This Week in Spanish Civil War History – November 1937: The Halfway Point

In a war which lasted almost three full years, November 1937 is the approximate halfway point in the destruction of Spain. Spain was already a deeply divided nation, struggling with multiple inside forces and serious social and economic issues, and while civil war is tragic, Spain had come to a point where it was inevitable. The working class was deeply oppressed and dire need for salvation, which could come from nowhere but within. Franco’s initial coup in July 1936 was thwarted only by the men and women who rose up in haste, without training or preparation, in a  desperate attempt to free themselves and save their country from fascism.

(Before we continue, this is a quick round-up of posts I have done throughout the war, not a detailed breakdown. Ease up on the posts saying I wasn’t specific enough. You have been warned. All links open a new tab so you don’t lose the timeline of the events).

The opening weeks of the war saw Spaniards forced to take sides, to align themselves with the military taking control of their cities and towns, often with the Guardia Civil on their side, or instead arm themselves as best they could and align themselves with the Spanish government, the Republican side, to try to hold off the rebels. Within weeks the battle lines were strong; much of southern Spain was conquered by a marching army of rebels, with massive bloodshed in cities and countryside alike. Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona were firmly Republican and fighting within themselves, while in the north, the Basques, Cantabrians, Asturians and Galicians fought to maintain their autonomy over the rebels. Slaughter occurred in Santander and Asturias as rebels initially overpowered these centres, only to be beaten back again. Much north of Madrid beneath these independent areas backed Franco and the killing continued. Click here to read Weeks 1 and 2:  July 1936

August saw thousands slaughtered in the summer heat. The battle of Badajoz saw up to 4000 killed in days. Cordoba suffered massive fighting and killing as troops stormed the southern city. The famous poet Federico García Lorca was taken and murdered outside Granada. While Madrid continued to defend itself, the nearby town of Talavera de la Reina suffered mass slaughter. Click here to read all of August 1936

September saw the huge attack on the Alcazar of Toledo, as well as the formation of the International Brigades, all foreign volunteers who decided to flood into Spain in an effort to stop fascism taking hold. Major nations such as England, France and the US decided to say out while Hitler and Mussolini decided to back their fascist mate Franco.

Through October and November the killings continued, the Spanish government collapsed, and the Catalonia and Aragon regions in the northeast began life as anarchist regions, creating their social revolution where control was handed back to the people. The siege of Madrid began as Franco fought to take the capital and end the war, and the Russians provided tanks and equipment to aid the socialist/anarchist/worker unions/communist Republicans. In the north, and Asturias took heavy losses as they were bombed from the air by German planes. After leaving Barcelona, Buenaventura Durruti was killed in Madrid, a huge set-back for the social revolution in the northwest. Also in Madrid,  Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera is executed.

By the time the year ended, Madrid had been heavily bombed but not taken by the rebels, and the International Brigades had set up and integrated (as well as they could) into the Republican troops. The Republicans were not taking much ground but continuing to hold main centres in the east, along with Madrid. Click here to read all about December 1936

January and February held battles fought in heavy fog and rain, including much fighting outside Madrid, and Jarama, just northwest of the capital. Militias in Catalonia and Aragon held fast to their social revolution, while the Basques suffered heavy losses again as they held off the rebels. In Málaga in the south, the city was invaded when they could not defend themselves, sending thousands to flee along to the coast to relatively safe Almeria. Thousands were slaughtered as they walked the perilous road, where refugees were exposed, then bombed and shot as they fled. Click here to read about the Málaga/Almería massacre.

The bloody battles of Jarama and Guadalajara continued through March, and in April, 32,000 children started being shipped from the Basque country overseas in order to save their lives. The rebel army of the north is intensifying its efforts, with the now-infamous bombing of Durango and Guernica.

