Paralysed by the Absence of Danger

Jeremy Harding

  • Letters from Barcelona: An American Woman in Revolution and Civil War edited by Gerd-Rainer Horn
    Palgrave, 209 pp, £50.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 230 52739 3
  • War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass
    New Press, 314 pp, £16.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 59558 427 4
  • We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston
    Constable, 525 pp, £9.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 1 84529 946 0

Lois and Charles Orr, an inquisitive, left-of-left couple, arrived in Barcelona in the autumn of 1936. Charles was 30, a serious fellow from Michigan; Lois was 19, more or less fresh from Kentucky. They had married earlier in the year and decided on a honeymoon in Europe. In Catalonia, a matter of weeks after Franco’s military uprising against the Second Spanish Republic, they settled happily into a political climate of intrigue and rivalry among the variegated species of anti-Fascists who failed, in the end, to hold the pass: bourgeois democrats and left republicans, socialists, anarchists and Marxists, as well as a host of foreigners, many in tune with the doctrines of the Communist International.

Lois and Charles were revolutionaries in search of a revolution and Barcelona was an exhilarating place to imagine they’d found it, even though it would soon be in ruins. They took up propaganda work with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, a not quite Trotskyist party of which Trotsky himself was fiercely critical. The POUM’s members (including a number of its leaders) were drawn from the Left and Right Opposition to the Comintern, though it’s commemorated for its influential Left Opposition intellectuals – and for its role as a canary in the Stalinist mineshaft, as Orwell records in Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his time in Spain, most of it spent at the front as a member of the POUM’s ill-equipped military detachments.

In Barcelona, Charles Orr worked for the party’s English-language bulletin and broadcast news in English on Radio POUM. Lois, an ardent revolutionary, also broadcast from time to time. ‘I have been speaking on the radio a lot lately,’ she wrote to her father. ‘You should try to hear me, short wave.’ She went on to work for the propaganda office of the regional government of Catalonia, the Generalitat. Soon enough she was unemployed and took up the role of outspoken pamphleteer: her tracts were distributed by mail to her family in Kentucky.

How Lois and Charles had arrived in Spain with fully-formed ‘far’ left positions isn’t clear from this edition of their letters or from the notes and interviews at the end of the book. All we know is that Lois’s mother was a socialist and that Lois herself had been a high-school supporter of the Socialist Party of America under Norman Thomas and perhaps, at university, an admirer of the young militants whose star rose in the party during the early 1930s. Lois sends a funny letter to her family in December 1936, responding to ‘Mother’s crack that she was sorry I was a Trotskyist’: ‘Lady, I ain’t no Trotskyist. You should read up on the position of the USA Socialist Party on war, etc, and you will find that it is exactly ye old Leninist principle that the POUM stands for: turn imperialist war into civil war.’ Who was or wasn’t Trotskyist was a tough question, and a dangerous issue, at the time. Lois knocked the whole thing off succinctly in another letter: ‘The POUM, you see, has many faults, one of which is that they are afraid of being called Trotskyists. They really aren’t of course; probably they would be better revolutionaries if they were.’

Lois is scathing about bourgeois democracy and profoundly anti-Republican: she wants a radical outcome in Spain, to which she sees the Republic as an obstacle; she and Charles despise ‘popular fronts’ of any kind, particularly the Popular Front in Spain, and they loathe Communist parties. They have little interest in Franco’s military encroachment on the Republic or the evolution of the Axis. Anti-Fascism, in other words, is a second-order struggle: the real enemies of these industrious visitors are the forces opposing the Spanish social revolution, championed by the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists (the FAI and the CNT) and to some extent the POUM, though it was always liable to disappoint them.

When the Popular Front took a turn to the left in September 1936, the Generalitat in Barcelona followed suit, bringing members of the POUM into the regional government. Lois felt very quickly that the progress of the counter-revolution – to which she was endlessly alert, like an ecstatic in a religious sect – could be measured not simply by the new centralising tendency but by the way her comrades acquiesced in it. Members of the POUM were more than happy, she believed, to trade away the sacred gains of the revolution in Spain – land collectivisation, worker-management and locally organised anti-Fascist militias – for a share in the corrupt political process.

