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.

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This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

 Week 8: 5 – 11 September 1936

If you are new and don’t understand the Basque country, it is an independent region of Spain in the far north. It is (roughly on the above map) the green and two smaller red locations to its left, at top under France. Today it is fully restored to its people.

September 5

The beautiful Basque city of Irún, in Spain’s north, is destroyed in battle. The city is in a pivotal location on the coast, and on the borders of both France and the Spanish region of Navarre. As Navarre is a stronghold for the Carlists on the Nationalist side, the 3,000 Republican fighters need to hold Irún in order to gain supplies from France. Nationalist destroyers and battleships have been bombarding the town for almost a month, and also have planes, tanks and 2,000 well-trained soldiers. German and Italian planes bomb the town, and drop pamphlets, warning the population of mass executions like in the town of Badajoz. Most of the battle takes place on the south side of the city near the Convento de San Marcial, where Republicans fighters, made up of Basque nationalists, miners of Asturias (who are akin to fighting), and communists volunteering from France, are alongside the locals. However they lack training and weapons, with only some guns, dynamite, and eventually reduced to throwing rocks.

Republicans surrender in Irún

Fighting goes on throughout the day, and the Republicans shoot vicious Nationalist Colonel Alfonso Beorlegui Canet in the leg, on the international bridge of Irún (he will die a month later of gangrene). But the Republicans are forced to retreat and abandon their city. Anarchist militia set fire to many key locations in the city as they flee, so they cannot be used by the Nationalists. (This decision would lead to many propaganda scenarios throughout the war, as Nationalists would then destroy a town and say ‘the rojos did it, just like in Irún, despite the fact it was untrue) Many of the population flee either to the safety of France if they can, or retreat further into the Basque country. Nationalist forces can now continue on towards the critical port city of San Sebastian, just 20 kilometres away. The Basque country is already cut off from a rest of Republican Spain and is set to become a guinea pig for German bombers practicing for WWII.

Irún post-siege

September 5 – 6

The battle of Cerro Muriano commences in the province of Cordoba, in Spain’s south. Following the battle in the city of Cordoba in August, outlying areas are now ready to be taken by the Nationalists, with Cerro Muriano just 20 kilometres north of the city. The Columna Miaja, which have up to 3,000 Republican fighters in the region, engage in a 36-hour siege between them and violent Regulares soldiers from Morocco and many Spanish Legion troops. The battle leaves a huge number of men dead in the town. The Republican side is completely eliminated while the Nationalist take the town with few deaths.

The battle of Cerro Muriano includes the moment captured of the iconic ‘Falling Soldier’ photograph by Robert Capa, and will be covered in a ‘This Week in Spanish Civil War History Extra’ post.

Falling soldier by Robert Capa

September 6

Italian aircraft arrive on the island of Mallorca to set up new bases, so they can begin serious bombing campaigns on the mainland, especially targeting Barcelona.

September 8

Portuguese sailors on two navy vessels mutiny against their officers, so they can seize the ships and go to Spain, to help the Republicans. But the mutiny is crushed by men who are loyal to Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. The mutiny only strengthens repression against communism and left-wing ideals in Portugal.

September 9

The first Non-Intervention Committee meeting is held in London. The meeting has 23 countries represented, with only Mexico supporting the Republicans. But because the borders are closed and ships patrol the coast, Mexico cannot give the Republican government support or supplies. Larger South American nations such as Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina support the Nationalists, and Germany and Italy are part of the committee, yet their dictators continue to aid the Nationalists. Britain and France are sitting on their hands like naughty children, the US is trying to keep clear, but Russia want to help communist interests within the Republic.

Meanwhile, in Toledo…

Destruction of the Alcázar over September

September 9

The battle of the Alcázar in Toledo has been running since July 21, with 1,000 Nationalists  trapped inside (and two-thirds of them too young/old/female to fight), while the Republicans are unable to breach the castle walls. Republican Major Vicente Rojo Lluch, one of the most prodigious military left-wing men in the war, walks blindfolded with a white flag to the Alcázar to negotiate surrender with Nationalist garrison leader, José Moscardó Ituarte, 1st Count of the Alcázar of Toledo. The Alcázar is now badly damaged but not yet fully breached, with two of its corner towers still standing. Moscardó has already sacrificed his teenage son to the Republicans in July (who held him hostage and let him call his father while being threatened with death. His father told him to die like a patriot and the son was killed one month later) and refuses to surrender the Alcázar to the Republicans. However, Major Rojo does allow for a priest (hard to find since Toledo’s have already been murdered or have fled) to go into the Alcázar and baptise two babies born inside during the siege.

The destruction of one of Spain’s most amazing sights

September 11

A priest with left-wing views (and thus, not yet murdered) arrives from Madrid. Vázquez Camarassa goes inside to do the baptisms and give absolution to those in the Alcázar. That night, Major Rojo and Colonel Moscardó meet again, to negotiate the release of the 500 women and children. The women refuse to leave, opting to take up arms and die rather than surrender to the Republicans. Overnight, grenades are thrown at the Alcázar, cutting off all communication with Colonel Moscardó, which would make a surrender negotiation with the Chilean ambassador the next morning impossible.

Nationalist women and children participate in the siege

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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