This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 100 – 103: 1 – 30 June 1938

100 weeks into the 80th anniversary blog and still going, not a week missed (okay, sometimes late, but life happens)!

June 6

The small town of Bielsa on the border with France has been home to the Bielsa Pocket, all-out fighting for almost two months. The town of 4,000 people has been protected by the Republican 43rd division led by Antonio Beltran, though they have lost many men. The Nationalists have the entire Aragon and Huesca regions under their control, and only need to defeat the 43rd division, which have only half the number of men and almost no artillery. Much of the population of the Pineta Valley area around Bielsa has followed the Alto Cinca river north  to the border into France, which is still currently open. But on the morning of June 6, the Nationalists break through the frontline to take the town of Biesla. The battle has no importance to the war, yet the hold-up since mid-April means that many Republicans have been able to flee to safety through the difficult terrain into France. This delay in the Nationalist march gives the Republicans a huge morale boost as the 6,000 Republican soldiers bravely fought back.

Pineta valley and Alto Cinca river into France

June 13

The Levante Offensive has continued, despite the huge cache of Soviet artillery the Republicans have received over the French  border. The Nationalists, continuing their three-pronged attack from the north, west, and northwest battalions, take Castellón, capital of the Levante region of north Valencia. It is General Rafael Garcia Valiño’s northwest battalion which has fought its way south through the harsh mountainous terrain, bombing and destroying villages such as Benassal, Albocásser, Ares del Maestrat, and Vilar de Canes. Many in this arid region have never seen bombs or German aircraft, and were killed without resistance. Vilafamés  has an airfield which makes the village a target, the town crushed in the Nationalist trek south to Castellón. Castellón is a key port for the Nationalists to gain, to receive more equipment needed to continue south.

Vilafames in 1938

(Side note: I first visited Vilafamés 13 years ago, when it was still a loooong way off the tourist trail, and is still quiet now. Finding any evidence of the SCW was either hidden or locked away from the public.  The locals thought me suspicious, a foreigner loaded down with babies and looking for war info. Lots of old ladies twitching their curtains. 

In February this year, Vilafamés reopened the old war airfield and its 11,000 square-metre area, home to the old aviation telecommunications tower,  air-raid shelters, staff kitchens, 200 metres of trenches, basic shelters, ammunition store, pilot flying records, a life-size replica of a Polikarpov I-15 ‘Chato’ aircraft, and memorial plaques. All of these areas are fully accessible to the public, considered a living museum, and also has a full military re-enactment camp, medical tents, radio posts and machine gun positions. They have also written a book on the area, which is a good read if you know Spanish, though being filled with photographs and artwork, anyone can enjoy) 

Click here to read more about the book and authors

Franco wants to be in Valencia by July 25, only 70km south of Castellón, and wants the port village of Sagunto, just 30km north of Valencia, immediately. But the Condor Legion are exhausted after bombing their way south through the Levante, and wants to be withdrawn. Generals call for the battle to Valencia to be abandoned, but Franco will not oblige. By the end of the month, Franco will reinforce the Levante troops, now given new leaders, fresh men and an enormous artillery, with some 900 cannons, 400 new aircraft and 50 Italian bombers. The men will be put into the Turia corps, but the second half of June yields little result. The Sierra Espada, the mountains leading from Sagunto on the coast northwest towards Teruel are impossible terrain for Nationalist troops, and the Republicans have managed to hold them back. The reinforcements are coming, and yet the Republicans are in a firm position to hold Sagunto and Valencia.

There are still many war secrets hidden in this area

June 16

The Republican fighters who held the Bielsa pocket complete their final retreat, with the last troops crossing the border into France. The French government gives them a choice – they can re-enter Spain on the Republican or Nationalist side. While 411 men and five nurses choose to join the Nationalists, another 6,000 re-enter Spain to continue the fight against the Francoists.

