Spain: The War

I AM sitting in a sort of funnel-shaped space, my knees doubled against my chest; I peer through the small opening from which the machine gun protrudes. We are reconnoitring. Below us in the distance puffs of thick white smoke burst unceasingly, thinning away only to be renewed. The slight pressure of my foot on the pedals turns the turret to right or left in a brief dizzy movement. Below, things change suddenly, but the sky is always the same. However, we are absorbed not by the sky but by the space between the sky and us, between the earth and us. That is where danger lurks. Danger is anything that moves. When you are in a plane, whatever moves can only be another plane; other things are still, or if they do move, like the cars that roll over the ribbon-like roads, their motion seems directed, planned ahead of time — it is n’t an active motion.

The Tajo, a sluggish, worn-out river, flows through the plain of Castille deep in its bed. But at Talavera de la Reina it comes back to the surface and seems to overflow the sand. At least, that is the impression one has of the Tajo near our ‘objective,’ Talavera, where the altimeter reads 1200 metres above sea level. On September 3 the Moroccans captured Talavera and the fight for Madrid began. With three bombers and five pursuit planes, outnumbered ten to one by the ‘others,’ we have to do what we can to give the demoralized militiamen and the anxious peasants of Castille the impression that a Republican air force exists. Now the railroad station and the airport at Talavera are being bombed. On the ground, sheafs of thick black smoke unfold here and there, yellowish flames shoot up from the buildings, a locomotive is torn open, a long red roof disappears. The bombs trace a perfect line splitting the airdrome in two — which gives us enormous satisfaction.

That’s the end. Our planes have done their work. It seemed as though this flight back and forth over a motionless prey, spiraling, turning, darting, would never end. A kind of forced gayety takes possession of the seven members of our crew; we communicate it to each other by glances.

Suddenly there comes a cry from the rear turret, piercing and inhuman in its attempt to be heard over the roar of the motors. That means but one thing: hands and eyes obey instantly, the one at the machine gun, the other sweeping the sky. I see three black spots directly behind us. The next instant I see only two, and lower. I choose the nearer and train my gun on it. But there is no longer anything there; it is maddening. Nevertheless, my comrade in the rear fires a few short angry rounds. The ‘thing’ is approaching from above. From my position I can see nothing. I wait interminably in the emptiness with a frantic sensation of solitude. Suddenly something zooms close by; the world becomes alive again, lucid and precise. I see quite distinctly. My machine gun belches fire three times. Then, again, emptiness. We dive and bank. The rear machine gun fires again, in brief rhythm. And then my comrade turns around and shakes his fist, laughing. His mouth opens in strange fashion: he is singing. Far away against the sky a plane is slowly turning over, so slowly that one would think it was executing a manœuvre. It was a Heinckel, and our gunner at the rear turret got it. Two other planes are fast disappearing in the distance. I lean out: two little holes in a wing, that’s all. It is all finished, quite finished, and it lasted no more than three minutes.

Seated in one of the chairs that were taken out of the transport planes in order to transform them into bombers, the Basque mechanic begins to talk. He was a pal of Sergeant Iturbi. It urbi is dead because of machine-gun bullets which were n’t calibrated carefully enough. He had said calmly, ‘If my gun gets clogged, I’ll crash my opponent.’ His gun clogged during an extremely unequal combat (a Nieuport, 180 kilometres per hour, against a Fiat, 300 kilometres per hour), and Iturbi dived straight into his adversary. The Italian pilot, Vincenzo Patriarca, was saved by his parachute.

‘We Spaniards talk a lot, — muchas palabras, — but it is n’t serious. We have no true education.’

His words did not convey half what he expressed by hie accompanying gestures and grimaces. He emphasized ‘education’ with clenched fists and a sort of enraged look that left no doubt: he believed in education all right.

‘No, no. . . . One must be serious.