May saw the intense bombing of the new Republican capital city of Valencia, along with the fighting in the May Day fighting in Barcelona. June was an especially brutal month, with huge frontlines drawn up along the region of Aragon, battles in the Sierra de Guadarrama outside Madrid, Bilbao in the Basque Country was bombed and invaded, and in Barcelona, leader Andreu Nín was kidnapped and murdered in a Madrid prison.

Battles around Madrid, in Boadilla, Sierra de Guadarrama and Brunete saw huge fighting and casualties for both sides as the war reached its first anniversary. Legendary war photographer Gerda Taro was killed outside Brunete, and no nation except Russia comes to the Republicans’ aid as they are slaughtered by the fascists and their Moorish soldiers.

August 1937 focussed on the north. With the Basque region taken by the rebels, they turned east to take Santander in the Cantabria region. By September, the fascists again moved east again to take Gíjon in the Asturias region, with heavy mountainous battles taking place on cliffs that had kept Asturias safe from invaders for centuries. By October, Asturias was defeated by the northern army and could keep going west to claim Galicia, and Valencia is stripped of its title of capital of Spain in favour safer Barcelona. The Republican alliances of multiple militias fell apart, and many are fired from government and imprisoned, political alliances were ruined, and the dislike for the powerful communists pulled the left apart. The social revolution has suffered setbacks, including heavy battles and losses in the Aragon region, and there was breakdown of working class support in Barcelona.

By November 1937, the frontlines have moved little in some time, with the exception of the conquering of the northern regions. Madrid remains in Republican hands, along with the Valencia, Aragon, Catalonia and Almería region in the east. All regions have suffered serious losses, but little ground is gained in seriously bloody battles.The north is now under Franco’s control, along with all the south and the western Extremadura region. The strong left-wing cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are targets for the well-trained fascist brigades. The month of November saw little of major battles taking place, as both sides are exhausted from the fighting, and small breakouts of fighting yield little results for either side. The new target for the fascists is Teruel, a strong city in the Aragon region, which is about to see one of the war’s biggest fights go down in a particularly brutal winter.

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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 and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 53/54: 17 – 31 July 1937

July 17

The Republicans are ill, battered, without serious supplies and suffering from their massive losses. They dig in all areas in the Brunete front and prepare for the Nationalist counterattack they know is coming. Some 38,000 Nationalists are coming.

The war is one year old today. Spain is fractured and blood had spilled in every city and village. No one is safe. No end is in sight. No saviour is coming.

July 18

The Nationalists begin their counteroffensive both on the frontlines and in the air at dawn. The Republicans have dug in and hold them off, except for a small portion in the north of Quijorna and east in Boadilla. The Republicans lose many men in the hills outside Quijorna while holding their ground. The air attack is at its heaviest, with the Nationalists have 80 planes in the air, the Republicans 60. British volunteer and well-known poet Julian Bell is killed while driving an ambulance.

July 19

The Republicans launch a huge counteroffensive outside Boadilla on the Guadarrama river. Both sides struggle to fight in the intense summer weather. Losses are mounting on both sides and little is being achieved on all fronts.

July 20

Brunete is still in Republican hands while the frontlines keep changing and each side loses control and then regains it. Three large Republican brigades take 20 tanks and claim Las Rozas south of Brunete. The eastern and northern frontlines remain unchanged and the western front in Quijorna sees huge fighting.

July 24

Republican forces manage to cross the Guadarrama river towards Boadilla but the battle is not moving much in any direction and losses are still mounting in the vicious Spanish summer.  The Nationalists finally break the stalemate and make a push towards Brunete from the south. The Nationalists now have 65 artillery batteries in the south, compared to the Republicans’ 22. Air reinforcements for the Nationalists help and they break into the south of Brunete itself. The 11th Republican division have to retreat north as the Nationalists take Brunete by mid-afternoon. The Republicans in the east are under attack, and more Nationalists from southern Madrid head to the Boadilla area, leading the Republicans to lose their control of the whole area.

