This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 32 and 33: 19 February – 5 March 1937

February 20

Republican General Asensio Torrado resigns his post as head of the Central front. Torrado is one of the few ‘Africanista’ Republicans who did not side with the Nationalists at the outbreak of war. Immediately after the initial coup, he led teams of soldiers in the Somosierra area just north of Madrid as well as the Battle of Talavera de la Reina. By October he was sub-secretary for war and leader of the Central Army by November, one of the leaders during the defense of Madrid. He created mixed brigades of men, both trained and those men new to fighting, to create stronger brigades. He was rejected by both anarchist ans communists due to his military-style control of the militias, and was forced to resign after the Republicans failure in Málaga.

February 21

The Non-Intervention Committee set up by the League of Nations officially bans all foreigners volunteering to fight in Spain, useless as thousands have now entered the country, defying their countries, or claiming statelessness. The Non-Intervention Committee is letting large countries such as England, France and the U.S sit on their hands, while individuals worldwide (even as far away as New Zealand) see the need to help Spain. German and Italy defy the ban daily by supporting Franco, and the Soviet Union aides the Republicans.

Captain Merriman prior to his injuries

February 23

The battle of Jarama is ongoing, but with the stalemate at the front line, snipers are killing on both sides, with no progress being made. The new Abraham Lincoln battalion are ordered to take Pingarrón (Suicide Hill) again, and send 450 Americans (supported by an Irish column) off to their first major offensive, one known already as a disaster thanks to previous battles. The men have no artillery or planes for support, but storm the Nationalists over four days, and are violently killed. The battle hears the immortal words of Irish poet Charles Donnelly – ‘even the olives are bleeding’, just before he is killed by machine gun. The Americans lose 127 men and another 200 are wounded, Captain Robert Merriman included, and mutiny ensues. Other Republican units catch those who mutiny to be court-martial, but the Soviets prevent them from being tried or punished. Naturally blame needs to be passed, and XV International Brigade Commander Vladimir Copic is named, who in turn blames wounded Captain Merriman. This marks the end of the battle of Jarama, as both sides are now totally exhausted and nothing can break the stalemate. The front line shall remain here for the rest of the war, a little over two years away.

March 4

The Battle of Cape Machichaco begins. The Basque Auxiliary navy, supporting the Republican navy, send four trawlers from France to Spain – the Bizcaia, Gipuzkoa, Donostia and Nabarra. They accompany the Galdame, carrying  people, machinery, weapons, mail supplies and 500 tonnes of nickel coins, all owned by the Basque government. The Nationalists send the Canarias from port in Ferrol to stop the Galdame reaching the Basque ports.

By the following morning, the Canarias was spotted by the Gipuzkoa only twenty miles from Bilbao. Shots were fired, hitting Gipuzkoa on the bridge. Returned fire kills a seaman on the Canarias, and wounds others, forcing them to retreat. The Nabarra and Donostia engage in battle with the Canarias for hours before they are forced to retreat. The Nabarra is hit at the boiler and 29 are killed, including their captain. Another twenty men are forced to abandon ship. All the men are picked up by the Nationalist Canarias and treated for their injuries.

The Galdame is also hit by the Canarias and is captured by the Nationalists, and four are killed in the carnage. Gipuzkoa manages to get to port in Portugalete and Bizcaia lands in Bermeo. Donostia lands in France. The twenty survivors of the Nabarra are sentenced to death by Franco, but the Canarias captains beg mercy, and the men are released in 1938. On board the Galdames, the passengers are let go, expect for politician Manuel Carrasco Formiguera from Catalonia, who is jailed before his execution a year later.

March 5

Trouble begins to mount as the PCE – Communist Part of Spain – holds its first council. They agree to favour democracy, against revolution and Trotskyism. The trouble is that this flies in the face of their allies, the Republican movement, the Spanish government and the powerful anarchist CNT. This decision will bring in-fighting among the Republicans in coming months, weakening the entire movement.

