The Aragon Front. 1937 to 1938

31st August to 1st September 2012. 

The Battles of Quinto and Belchite 75 years on.
The weekend of August 31st to September 2nd 2012 in the Aragon was a most unusual event. A small group of historians and people interested in the Spanish Civil War along with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives organised a small conference in the village of Quinto to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle there. The weekend was quite an event in more ways than one!

On the evening of Friday August 31st, local historian Miguel Perez organised a talk and showing of the recently discovered film by Henri Cartier Bresson, “With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain”. Historian Juan Salas has been working on this film from the ALBA Archives and research has shown that some of the film was filmed at Quinto in late October 1937 after the Battle of Fuentes de Ebro. Sadly, Juan Salas was unable to join us to present the film (we couldn’t afford his flight!), but ALBA kindly gave us permission to show the film that evening. A fragment is shown here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AhGGC_i-WY&feature=youtube_gdata_player, with, at 0’41” Quinto cemetery in the background; 2’30” Quinto church and at 2’40” Milton Wolff giving orders.

You can see many photos of the event at http://www.quintodeebro.com/guerra/

An exhibition of photographs and their locations both before, during and after the Battle were displayed in the Casa Cultural and will be on display for another month. The interest was great and many comments could be heard as individuals identified various locations in the village.

To start the evening’s proceedings Miguel Perez introduced the alcadesa and one of the councillors of the village and explained the weekend’s events. An introduction to the Battle of Quinto was then given by historian Gonzalo Lorén Garay. This was followed by the showing of the Cartier Bresson film with a music accompaniment specially composed for the showing. When locations in Quinto were shown there were numerous comments made by the audience of approximately 250 people. There were questions afterwards and one woman sang a song that her Mother had taught her lamenting the tragedy of the Battle.

The evening ended with a meal for fifty people and much discussion about the history of the Battle. One comment made was that this was the first time that the Battle had everr been openly discussed in the village.

The morning of 1st September a group of 100 people in 20 plus cars met outside the ajuntamiento at 0900 and drove up to Purburell Hill to view the trenches.

Some of the group on Purburrel Hill

One man produced a small mortar shell that he had discovered in the area (We were later shown an awful lot more of his collection with the wooden caps beautifully turned on a lathe as per the original shape and painted in a brass colour to give the effect of a complete shell!).

The wood turner gentleman with a mortar bomb found on the battlefield

The group then visited other locations of the Battle including the cemetery (which is the setting for the scene of the first aid post in the other Henri Cartier Bresson film “Victoire de la Vie” available in French with Spanish subtitles on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAmm8YLag7M&feature=youtube_gdata_player

At 15’42” one can see the dressing station setting up in the cemetery, and at 17’13” one can see the building below.

The cemetery has doubled in size after the war and the wall through which the stretcher bearers and medical team scramble through no longer exists. One can see some of the damage and defensive positions used by the Nationalist defenders in the original  shots.

Henri Cartier Bresson (centre) taking film at Quinto. Thank you, Henri!

Tamiment Collection. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York,NY10012, New York University Libraries 

We then went to  Quinto church at 1300. It is very rarely that the church is open to the public. And so we were very privileged to enter it. The exterior had been reformed in 2003, but the interior is very much as it was after the Battle.

A view inside the church.

Pauline caught unawares as we left the church!

It was a very sad place with the floor partially excavated and ancient skeletons partially visible in the dirt. Visitors were invited to view the reformed church tower with bells made in 1943 hanging in the belfry. The old clock was also visible and to the writer’s intense surprise an incredible regular spread of impact holes of anti tank shells made by the British anti tank battery passing at an acute angle through narrow exterior arches and embedding themselves in the interior wall of the church.

Close up of one of the shots with a 1 euro coin beside for comparison.

Bill Alexander in “British Volunteers for Liberty” wrote concerning Quinto, “By now the Brigade command had grasped the potential of the Anti-Tank guns and they were used to the full, blasting strongholds and even accurate enough to shoot explosive shells through windows from some distance.” (p. 148). I wonder if he is referring to these shots?

