Civil Wars are brutal
Killing a neighbour or family member is more than a war
If people are to live together again there can be no memorials
The graves have been forgotten
Not by neglect but fear that buried emotions could be reignited
George Orwell committed himself to fighting with the Republicans but despite the importance and intensity of his situation found time for wry reflection on the absurdities of the war
introduction by Tim Harris
extracts from Fighting in Spain by George Orwell (2007); selected essays from a Penguin Great Journeys publication
In trench warfare five things are important: firewood food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last. Except at night, when a surprise attack was always conceivable, nobody bothered with the enemy. They were simply remote black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro. The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.
The things that one normally thinks of as the horrors of war seldom happened to me. No airplane ever dropped a bomb anywhere near me. I do not think a shell ever exploded within fifty yards of me, and I was only in hand-to-hand fighting once (once is once to often, I may say). Of course I was often under heavy machine-gun fire, but usually at longish ranges. Even at Huesca you were generally safe enough if you took reasonable precautions.
A life as uneventful as a city clerk’s, and almost as regular. Sentry-go, patrols, digging; digging, patrols, sentry-go. On every hill-top, Fascist or Loyalist, a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering around their flag and trying to keep warm. And all day and night the meaningless bullets wandering across the empty valleys and only by some rare improbable chance getting home on a human body.
I had to be shown how to put on my new leather cartridge-boxes by a Spanish girl, the wife of Williams, the other English militiaman. She was a gentle, dark-eyed, intensely feminine creature who looked as though her life work was to rock a cradle, but who as a matter of fact had fought bravely in the street-battles of July. At this time she was carrying a baby which was born just ten months after the outbreak of war and had perhaps been begotten behind a barricade.
Georges Kopp, on his periodical tours of inspection, was quite frank with us. ‘This is not a war’, he used to say, ‘it is a comic opera with an occasional death.’
We had no tin hats, no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not more than one bomb between five or ten men. The bomb in use at this time was a frightful object known as the ‘FAI bomb’, it having been produced by the Anarchists in the early days of the war. It was on the principle of the Mills bomb, but the lever was held down not by a pin but a piece of tape. You broke the tape and then got rid of the bomb with the utmost possible speed. It was said of these bombs that they were ‘impartial’; they killed the man they were thrown at and the man who threw them. There were several other types, even more primitive but probably a little less dangerous – to the thrower, I mean. It was not till late March that i saw a bomb worth throwing.
The centuria was an untrained mob composed mostly of boys in their teens. Here and there in the militia you came across children as young as eleven or twelve, usually refugees from Fascist territory who had been enlisted as militiamen as the easiest way of providing for them. As a rule they were employed on light work in the rear, but sometimes they managed to worm their way to the front line, where they were a public menace.
It was pneumonia we were fighting against, not against men. When the trenches are more than five hundred yards apart no one gets hit except by accident. Of course there were casualties, but the majority of them were self inflicted.
One evening when it was barely even dusk a sentry (Republican) let fly at me from a distance of twenty yards; but he missed me by a yard – goodness knows how many times the Spanish standard of marksmanship has saved my life.
In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanely possible.