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The Nationalists, fuelled with Spanish, Moorish and Italian soldiers, are preparing to attack Guadalajara, 60 kilometres north-east of Madrid. After all the failed attempts to take Madrid, and the collapse of battle at nearby Jarama, the Nationalists are keen to engage again. The Italians, fresh from taking Málaga, are ready to fight. The Nationalists have gathered 35,000 men, hundreds of artillery supplies over 100 tankettes, 32 armoured cars, 3,600 vehicles and 60 planes. Much of the tank, car and plane equipment comes from the Italians, as Mussolini strongly supports the offensive.

The Republicans are the 12th division of the Republican army with only 10,000 men, but only 5,900 rifles, 85 machine guns and 15 artillery pieces. They do have a few light tanks on their side. Guadalajara, until now has been peaceful, so no trenches, road blocks or defensive have been set up, but the Republicans know (assume), a Nationalist attack from the south is imminent. Meanwhile, the Nationalists are preparing to attack the 25 kilometre stretch of the Guadalajara-Alcalá de Henares road, south of Guadalajara, which will cut off the main road, and five other roads which stem from the area. The enormous offensive is planned for March 8.

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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 25: 1 -7 January 1937

January 1

By the 25th week of the war, neither side would be able to say their plans had been executed the way they hoped. The Nationalists had hoped to invade, take Madrid and rule the nation within weeks or months. The Republicans came together, multiple factions with similar principles, hoping to oust the fascists. At no stage were they prepared enough to see through their goals. 1937 would see Franco’s plans to take Spain become more established. Franco had much help from Hitler and Mussolini, while the Republicans still had the Soviets on their side, due to the large Communist faction in Spain. But with Republicans made up of many groups and no one clear leader, divisions were one of the main forces at play in the war, with Anarchists and Communists splitting constantly from the Socialists and workers’ militias. As with all wars, the regular people were constant losers.

January 3

The third battle for Corunna Road, just northwest of Madrid city, commences.  General Orgaz Yoldi has gained more Nationalist reinforcements and begins the offensive, known as the Battle of the Fog. The Nationalists retake the town of Boadilla del Monte, as the Republicans are still suffering from their earlier losses. The Republican have five divisions working together, along with the XIV International Brigades, but have little ammunition and have to surrender the town and that portion of the crucial supply route of Corunna Road.

January 4

With surging numbers of Nationalist soldiers coming from the right, the Republicans have to retreat even further away from Boadilla del Monte and also lose the town of Las Rozas, just 11km north of Boadilla del Monte. The weather is at freezing point all day and night and the fog continues to make battle ever more difficult.

The Republicans deploy more units from Pozuelo, ten kilometers west of Madrid city. The Modesto division, a brigade of four units combined, manage to secure the front while other units retreat from advancing Nationalists. The fog continues to thicken, aiding to secure the front for the Republicans and keep the Nationalists at bay, though the strategic towns have been lost. But once the fog lifts, the Republicans know they are in trouble.

Some of the Thaelmann battalion prior to battle

January 5

As the fog lifts, the Nationalists, with 18,000 troops and air support, attack Pozuelo, where many Republican forces are in retreat. The Republicans run out of ammunition, including for the T26 tanks from Russia, which have destroyed 25 German tanks throughout the day. The Republicans have to scatter, without weapons or communication, being split by the attack. Republican General Miaja tries to get the German Thaelmann battalion of the XIV International Brigade back together, along with Lister’s Communist unit, in order to try to regroup. The Nationalists continue to widen their hold over Corunna Road and also take the opportunity to bomb the city of Madrid, mostly by day.

All of the XIV International Brigades are forced far back from Boadilla del Monte and the Nationalists have Corunna Road. They meet up with other Republican groups and are ordered to retake Las Rozas, but they lack the men or firepower to do so. Among the young foreigner volunteers was untrained machine-gunner 17-year-old Esmond Romilly, nephew of Franco-sympathiser Winston Churchill. (It was rumoured that Romilly was Churchill’s own son, Churchill having bedded his wife’s sister. The sisters’ mother was a notorious cheater, and their real father(s) is unknown. Several men are options, one being the grandfather of young Romilly’s wife – meaning the young couple were first cousins. The rich do like to make their own rules, and the family is fascinating/bizarre.)

