Tag Archives: Margot Heinemann

The heirs of time they thought worth fighting for.

2014-10-19 Where have all the flowers gone

This New Offensive
(Ebro 1938)
This new offensive drugs our old despair,
Though, distant from the battle-line,
We miss that grave indifference to fear
That has so often now saved Spain.

Let fools and children dream that victory
Drifts lightly on the wings of chance,
And all that riveted and smooth-tooled army
Should melt before this proud advance.

Not this war’s weathercock, brave when things go well,
Afraid to think of a retreat,
By turns all singing and all sorrowful:
We’ve not to watch but win this fight.

Offensives must be paid for like defeats,
And cost as dear before they end.
Already the first counter-raids,
Take no positions but they kill our friends.

A miracle is not what we can hope for
To end this war we vainly hate.
We shan’t just read it in the evening paper
And have a drink or two to celebrate.

For two long years now when you sighed for peace
To slip from heaven as an angel drops,
You were confronted with your own sad face,
And once again time holds the mirror up.

It was not a few fields they sought to gain,
But months and maybe years of war.
Time’s on their side: by time we mean
The heirs of time they thought worth fighting for.

This narrow ridge of time their valour won,
Time for us to unite, time to discover
This new offensive is your life and mine,
One nation cannot save the world for ever.
Margot Heinemann 1938
Published in Poems for Spain 1939 [1]
1. Heinemann, M., This New Offensive (Ebro, 1938), in Poems for Spain, S. Spender and J. Lehman, Editors  . 1939, The Hogarth Press: London. p. 24-25.

2014-10-19 Belchite 4Purple, yellow and red, our banners catch the sunlight streaming through the medieval gateway. It looks like a movie about the middle-ages, not a 21st century visit to a 20th century war zone. We have reached the old town, the ghost town, of Belchite. This arched gatehouse was one of the only ways in apart from the water conduits. The outer walls of town are the windowless backs of the outermost houses. Inside there were handsome town houses, many churches, convents, monasteries and also a hospital and a social club where people could dance or watch movies. Now all are ruined. A broken jigsaw of the architecture the tourists photograph in Zaragoza or Huesca.

This place looks like Gaza, Bagdad, Banja Luka. It looks like a demolition site. It smells like one too, of dirty plaster, dry rot and brick dust. I do not understand why – after nearly 80 years you would expect the dust to have settled. Our guide, a young woman, explains. She warns us to be careful, not all the buildings are safe,-it would be dangerous to go off on adventures of our own. The damage we see now- the wrecked buildings and splintered wood, does not all date from the civil war. Franco decreed that Belchite should be evacuated and a new town built, by the forced labour of Republican prisoners, down the hill where our coach is parked, where we will have lunch. The empty buildings were to remain as a terrible example of what would happen to those who defied El Caudillo.Of course not everyone was welcome in Franco’s new town. Republican sympathisers left quickly to live elsewhere. And the former inhabitants, whatever their political affiliation, stripped the buildings, taking out anything they could use in their new homes.
In Franco’s time the site was preserved, after a fashion. When the Socialists were elected there was some money to maintain and repair the site. Now, the government gives nothing. The damage you see, says the guide is mostly from the weather. Some, not all. She shows us the church tower with an unexploded shell still lodged between the medieval bricks.
Belchite changed hands three times the guide tells us. The first time the Republic took the town they evacuated the civilians. Our guide’s grandmother used to tell her how she had to put on all the clothes she owned to carry them with her. The International Brigaders, including volunteers from the US and Ireland, were here when the Republic took the town for the second time. Republican troops besieged the town but were only eventually able to get in after they cut off the water supply, and eventually entered the town through a dry water-course. We look across the pale rubble and imagine how long a town would survive without water in this climate.

The town, the guide tells us had no particular strategic significance, but the Republic badly needed a victory after the failure to take Santander.

2014-10-19 All war is terrible
We stop I look round the faces, of the group especially those whose relatives had served here. Manus’s father, Nancy Wallach’s father, Nancy Philipps’ uncle. They look sober. None of us talks much. We have all read about the war, some have visited Belchite before, though not with this guide. She clearly has Republican sympathies but the stories she tells are of the horrors of war. House to house, hand to hand fighting. Killing or being killed.

There are weeds among the broken stonework, with little yellow flowers. I find myself humming under my breath, “Where have all the Flowers gone?” one of Pete Seeger’s songs though not, at least officially, a Song for Spain. I realise why our parents, why we, the individuals who make up this group, have devoted so much of our lives before 1936 and after 1945, to the Peace movement. This was a war that had to be fought but all modern wars, perhaps all wars, are horrible and destroy young lives.Hugh Sloan, Paddy Cochrane, Sam Levinger. As Christy Moore reminds us, “So many died I can but name a few.”

