War with Spain - Charles Morris

The Forts and the Trochas

The account of the leading events of the insurrection given in the preceding chapter is but half the story. The methods of conducting the war by the Spaniards were there little more than hinted at, it being deemed advisable to reserve them for a more detailed separate description. This it is proposed to give in the present chapter. Why it is that an army of more than two hundred thousand regulars, with a contingent force of some sixty thousand volunteers, could be held at bay for three years by a body of insurgents certainly never numbering over fifty thousand, and most of the time, in all probability, far below that number, and this in an island of comparatively small dimensions, is a mystery which has sorely puzzled the lookers-on. It seems evident that there has been something radically wrong in the conduct of the war by its three successive generals, for such strenuous efforts on the part of Spain to yield such meagre results. A consideration of the mode in which the war was conducted may serve to make more apparent the cause of Spain's signal failure.

Certainly, no very decisive result can ever be looked for from guerrilla warfare. As a defensive expedient, adopted to protract a combat, it has its uses, and the Cubans, with their inferior forces, were wise in employing it. They had no hope of mastering Spain in the field, but entertained a reasonable expectation of wearing her out in the bush, and of forcing her at length to retire from the contest through sheer lack of money and men. These hardy bush-rangers preferred to let disease do its work on the unacclimated lives of Spain and save their small supply of cartridges for sheer necessity. The yellow fever could be trusted as a more effective ally of their cause than the Mauser rifle.

But why the Spanish commanders adopted the same mode of warfare is difficult of comprehension, unless it be that this is the intuitive Spanish idea of war. In the early years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic contests, the Spanish forces conducted war in the guerrilla method. In its closing years they adopted the same method in their contest with the Cuban insurrectionists. In all their wars of the century, in fact, the guerrilla system seems to have held predominance; and it may be that Spain's loss of all her American colonies was due to a lack of breadth, boldness, and energy of movement in dealing with the rebel forces. The Spanish soldier does not want in courage, but the Spanish commander seems sadly lacking in military genius.

With a quarter of a million of men at their command, Campos or Weyler should, one would think, have been able to construct a network of military roads from end to end of the island with no more effort than was expended in building forts and trochas. And with such facilities provided for rapid movements in force they should certainly have succeeded in keeping the small bodies of insurgents in check and in penetrating all their lurking-places. It is easy, of course, for civilian generals to win battles on paper, and the easier the less they are familiar with the facts of the situation; yet it may be taken as beyond question that if the Spanish troops had been replaced by an American, British, German, or French army, with almost anyone of the skilled commanders now in those armies, the mode of campaigning and the result would have been far different from those which Spain has to show.

The trocha and the fort, trusted to by Spain as her principal means of success, seem to have been her principal causes of failure. An account of these expedients, upon which so much dependence was placed, comes next in course. The trocha is simply a passage-way made across a country without regard to its topography or its other roads. The word trocha means trench, and sustains this meaning in some of the military lines constructed in Cuba, though not in all. The idea of the trocha was first conceived in the insurrection of 1868-78 as a military cordon across the island, with detached forts at short intervals, its purpose being to hem in the insurrectionists and confine them to a limited region of the island, —a purpose in which it signally failed.

This original trocha crossed the island between the provinces of Puerto Principe and Santa Clara, the distance across at this point being less than fifty miles and the country elevated but little above sea-level, the mountains here sinking into the plain. The flanks of this military line rested in the tangled mangrove swamps of the coast. The forts were garrisoned, and small detachments of troops occupied the spaces between; but the device proved of little value, Gomez, as if in derision, crossing it with his wife and servants.

Campos no sooner took command in 1895 than he revived the idea of confining his foes by a trocha, constructing it across the same region as before, fifty thousand men being employed in the task. It was barely finished when Gomez crossed it at Sancti Spiritus and carried the war into Santa Clara. Maceo followed him, as already stated, by means of a feigned attack, and Campos, thinking his trocha too far from the capital, built a second, this extending between Las Cruces and Las Lajas and skirting the great salt marsh of Zapata. It proved as ineffectual as the former, and Campos found it expedient to continue his retreat, defending his rear by a third trocha, which crossed the island between Matanzas and La Broa Bay, a distance of only twenty-eight miles.. This line bad a new means of defence, it being traversed by the railroad from Havana to Batabano, on whose tracks were placed a series of perambulatory forts in the form of freight-cars plated with boiler iron and pierced with loop-holes for rifles. All the railroads were provided with similar cars, which were sent with all passenger trains and kept in motion night and day. But Gomez and Maceo showed their appreciation of the Spanish general's device by crossing the "iron dead-line" , with all their forces without firing a shot. Then they rode back and tore up some three miles of the railroad track, "Just to let the Spaniards know," said Gomez, "that we have noticed their toy."