January 7

The Nationalists bomb Las Rozas from the air, destroying the town and killing almost all the Republicans and International Brigades huddled nearby for safety. The locals of the town have already long fled, hiding in caves in the Hoyo de Manzanares mountains nearby. All but 35 Republicans are killed, those not killed manage to retreat wounded. Those foreigners who survived, such as young Romilly, are sent home with wounds and illness. Romilly went on to write a book named Boadilla, all about the slaughter of  the battle. The Nationalists are in total control of the area, and ready to begin their final push to control all of Corunna road. Both sides have now lost around 15,000 men each.

I’ll will post a review when I get the chance

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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.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 14 and 15: 17 – 31 October 1936

Week 14 and 15: 17 – 31 October 1936

Sorry for the delays, as the website was hacked and is only just back online now. Normal service is resumed.

Week 14

October 18

The Republican government creates the ‘Mixed Brigades’. This combines the army units which remained loyal during the initial rebellion, and militia groups of all forms fighting around Spain. This mix is titled the Popular Army, the name coming from the Popular Front party in government. While anarchist groups are not art of the government (yet), their militias are still able to be part of the Popular Army.
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Week 15

October 24

The first shipment of gold arrives in the Soviet Union; the first shipment of over half the Spanish supply which will be sent to Moscow. It is worth around $35 per ounce, a total of around almost $600 million, though Spain only gets half its worth.

October 27

Russian tanks finally get to Madrid to defend the city. T-26 tanks, around 10 tonnes in weight each, are dispatched from Madrid main’s train station and head straight to the front. The Nationalists outside the city already have tanks, supplied by Italy and Germany. The Republicans have been using Molotov cocktails to hold back the Nationalists until now and are in desperate relief to save the city.

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T-26 tank outside Seseña

October 27

The Nationalist unleash an air raid on Madrid. Six bombs are dropped in Plaza Colón, a major square in the city, heavily populated. A queue of women and children are waiting to get milk and a bomb lands directly on them. A total of 16 are killed, another 60 seriously injured. The air raid comes from a Junker Ju-52 with a German pilot. The bombing is labelled the first bombing in history that served no purpose. It was designed solely to bring terror to 900,000 Madrileños. Madrid has no way to stop planes flying overhead and bombing them as they are becoming surrounded by Nationalists, setting the stage for the coming mammoth siege of Madrid.

October 28

A squadron of Soviet Tupolev ANT-40 planes, named Katiuska bombers, drop bombs over the city of Seville, which has been in Nationalist hands since July. This Republican-supported bombing leads the Germans to send more planes and supplies, and set up the Condor Legion in Spain, to overcome the Soviet forces.

Aftermath of the air raid in prep for the Madrid siege

October 29

The town of Seseña is 30 kilometres (18 miles)  south of Madrid, near destroyed Toledo. The Nationalist army, who have marched and massacred their way north are now ready to take Madrid. The Republicans who hold Seseña attempt to hold their town. The new Mixed Brigades, led by Spanish and Russian colonels, lead their mixed-nation/loyalty troops with newly arrived tanks. However no one has any training, other than one Russian tank expert. The Nationalists have their highly trained Spanish and Moroccan troops and Italian tankettes on their side. The Republicans head south of Seseña to engage with the Nationalists about only gain around 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) before they are attacked.

The Republican were able to destroy 11 Italian tankettes and kill 600 soldiers, losing only eight men and three tanks in the fighting. However numbers were on the Nationalists’ side and they won the battle of Seseña when the Republicans were forced to retreat.

The showdown for the siege of Madrid is ready to begin.

