The lack of action on the front had prompted Orwell, Kopp, and Edwards
to make some daring patrols under the noses of the enemy.
In the description provided by Edwards, in the New Leader,
Orwell appears to have been a far more effective soldier
than Homage To Catalonia would lead one to believe.
'Blair is a fine type of Englishman, 6-feet, 3-inches in height,
a good shot, a cool customer, completely without fear.
I know this because we have on numerous occasions crept over the parapet
and have managed to get very close to the Fascist lines.'...
SOLDIER ORWELL AT SPANISH FRONT
Orwell volunteered to take part in an ambitious night raid on a fascist position at Huesca.
Orwell's group of volunteers -- fifteen Englishmen and fifteen Spaniards --
was supposed to creep up to the enemy line, cut the barbed wire,
toss hand grenades over the low wall of sandbags,
and then storm the position with their rifles firing and bayonets at the ready...
The patrol got up close to the barbed wire and Orwell got way in front.
Grenades were bursting right, left, and centre.
Orwell stood up, very tall, and shouted:
"Come on, move up here you bastards"....
The tourist department of the province of Aragon where Orwell fought in the trenches during the Spanish Civil War -- and where he was shot through the neck -- has restored the trenches and is offering guided tours. See TOUR ORWELL'S SPANISH TRENCHES & ORWELL'S HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
This inspired me to re-read parts of Orwell's book about the Spanish Civil War and also parts of Orwell biographies for a better understanding of the role Orwell played in it. I found maps showing the lay of the land when Orwell arrived in Spain the day after Christmas in 1936.
In the Spanish Civil War the Republicans -- the coalition Socialist government which controlled "the means of production", ie the factories, stores, land resources -- was defending itself against a military coup by the Nationalists, led by Franco, who wanted control back in the hands of "the establishment", ie large land-owners, corporations, bankers, churches etc.
Foreign countries got involved and chose sides -- ie Germany and Italy (so-called "fascist" nations under Hitler & Mussolini) supported the Nationalists while Russia (hard-core communist nation under Stalin) supported the Republicans (but in reality Russia was backing the Nationalists). France, England and America remained neutral and didn't get involved (although citizens from all those countries chose sides and joined the war independently).
Orwell fought on the side of the Republicans because he believed in Democratic Socialsm -- ie government of the people, by the people, for the people -- and he believed the fledgling Socialist government in Spain needed to be defended.
Orwell was anti-Communist and hated how the Communists pretended they were Socialists and thus discredited the cause (as he'd exposed in his recent book THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER) and so when Orwell went to Spain to fight he chose a militia that was truly Socialist, ie anti-Fascist and anti-Communist -- and that was the POUM.
Trying to comprehend who's who and what's what in the Spanish Civil War is mind-boggling, or as Orwell said in describing the kaleidoscope of political parties -- PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT -- it's as though Spain were suffering from "a plague of initials".
I found the clearest explanation in Michael Shelden's 1991 book ORWELL: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY and have scanned and excerpted passages below. At pertinent points I've inserted photos from other sources to enhance understanding and reading enjoyment. ~ Jackie Jura
When Orwell went to Spain, he was not certain that he would fight. He lacked neither courage nor conviction, but he doubted whether he had the stamina or the skill to be a good soldier. And because of the chronic weakness of his lungs, he suspected that he would be turned down for health reasons if he tried to enlist. But he did not rule out joining one of the Spanish political militias if it became clear that they could use him. In the meantime, he decided that the best way to serve the cause was to observe the war and write about it for the NEW STATESMAN or for some other English paper sympathetic to the Republican government.
He had been told that he would not be permitted to enter Spain without some supporting documents from a British left-wing organization...so he sought the assistance of the one left-wing organization in London whose name would mean something to even the most backward Spanish border guard. He went to the British Communist Party. He managed to put his request directly to its chief, Harry Pollitt. They had never met, but Pollitt seems to have taken an immediate dislike to him. He must have smelled the blood of a 'right-wing deviationist' when Orwell walked into his office because he began to question him very carefully and soon concluded that his visitor was 'politically unreliable'. He refused to help Orwell and ended their interview. It was a distinctly unpleasant meeting, and Pollitt's memory of it may have caused him to launch his highly personal attack on Orwell three months later, in his DAILY WORKER review of THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER. Not only did he dismiss the writer as a 'disillusioned middle-class boy', but he also ridiculed him for daring to speak out on a 'subject he does not understand'.
After the hostile reception given him by Pollitt, Orwell telephoned the headquarters of the Independent Labour Party, and its officials readily agreed to help him. He was given a letter of introduction to ILP's Barcelona representative, John McNair. With this matter settled, he was ready to set off for Spain. After saying goodbye to Eillen [who he had married 6 months previously in June] he began his journey....
At the border, the Spanish guards seemed pleased with his letter from the ILP, but as he remarked later, the guards were mostly anarchists and ordinarily paid little attention to documents they were shown. The casual manner of the soldiers and their evident lack of proper equipment and training boosted his opinion of his own qualifications for service. The government was being defended by a disorganised group of political militias, and the quality of the troops varied enormously. Some units were little more than loose gangs of ragged boys in their early teens. 'After one glimpse of the troops in Spain I saw that I had relatively a lot of training as a soldier and decided to join the militia.'
