“The onlooker,” in the words of the English sportsman’s adage, “sees most of the game.” As a minor player in the defense of Madrid in November 1936 (a twenty-one-year-old member of the machine gun company of the Bataillon Commune de Paris, XIth International Brigade) I was at the time sublimely ignorant of most of the events described and discussed in two of the books under review.
Kurzman’s book traces the march of the Nationalist troops from Seville to Madrid and the “miracle” which occurred in early November, when, deserted by their government and written off as lost by the foreign press corps, the Madrileños stopped dead in its tracks the Franco spearhead of Foreign Legionnaires and Moroccans who were already inside the western suburbs of the city. The military and political developments of those feverish five months (July to November) are presented in a continuous narrative based on a wide and balanced selection of accounts written some at the time, some later, by the participants themselves. Bolloten’s Spanish Revolution covers the whole course of the three-year war, but its scope, as its subtitle indicates, is more limited; it is concerned with the politics of the war and in particular the Spanish Communist Party’s relentless progress from an initial position of insignificance (40,000 members before the war) to a membership of a quarter of a million and total control of the civil and military machinery of the Republic.
Bolloten’s book is a monument of historical scholarship. He was a correspondent in Spain during the war and has spent the rest of his life trying to understand what he saw there; from 1962 to 1965 he was director of research in the subject at Stanford and a large part of his unrivaled collection of source material is now deposited at the Hoover Institute. His footnotes demonstrate an awesome mastery of sources in all the languages of Europe (including Russian); the notes and bibliography alone (over 100 large pages of small print) make his work an indispensable tool for any further research on the subject and a superb analytical index will make such work easy.
The book is “a vast revision and expansion” of an earlier version (1961) which was entitled The Grand Camouflage. Its thesis, extended and buttressed by new evidence in the present edition, was that the popular reaction to the military uprising of July 1936 was in effect a spontaneous social revolution which left industry in the hands of the unions and the land in possession of the peasants. (It was soon to be collectivized under the leadership of the anarchist party and unions, the FAI and CNT, who were the real organizers of the revolution as they were of most of the undisciplined militia columns which constituted the popular army.) The “camouflage” of Bolloten’s title was the propaganda campaign of the Communist Party which attempted to convince the Western democracies that this revolution had not in fact taken place. This propaganda was paralleled by action which gradually at first and then with almost complete success reversed the course of the social revolution in order to win the support of the Spanish middle classes and also to create a professional disciplined army.
This was a controversial thesis when the first edition was published; it seems now, with the solid documentation this revised and expanded version offers, to be firmly established. Bolloten re-creates with brilliantly chosen quotations, precise references, and judicial impartiality the stages of the long political struggle through which the Spanish Communists, backed by the prestige of Russian aid (and saddled with the accompanying Russian “advisers”) imposed their priorities on the governments of Azaña, Caballero, and Negrin, and hammered the undisciplined militia columns into a regular army. In the final stage, the Communists reduced to political impotence their stronger opponents, the Socialists and Anarchists, and liquidated the weaker Trotskyite POUM in a Barcelona street battle which George Orwell, a soldier in a POUM militia column, described in his brilliant Homage to Catalonia.
It is a grim and occasionally sordid story, all the more depressing because in this book, so intent on the politics of the war, the repressive tactics of the Communist Party and the activities of the Stalinist secret police are not adequately balanced by an account of what was achieved at the fronts: the heroic record of the new Republican army at Brunete, at Teruel, and on the Ebro. Nevertheless, in its chosen sphere, the book is a landmark. As Raymond Carr says in his foreword, it is “a mine that will be worked over by subsequent historians.”
No one can now question the truth of Bolloten’s reconstruction of the facts but there is one vital question that he does not address: what alternative was there? The social revolution may have been (for some people) Paradise Now, but it was a fools’ paradise; without an efficient army its days were numbered. The people who had made it proved incapable of fighting the kind of war Franco was waging against them. Anarchist columns, operating under what they called “libertarian discipline,” had shown almost superhuman courage in the fight against the military revolt in Barcelona but facing experienced troops in the field they were soon outmaneuvered and outflanked, whereupon they ran like rabbits; and the columns of the Socialist Party did not do much better.
The Communists owed their prodigious growth in membership and influence to the simple fact that they had (for the moment) only one objective: to create an army that could win the war. And in their formation and training of the Fifth Regiment (not a “column”) they showed how it could be done. It was obvious to anyone not blinded by anarchist illusions or blinkered by the traditional socialist distrust of militarism that they were right. And this is the real reason why people as unlikely as the lifelong Socialist Alvarez Del Vayo, the aristocrat Constancia de la Mora, and the ultra-conservative General Miaja joined their party—why they became, as Bolloten so clearly shows, the party of the middle classes.
But a Republican army, no matter how efficient, could only buy time; it could not win the war. Franco’s revolt had from the beginning depended on German and Italian help; the volume of deliveries soared as the months went by. The Nazi Condor Legion (mostly air force and technical experts) had 14,000 veterans at its victory parade in Berlin in May 1939 and the Italian forces, mainly infantry, numbered 50,000 by mid-1937. The Italian tanks, guns, and planes were more remarkable for their quantity than for their quality; not so the German materiel—the Stuka divebomber and the 88 mm. cannon, later to be the GI’s nightmare in Italy and France, both had their trial runs in Spain. Russian supplies, coming by sea from Black Sea ports, could not counter this vast intervention; the republic could not hope to win the war unless France and England came to its help.
