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 Extra: Federico García Lorca – 19 August 1936

Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca 05/06/1898 – 19/08/1936

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Federico García Lorca, born in June 1898 in the small town of Fuente Vaqueros (near Granada) is a universally known poet and writer. But just as he is recognised for his literary achievements, his name is also well known for what happened on 19 August 1936.

García Lorca grew up with his father, Federico García Rodríguez, a successful farmer, and his mother, teacher Vicenta Lorca Romero, on their farm until moving to Granada in 1909. Six years later he started at the University of Granada, and despite being a gifted musician, he started writing. Just one year later, García Lorca travelled through Spain, and self-published his first book, Impresiones y Paisajes (read my review here) based on the trip in 1918. Through his success, he moved to Madrid a year later to the Residencia de Estudiantes to study at the University of Madrid.

García Lorca studied philosophy and law, but his heart lay in writing. He struck up friendships with Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Gregorio Martina Sierra and Juan Ramón Jiménez, and published his first work of poetry two years into his studies. More poetry, essays and plays followed, with his most popular poetry Romancero Gitano published in 1928. García Lorca found inspiration in the land and the people of Spain, seeing it through less-than traditional eyes, instead finding beauty in new lights. In 1927 a play opened by Salvador Dalí had García Lorca at his side, to great acclaim, after play failures five years earlier.

Lorca (1914)
Lorca (1914)

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The mid-twenties were filled with strong collaboration between García Lorca and Dalí, though Dalí rejected García Lorca’s romantic advances. By 1928, the friendship became strained, and García’s Lorca also broke off his affair with sculpter Emilio Soriano Alarén, which enhanced García Lorca’s depression. The constant stress of being a public figure, and having to hide his true self weighed on him (same-sex relationships were technically legal between 1881- 1928, and then 1932 -1936, but in a deeply Catholic nation it wasn’t considered acceptable). He was being typecast as a gypsy poet, as gypsies were one of his predominant themes in his work. García Lorca wanted to adapt and live his art. Dalí and Luis Buñuel released a film in 1929, without García Lorca’s help, and Dalí married, leaving García Lorca feeling he was being edged out of the group and the depression only grew worse. His family shipped him to the US in 1929 to recuperate from his worries. García Lorca flirted with new styles, though his work would not be published until after his death.

García Lorca returned to Spain after a year and then in 1931 the Second Spanish Republic was born. The young writer was in charge of the Teatro Universitario La Barraca. Thanks to the new government education programme, García Lorca toured rural Spain to bring free art to the public. With little equipment and a tiny stage, the masses got to see García Lorca acting and hear his work performed. Seeing the poor populations of Spain and their reaction to their first (sometimes only ever) art performances drove García Lorca to believe art could change lives with plays about social action. The La Barraca tour created three of Garcia Lorca’s best plays – Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, all about standing up to the bourgeois.

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After taking Blood Wedding to Argentina in 1933, García Lorca was on a roll. He returned home and created Play and Theory of the Duende, and wrote about how art needed to understand death, and reasoning limitations, and then returned to his roots of romance in his poetry (after a love affair with Juan Ramírez de Lucas) with the amazing Sonnets of Dark Love. But La Barraca had their funding cut in 1934 and closed in April 1936. García Lorca kept writing over summers at home in Huerta de San Vicente outside Granada, adding to his works with When Five Years Pass and Diván del Tamarit.

But as everyone knows, García Lorca was living in a deeply troubled world. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, and García Lorca knew his work on rebelling against the wealthy and his outspoken views on right-wing politics could see him as a target. A spokesman for the people was not going to be welcome anymore. Granada was in turmoil; not one of the cities to be initially overthrown by the rebel Nationalists, but it had martial law imposed. Bombings became frequent and the huge divide between left or right (poor or rich) was so stark that fighting emerged everywhere. García Lorca was not political, but when push came to shove, he supported those with nothing, after years of seeing deprivation in his country and abroad.

