This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: Siege of the Toledo Alcázar – 21 July – 27 September 1936

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Sketch of the Alcázar above Toledo in 1887

The Alcázar of Toledo was beautifully constructed fortress in the town which was strategically placed on a small hill by a river. First used by the Romans in 59BC, the location ruled over the plains during Roman, Visigoth and Moorish rule. The town was home to Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities living together through the centuries in relative peace. But in 1085 the city fell under Christian rule and the slow decline of the harmony commenced. By 1520, the Alcázar, a palace fortress, was built on the top of the hilltop town by the royal family, and stood until the destruction during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The war started on July 17, 1936 when Franco took over the army in Spanish Morocco and staged an uprising. By the morning of the 18th, strict, religious army leader José Moscardó e Ituarte, the military governor of the area, took control of the Guardia Civil police, and decided to lead and control the hilltop town. Toledo had an arms factory, and the Republican government and its followers battled for days to get their hands on the weapons and gain control of their home. Colonel Moscardo was able to fend off the Republicans with his men, and moves were made for Republican reinforcements from Madrid to arrive. By July 20, killings were already occurring on the streets, with both sides attacking and wounding one another, as in all towns and cities in Spain.

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The grotesque habit of Republicans digging up clergy to show everyone their mortality in Toledo, like everywhere in Spain

Colonel Moscardo had just 800 Guardia Civil officers, around 100 army officers, and the support of 200 right-wing public members. The Guardia Civil had plenty of ammunition to bring to the uprising, but between all these men they only had rifles, a couple of machine guns and a few grenades. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Madrid sent in 8,000 militia men, left-wing supporters banded into groups to save their country, mostly anarchists and workers’ union members. The air force had also sided with the Republicans and were able to fly over Toledo for surveillance and bombing.

Between the call to rise up and claim the city by the rebels on July 17 and the following four days, the Republicans managed to hold off the right-wingers, with only one man arrested as a Republican activist. However, between 100-200 people were taken hostage by the Nationalists, and they including the town’s governor and his family. The hostages and Nationalist families, those belonging to the Guardia Civil men, were put inside the city Alcázar to be safe from the Republicans. This started a siege, with Nationalists trapped in the Alcázar and the Republicans keen to take back their town.

The Alcázar prior to the siege

By July 22, the Republican surge meant the town was in their hands, with the exception of the great Alcázar, which was under bombardment from the air. On July 23, Colonel Moscardo, inside the Alcazar, got a phone call from the Republican leader, Commissar Cabello. They had taken Moscardo’s son hostage, age just 16, and threatened execution. Moscardo told his son to die as a patriot, which young Luis agreed to do. However the Republicans did not yet have the heart to shoot the boy.

For the next three weeks, the Nationalists stayed safe in the Alcázar as the Republicans continued to attack. The insiders only fought when militia fired at the building, or planes dropped bombs from above. Constant bombardment to the strong Alcázar began to weaken the northern side of the fortress. But the constant back and forth of fire, bombs and grenades, meant no one could get close enough to the Alcázar to get inside, not even to the buildings surrounding the building, all of which were still under Nationalist control and huddled together for safety. Sometime in mid-August, Moscardo’s 16-year-old son was shot and killed as the Republican frustrations mounted. Likewise, the hostages inside the Alcázar met an ugly end.

Republicans try to get close to the Alcázar

However, by early September, the northern side of the Alcázar was in collapse, and the Republicans decided to change tactics. In a momentary downing of weapons on September 9, Major Vicente Rojo Lluch, an army man who decided to fight for the Republicans rather than with the army, went to the Alcázar to speak to Colonel Moscardo. Rojo offered Moscardo the chance to surrender and leave the Alcázar but it was refused. Moscardo requested a priest be sent to the Alcázar, as two babies had been born inside the besieged fortress and needed to be baptised. Despite being anti-religion, the Republicans allowed this request.

