JANUARY SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly

In 1936 Esmond Romilly, nephew of Great Britain’s ‘War Chancellor’ Winston Churchill and outspoken pacifist, went to fight with the International Brigades for the democratically elected Spanish government against the insurgent fascist general Francisco Franco. This is the unheroic, unsentimental account he wrote immediately after the fighting, fresh and personal like no other, spiced with dry English humor.

There have been other records of the part played by the British members of the International Brigade at the siege of Madrid. But Mr. Romilly’s is the most full. He is one of the two survivors of the original ten British volunteers attached to the Thaelmann Battalion in the early days of the war. So his book has its place in the annals of the contemporary struggle for liberty. He writes easily and simply. There are occasional breaths of Hemingway, but in the later chapters especially he displays a detached casualness—unusual in so young a writer (Mr. Romilly is nineteen)—that is genuinely dramatic and moving. Without heroics he conveys the feelings of those untrained enthusiasts (the author’s military experience was confined to refusing to join his school O.T.C.) suddenly plunged into a battle fought apparently at random. Caught between a cross-fire, the little group was almost wiped out. Their bodies were never found.

cover art and blurb via amazon and spectator

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As mentioned a few weeks in ago in This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 25: 1 -7 January 1937, the battles for Corunna Road and the fight to take the town of Boadilla del Monte, just outside Madrid, were chronicled by 19-year-old English volunteer Esmond Romilly.

The book starts off by promising to account the battle of Boadilla in a straight-forward fashion, as that it does. It tells a very simple story of what happened, all written while fresh in the author’s mind in 1937, as he holidays on honeymoon in France. Romilly came from a rich family, married in another rich family, but for a few months in late 1936 and early 1937, he fought to make ‘Madrid the grave of fascism.’ He had little stamina for the war, but he was an excellent example of unprepared men thrown into a poorly planned battle, so typical of volunteers in Spain.

The book starts with a background of all the main characters that Romilly met on the trip – Joe Gough, Harry Audley, Aussie Whateley, Jerry Fontana, Lorimer Birch, Arnold Jeans, Bill Scott, Tom Mann and Martin Messer. It seems in this short time, Romilly got to know these men very well. After the battle to claim Boadilla, he would go home alone.

The early chapters show him working to get by in France as he makes his way south, arriving in Spain by ship at Valencia. The Albacete training bases had been set up by this time. Romilly describes this as playing at soldiers. He had no idea how to use a rifle, couldn’t speak any Spanish and was constantly suffering dysentery. He met many Germans, Latvians and French men, as well as his fellow Englishmen, and the story tells of the usual difficulties marching with supplies and being hot, of the whole thing having a ‘field day’ atmosphere while away from the front. Romilly has given some people assumed names, most those who were German or went to Germany after the war (it was illegal for Germans to aid the Republicans. Those returning home were jailed).

One thing that stood out was Romilly being told by French communist André Marty that the Republicans needed three things to win the war – political unity, military leaders with experience, and discipline. They had none of these.

Romilly uses assumed names for the towns of his initial battles. Battle starts in chapter 5 when out of nowhere, Romilly finds himself under fire, his first reality in the civil war just south of Madrid. As soon as they hit the front at ‘Noreno’, Romilly gets lost under darkness, and ends up walking miles the wrong way, meeting up with others, and eventually making their way to ‘Melilla’ (thought to be Villaconejos. No one know why Romilly changed the town names). Though as dawn air raids strike, the men are lucky to have gotten lost and in the wrong town.

Romilly seems to run around, never really having a clue what is going on, where they are heading or what to do. Dysentery is the one thing everyone shares, and the bitter cold of being up on the plain around Madrid really hits home, with only those prepped by anarchists in Barcelona are ready for it, as the rest of the Thaelmann Battalion have to struggle on.

The battalion team up with the Garibaldi battalion and thrown into fighting in University City on the northern tip of Madrid. Romilly recalls seeing Moorish soldiers shooting into trenches were his comrades were, their bayonets slashing at those trapped but not killed. He details his time fighting in University City very well, saying the night smelled night ‘dead men, crackling flames and drizzle’.

Romilly soon is in Madrid at the Ritz, swirling brandy and bathing again. He gets eight days’ training in the town (now suburb) of Fuencarral north of Madrid, before heading back to Majadahonda, a village (now suburb) west of Madrid. Now the battles for Corunna Road and the surrounding towns are all on, and Romilly is sent to hold the tiny town of Boadilla. Under the air raids and against the well-prepped Nationalists, the whole battle falls into total chaos, of watching close friends die and running away in blind panic. One by one, as they retreat, Romilly’s friends are killed, not by the Moorish soldiers that anticipated, but by uniformed Spaniards.

Romilly is one of only a couple who survived Boadilla. He speaks of meeting English poet John Cornford along the way, another young Englishman, with his head bandaged. Cornford never made it out alive either. The few remaining living foreigners (just over a dozen volunteers from a combined Spanish and volunteer group of 15,000 at Corunna Road battles) made it to El Pardo (just outside Madrid) where they came to grips with the brutal losses.