It was the firm conviction of the Spanish Communists and liberals (and the hope of Joseph Stalin) that the Western powers would finally draw the line against Fascist aggression somewhere in Europe, a move which would almost automatically bring them in behind the Spanish Republic. When the Czech situation came to crisis point in summer 1938, Juan Negrin, who had become premier in May 1937, was convinced that the Republic was saved. He could not have imagined that Chamberlain would coldbloodedly sell the Czechs down the river, still less that as late as July 1939 Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s closest collaborator, would try to sell the Poles down the river, too. This offer, however, came too late; Hitler had already arranged to settle Poland’s hash in a deal with Stalin. The Communist Party’s policy (which was of course that of its Russian “advisers”) turned out to be based on an illusion. But there was no alternative; all the Republic could do was to win time and hope. And without the creation of an efficient army there would have been no time at all.
Apart from the regiments created by the Communists, the Republican forces consisted of “columns” of varying strength and political persuasions, but most of them were anarchist formations. In Bolloten’s book, as in the recent oral history of the Spanish revolution, Blood of Spain,1 the anarchists are treated with great sympathy and respect. They deserve the sympathy in the light of what happened to them at the hands of the Communists; but as defenders of the Republic in the field they were somewhat less than satisfactory. To say that anarchist columns were not an effective combat force is an understatement; they were capable at times of almost insane bravery and much given to dramatic gestures, but they could not be relied on. Nobody in Madrid felt easy with an anarchist formation on his flank.
Their gestures, though, could be endearing. The ship which took the first elements of what was to become the XIth Brigade out of Marseille in early October 1936 sailed without lights by night and came into Alicante harbor in the morning without a flag. A destroyer detached itself from the Royal Navy squadron which was presumably there to enforce the Non-Intervention agreement and deny arms to Spain (only to the Republicans, of course). On the destroyer’s bridge a signal light winked on and off frenetically; “They’re telling us to show our colors,” said one of our small English group, an ex-sailor. Our ship took no notice and the destroyer came round again; this time she fired a shot across our bows. From below our decks three heavily bearded men emerged with a flag; they ran it up and as it broke we saw that it consisted of two triangles, one jet black and the other a blazing red. We had never seen it before and neither had the British Navy; the destroyer captain must have searched his identification manual in vain, for it was the flag of the FAI, the Federacion Anarquista Iberica.
Later, at Madrid, I saw something of the best troops the anarchists could field, the column which Buenaventura Durruti had brought from Catalonia. He was the one anarchist commander who realized that libertarian discipline was a recipe for military suicide; he offered instead the slogan “the discipline of indiscipline” and a rudimentary chain of command. These troops, in late November, were in one of the University buildings across from our own position in Filosofia y Letras and I once had to work my way over to them via a shallow trench in order to discuss passwords and patrol routes for the night—the only time supplies could come up or patrols move in the crazy-quilt pattern of the University front. Once inside the building and identified as an Internacional I was treated to a riotous welcome. Plied with cigars, chorizo sausages (moldy green on the outside as usual), and wine (drunk Spanish fashion, head back, the bottle tilted at exactly the right angle 18 inches above the wide-open mouth), I was peppered with questions about the Internationals (did we have officers?) and England (how strong were the English anarchists?).
They refused to believe that there was in fact no English anarchist party, but accepted my later (and rather lame) explanation that it must have gone underground after its leader Peter the Painter (Pedro el Pintero sounded very authentic) had been killed by Winston Churchill ill in the Siege of Sydney Street (I did not of course tell them that this had happened in 1910). They taught me how to shout their slogan—“Viva la CNT, viva la FAI“—and I was sent off with many hearty slaps on the back. Needless to say, the passwords we had arranged were quickly forgotten and they fired on our supply columns that night; luckily they were not noted for their marksmanship.
But the anarchists were not always so amusing. On November 17, Durruti’s men gave way before a determined Franco assault and left a gap in the line, perilously close to the heart of Madrid; the buildings they had lost had to be retaken by the Internationals, room by room, at terrible expense. And when Durruti led them back into the line he was shot dead and the column disintegrated. Most of his men went back to Catalonia to join the anarchists’ columns which sat almost inactive on the long Aragon front month after month while Franco, at his leisure, made three more unsuccessful assaults on Madrid and then turned north to overrun the Basques in the spring of 1937. But some of Durruti’s men went to Madrid to act as self-appointed police, hunting for fifth columnists and spies.
It was in that capacity that I met them again. Convalescing from a wound in the brigade hospital (it was, of all places, the majestic Hotel Palace) I was invited to share a bottle of Scotch (a rare item in Madrid) with some fellow Englishmen, Claud Cockburn the journalist and J.B.S. Haldane the scientist among them. Late at night I walked back to the Palace, through the blacked-out streets, the town silent under the monotonous drone of bombers overhead. As I turned a corner, I was suddenly pushed against the wall and felt the muzzle of a weapon pressed agonizingly hard into my belly. Opposite my eyes was a bearded dark face, the mouth smelling of garlic, sour wine, and harsh Spanish tobacco. The mouth opened and said one word: “¡Diga!” (Speak!) Luckily I knew what to say and said it very loud and clear: “Viva la CNT, viva la FAI.” The pressure on my navel was released and the mouth kissed me on the cheek as its owner and his companions slapped me on the shoulders and hailed me as a compañero. They escorted me home. As we parted I asked Garlic-mouth: “What would you have done if I had said ‘Viva la Republica‘?” He burst out laughing. “I’d have pulled the trigger, hombre. That’s what the Fascists say.”
