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 23 and 24: 19 – 31 December 1936

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love

John Cornford, English volunteer killed one day after his 21st birthday.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – a round-up to the end of the first deadly year. Week 23 and 24: 19 – 31 December 1936

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December 20

The Nationalist Aceituna Offensive through Andalusia in Spain’s south continues –

The Nationalist troops are controlling small towns throughout southern Spain. Around 4,000 men, all Moroccan soldiers and Spanish troops, take the town of Bujalance, right in the centre of southern Spain, near Córdoba.

The Nationalists are still trying to occupy the town of Boadilla del Monte, in constant battle with the XII and XIV International Brigades, just outside Madrid. General Orgaz Yoldi leading the Nationalist troops decides to end the stalemate and retreats, leaving the Corunna Road into Madrid again in Republican hands.

December 22

The same troops who occupied Bujalance move on to take control of the nearby towns of Pedro Abad and Villafranca de Córdoba. This leads the Republicans to set up the new Army of the South under General Fernando Martínez-Monje Restoy, with International Brigades dispatched to the Córdoba front.

Thousands of Italian volunteers arrive in Nationalist-held Cádiz, ready to help the Nationalists’ hold on the south of Spain.

International Brigades in December 1936

24 December

Some 600 men of the 9th company of the XIV International Brigade battle Nationalist troops at the town of Villa del Rio in Córdoba, and 400 volunteer men are killed. The remaining men move on to the nearby town of Montoro.

December 25

Thousands of Spanish fighters and international volunteers spend  Christmas  in trenches. The country is awash with refugees fleeing continuous violence all over the nation and hide through the Christmas period in refugee camps or in subway stations, many in bitter conditions.

Nationalist troops take the town of Montoro, after fighting off and killing many left from the 9th company of the XIV International Brigades.

Christmas being ‘celebrated’ on the Basque front

27 December

The two-day Battle of Lopera begins. The tiny town in the Jaén province sees the XIV International Brigades attack to take control of the area. The initial attack fails and 300 of the 3,000 initial force are quickly killed, another 600 seriously wounded. General Walter’s men have not had time to be trained in Albacete and have no communication and no air or ground support. Still, they battle the 4,000 Nationalists who have machine guns and other artillery.  Fighting continues for 36 hours before the International Brigades are forced to retreat, after gaining no ground, though 200 Nationalists are killed.

The English 10th battalion of the XIV International Brigades lose 78 of their 145 men, including Ralph Winston Fox, a British journalist, novelist and historian, famous for writing the biography of Genghis Khan. Also among the dead is poet John Cornford, great-grandson of Charles Darwin and well-known communist, just a day after he turns 21. The bodies of the volunteers still remain buried on the lonely hillside where they died.

John Cornford

The French Marseillaise 12th battalion of the Brigade have their commander, Major Gaston Delasalle, detained by André Marty, the Political Commissar of the International Brigades, and leading man in the French Communist Party. Marty accuses Delasalle of gross incompetence, resulting in the decimation of his men. Without evidence, Delasalle is also accused of being a fascist spy and of cowardice during battle. Marty arranges a quick court-martial and Delasalle is executed by firing squad. While no one speaks in Delasalle’s defence, Marty has many afraid of him and his ‘mentally sick’ behaviour, though he is regarded by most as a hero and revolutionary.

30 December

General Orgaz Yoldi receives reinforcements after the battle of Boadilla del Monte a week earlier, and readies another attack, which will become known as Battle of the Fog in early January. During this period, the Republican and the International Brigades are trying to regroup after heavy losses, and have little in the way of help.

Author George Orwell enlists himself in a Republican POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militia to fight against fascism.

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POUM training in December

31 December

The town of Pocuna, of around 5,000 people, isolated 50km from Córdoba and 40km from Jaén, is taken by the Nationalists. Due to taking this prime location in the olive-growing region, they are able to slow their advance for a quick break as the Republicans are overwhelmingly losing the region.

Famous Spanish writer and professor Miguel de Unamuno dies at home in  Salamanca, where he has been under house arrest for speaking against Franco at Salamanca University months earlier. Both of his sons, Fernando and Ramón de Unamuno, instantly sign up to fight the fascists.

Miguel de Unamuno’s being taken from the university, where he was arrested. It was his final public outing

From January 1, posts will return to weekly.

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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.