The 43rd division

June 25

The border from Spain to France as been open since March 17, allowing many people over to safety and weapons in to fight Franco’s men. But the flow of weapons and refugees has taken a toll on France and its relations with other nations in Europe. The border is ordered closed again, cutting off countless thousands from reaching safety. The closure of the border means that Spaniards are completely on their own again while the Nationalists still have access to men and weapons via Italy and Germany. With the border again closed and countries all trying to stay out of the war while they worry about European war, the time the International Brigades can remain in Spain is starting to look short, but first shall come July’s Ebro Offensive.

The below video has no date of the footage nor the location it was shot, but does show how many wished to escape into France on any given day during the precious three months the border was open. 

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW SERIES – MAY: ‘Spanish Crossings’ by John Simmons

Spanish Crossings is an epic tale of love, politics and conflict, with the yearning but elusive possibility of redemption. A woman’s life has been cast in shadow by her connection to the Spanish Civil War. We meet Lorna in Spain, 1937 as she falls in love with Harry, a member of the International Brigade who had been at Guernica when it was bombed. Harry is then killed in the fighting and Lorna fears she might have lost her best chance of happiness. Can she fill the void created by Harry’s death by helping the child refugees of the conflict? She finds a particular connection to one boy, Pepe, and as he grows up below the radar of the authorities in England their lives become increasingly intertwined. But can Lorna rely on Pepe as he remains deeply pulled towards the homeland and family that have been placed beyond his reach? Coming through the war, then the post-war rebuilding, Lorna and Pepe’s relationship will be tested by their tragic and emotive history.

cover and blurb via amazon 

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Having written a string of Spanish Civil War novels, and read countless more, my enthusiasm is beginning to wane at times (having said that, I plan to write plenty more). To hold my interest, an author needs to come up with a new angle, especially when it comes to the International Brigades, who get far more books written about them than the forgotten local heroes of the war. So thank you to John Simmons, who has tried something outside the usual storyline and predictable ending.

Lorna is fairly typical young woman of her time who works in London. Lorna has a lover, Harry, who volunteers to fight in Spain while his country stands idly by. Only Harry goes and gets killed at Guernica. The pain is real for Lorna, who loses someone in the worst way, killed and largely forgotten in a war his country won’t recognise. Of course, Lorna’s experience isn’t a rare one during the Spanish Civil War, but how she learns to cope is unique. Lorna works at a law firm, which is working with Spanish refugee children.

Pepe has been shipped to England, as were thousands of Basque children during the war, in an attempt to keep them safe as the fascists invaded and destroyed their own country. Lorna ‘adopts’ Pepe, and how Lorna learns to live with Harry’s loss is entwined with how Pepe copes with being sent from the Basque Country and his family left to their fate.

Lorna has been torn from a loved one killed in hell, and Pepe longs for his homeland, the hell which killed Harry. But Pepe is an innocent bystander in this mess, and Lorna’s friendship might just be the only way to save them both. The children of the Basque country became foreigners a country that doesn’t fully understand the complexity or the horror that is happening in Spain, and life in London in the late 1930’s is described beautifully without the usual clichés.

This book allows people to feel what it would have been like for all the Lorna’s and Pepe’s of the age, and the realities of having to cope in a world sinking into fascism. There are plenty of lessons to learn that could be just as meaningful for 2018 as the 1930’s.

From the ship which took 4,000 people to England (when it should have taken about 800), to pre-war London, the bombings of WWII, and beyond is shared by Lorna, the book capped by moments told by Lorna’s son at either end.  Happiness is not simple or attainable for everyone, and what it means to heal and be happy again is different for every person. Lorna and Pepe are a shining glimpse to a time when life and death, reality and art, truth, lies and propaganda, love, friendship and home all meant different things.  Thank you to John Simmons, for a refreshing take on a classic story.