Madrid in the winter of 1936-1937 was a remarkable place. The word epic has often been used of the events of that time but there was also a surrealist quality to it; I have often thought since that Luis Buñuel, if he had been there, would have felt quite at home. Just down the road from the front line the cafés of the Granvia were serving coffee and pasteles, those incredibly sweet pastries the Madrileños are so fond of; the subway was running and so were the streetcars. “You can take a streetcar to the front line,” the Madrileños never tired of telling us, “but don’t take the Metro, you might come up on the wrong side.” This may well have happened in the first few days of the battle; it was some time, for instance, before the Republicans cut the telephone connections between the city and the enemy-occupied suburbs, Carabanchel and Usera. On the Puerta del Sol the bootblacks were still at their trade, dodging into doorways under an occasional shell or a burst of fifth column sniping; and ragged little men sidled up to the passers-by opening their jackets to give a glimpse of whatever contraband they were peddling. One of them once whispered to me, as he made the familiar gesture, “Strookey-laike,” and I went on, assuming it must be some Spanish brand of filthy postcard—until some days later we were issued a ration of cigarettes which came in a dark green package labeled Lucky Strike.
Haldane’s visit to Madrid was another instance of this bizarre blend of the practical and normal with the terrible and absurd. He had been sent for to give advice on protective measures against the possibility of gas attack. The Italians had used it in Abyssinia and it was feared that Franco might try to end the stalemate at Madrid by a whiff of chlorine, to break the Republican front. Over Claud Cockburn’s whiskey, Haldane outlined for us the problem and his solution.
The problem was: how to manufacture, in short order, enough gas masks for the thousands of troops on the front line in a city which had none of the necessary raw materials—no rubber, for example—no factories, and hardly any skilled labor. “The problem,” he announced, “must be rephrased in more practical and positive terms: how to make a working gas mask quickly and in quantity out of whatever materials are available in Madrid.” What, he asked us, is the one thing available in quantity and cheaply in Madrid. The answer—empty wine bottles. The problem therefore was really: to make a gas mask out of an empty wine bottle. Very simple. Stuff it with charcoal and bore a hole in the bottom; troops will hold it in their mouths and breathe through the filter. We sat in stunned silence for a while and then someone asked: “What about their noses?” Haldane had the answer ready: troops would be issued one wooden clothespin apiece to close the nostrils. It would probably have worked all right and the spectacle of soldiers breathing through a wine bottle with wooden clothespins on their noses would have been a perfect subject for one of Goya’s disturbing etchings, Los Caprichos.
Gas was never used, but after the failure of the initial thrust at the city, Franco gave his Luftwaffe pilots carte blanche to bomb Madrid into surrender; meanwhile the German batteries in the Casa de Campo fired high explosive shells into Madrid at any hour of the day or night. But the population, the first to be subjected to what history had in store for Rotterdam, London, and Hamburg, refused to be intimidated. “¡Madrid que bien resistes!” ran the song heard everywhere, “Madrid que bien resistes los bombardeos.” And how well they resisted! The small boys in the street played a game: holding hands in a circle they sang, to the tune of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf, “Quien tiene miedo de trimotor…?” “Who’s afraid of the trimotor…?” (the three-engined Italian Caproni bomber). At the end of the chant they would yell “Yo!” (I am) and run laughing in all directions pursued by the boy who had been designated “it,” who with extended arms and making ferocious noises played the part of the Italian bomber.
This is the Madrid Dan Kurzman undertakes to re-create in Miracle of November. “It reads like a novel,” says one of the dustcover blurbs; so it does—at times like a rather bad novel.
Then one day Guerrero put his hand on her shoulder and looked at her as if suddenly discovering her femininity.
Castro laughed inwardly….
The French commander…saw bearded turbaned soldiers racing towards his men from behind. He was dumbfounded. “Zut! This should not be!” he gasped.
It is not all this bad but the clichés of the instant novel factory are much too frequent. Some of them could perhaps be blamed on his raw material; the book is a scissors and paste product, combining material from books as diverse in origin and point of view as Janet Riesenfeld’s Dancer in Madrid, Barea’s Forging of a Rebel, Cipriano Mera’s Guerra, exilio y carcel de un anarcosindicalista, the Spanish version of Koltsov’s Russian War-Diary, and Constancia de la Mora’s In Place of Splendor. Kurzman interweaves material based on these and many other published accounts (verbatim, excerpted, paraphrased, summarized, and occasionally tarted up), to present a continuous narrative of the war up to late November through the actions, words, and feelings of over seventy separate characters; his own contribution comes from interviews with and letters from survivors and he adds some fairly superficial political comments.
For those who have no acquaintance with the literature on the subject his book may be of interest; stylistic blemishes aside, it is a fairly workmanlike job. But it is of no use to the historian; references to source materials are perfunctory (no page numbers for instance) and not keyed to particular passages—a striking contrast to the scrupulous procedures of Bolloten. And Kurzman’s book fails to give the reader a sense of the unique atmosphere of Madrid in November; the pervasive, blind fear of what Franco’s troops would do if they won, a fierce pride in the fact that for the first time the apparently irresistible advance of European Fascism had been stopped, and stopped by a miracle of military improvisation, the exhilarating feeling that if we could do this we could do anything—what Malraux in his novel L’Espoir called l’illusion lyrique—and the grim business of feeding men into the meatgrinder battle going on week after week in the Casa de Campo (the former royal park) and the University City. It is perhaps not really Kurzman’s fault; it would take a great writer to do it. Hemingway didn’t try; Robert Jordan’s Madrid is the Madrid of mid-1937—Gaylord’s hotel and the cynical witticisms of Karkov (Koltsov); Malraux’s section on Madrid, except for that perfect phrase, is one of the least impressive sections of L’Espoir.