García Lorca left his home and stayed with his friend Luis Rosales in central Granada, but nowhere was safe. Lorca’s brother-in-law, Granada Mayor Manuel Fernández-Montesinos was assassinated during fighting on August 18. Hours later, fascist militia turned up at the Rosales’ residence and García Lorca was arrested, no reason given. He had been visited and interrogated weeks earlier, but when a right-wing politician came and got García Lorca alongside armed men, all of García Lorca’s fears came true.

García Lorca was held overnight by armed gunmen, their whereabouts or activities murky. The following morning, García Lorca and three others – Joaquín Arcollas Cabezas, Francisco Galadí Melgar and Dióscoro Galindo González – were driven out to Fuente Grande, the middle of nowhere between the towns of Víznar and Alfacar. After digging their own  graves, García Lorca and the others were executed.

While the world was deprived of García Lorca from then on, the why’s and how’s have been debated ever since. He was shot by fascist forces, though his arrest came from CEDA, a conservative Catholic political group. Some think it was part of an elimination process of all who supported Marxism. His murderers spoke of his sexual orientation, leading that to be a theory on his killing, along with some kind of same-sex love and jealousy theory. García Lorca had friends in right and left-wing groups. He supported the left-wing government and had spoken at gatherings supporting the left. He also had communist supporters, yet was arrested in the home of a leading Falange fascist, and regularly met with Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Francisco Franco himself ordered an investigation on the execution, but the paperwork has never been found.

Since the undignified death, countless have sought to find García Lorca’s burial place. One early search was by author Gerald Brennan himself, as documented in the wonderful The Face of Spain in 1949. Despite many attempts, García Lorca was never found in the Franco era (1939-1975).  The site of the executions was identified in 1969 by a man who said he helped García Lorca dig his grave, but it wasn’t until 1999 that digging by the University of Granada could begin. Nothing was found. García Lorca’s family long denied permission for people to dig up their relative, but relatives of another man also executed continued to push for answers, which the García Lorca family agreed to. DNA samples were taken from all families and in 2009, it was time again to find García Lorca.

 

site of 1999 excavation

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After two weeks’ work, samples were taken from a site for testing. No bones were found, and no bullets were uncovered. The grave was very shallow, about 40 cm deep, and could not have been a 70+ year-old grave-site. Three years later, another dig was launched, 500 metres from a first site, which also uncovered nothing. People who claimed to be part of the killings, hired men out killing for the Falange, claimed that García Lorca was a target after writing The House of Bernarda Alba, and the people portrayed in the story wanted him gone.

The Barranco de Viznar, a nearby spot of mass civil war graves in the wilderness, has been suggested as a site where García Lorca may lie, killed or moved there during the war. A memorial headstone lies there for García Lorca stating ‘We are all Lorca’. An olive tree at Fuente Grande has a memorial for García Lorca, where flowers are laid every year. All his family homes are now museums in Granada, along with a park named Parque Federico García Lorca. A famous statue of García Lorca stands in Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, and his niece runs The Lorca Foundation in his honour.

me paying homage to García Lorca's life in Madrid
me paying homage to García Lorca’s life in Madrid

García Lorca’s work was banned by Franco until 1953, and then censored for the rest of the Franco era. Since then more work has been published and celebrated, along with new publications from unpublished manuscripts held dear by his family. Searches and theories on his death remain ongoing 80 years later. This month, Argentinian federal judge Maria Servini has agreed to take on the García Lorca case, sequestering paperwork on the killing of the poet, while she is also prosecuting over other civil war deaths. Perhaps one day, Federico García Lorca will be found.

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This is not a detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of Lorca’s life and death. 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: Battle of Badajoz – 14 August 1936

The Battle of Badajoz was one of the first leading battles, and victories, for the right-wing Nationalist rebels in the Spanish Civil War. Won on 14 August 1936, the massacre at Badajoz has long been used as propaganda against the cruel Franco forces.

