‘I adore war,’ Julian Grenfell reported to his mother from the Flemish trenches in 1914, in a letter which she proudly sent on for anonymous publication in the Times. Stalking Germans through the mud was not very different from stalking partridges, as he noted in his game book: ‘November 16th; 1 Pomeranian. November 17th; 2 Pomeranians.’ Two decades later in Spain, Julian Bell informed his mother Vanessa that the war in which he was serving as an ambulance man was ‘perpetually entertaining and very satisfactory’, one of the chief pleasures being ‘getting back into male society’. John Cornford fought in Spain as a zealous young Communist, but his letters to Margot Heinemann reflect the same first-term-in-a-new-school excitement, the same all-male exhilaration. ‘I did quite well that day,’ he said of his success in rescuing a gun from the enemy. ‘He did well here, and died bloody well,’ he observed on another occasion of a gallant friend who preceded him to the grave. The blood-stained final letter which Julian Grenfell sent home from Flanders ran:
We are practically wiped out but we charged and took the Hun trenches yesterday. I stopped a Jack Johnson with my head, and my skull is slightly cracked. But I’m getting on splendidly. I did awfully well.
Grenfell died slowly enough from the shell-splinter for his family to rush over and attend. His mother read him poems and Euripides’s Hippolytus, of which Phaedra’s lament was his favourite passage: a perfect and terrible irony, in view of the depression into which her flirtation with the other young men of his coterie had frequently plunged him. Jeanne MacKenzie suggests that he and his friends – known to the press as the Corrupt Coterie – shared the romantic fatalism of their class and were half in love with death, and for once the cliché earns its keep.
‘Corrupt’ in the modern sense they certainly weren’t: they merely drank a lot of champagne. From their parents – a stylish political élite – they inherited a belief in chivalry, and in mental and physical prowess, and a narcissistic conviction that they were born to lead. Arthur Balfour had led the parents, and Raymond Asquith set the pace and tone for the children, with Grenfell and the others soaring strenuously after him through Eton and Balliol, All Souls and the City, a confidently exclusive little clique. Jeanne MacKenzie’s early chapters pullulate with self-deprecating Adonises and dark-haired lustrous beauties, and she seems respectfully incurious about events below the belt, tempting the reader to side with the sansculottes ... But when they rush off to war – all professing knightly devotion to Diana Duff Cooper – the epistolary evidence compels a different response. They really were a special breed.
‘It will be Hell to be in it and Hell to be out of it,’ said Rupert Brooke, who sailed cheerfully off with three Coterie chums to the Dardanelles, parading their Classical learning as they passed the islands. Sir John French, C-in-C of the expeditionary force and a doting admirer of the group, desperately wanted to keep them out of harm’s way, but they traded on friendships with Winston Churchill and other prime movers to make sure they went where the action was: honour demanded no less. But what makes the story so crushingly sad is their encroaching sense of futility: they did not all go as gaily as Grenfell to their deaths. Raymond Asquith, furious that his prime minister father had engineered his temporary removal from danger, described with fastidious exactitude the Dantesque horrors of the front. ‘After all death is only a solution to the problem of life,’ he informed Diana. ‘To be killed in action would gracefully set at rest many urgent and recurring anxieties.’ A few days later, with the fatal bullet in his chest, he lit a cigarette to deceive his men as to the seriousness of the wound. Patrick Shaw Stewart, who reminisced longingly of hot baths and starched shirts, wrote: ‘Every time I remember that nearly all my friends are dead I take some form of imaginary morphia, and promise myself work or love or letters, or fall back on the comfortable reflection that I may soon be dead myself.’ A reluctant but conscientious officer, he went off quite routinely, thanks to a piece of shrapnel in the mouth.
In the sealed world of The Children of the Souls the lower orders are neither seen nor heard. Voices from the Spanish Civil War offers the reverse of the medal. Most of the 2700 Britons who rushed off to fight Franco were ordinary (often unemployed) workers, and the 20 Scottish recollections which Ian MacDougall has gathered reflect an almost exclusively proletarian world. Since many of these volunteers were friends (three came from one family), their stories corroborate each other, reinforcing the aloofness, though often admiring the bravery, of the upper-class few. A miner from Fife, who once mistook Hemingway for a prowling Fascist and nearly shot him, goes out of his way to praise the valour of a notoriously fastidious officer and to deny allegations that he habitually addressed his men, while leading the charge, as ‘My ladies’ (if true, a delightful piece of camp courage).