. . . Look at the workmen here at the camp. They work twelve and fourteen hours a day, voluntarily, and they have refused payment for extra time. But the military, they have n’t refused the advantages of war. . . , It is very wicked. ... As if it could be a question of money, to-day! . . . Ah, there are moments when I feel like putting a couple of bullets into my head!’ And he went through the motion of aiming at his temple.

At seven o’clock that evening a bus takes the fliers from the camp at Barajas back to Madrid. In the bus there are about ten workmen. The one beside me asks: ‘How many planes have we?’ Always the same question, everywhere. They know that it is one of our weakest points.

I answer as usual: ‘Very few, but we are getting along all right. To-day we shot down a German plane.’

A few moments before, my neighbor was serious, even sad. The news I give him electrifies him: ‘Terrific! This evening I shall drink an extra glass! Who did it?’

‘That fellow there in back.’

He gets up and congratulates the gunner of the rear turret, passing on the good news to his comrades. The bus is in an uproar. For them a vanquished plane is a memorable victory, almost an ultimate one. They see things one by one, as symbols, not with regard to number, or weight, or size. A vanquished plane promises certainty that all the rest may be vanquished, and are potentially already vanquished. These people discover their own strength with an intoxication that makes them forget a great many things. It is the psychology by which, after having taken La Caserna de la Montaña ‘with their bare hands,’ as they tell you again and again (and that is absolutely so: successive waves of Madrileños — men, women, children, old people — overwhelmed the barracks, which were bristling with machine guns, with the force of their attack; the arms they possessed would have been quite unavailing), these people considered themselves not only victorious, but invincible through divine favor. The armies of Franco and Mola were planning to meet at Badajoz and thence to march upon Navalmoral, Talavera, Toledo. The people continued to revere the ‘miracle’ of the Mountain, to consider defeats as unfortunate but inconsequential, to exclude a priori, as a frightening and unreal hypothesis, the possibility of a definitive disaster.

In 1809, before the victorious French invasion, Don Andres Torrejon, mayor of Mostoles, a small village nineteen kilometres from Madrid, took it quite simply upon himself to declare war against Napoleon. He did it in the name of the people, and his mad gesture has remained not without echo or consequence.

In 1936, General Franco declared war upon the descendants of Andres Torrejon. General Mola added the scornful challenge: ‘The people can do nothing against the army.’

His challenge was taken up not only with enthusiasm but with almost morbid exultation. To fight the generals on their own ground: that involved the pride of every man, woman, and child. Single-mindedly, they applied themselves to the task. The result was a surging mob — but a mob which completely stopped those who had thought it could be dispersed in a few minutes.

When the people take arms, they become violent and unmanageable. They swarm about, singing, killing, and being killed; they storm batteries with pistols and knives, and flee because of a few airplane bombs which harm none of them. They are zealous in planning the most impossible ways and means, and at the same time they prevent the most routine measures from becoming effective, or the most vital organizations from functioning. It is both sublime and absurd. And yet that was all the Spanish Republic had to save it.

One cannot speak of organizing a crowd. One organizes what is already arranged or established; one does not organize that which is in a state of constant flux, spreading simultaneously in every direction. Moreover, this mob that refused to yield to the organized army, and shouted its hatred of that ‘collective’ organization, was obliged to transform itself into an army, to create for itself the organization of war.

In the beginning there was originality, with all its creative force and despairing weakness. Each syndical federation in each region organized its combatants. Each detachment was placed under the authority of a special ‘ regional committee ’ whose connection with the other committees as well as with the central government was naturally rather weak. Under the command of the political leader most versed in military affairs, these detachments left for Zaragoza, for the Sierra de Guadarrama, for Guadalajara, for Siguenza. They stopped when their driving force was no longer sufficient to master the enemy resistance, without much regard, as will be readily understood, for strategic considerations. The sum total of the different points at which this first drive was stopped constituted the ‘front.’ And thus the war began.

