"There's a valley in Spain called Jarama,
It's a place that we all know so well.
For 'tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well."
Valley of Jarama by Alex McDade
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama during the Spanish Civil War. This was one of the bloodiest battles of the war and for the British Battalion of the International Brigades meant its baptism of fire.
After the decision to create the international brigades was taken in late September 1936, the Tom Mann Centuria, which had grouped some of the first British volunteers on Spanish soil, was attached to the German speaking Thaelman Battalion of the XII International Brigade, and participated in several skirmishes in the South of Madrid, notably the failed attack on El Cerro de Los Ángeles, near Getafe.
Meanwhile, other British volunteers were being assigned to La Marseillese Battalion of the XI International Brigade, and took part in the defence of Madrid at Casa de Campo and Ciudad Universitaria. The effect that the arrival of these foreign volunteers had on the citizens of the Spanish capital was vividly captured by Arturo Barea in the last part of his trilogy "The forge of a rebel", where he wrote:
"Around us, Madrid was swept by a fierce exultation: the rebels had not got through. Milicianos cheered each other and themselves in the bars, drunk with tiredness and wine, letting loose their pent-up fear and excitement in their drinking bouts before going back to their street corner and their improvised barricades. On that Sunday, the endless November 8th, a formation of foreigners in uniform, equipped with modern arms, paraded through the centre of the town: the legendary International Column which had been training in Albacete had come to the aid of Madrid. After the nights of the 6th and 7th, when Madrid had been utterly alone in its resistance, the arrival of those anti-Fascists from abroad was an incredible relief. Before the Sunday was over, stories went round of the bravery of the International Battalions in Casa de Campo, of how "our" Germans had stood up to the iron and steel of the machines of the "other" Germans at the spearhead of Franco's troops, of how our German comrades had let themselves be crushed by those tanks rather than retreat."
In December, the British volunteers were grouped together in the First Company of the Marsaille Battalion, and fought in Lopera, Córdoba, and Las Rozas, Madrid, where they suffered heavy losses.
It was not until January 1937 that the remaining men from the First Company were joined by around 450 new recruits from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth and formed the Saklavata Battalion, named after the Communist Party of Great Britain MP for Battersea, which would become commonly known as the British Battalion, assigned to the XV International Brigade.
On February 7, 1937, the fascist command unleashed an offensive on the Jarama valley, trying to break through the republican forces that defended the Valencia-Madrid road, with the aim of cutting communications between the two cities and completing the encirclement of Madrid.
Supported by heavy artillery and the German Legion Condor, the fascist troops quickly occupied the town of Ciempozuelos and advanced towards Morata de Tajuña and Arganda. On February 12 the British Battalion, deployed in the hills of the east bank of the river Jarama, on what later would be become known as the "Suicide Valley", managed, with tremendous losses, to stop the fascist offensive. In the next three days the men of the British Battalion were stretched to their limits, retreating and advancing in a constant exchange of fire and positions.
On February 18, the republican army mounted a counterattack, with special virulence on the Pingarrón ridge. The attack was halted by the fascists, with heavy losses on both sides. The situation was thus brought to a stalemate; the positions were fortified and the forces entrenched on a front line that would not be altered until the end of the war.
The Battle of Jarama took a terrible toll on both armies. Of the 500-strong British Battalion only 140 survived. The ferocity of the fighting left an indelible mark on them,. Tony Hyndman, in his poem Jarama Front, offers a glimpse of the death and suffering that took place in those February days, in the otherwise fertile Valley of Jarama. He wrote:
I tried not to see,
But heard his voice.
How brown the earth
And green the tress.
One tree was his.
He could not move.
Wounded all over,
He lay there moaning.
I hardly knew:
I tore his coat
It was easy -
Shrapnel had helped.
But he was dying
And the blanket sagged.
"God bless you, comrades,
He will thank you".
That was all.
No clenched fist
Except in pain.
Traumatised by his experience on the battlefield, Tony Hyndman refused to go back to the front, was arrested in Valencia in March 1937, and was finally repatriated in August of the same year.
The men of the British Battalion remained in the trenches of the Jarama Valley until the end of June, when they were dispatched to the north west of Madrid to take part in another bloody battle: the Battle of Brunete. There, in their attempt to capture a position called El Cerro del Mosquito (Mosquito Ridge) the Battalion was completely decimated. Of the 330 men that formed it, only 41 were left fit for combat at the end of the operation. Alex McDade, who wrote the famous poem Valley of Jarama, also found his death there.
Until the disbandment of the International Brigades in the autumn of 1938, the British Battalion took part in several war actions on the fronts of Aragón, Teruel and El Ebro. The bulk of the Battalion arrived at Victoria Station, London, on December 7th 1938. They were received by a crowd of supporters, amongst whom Clement Atlee and other labour leaders were present. However, on their return home they met with incomprehension and found that, because of their condition as international brigaders, they could not find jobs, something that forced many of them to emigrate.