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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

This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: Siege of the Toledo Alcázar – 21 July – 27 September 1936

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Sketch of the Alcázar above Toledo in 1887

The Alcázar of Toledo was beautifully constructed fortress in the town which was strategically placed on a small hill by a river. First used by the Romans in 59BC, the location ruled over the plains during Roman, Visigoth and Moorish rule. The town was home to Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities living together through the centuries in relative peace. But in 1085 the city fell under Christian rule and the slow decline of the harmony commenced. By 1520, the Alcázar, a palace fortress, was built on the top of the hilltop town by the royal family, and stood until the destruction during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The war started on July 17, 1936 when Franco took over the army in Spanish Morocco and staged an uprising. By the morning of the 18th, strict, religious army leader José Moscardó e Ituarte, the military governor of the area, took control of the Guardia Civil police, and decided to lead and control the hilltop town. Toledo had an arms factory, and the Republican government and its followers battled for days to get their hands on the weapons and gain control of their home. Colonel Moscardo was able to fend off the Republicans with his men, and moves were made for Republican reinforcements from Madrid to arrive. By July 20, killings were already occurring on the streets, with both sides attacking and wounding one another, as in all towns and cities in Spain.

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The grotesque habit of Republicans digging up clergy to show everyone their mortality in Toledo, like everywhere in Spain

Colonel Moscardo had just 800 Guardia Civil officers, around 100 army officers, and the support of 200 right-wing public members. The Guardia Civil had plenty of ammunition to bring to the uprising, but between all these men they only had rifles, a couple of machine guns and a few grenades. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Madrid sent in 8,000 militia men, left-wing supporters banded into groups to save their country, mostly anarchists and workers’ union members. The air force had also sided with the Republicans and were able to fly over Toledo for surveillance and bombing.

Between the call to rise up and claim the city by the rebels on July 17 and the following four days, the Republicans managed to hold off the right-wingers, with only one man arrested as a Republican activist. However, between 100-200 people were taken hostage by the Nationalists, and they including the town’s governor and his family. The hostages and Nationalist families, those belonging to the Guardia Civil men, were put inside the city Alcázar to be safe from the Republicans. This started a siege, with Nationalists trapped in the Alcázar and the Republicans keen to take back their town.

The Alcázar prior to the siege

By July 22, the Republican surge meant the town was in their hands, with the exception of the great Alcázar, which was under bombardment from the air. On July 23, Colonel Moscardo, inside the Alcazar, got a phone call from the Republican leader, Commissar Cabello. They had taken Moscardo’s son hostage, age just 16, and threatened execution. Moscardo told his son to die as a patriot, which young Luis agreed to do. However the Republicans did not yet have the heart to shoot the boy.

For the next three weeks, the Nationalists stayed safe in the Alcázar as the Republicans continued to attack. The insiders only fought when militia fired at the building, or planes dropped bombs from above. Constant bombardment to the strong Alcázar began to weaken the northern side of the fortress. But the constant back and forth of fire, bombs and grenades, meant no one could get close enough to the Alcázar to get inside, not even to the buildings surrounding the building, all of which were still under Nationalist control and huddled together for safety. Sometime in mid-August, Moscardo’s 16-year-old son was shot and killed as the Republican frustrations mounted. Likewise, the hostages inside the Alcázar met an ugly end.

Republicans try to get close to the Alcázar

However, by early September, the northern side of the Alcázar was in collapse, and the Republicans decided to change tactics. In a momentary downing of weapons on September 9, Major Vicente Rojo Lluch, an army man who decided to fight for the Republicans rather than with the army, went to the Alcázar to speak to Colonel Moscardo. Rojo offered Moscardo the chance to surrender and leave the Alcázar but it was refused. Moscardo requested a priest be sent to the Alcázar, as two babies had been born inside the besieged fortress and needed to be baptised. Despite being anti-religion, the Republicans allowed this request.