Lois went up and down about these gains: sometimes, it seemed, there was still everything to play for, but her anxieties were nearer the truth. The moment for a radical modernisation of labour and land in Spain had not survived the general strike of 1934 and now, even in the short-lived gala days of the Popular Front in Barcelona, it ought to have been obvious that a complicated indigenous struggle against centuries of backwardness was giving way to a crude, internationalised war against a quarantined peninsular Republic. The prospect of bourgeois democracy, or even ‘workers’ democracy’ of the kind the Orrs favoured, was growing slimmer by the week. Yet the couple couldn’t have seen this: their busy seclusion in the city meant that Lois never visited the front and Charles only managed a few days; the war intruded on their thoughts only when startling news came through or when air raids came closer, but then the blind was quickly drawn on these unwelcome truths. Military imperatives, they felt, could be used to excuse far too many evils; Lois hated the idea of the war effort squeezing her revolution into a tawdry parenthesis and she saw, correctly, how the rising influence of the Communists deprived the POUM and anarchist militias on the Aragon front of the weapons they needed to do their job.

For all their frustrations, the Orrs had a good time. Lois writes early in 1937: ‘Tomorrow the Feminine Section and the Communist Youth’ (both of them POUM structures) ‘are sponsoring a picnic – all day picnic to the sea.’ And later: ‘Boy, am I sunburned!’ Neither she nor Charles spoke Catalan, they evinced only the barest interest in the host culture in which their revolution had germinated and they lived mostly in expatriate circles, but their friendships with other foreigners, including John McNair, the ILP representative in Barcelona, were rewarding. Lois was close to Eileen O’Shaughnessy (‘nice but very vaguish when she talks and is eternally smoking cigarettes’), who spent most of her time in the city while Orwell was at the front. In the spring of 1937 Charles and Lois took a day out with Eileen in the country (‘so mountainous and beautiful’), starting early and returning late: ‘we climbed part way up a hill and lay in the grass for a couple of hours in the sun eating candy and talking.’ Eileen had no axe to grind, which made her a rare bird among the expats in Barcelona and may have accounted for her charm in Charles and Lois’s eyes. For all their zeal, they were a lively, sociable couple.

The fourth member of the party on that bucolic outing was George Tioli, an ‘Italian boy . . . quite a civilised and interesting person’. Tioli was a ‘child-psychologist’ according to Lois, who disapproved of all psychology, and according to Charles ‘a refugee from Fascist Italy’ who ‘pretended to be a journalist’. He tagged along with the Orrs when he was free, which was rather often, and he was a dab hand at getting their mail out of Spain through connections he claimed to enjoy at the Turkish mission. In spite of his charms, they came to feel that George was an obscure fellow, but in May 1937, as the Generalitat and the Communists resolved to stitch up the libertarian left in Barcelona, he began to hint that he was not just a feckless, pretty face.

On May Day the Generalitat cancelled the traditional workers’ marches in the name of the war effort. Two days later the Guardia de Asalto marched on the telephone exchange, run largely by the anarchists. Ministers in Madrid and locally had had it up to here with the Barcelona telephone exchange. In The Spanish Civil War (2001), Hugh Thomas tells of an anarchist phone operator interrupting a call from the president of the Republic to his counterpart in Catalonia and announcing that ‘lines should be used for more important purposes than a talk between the two presidents.’ The POUM rallied to the anarchists once the shooting started; Orwell (who’d come into the POUM militias via the ILP) was among them, having arrived in Barcelona for some well-earned leave from the front only to find himself holed up with a rifle alongside POUM comrades, defending the Telefónica – owned, as it happened, by the US corporation ITT.

Lois and Charles were briefly at the barricades, piling up the paving stones. Lois was angry to see them dismantled when a truce was struck with the Generalitat on 6 May by the leaders of the anarchists and the POUM. ‘They called their people off the streets,’ she wrote three weeks later, ‘pleading with them not to smash the bourgeois state that was crumbling in anticipation of their coming.’ But she read the next phase of the struggle correctly: ‘The result of course was a complete defeat . . . today La Batalla’ – the POUM newspaper – ‘was suspended indefinitely, soon the POUM will go underground.’ The POUM, she adds, tends to ‘fail at the moment of action’. And so ‘we revolutionaries are preparing for the POUM congress, which is due June 15’: she has plans for a brisk shake-up and a no-nonsense shift to the left.