If the fate of the Spanish working class - whose capacity of sacrifice, bravery and creativity would have sufficed to complete not one but ten revolutions - was a tragic one, that of the foreign volunteers, who tied their destiny to that of their Spanish brothers and sisters, was doubly so.
They stood shoulder to shoulder with the workers and peasants of Spain fighting for their emancipation, that is, for socialism. Inspired by the Russian revolution and its conquests they had joined the Communist movement and believed that the III International represented the traditions of Lenin and October.
Thus, Judd Colman, a member of the YCL from Greater Manchester, at the age of 21 joined the British Battalion along with his friends George Westfield and Ralph Cantor (both killed in action). In April 1937, he wrote home from the trenches "I think that the victory will be soon ours and that we will have peace in Spain again. Firstly, I would like to visit my people and my friends at home and later visit the Soviet Union, the country that has inspired me and whose policy in relation to fascism and Spain assures our victory here."
Sadly, all this valour and good faith was trampled on by the narrow interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy, who did not spare any effort to convince the bourgeois democracies of France and Britain that they, the communists, were the best guardians that private property could find.
As Trotsky wrote in December 1937:
"Two irreconcilable programs confronted each other on the territory of republican Spain. On the one hand, the program of saving at any cost private property from the proletariat, and saving as far as possible democracy from Franco; on the other hand, the program of abolishing private property through the conquest of power by the proletariat. The first program expressed the interest of capitalism through the medium of the labour aristocracy, the top petty-bourgeois circles, and especially the Soviet bureaucracy. The second program translated into the language of Marxism the tendencies of the revolutionary mass movement, not fully conscious but powerful. Unfortunately for the revolution, between the handful of Bolsheviks and the revolutionary proletariat stood counterrevolutionary wall of the Popular Front"
"The policy of the Popular Front was, in its turn, not at all determined by the blackmail of Stalin as supplier of arms. (...) For six years, its social setting was the growing onslaught of the masses against the regime of semi-feudal and bourgeois property. The need of defending this property by the most extreme measures threw the bourgeoisie into Franco's arms. The republican government had promised the bourgeoisie to defend property by ‘democratic' measures, but revealed, especially in July 1936, its complete bankruptcy. When the situation on the property front became even more threatening than on the military front, the democrats of all colours, including the Anarchists, bowed before Stalin; and he found no other methods, in his own arsenal than the methods of Franco.
"The Spanish revolution once again demonstrates that it is impossible to defend democracy against the methods of fascist reaction. And conversely, it is impossible to conduct a genuine struggle against fascism otherwise than through the methods of the proletarian revolution (...) This refutes once again and once and for all the old Menshevik theory, adopted by the Comintern, in accordance with which the democratic and socialist revolutions are transformed into two independent historic chapters, separated from each other in point of time."
A few pages earlier, in the same article, Lessons of Spain: the last warning, he explained:
"According to the Socialists and Stalinists, i.e., the Mensheviks of the first and second instances, the Spanish revolution was called upon to solve only its ‘democratic' tasks, for which a united front with the ‘democratic" bourgeoisie was indispensable. From this point of view, any and all attempts of the proletariat to go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy are not only premature but also fatal. Furthermore, on the agenda stands not the revolution but the struggle against insurgent Franco."Fascism, however, is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletariat revolution. Menshevism, itself a branch of bourgeois thought, does not have and cannot have any inkling of these facts."
The fist time I had the opportunity to meet a member of the international brigades was 10 years ago, when I was studying at the university, in Madrid. I believe they were in Spain to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama.
The main theatre at the university was packed with young people eager to listen to their stories and experiences. I sat in the last row of the stalls. When the meeting finished everybody stood up and warmly applauded. So did I.
There was something electrifying in the air that kept us clapping our hands as if time had been wrapped up in an eternal moment. I felt my being filled with generosity and admiration, as the victim of a fire must feel when meeting the passer-by who ventures into the flames to save his or her life.
I had not yet been born; my parents were still children from a village not far away from fields where their comrades had fallen at the Battle of Jarama; and only some years later my father would be old enough to plough and cultivate those same lands, but I could see that, in actual fact, those gentlemen with grey hair and fading features had given their lives and youth for me and millions like me; for my father and millions like my father.
It was not for some abstract ideals they did so. Their Dorado was very concrete; as concrete as my flesh; as concrete as the reasons that now in Venezuela have led the masses to take their destiny into their own hands, dragging us all with them. In 1936 the Spanish workers and peasants also took their destiny into their hands. The best of the youth around the world followed suit and came to fight and die in Spain; simply because it was in Spain that the future of humanity, their future, was being decided.
They were there, patiently standing in the middle of the stage, receiving, with 60 years of delay, the acknowledgement of a debt impossible to pay. I wanted to come to them and speak to them; convey them my gratitude, my father's gratitude. But I could not move. I was stuck. There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I just kept clapping and clapping and clapping and clapping... until they had left.
I hope these lines may serve now, ten years later, to say the words I could not utter back then: Thank you all, comrades!