A weekend break in the nearby Spanish enclave of Ceuta (one of two Spanish territories remaining in North Africa; Melilla is much further east, near the Algerian border). A chance to visit the Museum of the Spanish Foreign Legion – itself a lesson for those who may have thought that France had a monopoly on the Foreign Legion brand.
Built into the coastal fortifications of this ancient city, the Legion Museum is a paean to the martial spirit that has ruled the Legion since its inception. In 1920, Spain was embroiled in the very costly Rif War in its northern Moroccan Protectorate, and the Legión was originally modeled on its French counterpart, though most of its recruits were in fact Spanish.
Though it is not per se a Franco museum, the Generalissimo himself is frequently portrayed, as he rose to fame during the Rif War of the 1920s and was one of the Legion's first commanders. The charcoal portraits of fallen Legionnaires from battles like Annual and Chaouen give way to those of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when General Franco launched his counter-Republican military campaign from Spanish Morocco, at the head of the Foreign Legion.
Here I'll inject the learned comment of Shannon Fleming, who has written in scholarly journals of Spanish Morocco and the Civil War:
A couple of comments concerning this interesting essay. First, I am not sure there would have been portraits of fallen legionnaires from the actual Annual debacle of July 21-22 1921 as the two banderas of the Legion did not arrive in Melilla from Ceuta until July 24th. Second, Franco actually launched his campaign from Spanish Morocco at the head of the "Army of Africa" which included not only Legion units but also regular Spanish units and units of "regulares" or indigenous Moroccan troops. Once Franco left Spanish Morocco in August 1936 for the peninsula he was bascially in charge of the "Army of Africa" in the peninsula and by September 30, 1936 was proclaimed "Chief of State" and thus head of the entire Nationalist military effort.
Too bad visitors can't take photos inside, or I'd show you Mariano Bertuchi's take on Franco, gazing out over the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa, to a Spain presumably under the yoke of the atheistic Republic, with the Virgin Mary beckoning from the clouds. It's almost as if the museum was frozen in the time of Spain under Franco, which ended almost 4 decades ago.
Actually, Ceuta is perfect setting for the Legion Museum, as the theme of "la muerte" in Legion lore (in its motto, its hymns, its imagery) is ubiquitous. Ceuta's charming churches, once you're inside, are somewhat morbid repositories of the art of Catholic martyrdom, with plenty of "dolor" and "muerte" to inspire Legionnaires and all the other contingents of security forces who help keep Africa (especially African migrants) at bay. Along with the church bells, visitors are awakened to the sound of the bugle sounding reveille.
There's a piece of the Legión just beyond the border with Morocco, in what was the Spanish Protectorate until Morocco regained its independence in 1956. "Dar Riffien," the old Foreign Legion barracks, dominates an entire hillside a few kilometers south of Ceuta. Apparently turned over to the Moroccan military in 1961, it is sadly going the way of much of Morocco's colonial architecture. "Macmuseo" has a nice photo essay on the ruins.
Before you get to the present day exhibits on the Foreign Legion's UN peacekeeping deployments, there are other reminders – photos, flags, weapons – of the long goodbye (or shall we say adiós?) that Spain and its Legion said to its African territories. There was action in Ifni in the late 1950s, and of course in the Western Sahara as late as 1975 ("The Last Patrol"), both now absorbed into Morocco.
So, for students of Morocco's long struggle for independence and territorial integrity, a visit to this military museum is a must. We salute our fellow museum dedicated to history!