Weyler, on coming into power, accepted the idea of the trocha as a valuable inheritance from his predecessor. and soon after reaching the island set his men to constructing one to the westward of Havana, with the expectation of shutting up Maceo in Pinar del Rio. This extended from Mariel, about twenty-five miles from the capital, to Majana, on the southern coast, a distance of about twenty miles. He also made one on the old line between Jucaro and Moron, in the western part of the province of Puerto Principe.

The trocha upon which Weyler depended to cut the rebel army in two and shut up Maceo effectually in Pinar del Rio can be described in a few words. In constructing this military line the forest and dense underbrush were cut down through a width of from one hundred to eight hundred yards. Along this passage-way a barbed-wire fence nearly four feet high was erected, behind which the sentinels were posted. Forty yards back of it was a trench three feet wide and four feet deep, with a breastwork of palmetto logs. Fifty yards farther back were the log houses which served as quarters for the troops. These were built at intervals of from five hundred to eight hundred yards, being constructed of logs with dressed lumber on the outside. A narrow opening ran round the fort to permit firing, and near the top was an opening three feet wide to admit the air. Each fort had a garrison of about one hundred men, the whole line being guarded by about fifteen thousand soldiers. A platform of palm-boards, eight feet wide, was built where the line penetrated the swamp, the huts being there erected on piles. The soldiers never left the forts or platform to explore the swamp, but fired upon every person they saw near the line, taking it for granted that all intruders were enemies. It was through the swamp that the insurgents usually passed the line. Maceo made the passage that led to his death by aid of a boat.

The trocha from Jucaro to Moron presented some differences, the ditch being absent. The cleared space through the tropical forest was here some fifty miles long and about two hundred yards wide, the felled trees being piled up along the two sides of the roadway in parallel rows to a height of six feet or more. No man could cross this breastwork of jagged roots and branches without difficulty, and no horse could make its way across. A military railroad extended the whole length of the cleared space, on one side of which was the line of forts, and beyond this the barbed-wire fence. On the two sides were the barriers of fallen trees, with the jungle beyond.

There were three kinds and sizes of forts along the trocha, —large ones half a mile apart, smaller blockhouses midway between these, and in each of the quarter-mile intervals three little forts of mud and planks, each surrounded by a ditch and holding five men. The barbed wire was closely interlaced, there being over four hundred yards of wire to every twelve yards of posts. Entrance to the larger forts was obtainable only by the aid of ladders, which could be raised from the inside; and there was provided an overhanging story with loop-holes through which the defenders could fire down upon a foe below. The Spaniards also distributed bombs along the trocha, each with an explosive cap to which five or six wires were attached, so that they might be exploded by anyone striking a wire. This was a device that seemed likely to prove as dangerous to the defenders as to their enemies.

As to the utility of the trochas, Consul-General Lee tells us that they cost a large amount of money and were in the end practically abandoned as useless. They had the serious defect of absorbing a large force of men for their defence, to this extent diminishing the effective Spanish army.

A second Spanish military measure, the fort (aside from those along the trochas), added seriously to the depletion of the force effective for field duty. In the words of Richard Harding Davis, the Spaniards, as soon as the revolution broke out, "began to build tiny forts, and continued to add to these and improve those already built, until now the whole island, which is eight hundred miles long and averages eighty miles in width. is studded as thickly with these little forts as is the sole of a brogan with iron nails. . . . These forts now stretch allover the island, some in straight lines, some in circles, and some zigzagging from hill-top to hill-top; some within a quarter of a mile of the next, and others so near that the sentries can toss a cartridge from one to the other."