Orwell wanted to join the International Brigade, but after the ILP had gone to such trouble of issuing him a letter of introduction, he felt obliged to go to Barcelona first and meet the party's representative. He found John McNair in an office at the Executive Building of the POUM (the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification). The ILP was affiliated with this independent socialist group, and part of McNair's job was to co-ordinate efforts to give it assistance -- financial and otherwise. As the result of an ILP fundraising campaign in England, the POUM had received almost 10,000-pounds, as well as an ambulance and a planeload of medical supplies. A contingent of ILP military volunteers was also preparing to go out to Spain to serve in the POUM militia.
'I'm looking for a chap named John McNair,' Orwell said, standing at the door of the office. McNair did not like the sound of the voice addressing him. A Tynesider who had left school at the age of twelve, he was put off by the sudden appearance of this 'great, big, tall chap who spoke with a very pronounced Etonian accent.' Instead of replying nicely, 'I am he', McNair said in his roughest Tyneside accent, 'A 'am yer man.'
Orwell gave him the letter from the ILP, and when McNair realized that his visitor was the author George Orwell, his attitude changed. He had read both BURMESE DAYS and DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, and had been impressed by them. When he asked what Orwell could do to help, the reply came back, 'I've come to fight against fascism.'
'You're not a Stalinist?' McNair asked.
'Then you can join either the CNT or the POUM.'
'I'll join the POUM'.
'You can join the POUM today.'
McNair took him immediately to the Lenin Barracks, which was the military headquarters of the POUM. It was an enormous complex built in an elegant classical style, with wide archways and spacious cobbled courtyards. It had been a cavalry barracks, but the militia had seized it during the July fighting and had mounted a giant portrait of Lenin in the archway over the main gate. Orwell was introduced to the division commander, Jose Rovira, and was told that he would be sent to the Aragon front as soon as more recruits were available to form a fresh centuria -- a company of a hundred men.
He spent a week at the barracks, but he received no meaningful training while there. There were not enough rifles to arm the recruits, so their days were devoted primarily to simple parade ground drills. Orwell had been through all these routines many times before, beginning with the Cadet Corps at St Cyprian's, and considered them a waste of time. But he was asked to lead some of the drills, and did his best to instill a sense of discipline in the young troops. When McNair came back to check on him the next day, he found him dressed in khaki trousers and sweater drilling a group of recruits. As he and Rovira watched the tall Englishman patiently trying to instruct the Spanish boys, the division commander declared enthusiastically, 'If we had a hundred men like him we would win the war.'
There was no lack of enthusiasm among the POUM leaders, but their troops were ill-prepared to fight a war against fascist soldiers whose weapons and training were generally superior. Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco by senidng 'volunteers' and large shipments of arms and other equipment, but the only major source of supply for the Republic was the Soviet Union, and Stalin was selective in his support of the politicial militias. He expected absolute obedience in return for his support, and the POUM's brand of Marxism did not conform to his dictates. Consequently the party's members were branded 'Trotskyists', and Soviet agents in Spain spread rumours that the party [POUM] was 'Franco's Fifth Column'. Its failure to follow Moscow's lead was used as evidence that it was trying to divide Republican forces so that Franco could take advantage of the weakness.
When he joined the POUM Orwell had no idea that its credibility was being undermined by Stalin's machinations. He was under the impression that one militia was more or less the same as the next, and that they were united by the common goal of defeating the fascists. If he had stayed in Barcelona for a few weeks, he would have realised how complicated the situation was, but he left for the front at the beginning of January and remained there for almost four months. As far as he could tell from his week in Barcelona, the future of the Republic looked promising. Walking down the wide avenue of the Ramblas, he was impressed by the egalitarian spirit of Barcelona. A true workers' state seemed to have been established....
Orwell was part of a centuria which was sent to defend a position on a hilltop near Alcubierre. It was a quiet sector, but was not without its occasional moments of danger from random artillery shells or well-aimed rifle fire. The unit was taken to the front by a member of Rovira's General Staff, a Russian-born engineer named Georges Kopp. When they reached the position, which was three thousand feet above sea-level, Kopp placed them under the command of a young captain named Benjamin Lewinski (Orwell uses an alternate spelling -- 'Levinski' -- in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA). Orwell guessed that his captain was about twenty-five, but in fact Lewinski was only twenty. He was a Pole who had grown up in Paris, where he had been a fur-coat maker before deciding, one day in August 1936, to go to Spain so that he could fight fascism. Kopp had given him the command of this hilltop position in November 1936. The fact that he was so young was outweighed by his ability to speak several European languages -- an essential skill on this part of the front where the volunteers included men who spoke French, German, Italian, English, and Catalan. He spoke all of these languages, as well as a few more, though he was not fluent in all of them. Orwell liked him from the moment they met, and affectionately referred to him as 'Ben', but he never ceased to be amused at Lewinski's inventive way of speaking the English language.
After failing to see anything of the opposing army on his first day at the front, Orwell asked his young captain, 'Where are the enemy?' He records the response in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA:
Benjamin waved his hand expansively, 'Over zere'. (Benjamin spoke English -- terrible English).