But Kurzman has at least a good title; what happened in November was indeed a miracle, something for which no fully satisfactory explanation has ever been offered. In the opening days of the month the Republican forces, though bolstered now by newly arrived Russian tanks and numerically superior to the Franco spearheads, had been pushed back in disorder to the outskirts of the city; with them came the population of the villages, driven by fear of the Moors. On November 6 the government, headed by the Socialist Largo Caballero, left for Valencia, abandoning Madrid to its fate. (One of the more popular anarchist gestures was to arrest four of the ministers on their way and threaten to shoot them as deserters.)
Madrid was left in charge of a middle-aged, fat, bald-headed, owl-like general called Miaja; his orders clearly implied (though they did not explicitly say) that he was to surrender Madrid on the best terms possible. He seemed like the logical choice for the job; his military career had been, even by Spanish standards, undistinguished and furthermore his sympathies were thought, on good grounds, to be with the other side. He had been, before the war, a member of the Union Militar Española, a secret organization dedicated to “protecting Spain from the Communist tide,” which had Franco and Mola on its membership list; and he had expressed his conviction that a Franco victory was inevitable.
But Miaja surprised everyone. He turned to the Communists and their Fifth Regiment for support and in what must have been the most down-to-earth speech of a war that was fought to the sound of florid slogans told his hastily formed Defense Committee to be machos, that everyone not ready to die in Madrid should leave at once. On more than one occasion during the weeks to come, he went to the front lines and stopped a retreat by standing under fire and screaming: “Cowards! Die with your General Miaja!” at the astonished troops. What inspired him to play this unexpected role no one knows. It was probably just the characteristically furious Spanish reaction to the insult to his self-esteem he sensed in the part Caballero had cast him for.
However Miaja was only one man and the Fifth Regiment was only 60,000 men even at its peak in December. What saved Madrid from Yague’s spearheads on November 7 was the manning of the front in the western and northwestern sectors by the civilian population of Madrid and the militiamen who in their panic flight from Talavera had thrown away the rifles sent by Mexico, the Republic’s only disinterested ally. Summoned by their unions and political parties they went out, two and sometimes three men to one rifle, to face the Moors and the legionnaires of the tercio in the battered houses of suburban Carabanchel and the hastily dug trenches in the Casa de Campo. In Carabanchel the Moors were stopped; the same men who had been outflanked and routed all the way from Badajoz to Talavera and beyond were now fighting in the Madrid streets where they were at home and where the enemy’s capacity for disciplined maneuver was useless. And in the trenches, among the holmoak trees and gently undulating hills of the Casa de Campo, they fought Yague’s main thrust to a standstill.
The miracle here was the sudden change from demoralization to desperate courage. Once again, there is a partial if not fully satisfactory explanation to hand. These men were reacting to the sheer terror inspired by the Franco forces; surrender was simply unacceptable. They expected no quarter, in fact they thought that if they lost this battle those who were shot quickly would be the lucky ones. It is still a matter for dispute how many Republicans were machine-gunned in the bull-ring at Badajoz in August but the Madrileños believed the figure was in the thousands; they believed, too, that when the Franco forces took a town they shot anyone who had ever belonged to a union or a political party of the left or center, all Jews and Freemasons, and anyone with a bruised right shoulder (the tell-tale aftermath of firing a Spanish Mauser—it has a kick like a mule). They believed all this because it was mostly true and in any case they had all listened to the obscene ravings of General Queipo de Llano on Radio Sevilla, describing in lurid detail what his beloved Moors would do to the Reds first and their wives afterward. La Pasionaria sent the Madrileños to the front with the famous slogan, “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” But they had a grimmer slogan, unpronounced but ringing in their heads: “Better to die fighting than up against a wall or drenched in blazing gasoline.”
When I was wounded in front of Boadilla del Monte in mid-December 1936 I was helped over some rough patches on my way to the dressing station at Las Rozas, some seven kilometers away, by a teenage Spanish miliciano who was less badly hurt. At one point we heard automatic fire very close and from the wrong direction. My young friend pulled out an enormous Smith & Wesson pistol. “Don’t worry,” he said. “If the Moors come I’ll shoot you first and myself afterward.” The offer was perfectly serious and was gratefully accepted. I could not help thinking, in the slightly delirious way wounded men have, of the Tennyson poem we had learned by heart in school: Sir Richard Grenville’s dying words to his crew in an Elizabethan sea battle off the Azores—“Fall into the hands of God / not into the hands of Spain.” This universal fear of being taken alive was one of the constituents of the miraculous rebirth of morale in what seemed to be Madrid’s final hour; not for the last time in this century a policy of deliberate terror proved, to use the cliché of a later war, “counter-productive.”
One more contribution, not to the miracle of November 7 but to the fact that the fruits of that unexpected victory were not lost, was the arrival, on November 8, of the XIth International Brigade. The importance of the Brigades in the struggle for Madrid has been a controversial matter ever since; the Franco historians have naturally exaggerated it, the Republicans have played it down. Obviously the XIth Brigade did not “save” Madrid; the city had saved itself on the 7th, but the arrival of the XIth on the 8th and of the XIIth some three or four days later made an important and possibly decisive contribution to the continued success of the defense in the bloody weeks to come.
