This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 73/74: The Battle of Teruel 1 – 15 December 1937

December 1 – 7

After a month of relatively quiet times around Spain, the next large battle is being prepared, the battle of Teruel. Teruel is a small rural city of only 20,000 people, the capital of the province of Aragon, which has been largely in Republican/anarchist hands since the outbreak of war. Aragon has also been home to the bulk of the social revolution, the anarchist uprising to empower the poor and rural Spaniards suffering under both fascist and socialist rule.

Teruel is a well-fortified city, known as a strategic point over 1000 years of battle between Christians and the Moors. Teruel is only main city that separates the Nationalists in Zaragoza, 170 kilometres north, from the Republican stronghold of Valencia, 140 kilometre to the southeast. Teruel is a mountainous place, with the city at 3000 feet above sea level, and one of the coldest places in Spain. Between the weather and walled fortress city and the forest-covered mountains, Teruel is also surrounded by the Turia and Alfambra rivers.

To attack a city like Teruel, a city with strong Republican support, but in Nationalist hands, is a huge undertaking. But like all Republicans, the men of Aragon are not well-prepared or well-armed. There is the landscape to consider with the mountains home to steep cliffs, and to the west, the La Muela de Teruel, the Teruel tooth, a sharp tooth-shaped hill against the city. Beside this steep rock is a flat area where advancing troops could easily be spotted. Teruel is also a well trenched and guarded area, as it has been on the frontline between Nationalist and Republican fighting since the outbreak of war.

Despite being in the Aragon region, the Nationalists had taken the city of Teruel, and the Republicans are determined to take the city back. It is believed that the occupying Nationalists have only 4,000 men in the area, and is surrounded by Republican-held areas. By having Teruel in the hands of the Nationalists, it became a symbol that needed to be crushed. The Minister of War in the Republican government, Indalecio Prieto, wanted to see a huge victory and have Teruel retaken for the Republic. Not only would the Nationalists lose any hold on Aragon, it would make the enemy think that the Republicans had the artillery and men they needed to win the war. But, as always, fighting within the Republican side would be an issue. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Negrin wanted to take Teruel and then move onto Catalonia, where Spain could retake control of Barcelona and its workers once more. The social revolution born in Catalonia and Aragon was on its last legs, and a victory in Teruel would bolster Republican support there. Infighting would do nothing but strain the Republicans  as they fought the Nationalists as well.

Franco’s Nationalists had been planning a new offensive in Guadalajara, outside Madrid, and a battle in Teruel would stop the Nationalists from getting towards Madrid. What no one could know was that Teruel was about to suffer its worst winter in two decades, something brutal as the average winter could see temperatures well below freezing. But the Republicans decided their attack would begin on December 15, three days before Franco’s plan to capture Guadalajara, catching the Nationalists by surprise, and diverting troops away from Madrid.

8-14 December

The under-resourced Republican army had to be made up of men from all around the regions. Juan Hernández Saravia, who had commanded the southern troops in 1936 and the Levante troops through 137 (Levante is in the eastern Valencia region), began moving men to create the Army of the East for the battle of Teruel and beyond. Saravia did not want any International Brigades to fight in Teruel; it was a Spanish battle to be fought. The Communists were ready to fight with Saravia, with the Communist General Enrique Lister back in the thick of fighting. By rearranging the Republicans around Spain, Saravia had a total of 100,000 men to capture Teruel.

In the walled city of Teruel, Colonel Domingo Rey d’Harcourt commanded the Nationalists. He had a garrison of only 4,000, half just armed civilians. Outside the city in the surrounding areas, there were another 5,000-6,000 men, mostly civilians. Despite a constant flow of news going between each side with spies and information interceptors, Franco did not send any additional troops to the area, meaning as the Republicans could get themselves ready to surround Teruel, and the Nationalists had none of their much-flaunted reinforcements or aerial back-up.

December 15

As snow begins to fall around the walled city of Teruel, General Lister and his men are sent first to surround the area. Given the overwhelming numbers, Nationalists outside Teruel are instantly forced to retreat back into the walls of the city. The Republicans quickly get themselves a prime position on Teruel’s tooth mountain and completely encircle the city. It would be the quiet opening day to what would become a symbolic, bloody and destructive battle lasting over two months, seeing much of Teruel destroyed and 140,000 men killed on both sides.

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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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NOVEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Moor’s Last Stand’ by Elizabeth Drayson

The Moor’s Last Stand presents the poignant story of Boabdil, the last Muslim king of Granada. Betrayed by his family and undermined by faction and internal conflict, Boabdil was defeated in 1492 by the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Christian victory marked the completion of the long Christian reconquest of Spain and ended seven centuries in which Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, lived peacefually and profitably together. Five centuries after his death, Boabdil continues to be a potent symbol of resistance to the forces of western Christendom, and his image endures in contemporary culture.

Elizabeth Drayson presents a vivid account of Boabdil’s life and times and considers the impact of his defeat then and now.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The Moor’s Last Stand focuses on Boadbil, who suffered the great loss of the Alhambra and city of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. While the year is most known for that idiot Columbus stumbling off to find Asia and instead becoming a toxic force in the Americas, what happened to Spain itself is a great tale all on its own.

Much is made of Spain before the period of Ferdinand and Isabella’s ethnic cleansing. It is so often said the Muslims, Jews and Christians were living together in mostly harmony. In Boabdil’s Granada, Christians were slaves, or people tolerated by the free population. People were ‘protected’ by their monarchs, as Isabella believed, and so sought to ‘free her people’, which included Jews, who were owned by her – as she thought, anyway.