According to my ideas of trench warfare the Fascists would be fifty or a hundred yards away. I could see nothing -- seemingly their trenches were very well concealed. Then with a shock of dismay I saw where Benjamin was pointing; on the opposite hilltop, beyond the ravine, seven hundred meters away at the very least, the tiny outline of a parapet and a red-and-yellow flag -- the Fascist position. I was indescribably disappointed.
...Lewinski remembered that Orwell's linquistic abilities were excellent. He thought that his friend's French was very good, and he was impressed at how quickly Orwell was able to pick up enough Catalan to communicate effectively with the troops in his unit. It was partly for this reason that Lewinski made him a corporal, or cabo, almost as soon as he arrived at the front....
The lack of discipline among the Spanish youths in his unit was a constant worry for Orwell. The troops received their rifles only hours before taking up their positions at the front, and many of the boys used them carelessly, having no previous experience with firearms of any kind. He saw five militiamen wounded by shooting accidents before he saw any casualties from fascist attacks. One day Orwell rashly decided to photograph a group of machine-gunners with their gun. 'Don't fire,' he said half-jokingly as he stood in front of them focusing his camera. A few seconds later a stream of bullets whizzed past his face. The gun had accidentally been fired, but afterwards the machine-gunners treated the whole incident as a joke.
But the greatest enemy during that first month at the front was the 'unspeakable cold'. Whether they were standing in their trenches or curled up in their dugouts, the men could not escape the penetrating chill. Before doing his sentry duty at night, Orwell tried to pile onto his body as many clothes as he could, but he still found himself shivering in the frigid air. Icy rains and stiff winds were common torments, and there was never enough firewood available to keep everyone warm. It was a miracle that he did not come down with a fatal case of pneumonia, but somehow he managed to survive the brutal conditions...
There was only one other British subject in Orwell's unit, a Welshman named Robert Williams, but on 2 February the ILP contingent arrived at the front and began fortifying a position at Monte Trazo, a few miles to the west of Orwell's post. Georges Kopp decided that all the men from Britain should be together, so Orwell and Williams made the short trip to Monte Trazo and became members of the British force, which operated as an independent unit under the general supervision of Kopp. There were about thirty men in the group, including Bob Smillie, a grandson of the miners' leader Robert Smillie. Orwell must have been struck by the irony that he and Smillie had become comrades-in-arms; only a few months earlier Orwell had described, in THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER, the kind of hysterical fear which Bob's grandfather had aroused in middle-class households at the end of the First World War: 'That was the period of the great coal strikes, when a miner was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there.'
The man who had organized the contingent in England, and who had led them out to Spain, was Bob Edwards. He was the Lancashire representative on the National Council of the ILP, and would later become a Labour MP. He was also a regular contributor to the ILP weekly paper in London -- the NEW LEADER. On 19 February his first report from the front appeared in its pages and the one member of the contingent who he praised for battlefield heroics was Orwell. The lack of action on the front had prompted Orwell, Kopp, and Edwards to make some daring patrols under the noses of the enemy. In the description provided by Edwards, Orwell appears to have been a far more effective soldier than HOMAGE TO CATALONIA would lead one to believe: ...'Blair is a fine type of Englishman, 6-feet, 3-inches in height, a good shot, a cool customer, completely without fear. I know this because we have on numerous occasions crept over the parapet and have managed to get very close to the Fascist lines.'
Orwell shared a dugout at Monte Trazo with an Irishman by the name of John 'Paddy' Donovan, who was close to him in age. He thought that Orwell was a brave man, but that he was perhaps too brave for his own good. 'Orwell always wanted to be in action, he never wanted to lie down and take things easy, but wanted always to carry on'. As far as Donovan could tell, his comrade had only a few interests beyond the war itself, one of which was writing. 'Eric was always writing, and in the evenings he used to write by candelight'. This was an acceptable pastime -- he was keeping a detailed diary of his experiences at the front -- but he was fond of another daily activity which made no sense. Despite his lung problems, he insisted on smoking a strong black shag tobacco. He rolled it into cigarettes and kept one going almost constantly. During the evenings their small dugout was full of thick, pungent smoke....
The narrow confines of the dugout were a welcome refuge whenever the fascists decided to fire a few artillery shells in the direction of the British volunteers. But Orwell tended to dismiss this threat. The shelling was so infrequent and so inaccurate that he regarded it more as a 'mild diversion' than as a serious danger. Moreover, many of the shells were defective and did not explode....
The shelling was worse at the unit's next position. In mid-February Kopp sent them to the outskirts of Huesca, where other POUM forces were besieging the town. They built their sandbag fortifications on a hill only a mile and a half away from the town, and mounted a flag pole over one of the dugouts. Their flag was inscibed with the words, 'ILP, Seccion Inglesa. POUM', and in one of its corners was the hammer and sickle. The sight of this banner waving in the cold wind may have lifted the spirits of some of the 'lads', but it also provided a good target for the enemy.... In HOMAGE TO CATALONIA Orwell refers to these routine attacks as 'a little shell-fire'.
