There’s a Valley in Spain
George Leeson, Spain Today, February 1947, p3-5
On February 12, 1937, the British Battalion of the International Brigade went into action for the first time. Today, after ten years, the Spanish people are still carrying on that fight for freedom in which so many of the British volunteers gave their lives.
Jarama…Why is it that the name of an insignificant little river in Spain has become a byword among millions of progressive people in Britain? What is the significance of the battle to which this little river gave its name ten years ago?
Ten years ago – February 1937, the eyes of the entire democratic world were focussed upon the gallant fight of the Spanish people against the attempt to force Fascism upon them by foreign arms. Hundreds of British volunteers had made their way to Spain to help the resistance of the Spanish people. At home here, hundreds of thousands of their relatives, friends and well-wishers waited anxiously for news.
"This is it"
A few hours before dawn on February 12, 1937, six hundred men who had spent the night fully dressed and equipped for battle, nursing their newly-issued rifles, emerged from their billets shivering in the bitter cold night of the Madrid plateau. The good people of Chinchón came to their doors and windows to say goodbye to the dark figures that moved through the narrow streets to the embarkation point where the lorries waited with their headlights dimmed.
There was little to disturb the usual quiet of the small market town. As the marching columns moved up the steep main street, orders were given quietly, and quietly and efficiently obeyed. None of the usual moans and jokes of the parade ground or the route march; a tenseness, a quiet determination, a thrill of expectancy. The hands gripping the treasured rifles, the determined set of the steel helmets, the new note in the old songs as they rippled along the line of men waiting to board the lorries, expressed the same thought in the minds of all: “This is it!”
The sun was beginning to rise behind the hills, giving a hint of the scorching heat of that day, as the men of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade tumbled out of the lorries by a large white farmhouse near the village of Morata de Tajuna. After passing in single file through the farmhouse, where the Battalion cooks served them with a bowl of hot black coffee and a hunk of bread, they scattered in sections in the cover of the olive trees at the side of the road.
Speculation and impatience. Where are we? Somewhere near Madrid. Where’s the front line? Somewhere over the hills. Are the Fascists attacking, or are we? Why are we still sitting about there?
The questions were soon answered A despatch rider came speeding over the hill with urgent orders, and as the companies moved forward across the hills in open order a squadron of Republican planes fought a dog-fight with Fascist bombers and fighter above their heads.
Spurred on by the crackle of rifle and machine gun fire ahead the Battalion went forward at the double. For weeks they had been kicking their heels in Madrigueras waiting for rifles denied them by the ‘Non-Intervention’ blockade. They were not in a mood to worry about the nature of the impending action. The Fascists were in front there, and this was the chance at last.
Little did they realise that they were to meet the biggest and most determined offensive yet launched by Franco’s troops. Across the Jarama river from San Martín de la Vega thirty thousand seasoned troops, well trained and superbly equipped, supported by aircraft, tanks and artillery, had broken the Republican defences on the river and were sweeping down on the Madrid-Valencia road with the aim of encircling Madrid.
There was no Republican defence line – no prepared positions. The remnants of the militia units who had been fighting an unequal battle for days on end, worn out, hungry, tattered, stumbled back in retreat through the lines of the advancing Battalion. The Fascist troops, meeting with little resistance, were exultant at their victory that lay within their grasp.
Reaching the crest of the hills overlooking the valley and the river, the three companies of the Battalion met the full force of the Fascist advance. Up the slopes long lines of Moors and Foreign Legionnaires surged forward under cover of artillery and machine gun fire, threatening to sweep all before them. No one in his senses could have conceived that this line of riflemen could hold up that onslaught for more than a few minutes. And behind them? Nothing. A clear field down to Arganda, Morata and the Madrid road.
But men who had come hundreds of miles to fight, sustained by an understanding of the cause for which they are fighting, do not act in the way prescribed by the military textbooks. Rapidly deploying in open formation, the Battalion went into the attack against eh advancing Moors. The Fascist troops faltered, then hastily dropped down to cover. Only the sheer audacity of this handful of men could have achieved this. Had the Fascist officers been aware of the true position on our side, they would have overwhelmed the Battalion by sheer superiority of arms and numbers.
From those first few minutes Franco’s troops became filled with a caution that proved their undoing. The first volleys from the British rifles started a process which, within a few days, stole the initiative from the Fascists and placed it in the hands of the Republican forces.
Hold the Line
Along the valley to the right, men from almost every country in the world, united in the Battalions of the International Brigades, were similarly stemming the Fascist offensive, creating a firm Republican line to cover the road. This was the decisive task.
The British Battalion, on the extreme left flank, held fast to their positions on the hills commanding the valley. Possession of these hills was essential to the Fascists to cover the advance along the road to Morta. Again and again the Moors swarmed forward, and every piece of cover on those bare hills was pin-pointed by a merciless concentration of machine gun fire. Hour after hour, with the sun beating down on their backs, crawling on their bellies from one inadequate cover to the next, the line of men strung out across the hills held tenaciously to their positions, their number dwindling as the murderous fire claimed its heavy toll of casualties.