Inside the Alcázar before the bombing

As the priests of Toledo had been killed or fled the town at the outbreak of war, a preacher from Madrid arrive on September 11 and entered the Alcázar to baptise newborns and offer spiritual guidance to the 1000 strong right-wingers, including final absolution in case of death. Again Rojo offered a surrender, but no one would leave the Alcázar; they would rather die than give up. In retaliation, Republicans fired and threw grenades at the Alcázar, destroying all communications with the insiders.

The Chilean ambassador to Spain wanted to help with the negotiations for surrender, but the grenade launch had wiped out all the phones, and at this stage, surrender was no longer an option for the Nationalists.

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All the while air and ground fire had been sent back and forth, Republicans had been digging tunnels to come up right underneath the Alcázar. By September 18, after a month of digging, the two tunnels were complete and under the southwest tower of the Alcázar. Soon-to-be appointed Spanish prime minister, Francisco Largo Caballero, went into the mines and detonated a huge supply of explosives, which flattened much of the tower. As the dust settled and panic reigned, the Republicans stormed the Alcázar with tanks and armoured cars. Still, they could not get inside the mighty fortress, and constant firing went on for days.

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Explosions destroy the exterior

By September 22, all those inside were in the interior courtyard of the Alcázar, and most of the garrison has also left their posts on the exterior of the building for their own safety. Another two days of fighting made no progress for either side.

Just as the siege looked as if it would end with the slaughter of the Nationalists, reinforcements finally arrived in the city.  On September 27, the Republicans, desperate to get inside, had no choice but to abandon their cause and flee to Aranjuez, 44 kilometres north of Toledo. This large withdrawal left few attacking the Alcázar, as they knew of the danger about to arrive.

The Alcázar is destroyed into a mess

Nationalist soldiers, consisting of Spanish Legionnaires and Moroccan troops (the Moros), had been marching north from Seville, massacring everyone in their path, their reputations already bloody and horrific. On September 27, all it took was the first 100 soldiers to enter the city and kill everyone still holding out. They also murdered the doctors, nurses and patients in the hospital, all Republicans and their supporters. All those inside the Alcázar were released, only five dead, of natural causes.

For all the killing and the destruction of the nearly 500-year-old Alcázar, Toledo as a location had no strategic value. But the determination of the Nationalists was used a propaganda for those fighting in other areas, and the media took a huge interest in the battle. The arms factory, which was raided early in the war, was the only important location in the area, and was now worthless. The weapons and supplies dropped to help the trapped Nationalists could have been better used in other areas, and even Franco’s advisors were upset Franco even bothered to ‘save’ Toledo at all, when Madrid 55 kilometres north was more important.

Interior of the building after ‘liberation’

Those who escaped after being inside the Alcázar were treated as heroes and used as morale boosters. Much had been made of the Republicans’ mine explosion, with media flocking to see the event. But when the Republicans were forced to flee a week alter, and Franco claimed the town, the Republicans plan to show the world their strength instead showed their terrible loss.

Final destruction

As soon as Moscardo and the others left the Alcázar, the soldiers immediately left Toledo destroyed physically and emotionally, and continued their march north to try to take Madrid. The initial stand-off and attacks on Toledo were all for nothing.

Survivors have to live among their ruined town

The restoration of the Alcázar didn’t begin until well after the war ending in 1939, and today houses the  Biblioteca Autonómica (Castilla-La Mancha Regional Library) the and   Museo del Ejército (Museum of the Army).

The Alcázar today

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This is not a detailed analysis, just highlights (lowlights?) of the siege. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 11: 26 September – 2 October 1936

Week 11: 26 September – 2 October 1936

September 26

The Generalitat de Catalunya (government of Catalonia, based out of the capital of Barcelona) increases in size to incorporate more factions fighting for the Republican case. The anarchist CNT-FAI (workers unions) sends ministers, along with the communist POUM (Marxist workers group).