MacDougall hotly denies that any of his twenty were ‘adventurers’, but adventure was clearly irresistible bait for some of these punchy lads from Glasgow. Most were Communists, for whom fighting the Fascists was a continuation of a war they had been waging at home. ‘The gaffer was a pig,’ recalls a navvy from Kirkcaldy, of his oppressor for a shilling an hour. ‘I says, “Look, gie’s the books. I’d rather go tae Spain and shoot bastards like you.” ’ When the British and French Governments enforced their side of the farcical Non-Intervention Pact, the mere process of joining up became a major hurdle. The clandestine volunteers were sent from King Street to the Comintern headquarters in Paris, and then down to Perpignan, egged on by the clenched fists of peasants and shadowed by the police. After hiding in the woods they had to walk over the Pyrenees, dodging the searchlights and bullets of French border guards.
The high, simple principle which took them out to Spain seems to have sustained these men – and one woman – through pain, terror, and the confusion and excremental stink of the battlefield. They watched indulgently amazed as Spaniards who helped them out at the battle of Jarama went off home each day at dusk. Account after account testifies to the strength of discipline – barring occasional veiled hints at bad apples – in this strikingly democratic segment of the International Brigade. Several claim that their officers held their position by common assent, and that policy was often preceded by debate. They expected to get wounded, and if captured they expected to get shot. The names of dead heroes reverberate through these pages, with the same executions repeatedly discussed, one being of a lad who had been sentenced to death, reprieved, shipped back home, but who had then slipped back to Spain only to be recaptured and recognised (his interrogator was the son of a former Spanish ambassador to London). Visits by Harry Pollitt and other Communist luminaries are remembered with gratitude. Visits to hospital are remembered with wry amusement, and periods of convalescence among the civilian population with wide-eyed pleasure. ‘If Spain had pulled through I wasn’t going to be in a capitalistic country. I would have made my home in Spain.’ That was the navvy from Kirkcaldy.
MacDougall apparently presented each veteran with the same set of questions, and the replies often ramble repetitiously. It’s piquant to learn that in the heat of battle the Maxim machine-guns were commonly cooled with urine, but less so at the fourth telling. The Shallow Grave meshes closely with Voices, since its author fought in the same battalion, but this piece of oral history has been turned by skilful editing into an immensely readable memoir. Walter Gregory’s tale is in many ways archetypal. ‘Setting off for Spain ... I was like a holidaymaker going abroad for the first time.’ He had moved through trade-union activism inexorably leftward via the Hunger Marches into the Communist Party – the ‘only people who really understood the international political scene in the 1930s’ – and enlisted ‘because it seemed the natural thing to do.’ He fought in most of the major battles of the war and was thrice wounded, on the last occasion being hijacked out of hospital and bundled, still bandaged, back into the line; he was captured, sentenced to death, and finally released into France. Everything that he has to say is interesting, whether about how much he was paid (he’d expected nothing) and what he did with it (gave it to the war effort, there being nothing to spend it on), or about the horrors of battle. He describes unforgettably the moment when he realised that the group of women and children advancing towards him out of a village were in fact a human shield for enemy gunners; he notes the strange innocence of a sign outside a village which reads Peligroso el Frente (Danger – the Front), and beyond which the fields stretch peacefully on into enemy hands, with not a soul in sight.
Gregory ends his book with a rhetorical question: why were the Western democracies so blind to the real nature of the Spanish conflict? The question is reiterated by almost every voice in Voices, though sometimes with a depressing blindness to the fact that they were pawns in Stalin’s game, the tell-tale word ‘correct’ infecting the harder-line analyses. Writing to Virginia Woolf in 1937, Stephen Spender gave his unvarnished view of the Brigade: ‘The qualities required, apart from courage, are terrific narrowness and a religious dogmatism ... or else toughness, cynicism and insensibility ... the truthful live in Hell there.’ Everything people heard about it in England, he said, was ‘lies, because the propaganda is conducted by politicians, whether of the Daily Worker or of the Daily Mail’.
The Daily Worker’s role in Spain was one of Valentine Cunningham’s targets in the astringent introduction to his earlier anthology The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse. Cuningham noted the paper’s slavering desire for martyrs and its cynical distortion of facts, and he held up for scorn the posthumous rewriting into bland party-line heroics of Alec McDade’s bitter verses on the battle of Jarama. He also took a swipe at Auden, and at the debilitating standoffishness which permeated his pamphlet-poem ‘Spain’. ‘Today the struggle,’ sang the poet, but not for him personally, burning churches being more than he could bear. Cunningham’s relatively flimsy introduction to his new anthology offers instead a Barthesian meditation on ‘Spain as text’, in which a driven academicism constantly threatens to upstage real historical thought. And he now sees virtue in Auden’s poem, with its suggestion that Spain meant all things to all men.