Inside the Alcázar before the bombing

As the priests of Toledo had been killed or fled the town at the outbreak of war, a preacher from Madrid arrive on September 11 and entered the Alcázar to baptise newborns and offer spiritual guidance to the 1000 strong right-wingers, including final absolution in case of death. Again Rojo offered a surrender, but no one would leave the Alcázar; they would rather die than give up. In retaliation, Republicans fired and threw grenades at the Alcázar, destroying all communications with the insiders.

The Chilean ambassador to Spain wanted to help with the negotiations for surrender, but the grenade launch had wiped out all the phones, and at this stage, surrender was no longer an option for the Nationalists.

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All the while air and ground fire had been sent back and forth, Republicans had been digging tunnels to come up right underneath the Alcázar. By September 18, after a month of digging, the two tunnels were complete and under the southwest tower of the Alcázar. Soon-to-be appointed Spanish prime minister, Francisco Largo Caballero, went into the mines and detonated a huge supply of explosives, which flattened much of the tower. As the dust settled and panic reigned, the Republicans stormed the Alcázar with tanks and armoured cars. Still, they could not get inside the mighty fortress, and constant firing went on for days.

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Explosions destroy the exterior

By September 22, all those inside were in the interior courtyard of the Alcázar, and most of the garrison has also left their posts on the exterior of the building for their own safety. Another two days of fighting made no progress for either side.

Just as the siege looked as if it would end with the slaughter of the Nationalists, reinforcements finally arrived in the city.  On September 27, the Republicans, desperate to get inside, had no choice but to abandon their cause and flee to Aranjuez, 44 kilometres north of Toledo. This large withdrawal left few attacking the Alcázar, as they knew of the danger about to arrive.

The Alcázar is destroyed into a mess

Nationalist soldiers, consisting of Spanish Legionnaires and Moroccan troops (the Moros), had been marching north from Seville, massacring everyone in their path, their reputations already bloody and horrific. On September 27, all it took was the first 100 soldiers to enter the city and kill everyone still holding out. They also murdered the doctors, nurses and patients in the hospital, all Republicans and their supporters. All those inside the Alcázar were released, only five dead, of natural causes.

For all the killing and the destruction of the nearly 500-year-old Alcázar, Toledo as a location had no strategic value. But the determination of the Nationalists was used a propaganda for those fighting in other areas, and the media took a huge interest in the battle. The arms factory, which was raided early in the war, was the only important location in the area, and was now worthless. The weapons and supplies dropped to help the trapped Nationalists could have been better used in other areas, and even Franco’s advisors were upset Franco even bothered to ‘save’ Toledo at all, when Madrid 55 kilometres north was more important.

Interior of the building after ‘liberation’

Those who escaped after being inside the Alcázar were treated as heroes and used as morale boosters. Much had been made of the Republicans’ mine explosion, with media flocking to see the event. But when the Republicans were forced to flee a week alter, and Franco claimed the town, the Republicans plan to show the world their strength instead showed their terrible loss.

Final destruction

As soon as Moscardo and the others left the Alcázar, the soldiers immediately left Toledo destroyed physically and emotionally, and continued their march north to try to take Madrid. The initial stand-off and attacks on Toledo were all for nothing.

Survivors have to live among their ruined town

The restoration of the Alcázar didn’t begin until well after the war ending in 1939, and today houses the  Biblioteca Autonómica (Castilla-La Mancha Regional Library) the and   Museo del Ejército (Museum of the Army).

The Alcázar today

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This is not a detailed analysis, just highlights (lowlights?) of the siege. Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. All photos are linked to source for credit.

This Week In Spanish Civil War History – Week 4: 8 -14 August 1936

Week 4: 8 – 14 August 1936

August 8

France closes its border with Spain, preventing weapons entering the country, but also cutting off escape for refugees fleeing the violence.

The island of Mallorca has been in rebel Nationalist hands since the outbreak of fighting. Menorca has remained Republican. The islands of Ibiza and Formentera have localised fighting and the Republicans regain control of both islands. They are one of the first places to change hands since the initial outbreak.