The most important thing was not strategy; it was confidence in Fernando de Rosa. From this confidence, and from it alone, arose the ‘October’ battalion, one of the best among those which fought on the Sierra de Guadarrama. A young man twenty-eight years old, small, blond, with a clear and decisive look, always on the qui vive, such was Major de Rosa, el italiano. He had proved himself on the barricades of Madrid in October 1934 and before the court-martial which condemned him to thirty years in prison after he had assumed all responsibility for the insurrection, to save Largo Caballero, under penalty of death.

‘El italiano es un hombre con doscojones.’ It was with this enthusiastic and more or less untranslatable statement that the soldiers followed Major de Rosa when he led the attack with the shout, ‘Who is coming with me?' Because his voice reassured them, ‘No pasa nada’ (‘It is nothing’), his men remained in their places under the same bombardments that caused panic among comrades near by. Bullets did not unnerve De Rosa; therefore his men were not unnerved. The bond between officer and troops was a sentimental one, violent and yet fragile, with little of the military about it. The method this courageous youth employed in holding his men was nothing more or less than the technique of making every moment count and of capitalizing on lucky breaks.

One day two prisoners, self-styled Socialists, asked if they might join the October battalion. De Rosa did not hesitate to accept them. But his soldiers, suspecting treachery, protested: ‘To take strangers, without even making inquiries . . De Rosa agreed: ‘Indeed, we ought to make sure. I shall see for myself to-night.’ That evening he left for night patrol alone with the two recruits. Halfway up the mountain, De Rosa stopped a moment, removed his revolver from his belt, and gave it to one of his companions: ‘Carry it — it is in my way.’ And he continued his patrol that way. ‘You can rest assured, t hey are absolutely all right,’ he declared to the anxious soldiers who awaited his return.

The October battalion lasted right up to the moment when De Rosa, standing on a promontory during an entire attack to prove that not all bullets kill their men, was killed by a ball through the forehead. Filing into Madrid behind his coffin, the soldiers of the October battalion, guns on their shoulders, wept like orphans. The battalion was dissolved: it could not live without De Rosa.

It was such battalions that stemmed the first attack of the Fascist generals — and lost Toledo and Castille. Thrown into confusion by the violent and unexpected drives of the Moroccans and the legionnaires of the Tercio, — soldiers well armed, well protected, well directed, having on their side, in addition, the overwhelming advantage of mechanical resources, — the militiamen found themselves scattered upon the highway to Estremadura, in groups of fifty, thirty, fifteen.

‘What are you doing?’ they were asked.

‘Where are our leaders?’ they countered. ‘We want Mangada: with him we will recapture Talavera.’ Mangada was a beloved general, but he could not be wherever a handful of men claimed his presence. They had neither sergeants nor corporals — no one who could reorganize them or assure them that they were not entirely abandoned. And here they were demanding a general!

Soldiers continued to turn traitor. Alongside the road lay the body of an officer of the civil guard. ‘I just shot him,’ announced the major of the fifth regiment of militia. ‘He had been entrusted with a battery, and he turned it over to the Fascists.’

There were fifteen-year-old boys among those disbanded soldiers — they made one think of the drummer boys of historic armies. But if the Moors had taken them, they would have ended in the common grave with the others. Tired, hungry, dirty, a pause for a cigarette by an open field freed them from care. And the women — peasants and workers, sturdy, courageous, their dusty hair caught up under soldiers’ caps — carried their guns like farm tools. In their pockets, among the cartridges, were needles, thread, and extra buttons.

It was a woman who, at the head of two hundred militiamen, directed the last defense of Siguenza — a fierce and useless resistance. On the tenth of October the city was occupied by Fascist soldiers (there were many priests among them, especially Jesuits). The population was massacred without discrimination, in spite of the fact that the victims were, for the most part, of clerical leaning. The two hundred who lay wounded in the hospital, including doctors, were wiped out with knife thrusts.