Rupert Brooke’s ‘Hell to be out of it’ was resoundingly echoed by the middle-class guilty intellectuals of the Thirties, not least because they saw an opportunity for First World War-style heroism. As Cunningham observes, Spain offered a challenge which writers on both left and right found irresistible – to bear arms, and to bear witness. Most were, of course, on the side of the Republic, which had itself made literacy and culture national goals. Spanish Front: Writers on the Spanish Civil War contains a series of ringing replies to the ‘Authors take sides’ questionnaire of 1937. Ezra Pound’s reply appeared in the neutral category: ‘Questionnaire an escape mechanism for young fools who are too cowardly to think ... You are all had. Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’ Later many sadly agreed that they had been had, and that the ‘last great cause’, C. Day Lewis’s ‘battle between light and darkness’, had been betrayed from within.
Orwell, whose own record of events was dismissed by Claude Simon as ‘faked from the very first sentence’, feared that from this time onward history might never again be truthfully written. This was the war in which the Fifth Column was invented (by General Mola, boasting of his secret allies waiting to rise in Madrid); this was the first propaganda war. Defending the narrative technique in Homage to Catalonia, Cunningham argues the importance of sniffing out the slant in every testimony. All the more perverse, then, that he should deny his reader any contextual guidance, beyond the source and year of publication. The prose extracts, articles, letters and poems in this collection must speak unaided, which is unfair both to them and to us. Jason Gurney, for example, graphically describes the scene when he stumbled on a group of his friends dying on stretchers, just dumped in a hollow and forgotten. ‘I felt that I had suffered some permanent in jury to my spirit from which I would never entirely recover.’ One has to turn to Paul Preston’s new book to learn that Gurney was a sculptor and that he himself got an injury which prevented his ever sculpting again.
‘Women Writing Spain’ is the modish slogan-title to a chapter which signally fails to deliver its promised goods, and Cunningham makes the mistake of laying fictional extracts by Sartre, Malraux, Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene alongside factual accounts which blast them off the page. The Chicago reporter Jay Allen catches the tail-end of the Badajoz massacre, where the bull ring was inches deep in blood, and he watches a workman stopped in the street to have his shoulder examined for the incriminating rifle bruise. ‘The report was unfavourable. To the bull ring with him.’ Arthur Koestler among the condemned in gaol – ‘our hearing became preternaturally sharp’ – writes with a hand of ice. G.L. Steer, who reached Guernica just after the German planes had gone, and Georges Bernanos, who witnessed the Palma Crusade in which hundreds of Mallorcan peasants were taken for midnight rides to the cemetery, both write with controlled, polemical fury. Sitting in a Barcelona café, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry watches a diner suddenly hijacked by four armed men while everyone else looks at their plates. ‘Untouched, the man’s glass stood on the table, a mute witness to a mad confidence in chance, in forgiveness, in life.’ Nan Green, a nurse with the International Brigade, watches a soldier’s lips regain colour as her blood is piped directly from her veins into his. Sylvia Townsend Warner visits the public letter-writers’ booths, ‘where men and women whose faces bear the unmistakable imprint of intellect and thought wait in a queue to dictate the letters they are not able to write for themselves’. Ralph Bates notes the care and courtesy with which some Anarchists burn a church. ‘The street is brighter, purer, it seems to Compañero Sagasta and me, when the church is burnt down. Perhaps now we may argue reasonably with our women.’
Anthony Powell’s well-judged put-down of Hemingway’s plodding propaganda film Spanish Earth is placed after the author’s own puff for it; Anthony Blunt’s Spectator attack on Picasso – whose war etchings registered only ‘useless horror’ – is followed by ripostes from Herbert Read and others. Hilaire Belloc’s paean to Franco as a knight in shining armour would not look out of place in the Spectator of today. Extracts from Homage to Catalonia stand out like beacons, as do the extracts from the sociologist Franz Borkenau’s comparably scrupulous memoir The Spanish Cockpit. This was the book which Orwell was commissioned to review by the New Statesman, and this was the review which Kingsley Martin spiked because ‘it too far controverts the political policy of the paper.’ Borkenau, like Orwell, had noted the thoroughness with which the Communists destroyed, in a matter of months, a genuinely popular revolution. Borkenau’s book, now again in print, approaches its subject like a doctor with a stethoscope, noting every symptom no matter how unsettlingly contradictory it may seem. One of his most celebrated observations concerns the difference between mass terror and police terror, and the fact that the former, being decentralised and ‘personal’, is less injurious to civilisation. Like Orwell he was lucky to escape alive, but he, too, remained magnetically drawn to the Spanish people.
Paul Preston argues in The Spanish Civil War that the conflict has contemporary relevance, through parallels with Chile in the Seventies and Nicaragua today. This is a good short history, but its avowed sympathy for the Left precludes any proper reflection of the romantic idealism which existed among the ranks of the Falange. Both in this book and in Images of the Spanish Civil War the illustrations are extraordinarily evocative.