July 25

Líster Republican 11th division is north of Brunete near the cemetery and are forced to totally withdraw from Brunete and much of the area is now in Nationalist hands. Republicans are withdrawing on all fronts and there will be no more large battles, only sporadic fighting as the Republicans retreat.

The Republicans are suffering in many ways. The International Brigades have suffered terrible losses, and men are angry, deserting or fighting among themselves and their Spanish counterparts. The Nationalists decide to stop the battles as the men are needed in the north in Santander again.

The famous photographer Gerda Taro is near Brunete when her car is hit by a Republican tank. Taro will die a day after the accident.

Taro would die the day after this photo was taken

July 26

The Republicans have not cut off the Extremadura Road, meaning the Army for the South can still give supplies to Madrid Nationalists, but Republicans do still hold Villanueva de la Cañada, Quijorna and Villanueva del Pardillo. The Republicans have lost upwards of 25,000 men and 100 planes. The Nationalists have suffered also, with 17,000 men lost, though the German Condor Legion have only lost 23 planes in the battles. The International Brigades have lost many men, and their equipment and artillery is in tatters. The Nationalists are heading back to conquer northern Spain, leaving the Communists wounded in pride and numbers, leaving them less powerful among the Spanish government. For all their losses, the frontlines around the area have moved a mere five kilometres in the Republicans’ favour, but the north is back in the firing line after a short break.

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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 and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 51/52: 3 – 17 July 1937

July 6

Under the cover of pre-dawn, the Republican men (between 70-85,000 total for the battle, 22,000 for the initial attack), commanded by General Miaja, sneak deep behind the Nationalist front lines, who lack troops on the ground. Rather than having men along the front lines, the Nationalists have men stationed at a series of towns north and east of Brunete (see map), their headquarters in Navalcarnero, 15kms south of Brunete. At dawn, the Republicans bombard all the towns around Brunete by air with 100 planes brought to the well-planned battle, and heavy artillery is used on the ground, catching the Nationalists off guard. General Líster and his newly reformed 11th division manage to advance 8kms through the front lines and circle around Brunete. By midday, the Republicans have the strategic town of Brunete. While the town does not have anything particular the Republicans want, it was proof they could dig into Nationalist territory and fight their enemy. This was to convince the Soviets to send more aid, and the French to open their borders to arms shipments.

The Nationalists, still commanded by General Varela, quickly pull together reinforcements around the area, and by midday as the Republicans claimed Brunete, the Nationalist 12th, 13th and 150th divisions are ready to fight back. The Nationalists have 45,000 troops in the immediate area to fight back. The Republicans quickly are met with resistance as they seek to storm south of Brunete, but are held in the town. The Republicans, flanked by the 34th and 46th divisions, attempt to break towards Quijorna, 6kms north-west of Brunete itself, but also cannot fight the sudden onslaught of Nationalists. The advance of the Republicans on the first day surprises even themselves, and the XVIII Army Corps, another 20,000 men (the 10th, 13th and 34th divisions) are not deployed, as they were not expected to be needed.

The east-located Republicans, who planned to fight from Carabanchel, the most southern suburb of Madrid, never break through the front lines, the Nationalists close into Madrid in full control of the area. The Republicans use heavy artillery bombing and still cannot break the Nationalists around Madrid.

July 7

An overnight stalemate outside the village of Villanueva de la Cañada ends at 7am when the 15th division, with the British XV International Brigades, take the town and Nationalists flee. The villages of Villanueva del Pardillo and Villafranca del Castillo, 9kms north of Villanueva de la Cañada, are still held by Nationalists. The 15th division need to head to Boadilla, 12km east of Villanueva de la Cañada, so the 10th division attacks the Nationalists on nearby Mosquito Ridge. The Republicans force the Nationalists back to Boadilla, which is only 18kms from southern Madrid.

Fires are starting to break out in the dry landscape outside Brunete due to firepower being used. Neither side make any advancements. The Republicans are keen to fight off each small resistance as they come, rather than moving around them and onto larger targets. This gives the Nationalists time to bring in fresh men.