Shortly before the ILP unit moved to their position outside Huesca, Eileen contacted the ILP headquarters in London and applied for a job which had been advertised in the NEW LEADER. The paper had asked for a volunteer to serve in John McNair's office in Barcelona.... The job was given to Eileen because of her excellent qualifications, not merely because her husband was a member of the party's military contingent in Spain.... By mid-February Eileen was working at her new job and living in an ordinary room at the Hotel Continental. She had closed the village shop [in Wallington], and Nellie Limouzin [Orwell's aunt] had moved to the cottage to take care of it and the garden until the couple returned.
It was impossible for Orwell to leave the front, so Eileen went to see him. Georges Kopp had been introduced to her in Barcelona, and she had talked him into taking her out to the front in his staff car.... They made the trip in mid-March. A blurred photograph has survived which shows her posing with Orwell and other militiamen beside a machine-gun at their position near Huesca. Everyone looks relaxed, but her visit was not without its dangers.... 'I was allowed to stay in the front line dug-outs all day. The Fascists threw in a small bombardment and quite a lot of machine-gun fire'... She found that Orwell was 'very tired' after two and a half months at the front, but that otherwise he was in 'fairly' good health.
There was a very small hospital at Monflorite, a short distance behind the front, and the POUM doctor working there had recently examined Orwell. He had pronounced him fit, though he had acknowledged that the Englishman was suffering from 'over-fatigue'. Kopp had given Eileen a tour of the hospital, and she had been appalled by the doctor's slovenliness... 'Used dressings are thrown out the window unless the window happens to be shut when they rebound onto the floor -- and the doctor's hands have never been known to be washed...
Unfortunately, it was to this place that Orwell was sent at the end of March when a cut on his hand became badly infected. He spent ten days there, and during this time the practicantes (hospital assistants) stole almost all his valuables, including his camera. To cheer him up, Eileen sent him a box of cigars and a food parcel, and he sent her some of his photographs of the war for safekeeping....
Orwell returned to the front and took part in the most serious fighting he would see in the war. Despite the fact that his arm had recently been in a sling, he volunteered to take part in an ambitious night raid on a fascist position at Huesca. Benjamin Lewinski and Jorge Roca, a battalion commander in the division, planned the attack as a two-pronged assault. Orwell's group of volunteers -- fifteen Englishmen and fifteen Spaniards -- was supposed to creep up to the enemy line, cut the barbed wire, toss hand grenades over the low wall of sandbags, and then storm the position with their rifles firing and bayonets at the ready. At the same time another POUM force would charge the next position on the line, and prevent it from reinforcing the other.
Like most plans in war, this one went awry. Lewinski and Roca led Orwell's group to within a few yards of their objective before the enemy sentry spotted them and sounded the alert. Shots rang out in all directions, and Orwell found that he was caught between the fire of his own troops and that of the fascists. A few hand grenades managed to land among the enemy and, fortunately for Orwell, the firing died down. Lewinski rallied his men and led the charge over the wall, where they found the defenders were either dead or in retreat. Lewinski recalled in 1990 that he had looked round to see if Orwell had managed to survive the assault. To his relief, he found that his comrade was unharmed. 'He was very clever, very logical, and much courage, but I was afraid for him. He was so tall and always standing up. I tell him, "Keep your head down", but he is always standing up'. Paddy Donovan had similar fears for his friend that night: 'The patrol got up close to the barbed wire and Orwell got way in front. Grenades were bursting right, left, and centre. Orwell stood up, very tall, and shouted: "Come on, move up here you bastards".' In response to this call, Donovan had the good sense to yell out, 'For Christ's sake, Eric, get down'. The NEW LEADER account of this assault is even more dramatic:
'Charge!' shouted Blair'. 'Over to the right and in!' called Paddy Donovan. 'Are we downhearted?' cried the French Captain Benjamin.
In front of the parapet was Eric Blair's tall figure cooly strolling forward through the storm of fire. He leapt at the parapet, then stumbled. Hell, had they got him? No, he was over, closely followed by Gross, of Hammersmith, Frankfort, of Hackney, and Bob Smillie, with the others right after them.
The trench had been hastily evacuated. The last of the retreating Fascists, clothed only in a blanket, was thirty yards away. Blair gave chase, but the men knew that ground and got away. In the corner of the trench was one dead man; in a dugout was another body.
In was not all glory for the volunteers. The assault on the second position had failed completely, leaving those fascist troops free to counterattack. Orwell and the rest of his unit were soon receiving heavy fire and were forced to leave the position which they had overwhelmed only minutes earlier. The path of their retreat took them through rain-soaked fields, and by the time they reached their own lines they were covered in mud. Afterwards Kopp praised the men for their 'audacious raid' and told them that the attack had diverted troops from another part of the front where anarchist militiamen had mounted a large assault against the fascists. 'The militiamen had mounted a large assault against the fascists. The action had been a success, as such things go', Orwell reflected later. When it was all over, and he was safely back in his dugout, he quietly celebrated by smoking the last of the cigars from the box Eileen had sent him.
