Pictures of George Orwell’s Spain

Photos taken by Joel VanderWerf in October 2004. Text by Martha Bridegam.

Security camera notice, Plaça de George Orwell (Barcelona)

Security camera notice, Plaça de George Orwell (Barcelona)

“… I did not make any of the correct political reflections. I never do when things are happening …”

- Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 13

George Orwell (Eric Blair) and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair came to Loyalist-held Barcelona in December 1936, intending at first that he would work as a journalist. He quickly decided to volunteer as a soldier, while Eileen did party administrative work. By political happenstance they ended up with the P.O.U.M., a small Marxist political party considering itself neither Stalinist nor Trotskyist, that was later persecuted by the Stalinists for “Trotskyism.” Orwell served first in the Sierra de Alcubierre, then nearer Zaragoza, then in several stints near Huesca. He was in Barcelona in time for the 1937 ‘May events’, in which open violence broke out among the Loyalist parties there. Later, again at the front outside Huesca, he was wounded in the throat. By the time he returned again to Barcelona, both he and Eileen were wanted by the police. Both Blairs were lucky to get out of the country; a report recently found in Spanish archives denounces them as ‘rabid Trotskyists’ to a Communist ‘Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason’ and mentions a ‘liaison with Moscow’ on the part of the accusers.

Plaça de George Orwell (Barcelona)

Plaça de George Orwell (Barcelona)

“… I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning, or, finally, more nerve-racking than those evil days of street warfare.

I used to sit on the roof marvelling at the folly of it all. From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around — vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes, and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea — the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement. The sunlit streets were quite empty. Nothing was happening except the streaming of bullets from barricades and sand-bagged windows …”

- Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 10

Looking west on the main road through Alcubierre; Sierra de Alcubierre in the distance

Looking west on the main road through Alcubierre

“… Alcubierre had never been shelled and was in a better state than most of the villages immediately behind the line. Yet I believe that even in peacetime you could not travel in that part of Spain without being struck by the peculiar squalid misery of the Aragonese villages. They are built like fortresses, a mass of mean little houses of mud and stone huddling round the church, and even in spring you see hardly a flower anywhere …”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

The Alcubierre-Zaragoza road at the Mirador de las Tres Huegas pass, Sierra de Alcubierre

Alcubierre-Zaragoza road at the Mirador de las Tres Huegas pass

Martha Bridegam writes: Alcubierre is the town nearest Orwell’s first posting as a Spanish Loyalist volunteer in January 1937, along the Sierra de Alcubierre ridge. My husband and I stopped at the pass where the main road from Alcubierre runs over the ridge straight toward Zaragoza. We don’t know how far away Orwell was actually serving.

“… As the road struck into the sierra we branched off to the right and climbed a narrow mule-track that wound round the mountain-side. The hills in that part of Spain are of a queer formation, horseshoe-shaped with flattish tops and very steep sides running down into immense ravines. On the higher slopes nothing grows except stunted shrubs and heath, with the white bones of the limestone sticking out everywhere. …”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

Toward Zaragoza from the shoulder of Mirador de las Tres Huegas

Toward Zaragoza from Mirador de las Tres Huegas

“… Up here, in the hills round Zaragoza, it was simply the mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare. 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 round 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….”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 3

Probably a trench, Mirador de las Tres Huegas, from the Zaragoza side

Probably a trench, Mirador de las Tres Huegas

Martha Bridegam writes: Since this photo was taken from the western side of the hill, and the Loyalists held the eastern side of the Sierra de Alcubierre, it’s entirely possible this trench was a Fascist/Nationalist position. If anyone has more detailed historical information on this part of the front, please advise.

“… The front line here was not a continuous line of trenches, which would have been impossible in such mountainous country; it was simply a chain of fortified posts, always known as ‘positions’, perched on each hill-top. In the distance you could see our ‘position’ at the crown of the horseshoe; a ragged barricade of sand-bags, a red flag fluttering, the smoke of dug-out fires….”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

“All my memories of that time are memories of scrambling up and down the almost perpendicular slopes, over the jagged limestone that knocked one’s boots to pieces, pouncing eagerly on tiny twigs of wood. Three people searching for a couple of hours could collect enough fuel to keep the dug-out fire alight for about an hour. The eagerness of our search for firewood turned us all into botanists. We classified according to their burning qualities every plant that grew on the mountain-side; the various heaths and grasses that were good to start a fire with but burnt out in a few minutes, the wild rosemary and the tiny whin bushes that would burn when the fire was well alight, the stunted oak tree, smaller than a gooseberry bush, that was practically unburnable. There was a kind of dried-up reed that was very good for starting fires with, but these grew only on the hill-top to the left of the position, and you had to go under fire to get them. If the Fascist machine-gunners saw you they gave you a drum of ammunition all to yourself. Generally their aim was high and the bullets sang overhead like birds, but sometimes they crackled and chipped the limestone uncomfortably close, whereupon you flung yourself on your face. You went on gathering reeds, however; nothing mattered in comparison with firewood….”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 3

Memorial tablet found along a side road, Mirador de las Tres Huegas

Memorial tablet along Mirador de las Tres Huegas

Martha Bridegam writes: The Mirador de las Tres Huegas is actually a hilltop observation point (a French site has photos of it here), reached by a short gravel road that runs up the crest of a ridge from the highest point of the Alcubierre-Zaragoza highway. The hilltop “mirador” now has a paved platform with parapet, a large cross, and much imperfectly-painted-out political graffiti, but no official inscription we could find. From the highway turnoff you can also follow a second gravel road along the western (Zaragoza) flank of the ridge. My husband and I found this stone tablet along the lower road, sitting by itself under an eroded part of the hill. The tablet’s strange placement invites speculation: did someone take it down from the formal hilltop site? If so, officially or unofficially? Was it discarded along the lower road but then respectfully set upright by someone else? As for the tablet itself, the image in the bottom right corner may be a Papal cross; we haven’t yet identified the image at the upper right. The text sounds like a postwar Spanish idea of evenhandedness: “Here, with a heroic cry, were silenced many voices that clamored for the fatherland, for bread, and for justice.”