View from the firing position of the anti tank battery. The arched row of windows are the targets of the above impacts. A very acute angle!

One could imagine the chaos for the defenders and the small window through which forty or so escaped into the hands of the American attackers was easily visible. One man there said that his father had been one of the defenders in the church with his son and that the son had gone out to try and find water, but when he tried to return to the church his father shot him by mistake. Again, the comment was made that the subject had never been openly discussed in the village before….

Mention was also made of a Russian tank firing from a nearby hill. Also one man proudly said that his Father had thrown a Molotov cocktail at another tank coming down from the church into the town and disabling it! The centre of the village had an ancient network of tunnels which we were shown later that evening and these were used by the defenders to communicate and turn up behind the attacking Americans. This is confirmed by some descriptions of the Battle by Americans.

After a leisurely lunch four of us visited trenches manned by the Mackenzie Papineau battalion at the Battle of Fuentes de Ebro on October 13th 1937 and then the village of Roden just to the south.

Roden

This is often called the “Mini Belchite” and it is an imposing place to visit. It was one of the places where the German XI Brigade fought over and one local who had also taken part in the morning walk and who knew the area as a child pointed out locations of trenches that will be looked at on another visit. Finally we climbed the hills above Mediana where the British battalion held the line whilst the British anti tank battery helped the Lincoln Washington battalion take Belchite.

As evening fell we returned to Quinto where Miguel Perez kindly showed us places photographed by the XV Brigade Photographic unit when the Brigade was based here in October 1937. Interestingly enough, one photograph in the Tamiment Collection is back to front!

Ivan Rujevic (alias “Ivan”) and Rollin Dart outside the Brigade Estado Mayor in Quinto, October, 1937.

Tamiment Collection. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York,NY10012, New York University Libraries 

The same building today.

A great day and more to come the following day.

Belchite. 2nd September, 2012

Local historian and author Jaime Cinca led a group of 30 people on a grand tour of Belchite. His incredible photographic montage book “Viejo Belchite. agonia del un pueblo”  cowritten with Guillermo Allanegui and Angel Archilla, it is a joy to behold but is sadly now out of print. However, whilst walking around the various sites a discussion was held as to possibly republishing it in English and Spanish. If people are interested in supporting this plan to reprint the book on a co operative basis in Aragon using local printers and selling it at Belchite and in the Aragon to help raise interest in the Belchite battlegound then please contact us. One idea is to utilse “crowd funding” with a site such as “Kickstarter” to raise funds by promising a signed copy of the book to those who are willing to help. The intention is there, but we need promises of support in return for a copy of the book!

From the impressive site of the Republican artillery emplacement on El Lobo where the XII Army Corps had its headquarters and where La Pasionara viewed the Battle of Belchite, one person produced a set of artillery observation binoculars!

Made originally for the German Army in 1914, it seems they had been sold to the Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War by Nazi Germany. James Neugass in “War is Beautiful” describes the same equipment being used at nearbye Kilometer 46 on 10th March 1938:

“Behind the emplacements of the roadside Franco-Belge batteries, the new pine boards of shellboxes glistened in the late afternoon sun. Ordinance officers were searching the horizon with the waving, mantis-like uplifted arms of their rangefinders…..” (War is Beautiful. p. 274)

Everyone was able to view the ruins of Belchite through these observation binoculars and to imagine the horrendous Battle that took place there 75 years ago on that very day.

The group then visited the newly opened Centro de Paz above the Goya entrance. It is a simple exhibition but hopefully in time Jaime’s book could be sold here aswell as other information on the Battle of Belchite. Run by enthusiastic volunteers it is open every Saturday and Sunday between 1100 and 1400. It is start to allow visitors to understand the Battle.

As an aside, we also visited the position of gun No. 1 of the British anti tank battery at Belchite. The old hermitage to the east of the town on the hill is impressive. It seems that the barrel of this gun blew up and subsequently the gun had to be withdrawn. Oddly enough, there is some film of the church tower of Sant Martin being shelled by this gun. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyVcJkK5RgI&feature=youtube_gdata_player at 24’,43”

On the way to Sant Martin’s church we were for once, by some bloody miracle, able to organise everyone in the group for a photograph in front of the Command Headquarters of the Nationalist defenders. To get an idea of the disintegration of the town, just compare these then and now photos.