On 16 June the POUM was declared illegal by the new government, led by Juan Negrín; with the wave of arrests that followed, the POUM headquarters were turned into a detention centre. The stage was set for a purge modelled, matryoshka style, on the Soviet mother-purge underway at the time, and Lois and Charles were arrested. Over the next few days, they were held in various places, including the central police station and an inconspicuous house which the Communists had taken over as a secret jail.

The Orrs’ strange friend Tioli had already tried to alert them that they were in danger. On 16 June, it seems, Charles was outside the central police station in Barcelona, where crowds had gathered after the swoop on the POUM. Tioli was there, too, and tried to advise him that he’d be arrested shortly: Tioli’s warning came in the form of a promise to bring him blankets in his cell. A package of blankets arrived for Charles within hours of his detention. Tioli had also gone to the trouble of asking Lois and Eileen to imagine the one thing they’d most like to have if they ‘were arrested tomorrow’. Sensible Eileen had opted for a toothbrush; romantic Lois for a handful of peaches.

‘A Russian took my fingerprints on five different forms,’ Lois says, recalling the prison protocol on 17 June. When asked where these forms were destined, he replied, in ‘excellent English’: ‘One goes to Moscow, one to the FBI in Washington, one to the Valencia government, one to the Generalitat police, and one we keep here. You will never be able to escape from your crimes.’ However terrified she was at the time, she may have felt obscurely satisfied to be the object of a world imperialist conspiracy. A day or so later the American consul called by; he didn’t see Lois but he left her some peaches, which she shared with the other prisoners in the women’s section. It was a sign, she realised, that Tioli ‘knew where I was, and was trying to help me’.

Lois and Charles were released towards the end of June; the consul had arranged their passage to Marseille and they left on 3 July. Lois recalls that Tioli was on the quay to see them off with another friend, the Belgian Georges Kopp, a POUM commander who ended up in jail for very much longer than Lois and Charles. (Her recollection is odd: Kopp ought by then to have been firmly under Communist lock and key, where Eileen had last seen him before the Orwells fled Spain at the end of June.) She also remembered two Swiss Trotskyists trying to board the boat: they were stopped on the gangplank by intelligence men and marched off to a waiting car. Andreu Nin, the POUM leader, had been murdered by the NKVD; the rest of the leadership had been arrested and worse; foreign sympathisers, including Bob Smillie, a friend of the Orwells and the Orrs, died in detention; and the POUM, which – as Helen Graham shows in The Spanish Republic at War (2002) – never amounted to a coherent force in the first place, was a sorry footnote in the larger story of the Republican defeat.

Charles Orr came to the conclusion that Tioli was in the pay of the Comintern, probably assigned to pick up whatever he could from ‘the talkative, but non-political, Eileen’, including useful gossip about Orwell. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell is briefly puzzled by the fact that Eileen has not been arrested after the search of her hotel room in Barcelona – on 17 or 18 June – but he fails to note that Tioli, lodging in the next-door room, also avoided arrest. ‘As far as I have been able to ascertain,’ Charles wrote later, ‘Tioli disappeared in Spain. If indeed he was killed by his Communist masters, it would not have been the only time they suppressed their own agents in order to forestall their [defection] or to cover their trail.’ Perhaps. Yet it was the British Communist David Crook who did most of the spying on the Orwells – and, according to Gordon Bowker in his biography of Orwell, Crook went on to suggest that Eileen was having an affair with Kopp. The snakepit from which the Orrs scrambled when they left for France was deep and dangerous. Like many of their kind, they never quite put it behind them.

James Neugass, another American impelled to Spain by his convictions, fetched up in a world apart from the propaganda parlours frequented by the Orrs. War Is Beautiful, the diary of his five months as an ambulance driver (November 1937 to April 1938), is surely the last major English-language addition to the huge archive of volunteer service in Spain. The typescript of the diary, about 500 pages, came to light in a Vermont bookshop nine years ago. It seems to have been retrieved from the papers of Max Eastman, editor of the Masses. It’s marked with jumpy annotations in longhand, quite likely Eastman’s: ‘Is this a book that will help the fight?’ ‘The title, “War Is Beautiful,” is a Fascist slogan. If this is naive and misdirected irony, it is very dangerous.’