Orwell served on the Aragon front for a hundred and fifteen days. It was not until the end of April 1937 that he was granted leave and was able to see Barcelona again. He needed a period of rest, and he was badly in need of a hot bath. Lice had been a nuisance for him since his early days in the trenches, and by April they were a constant misery. As he wrote later, 'The lice were multiplying in my trousers far faster than I could massacre them'. The warmer spring weather, however, had made life a little easier, and the bright sun had put some colour in his face. When he arrived in Barcelona, his shabby clothing startled Eileen, but otherwise she thought he was looking healthier...
The numerous rumours about the POUM being 'Franco's Fifth Column' were so widespread by this time that many people had come to accept them as the truth. It did not help that Eileen worked at the party headquarters. 'Of course we -- perhaps particularly I -- are politically suspect', she acknowledged to her brother.
Neither Eileen nor George believed the rumours, but they did not want to become bogged down in political infighting while the fascists grew stronger on the battlefield. At this point Orwell's attitude was that the fight against fascism mattered more than anything else. 'I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties', he explains in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA. 'My attitude always was, "Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?"'. The rivalries between the various left-wing factions 'exasperated' him, and he found it difficult to sort out the positions of the 'kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names -- PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT...It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials'...
His attitude on the question of political infighting changed dramatically in the first week of May when he found himself and his comrades under fire not from the fascist enemy but from their left-wing 'allies'. The trouble began in Barcelona on 3 May.... Rumours spread that one political faction or another was attempting to seize control of the city. Random shooting broke out everywhere. Assault Guards roamed the streets trying to restore order by shooting at practically anything that moved. Communists fired on anarchists, who fired back, and all sides seemed to be taking shots at POUM members.
This chaos lasted for four days, three of which Orwell spent on the roof of a cinema guarding the approach to the POUM Executive Building, directly across the street. From this position he had a wide view of the city and was amazed at the 'folly' of the street fighting raging in all directions. Eileen had taken refuge in the Executive Building, as had Georges Kopp and a small force of POUM militiamen. The great fear was that the government -- under pressure from its communist supporters -- would blame the POUM for starting the trouble and send the Assault Guards to attack the building. About thirty Assault Guards did take up a position at a cafe next to the building, but they did not attack. The atmosphere, however, was nerve-racking. As this siege by supposedly friendly forces dragged on hour after hour, Orwell grew furious:
I had been a hundred and fifteen days in the line and had come back to Barcelona ravenous for a bit of rest and comfort; and instead I had to spend my time sitting on a roof opposite Assault Guards as bored as myself, who periodically waved to me and assured me that they were 'workers' (meaning that they hoped I would not shoot them), but who would certainly open fire if they got the order to do so. If this was history it did not feel like it.
After the trouble ended on 7 May and life in the city began to return to its usual routine, Orwell decided that he would have nothing to do with the International Brigade because, as he told a friend, 'I could not join any Communist-controlled unit'. Suddenly, the complexities of left-wing Spanish politics mattered very much to him. He was willing to die in a fight against fascism but not in some pointless squabble over left-wing loyalties. It did not take him long to realise that a communist bullet might get him before a fascist one. The communists were looking for ways to strengthen their power in the Republic and the street fighting gave them a pretext for intensifying their hate campaign against the POUM. They began blaming them for all the troubles of the 'May Days', and distributed a very damaging poster showing a Nazi devil hiding behind a mask marked 'POUM'. 'Fuera la Careta!' ('Tear off the mask!') the poster said.
It would have been prudent for the Orwell's if they had left Spain at this point, but after seeing what had happened in Barcelona, they did not want to abandon their friends in the POUM.
Orwell went back to the front only three days after the street fighting ended, and Eileen continued to work in John McNair's office. Although Orwell was sent back to the same general area near Huesca where he had been in March and April, there were a few things which were different in May. The government was in the process of bringing all the militias under its authority, and had been organising a Popular Army in which militiamen and regular Army troops would serve together. The Lenin Division, in which Orwell served, was renamed the 29th Division, and regular Army commissions were given to its officers. The informal command structure of the militia gave way to conventional hierarchy. Kopp was appointed a major, Benjamin Lewinski was given an official rank of captain and -- on Lewinski's recommendation -- Eric Blair's name was put forward for a lieutenant's commission. In the meantime, he held the new rank on a provisional basis.
His period as an officer did not last long. On 20 May, at first light, he awoke and left his dugout to relieve one of his men -- an American named Henry Milton -- who was standing guard behind a wall of sandbags. Milton recalled that Orwell stood on a sandbag to take a look over the wall. A few seconds later he heard a rifle shot and saw Orwell's long body crash to the ground. A sniper's bullet had hit him while his head was silhouetted against the rising sun. When Milton leaned over him, he saw that the bullet had entered his throat, making a neat hole without causing much bleeding. 'I thought he wouldn't make it', Milton remembered. 'He had bitten down hard on his lip, and I thought there must be a lot of damage. But he was breathing, and his eyes were moving'. Milton and some of the other men managed to put him on a stretcher and carry him a mile or so to the small hospital in Monflorite. He was conscious the whole time, but was given a shot of morphia to ease his pain, and was then sent to another hospital at Sietamo.
