The innocence of this quiet plain…..

Our road runs across a flat, dry plain. Though it is autumn, the sun is hot and some fields shine bright green. Crops grow well here because of the sunshine and the water flowing down from the Pyrenees in the rivers and diverted into canals and aqueducts to irrigate the bone-dry soil. It is easy to see how water, or the lack of it, became a weapon in the Civil War. The flat-lands are punctuated by steep eroded hills, stony on the top, with columns of sand and gravel spilling down their sides.  There is not much vegetation up there: sparse  spiny aromatic scrub: broom, rosemary, gorse and other plants that I can’t name.

We have arrived at  Santa Quiteria to see the trenches.  At nearby Tardienta, we picked up Almudena Cros, President of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI), who is to be our translator, tour guide and passionate advocate of the restoration of historical memory. She is an Art Historian by training and makes her living running tours of the Prado in Madrid. I would love to go on one some time. I find it easy to imagine her  chivvying groups of tourists through the crowded streets. Naturally she would be waving a purple yellow and red Republican umbrella above her head.

Ramon Hernando, a local Historian and the Alcadesa (Mayor) of Tardienta join us at the trenches on the hilltop.

Trenches. For readers in the UK, the word evokes an image of Flanders fields: muddy ditches half filled with water and body parts, glimpsed across a foggy desert of barbed wire and broken trees. These trenches also represent the horror of war but they are nothing like those WW1 photographs, though there is some barbed wire. These are more like the walls and ditches of a hill-fort, made not in the iron age, but in 1936 when the front line ran through here. They are gouged into the solid rock round the summit of each little dry hill, commanding a terrific view of the plains below.

Ramon  sweeps his hand across the view to show us the front line. Behind us, towards Barcelona and the sea, Republican: looking North, the forces of Franco, supplemented by those of Hitler and Mussolini. He points out the villages on either side of the line. Here was the villagers were sympathetic to the Republic, here to the fascists. The Republic sent militias from Barcelona to reinforce the village militias. In August 1936 there were no International Brigades. The early British volunteers, like Felicia Browne, John Cornford and George Orwell, attatched themselves to one militia or another in Barcelona, and were posted to the Aragon front, each in a different unit and with no knowledge of one another.

Yesterday at Segur de Calafell the members of the party gradually drifted into the hotel. We did without formal introductions but made ourselves known to one another one to one, two to two. We are a bit of an international brigade ourselves. People have come from Australia, from Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, the United States, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is even a Dutchman from France, who makes wine. We are all here to honour the Brigaders. Some have a personal connection to a particular volunteer, others were brought here by a love of Spain,  an interest in the art or literature of the civil war, in military history,  a shared politics. The Republic plays an important part in the history & mythology of both socialist and anarchist movements in the UK. There are retired teachers, artists, a window cleaner, a social worker. Mysteriously two men seem to be in cycling gear, though they have no bikes.

I feel like a bit of an impostor among the relatives of the volunteers. I am not John Cornford’s daughter. Indeed I suppose that if he had not been killed in Spain I would not exist at all, though I have admired him all my life. My reason for being here is my mother, Margot Heinemann, and I am writing her biography partly to show that she did something with the 78 years of her life as well as inspiring that wonderful poem. I realise that I probably know as much about John Cornford as anyone in the party but I am just beginning the research for the chapter on 1935 to 36. There is an awful lot to try to learn.

One old comrade refused to be drawn when I asked if he was here to remember a particular person.  He had come to pay his respects to ALL the Brigaders, he told me sternly, and he was quite right. The International Brigades themselves came from many countries to defend an elected Popular Front government that contained many political tendencies.  But, at the same time, it is the individual stories, jokes, songs, poems that make the figures come alive. I do not want to invent dead celebrities, but I want to make sure the next generation has a chance to learn this history.

When Peter Stansky and Billy Abrahams were writing ‘Journey to the Frontier’, their 1966 book about John Cornford and Julian Bell, they came to see Margot. She agreed to be interviewed. She gave them material. But she was not sure that the book should be written at all. Most people killed in the Spanish Civil War were Spanish, she used to remind me. There were about 2,500 British volunteers in the International Brigades, about 500 were killed, most were workers. It was not really a war of young poets exploding like bombs. Does my class make me an impostor? In that case Margot Heinemann and John Cornford are impostors too, at this gathering. Do I need to explain that I attended a state school, that I am not really posh? Suddenly I hear Margot’s voice, the ringing cut glass tones, borrowed from Noreen, that she only used when middle-class people were being pretentious, or just plain silly, “Even in my day we talked about workers by hand and brain.” Everyone here has come to remember the brigaders, or a particular brigader, that is enough.

We stand in the bright sunlight, watching the flags stream above us. There is a noticeboard describing the site but it has been defaced. The graffiti have been scoured off but most of what is written is indecipherable.  We listen to Amudena  as she translates Ramon’s account of the bloody history of the plain below us.

He is a good story-teller – even before the translation I am fascinated by his face and voice. As he starts to talk about his own family, he becomes more animated. He recounts an epic of heroism, resistance, cunning and survival. His father fought here and when the republic fell, escaped with others into France. Later he led Resistance groups in France and made sorties back into Spain. I  cannot remember the whole story but it reached to its climax at his father’s funeral when everyone sang the Internationale, “Even the priest!”

2014-10-17 Arched flags_edited-1

“Innocence?”, you ask me.” What kind of innocent are you? Do you not realise that the Spanish Civil War was a terrible, if heroic, defeat for the Left. Don’t you know how many people were killed in the fighting or lost their only lives in the cross-fire? Haven’t you heard of the systematic Fascist repression and executions that went on long after the end of the war? Don’t you know how many still lie in unmarked graves? Haven’t you read Paul Preston’s sickening accounts in The Spanish Holocaust? Don’t you realise that in a Civil war atrocities are committed by both sides? It cannot possibly be true that all the Republicans were the guys in white hats, shooting clean & pardoning their enemies. Why don’t you tell them that down there in Almudevar the Fascists captured all the leading left wingers and sent them to Huesca to be shot? Why don’t you tell us what happened in Tardienta where, admittedly after two attempts by the fascists to take the town, the militia took five Right wing prisoners from the town jail late at night and executed them. Why don’t you name the industrialist Mariano Gavin Pradell, his chaplain Alejandro Aguillo or the one with whom you share a name, though he is no relation, Francisco Bernal Ruiz? What happened to the sons of the ailing Mariano Gavin who decided to stay with their father?”

I  answer that am telling the story of a journey along the Aragon Front in my own way. For the full history of the war you need a book by a proper historian, not a blog. Try Paul Preston or Helen Graham

I came to the Aragon Front front to remember all the brigaders but it was John Cornford’s poems and writings that led me here. He does not romanticise the war, though after his death people have tried to romanticise him. His poem ‘Letter from Aragon’ begins

“This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,

But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.

The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards….”

Tomorrow we will have coffee in Huesca and then I will visit the trenches above Tierz.

( Both Ruiz and Bernal are common names in Spain, no relationship is implied with the former Mayor of Tardienta)

You can read and hear the whole poem on

En el frente de Tardienta 1936-1938 is a beautifully illustrated book of local history

Thanks to Pauline Fraser for her translating the relevant sections for the IBMT

Events 17th October and 1936-80

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s