Neugass was given to irony and probably got his title from a refrain in Marinetti’s manifesto on the war in Abyssinia. He was also naive, in a writerly sort of way. He was 32; he had grown up in New Orleans and New York and travelled in Europe; he had worked as a book reviewer, a janitor, a fencing coach and a union organiser; he had published his poetry here and there; he would turn out to be a nuanced, self-conscious diarist, often introspective, self-mocking, good on the absurdities he encountered, and not always laconic under fire. He had an excellent eye for detail. At the same time he was brusque and untutored in his stalwart anti-Fascism, which includes plenty of hand-me-down slander about the POUM and the anarchists. His views are those of a conscientious fellow-traveller, moving gallantly forward: his not to reason why – not on these matters anyhow. Fascists to right of him, Fascists to left of him.

And what gallantry. Being a writer, Neugass tends to chance his arm in ways that an ambulance driver who merely happened to keep a diary might not have, yet this remains an impressive story about overcoming fear and soldiering on. It is also a vivid account, from the field clinics, of the Republican drive on Teruel in December 1937 and its recapture by the Fascists: a record of frostbite, hunger, sickness, terrifying air power on one side, heavy casualties on both (60,000 Republicans, 50,000 rebels); and of a civilian population cowering in icy buildings where the water pipes had frozen solid. As Antony Beevor remarks in The Battle for Spain (2006), ‘conditions in Stalingrad, five years later, would not be much worse.’ Neugass has you feel the cold.

He was taken on as a driver – a ‘chófer’, as he calls himself – by the American Medical Bureau to Save Spanish Democracy. The AMB was the creation of Edward Barsky, a young East Coast doctor whose father had founded the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston in 1916. Barsky was already a member of the Communist Party when he began raising money for medical equipment and calling on US doctors and nurses to serve in Spain. The appeal was a success; at its height the AMB contingent reached about 120 and, as Neugass recalled when he first joined an AMB column at the end of 1937, it included a supply truck crammed with plaster of Paris, adhesives and linens, several ambulances for light injuries – one of them pledged by ‘the students and faculty’ of Harvard – and a juggernaut containing $15,000 worth of X-ray equipment, autoclaves, an operating table and a generator. By the end of the month, when the Republican government set its heart on the capture of Teruel, Neugass was part of a mobile AMB infirmary consisting of 17 vehicles.

Neugass himself drove ‘a long low limousine with the lines and glass windows of a hearse and the rear doors of a delivery wagon’ capable of carrying ‘two heavy wounded or nine light’. It doubled as Barsky’s car: Neugass was, in effect, his chófer, occasionally his secretary, always his greatest admirer. Barsky was 40, a tough and much preoccupied figure, with a reassuring, dry sense of humour. He was responsible for the AMB and before long for the health of all the international brigades, over and above his duties as a surgeon. Neugass was often with him as he operated which, after Teruel, was much of the time. At the end of a laparotomy, he describes Barsky swiftly putting stitches into the patient and closing ‘the opening in the stomach with the motions of a housewife tying a roast’. Barsky and Neugass travelled for hours together in the car, the solicitous chófer often alarmed by the physical condition of his boss, who suffered from ulcers: he would get out and throw up if he’d strayed beyond his usual diet of bread and cigarettes, and then he’d force down an orange.

Being a US initiative, the AMB was closely involved with XV International Brigade, where most of the English-speaking volunteers (members of the Lincoln-Washington, Mackenzie-Papineau and British battalions) were enrolled, but the first phase of the Republican plan for an attack on Teruel did not include the brigades: they were considered too battered and depleted and it was decided to hold them in reserve. Nonetheless the AMB column rattled off towards the new front in December 1937. Neugass was driving for Barsky, but also picking up troops who’d gone down with flu and frostbite and ferrying them to field clinics for treatment. Billeted in a small town in Aragon, he speculates casually about the terrifying snowbound passes that would shortly test his skills as a driver on the approach to Teruel: ‘I gather that mountains lie between us and the invaders.’

He’s pleasantly surprised by the eclecticism of the three downbeat cafés in town, each attached to the headquarters of a local faction: the anarchists serve bitter coffee with milk and sugar, the Communists sell rum, muscatel, vermouth and brandy, while the poor old left republicans have nothing to offer but coffee with sugar. ‘At the Communist café are soldiers, peasants and the young men of the town. The international brigades are impartial: left republican coffee without milk in the morning, anarchist coffee with milk in the afternoon and Communist brandy at night.’ An added attraction at the CP café is a singer in the ‘canto Aragonese’ style who ‘puts back his head and holds a single luscious note, like a canary warbling into the sun’.