September 27

After a siege lasting over two months, Toledo is finally won by the Nationalists. The Legionnaires and Moroccan soldiers (Moros, as they are nicknamed) who have been murdering their way north, reach the city, and 100 men take Toledo, ending the siege on the Alcázar. A group of anarchists set fire to their own buildings and are burned alive so they are not captured and executed. The invading soldiers take the hospital, killing doctors and nurses, as well as the patients. All the Republican hostages that were taken at the start of the siege by Nationalist leader Colonel Moscardo are already found to have been long killed, and all Republicans are either killed or flee the area.

A full ‘This Week In Spanish Civil War History: Extra’ will be published on September 27

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Generals Verela, Franco and Moscardo in Toledo after the rebels capture the city

Also…

The Non-intervention Committee is doing a stellar job of not doing nothing to help Spaniards, and doesn’t bother to argue with Portugal over their continued support for the Nationalists. Germany and Italy are also sending weapons and equipment in defiance of the Non-Intervention agreement and the committee doesn’t lift a finger.

September 28

Generalissimo Francisco Franco is named head of the Spanish State by the Junta de Defensa Nacional (Nationalist militarised government) in Burgos, even though Spain has a Prime Minister and government still functioning in Madrid.

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Franco: A small man with a heinous attitude and a penchant for massacre (and rumour has it, sporting mangled testicles)

September 29

The Battle of Cape Spartel breaks out over control of the Strait of Gibraltar. The navy has been pro-Republican, but Nationalists have held the Galician naval base since the outbreak of war. A Republican ship is sunk and others badly damaged, and just one escapes the battle as the Nationalists also now control this crucial sea passage.

The Almirante Ferrándiz just prior to sinking in battle

September 30

Enrique Pla y Deniel, the Bishop of Salamanca, publishes his famous pastoral letter titled ‘The Two Cities’. He praises the decision of the rebel Nationalists to rise up and start the war. He defends the actions of the rebels and the need to destroy Republicans. He states the war is not a civil war, but a crusade to restore order and crush the ‘heretics’ in government. He also issues a pastoral latter claiming Franco as Spain’s leader, and sends him a telegram to congratulate him for the ‘glorious resurrection of Christian Spain’.

Enrique Pla y Deniel – a bishop with a small mind and a heart filled with hate and control, Catholic style

October 1

The Brigadas Internacionales (International Brigades) are officially formed. It gives a name and organisation to work with the foreign volunteers flocking to Spain to help out. People from 53 nations want to give their help to the Republican cause against the rebels. The group will swell to up to 35,000 fighters, plus 10,000 non-combat roles and up to 5,000 foreign CNT or POUM members. These brave individuals are true heroes, risking their lives for strangers in a strange land, thinking they can save the world from fascism while governments sit idle.

The famous International Brigades become official

Also…

Francisco Franco officially declares himself the Generalissimo in public, and settles into life as the controller of a country out of control. This formally gives him power over the entire Nationalist cause.

And…

The Republican government gives the Basque Country full autonomy, and Jose Antonio Aguirre is elected as leader of Euzkadi a week later. The Basque country is getting little support or outside help, surrounded, and already partly invaded, by the rebels. Autonomy gives them more control over their moves and their own army as they fight to control their region.

Jose Antonio Aguirre – politician, activist, leader

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 10: 19 – 25 September 1936

Week 10: 19 – 25 September 1936

September 19

The island of Mallorca has been in Nationalist hands again since September 12, when the Republicans retreated away from the beaches of Punta Amer and Porto Cristo, after a month of fighting to regain the island. With all Republican militia gone from the Balearic Islands area, Ibiza is captured by the Nationalists with swift action, with no fighting taking place.

September 20

The island of Formentera, the most southern of the Balearics, is taken easily by the Nationalists. All the islands of the Balearics are now in Nationalist control, with the exception of the northern island of  Menorca. The Balearic Islands are small, but a good strategic location for aircraft to be based, for bombing the coastal cities such as Barcelona and Valencia. Italian planes are primarily based there for such activities heading to the mainland.