In 1933 Cambridge students, including John Cornford and Margot Heinemann, set up an Anti-War Exhibition with “pictures of men with their faces blown away, that kind of thing” They were both involved in the Cambridge Armistice Day riots in that year, when a peaceful demonstration offended militaristic right wing undergraduates into well organised physical violence. John was killed outside Lopera in December 1936. I remember my own father, who spent so much time in the fifties and sixties on the World Peace Council, time that he could otherwise have spent on science, or with Margot and me. Perhaps he might even have won that Nobel prize. If this is what even a just war is like we are right to fight for peace. “Even a just war is horrible, even a horrible war may be justified.”

The guide points out a cross on the village street. A seven year old girl went out after curfew on a quiet day, believing it was safe. The republican soldier had orders to shoot anyone who moved. Her father carved the cross in the place where she died.

2014-10-19 Palimpsest
There were too many dead fighters to dig graves for, so they took them to the old olive oil mill and buried them there. The memorial is caged and padlocked, Behind the grille you can read the contested history of this war in layers of broken stone. First the fascists put up a memorial. After Franco’s death the Republicans did not destroy it but put another stone in front, hiding it. Falange sympathisers came in the night and broke the Republican monument but did not remove it. There are some spray-painted graffiti. No, not all the damage here was done by the weather.
It is Sunday. As we walk back through the town to our lunch people are coming out from Mass, Manus comments on our republican T shirts and banners. Nobody could be a stronger supporter of the second republic than Manus but he asks if we are being unnecessarily disrespectful. I feel a little ashamed not to have considered that myself.
Later I read that the Fascists did not shoot prisoners on Sundays, just on every other day of the week. If that was their respect for religion, perhaps my scruples are a bit silly.

Lunch is good but slow. I enjoy the scrambled eggs with spinach but there is no doubt that the little pink bits that speckle the green are shrimps. The vegetarians can’t eat it and an alternative has to be prepared. Then there is just one loo, which also slows us down.  We are late back to the coach and our meeting with Antonio Jardiel at Quinto.

We sit in the darkness of a cool public building watching film of the brigaders, like a family watching ancient home movies. “Is that your uncle?” “Oooh, look there he is, is that Bill Alexander?” Then we go out into the scorching plaza in front of the huge church to hear about the battle for Purburrel Hill and for Quinto itself. We stand in quiet groups, perhaps because it is hot, perhaps because this is a place where the International Brigades showed great heroism and also where their commander, General Walter, shot unarmed prisoners.

Antonio follows the coach in his car so that he can show us Purburell Hill itself. It does not look so high. We could climb up that prickly scrub-land ourselves in an hour or two. “In battledress, with all the kit?” someone asks. ”Strafed from above?” We try to imagine ourselves scrunching down into tiny depressions in the steep scree, behind little rocks, seeking out what cover we could from the sparse spiny vegetation. The Nationalist aircraft made a mistake, they believed the Republicans had already taken the hill and bombed their own forces but the Brigaders on the hill did not know that.

I am not sure if I want to hear about any more battles today. I am ready for a long cold drink and some good tapas, when we reach Caspe but everybody tells me Anna Marti is worth hearing. They are right.

Several people in our group are from the Clarion Cycling Club. At first I could not understand why one of them insisted on wearing an acid yellow jumper and cycling shorts, when there were no bikes to be seen. Lycra? In this heat? It seems that in 2008 they made an epic journey, cycling from Glasgow to Barcelona in memory of Geoffrey Jackson and Ted Ward who, in 1938 cycled from Glasgow to Barcelona to raise money for Aid for Spain. In 1938 they had to ride through France but the 2008 trip chose a different route and TV cameras followed them down Spain. Terry of the maillot jaune introduces Anna Marti, a young Catalan, who rode with them. She is here to tell us about her research onthe Great Retreats and the ordeal of the Lincoln-Washington Battallion. The lights go down. A Power-Point presentation. I am afraid I may fall asleep and know that people will notice if I do. The hija de Margot Heinemann can get away with less than plain Jane Bernal in this company. Nancy Wallach and Nancy Phillips had relatives there, I tell myself. You owe it to them to stay awake