Accounts of the XIth Brigade’s role in the fighting are wildly contradictory and most of them riddled with factual error. Vincent Brome’s The International Brigades (1966) quotes an account of the Boadilla engagement which I wrote in 1937 and adds that John Cornford and Ralph Fox were killed in the course of it; John was actually killed some time later, on the Cordova front, far from Madrid, and Ralph Fox was never in the XIth Brigade at all. The two small English sections, one in the French battalion of the XIth, the other in the German battalion of the XIIth, are repeatedly assigned to the wrong formations (in Brome, for example, and even in the first 1961 edition of Hugh Thomas’s authoritative history of the war)2 and every account I have seen of the famous march of the XIth along the Granvia on the morning of November 8 is packed with purely mythical detail. Typical is the description in Robert Colodny’s otherwise carefully researched book. “Dressed in corduroy uniforms with blue berets, carrying rifles, steel helmets hanging from their belts…each section preceded by its officers, carrying swords and revolvers. Behind rolled a small convoy of trucks loaded with machine guns and ammunition. At the rear trotted two small squadrons of French cavalry.”3 Kurzman repeats most of this and has us actually “in steel helmets” and V.B. Johnston (Legions of Babel)4 specifies seven trucks.
I saw no cavalry on the Granvia; we had come during the night by slow train from Vallecas, east of Madrid, and there were no horses on that train. What would cavalry be doing inside Madrid anyway? And why French cavalry? Had they ridden all the way from France? As for the trucks, if there were any, I and my unfortunate companions in the machine gun company of the Commune de Paris battalion had been cheated of our rights; we were carrying on our sore shoulders the immensely heavy barrels, mounts, and ammunition of some obsolete French machine guns we had been issued the night before. The officers (who were in any case not officers but elected “responsables“) carried no swords and there was not a helmet in the whole battalion; I was still without a steel helmet when I was hit six weeks later. We had no corduroy uniforms; mine was the discarded dress uniform of a chasseur alpin, jet black with silver facings (which had to be ripped off before I went into action). The only correct item in these canonical descriptions of the march down the Granvia are the rifles and the berets, but they were black, not blue. Clio, the Muse of History, seems, on this occasion, to have been replaced by Calliope the epic Muse.5
Estimates of the numbers, equipment, and training of the brigade are also divergent and mostly mistaken. The three battalions of the XIth are credited with numbers ranging from 1,700 to 3,500; the likeliest figure is 1,900 but no one will ever know for certain, since the brigade went into action without records, without proper identification papers. The only statistic history agrees on is the butcher’s bill: more than 50 percent losses by November 23, when Franco called off the first offensive. The English section was typical; we were sixteen strong on November 8 and by December 31 eight were dead and three were badly wounded.
Our equipment was nothing to write home about; Kurzman’s “poorly armed” is a more accurate estimate than the armamento y equipo …de calidad y nuevos of Colonel Martínez Bande’s official history.6 Our rifles were ’03 Springfields, mostly of the 1914 vintage; on the packing cases from which we had extracted them just before leaving for Madrid we saw the stamps and labels which told of their odyssey from one trouble spot to another—the letters IRA prominent among them. The machine guns we carried on the march through Madrid were utterly useless; they had been identified the previous night by Grandpère (our oldest Frenchman) as the Saint Etienne gun which was quickly replaced in the opening weeks of the 1914 war. It was a contraption of startling complexity, activated by a spring mechanism which looked like a huge Swiss watch.
As we worked on these museum pieces, we had been interrupted by a general, who turned out to speak English. He said his name was Kléber and he promised us Lewis guns, the British light machine gun of the First World War. He was as good as his word; we had them twenty-four hours later. They were efficient weapons, though they had a remarkable number of stoppages; when they jammed, a complicated diagnostic process, not easily learned in training and harder to practice under fire, had to be gone through with deliberate care. Eventually, the Lewis guns were replaced by Russian water-cooled guns of the type we had seen in the movie Chapayev—basically a Vickers World War I model, but mounted on a wheeled metal carriage with a steel shield plate for the gunner. They had been designed to be pulled by horses but there were no horses in the Casa de Campo and we lugged their immense weight up and down through the leafless trees, cursing the day we had been born. But in action they proved their worth.
Apart from the weapons we had practically no equipment at all; some of us had a canteen, most of us a knife and all of us a blanket, usually of inferior material, rolled and slung over one shoulder and tied at the thigh with string. It was our only defense, a poor one, against the bitter cold of the Madrid plateau. We shivered and froze in the trenches until one night, withdrawn from the fighting in the Casa de Campo, we were quartered in a building which had evidently been, once upon a time, the royal stables. We were happy to sleep on straw but before we dozed off one of the French discovered a huge closet full of horse blankets. They were of the softest, warmest wool we had ever run our hands over and there were enough for all of us. They were the kind of blanket that is put on the horse after racing, with a hole for the tail at one end and a long hood with huge lined apertures for the eyes at the other. My last memory of the night is the sight of two drunk Frenchmen, their faces concealed in the drooping horse heads, playing stallion and mare for the benefit of the company—Los Caprichos again.
The cold was beyond anything we had expected to experience in what a huge bullet-ridden poster in one of the University buildings called Sunny Spain; at the dawn stand-to we had to avoid touching the metal parts of the guns—the frozen metal would latch on to the skin and rip it off. We learned, from the Spaniards, to wrap woolen scarves around out bellies next to the skin; we crammed on to our shivering limbs every stitch of clothing we possessed and all the shirts, socks, and sweaters we had brought or could acquire. It was not until thirty years later that I saw, in the Prado, Goya’s Winter panel, and recognized, in its padded, shivering, loaded peasants, hunched forward against the cold, the portrait of Madrid’s November soldiers. The cold was so intense that the canned Russian butter which was distributed in chunks with the morning drink of café con leche laced with brandy could be kept in one’s pocket and chewed on like toffee throughout the morning. (The other memorable piece of Russian aid was a canned meat, eaten cold of course, which consisted of tiny limbs, legs, and breasts, of an animal no one could identify; it was certainly not a bird, it was not rabbit either, and no one knew what to call it until some Parisian wit—obviously not a Party member—christened it for us. “C’est du gosse en conserve“—canned baby.)