 

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW – APRIL: ‘Albi’ by Hilary Shepherd

A poignant, compassionate glimpse into the life of a child caught in a country at war with itself

Albi is nine years old when Franco’s soldiers arrive in the village and his life begins to change in confusing ways. It’s not clear quite who should be trusted and who should not. Some neighbours disappear not to be seen again, others are hidden from view in cellars and stables – like his brother, Manolo, who left long ago to join the resistance. Albi is charged with shepherding not just his own sheep, but also those of El Ciego who sends him on errands requiring a good memory and the ability to keep his mouth shut at all times.

Alberto, at 88, is haunted by what he did and what he may or may not have said. And then the daughter of his old friend Carlos turns up wanting stories of old times. Albi’s day of reckoning may be at hand…

cover and blurb via Honno Press

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Here we are – yet another Spanish Civil War book, which alternates between present day and the 1930’s. All I can say is – yay! I’ve written three of these myself, so I’m always pleased to find another one, but this one is different to many I have stumbled across.

The book starts in present time, where Alberto has just been to a funeral, of his friend, Carlos, who grew up with Alberto in rural Aragon. The remembrance of his childhood friend takes Alberto back to the time where he was known as Albi, only aged nine, and the memories he still hasn’t managed to shake.

It’s September 1938, and Republican Aragon is being eaten up by Nationalist rule. Not a story about the frontline, but rather this book takes us into the lives of those who lived during the war under their new fascist rulers, and the reality that they faced in the uproar of the civil war. Poor Albi is only a boy, and his parents, three sisters and his senile grandmother are forced to live under the Guardia soldiers who have occupied their town. Albi’s bother Manolo was gone off with the Republican army and is already a ghost in Albi’s life. Things start hard and frightening for Alibi, adjusting to soldiers everywhere, curfews in place, and odd screaming echoing, but the adults in Albi’s life won’t share anything with him. Albi herds sheep for his disabled father, but whisperings in his house start leading to a slow demise for Albi as his family falls apart with illnesses, hushed up mysteries, secret weddings, and daring daybreak escapes.

Albi and Carlos are kids caught in a real disaster destroying their country. But Albi’s life takes a dangerous turn when he starts passing messages and spending time with Mena, a woman from Valencia who stands out, and  Mena is not one to sit back as war changes their country. The marquis are in the Aragonese hillside, rebel fighters prepared to take on Francoist soldiers, regardless of the cost.

Albi’s trips to see Mena lead him to a moment in the war he cannot forget, not even in 2017 when Alberto’s story has caught the attention of people making a show about the war. While Carlos’ granddaughter is telling the stories she was told, Albi is the one with the real truth, the truth Carlos didn’t know or share. Death came to Albi’s village and he is the only witness who knows the truth, which haunts his dreams nearly 80 years on. But is 80 years enough for Alberto to be ready to tell the whole truth?

Many thanks should be given to the author, as Shepherd has written a book about those who tend to get forgotten. While I write the weekly updates about the war and major battles, it is people in the cities and villages already ‘conquered’ who get forgotten about, who had to live under the cruel rule of their new leaders. Shepherd has told that story through the eyes of a child, who doesn’t take sides, as his innocence will be destroyed either way. The doesn’t dwell on detail and accurately gives the point of view of a child, a messy and confused state in a world which wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Albi is available April 19.

 

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 82-85: 80 Years Since the Battle of Teruel, February 1938

February  7

In the last calvary charge of modern warfare, the Nationalists attack Teruel from the north, while Republican forces are centred in the south of the town.  The Nationalists launch an attack along the Alfambra river north of Teruel, a front-line thirty kilometres long with 100,000 men and 500 guns. This massive charge in an undefended area means the Nationalists make it through the front-lines and into Teruel itself. The Republicans who can, run for their lives, scattered out in every direction to hide or be slaughtered. Generals Yague and Aranada consider this their moment of victory in the Teruel battle.

the leftovers of Teruel town itself

February 18

Many Republcians are still in hiding in the Teruel area, and Aranda and Yague have to ensure the town is cut off completely from any further reinforcements reaching the surrounding areas. Anyone left alive not on the Nationalist side must be pulled out of their hiding places and killed. Since the Alfambra charge, the Republicans have lost more than 22,000 men, including 7,000 prisoners, and the Nationalists have claimed an area of 1300 square kilometres around Teruel.