Further down the line, in Mas de las Matas, 150 km from Teruel, villagers slaughtered their pigs to welcome the AMB. Neugass was happy to report that, when it came to the crunch, everything was possible, even jubilant solidarity between a pro-anarchist village and a bunch of Comintern expeditionaries, despite the venomous efforts of ‘all left extremists of the Trotskyist splinter-groups’ to defame the internationalists in Catalonia and Aragon. But a long tussle between commissars and anarchists had already taken place in the village before Neugass laid up there and the commissars had prevailed. It was nonetheless a compromise – the story is recorded by Ronald Fraser in Blood of Spain (1979) – and both sides had kept their heads during a series of knife-edge confrontations. Had it turned out differently, Neugass might not have got pork for supper. ‘Most of the anarchists,’ he tells his diary, like one innocent confiding in another, ‘seem baffled that the leaders in the big cities have not been able to achieve the unity which exists . . . at the front.’

Republican chiefs of staff were under immense pressure to announce a victory in Teruel and they did so just before Christmas, even though there was still a Fascist military presence in the town. Neugass was in good spirits. On the 25th he wolfed down several Christmas dinners, thanks to his itinerant duties as a chófer, timing his commissions as the turkey hit the table. On the 27th he reported ‘counter-attacks heavier every day’ and suspected that some of the international brigades were now committed. On the 29th, German and Italian squadrons flew over the front from first light until dusk; 100 tons of bombs were dropped in a single day, but Neugass was still a long way north-east of Teruel with a ridge of mountains to cross. The Republican armies held their ground. Early in January, Colonel Rey d’Harcourt, Franco’s commanding officer in Teruel, surrendered the town to the government. By then Neugass, Barsky, the medics and nurses – the ‘Florences’, as he calls them – had completed a gruelling journey over the icy passes and would shortly be hard at work.

With the AMB clinics set up close to Teruel, Neugass was plunged into the daily round, moving from the requisitioned buildings where hopeless casualties were set aside to the ad hoc operating rooms and thence to the recovery wards. He was admired for his physical strength: he could carry the leaden, etherised wounded straight from theatre to a bed in an outhouse without much difficulty. But his greatest skills were at the wheel of his car and under the bonnet. He was clearly a first-rate chófer, quick, cool, patient and able to withstand the ordeal of driving for days without sleep, slapping himself under the chin to stay awake. He and his colleagues were resourceful mechanics, with an assortment of tricks for all contingencies, including shrapnel damage. Well before the Falangists retook Teruel in February, Neugass was coming under fire almost every time he drove for more than a few miles. Always hungry, he’d already discovered that you could boil an egg if you tied it in gauze, gunned your engine and lowered it into your radiator for a few minutes. The trick was to find an egg. Later he heard that if the radiator was leaking, you should crack that valuable egg and pour it in: it would bind the fine lesions in the chambers for a few days. They could also be stopped with soap, but soap, too, was rare, while there was no end of metal ripping into AMB vehicles. Neugass kept his car in good condition under the circumstances and reluctantly basted it with mud, in the hope that no glint off the bodywork would betray him to the enemy.

On 13 January he reports that an air attack forced him off the road into an open field. On this, the first occasion, he picked up half a dozen ‘flesh wounds’ and took them back to the medics, noting merely that ‘it keeps getting nearer and nearer. How much more luck have I left?’ It was the first of many such incidents; throughout the closing stages of the book the skies are thick with Fascist aircraft. But Neugass was a cool customer, in spite of his bravado. He thought once or twice of deserting but soon regained his composure. His bedrock hatred of Fascism was an asset but so were his duties. He took comfort from the routine details: judging the distance between a shell crater and the wrong edge of a snowy mountain road; observing the maximum speeds at which he could travel with heavily injured charges (head, chest or stomach, each had a different limit) if they were to have a chance in Barsksy’s hands. It takes nothing away from him to say that these habits, the TLC he lavished on his car – ‘my sweetheart’, ‘my baby’, ‘my bombhole-jumper’ – along with his loyalty to the AMB made heroism easier than it might have been for a volunteer dug into a foxhole.