Romilly was diagnosed with neuralgia, damaging nerves causing excessive pain, and was sent home, where he married Jessica Mitford, and then wrote the fresh accounts of the men left in the mud at Boadilla. Romilly went on to fight in WWII but died in 1941.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 26: 8 – 15 January 1937

Anarchist supporters in Barcelona

January 8

The Popular Executive Committee of Valencia is dissolved. The Committee is one of eight main groups set up to look after regions (broken into almost smaller 600 collectives) which have been participating in the Spanish Revolution, an anarchist-driven change in way of life for workers of their regions. Aragon was the main driver of this movement, along with neighbouring Catalonia and Valencia regions. Workers unions were collectivised and land is redistributed between workers to create a new, more equal society. At its peak, between five to seven million people were involved in participating in this enormous and ambitious change. Now through three main phases of its operation, the end is coming to much of the programme, which is suffering for a myriad of reasons (this post could go on for months if I get too detailed). The Popular Executive Committee of Valencia, which set laws and rules in the region, is taken over by the Republican government, which can now take control of anarchist popular militias. The militias now have to join the Popular Army and fight officially for the Republicans and fight under the command of professional army officers (anarchist principles are against hierarchy). While the revolution is huge and successful many places, the collapsing of major collectives such as the Popular Executive Committee signals the beginning of the end for the anarchist revolution. (Click on the above or below photos captions to read more about the collectives and revolution)

Examples of anarchist money coupons issues in some collective areas. Other areas did away with money completely

January 9

The second battle for Corunna Road outside Madrid is coming to a close. In one day, the Nationalists take seven miles of the road between Las Rozas and Puerta de Hierro. The Republicans and International Brigades have all been killed, and a handful have managed to flee, leaving the Nationalists to control the critical supply road into Madrid.

The Garabaldi battalion, part of the XII International Brigade

January 10

The XII International Brigades (mostly Spanish volunteers, along with Italian, Franco-Belgian and Albanian volunteers) enter the region from Madrid to start the third Corunna Road battle. The next five days of fighting shall see them fight to recapture the northwest Madrid areas of Majadahonda, Villanueva, Pozuelo and Boadilla, all areas taken during the Corunna Road battles. The heavy fog has dropped on the region again making fighting cold, wet and difficult.

January 11

The Nationalist forces, which have only just finished the battles killing so many Republicans, have lost up to 15,000 men themselves (the same as the Republican side) and take cover in trenches in the under siege Madrid areas, as they are suffering from their casualties and lack of supplies.

Republican forces lying in ambush in a village near Madrid

January 15

The third battle of Corunna Road ceases. The Nationalists have convincingly won the first and second waves of battle, and now both sides are exhausted. The XII International Brigades do not have the men or supplies to take back any of the northwest Madrid areas, and the Nationalists can’t get any further with their numbers. Both sides are now exhausted and give up in their plans. The Corunna Road route is still technically open and supplies still have a chance of getting through to Madrid, though now the city will have to rely more on the roads coming from Valencia and Aragon in the east/northeast.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’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 are linked to source for credit.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 21 and 22: 5 – 19 December 1936

Week 21 and 22: 5 – 19 December 1936

December 11

Germany, Italy and Portugal are still helping the Nationalist rebel cause despite signing the Non-Intervention Agreement. Julio Alvarez del Vayo, Spain’s delegate to the League of Nations, gives a speech in Geneva, arguing they must pull out from supporting the rebel cause. He also blasts the democractic nations still holding to the Non-Intervention pact for isolating the elected Spanish government. The committee for non-intervention and its signees are either helping the invaders or sitting back for personal comfort, making the whole situation worse.

Julio Álvarez del Vayo

December 13

The Aceituna Campaign starts when the Nationalists try to take the town of Andújar, near Jaén in Spain’s south. They attack with 4,000 troops, occupying 2,600 square kilometres and quickly take the small town Lopera. It is the start of a three-week campaign, with the first week seeing little advance as the Nationalists occupy uninhabited country areas in preparation to take protected towns. Part of the campaign includes saving the 1,200 fascists trapped in the Siege of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Cabeza, a hilltop monastery which has been a sanctuary since the outbreak of war. By now, troops are around 20 kilometres from the monastery but no help is provided to the civilians inside (though they have been getting air drops of supplies since August).

A great many number of people were displaced around the Andújar region in 1936

December 13

Hot on the heels of the first campaign, The Second Battle of Corunna Road starts north of Madrid. The Nationalists have already tried to cut the Corunna Road so nothing can get in or out of Madrid but failed, and launch another attack. The battle will last for over a month before the Nationalist control the road but still cannot cut Madrid off from the rest of Spain.

SPAIN. Madrid. November-December 1936. Republican soldiers.

Republicans take a break (morale and sanity were low by this time) – Robert Capa

December 14

Troops, tanks and machine guns are used by the Nationalists to take the town of Boadilla del Monte (now a suburb of Madrid), as part of the Battle for Corunna Road. Russian tanks and International Brigades on behalf of the Republicans fight back and take the town back, but are surrounded by the Nationalists. The fighting continues until December 19 when the Nationalists retreat to focus on other areas in the Corunna Road area.

Snipers (wo)manning the Aragon front

December 17

A new government, Consejo de Aragon, is established in the northeast anarchist stronghold of the Aragon region. The front line keeping Aragon safe is an anarchist and socialist coalition. Villages have already started their revolution, changing to live under anarchist ideals, with self-organization, collectives to run farms and factories, and public shared rule. Money is replaced with anarchist approved coupons in some areas, and land and wealth is distributed evenly between all. This area is the most radically changed by self-governing revolution.

Agarian collective workers in Aragon

 

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’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 are linked to source for credit.