Where-is-Badajoz-on-map-SpainThe war was almost one month old. Areas controlled by Nationalist armies were fractured between north and south, and needed to connect their territories. Badajoz, a town of around 41,000, on the border with Portugal, became a prime target. Nationalist forces set out north from Seville on their way towards central Madrid. By August 10, Colonel Juan Yague (a notorious killer, especially of innocents) and his 2250 troops had taken the town of Mérida, just 60 km east from Badajoz. Yague had orders to take Badajoz to help link their north and south frontiers and have the area next to the Portuguese border under their control.

Badajoz was already flooded by refugees from all directions from killings happening in both towns and in the country. Some rich right-wing landowners were even holding days when they and their friends would go killing peasants while on horseback. Killings and reprisals killings were uncontrolled and widespread. For three days, Badajoz suffered aerial bombing from planes donated to the Nationalist troops from Italy and Germany. The town’s mood was one of impending doom.

d98360eac2749741688f3a491ad31773Badajoz from the air 1936

After dawn on 14 August, the Nationalists stormed the north gate of the city, Puerta de Los Carros, and the south gate, Puerta de la Trinidad. While the Republicans managed to hold back the soldiers at the south gate, the brutal Moorish troops won at the north gate, breaching the city and overcoming the barracks inside. An ugly battle ensued, with the Nationalists killing with bayonets and knives as they overtook the whole town. Many Republican militia defected to join the Nationalist troops, and many surrendered. Everyone in sight was killed throughout the day, even when surrendering. All the leaders of the town and Republican militia, including the mayor, had left the town early in the day and made it to Portugal, abandoning the people to their deaths.

The Nationalist troops took much delight in slaughtering as many people as possible, including unarmed women and children. Their leaders had been promoting the use of rape against women as a weapon from the outbreak of war as well. Anyone who wasn’t immediately killed on sight was rounded up. While many were marched to the local bullring and executed by firing squads, many were simple killed on the street. Estimates of between 1000 and 1800 people were executed on the first day of fighting. In one main street, Calle San Juan, around 300 bodies were left there after execution. Through the night and into the next day, anyone even suspected of being a left-wing sympathiser was taken from their homes and sent to the bullring for execution. Journalists ran censored stories about the massacre, including a Portuguese journalist, who fled home with the story, refusing to ever set foot in Badajoz ever again after witnessing torture and execution.

The true death toll of the Badajoz massacre remains unknown, but estimated somewhere between 1300 and 4000 people. No official death toll was taken. Most were killed by firing squad or machine gun fire in the bullring, to the point where prisoners stood ankle-deep in blood with other bodies as they were murdered. Reports of mutilation were made, though exact behaviour is unknown. It was suggested that some were killed bullfight style, chased around and stabbed in the back and then mutilated. The Moorish troops were well-known for their vicious and sadistic nature. Up to 10% of the town died in this one battle.

14a1-cuartelmontanaAn early photo of inside the bullring

The battle of Badajoz gave one of the war’s most famous quotes, when Colonel Yague, who by then had earned his ‘Butcher of Badajoz’ nickname, told an American journalist (with much pride) – “Of course we shot them. What do you expect? Was I supposed to take 4,000 reds with me as my column advanced, racing against time? Was I expected to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?” While the battle is labelled as fighting during a war, much has been said about reclassifying it genocide or a crime against humanity, which it most certainly was.

Around the Badajoz region, another 2000 people were killed by the marching soldiers, mostly farmers. While the Republicans were labelled ‘reds’, the Nationalists were now known as the ‘white terror’. Sadly this was only the start of a long civil war.

fusilamientos_badajoz_1936Firing squad against the wall outside the bullring

The leaders of the defense committee and the mayor were found in Portugal and returned home to face execution a short time later. This battle would be far from Badajoz’s only major battle during the war. But this initial massacre linked the north and south elements of the Nationalists, strengthening their advance on the country.

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This is not a detailed analysis, instead a simplified report of events in Badajoz. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit. Against usual preference, I chose to add the firing squad photos as it is a painfully accurate reflection of the event.