March 2017        

The battle for Madrid that thunders on

Harry Owens

Peadar O’Donnell recalled how the Spanish Anti-Fascist War looked to Irish eyes:
I went to Spain last July with a party who planned a holiday in a land with a likelihood of sun . . . I walked into a civil war in Achill just as I walked into one in Spain, and it was the same civil war . . . A picture of Achill is a picture of Spain,” [the uproar of which] “rekindled the antagonisms of our own civil war . . . Fishermen in Achill held a steadier light to the events in Spain than the intellectuals in our universities, because they remembered that men like themselves beyond there were struggling strongly amid the uproar.1
      Among the war’s many dramatic events there is one episode that has remained vivid in the minds of those who look back on that hopeful struggle for democracy when “the Devil’s Decade” (to quote the title of Claud Cockburn’s book on the period2) turned ever darker. This was the three weeks in February 1937 when Franco tried to cut off beleaguered Madrid from supplies by controlling the road to Valencia.
     The battle in the valley of the River Jarama became significant because of its length, the size of the forces engaged on both sides and the tenacity of the fighting and as the first battle where the hastily organised new army of the Republic, composed mainly of trade union and political parties’ militias, held its ground in open country against the professional army of the rebel generals and their fascist allies.3
     As at Madrid the previous November, the Republic’s newly trained soldiers were helped here at crucial points by the growing battalions of volunteers from fifty-three countries in the International Brigades, being hastily organised by the Comintern in bases around La Mancha.
     Up to this point the key to Franco’s string of successes, which brought him from Morocco to the suburbs of Madrid, had been the veteran Army of Africa, composed of the Spanish Foreign Legion and the Moroccan Regulares. With their experience of the savage colonial wars of Spanish Morocco and their mobility in battle, and backed by German and Italian infantry, tanks, artillery, and planes, they had seemed invincible until their failure to take Madrid from the south-west before Christmas.
     Franco now aimed to sweep south of the city, through Arganda and Chinchón, then swing north to Alcalá de Henares and link up with Mussolini’s forces coming down from Sigüenza and together take Madrid from the rear. This would bring international recognition for the junta of generals, and isolate the Republican government in Valencia.
     Winston Churchill had written in August 1936 that the “reverberations of the Spanish upheaval extend far beyond the boundaries of the Peninsula. Causes are at stake which in varying degrees disturb the people of every land.”4 But with a Franco victory, the lesson for democrats and left-wingers around the world would become simple: as was seen elsewhere in the Europe of the 1930s, there would be no hope of resisting the onward march of fascism.
     The rebels’ professional army and their German and Italian allies could resume the mobility that had been their key to victory by avoiding strongly defended urban areas. Madrid, that worldwide beacon of popular resistance, would be starved into submission, and the process of “cleansing Spain” would end democracy’s attempts to reform its feudal social system. Spain would instead return to being—as Churchill had described it in September 1936—“the most backward country in Europe; her people miserably poor.”5
     The battle was decided at a couple of vital points, and these were the three days when the British battalion, with its Irish volunteers, held the line at its southern end, and the later series of suicidal attacks with the American Lincoln Battalion, including its Irish company, against the Pingarrón heights, which in effect ended the battle. The British battalion’s 400 men who had held “Suicide Hill” had been reduced to 125 on their first day, while the 400 Lincolns sent into the cross-fire of machine-guns at Pingarrón lost 120 dead and 175 wounded by 27 February.6 But the lines held then remained as the front lines till the war’s end.
     A historian sympathetic to Franco wrote that the British battalion had stopped Franco’s best troops in a day’s work that counts among the most impressive achievements of modern warfare, and their “conduct—especially on 12 February—represents the greatest single contribution to the victory of Jarama, and thus to the survival of Madrid.”7
     Churchill had commented when that war began that “the obvious interest of Britain and France is a liberal Spain restoring under a stable and tolerant government freedom and prosperity to all its people. That we can scarcely hope will come in our time.”8 Yet when this did in fact come about it was under the Republican government of Juan Negrín, which published the thirteen points of its war aims, restoring the rights of private property and religion and severely moderating left-wing aspirations, with the support of the Communist Party of Spain, so as to align Republican Spain with the conservative French and British leaders in facing up to fascist dictators.
     But those leaders chose to maintain their one-sided non-intervention system, which ensured a Franco victory, leaving France facing fascism on three fronts as the Second World War broke out. Writing forty years later, Claud Cockburn reckoned that “a triumph of the Left in Spain would have thrown such a scare into the British and French upper classes that they’d have seen Hitler as their sole salvation.” He saw that the Spanish people were fighting in self-defence; they had experience of their ruling class in power. But their leaders had a fatal delusion: that the British and French democracies had to help them if it came to the worst.9
     What we are observing throughout this period is the reluctance of the Western elite to consider Hitler a threat to their own class and therefore to what they saw as “their” countries. They would decide that they had to fight only when Hitler had been allowed to swallow almost all of central Europe, and yet demanded more. Then the Spanish Popular Front, which had combined Marxists, socialists and liberals to fight the authoritarian right, would be finally replicated in the alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union against fascism.
     But delaying that essential step came at the cost of the mass of graves littering Europe, from the Urals to the cities of Britain itself. While veterans of Spain’s war led the resistance to Nazi occupation in Europe, and liberated entire French towns, even leading the liberation of Paris, they were normally denied front-line service in American and British forces as “premature anti-fascists,” in an indication of the Cold War policies to come.
     The effect of that struggle of the Spanish people, and the feelings of those who came to join them, remained firm throughout the decades after the Second World War, so that when I first began to read accounts of this in the 1960s the name of Madrid still rang out as a symbol of a people’s fight for liberty with a clarity that surprised and held one’s attention.
     Surviving volunteers felt the strength of that war’s impact. “Never again will men of every creed and tongue go to war with the ideals with which volunteers went to Spain,” wrote John Basset. “It was indeed a time of hope, when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs.” T. A. R. Hyndman felt that life might leave unseen scars, on the mind, in the heart. “If this is true, my scar is Spain.” While burying an anarchist he’d known in a Spanish hospital “I threw some wild flowers on to the coffin before the diggers covered it with earth. Alongside the driver we trotted back. ‘A friend of yours?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘a friend.’ I could have added—of yours also.”10
     When the French veteran Paul Richard died he asked for only one flag by his coffin, that of the Spanish Republic. “Spain,” he had said, “was the best thing I did in my life”11—the very words that the last Irish veteran, Bob Doyle, also chose when summing up his life of union and political struggles in his television programme “Rebel Without a Pause.”
     Lenin is often credited with the saying “If you want to know why something happened, ask: who benefits?” But there is another question, one that helps us understand why people decide to act in response to an event: Who pays for it? Those who went to Spain knew who would pay for the generals’ rebellion against the Republic, which is why they went.