Moors (or Saracens as they called themselves) were about 30% of Aragon population, where Ferdinand reigned, used for labour, a commodity to be owned and keep the Christians rich. They ‘converted’ after the expulsion of Boabdil from Spain, and while this conversion was claimed as voluntary, we all know it was not. Christian scholars around Europe considered Spain to be filled with faithless Jews and baptised Moors (their words, not mine), which started the exclusion of the Jews, 300,000 people booted from their homes, many killed over the course of the Spanish Inquisition. While the Inquisition is used mostly in jokes these days, what went on in Spain through forced conversions, the hunting of Muslims and the expulsion of Jews is a subject usually only measured through the success of the Christian successors.

The story of Boabdil is a beautiful book indeed. The Nasrid dynasty is fleshed out by the author. The story tells of Boabdil’s father who took a Christian slave girl as a wife, destroying Boabdil’s mother, and the sons turned from their father, the family all forced to take sides. Boadbil ruled the Muslim south from the Alhambra, and while he was not great in war (captured twice), he did delight on declaring war on his own relatives. This infighting was just a greater force as the Christian ‘conquest’ of Granada in 1492. The moment where Boabdil stopped at the now-named Slope of Tears, the famous words from his mother were uttered – “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” But Boabdil surrendered his city under the terms that Moors would not have to become Christians, and was given the Alpujarra mountains outside Granada, though he was later forced to leave Spain for Africa from the same spot his ancestors came to Spain 700 years earlier.

Naturally, all terms of surrender were broken and the Moors were forced to convert, or were killed or chased away. But, much to Ferdinand and Isabella’s disgust no doubt, the hidden spots of the Islamic rule in Spain still exist today. Spain could have been a powerhouse throughout Europe had the Moors not been turned out. Land would not have been abandoned and barren, art and medicine would not have been forced back in time, the Muslims and Jews not slaughtered and crushed, their cultures and ideas not blacklisted. Thank you to the author for approaching the fight of 1492 from an angle that is easy to read and yet fully explains the other side of the Ferdinand and Isabella conquest.

Valencia Photos of the Month: Ancient Moorish Tower of Plaça de l’Àngel

While the Romans founded Valentia is 138BC, the Moors took over the city in 714, and the city remained a small area by the riverside. But in the early 11th century, Valencia city was proclaimed the taifa of Valencia, the city kingdom of the area, after the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba in 1010. Abd al-Aziz ibn Amir took over the city and from the beginning of his reign in 1021, Valencia needed a secure wall around the city, which was expanding quickly with people moving north from al-Andaluz. The stone wall was built with seven gateways, and circular towers for lookout and protection, but only some parts of this great wall still remain. 

440px-Muralla_àrab_València

 

Between the main gate, Bab al-Qantara, (now the site of Valencia Torres de Serranos gate) and gate number two, the west gate named Bab al-Hanax (my last post HERE shows photos of the remaining wall) was on Calle Salines. (Also between these gates was Portal de la Valldigna, the doorway to the Christian pocket of the city) Between these two gates was the Torre del Angel (Angel tower). El Cid took over the city in 1099, but it wasn’t until 1356 that the new city walls needed to be built, expanding the city when Christian reign took over the city. Only parts of the original towers and slices of the ancient stronghold remained standing as the city doubled in size.

Plaza del Angel, (called Plaça de l’Àngel in Valencian), a tiny square off the main road away from Torre de Serranos, managed to hide and protect one of the Moorish towers for centuries. In 1701, a hotel was built around the Torre de Angel, using the still intact tower as part of its establishment. It appeared in travel guides for the city from 1849. The Parador /Hostal del Angel was featured in an article in 1930, about the family and building (article is below in the slideshow). The hostal actually had its entrance in Plaza Navarro, but was the main building in the tiny Plaza del Angel along its back. Both the Moorish tower and wall were protected inside the hostal.

When the great Valencia flood of 1957 destroyed the hostal, the area was left unattended, until development saw a new apartment building go up in the ruins of the hostal grounds, making Plaza del Angel the small triangular plaza it is today. The hostal grounds became a park, leaving the tower and wall safe from demolition. But the park was neglected and then pulled away, and today the old hostal grounds and surrounding Moorish treasures are fenced off and kept away from a public. Getting a good photo of the Torre de Angel can be quite a challenge. However, the Valencian government committed to preserving the tower and surrounding wall. A quick search finds that the promised works on the Moorish towers in the Barrio del Carmen have not made any progress, missed all restoration details since 2006, and now other agencies are being called in to investigate the delays. So in Valencian terms, this issue probably won’t be sorted for another 100 years. Let’s hope the towers outlast the bureaucracy.

Also saved from the same part for the Moorish wall is another smaller tower technically now called the Calle Mare Vella tower, though this street provides no glimpse of the structure. It sits against 1970’s apartment blocks and can be seen easily from outside the car park area (?!) on Calle Borras and Calle Adoberies.

Plaza del Angel/Plaça de l’Àngel is one of the sites featured in all books in the Secret of Spain book series. Both these books and this site use both the Spanish and Valencian spellings, depending on time period featured, as Valencia was banned under the Franco dictatorship. The plaza itself is labelled in both languages in the city, though newer maps only have Valencian spellings. There are other great Moorish secrets tucked away in Valencia, which I will do in a separate post.

All historical photos via Valencian Historia Grafica and recent photos author’s own, or via Google