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18 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:01pm

From the NS archive: On the Spanish front

3 October 1936: Snapshots from a communist journalist turned republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War.

By Claud Cockburn

In 1936, the communist journalist Claud Cockburn joined the Republican Fifth Regiment to report on the Spanish Civil War as a soldier. These snapshots of German bombardments in support of General Franco’s troops, air raids on Madrid, the Spanish attitudes to Britain’s neutrality in the conflict, and discipline on the front line among the overstretched volunteer troops are vivid but need to be treated with caution. George Orwell accused him of being a Stalinist propagandist and Cockburn’s veracity was far from reliable. These bits of reportage nevertheless have the ring of truth to them.


At the offices of the Cultural Commission they were reading the first leaflets dropped over Madrid by the German planes, threatening “ruthless bombardment”. José Bergamín, a member of the Commission, said to me: “Today is probably our last chance for a long time to come and see some of the finest pictures in the world.” In those first weeks of the war, the picture galleries at least had bloomed. The Cultural Commission of the People’s Front, composed of the leading artists, art critics and writers of Spain, had been busy unearthing from steel vaults in the Bank of Spain pictures which for years had lain hidden there serving as bonds, deposited or hoarded by grandee owners.

The list of the newly discovered pictures – now hung in the Prado – by itself reads like the catalogue of some splendid new gallery. The Prado was packed all day with people going to see the new-found treasures. “This afternoon,” Bergamín went on, “we shall have to start putting them back in the dark again. They may bomb tonight. Fortunately the Prado is bomb-proof.”


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In the small hours, sirens mounted on motor cars screamed through the darkened streets. Militiamen hammered on bedroom doors, warning everyone to get downstairs. In the lounge of the Hotel Florida people drifted uncertainly about, stumbling over chairs and divans in the darkness. Someone lit a cigarette, and a voice like a pistol shot from the street outside ordered us to be careful with the lights. There was an argument as to whether we should go to the cellar or stay in the lounge. “I have observed,” said a French lady, “that Mr So-and-So is staying in this hotel.” She mentioned the agent of a notorious American financial magnate. Mr So-and-So was known to maintain the closest relations with the German Embassy. “If he goes to the cellar I think we may assume that the raid is intended to be serious.” Presently we saw him picking his way towards the cellar. Someone asked him why he did not go to the Germany Embassy and really be safe. “The German Embassy,” he said sadly, “left by plane today for Alicante.” We went to the cellar. The planes were not clearly heard. A bomb screamed through the air and the crash merged abruptly into the agonised screaming of women’s voices somewhere far off.


Under the garden trees at the British Embassy, the militia guard played cards. Inside, impoverished gentlewomen, escaping enemy agents who wanted to get British passports, and an assortment of crooks, hung about, most of them insisting on seeing the Chargé d’Affaires immediately.

“And so,” I said to the diplomat, “when my Spanish friends ask me why the British Government is going on in this way, I don’t really know what explanation to give.” “Well,” he said, “we shall have to maintain an attitude of reserve, of course. We shall hope to arrange things with the rebels in a more or less satisfactory manner. As for me,” he said, beaming and pumping my hand vigorously, “I have an absolutely clear conscience, I am absolutely neutral. You can assure your Spanish friends of that.”


Morning, afternoon and evening, the recruits gathered round the sergeant instructors asking when the rifles would come. “Tomorrow perhaps.” On the fourth day they gave us dummy rifles. A middle-aged lieutenant, who had fought in the old army in Africa and been cashiered the previous year as a suspected Socialist, explained to me why he thought the newspapers must be making a mistake about the attitude of the British Government on the “neutrality” question.

“Apart from anything else,” he said, “it is quite clear to me that the British Government cannot have such an attitude, for I think that it will not be possible for the British to agree to the Germans controlling the mid-Atlantic from here, and Portugal, and the Moroccos. It is impossible.” “You forget,” I said, “that you have not a monopoly of traitors in your country. Your General Franco is prepared to give away bits of Spain to foreign powers to help him beat the people of Spain. Our Government is full of similar people who are prepared to open any gate to the enemies of England rather than support a democratic Government in Spain or lead a joint action of the democratic Powers.” “And the patriots in your country, the democrats and so on. How strong do you estimate them to be?” “Strong but split,” I said. “That’s bad.”