October 2005 update:

Bill Sinclair, a scholar of La Guerra Civil/Revolución Español and Orwell enthusiast, has sent in these e-mail comments about the tablet photo:

In 1995 I received a research and travel award from the (UK) Arts Council to visit Orwell sites in Aragón and Catalunya including Alcubierre. I now live in Barcelona not so very far from the site of the former cavalry barracks commandeered by the POUM militia and re-named the Lenin Barracks where Orwell was quartered prior to being transported to the Aragón front. Martha Bridegam writes: The Mirador de las Tres Huegas…… Was it discarded along the lower road but then respectfully set upright by someone else? As for the tablet itself, the image in the bottom right corner may be a Papal cross; *we haven’t yet identified the image at the upper right*. The image alluded to *is* the symbol of the Falange (yes, they still exist. Based on a similar design as used by the Italian Fascisti – which itself was based on designs used in the senate of Ancient Rome to denote the bundle of sticks as used by speakers in the Senate ) After the Civil War (during which Franco artfully neutralised potential Falange opposition to his rule through incorporating the Falange into a national political movement) the symbol was adapted and adopted by the Spanish State. The use of the symbol here indicates that the memorial tablet here was erected to mark the “heroism” of the Francoist forces, and not, as Martha Bridegam (understandably) posits, ” a postwar Spanish idea of evenhandedness: ” Tragically, the concept did not exist in Spain between 1939 and 1975. And, even today, is in short supply in some areas of Spanish (& Catalan) civic life. The real tragedy is that the memorial tablet was more than likely carved by a Republican, or suspected Republican, or even suspected /potential/ Republican sympathiser, prisoner serving an indefinite period of incarceration with the ever present prospect of summary execution.

Possible bunker or other earthwork, Zaragoza side of the Mirador de las Tres Huegas hill

Bunker on Zaragoza side of Mirador de las Tres Huegas hill

“… In the afternoon we did our first guard and Benjamin showed us round the position. In front of the parapet there ran a system of narrow trenches hewn out of the rock, with extremely primitive loopholes made of piles of limestone. There were twelve sentries, placed at various points in the trench and behind the inner parapet. In front of the trench was the barbed wire, and then the hillside slid down into a seemingly bottomless ravine; opposite were naked hills, in places mere cliffs of rock, all grey and wintry, with no life anywhere, not even a bird. I peered cautiously through a loophole, trying to find the Fascist trench.

‘Where are the enemy?’

Benjamin waved his hand expansively. ‘Over zere.’ (Benjamin spoke English — terrible English.)

‘But where?’

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 hill-top, beyond the ravine, seven hundred metres away at the very least, the tiny outline of a parapet and a red-and-yellow flag — the Fascist position. I was indescribably disappointed. …”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

Fields on the Zaragoza side, from the Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

Fields on Zaragoza side, from Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

Martha Bridegam writes: This was taken at sunset, not at dawn, and Chapter 4 describes a different part of the front. So this image doesn’t do justice to the following:

“… But there were mornings when the sight of the dawn among the mountain-tops made it almost worthwhile to be out of bed at godless hours. I hate mountains, even from a spectacular point of view. But sometimes the dawn breaking behind the hill-tops in our rear, the first narrow streaks of gold, like swords slitting the darkness, and then the growing light and the seas of carmine cloud stretching away into inconceivable distances, were worth watching even when you had been up all night, when your legs were numb from the knees down and you were sullenly reflecting that there was no hope of food for another three hours. I saw the dawn oftener during this campaign than during the rest of my life put together — or during the part that is to come, I hope….”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 4

Sunset from the Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

Sunset from the Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

“… Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.”

Looking Back on the Spanish War

Fields after sunset, from the Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

Fields after sunset, from Mirador de las Tres Huegas ridge

Martha Bridegam writes: This bit of description is really from Monflorite, where Orwell was invalided briefly in the spring with an infected hand.

“… Men in ragged blue shirts and black corduroy breeches, with broad – brimmed straw hats, were ploughing the fields behind teams of mules with rhythmically flopping ears. Their ploughs were wretched things, only stirring the soil, not cutting anything we should regard as a furrow. All the agricultural implements were pitifully antiquated, everything being governed by the expensiveness of metal. A broken ploughshare, for instance, was patched, and then patched again, till sometimes it was mainly patches. Rakes and pitchforks were made of wood. Spades, among a people who seldom possessed boots, were unknown; they did their digging with a clumsy hoe like those used in India. There was a kind of harrow that took one straight back to the later Stone Age. It was made of boards joined together, to about the size of a kitchen table; in the boards hundreds of holes were morticed, and into each hole was jammed a piece of flint which had been chipped into shape exactly as men used to chip them ten thousand years ago. I remember my feeling almost of horror when I first came upon one of these things in a derelict hut in no-man’s land. I had to puzzle over it for a long while before grasping that it was a harrow….”

Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 6

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See also: Spilling the Spanish Beans (1937) by George Orwell.

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