Doctors later told him that the bullet had missed a carotid artery by 'about a millimetre'. He was frequently told how lucky he was to survive a neck wound, but he was not so impressed by his luck. "I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all"...
Whether he was willing to admit it or not, Orwell was extremely lucky to be alive. It was later determined that he had been hit by a Mauser bullet fired from a distance of two hundred yards. Yet his recovery was fairly quick. He slowly regained his voice, though it remained no more than a hoarse whisper for some weeks. In less than forty-eight hours he had been moved from the front to a large, rather modern hospital at Lerida, and within a few days he was able to get up and walk in the hospital garden. Kopp brought Eileen there to see him, and arrangements were made to move Orwell to Barcelona as soon as he was fit for the journey. The POUM maintained a well-equipped sanatorium for convalescent troops on the slopes of Mount Tibidabo, outside Barcelona. It consisted of two large villas which had been seized from fascist sympathisers. Orwell arrived there on 29 May and stayed for two weeks.
At Eileen's request Kopp had written to Dr O'Shaughnessy* [her brother] to give a detailed report of Orwell's condition. Eileen wanted her brother to write a 'colleague's letter' to the specialist in Barcelona who was trying to help Orwell recover his voice.... By 10 June Eileen was able to inform her brother that Orwell was 'much better, though he cannot be brought to admit any improvements -- He is violently depressed, which I think encouraging'. His depression was largely the result of his recognition that there was no more that he could do in Spain; his wound had left him unfit for service -- his medical discharge included the notation 'declared useless' -- and he had no wish to cover the war from Barcelona: 'I had an overwhelming desire to get away from it all; away from the horrible atmosphere of political suspicion and hatred, from streets thronged by armed men, from air-raids, trenches, machine guns'.
The political situation was rapidly worsening. On 28 May the government had banned the POUM's newspaper, LA BATALLA, and on 16 June the POUM party was outlawed. Its leaders were rounded up and thrown into prisons. This action was the direct result of orders given to Colon Ortega, the director-general of security by the Soviet GPU chief in Spain, Alexander Orlov. The head of POUM, Andres Nin, was tortured and murdered. But it was not only the leaders who were targets of this purge. To Orwell's great sorrow, his comrade Bob Smillie was arrested in May, and on 12 June the young man died in prison at Valencia, supposedly of appendicitis. Orwell was unconvinced by the official explanation of Smillie's death, and HOMAGE TO CATALONIA leaves no doubt about the indignation which this death had aroused in Orwell: 'Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal'.
Orwell did not learn of Smillie's death, or of the purge launched against the POUM, until it was almost too late for him to escape a fate similar to Smillie's. In 1989 a document came to light in the National Historical Archive in Madrid which leaves no doubt that both Orwell's life and Eileen's were in danger. The document is a security police report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason at Valencia. It details the activities of 'Enric Blair', as he is called, 'and his wife Eileen Blair'. They are described in the report as 'known Trotskyists' and as 'linking agents of the ILP and the POUM'. In the Spanish Republic, in June 1937, these were serious allegations indeed, and if the authorities had managed to get their hands on the couple, they would surely have been arrested. Anything might have happened after that.
Because he had been away from Barcelona between 15 June and 20 June gathering the necessary papers for his medical discharge, Orwell first learned of the purge when he walked into the lounge of the Hotel Continental late at night on the twentieth. Eileen was waiting for him. Before he could get to her she came to him, put her arm round his neck and whispered in his ear: 'Get out!' When they were outside on the pavement, she hurriedly explained to him what had been happening in his absence. Only two nights earlier a group of plain-clothes police had barged into Eileen's room and taken away 'evidence' -- books, press-cuttings, letters, all the diaries in which Orwell had recorded the events and impressions of his stay in Spain, and -- rather mysteriously -- a bundle of his dirty linen. The security police report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason contains information which seems to have been gathered from this raid on their hotel room.
Perhaps the most shocking news for Orwell was that Georges Kopp had been arrested. He had been staying at the Hotel Continental and when he came in on the morning of the twentieth to collect his belongings, before returning to the front, the police took him into custody....
Eileen believed that she had not been arrested because the police were using her as a decoy, not only to help them apprehend her husband, but also John McNair, who was still at large. For the time being the only thing to do was to keep a low profile and prepare for a fast escape from Spain. She went back to her room, but Orwell went into hiding, using his old tramping skills to help him survive on the streets for a few days...
Orwell and his wife made their escape from Barcelona on the morning of 23 June. They were accompanied by John McNair and Stafford Cottman, one of Orwell's comrades from the ILP contingent. Each of them had obtained proper travel documents from the British consulate and had decided to travel by rail as ordinary tourists...
Even without the aid of his diary, Orwell was able to explain in a straightforward and authentic way, the complicated sequence of events which led the Republic to yield to communist pressure and to sanction the brutal suppression of the POUM.... Orwell worked as quickly as he could to finish his piece which he called EYE-WITNESS IN BARCELONA. It describes the events of May and June, swiftly summarising material which he would later develop in much more detail in HOMAGE TO CATALONIA.... When Orwell arrived in London at the end of June, he submitted the piece to the NEW STATESMAN, but Kingsley Martin, the editor, took exception to Orwell's conclusions and refused the article on the grounds that it would 'cause trouble'....