Republican tanks seen by Gerda Taro outside Brunete

July 8

The Republican XVIII Army Corps of 20,000 men attack under darkness to cross the Guadarrama River and head east towards Boadilla and attack the Nationalists trying to hold the front lines outside Boadilla. Fighting continues after daybreak and the Republicans win, only to be repelled later in the day.

The Republicans in Madrid again attack the front lines at Carabanchel and fail. They will not attack here again as the circle around Madrid is a Nationalist priority and will not fail. The Nationalists also still hold the village of Quijorna west of Brunete. Franco sends 31 battalions, seven batteries of artillery and the entire Condor Legion (around 70 planes) from the Basque Country to help the Nationalists, finally giving the battered Basques a break.  The Republicans still have little more than their WWI artillery and guns with the troops.

International Brigades outside Boadilla

July 9

Two Republican brigades attack Quijorna, and take the village after suffering massive losses. Republican troops headed east towards Boadilla have suffered such great losses that they are now stranded, so close to the village itself. The Republican air support, while starting strong, are now outpaced by the German Condor Legion, who are taking control of the skies.

July 10

The Republican 60th division and XII International Brigades take Villanueva del Pardillo with tanks. Around 500 Nationalists are captured along with precious ammunition. Nearby Villafranca del Castillo is surrounded by Republicans by the 10th and 45th divisions.

Taken by Gerda Taro with Republican men outside Brunete

July 11

Colonel Jurado of the XVIII Army Corps plans a huge assault on Villafranca del Castillo, but falls ill and is replaced by co-leader Colonel Casado, who cancels the assault due to morale and fatigue. They are forced to engage by Republican leader General Miaja. The Nationalists are reinforced from a division arrived from Navarre and repel the assault. The Nationalists then try to take back Villanueva del Pardillo, but fail. Overhead these villages, huge air battles are being fought, up to 30 planes flying in formation against similar numbers in retaliation, with losses on both sides.

On the ground throughout the whole area, both sides are suffering horrific losses. American communist Oliver Law, commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, is killed while fighting on Mosquito Hill, the ridge outside the town of Boadilla, among heavy Republican losses.

July 12

France decides to open its border with Spain (the point of the Brunete attack, to show Spain’s strength), and enormous amounts of weapons and equipment is shipped into Spain over several days, vital for the Republican cause to continue. France has violated the Non-Intervention clause, but this is retaliation for the Fascist Germans and Italians constant assistance the war on behalf of Nationalists.

July 14

The Republicans are suffering huge losses, not just from fighting. The extreme heat in the area plus lack of water has injured many men. Most Republican brigades, Spanish and International, have lost between 40 to 60 percent of their men in a week. The XIV International Brigades have lost 80 percent of the men. Total losses have not yet been tallied though between 15,000 and 20,000 Republicans are now dead, the Nationalists suffering similar.

Republicans outside Boadilla

July 16

British volunteer Major George Nathan dies while commanding the XV International Brigades when a bomb detonates at his post near Boadilla. Attacks on all fronts are now minor and General Miaja of the Republican Army wants to end the offensive. The Republicans have Brunete and have cut off the Extremadura Road. The Basque country is relieved by diverted Nationalist troops and planes. The Republicans look strong in the eyes of the French and Soviets again, and their main objectives have been achieved. However the Nationalists surrounding Madrid have not yet been totally cut off from the Army of the South.

July 17

The Republicans are ill, battered, without serious supplies and suffering from their massive losses. They dig in all areas in the Brunete front and prepare for the Nationalist counterattack they know is coming. Some 38,000 Nationalists are coming.

The war is one year old today. Spain is fractured and blood had spilled in every city and village. No one is safe. No end is in sight. No saviour is coming.

Republicans dig in outside Brunete

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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 and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

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.

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.