In the afternoon the Moors succeeded in pushing back the Franco-Belgian Battalion on the right, thus gaining a position from which their heavy machine guns commanded the flank and rear of the defenders of the hills, making their position untenable and pouring a stream of fire across the route along which the wounded were being taken to the dressing stations.
Ordered to retire, the handful of survivors fought their way back, carrying their wounded, leaving the hills littered with the bodies of their dead, among whom were two Company Commanders: the Irishman Kit Conway and the London busman Bill Briskey.
Just before dusk the arrival of the long-delayed ammunition enabled the Battalion’s machine guns to go into action in the nick of time, preventing effectively any further attempts by the Fascists to advance, leaving the hillside and olive groves n front of the new British position strewn with lines of Moorish bodies in their long cloaks and red hats.
They Did Not Pass
A firm line was established on a ridge at the edge of an olive grove, with a second line on a sunken road behind the grove. Here the remnants of the Battalion dug in under cover of darkness and called a roll. Two hundred and twenty five were left alive and unwounded of the six hundred who had filed through the farmhouse that morning.
Throughout the day the Fascist attacks continued, supported by a devastating artillery barrage that pounded the British position for hours on end. Then again the following day, until enemy tanks broke through the line of the sunken road. Reduced now to one hundred and forty men, the Battalion rallied under the leadership of Jock Cunningham and Frank Ryan and marched forward singing the Internationale to re-establish the line.
And upon that line the Fascist offensive was finally halted and broken. The positions held by the International Brigades in February 1937 remained intact for over two years. They were never taken until the treachery of March, 1939, allowed Franco’s troops to march through the silent and empty trenches.
What Does it Mean Today?
Ten years is a long time in this hectic world. Those of us who survived that battle are becoming increasingly nostalgic when we meet to exchange reminiscences of those days. Perhaps this nostalgia makes us attach too much importance to what was,, after all, quite a small affair compared with the mighty battles that have taken place since: Stalingrad, Kursk, Alamein, Arnhem.
Nevertheless, there are reasons why Jarama will have a place of its own and will rank among the other greater battles which helped to bring about the defeat of Fascism.
Firstly, it was the first of two battles (Jarama and Guadalajara) which decisively smashed Franco’s hopes of speedy victory. It was the first large-scale open action of the Spanish war which ended with a clear-cut defeat for the Fascists. Ensuring Franco’s failure to take Madrid, it paved the way for a further two years of Republican resistance and granted the democratic nations that amount of breathing space.
Secondly, at a critical period of the war, it provided the Republic with both the opportunity and the example needed to carry through the building of a new Republican People’s Army under a unified command.
Thirdly, the great actions of the Second World War were fought between formations of trained and well-equipped troops. At Jarama a band of half-trained, poorly-armed volunteers faced an enemy over-whelmingly superior in numbers, training, equipment and experience in warfare. Only a handful of our men had previously been under fire, at least half had no previous military training of any kind. The Battalion was inadequately supplied even with rifles and rifle ammunition, and the eight old machine guns were out of action for long periods, including the greater part of the vital first day. On the Fascist side, it is estimated that there was at least one machine gun for every five rifles. In the Second World War the united might of the democratic nations was engaged against Fascism. At Jarama the united might of Fascism was engaged against a small vanguard of the forces of democracy.
Fourthly, this was the first action in which a complete battalion of British ant-Fascist volunteers fought as a unit under its own officers.
Our Battalion fought many more battles on several different fronts, but it is generally agreed that this first action has a glory all of its own. The price we paid in blood in this battle was a very high one. Looking through the role of honour, we find that one hundred and forty six of our five hundred fell at Jarama, most of them on the gruelling first day.
It is important at this moment to recall the effect that the news of these losses had upon those at home who were following our struggle. A flood of new volunteers came forward to take the places of those who had fallen, This is the spirit in which we should honour the memory of our comrades. Our debt remains unpaid, and we have yet to achieve the victory to which we pledged ourselves at their side.
Wipe Out the Shame
Every week brings news of more Republican fighters who have fallen in the same cause. There are places in the ranks to be filled. This time we cannoot step forward and take up a rifle. But we have a duty which we can and must fulfil: to rally every form of support and solidarity for those who are risking their lives everyday in the Resistance movement inside Spain, to bring about an understanding among our own people of the need to force out Government to break off all diplomatic and trading relations, and to recognise the legitimate Government of the Spanish Republic.
We have allowed the glory of Jarama to be sullied with shame. Our factories are turning out goods for Franco. His ships unload at our ports. Our representatives sabotage all efforts at international action designed to bring about the end of the monstrous regime with which Franco, Hitler and Mussolini have shackled the first people to show the world how to stand up against Fascism.
In the name of those who died to create the glory, let us swear on this solemn anniversary to wipe out the shame.