Neugass got along with his Spanish comrades, but felt a special bond with the North American brigades and the British. The exception was Reginald Saxton, a ‘blond tall young English doctor’ in charge of the transfusion service, but only because of the shock of their first encounter. Neugass ran into this volunteer from Reading in a temporary medical facility six miles from Teruel. Saxton was hunched over the dead bodies of four Spanish cavalrymen, drawing blood from a bared, grey forearm. The men had been asphyxiated in a bombed building; there were no external injuries. ‘New Soviet technique,’ Saxton confided as he held a full syringe ‘between his squinting eye and the late winter sun’. Neugass overcame his dismay and joked in his diary that many resuscitated volunteers were by now ‘full-blooded Spaniards’.

Thirty-five thousand volunteers from 53 countries took up the call of the Comintern and another four or five thousand fought with the POUM and the anarchists. Neugass met people of many nationalities – a Hungarian eye-doctor (‘at least ten pounds of shrapnel taken from hundreds of eyes’), an Ethiopian who’d come ‘for the open season on Italians’, Belgians, Finns, Cubans – but he was always touched by the circumstances of the British. Antony Beevor has a memorable description of British volunteers standing for the cameras before they set out for Spain: ‘scrubbed faces with self-conscious expressions, short hair, cloth caps clutched in hand and Sunday suits with boots’. On 16 January 1938, in the thick of Franco’s counter-offensive, Neugass sees a contingent of the same volunteers at the limits of endurance:

The English, having left their trucks at the bottom of the hill, came up the road in the moonlight. Too tired to swear, the men were wordless. The torn blankets over heads and shoulders and tied like skirts around the waist, the shoes wrapped with rags, the rifles on their shoulders gave them the appearance of a battalion of women beggars. Ranks of stretcher-bearers with eight-foot spear-like poles added to the biblical quality of the scene. The volunteers flowed around my car like sheep.

And then, reaching for the solace of his politics: ‘These are the men who feel that the eye of the world’s conscience is on them.’

Neugass went on several missions into Teruel proper. He didn’t like the place; it was strewn with dead horses, he remembers, and it became very dangerous once the Fascist counter-offensive was in full swing. Late in January, Barsky ordered him in again to hunt for bedpans, stoves, pitchers, a sewing machine, ‘as much linen as my car could carry’, anything the AMB needed to keep ticking over. It was dark as he went on his way, eyeing the tracer fire high above the bonnet of the car. In town he heard an unearthly wailing and discovered that the enemy advance had left the mental asylum isolated in no man’s land with only half the inmates evacuated. He went from one abandoned store to the next filling up the vehicle. He bagged some coal stoves and a Singer sewing machine and headed for the china shop, its doorway ‘caved in by rubble’, where his flashlight picked out ‘a collection of 15th-century bisque and gold majolica, with blue dragons and lions’, all of it intact. He left with an armful of tin jugs, soup bowls and chamberpots.

Even before the recapture of Teruel in February, Franco’s riposte seemed to presage the devastation of the Republican armies. Neugass was working round the clock and so was the AMB. The ‘In Memoriam’ insertions in his diary, about friends or people he’s carried, were becoming more frequent, the presence of German and Italian planes overhead more insistent. In downtime, he checked the vehicle and washed the upholstery; he changed his clothes; he clung to the routine. Scrubbing out his ‘sweetheart’ for the umpteenth time he notes a little tetchily: ‘Getting a complex about blood inside the car.’ Later, in another lull, he records: ‘I saw three men standing on a low ridge of earth beside the road, heads up in the breeze, almost motionless, paralysed by the absence of danger.’

The last Republican units slunk out of Teruel on 22 February, by which time the vast force committed uselessly in the campaign was in disarray; by March they would be in full retreat through Aragon; in April, Franco would reach the Mediterranean and cut the Republic in two. The AMB’s field facilities were being relocated every few days. Barns, sheepfolds, middens and road repairers’ huts were pressed into service; generators were wheeled out and sheets were pinned up beneath ceilings to stop dust falling onto operating tables as the bombs fell nearby and Barsky stooped over his patients.

A break of roughly ten days separates the diary entry Neugass made on 12 March 1938 from the series of vignettes he went on to write from the safety of a villa overlooking Barcelona as he prepared to leave Spain. Then the authentic Neugass voice returns, as he counts his luck and lists the damage to engine and bodywork: weak legs, probably due to metal lodged near the spine; a hernia; coughing up blood; various shrapnel scars. ‘I am very lucky,’ he concludes, before going on to recall his last exchange with Barsky:

‘What do you want to do?’ the major asked me. ‘Stay here and drive my car or go back to the States and write that book?’