The same building in September, 1937

A late lunch was held in nearbye Lecera and we said goodbye. Again during this walk one of the old people from Quinto came up and thanked me for the event in Quinto saying that “it was the first time that the Battle had been talked about in the village.”

From the general enthusiasm of the people in Quinto it seems that a dam has been opened. I noticed some discussions going on arguing about certain points of the Battle. One man even had a series of maps in Polish from General Walter’s excellent book originally published in Polish. A New Spanish version, “El General Walter” by Delsan Ediciones has been recently published and the library and a local shop in Quinto will stock it soon.

The response was interesting and I hope that Quinto can become a place to visit for those interested in the Spanish Civil War. Close by are numerous other sites such as Belchite, Fuentes de Ebro, Roden, Almuchel (where Hemingway and Gellhorn met the Lincoln Washington battalion survivors after the Battle of Belchite), Urrea de Gaen (“Paradise Valley” that James Neugass describes aswell as km 46 between Lecera and Albalate del Arzobispo). In addition, Fuendetodos, the birthplace of Goya has a museum devoted to his prints aswell as a nice restaurant. The Mudejar architecture of the churches and the vast landscape not far from the imposing city of Zaragossa make the Aragon and fascinating place to visit.

Many thanks to Miguel Perez, Antonio Jardiel, Gonzalo Lorén Garay the people of Quinto and especially ALBA for giving us permission to show the film and also to Quinto ajuntamiento for allowing us to present the exhibition and to use the Casa Cultural.

And finally, thank you to Edward Ayers, great nephew of British brigader, George Leeson, Pauline Fraser, daughter of British brigader, Harold Fraser and IBMT committe member and Margarita Ascensio from Puerto Rico who later went with me to Teruel and the Ebro to locate the places where Pablo and Jorge Carbonell were killed. It was fun!

Edward, Pauline and Margarita in front of Quinto church in peaceful times…..

___________________________________________________________

19th to 20th April 2011 

NEW DISCOVERIES ON THE ARAGON FRONT 

Over Easter a Catalan friend, Dani Llop and I met Kelvin and Barbara Ling to travel around the Aragon Front armed with a copy of James Neugass’ book War is Beautiful and an undated (April 1938?), but very detailed report by Edward Cecil Smith, commander  of the Mackenzie Papineau battalion, covering the Great Retreats of March 1938 from Belchite to Batea. We were lucky enough to discover a number of new and exciting places on our trip and also to correct a couple of errors in Cecil Smith’s otherwise excellent report concerning the battle of Caspe. ALCORISA A number of photographs were taken in Alcorisa by the XV International Brigade Photographic Unit and which are now held in the Tamiment Collection of New York University. We were introduced by a mutual friend in Alcorisa to local historian, Roberto Alquézar, who has identified the location of a number of shots and also given us the name of the unidentified anarchist in one of the photos! However, one piece of gossip between us concerned the banner of the Mackenzie Papineau battalion that is shown in the unique colour film Defenders of the Faith by Russell Palmer. According to Roberto in passing conversation he mentioned that the Mac Pap flag had been captured in Alcorisa by the 4th Navarre Division on 18th March 1938! He passed on to us a copy of the reference from a book published in 1941 which was of great interest.

The Mackenzie Papineau flag in Mas de las Matas, Christmas 1937

I give below a link to the section of this incredible film on YOUTUBE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74WEibaxVVQwhich at 6’, 23’’ shows not only the Mac Pap banner but also the British battalion banner that were captured in the Great Retreats of March 1938! There is also just visible with the British battalion banner a triangular International Brigade pennant hanging down on the left of the picture but we are not sure which pennant that is. The XV Brigade pennant is shown on a photo with Frank West and Andrew Flanagan  holding each end when photos and film were taken of the survivors of the British battalion in Darmos on 10th April 1938, so it is unlikely to be that.