I need not have worried. It is a brilliant presentation. Moving, well researched, beautifully illustrated. Every map, every photograph, is easy to read and is there for a reason. The Brigades were camped over a wide area of country, groups of two or three men each bivouacked in a chabola, a shack, made of dry-stone boulders roofed with pine branches. Hy Wallach was there, Alun Menai Williams & many others. Brigade Headquarters were in some farm buildings down in the valley. Many of the men were new recruits, it was their first action. The orders came to retreat to the Ebro. Men from each chabola tried to make their way there, without maps, travelling at night to avoid bombers. They did not realise the Condor legion had out flanked them so that they were more or less surrounded. Each tiny group desperately headed in what they hoped was the right direction, shedding kit and even clothing to lighten the load they had to carry. Very few made it. What Anna has done is literally to put this journey back on the map. She pulled together all the accounts of the surviving brigaders. Local historian Vincenc Julia went to the local people with a questionnaire. “Where did you see a living brigader?” “And a dead brigader?” The two accounts tallied. Then she went across the field and the hills using the oral history to find the chabolas, entering each onto a map. The work took years. This was not for an academic degree, nor is this her paid job. We used to play a game at academic meetings, I remember, based on Olympic skating or gymnastics. So many marks for style, so many for content. Few got straight tens in both. Of course I am partisan about the content and I am not a historian, or even a proper social scientist, but this looked to me like straight tens across the board.
Tomorrow we will be walking the hills with her, seeing what remains of the chabolas. I can hardly wait.

Further reading




Franco’s repression/ Quinti

The Spanish Holocaust. Paul Preston, HarperPress 2012


International Brigades

Unlikely warriors. Richard Baxell, Aurum Press 2012

Anna Marti’s work


Describing events on 19th October 2014. Posted on 9th April 2015

‘Something of a testing time’. John Cornford and the Estrecho Quinto trenches

‘At the moment I am at the top of a hill at the front in Aragon. A complete circle of rocky mountains, covered with green scrub, very barren with a few fields in between. Two kilometres away a village held by the enemy. A grey stone affair with a big church. The enemy are entirely invisible. An occasional rifleshot. One burst of machine-gun fire. One or two aeroplanes. Otherwise nothing. The sound of our guns sometimes a long way off. And nothing else but a sun so hot that I am almost ill, can eat very little and scarcely work at all. Nothing at all to do. We lie around all day. At night two hours on the watch – last night very fine with the lightning flickering behind Saragossa., miles away. Sleeping in the open with a single blanket on the stones. How long we are to be up here I don’t know…. Enlisted on the basis of my Party card. There was one little Italian comrade with some broken English. Now he’s been sent off. So I’m here and the only communication I have is with the broken French of a young Catalan volunteer. So I am not only lonely but feel a bit useless….. I am wearing a pair of heavy black corduroy trousers (expropriated from the bourgeoisie), a blue sports shirt and that alpaca coat, rope-soled sandals and an infinitely battered old sombrero. ……… Just now for instance, I have unlimited opportunity to write. And I have plenty of things I want to write But I can’t get it together in my head, things aren’t straight enough: all I can put down are my immediate subjective impressions, and I can’t think about Birmingham or anywhere else. Oh for the objectivity of Nehru. I’ll learn: I am learning. But it’s going to be something of a testing time… ‘ John Cornford 1936 The bus stops by a rubbish dump, the track upwards is too narrow, we have to take a minbus or walk. ‘You, Jane, will go in the minibus.’ I really want to walk but they are probably right. It is a hot day and I have to read at the top. It will not help to arrive sweating, breathless and flustered. The Estrecho Quinto trenches, five Roman miles from Huesca, just outside Tierz, three of the same miles out, are on a limestone escarpment. Modern miles are longer: from the top we look down on the last mile to Huesca. On another hill, between us and the long mountain wall of the Pyrenees we can see the castle of Monte Aragon. A straight sided U shaped valley cuts into the line of mountains that stretches along the horizon. In the last Ice Age there was a glacier there. The past, a glacier… The imagery of John Cornford’s two most famous poems is not of a metaphorical imagined landscape but a tight, literal description of what he could see on sentry duty. What John wanted to write -what he thought he ought to write- on this baking hill-top,seems to have been something about Birmingham, of all places. Probably he was thinking of something historical about Joseph Chamberlain who he was hoping to research, or perhaps something polemical about the Watch Committee, or the bans and proscriptions against Communists in the TUC at that time. He had been arrested in Birmingham in April or May 1936 for distributing Trades- Council leaflets outside a light engineering works. It was a planned thing with National Council for Civil Liberties observers. The Trades Council had not been sure they wanted Communist help in their campaign – delegates had to sign a form every month confirming that they were not members of the Communist Party or any other proscribed organisation. But it still seems odd, to think of him up here, so hot, so bored, so lonely, and trying to write about Brum. He did not manage to, luckily for the editors of poetry anthologies everywhere. Instead we have those two extraordinary poems, written in pencil. (Letter from Aragon the only one of his poems from Spain that was published in John’s life-time, was written a little later when he was in hospital.)

I read aloud on the high ridge of stone, against the background he describes so clearly Heart of the heartless world, dear heart, The thought of you Is the pain at my side, The shadow that stills my view… … Then I read Full Moon at Tierz: Before the storming of Huesca It seems to me to be a useful poem for us, as we investigate the history of the International Brigades and of the Aragon Front. I know the poem well, I have thought about what each word means, why it is there, which sections are quotes from songs. I try to convey that, hoping I don’t sound like a History teacher or the celebrant at a funeral. In a way, though, that is what I am.