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Franco, September 1936

September 21

The leaders of the Nationalist forces (and boy, are there many) come to an agreement that Francisco Franco will be the ‘supreme commander’ of the rebels. He is stylised the Generalissimo. Naming Franco the leader will have a huge impact on the direction and success of the rebels.

Meanwhile, in Toledo…

Ongoing destruction of the Alcázar

September 21

The bombing of the Alcázar has left it all but destroyed. Communication has been cut off between the Nationalists inside and their support outside, and a retreat is made by outside forces, as there is little left to defend. The ongoing battle is symbolic of the war now, and used in propaganda, and so the Nationalists still refuse to surrender.

September 22

The Republicans continue to attack the building and its rubble, unaware that the garrison inside has abandoned much of the Alcázar.

September 23

A 5am raid on the Alcázar surprises the Nationalist garrison inside with dynamite and grenades. The Nationalists are now all gathered in the interior courtyard of the Alcázar, most of the building collapsed around them. Tanks arrive during the morning to continue pounding away at the Alcázar, but returning Nationalist reserves arrive to fight back the Republicans for yet another day.

September 24

Franco decides, against the advice of his German counsel, to delay his siege on Madrid. Instead, with his troops continuing their march north to the capital, Franco decides to send them to Toledo to save those Nationalists inside the Alcázar. The siege has only a few days left, yet will be a bloody battle, slaughter ending its dramatic fighting. The troops of Spanish Legionnaires and vicious Moroccan soldiers are only a dozen kilometres away now.

NB – there will be a ‘This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra’ post on the Alcázar on September 27

Damage has made the Alcázar unrecognisable

Also…

September 24

The Nationalist Junta (the National Defense Committee who control and rule over the Nationalist-held areas) decide to annul all the agrarian reforms which have taken place since the February 1936 election, in which the Republican’s Popular Front won. Most agrarian reforms involved the distribution and redistribution of agricultural lands, and rules regarding the rights of rural workers. They’re the people suffering the most, before and during the war, and their rights are once again decimated to nothing.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 9: 12 – 18 September 1936

Week 9: 12 – 18 September 1936

The Nationalists march into San Sebastián

September 13

The Basques surrender San Sebastián as the Nationalists advance after their win at Irún two weeks ago. After the death and destruction of Irún, the people let the Nationalists come in without a single shot fired, but anarchists who are running want to burn the city, as in Irún. The Basques turn on one another to ensure the city isn’t destroyed, and the anarchists are killed. An estimated 30,000 (of a total of 80,000) people flee San Sebastián west towards Bilbao, the Basque Country’s biggest city. The evacuation was planned, but 600 people are murdered by the Nationalists after their victory parade, include the mayor and 17 priests who are loyal to the Basques. The Basque language is also banned.

Also…

The Republican government decide to send some of their national gold reserves to the Soviet Union. The gold will be used as security for future purchase of equipment and materials. While the Republicans need the supplies, they get less than half of the gold’s value in equipment.

September 14

The siege of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza begins in Andújar, near Jaén, in the south. Around 1,200 Nationalist civilians guarded by Guardia Civil members have been in the hilltop Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza church since August, as the town as been held by the Republicans. The Republicans now begin the battle to take the church and capture or kill the Nationalist supporters on the hill. The Nationalist leader wants to surrender, but is overthrown for another commander, who refuses to surrender, starting the siege. Luckily (for the Nationalists) they are dropped supplies from the air so they can hold out on the hilltop, for what is the first day in an eight month battle.

The Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza before the bombings

September 14

Pope Pius XI speaks out against the the Republican Government for their actions, and its ‘satanic hate against God’ (nicely forgetting all the harm the church has done to the people). Despite the war being almost two months old, this outrage only comes after the murder of Josep Samsó of the Santa María de Mataró basilica in Barcelona. After being imprisoned, he was then taken and executed, a fate given to countless priests.