Darmos, 10th April 1938. Frank West (l) & Andrew Flanagan (r) hold  the XV Brigade pennant.

The capture of the Mac Pap banner was confirmed by a reference from a Nationalist book published in 1941 by Javier de Ybarra y Bergé, concerning the War Operations of the 4thNavarre Division. It states: “ 18 de marzo- ALCORISA. Cojimos como trofeo en Alcorisa, el dia que ocupamos esta localidad dos banderas, una republicana con la inscripcion “15 Brigada Internacional” y otra que sobre fondo rojo, llevaba el puño cerrado en medio, y escrito lo siguiente:

Canada’s

Mackenzie Papineau Battalion

1837                                1937

15th Brigade I.B.

“Fascism shall be destroyed”

Which translates into English; “March 18-Alcorisa. We took as a trophy in Alcorisa, the day we occupied this town, two flags, a Republican flag with the inscription “15 Brigade” and the other on a red background, had a fist in the middle, and written as follows:

Canada’s

Mackenzie Papineau Battalion

1838                                1937

15th Brigade I.B.

“Fascism shall be destroyed”

The mention of the 15 Brigade flag is probably the large rectangular flag which each of the five International Brigades had been given along with an identical triangular pennant, at the Calderon Theatre in Madrid on 31st October 1937. If these flags still survive they are probably now held in private collections of ex 4th Navarre Division soldiers. A recent book, Navarra en Guerra. Banderas, Trofeos de Guerra y otros Recuerdos de los Tercios de Requetés y Divisions de Navarra en la Guerra Civil Española by Iñigo Pérez de Rada (Museo de Tabar, Navarra, 2004), makes no mention of these banners but mentions the Banner of the 44th Republican Division and other Republican flags and pennants that were captured and that are now on display at the Requete Museum in Tabar near Pamplona. It would be fascinating to find if they still exist! Lets keep looking as we now have some contacts in this matter.

Aragonese anarchist in Alcorisa, December 1937

 The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection ; ALBA Photo 011-1091. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York,NY10012,New York University Libraries Rufino “El Pipa” Alcorisa historian Roberto Alquézar has identified the one legged anarchist as Rufino “El Pipa” (“The Pipe”) and has discovered some information about him: “Versatile, ready as they come, good fortune never accompanied him. Adopted as a child from a Foundling Hospital, by one of many poor families living in Alcorisa at that time. His step father, “Tio Pipa” was the undertaker of the town. Despite his handicap, Rufino was a man with strong arms and his wooden leg did not prevent hard work. The amputation of his right leg was the result of a bet in a race up and down Mount St Christobal. His leg was injured in the race and became septic causing its amputation. Rufino, was very studious but also a worker, from his youth working with great effort, to take his family forward. This did not however, stop his greatest passion, music. A passionate trumpet player and pupil at the Alcorisa School of Music, he became a virtuoso of this instrument. Tailor, cook, clerk, poet and farmer. In the various prisons that he passed through,  he was always winning the favour of the prison officers, who often exempted him with preferential treatment unlike the rest of the group. Whilst incarcerated atMontjuicCastle, he had only spent four days there before Rufino was in contact with the prisoners who were also musicians.” From La Quinta de Los Pielesby Roberto Alquézar & David Alloza (Amarga Memoria, Gobierno de Aragon, 2011).

Roberto Alquézar at the same spot as Rufino “El Pipa”

Many thanks to Roberto Alquézar for sharing this information with us and for showing us the locations of the photographs in Alcorisa. We will investigate further concerning the flags and their possible survival and location. What may be of interest is that in the film linked to above, mention is made of American Brigadier General Henry J. Reilly who accompanied Russell Palmer to look at the captured materiel. It seems that Reilly was a correspondent for some American newspapers during the War on the Nationalist side and maybe he mentions also seeing these flags which, by observing the sequence of the film, might be possible. Does anyone in the US know of an Archive of Reilly’s newspaper reporting that might mention this? Finally, here is a curious piece of graffiti from the period inscribed on the lead lined doorway of Alcorisa cemetery

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