“One dead, four wounded.” The Sergeant handed to the Captain his report on the accident we had just suffered on the winding road to the front. The lorry in which our platoon was packed and racing had gone fast round a hairpin bend and overturned. “He was driving too fast,” said the Sergeant. “He was not,” said the Captain. “You have to understand, and all the comrades have to understand, that nowadays we can’t drive any slower on this road. Before they had all the new planes, yes. Now, you drive slowly along this road and the next thing you know their planes have spotted you. If we lose men in accidents, that isn’t the driver’s fault.” “What about our planes?” someone asked. “Can’t they drive them away?’ “Well, Englishman,” said the Captain, laughing and turning to me, “what about our planes? Are they going to send us a present from Portugal for a change?” The dead man and the four wounded men lay on the roadside in a line together, waiting for a lorry back.


We moved into position on the Sierra. The men we had relieved told us it was a quiet spot. Then, somewhere over on the left, our people took some prisoners whose story indicated the quiet would not last long. The prisoners said that the big attack was scheduled for the thirteenth of September, but was being held up until the new German planes arrived. It began, sure enough, on the sixteenth. The Junkers, with first-class German pilots and machine gunners aboard, and sometimes – so prisoners told us – a couple of Spaniards for “look see”, flew low in squadrons, bombing and machine-gunning the line of our riflemen on the hill-tops.

Morning and evening we lay under the rocks, helpless, and trying to keep ready to jump out to meet a wave of infantry attack the moment the planes were gone. Our water supply was under machine-gun fire, rifle bullets kept coming on to the rock shelter we used as a kitchen, so the eating and drinking was on a limited scale. Sometimes we were on guard for as much as 15 hours of the 24. It was uncomfortable because you could neither sit nor stand. You could not sit because you could not see to fire, nor stand because if you stood up you got a bullet in the head. We perched uncomfortably among the rocks, looking across the Guadarrama plain.

One night three men were reported to have slept on duty. The Captain called a meeting of the platoon, and explained the circumstances. He sat cross-legged in the middle of a circle of men, huddled in thin blankets against the terrible wind of the Sierras, pressed close under the parapets and rocks, with bullets whining intermittently above them. “You all understand,” he said, “the gravity of the offence. You are here of your own free will, holding a point which is not simply of significance for us, although we may well die here, nor yet for Madrid and for Spain, but also for civilisation in all the world.” He went on to speak more particularly of the perils brought upon others by a guard who sleeps on duty. The question was then thrown open to discussion, the words of the speakers being occasionally inaudible as a big shell howled overhead and burst on the hillside behind. It was proposed that those who had slept and the Sergeant responsible for making the rounds of the guards should be shot. The Sergeant, a former butcher’s boy, who had joined three weeks before and been elected Sergeant only ten days ago, spoke haltingly but with terrible earnest in favour of his own execution. When he had finished he squatted silent, nervously fingering his rifle.

The three guards who had slept – one of them was only sixteen years old and had been a delivery boy in Valencia – spoke against execution, declaring they would never do it again, and suggesting some alternative penalty. The difficulty was that whenever a “fatigue” was proposed it was found to be something which everyone was compelled to do anyway. One of those who had slept – whom I had already threatened to shoot on the previous night – proposed that “the Englishman” should be put in charge of all these hard cases. “We can rely on him to shoot them if necessary.” In the end they went unpunished, and that was the last occasion when there was any sleeping on guard in our platoon.


The battle developed, day in and day out, into a bloody game wherein the poorly armed forces of the democrats sought, by desperate assaults and reckless endeavours, to even out the difference between them and the German air force on the other side. One day we were told that now, indeed, it must be frankly said that the position was hopeless, but that nevertheless retreat could not be contemplated, for it might roll up the whole Sierra front. “We can only die once,” said the Captain. “And we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are dying for ourselves and for all free peoples of the world, too. Isn’t that so, Englishman?” There was discussion of the situation. One man said to me: “Do you believe that if we resist bravely here, fighting until we are every one of us killed, that the time we gain will be of use to the democratic Powers in preparing to come to the help of Spain?” I told them that every hour we gained there would be an hour more gained for these people in England who were fighting day and night with us against the “neutrality” pact and on behalf of the people of Spain. “That,” said one of the Assault Guards who was with us, “is very satisfactory.”

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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