MUS-FAPC2020_500Mallorca damage from bombing

August 9

Church killings continue. Even prior to the outbreak of war, churches have been burned, possessions destroyed and priests and nuns murdered. Republicans are continuing their fight against church oppression, killing priests and nuns in all locations, especially in Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon. A Republican supporter dresses in the Archbishop of Toledo’s clothing for fun, and gets murdered by a drunk Republican soldier, who mistakes him for a priest.

(there are countless photos of church destruction, murder, and of priests/nuns corpses dug up for display available. I am not pro-religion, but I still do not wish to post them here)

August 10

The soldiers, which set off from Seville the previous week, take Merida with bloody killings. The Republicans quickly try to take the city back, but are again defeated. The soldiers are on their way to Madrid, but are meeting resistance. The major location of Badajoz now lies between the Nationalists and Madrid, and is currently in Republican hands.

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Nationalists storm Merida

August 12

The Republicans set up checas, investigation commissions, to root out any right-wingers inside their strongholds. Many people suspected are given fake Falangist cards and shot, others denounced by their servants, enemies or debtors. Countless mistakes are made as old grudges we carried out and countless killed. The anarchists do not believe in these commissions and simply shoot enemies, real or perceived. Right-wingers are in hiding, dressed as workers, or hiding in embassies to avoid these killings.

August 14

The town of Badajoz, in the west near Portugal, is captured by marching Nationalists troops. The battle and occupation see 4,000 people killed. The invasion commanded by Juan Yague, unites two major Nationalists areas, increasing their dominance in battle. The battle of Badajoz becomes a representation of the Nationalist power and vicious murdering and raping of Spaniards, and the use of the Moors, the Moroccan troops, is highlighted in the cruel and inhuman attack. The  initial attack begins the intense killing in  the town over the coming weeks.

timthumb.php(there are many photos of the battle of Badajoz, many of bodies and executions, which I have chosen not to add here)

 NB -there will be a separate post to commemorate the battle of Badajoz

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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.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 7: Valle de los Caídos: A trip to Franco’s tomb to see a divided Spain

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You know how Germans dress in their best every Sunday and go to leave flowers and prayers at Hitler’s grave? Oh wait, they don’t, they opened up about their past, dealt with their issues and moved on as a people decades ago. So why are Spaniards having family picnics near the tomb of fascist dictator Francisco Franco? I packed my best possible neutral opinion and set off into the Madrid forests to find out.

“The moment you move the soil over shallow graves, the agony of Spain will pour out, like fresh blood from a wound. All that pain and hatred is covered by a thin layer. Don’t stir up something you can’t understand” – Blood in the Valencian Soil

I’m no ignorant tourist. I’m aware of the tensions that surround El Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen. Some say it shouldn’t be open at all, and for a time when the PSOE was in power, it was closed to the public. It was one of the few places on my trip where I was the only foreigner, trying to quietly pass between families of all ages inside a macabre and eerie Basilica inside a mountain.

What is Valle de los Caídos?  It is a giant memorial to those killed in the Spanish Civil War, but ended up as a monument to only the Nationalist side, headed by ultra-conservative war winner Franco, who is buried there. Even the history surrounding the place is murky. ‘Official’ records say it was built by approximately 2,600 workers, and a handful of them were Republican (left-wing anti-Franco) prisoners. (Long story short, Republican prisoners were basically anyone the new dictatorship didn’t like. Proof that ever committed any crime, against the public or the State was tough to find, unless being a Republican soldier counts as a crime, and it was back then). It was commissioned in 1940 and finished in 1959, but a more accurate report was of 20,000 Republican prisoners taking part, and the number  killed in the process is unknown, some say dozens. You can get an idea of how touchy this subject really is.