Reading poems

Any one of the group could have done it, but I was asked because I am the daughter of the woman for whom they were written, the woman who , I suppose – I never asked her- made sure they were published, my mother, Margot Heinemann.

Margot in Ireland

I finish up with  her poem Ringstead Mill. (The full text appears on the first page of this blog) Poison fires we never dreamed of Ring the untended field, Change is their memorial Who have changed the world. It is emotional. I knew it would be, intended it to be, for me and for the group. What is the point of coming all this way if not to think of the people we celebrate. And since they died, and often died so young there is cause for grief. Other sorrows surface too. I am thinking about many dead people, my father, friends who have died, and most of all my mother. I sense their presence comforting, supportive. ”You did OK.”

Heart of the Heartless World in particular is often read at secular funerals that have nothing to do with war. Sociologists, who have a theory for everything, say that we die two deaths. Biological death is what most of us think of as death, heart stopped, movement and breathing ceased. Social death only occurs when the last person who remembers us alive has themselves died biologically. We live socially a generation or two after our biological death. It is an interesting idea, one that I found very peculiar when first I heard it. Now I find it a useful way of thinking. On our coach trip we have thirty one biologically living people and perhaps an equal number, or perhaps more, who are socially alive to us though we cannot see or touch them. Some of them are closely connected to the Spanish Civil War, others are not. They brought some of us here. The poem that is so specific to this landscape makes sense to those who mourn other losses.

Victor speaks. I remember thinking that what he says is valuable and interesting, with good evidence, but I must have been so keyed up with the moment, and so relieved to have got through it creditably, that I cannot remember all the details. He describes a series of bloody battles for strategic points along the front and the attempts to take Huesca. He says that the Republicans did not shoot or bomb many people in Huesca. He pauses- but, he reminds us, they cut off the water supply. People had to drink dirty water, and died of disease. I wonder how on earth John Cornford can have thought this was a quiet front. Victor explains that Cornford, and Orwell too, passed through for a few weeks each at a time when there was little fighting. Once more he pauses. This, he says quietly, was not typical.

We are gathered in a rough semi-circle where the ridge has widened into a plateau, standing with our flags for the photographs. There are several Republican flags and a POUM flag but no Communist one. Fair enough, I think, this was a POUM militia. Manus O Riordan and John invite me to stand by the Connolly column flag, and on the basis that my father, who really has nothing to do with any of this, was Irish, I am pleased to do so. I have John’s photograph with me, the one where he looks uncharacteristically like a matinee idol so I hold it up. The photograph Margot preferred shows him grinning, a smile, she said that lit up his face at the most serious moments. His hair is not only long but uncombed and could do with a wash. Alive, he was no poster boy, no matinee idol, “That handsome head charmed no acquiescence, He convinced and led.” He would not have described himself as a poet either, but as a historian, a revolutionary and, whether we like it or not, as a Communist.


Manus strikes up with the Internationale and we all join in, though the Americans know different words. Then I start Bandiera Rossa and again everybody sings. We walk down a narrow path to the trenches. On one side is a dug-out room, I creep in, try to look round with the light from my mobile phone but there really isn’t time to play. We pause by a memorial to John Cornford himself. It is damaged.  I am nor sure if it was vandalised, like some of the other boards we have seen on this trip, or damaged by a falling stone. Water has seeped under the broken plastic making strangely beautiful sepia and purple patterns of the writing. His photograph is still clear in the bottom right-hand corner. I put my few wilted sprigs of wild flowers there. Victor embraces me. He and I pose for a photograph. It feels right. 1617680_10205075120657716_6750341477179164211_o

Pictures: Taken on the trip by Jane Bernal, Terry Lynch, Stuart Walsh, Nancy Wallach, Almudena Cros. P, Marshall Mateer

Photo of Margot Heinemann 1937 in possession of Jane Bernal Photographs of John Cornford & Margot Heinemann  can also be seen Peter Loft’s web page on  http://www.loftyimages.co.uk/photo_11685481.html

Marshall Mateer filmed the whole tour. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ibmt/16480436801/ . Here you can see exerpts from my reading. If you want the whole poem you need to look it up.

Poems http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/rupert-john-cornford/to-margot-heinemann/ http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/oct/25/poem-of-the-week-john-cornford http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/rupert-john-cornford/full-moon-at-tierz-before-the-storming-of-huesca/

Excerpts from John Cornford’s own writings come from Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound: selected writings of John Cornford and are also in John Cornford :Collected Writings. Both are edited by Jonathan Galassi and published by Carcanet http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer   both, sadly are out of print. John’s nephew Adam Cornford & Sandra Mendez Rosenbaum are working with Galassi and Carcanet to raise the money, through crowdfunding,for John’s writings to be reprinted.