~ end quoting Orwell: Authorized Biography by Shelden ~
*ORWELL BULLET THRU NECK (letter from Georges Kopp to Eileen's brother Dr O'Shaughnessy)
TOUR ORWELL'S SPANISH TRENCHES
ORWELL BIRTHDAY TYPING CATALONIA
ORWELL'S CRYSTAL SPIRIT POEM
SPAIN REMEMBERS ORWELL CENTENNIAL
ORWELL'S HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
ORWELL & THE NEW STATESMAN (Orwell despised the editor of the NEW STATESMAN magazine -- Kingsley Martin -- because he refused to publish any of Orwell's 1937 Spanish Civil War articles....)
ORWELL ON WHY I WRITE (...In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.... The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.... I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and myinitial concern is to get a hearing...)
Bloodstained George Orwell scarves to be auctioned, BBC, Sep 24, 2013
Scarves stained with the blood of 1984 author George Orwell, are to be auctioned in London. Orwell was wearing the anti-fascist scarves when he was shot in the neck during a battle near Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War in May 1937. He described the experience of being shot as "very interesting...roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion". The scarves are expected fetch up to £1,200 when they are sold on 3 October. Writing in his Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's personal account of the war, he said he had been "about 10 days at the front when it happened". He continued: "Webb, our stretcher-bearer, had brought a bandage and one of the little bottles of alcohol they gave us for field-dressings. The doctor re-bandaged the wound, gave me a shot of morphine, and sent me off." The scarves were saved by Hugh Patrick O'Hare, who treated Orwell in the aftermath of the shooting and was a fellow member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He, in turn, passed them on to another member of the ILP. Orwell's experiences fighting fascists would shape his work, including the allegorical Animal Farm and the nightmarish vision of totalitarianism in 1984. Max Hasler, of auctioneers Bloomsbury, said that Orwellian memorabilia was rare but "to have something that relates to such a significant part of his life is especially unusual". "I think it is a really interesting item. George Orwell was such a private person, very few examples of his signatures and photographs exist." Although Orwell survived the neck wound, it ultimately contributed to his early death, at the age of 46, in 1950.
The Man Who Saved Orwell: Harry Milton, Hoover Publications, Stanford University
In HOMAGE TO CATALONIA Orwell wrote: "The American sentry I had been talking to had started forward. "Gosh! Are you hit?" People gathered round. There was the usual fuss -— "Lift him up! Where’s he hit? Get his shirt open!" etc, etc. The American called for a knife to cut my shirt open. I knew that there was one in my pocket, but discovered that my right arm was paralyzed.".... Orwell’s vivid description of being wounded on the front lines near Huesca occurs near the end of his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. Many years later, Harry Milton, describing the incident to a reporter in California, attributed Orwell’s misfortune both to his height and to his somewhat reckless habit of looking over the top of their unit’s fortified position: "I heard the crisp sound of a high velocity shot and Orwell [toppled] over. He landed on his back." Milton recounts giving first aid, as Orwell waited to be taken to the hospital. In another article about the shooting, Milton claims only a modest role for himself: "I simply stopped the bleeding." Milton does, however, claim some credit for influencing Orwell’s political consciousness as it developed during his time in Spain.
The revolution Orwell encountered in Barcelona was unique in European history. It had been initiated, in response to the fascist putsch, by the large Spanish anarchist movement (the CNT/FAI), with the support of an independent and anti-Stalinist Marxist party, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), in whose militia both Orwell and Milton had enlisted. It was a revolution organized from the bottom up, with worker and peasant collectives taking direct control of the Catalonian economy. It was also a process independent of the Spanish Communist Party, occurring without direction or support from Moscow. A revolution in marked contrast to the Soviet model, it incurred the deep enmity of Stalin, who moreover at that time was pursuing foreign policy aims that had no place for such an event. In Spain, therefore, Orwell and Milton found themselves in the heat of both battle and a sharp political struggle on the left. Behind the Republican lines, a kind of civil war within the Civil War was taking place, one which pitted anarchist and Marxist revolutionaries against Stalinist elements -— including agents of the Comintern and Soviet security forces -— who sought to stifle precisely those forces of the Spanish left that were not controlled by Moscow. Stalin was determined to curb the power of the anarchists and to destroy the POUM, which was branded as "Trotskyist." In this, he had an ally in the Spanish republican government, whose own powers had been challenged by the revolutionary movement unleashed in July 1936. In an armed confrontation in Barcelona during May 1937, the pro-Moscow forces emerged strengthened, forcing those who supported the social revolution to abandon their barricades. Anarchist and POUM militants were arrested and, in some cases, assassinated. It was this repression that Orwell describes at the end of HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, and that solidified the anti-Stalinist views informing later works such as NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR....