‘Matthews and Hemingway,’ Neugass says, referring to Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, ‘are the only non-military non-Spanish I have seen in Spain . . . When newspapermen visit us, we do not feel quite so much like international orphans.’ Loyalist Spanish felt that they, too, were less like Republican orphans once their cause had been adopted by foreign journalists. Paul Preston catches this column-inch internationalism very well in his magnificent survey of the correspondents who worked in Spain, their minders in the Republic’s press offices, and the crew of dons and bullies who controlled the information flow on behalf of Franco and the Falange. By and large, anglophone journalists – and writers – were disposed to the Republic. The list of sympathisers includes Dos Passos, Hemingway, Gellhorn, Claud Cockburn, Matthews, Josephine Herbst, Virginia Cowles. Their attempts to make sense of the conflict on the ground and exert influence on behalf of the Republic are told in detail. So are their altercations, including a famous falling out between Hemingway and Dos Passos over the execution of José Robles, a friend of Dos Passos, on allegations of spying. There are excellent chapters built around individuals. George Steer, fresh from Abyssinia. Louis Fischer, the Nation’s man in Spain. Cockburn’s larger than life comrade Mikhail Koltsov, the Pravda/Kremlin envoy, who had eyes and ears everywhere and was liquidated after the Republican defeat. Herbert Southworth, encyclopedist and bibliographer of the war, who remained a thorn in Franco’s side through the 1960s. Jay Allen for the Chicago Daily Tribune, a body and soul Loyalist with an impressive knowledge of Spain, who reported the Falangist atrocities in Badajoz, near the Portuguese border, in 1936.

The book is a tremendous record of comings and goings among pro-Republicans, thickened with intrigue and romantic gossip. But there is also fascinating material about the journalists who stuck mostly to rebel-held areas, and the constraints under which all reporters, friendly or hostile to Franco, were forced to operate once they’d signed up for a ride with the Falange – intimidation and detention included. Preston also follows the propaganda war beyond Spain to the Kremlin, the pulpits and sacristies of Catholic America and the highest levels of the US administration. It was a nasty struggle, particularly for Allen, whom Franco’s devout admirers were keen to discredit.

Legionnaires and Moors had put several thousand people to the sword in Badajoz and it was in Franco’s interests to play it down. A Pathé cameraman who filmed the bodies was detained and threatened with execution; he was spared when Pathé doctored the footage and sent an innocuous sequence to the rebel propaganda service. The French agency Havas and the United Press Agency had also circulated reports on Badajoz and not long afterwards a Havas man and another from UP were detained. Their editors pleaded on their behalf, pointing out that neither of the journalists had anything to do with the story. This correspondence was then put about, quite cleverly, by one of Franco’s press officers to cast doubt on the truth of the massacre. It was not good news for Allen, who had already lost his job at the Tribune and was now lobbying for the Republic in any way he could, with Badajoz high on his list of arguments. Preston follows Allen from pillar to post. Among many blows were his character assassination by the Tablet and his brief meeting with Roosevelt in 1938, at which he pitched for an end to the arms embargo:

When the day came, he went to Hyde Park and delivered his speech. When he finished, believing that he had said it all, and said it well, he was thrown into confusion by Roosevelt’s laconic response: ‘Mr Allen, I could not hear you!’ . . . Had the president really not heard him? Had he not spoken loudly enough? Had he indeed failed at this critical juncture in his life and the life of the Spanish Republic? Seeing his dismay, the president explained: ‘Mr Allen, I can hear the Roman Catholic Church and all their allies very well. They speak very loudly. Could you and your friends speak a little louder, please?’

But projection was not enough: the eloquent anti-Fascism of Loyalist sympathisers was muffled on both sides of the Atlantic by a deadly combination of insouciance and realpolitik. Barcelona fell at the end of January 1939 and the remains of the foreign press corps converged on Figueres, a stone’s throw from the French border, where they bid their bleak farewells to Spanish friends, and one another. Within weeks the Germans entered Prague and, in Preston’s bitter formulation, ‘Chamberlain declared that he . . . would no longer be able to take the Führer’s word for anything.’ The lesson for the journalists in Spain was that words had made no difference at all.