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Franco inspects the site of Valle de los Caídos in 1940

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Republican prisoners building the cross

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Remains of soldier killed in Toledo arrive to be reburied in 1959

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Watching the opening of Valle de los Caídos in 1959

(click to enlarge the photos will launch an amazing slideshow of pics)

Franco created Valle de los Caidos in the Sierra de Guadarrama, the mountains outside Madrid city. Nearby is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the once summer palace of the royal family (I visited, and the golden tomb is WELL worth the visit – for another post).  The trouble is, Valle de los Caídos was filled with the bodies of killed men, Nationalist (Franco) soldiers and sympathisers. It was a civil war, Spaniard against Spaniard, but those who opposed the rebel army takeover of the Republic were simply forgotten. José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange party is buried there, and Franco was also placed inside a tomb under the basilica in 1975. The exact number of bodies laid to rest inside Valle de los Caídos is unknown, and could be anywhere from 30-35,000. In the last 10 to 15 years, a large number of Republican families and organisations have found the strength and courage to dig up their relatives who were murdered and thrown in mass graves around Spain. However, some have been removed from these graves and placed in Valle de los Caídos without family permission, which only serves to give this place an even more heartbreaking feel.

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View while driving up the mountain

Political views aside, the sight of this location is incredible on its own. You can see it while driving along the motorway, sticking out of the otherwise peaceful mountains the surround the north side of the Madrid province. We went through an innocuous gate off the main road to El Escorial and made our way several kilometers up the mountainside on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning. You constantly catch glimpses of the behemoth through the trees, but until you are standing below the enormous cross  built on the hillside (152 metres, the worlds’ tallest), you cannot grasp the size and scope of the this place.

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The carpark was filled with cars and buses, and I suspected I was about to turn into another touristed location. Not so! Once at the arch doors to the entrance, the only people in sight were the Guardia Civil. The place itself is situated in a beautiful location and the quality of work done is exquisite. The place could have been built as a place to honour those lost in the war and the healing of a great nation. But given that the crypt is a basilica, and that the church oppressed the Spanish population and the Republican (or left-wing if you prefer) side didn’t support the church, there was never the possibility that the monument could honour both sides of the nation.

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Entrance archway

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View of the Sierra de Guadarrama

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Statue over the entrance – The Pietá

I stepped inside, sadly unsurprised that there is gift shop (After all, what child doesn’t want a gift of a colouring book and pencils from a crypt, or a fan with Franco’s grave printed on it?) I put my camera in my satchel, as photos were forbidden, but I had my iPhone in my pocket, just in case. Then I entered the nave.

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Nave

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Ceiling over the altar

From the moment you go inside, the overwhelming and solemn feel of the cold and dark place takes you over. Giant gloomy and menacing angels brandishing swords bear down on you. The nave is filled with masterpieces of religious painting and tapestries. The attention to detail is second to none. I paused to take in them and the angel statues, but the foreboding sense of the place had already sunk into my bones. Mass was finishing up as I arrived at the altar, and I sat down quietly to listen to children sing in the choir. Children were singing in this place that spoke of death.

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Altar angel

Mass ended and the faithful began to wander around the altar, me included. The first thing I noticed was not the menacing  angels, or the elaborate golden Jesus, but the grave of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which someone had left flowers. Now, can I judge those who come here? No, I can’t. I don’t know why they come. Perhaps their loves ones were buried here,  as Nationalist believers to the Franco cause. It was a civil war and everyone lost one way or another. Can I, or anyone, look down on these people for coming  to pray? No. Whether it’s for a loved one, to feel closer to the history of Spain, or even if they supported Franco, that’s their decision. But what about the people who came to leave flowers on the grave of the founding father of Spain’s fascist party? What was the motivation there? A grieving loved one, or someone with old evil ideas that haven’t been forgotten? It was shiver up the spine stuff.

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Altar

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As priests wandered about and nodded hello, I found what I had (kind of) came for – the tomb of Franco placed on the opposite side of the altar below the semi-circle of wooden stalls made for the monks and the choir. There lay flowers on the grave, and this time I saw no reason why anyone would place them there. There are many reasons why people continue to support Franco (and it’s a discussion too long for this post) and I don’t see the merit in any of them. Just to the right lay more floral tributes – dozens to be precise, which had been placed to one side presumably because of the sheer volume. A few people were taking photographs, under the watch of a guard. These people had laid the flowers and wanted to capture the moment, no mistaking their alliances in this case. I asked if I could also take a photo with these people and got permission. Why take it? I don’t know, it’s like watching a car crash, it’s awful but you can’t look away.