Within these forts and the fortified towns and cities the Spaniards held absolute possession. Outside them—that is, in all the rest of the country—the Cubans were masters of the situation, not in fixed possession, but able to make it uncomfortable for any intruders on their domain. The towns were surrounded by successive circles of forts, with detached ones farther out, no person being allowed to leave a town without a pass, or to enter one without giving a satisfactory account of himself. Anyone venturing outside the circle without authority rendered himself a rebel, and was likely soon to be made "food for powder."

In all, Cuba possessed two thousand or more such forts, structures impervious to rifle-shots and loop-holed for service. They stood upon every commanding place and formed a feature in the landscape hardly second to the royal palm, that dominating characteristic of Cuban scenery. With the long range of their rifles the Spanish soldiery could command a wide each of territory from these strongholds, but they were such wretched marksmen that the insurgents had little fear in venturing close up. The marksmanship on either side, indeed, had little to boast of.

It will be seen that the Spaniards were specially active in defensive measures. These were well enough in themselves, but of little value in suppressing an insurrection unless supplemented by active offensive operations. From their forts one would think it should have been their policy to follow the enemy and give him battle wherever found, but this is an idea that does not seem to have deeply penetrated the Spanish cerebrum. Bodies of guerrillas and columns of troops left the forts often enough, but they seemed to regard it as their duty to fall back upon their strongholds every night. If they encountered a body of the enemy, a fusillade would follow; but to pursue a flying enemy did not form a part of their policy, and instead of encamping on the ground and following the retreating foe the next day, they invariably retreated after the battle to the shelter of a neighboring town or circle of forts. Their excuse for this was that they were afraid of being decoyed into an ambush, or that they could not forsake their wounded to pursue the enemy. A force of as many as a thousand soldiers might carry back a few wounded men, making this their sole pretense for a return.

In truth, there is good reason to believe that the Spanish officers were not eager to end the rebellion, and that much of the failure of Campos and Weyler was due to the character of the tools they had to handle. The officers preferred to have the war go on, as they received double pay while on foreign service, while promotion was much more rapid than in times of peace. Orders and crosses are also freely distributed, often for small service. They seem to have emulated the civil officials in forcing loans or fees from planters and others, and are believed to have kept for themselves a large part of the pay of their men. The government suffered from their peculations, it being a common practice to report a considerable consumption of rations and expenditure of• cartridges "in service," when perhaps only a few huts had been burned and the command had come back in time for dinner. The officers played constantly into one another's hands in thus hoodwinking the government. Such is the strange Spanish sense of honor. A soldier may be quite ready to die for his country, but is quite as ready to rob it.

In illustration of the character of the officers' reports, some extracts from war-bulletins may be of interest. Here is a typical Spanish story:

"The Guadalajara battalion, while marching to San Miguel, met a party of six hundred rebels, commanded by Aguirre and Morejon. A fierce fight ensued, resulting, it is said, in the rebels being so thoroughly beaten that they fled demoralized from the field. The rebel loss was stated to have been sixty, including fourteen killed. The Spanish troops were reported to have lost one officer and three soldiers wounded. "

The Cubans tell this story with a difference:

"The affair was similar to others in which 'Pacificos,' or peaceful citizens, have been killed by Spanish troops. Fourteen of the dead are said to have been employees on estates, and not insurgents. On the Spanish side none were killed and only three wounded, while the Cuban dead exceeded thirty."

Numerous examples of this kind might be quoted in which the discrepancy of losses was so great as to become ridiculous. It was easier to lie than to fight. We quote again:

"Colonel Hernandez reports having a fight with the rebel bands of Masso and Acea near San Felipe. The enemy occupied strong positions, but were attacked with great vigor by the troops, and finally fled, leaving seven dead upon the field The troops had five men wounded."

"Colonel Moncado reports having had several engagements with rebel bands near Cienfuegos, in which the enemy had four men killed and seventy wounded, and the Spanish troops had five wounded."

"The official report of the fight on the Fermina ranch, near Jovellanos, states that the rebels lost eight killed; the troops lost seven wounded. The Spaniards pursued the rebels and in skirmishes killed eighteen, without loss to themselves. "

These preposterous stories were probably not told through sheer love of lying and trust in human gullibility. The officers probably had another object in view in reporting so few of their troops killed, that of keeping the names of the dead on the payrolls and pocketing their pay. Such is said to have been one of the methods in which those who were chiefly responsible for protracting the war managed to make it profitable to themselves.