Republicans defenders in Teruel before their capture

February 20

The road from Teruel east to Valencia is destroyed, cutting the area off from the relatively safe Republican city. No one can reach Teruel or surrounding villages and areas, as all mountains and roads are Nationalist front-lines. General Saravia for the Republicans orders a total retreat of all Republicans and International Brigades from this lower Aragon area. Some 14,500 men are still trapped in the new Nationalist zone and have no chance to be rescued or have reinforcements fight their way in to help them in battle.

civilians fleeing the Teruel region

February 22

Well known Communist leader El Campesino (Valentín González González), manages to break through Nationalist lines and escape, where he claims he was left by other Communist leaders to die. The Nationalists now have all of the Teruel region to themselves, and declare victory. Their prize is around 10,000 Republican bodies strewn through the town itself. It is estimated that around 85,000 Republicans have been killed, and around 57,000 Nationalists are dead. 

The Nationalists, though battered, can quickly resupply men in the area, thanks to taking the massive factories in the Basque country the year before. But the Republicans have lost the bulk of their men and all of their airforce has been destroyed and cannot be replaced. Not only that but Republican morale has fallen desperately, and now they have no towns or areas in which they occupy to keep Valencia or Barcelona safe from the ever-increasing Nationalists. Franco is ready to begin the new Aragon offensive, to push through to the eastern coast and crush these two cities.

February 25

Any remaining Republicans, Communists and International Brigades left alive in Aragon huddle to form a front line along the bank of the Alfambra river, about 40 kilometres north of the Teruel town itself. As the Nationalists prepare for the upcoming Aragon offensive, these men have no plans or artillery to aid them.
International Brigades after seeking safety north of Teruel

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII’ by Seamus O’Caellaigh

Henry VIII lived for 55 years and had many health issues, particularly towards the end of his reign.

In Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain, historian Seamus O’Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry’s reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry’s physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments.

Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents, this book is a treat for the eyes and is full of information for those with a love of all things Tudor. Each illness and accident has been given its own section in chronological order, including first-hand accounts, descriptions of the treatments and photographic recreations of the treatment and ingredients.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The title doesn’t exactly make someone dash to the store for this book, but to miss out would be a real shame. O’Caellaigh has dived into a complex subject and combined it with a visually stunning piece of work to create a detailed life story of Henry and his illnesses, a book which came in very handy for me personally, as well as a great read.

Much is known of Henry’s health, combined with letters written by his doctors and those who were close to the king. Henry’s health changed dramatically throughout his life and had a stark impact on the relationship he had with his wives. Because of this behaviour with these queens, the Tudors have become infamous.

Anyone who has looked for info on Henry’s health will know there is much out there, and not all of it accurate. The author has tried to use primary sources, a great challenge for the time period, as doctors did not keep records as they now do. But through sheer determination it seems, O’Caellaigh has tracked down Henry’s prescription book as well as handwritten records from the Royal British Library. This is combined with letters in the court at the time, and the author has had to push through the accounts to separate truth from rumour.

One original and lucky bonus in this book is the photographs. As Henry was a handsome man, then a huge man, physical appearance would have been important in Tudor times. So this book has been dressed accordingly, with lavish photos of Tudor medicine and history. The photos are a welcome addition to the book.

While there are numerous books that look at Henry’s wives and the destruction of the church, this book looks at Henry from a unique angle, and also catalogues the changes and advancements made during Henry’s life. As Henry’s health and recovery from injuries made such a  difference to his reign, to makes sense to write a book on the details of how people survived during this period. I got a copy of this book not expecting a long read, and yet, to my delight, found it to be fascinating and well-researched. I am extremely pleased to have this book in my digital library and will definitely go back to it time and again.