It was under these conditions that Comrade Etcheverry decided to open up a way to the cathedral, so as to wait there for the reënforcements which had been asked for. By means of dynamite cartridges she succeeded in gaining the church with her men. During the fight her husband was killed. In the cathedral some three hundred women and children had already taken refuge. A machine gun was placed in the tower, and the interior was barricaded. To the demand for reënforcements Madrid answered: ‘We can do nothing. Resist if you can.’ Comrade Etcheverry resisted. From morning till evening for six days, eight trimotored ‘Junkers’ dropped bombs on the church. Not a drop of alcohol, not a bandage, to care for the wounded. Comrade Etcheverry gave the order to kill the dying. On the seventh day they decided to abandon the church and to try to escape under cover of night. Once again enemy lines had to be crossed. For four days those who had the courage returned the way they had come, in groups of twenty or twenty-five, opening up a passage once again with dynamite. In this way Comrade Etcheverry was saved. She is now in Madrid.

The Catholic priest, Juan Garcia Morales, wrote these words in August 1934: ‘For centuries Spain has been a nation of starving people who, souls alight with the Christian faith, have raised up the spires of Gothic cathedrals, and have covered with gold the cloisters of Avila and Salamanca. Today Spain’s army of the starving no longer demand charity. They demand justice and the right to live decently. Unemployment is not alleviated by the dole, and the plan of the agrarian descendants of the ancient lords to provide for the construction of still more charitable institutions is an anachronism, like everything else which is the product of their minds. To treat the problem of human suffering in the twentieth century as did Saint Vincent de Paul in the seventeenth is to make of Spain a gigantic and permanent poorhouse.’

In the same year a deputy presented a report to the Cortes, in which he gave this instance of the working conditions in Castille: ‘At Salamanca, a group of landowners presented a plan for agricultural contracts paying 2.50 pesetas a day [less than 30 cents], with the workers obligated to return this pay if they were fed by their employer. That is, these workmen earned only their food. The contracts were approved by the provincial junte. Not only that, but they were later replaced by others in which it was added that certain classes of workers, as specified by contract, would have to pay .50 pesetas a day to their employer if he fed them during the working period. Work then became a privilege granted in consideration of money.’

In the winter of 1935, the mayor of Boas de Segura sent the Minister of Labor the following telegram: ‘Unemployed workers in Boas de Segura in unendurable situation. Hungry crowds begging in the streets, soliciting charity by force. Please send emergency funds.’ That hatred has sprung from deep roots, in a land so harassed, is not particularly surprising.

In 1936, after five years of hesitation and delay, the Republic was finally forced to reflect seriously upon the situation. The generals appealed to ‘Grande Espagne,’ to the shades of Philip II, to the ' defense of the Faith.’ They caused Moors, Reichswehr, and Black Shirts to unite. And there you have ‘Spanish Fascism’ — which nobody had believed possible,

‘What is Fascism?’ I asked a peasant of La Mancha one day.

‘It is something for those who do not care for Liberty.’

Alone in a vast ward in the Escorial, which had been transformed into a hospital, a man lay seriously wounded. His tanned face bristled with whiskers. He looked at us with an expression of hostility, almost of rage.

‘Where are you from?’ we asked.

‘From Alicante. I’m a farmer. There are seven of us brothers — when we’re at home. All at the front.’ And, having noticed a slight gesture of astonishment on the part of his questioner, he hastened to add, with scornful impatience: ‘Vivir ó no vivir, sin libertad, es iguaV (‘Living or not living, without liberty, is all the same’).

One sometimes has the impression among these people of being in the midst of a crowd of Patrick Henrys. ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ seems to be everybody’s motto. They have the common urge to liberate the whole world from the Fascist menace. This is often expressed by boasting and posturing. But there is also faith — a fanatic faith based upon this perfectly simple concept: a nation living in freedom, a society of honorable men obliged neither to go hungry nor to be clothed in rags. Could anything be simpler?