francisco Franco, who was a major by the age of 23 and a brigadier general and commander of the Tercio by the age of 33.

Many officers were offended by the merit promotions, however, and they charged that their award was often based on political favor. When General Serrallo, as minister of war in 1916, proposed administering professional and physical tests to all officers, many protested and the testing program had to be cancelled. The testing plan sparked the formation of committees or Juntas of infantry and cavalry officers in Spanish garrisons as a means to protect their status relative to those serving in Morocco and to push for higher salaries and an end to political and royal favoritism. The government did not act against the Juntas until May 1917. It then demanded that the Juntas disband, and, when they did not, it arrested Col. Benito Márquez and other leaders of the Barcelona Infantry Junta. New Junta leaders, however, demanded their release and threatened otherwise to seize power in the Catalan entrepôt. The Republican Radicals that had rioted there eight years before rallied to the officers’ support. Within a week, the cabinet released those arrested, gave legal status to the Juntas, and promised favorable action on their agenda. A civilian politician favorable to the Juntas became war minister and granted hefty pay raises to all military personnel.


The baneful effects that such capitulation could have, not only on the civil government but also on the military, soon became apparent. Non-commissioned officers and enlisted troops began to form their own juntas, threatening to undermine all discipline in the army. The government took advantage of this development to gain the juntero officers’ support for banning all independent representative organizations in the Army, while transforming the officer juntas into advisory commissions. The commissions continued to flex their muscle, however, obtaining the dismissal from the Army of 23 captains who, upon graduation from the staff college, refused to renounce the speedier promotions that their general staff commissions could offer them.17

It was the government’s uncharacteristically strong reaction to the new disaster that Moroccan rebel commander Abd-el-Krim inflicted on the Spanish Army in July 1921 at Annual that led to its overthrow by General Miguel Primo de Rivera two years later. The disastrous 1921 campaign, which cost the lives of some 8,000 Spanish soldiers, was the responsibility of General Manuel Fernández Silvestre, who spread his troops across a series of mutually unsupportable posts as he approached Abd-el-Krim’s stronghold and then found he had woefully underestimated his opponent’s strength. As in 1899, the Cortes reacted by conducting an inquiry into military responsibility for the debacle, only this time Silvestre was already dead, the victim of his own revolver.

As the factions in the Cortes jostled over the political implications of the responsibilities issue and the future use of Spanish force in Morocco, a number of generals, fearful of a Spanish withdrawal from North Africa, plotted a military take-over. The government’s weak response to previous Junta threats could not have deterred them. The captain general of Barcelona, Lt. Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, agreed to lead the movement, but his August 1923 pronunciamiento drew so little support within the Army that it probably would have failed had it not been supported by King Alfonso XIII. As dictator, Primo first withdrew Spanish troops from exposed positions in Morocco and then focused on training them. He also expanded the Tercio to seven battalions, while upgrading its equipment. When Abd-el-Krim attacked weakly garrisoned French Morocco in April 1925, hoping for Soviet and French Communist assistance, the French and Spanish governments coordinated their operational plans. The French sent General Henri Pétain to Morocco. In September Primo de Rivera landed with 10,000 men at the Bay of Alhucemas, and he took Abd-el-Krim’s base at Axdir on October 2. The Berber leader surrendered to the French in May 1926.18

The Spanish Army which had now finally pacified northern Morocco was a much more professional force than the one which had lost Spain’s overseas territories in 1898. It also enjoyed a much more confident self-image. As the Army subsequently observed the decline and fall of both Primo de Rivera’s regime and the restored monarchy and as it survived the violent swings that marked the political life of the second republic, its leaders concluded that civilian leaders, be they monarchist or republican, were incapable of governing Spain effectively. Career soldiers, particularly the veterans of Spain’s Moroccan garrisons, saw their units as the bulwark of the nation. When the Popular Front government elected in 1936 began seriously to threaten the institutional gains which the Spanish Army had made in the decades since 1898, the military leaders attempted to rally their troops to overthrow the republic. Led by the forces still in Morocco and by generals who had gained their critical military experience there, the Army, with significant assistance from Germany and Italy, defeated the levies raised by the republic in a brutal three-year civil war. This time the army unified behind the leadership of General Franco and did not return power to civilian leadership until after his death in 1975.19 By 1936 Spanish Army leaders had some reason to conclude that they had reformed their institution more effectively than had civilian leaders solved the problems of governing Spain. The ironic result was that Spanish military leaders would rule Spain as dictators for nearly half of the period that the organizers of this conference have termed the American century.

Dr. Charles Hendricks is a historian in the Field and International Branch of the U.S. Army Center of Military History and editor of the Center’s quarterly bulletin, Army History.


1. Julio Busquets, El Militar de Carrera en España, 2d ed. (Barcelona: Ediciones Ariel, 1971), pp. 55–64; Stanley G. Payne, Politics and the Military in Modern Spain (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967), pp. 17–32.

2. Carolyn P. Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), pp. 3–8; Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 50–54.

3. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 47–48, 79–80.

4. Sebastian Balfour, The End of the Spanish Empire, 1898–1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 13–25.

5. Balfour, End of the Spanish Empire, pp. 25–33; Manuel Díez-Alegría, "La espléndida guerrita de los americanos," Revue Internationale d'Histoire Militaire, no. 56 (Madrid, 1984), pp. 27–30.

6. David Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 201–46; Díez-Alegría, "La espléndida guerrita," pp. 29–30. Díez-Alegría gives somewhat higher casualty figures for both sides—654 for the Spanish and 1,767 for the Americans.

7. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 74–75 and 83–87; Balfour, End of the Spanish Empire, pp. 49–73.

8. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 87–88.

9. Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 27–28; Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 97–99.

10. Joaquín Romero-Maura, The Spanish Army and Catalonia: The "Cu-Cut! Incident" and the Law of Jurisdictions, 1905–1906, Sage Research Papers in the Social Sciences No. 5 (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1976), with the quotations on pages 16–17.

11. Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 14–16.

12. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 102–05; Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 23–24.

13. Joan Connelly Ullman, The Tragic Week: A Study of Anticlericalism in Spain, 1875–1912 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 132–98, with the quoted words on p. 136.

14. Ullman, The Tragic Week, pp. 198–282; Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 108–12.

15. Busquets, El Militar de Carrera, p. 140.

16. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 112–22, 152–57; Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 160–74.

17. Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 44–147; Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 123–50, 223.

18. Boyd, Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain, pp. 175–276; Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 152–221.

19. Payne, Politics and the Military, pp. 224–449.


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