1. Peadar O’Donnell, Salud! An Irishman in Spain, London: Methuen, 1937, p. 10, 12.
2. Claud Cockburn, The Devil’s Decade, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1973.
3. Enrique Líster, Nuestra Guerra: Memorias de un Luchador, Guadalajara: Silente Memoria Histórica, 2007, p. 156.
4. Winston Churchill, Step by Step: Political Writings, 1936–1939, London: Odhams, 1939 (reprinted 1949), p. 40.
5. Winston Churchill, Step by Step: Political Writings, 1936–1939, London: Odhams, 1939 (reprinted 1949), p. 52.
6. Tom Wintringham, English Captain, London: Penguin, 1939, p. 93, 124.
7. R. A. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939: Crusades in Conflict, Manchester: Mandolin, 1999, p. 166.
8. Winston Churchill, Step by Step: Political Writings, 1936–1939, London: Odhams, 1939 (reprinted 1949), p. 40.
9. Philip Toynbee (ed.), Distant Drum: Reflections on the Spanish Civil War, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1976, p. 40, 47, 48.
10. Philip Toynbee (ed.), Distant Drum: Reflections on the Spanish Civil War, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1976, p. 129, 130, 136.
11. Rémi Skoutelsky, L’Espoir Guidait Leurs Pas, Paris: Grasset, 1998, p. 324.

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