September 16

The Nationalists take the town of Ronda in the south. Ronda had been under the control of Republicans since the war’s outbreak, and many churches destroyed and priests killed. General Verela takes the town and starts the executions. Many flee to Malaga nearby, still under Republican control, and some flee into nearby hills. Rumours of the fleeing Republicans living as bandits in the hills persist for another 15 years.

The Ronda bridge over the El Tajo gorge. Both sides of the war pushed their prisoners from the edge, and the prison cell in the bridge was used for torture

September 18

Continuing on from last week’s failed negotiations in Toledo (see here if you missed it)…

For the past month, Republicans have been digging two tunnels, mining to get under the southwest tower of Toledo’s famous Alcázar, which has 1,000 Nationalists inside, refusing to surrender. The mines are done, and Prime Minister Francisco Largo Caballero detonates an early morning bomb, which destroys the tower completely. As those inside cope with the surprise attack, the Republicans launch a four-pronged attack of the Alcázar in tanks and armoured cars. The Republicans still do not get inside the Alcázar, and continue their attack for another night and day with aerial bombing. The Alcázar is now heavily damaged and the two-month siege will soon come to an end.

Timeline of the Alcazar destruction

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: ‘Falling Soldier’ by Robert Capa – 5 September 1936

“With lively step, breasting the wind, clenching their rifles, they ran down the slope covered with thick stubble. Suddenly their soaring was interrupted, a bullet whistled — a fratricidal bullet — and their blood was drunk by their native soil” – French magazine Vu 23/9/36

The Falling Soldier, Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936

The Falling Soldier is one of the world’s best known war photographs of all time. Taken by Robert Capa on 5 September, 1936, during the battle for Cerro Muriano, a town 20 kilometres north of Córdoba.

The man in the photo is Federico Borrell García, a 24-year-old man from Alcoy/Alcoi in the Valencia region. He had traveled as part of the Columna Alcoiana sent to Córdoba to help them fight off the ever-advancing Nationalist forces. Borrell, nicknamed Taino, was shot at around 5pm at La Loma de las Malagueñas, a hill outside the town of Cerro Muriano, when the column was attacked from behind. He was the only man in the Columna Alcoiana to be killed that day.  The photo is listed to show a man from the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL), but Borrell, an anarchist, was later identified through the photo by his brother, Everisto.

Falling Soldier shows Borrell at the moment of death. He was shot through the head (some reports say the heart), killing him before he even fell. The photo was one of seven taken in sequence quite by luck (on Capa’s part at least) before Borrell lands on his back, with his rifle still slipping from his hand. At the time, Robert Capa was in a gully/trench on the hill, hidden from the enemy fire, holding his camera high above his head to capture the fighting. Soon after, Falange members from the Nationalists claimed the photo was a fake, but for forty years, the photo was considered one the best war shots of all time (the other great shot, also Capa’s, was of soldiers landing on D-Day).

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Posing in the gully – Borrell is the man on the left above, and then the man below –

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These photos, shot six and seven in the sequence, are of another man, the man third of the left in the top photo –  

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Since 1975, complaints about the photo have raged. Capa, (who died in 1954 when he stood on a landmine in now-Vietnam), was defended by his brother, stating the photo was authentic. Capa’s famous photograph sidekick, Gerda Taro, died during the war in 1937. Many photos in the Spanish Civil War were staged because journalists and photographers couldn’t get to the front lines to see the action. Capa had been forced to stage before, and on this very day, said he had been relaxed with the soldiers during a quiet period before an ambush.

Capa always claimed the photo was taken at La Loma de las Malagueñas outside Cerro Muriano, but naysayers claim it was taken at Espejo, over 50 kilometres south from Cerro Muriano. It is also stated that Borrell is not the man in the photo, despite being identified by his own brother.

