One of the horrifying novelties that World War I brought with it were poison gas attacks. The combatants tried to protect themselves from them with some masks that would soon form part of the scenes fixed in the collective imagination about that terrible conflict. These were substances such as phosgene, chloropicrin or, thicker and more persistent, the fearsome mustard gas, a blistering agent that was also called iperite since the Germans first introduced it in Ypres (Belgium).
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the manufacture and use of chemical weapons, a condemnation that was later reinforced by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Spain was one of the signatory countries to the agreements, but this did not prevent it from resorting to such means in Morocco during the interwar period, like the United Kingdom in various parts of the Middle East or Italy in Libya. And it is no coincidence that the colonial powers chose to inflict such punishment precisely on the peoples they considered "uncivilized."
The war to come loomed wilder than ever. Already in 1922, Fabián Vidal predicted from the pages of La Voz: "The future war will be a chemical and bacteriological war." However, these weapons had their supporters. Churchill himself had spoken in favour, assuring that he did not understand the "prissy" before the use of gases.
Thus, from very early on there was a moral debate and justifications that even adduced the greater or lesser degree of inhumanity that one technology or another entailed. Bagaría ironized about it in a cartoon from 1915 that featured two fallen conversing: one, suffocated by gases, complained of having died "barbarously", while the other expressed "the pleasure of dying civilly destroyed by a grenade".
The case of Spain was largely unknown until practically the threshold of the 21st century. The German journalists Rudibert Kunz and Rolf-Dieter Müller published a reference book in 1990, which inexplicably still has no translation into Spanish, and a few years later authors such as Rosa María de Madariaga or Sebastian Balfour wrote on the subject from unpublished sources.
Investigations in this regard, moreover, have been hampered by secrecy and the use of code names or euphemisms to refer to these weapons.
The use of toxic gases must be placed in the context after the Annual disaster, which occurred at the end of July 1921, with its auction at Monte Arruit at the beginning of August. The defeat fueled hatred and a desire for revenge among many politicians, soldiers, journalists, and sectors of public opinion.
Dámaso Berenguer, high commissioner in Morocco, clearly communicated his position to the Minister of War in a telegram dated August 12, 1921: "I was always refractory to the use of asphyxiating gases against these indigenous people, but after what they have done , and their treacherous and deceitful conduct, I must use them with true fruition”.
Even so, there had been prior interest, expressed even by Alfonso XIII, who already in 1918 had requested information from the German authorities. And in 1919 the government tried to get those kinds of bombs from France. It was also thought that with them the conflict could be settled quickly and that Spanish casualties would decrease.
Since 1921, Spain redoubled its efforts to provide itself with these new weapons. Initially, various materials were imported from France and assembled in a workshop in Melilla with the advice of French experts. And Abd-el-Krim was aware of some operations, judging by the letters that Shayd Haddu ben Hammu addressed to him. He would have been dealing with substances like phosgene or chloropicrin, but not mustard gas.
For the availability of the latter, the German chemical businessman Hugo Stoltzenberg was key, who held a secret meeting with President Antonio Maura in November, before, already in June 1922, a contract was signed that provided for the construction of a factory in La Marañosa, south of Madrid – to which Balfour adds the creation of more workshops in different parts of the country. Until it was operational, the bombs were to be supplied from Germany by sea.
Those who succeeded Berenguer in the position of high commissioner showed the same position towards toxic weapons. General Burguete authorized its use in September 1922 and, the following year, Luis Silvela made exorbitant requests to the Government, for up to 50,000 mustard gas bombs, a figure that was never possible to satisfy, but which, as a simple wish, is illustrative. .
In any case, the effective availability of the necessary means and knowledge was considerably delayed. Still in October 1921, the monarch himself regretted that it had not been possible to send planes "to bring desolation to the Riffian countryside with gases." The first aerial bombardments with toxic agents appear to date from July 1923. However, apart from the use of tear gas and others, the first attack with mustard gas from an airplane did not take place until June 1924.
The largest yperite bombs, called C1, weighed 50 kilos, and there were days when more than a hundred were dropped; the C2, smaller, contained 10 kilos; and the C5, 20 kilos. German sources estimated a production of 400 tons of this substance between 1923 and 1925 alone, without counting what was brought from abroad.
The strategy in certain areas consisted of ordering localized withdrawals in areas that were then subject to the attack with toxic gases. At first, greater effectiveness was sought with low-altitude flights, but this tactic led to the loss of many aircraft and pilots, so it was soon abandoned.
In September 1925, for the landing at Al Hoceima, gas was also launched –type C5 yperite bombs–, but in inland towns, in order not to expose the Spanish troops. Then, between 1926 and 1927, the frequency of the bombardments decreased and was limited to specific objectives, to subdue the foci that offered the most resistance to the Spanish occupation.
For his part, Abd-el-Krim tried to obtain such weapons to counterattack the Spanish, but his contacts were unsuccessful. His guerrillas collected bombs that had not exploded to try to reuse them, and it seems that the Riffian chief offered up to two pesetas for each one. Failing that, according to Balfour, they handcrafted other projectiles that they filled with chili powder.
The Spanish soldiers were not unscathed either, hence their misgivings about using these weapons without proper protection. Both the risk embodied the change in the direction of the wind and the reoccupation of areas where the poison had not completely dissipated, which could last up to two or three weeks.
Spain had acquired masks, but not everyone had access to them, so there were many affected. And the same thing happened to those who worked in the Melilla workshops where the bombs were assembled, since it is clear that in just eight months around a hundred were injured. Ramón J. Sender, who participated in the war, projected his experience in his first novel, Imán, published in 1930.
If the international treaties of the time already prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare, that is, between combatants, their deliberate use against the civilian population of the Kabyles and the local economy must have been more reprehensible. It should not be forgotten that these substances also polluted the land and water tanks.
In May 1924, the Melilla Command ordered the “bombardment and destruction [of] livestock and crops.” However, the attacks were also directed against towns, souks and markets. In this sense, another dispatch from March 1925 that clearly expressed the objectives is revealing: “There is a good chance that on a Wednesday when the weather is good, many people will confidently go to that Souk and it will be an opportunity to cause them harm and to punish them very harshly.” ”.
The markets began to be held at night, but this did not prevent night air operations, which also reinforced the effectiveness of the gases due to the low temperatures.
It is very difficult to quantify the damage – beyond doubt, on the other hand – that women, children, the elderly and other civilian men suffered, including the expected psychological consequences. Needless to say, not everyone could take refuge in caves.
The toxic gases produced burns and blisters on the skin, damage to the eyes, cardiovascular disorders and, when inhaled, digestive and respiratory lesions of various kinds, apart from possible long-term carcinogenic effects. If the concentration and exposure time were high, the consequences could be lethal.
In a famous letter that he addressed to the League of Nations, Abd-el-Krim denounced that Spain used "prohibited weapons", and that body also received other complaints in the same vein, apparently without major consequences. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the media have talked more about this dark facet of the Moroccan war, without Spain having officially and publicly assumed any responsibility to date.