George Orwell's Barcelona, Telegraph, Apr 21, 2013
George Orwell? “Of course I’ve heard of him,” said Jose Luis Izuel, and reeled off the titles of some of Orwell’s early, lesser-known works: “Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, the one about Burma.” Izuel runs one of the bric-a-brac stalls that are set up every Thursday in front of La Seu cathedral in Barcelona. Among the old soda siphon bottles and shoe lasts I had just found copies of La Vanguardia newspaper from 1936 and 1937, full of smudgy photographs of bombings and trench warfare in the Spanish civil war. Orwell may well have seen the very same newspapers, as he was in Barcelona at this time, fighting on the Republican side in the war. “And Homage to Catalonia of course,” added Izuel, referring to Orwell’s account of that turbulent time and the part he played in it. Next Thursday, April 25, 2013 , marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Homage to Catalonia, which struck me as an excuse not just to reread it but to visit the city that comes alive in its pages. It is lauded as one of the great books on the reality of warfare, and the particular awfulness of fellow countrymen killing each other. It is also a remarkable portrait of Barcelona at a crucial moment in its history. Yet this topographical aspect has been neglected. Few visitors view Barcelona through Orwell’s pages, despite his having made it easy for us, and the modern tourist city largely ignores the terrible and momentous things that happened here less than a lifetime ago....
As for Orwell, the only reference is a small square named after him, which in any case is known locally by another name, “Plaça del Tripi”, or “Acid Square”: the Plaça de George Orwell, complete with Big Brother-ish surveillance cameras, is where Barcelona’s youth kick back on illicit substances....
watch 2-HOUR BBC ARENA DOCUMENTARY ON GEORGE ORWELL, 1903-1950, YouTube (...includes interviews of people who knew Orwell in Spain and has film footage of the mountains and trenches at Aragon. The Spanish segment starts at 59-minutes and finishes at 1-hour-23 minutes....)
watch GEORGE ORWELL -- A LIFE IN PICTURES, BBC documentary, YouTube (the ten-minute Spanish Civil War segment begins at 38-minutes and ends at 49-minutes -- it's a bit of a spoof with an actor impersonating Orwell but using Orwell's actual words taken from his books)
Spanish Civil War 'drew 4,000 Britons' to fight fascism (75th anniversary of the start of the war in July 1936), BBC, Jun 27, 2011
Hundreds more Britons went to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s than had previously been thought, newly released files show. MI5 recorded the names of about 4,000 people from Britain and Ireland suspected of travelling to join the war, National Archives files show. The previous estimate stood at about 2,500. Many volunteers were communists and of interest to MI5. One name on the list is Eric Blair, better known as author George Orwell. His experiences in the Spanish Civil War were documented in his book Homage to Catalonia. The details of those who had joined the fight against General Franco's forces between 1936 and 1939 continued to be updated by security service MI5 up until the mid-1950s. The record for Orwell covers the period in which he published the bestselling novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, until his death in January 1950. The files, which can be downloaded free, comprise more than 200 pages detailing the movements of the men and women who left British ports for the Spanish front line -- as well as a "roll of honour" of some of those killed in action. James Cronan, the National Archives' diplomatic and colonial records specialist, said it was not clear how many of those who left actually reached Spain, but he added that "we know that hundreds never returned". "The International Brigades and associated militia brought volunteers together from all over the world in defence of democracy but few, if any, records exist of their service," he said. "That's why uncovering a document like this is so exciting."
The Spanish Civil War, HistoryLearningSite
The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and finished in 1939. The forces on the right were lead by Generals Franco and Sanjurjo. They were known as Nationalists. The forces on the left were lead by Azana and were known as Republicans. At the start of the war, the cities of Cadiz, Saragossa, Seville and Burgos declared their support for the Nationalists. Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia declared for the Republicans. The Nationalists received help from Nazi Germany in the form of the Condor Legion from the Luftwaffe -- Germany's air force. 50,000 "volunteers" from Mussolini's Italy also helped the Nationalists. The Republicans received help from Russia. Stalin sent advisers and technicians. An International Brigade comprising of volunteers from all over the world also helped the Republicans. However, the Nationalists held the advantage in the sense that those who fought for them were professionals -– the "volunteers" from Italy went to fight with Mussolini’s approval and many of these volunteers had a military background. The Republicans relied on real volunteers; many held idealistic beliefs but had minimal military training. At the start of the war, the military strength of the Nationalists gave them the upper hand. By the end of 1936, 50% of Spain was controlled by the military including the whole of the border with Portugal -– a vital supply route. In the east and north, the Basques and Catalans held out far more effectively and the impact of the Nationalists here was minimal. Franco decided that the only way to succeed was to split the Republicans in half. The crucial battle here was the Battle of Guadalajara which the Nationalists lost. This ended their attempt to split the Republicans in half in that year. However, the capture of Bilbao in 1937 was an important victory for the Nationalists. The Nationalists were far more successful in 1938. By August 1938, the Republicans had been split and by December the Nationalists had been successful in Catalan. However, throughout the whole of 1938, Madrid held out. In 1939, Republican resistance all but collapsed. The various factions in the Republican movement were at odds as to what to do and Russia withdrew its support for them. By 1939, it was only a matter of time before the Nationalists won. Barcelona fell in January 1939, Valencia and Madrid surrendered in March 1939 and the Republicans unconditionally surrendered on April 1st. The war is thought to have cost 500,000 lives though official figures have now put the casualty figure as high as 1 million...
The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas
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