There is also disagreement about the degree of training of the XIth and XIIth Brigades: “ill-trained” (Kurzman), “military efficiency” (Brome), “superior efficiency” (Bolloten), “well-trained and equipped” (Hills).7 As usual, the truth is somewhere in between the extremes. One thing is certain: the training we were given at Albacete, the Brigade base, was a farce. There were no arms to train with, not a single rifle, and so the staff fell back on the classic bourgeois-imperialist recipe for keeping idle troops out of mischief: close-order drill. Our section was put through its paces in British drill by a former Guardsman; with the battalion we did French drill; sometimes our instructor was a German and we got a taste of the Prussian method; what we liked most was when someone decided we should conform to local custom and do Spanish drill—it was, compared to the Prussian, a sort of ballet.
Every now and then we were taken on a route march, along dusty roads across the baked Murcian hills, greeted on the way by peasant families perched on carts loaded down with black grapes. One march was particularly memorable. It seemed to go on forever, and to the foul-mouthed complaints of the French our company commander (a roly-poly ex-Legionnaire known, inevitably, as Bouboule) replied with exhortations to be patient—we were going to see something worthwhile. Finally, at the base of an unusually steep hill, he stood by the side of the road and told us, proudly, what it was. “Look out when you get to the top—vous allez voir un pendu.” And sure enough, once over the hump of the hill, we saw, hanging from a limb of a sickly-looking tree, a corpse, still dressed in blue overalls and dirty-white rope-soled sandals. Whether he had been a “Fascist” or a “Red” there was no means of telling; he had been there a long time and the birds had finished with him. It was Goya again—a scene from Los Desastres de la Guerra. Bouboule, it turned out later, had sent scouts out all over the countryside to find a pendu for us. It made us wonder about the quality of the “training” in the Legion’s base at Sidi-bel-Abbès.
But “ill-trained” as we were, we were light years ahead of the Spanish Republican soldiers. We had a fair number of ex-professionals in our ranks; the French had, most of them, done their military service; the Germans who were not veterans of the First War (it had ended only eighteen years before) had, many of them, fought in anti-Nazi paramilitary organizations in the streets of German cities. And in our own tiny English section, the Oxford-Cambridge contingent (Cambridge 3, Oxford 1) had all been to schools which maintained a Cadet Corps, subsidized by the War Office. These were very efficient training units for the production of future officers; the course I went through, for example, included instruction and range-firing on the Lewis gun.
But that was not all. We came from countries which had been through the 1914-1918 war and we had learned, from what little our fathers would tell us, from the books which described life in the trenches and from the films and plays which attempted to re-create it, what modern war was like. Spain had not been in a major war since Napoleon’s time and even in that war her major contribution had been the guerrilla which crippled the French in the rear while Wellington hammered them from in front. The twentieth-century Spaniard had grown up with a vision of war which seemed to be derived from the medieval epic of the Cid and the contemporary bullfight; war was a sort of corrida which separated the machos from the cowards. We had a startling instance of this the very first time we came under fire.
It was on November 8. After our painful march through Madrid we had finally got the load off our backs and were sitting down to rest outside the Philosophy and Letters building at the western end of the University City. Some young milicianos had come over to talk to us, to ask where we came from: were we Russians, and if so, where were our tanks. All this in broad daylight, on a ridge line (the ground sloped down almost precipitously to the west); no one had any idea the enemy could see us. How could he? The newspapers carried a communiqué announcing heavy attacks repulsed in the area of Navalcarnero, some thirty kilometers away. It soon became apparent that this communiqué had been concocted by the same visionaries who later astonished the world by announcing that our glorious troops had advanced without losing a single foot of ground—a formulation unrivaled until, in a later war, the United States Air Force introduced the “pre-planned protective reaction.”
As we talked and exchanged cigarettes our ears were suddenly assailed by a sound which, starting as a sort of screaming whine, soon ceased to be a sound at all but was rather an immense, intolerable pressure on all the senses at once; we could feel as well as hear the swift approach of something huge and violent, as if a loaded freightcar were flying full speed straight at us. It was our first experience of incoming artillery and partly from animal instinct and partly also from training, we threw ourselves down and hugged the earth, waiting, in abject terror, for the explosions. When they came (it was a salvo of three) they burst below us on the escarpment. We turned over to see the Spaniards, white-faced and obviously shaken, but still standing upright. One of them caught my eye. “¡Cobardes!—Cowards!” he said triumphantly; it was the fulfillment of the Spanish male dream, to be seen facing the bull while others ran away. He did not, however, enjoy his triumph very long. The sound started again, louder and more intense this time—the enemy had got the range. The shells burst on the ridge. No one was hurt but when I looked up I saw the milicianos were stretched out prone, gone to ground and trying to claw their way into the earth like infantrymen born.
Apart from the fact that they supplied a much needed supplement of what our GIs, in a later war, cynically referred to as “warm bodies,” the Brigades furnished a salutary example. “The miliciano began to learn; he started to pick up soldierly habits. Every ‘international’ became, without realizing it, a teacher,” wrote the Socialist Zugazagoitia.8 Many of the milicianos had of course been in action before, but it was the wrong kind of action—haphazard advance followed by disorganized if not chaotic retreat. They learned from us not to use up scarce ammunition unless there was a clearly visible target and one within range, that machine guns should be fired in short bursts and not in one continuous barrel-heating belt-exhausting rattle, and above all, that it was not cowardly to dig as deep a hole as you had time and energy for.