In 2009, José Manuel Susperregui Echeveste, a professor from the University of the Basque Country, released Sombras de Fotografía (Shadows of Photography – well worth a look, along with many of his books). The professor studied the backgrounds of Capa’s photograph, and worked with historians in the area of Córdoba to determine the landscape, and it was Espejo, not Cerro Muriano, that was claimed in the shots.

Susperregui’s theory maintains that the Falling Soldier shot was staged, but the others in the sequence are real. Also to back up the professor’s claims, is the fact the Capa gave contradicting statements on the events of the day. Capa is recorded as saying Borrell was shot by a sniper, and another time by machine-gun fire. He also spoke of taking the photo, both in and out of the gully on the hillside.  As the landscape of Espejo hasn’t changed from 1936 to present day, reporters have been out photographing the region in an attempt to find the exact location, with many claiming success.

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1936 ‘Cerro Muriano’ and 2009 Espejo, by Magnum Photos

Others also claim that perhaps Borrell was killed by a sniper while posing for photographs for Capa. Susperregui addressed those rumours as well, claiming there were no snipers in the Córdoba area at the time, a suggestion difficult to verify. The inconsistencies also lead people to suggest the photo was taken by Gerda Taro, not Capa, as has been discovered in Capa’s collection in recent years. Some claim they saw Borrell get shot, others claim Borrell was posing for a photo and was killed, leading Capa to rarely speak about the events.

Capa’s shots in the gully, the theory is some carried on down the hill, some were drawn back, including Borrell when he was shot

It was the Mexican Suitcase discovery in 2009 that then further discredited Falling Soldier. In 2009, a suitcase was found, holding Capa’s negatives from his career, which were sent to Mexico after the war. The photos of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour were all thrown in together. The incredibly talented Gerda Taro died just short of her 27th birthday in 1937, in an accident with a Republican tank. The immense David Seymour, or David Chim, ran Magnum Photos until his death by machine gun during the 1956 Suez War. What the Mexican suitcase showed, that while there were negatives of the sequence of the Falling Soldier, photo number five of seven, the famous shot, was missing.

The Mexican Suitcase tour was a huge success, with the photos in galleries widely seen. Other photos in the sequence were also displayed, including shot five, despite no negative found. The negatives in the suitcase have been analysed, and results show it is Espejo, not Cerro Muriano in the background. Because the sixth and seventh shots show a dead soldier, someone other than Borrell, leads many to say the famous photo was staged. Meanwhile, many others claim it is still completely real, based on the angles, the recollections of Capa, and the details of fighting on September 5, 1936. The photo shows a scene far removed from traditional war shots and different to other staged photos of injured men, meaning there will probably never be a real answer to what killed Borrell, when, where, or if it is really Borrell at all. We will never really know.

Me? I like to believe the photo is real. Why? my own personal sense of whimsy. I would like to believe maybe Gerda Taro took that photo, hence why Robert Capa couldn’t recall the details correctly. Gerda Taro was the first female war photographer, brilliant and daring in her short lifetime. After all, who is Robert Capa? Not an American photographer, rather Endre Friedmann from Hungary, the same way Taro was Gerta Pohorylle from Germany, the pair having to flee their homelands and invent Robert Capa in Paris. Her work was often used under the name Robert Capa. History isn’t fond of powerful women. My theory is total speculation, based on nothing but my own ideas and a love of feminism. Maybe the theory of them all, thinking they were safe, outside the town, were talking and taking photos when a bullet really did strike down Borrell, and no one wanted to talk about it.

Perhaps it is a fake, something that had us all fooled for 80 years. If Falling Soldier isn’t real, it is still a posed shot to display what happened to so many Spaniards, that even now there isn’t an agreed figure on the number of dead. No one who has seen Capa’s collection can doubt his abilities, and is it really that hard to believe that a photo can be taken at that moment when life is taken away?

Either way, rest in peace, Federico Borrell García of Alcoi, Valencia – January 3, 1912 – September 5, 1936

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This is not a full detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of Falling Soldier and its authenticity. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.