I was surprised by the state of the place. Perfection? No. Built into a mountain, they must fight their own war with damp, and you can see that in the granite stonework. Water seeps in here and there, which only gave the place a more unearthly and morbid feel. After all, we were all underground, surrounded by graves…

To the left and right are small rooms, with rows of seats and monuments to Spain’s fallen. People lit candles and families laughed and chatted with priests. What says family day out more than this? I sat in the right room, the entombment, which featured an alabaster Jesus statue. I sat and looked at the wall.  Caídos – Por Dios y Por España. Fallen – For God and For Spain.  All of Spain? Many disagree. Republicans denounce this place, and many here on this random Sunday wore Falange symbols on their lapels.

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Inside the chapel of the emtombment

I will admit it – I silently cried as I sat there, which drew the attention of a priest who thought I needed comfort, and the ‘comforting’ hands of old ladies on my shoulder. Me, the young Catholic attending Mass here? Oh boy, that couldn’t be more untrue.

I headed back through the place, fairly certain I wouldn’t ever be back. I stopped by the gift shop to buy a book on the place, in Spanish, about how the place has reconciled Spain. Hmm. I also grabbed an excellent copy of a collection of civil war photographs. The crypt trinkets and religious adornments could stay where they were. After all, who would wear a Valle de los Caídos t-shirt? Why would you, and for what purpose?

The shining moment came as I left the crypt and stepped out in the sunlight. There stood a group of men, all aged 70 or more, hailing a fascist salute at the cross above the entrance. It was well and truly time to leave.

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Panoramic view from the main entrance after the fascist saluters said hello and went inside

If there is one thing, it’s that this place is full of emotion. Good emotions? Not all of them. No good ever came from a fascist salute, but it would be too simple to label everyone who visits there, whether they’re crying at Franco’s tomb or having a picnic outside in the sunshine. I am not a religious person and I am not going to tell Catholics how to pray to their God in that Basilica. The books I bought there, their glossy pages gloss over Spain’s history entirely – after all this time, the war and the subsequent dictatorship is not talked about like it should be. Spain shouldn’t have to hide its past. It has been 74 years since the end of the war and yet its presence still lives in Spanish life, whether people say so or not. In 2011, it was decided that moving Franco’s body would be a way of restoring Valle de los Caídos’ image and making it a truly impartial monument to Spain’s fallen, however as the crypt was elevated to Basilica status, the church can decide, and their opinions are not so easy changed.

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Franco’s burial in 1975  I wonder who the crying  guy is on the left (click to enlarge and view slideshow)

My personal opinion? The place is worth the visit, despite being a pain to get to if you don’t have a car. I travelled alone, and would I want to take my young family there? I’m honestly not sure. It’s not something you will find in the Spain brochures during your Ryanair flight to the beach in Benidorm or Malaga. But if you’re into Spain history, or have a personal or familial connection to the civil war (as have I) you really should visit. Just leave your camera behind and hush your opinions while you’re there. I know what side I stand on, and I took the bus back to Madrid, convinced more than ever of my opinions. But they remain mine. The other people there were very polite, and believe in what they love – that Spain was better under Franco. Nothing I stumble out in Spanish will make the slightest bit of difference. Check out this photo of a wedding over Franco’s tomb though, that was a surprise find. Just goes to show how divided this place can make people.

Photos by abc.es – protesters waved Republican flags and supporters gave out fascist salutes when Valle de los Caídos reopened. The salute seems to be pretty popular

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Want to visit for yourself? – Valle de los Caídos website

Up next, Part 8 of A Little Jaunt to Spain…. Learning to be a tourist in Spain

Click here for past editions of A Little Jaunt to Spain – Spain 2013 in Review

All photos are author’s own, or linked to original sources