Nearly all accounts of the Brigades (and Bolloten’s and Kurzman’s are no exception) speak of them as a purely Communist organization, though few writers go as far as Hills. According to him the XIth Brigade consisted of Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and Yugoslavs despatched from the Soviet Union where, as refugees, they had long been an embarrassment to Stalin, and of Frenchmen and Belgians recruited by Comintern agents. This statement is pure official Franco propaganda swallowed whole. The Germans of the Edgar André battalion of the XIth came most of them from exile in France, where they had spent their time trying to avoid the hounding of the French police; many of the Poles also came from France—from the grim little towns of the northern French coal fields, where their fathers had been settled after the First World War to replace the French miners killed in the slaughterhouse of the Western Front. And if “Comintern agents” were responsible for recruiting the Frenchmen of our battalion, they must have been Trotskyite saboteurs.
There was a core of convinced Communists all right (who did not, of course, need to be “recruited”) but the rest were a heady mixture of ex-Legionnaires, unemployed workers, kids just out of the lycée, and the inevitable contingent, in a French unit, of semialcoholics. The French made such a nuisance of themselves in Albacete, in fact—their idea of an evening’s entertainment was expressed by the invitation allons chanter dans les bordels—that we were soon moved out to the small village of La Roda, where the ingredients for such a program were nonexistent. Later, at Madrid, where we once spent a miserable twenty-four hours in a perfume factory which directly faced the towering Hopital Clinico, from which the Moorish snipers were looking down our throats, the soulards of the battalion distinguished themselves by drinking the bay rum and clinical alcohol they found on the factory shelves; when we were withdrawn we had to carry them out with us, dead to the world. But they had fought well when sober and our crazy Bouboule died leading a desperate bayonet charge in the Casa de Campo.
It is true that as time went on it was the Comintern which organized the transportation and controlled enrollment. It also carried out political purges in the ranks. Of this last activity I was quite unaware and had in fact been invalided out of Spain before it went into high gear. As a result it was a long time before I was able to accept the fact, so memorably dramatized in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (and later confirmed by the French Communist Party itself) that André Marty, the grand old man of the Black Sea mutiny, who had been such a benevolent presence at the base (he spoke a little English and did our small group some favors), had turned into a paranoid inquisitor and executioner—the “butcher of Albacete.”
As for transportation, it was natural that an organization used to clandestine work should take charge of operations that involved illegal movement in and through Fascist countries as well as illegal transport across frontiers. But the first brigades, the XIth and XIIth, were different. Some of the men, like my friend John Cornford, had been in Spain from the beginning, long before the Brigades were formed; of the others, most came unprompted, many at their own expense 9 and some at the risk of their lives. Auden had the words for it:
They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel
They floated over the oceans.
They walked the passes; they came to present their lives.
The miracle of November prolonged the war but it turned out to be merely a postponement of the final defeat; to little Peterkin’s question one could only give old Kaspar’s answer. It could even be argued (and it no doubt has been) that it would have been better for Spain if Franco had indeed ridden a white horse into the Puerta del Sol on November 7, as Radio Lisbon triumphantly announced at the time; the war would soon have been over and the sufferings of the Spanish people would have been cut short by two years. But it might have gone otherwise. Madrid’s November showed that Fascism was not after all irresistible; it sent the British and French, who had sat impotently by while Mussolini conquered Abyssinia and Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, a clear signal: this is the time to draw the line and Madrid is the place to do it.
If the Baldwin government had given Leon Blum the go-ahead signal to open the frontier to arms shipments or if Blum had had the guts to defy London and open it anyway, the Republic might have been saved; Madrid might have been the turning of the tide and become, as the banners in its streets proclaimed, la tumba del Fascismo. But when, in 1937, Baldwin was replaced by Chamberlain, that hope, if it had ever existed, was doomed. Backed by his sinister Foreign Secretary Halifax (alias Irwin alias Smith) and sure that he could manipulate for his own ends the dictator he always toothily referred to as “Herr Hitler,” the new prime minister moved swiftly along the path which brought the Reichswehr to the Channel and the Luftwaffe over England.
The consequences for France were even worse. Blum’s pusillanimous abandonment of the Frente Popular government in Spain undermined the strength of his own Front Populaire and the morale of the French working class was steadily eaten away as the long-drawn-out betrayal went on. The soldiers mobilized in 1939 to fight Fascism across the Rhine had no confidence in their leaders and were conscious of the potential enemy on their southern flank. When the blow came, they collapsed. The German triumph of 1940 was a victory, as historians have since demonstrated, not of superior numbers and matériel, but of superior morale. In the summer of 1940 I listened, on Long Island, to the radio bulletins which announced the incredibly swift disintegration of the French army. With me was Gustavo Durán, a Republican general who had fought all through the war and escaped from Spain in the last days. As the dismal rout of the French ended in surrender he suddenly burst out, with that characteristic Spanish combination of pride and contempt: “Three weeks! They lasted only three weeks! And we resisted for almost three years.”
