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.
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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.

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.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War’ by Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe—a conflict one writer will call “the decisive thing of the century”—six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of Madrid’s loyalist foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause—a struggle that places both of them in peril.
     Hotel Florida traces the tangled wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history. As Hemingway put it, “You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could anywhere in the world.” From the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it out, telling it, and living it—whatever the cost.

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I rarely read reviews before I start reading a book, so they don’t influence my opinion while reading. However, Hotel Florida seemed to pop up everywhere just prior to its release, with reviews written by those with advance copies and the like. Once I received my own copy of the book, I already had the opinions of others going around in my head. For once, it’s not a big deal, and the word that seems to be thrown at this book is ‘compelling’. With characters like Hemingway, Capa, Taro and Gellhorn, how could it be anything but compelling? Given that these characters are not new to anyone, how can pre-conceived stereotypes of characters not interfere with reading? There was only one way to find out.

For those without knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, the book starts out with timelines and facts of the who/what/ where/why’s of the conflict. I must confess I skimmed over these since I already knew the details, but this would prove invaluable to those who need to be shown the way through the civil war. They immediately show a reader that the author has gone to a great deal of effort to produce a quality read.

The book has a stellar cast – Ernest Hemingway, (the man who needs no introduction, booze, girls, writing and fighting), Martha Gellhorn (the hardest character to like, known for being lazy and lying), Robert Capa (brilliant but also fluid with the truth), Gerda Taro (young, intelligent, easy to root for, killed in her prime), Arturo Barea (a budding Spanish writer, a character who could have a whole book to himself) and Ilsa Kulcsar (a brave and intelligent Austrian leftist assisting Barea in his pursuits).

These three couples don’t have a large deal of interaction in the books, and the reader gets to jump from the mind of each character chapter by chapter, in a book which moves at a quick pace. The danger faced in Spain as intensely real and would leave a mark on each of these people forever. Hemingway folds into the role he is known for – brash, loud, writing well enough to tell the world what was happening in Spain, but also jealous and petty around other people. Gellhorn wiggles her way into Hemingway’s life, and his marriage, always possessing the air of someone who can’t be trusted, but could be a good writer with more effort. No one could ever suggest going to Spain during the war was an easy task, and these two were changed by their experiences, but at times seemed to be enjoying the war. It was a grand adventure, of front line reporting and loud Madrid parties. Fans of Gellhorn may enjoy her role in this book, though to the less informed reader, she seems like a privileged girl who lives on her whims. Only after her time in Spain did Gellhorn really come into her own, which only served to crush her marriage to Hemingway.

Capa and Taro are an infamous pair, escaping unsafe homelands in Germany and Hungary, changing their names, and setting out to make a massive impact on how the world saw the Spanish Civil War. The iconic moment when Capa (may or not may not – the book doesn’t say) faked the shot of the falling soldier weaves its way into the narrative as the pair photograph the war. It’s been said that Taro was the genius of the pair, but her death was cruel and left a deep wound in Capa, who had found a soul-mate in Taro in more than a romantic sense. The pair makes for reading that would interest even those who don’t know their exploits and photographs.

Arturo Barea is the best character in the book. The Madrileño, who opens the book contemplating how he doesn’t love his wife or mistress, has a quality different to the others. Barea has more faith in the telling the truth and doesn’t enjoy twisting the facts to make reports sound more favourable for the ever losing Republicans. While Hemingway, Gellhorn, Capa and Taro are not fixated on the truth, rather getting published, Barea is left at odds with them all. Barea finds Hemingway and is ilk to be ‘posturing intellectuals’, and Barea better understands what is stake during the conflict. The Spaniard can see the fate of the Republicans as the war unfolds and realises all Spaniards are going to pay and suffer as a result of the fighting. While others can flee, it is Barea’s home that has to live with the realities of war. He engages in an affair with Ilsa Kulcsar, who had come to Spain from Austria in an attempt to aid the Republicans, and Barea divorced his wife to be with Ilsa, which meant he never saw his children again. By the end of the war, Barea and his disdain for the war and those around him made him an outcast, and he and Ilsa had to flee to Paris with little more than the clothes on their backs. They made lives in Britain with their knowledge of Spain, war and languages in what appeared as a life long love affair.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when reading Hotel Florida – fitting all these larger-than-life characters into one book can’t be easy. It is described as ‘a narrative rather than an academic analysis’, which gives the possibility for rich, engaging characters. All the reviews I have read rave about the work, no doubt because of the level of effort Vaill has exuded while writing. While reading, I couldn’t be sure how I felt about the book – the pace made me feel as if I had fact after fact tossed to me, with so many details to absorb as the characters sped along. The book has an ode to Hemingway with some  long sentences – I counted one at 76 words, just as in the style of the big man himself. Being a narrative, I expected to be shown the story rather than to be told the tale, but this did not happen. The story of Hotel Florida is told to the reader; it does not unfold in any way, rather all the details are laid out and presented. Readers do not need to imagine anything, nor put the pieces together, rather everything is laid on the table with sharp sentences. While you cannot doubt the level of devotion Vaill has for her characters, they don’t have personalities, and readers need to rely on the details given out when engaging with these well-known people. Anyone who has edited a book knows the irritation of having to reduce adverbs or fix sentences ending in a preposition, and these basics haven’t been done in this book, but it makes the story more relaxed as a result.

The book ends with forty pages of notes (around 25% of the book on my Kindle), which shows how much effort the author put into this book. The attention to detail is meticulous, and much credit should go to Vaill for her hard work and commitment to perfection. If you are looking for a sweeping tale of wartime Spain this may not be the book for you, but if are looking for a tell-all of famous faces, then you have come to the right place. An added bonus is the cameo roles of powerhouses such as George Orwell, Kim Philby and others who also made their names in Spain in this era. Whether you want war, idealism (foolish or otherwise), love, lust and sex, or celebrity jealousy and pettiness, Vaill has rolled them together in Madrid’s Hotel Florida.