Durán was not the only one to leave Spain in the last days of the war. Over the French frontier there came, on foot and just ahead of Franco’s pursuit, somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 Republican Spaniards. The story of their sufferings in the French camps and their continued struggle against Fascism is told in excruciating detail in Louis Stein’s Beyond Death and Exile. When France declared war on Hitler, some former soldiers of the Republican army fought in the Foreign Legion; 14,000 of them were taken prisoner by the Nazis in Belgium and shipped off to Mauthausen and other concentration camps—10,000 died there. Under Vichy the Spaniards were conscripted to work for the German Todt organization but it was not long before they became the backbone of the Resistance in Southwest France. Others managed to escape and come back to France with Leclerc’s armored division. By the war’s end 60,000 Spanish Republicans had taken part in the battles against Hitler’s armies. When Germany capitulated in 1945 they were confident that the Allies would now exert pressure to bring down the Franco regime (which had, after all, sent a division to fight with the Nazis in Russia).
For a moment it seemed as if their hopes might be fulfilled. There were indeed contingency plans for intervention of some kind in Spain under consideration in late 1944. They have never, to my knowledge, been referred to in print and I can speak of them only from personal experience, with no knowledge of how extensive they were or what higher headquarters were involved. The facts are these. In early November 1944 I was a captain in the US Army, attached to OSS, awaiting reassignment in London after a mission (Operation Jedburgh) to the French maquis which involved arms supply by air and fairly large-scale guerrilla operations against the German army of occupation. We were all expecting to be returned to Washington and, from there, since there seemed to be no future for guerrilla operations in Europe, to be assigned to the China-Burma-India theater.
One day I was called into the office near Grosvenor Square and introduced to a colonel I had never seen before. I was told to stand by for a possible mission in Europe and warned that it was Top Secret. Since there was no place left in the ETO for our type of operation except Germany I asked for some more information; I was not prepared to jump into the Black Forest and start looking for the German resistance movement. “It’s not Germany,” I was told. And if the mission were approved, I would be on the training staff for a large special detachment stationed in England; I might or might not go in with them. “Go in where?” I asked stubbornly. “Just think hard,” said the colonel. “I’ll give you a hint, though—you’ve been there before.”
A few days later I was called in again and told that the mission had been scrubbed. And furthermore that I was to forget that it had ever been mentioned. “Let this out,” I was told, “and we’ll lock you up and throw the key away.” Later I heard from a British Jedburgh officer who had been born in Argentina and spoke fluent Spanish that he, too, had been tapped for the mission and had actually seen a training camp for Spaniards, many of them Basques. He was glad the project had been scrubbed. “Terrifying people,” he said. “Frightened the hell out of me.”
Higher headquarters had ruled out support for guerrilla operations against Franco. Perhaps it was just as well. Only a month later the Spanish Republican exiles took matters into their own hands; armed with supplies that had been parachuted to them in the French resistance, a force of some 2,000 invaded the Basque country. They seized sixteen villages and held them for ten days against the 45,000 troops Franco sent in. But the general insurrection which they had hoped to provoke showed no signs of life and they had to withdraw. Later, as it gradually became clear after the war that the Western Allies had no interest in their cause, they turned to guerrilla operations again but were no more successful. Their courage, skill, and sacrifice were all to no avail, for they could not command the widespread sympathy and support which are the guerrilla’s base. “They were met,” says Stein, “with apathy and even hostility by large sections of the Spanish populace.” The Spanish people had had enough of violent action; before too long Franco was able to exploit the Western Allies’ need for cold war bases and lay the foundation for the “economic miracle” of the Sixties, which significantly narrowed what Gerald Brenan (NYR, September 27, 1979) called “the huge gap between the working man’s income and that of even the modest bourgeois which…made the real problems of Spain insoluble.”
The amnesty that was proclaimed after Franco’s death came too late for the exiles, who had fought Fascism so long, so well, and on so many fronts; history had passed them by. “History,” so runs the conclusion of Auden’s poem,
History, to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
In 1965, when he published his Collected Poems, he excluded “Spain 1937″ because of these lines—“this wicked doctrine,” he called it. But the Republican exiles could have told him it was the bare, bitter truth. It still is.
November 6, 1980
Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain (Pantheon, 1979). ↩
The Spanish Civil War (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961). ↩
Robert G. Colodny, The Struggle for Madrid: 1936-1937 (Paine & Whitman, New York, 1958). ↩
Legions of Babel: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Hoover Institution Publications, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1967). ↩
The earliest source quoted for this description of the march seems to be Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid (London, 1937). Cox was the Madrid correspondent of the London News Chronicle and he was in Madrid in November. I can only surmise that he saw us through a romantic haze (or a haze of a different kind—it was the barman at his hotel who told him that the Brigade was marching by). Perhaps what he saw was the XIIth Brigade, which arrived a few days later; they did have corduroy trousers (according to Esmond Romilly, Boadilla [London, 1937, reprinted 1971], p.55) but no steel helmets. John Sommerfield, who carried St. Etienne just ahead of me in the march and who wrote an eloquent account of it a few months later (Volunteer in Spain, London, 1937) has this to say about the uniforms and equipment we were issued before leaving for Madrid: “Some got extraordinary dark-blue short coats, some ammunition belts, some caps, some vests, some boots, some bayonet frogs, some scarves, some gloves. Everybody got something and no one got everything. We marched off looking like a bunch of scarecrows ” (pp.49-50). ↩
La Marcha sobre Madrid. Monografias de las Guerra de España, No. 1. Jose Manual Martinez Bande (Madrid: 1968), p. 153. ↩
George Hills, The Battle for Madrid (St. Martin’s, 1976), p. 98. ↩
Julian de Zugazagoitia, Historia de la Guerra de España (Buenos Aires: 1954), p. 144 (cited by Martinez Bande, p. 153). ↩
Esmond Romilly (who ended up in the German battalion of the XIIth Brigade) rode a bicycle from Dieppe to Marseille, losing his money and passport on the way (Boadilla, p. 18). ↩