The Battle of Fayon, 26th July, 2014.
I think Larry must be smiling down on me…… Yesterday as a teniente in the International Brigades as part of the Republican Popular Army, I gloriously led brave and valiant men not once, but twice, all in one day! And we all survived!
In the morning we crossed the River Ebro in small rowing boats. As there were only eight boats, I decided to hide with others below the sight of the audience, and help unload the boats. It wasn’t exactly Oxford and Cambridge, but nobody got wet. Slowly, but surely the men disembarked and formed a firing line, whilst the brave commander of our men, Capitan Eloy, discussed how we were going to advance. Grenades were being liberally thrown across No- Man’s land and the shouts and screams of “Grenade!” wafted through the air as a plan was made. Actually, these “grenades” are made of toilet roll holders sealed at each end with gaffers’ tape and filled with talcum powder and a small fuse to light. They give off an impressive “Bang” and clouds of smoke! But to paraphrase Killgore in “Apocalypse Now”, “I love the smell of talcum powder in the morning”! After a lot of choice Spanish swear words from Capitan Eloy, trying to find the petards to continue the advance and expand our tiny bridgehead, it was decided to cross the thirty yards of No-Man’s land. I offered the capitan my whistle to signal the advance, but he pulled out another one from his neck proudly explaining that his one had been used in the War! Putting mine rather forlornly back round my neck, we decided the plan of attack. Our group would zig zag left to the next terrace, whilst the other would advance straight ahead. Whistles were blown and to the shouts of “Forward, Sons of Negrin!” We hussled forward, me bringing up the rear lugging a case of Maxim machine gun ammunition. The enemy retreated to a higher position by a small red brick casita. What impressed me very much as we ran forward was an even larger group of Republicans stormed forward on our left. We weren’t alone! It was very impressive to be part of this charge.
Under the cover of a steep terrace we reformed and prepared for the second stage of the assault. I bumped into the American “Daily Worker” news reporter, Briesen, pipe in mouth and notepad in his hand. He had attached himself to some French and was enjoying himself. We gave the clenched fist salute from a distance and deciding that I wasn’t going to climb the eight foot terrace in front of me, I scampered off to the right asking the troops if they had water and ammunition. At the far right a dirt track led up, and as the main body attacked, I took cover in scrub. It was rather odd as I wasn’t sure if they were Nationalist or Republican, but even more surreal were two Moors looking as if they were chopping wood! Before the little red casita, there were dead and wounded and slowly but surely the Nationalist troops raised their arms above their heads with both arms holding their rifles in surrender. Other defenders were being roughly pulled out from the casita and disarmed, told to kneel down with their arms clenched above their heads. I checked some of them for hidden arms and shouted “limpio!” (Clean!). Staff officers came up and ordered us to take them to the rear and so we marched them down to dead ground with me shouldering a couple of rifles (to give back to them at the end of the Battle, so they would not lose them!). They knelt down and I crouched down in front of them offering my water canteen and cigarettes, reassuring them and lightly interrogating them. They were a surly lot. Some accepted cigarettes and water, whilst others sneered and waved the offer away. I discovered they were mostly from Zaragossa, some of them had novias, but they refused to give further details. My attempts to gain their confidence was rudely interrupted by one of my men shouting and complaining that they wanted a cigarette too, so I had to pass round my Craven cigarettes to them. The strong Spanish cigarettes here aren’t for me, but friends send me cigarettes as and when they can, despite the bloody censors. But with each cigarette taken, I felt that I was losing not just a friend, but also a bit of home…….
And then the Battle ended. Lots of hugs and back slapping, rifles returned and smiles in front of the audience. And this was only an hour of fighting, but we were drenched in sweat and tired, but very happy! How the brigaders coped day in, day out, I cannot imagine. In actual fact, the fighting seemed to have taken much longer!
Before the second battle that afternoon at 1900, we ate, talked, meandered round the Market to browse for interesting, but also strange, items and commissar Briesen and I were interviewed by man from Pamplona by the river.
The Defense of Hill 519 (I made that number up as I am not sure what altitude we were at!).
So now the Republicans were to defend an extensive network of trenches from a Nationalist attack! As we formed up and debated how we were going to defend the positions, Comrade Brendan introduced me to the French he had bumped into in the morning assault. We decided to form an International Brigade and were told off with a Valencian unit to hold forward positions on the left, and gradually retreat to the main line of resistance and then retake the lost positions. We duly marched down and discussed the plan of defence. My brave and valiant Valencian troops from the 82nd Division must have had cultural contacts with British seamen on visits to the port, because as soon as they realised I was British they showed their vast knowledge of the English language, by cheerfully and continually shouting out (and to paraphrase Orwell) two words I shouldn’t print, but the first one started with “f” and the second plural noun with a “w”! I leave my readers to guess the words. I then taught them”OK, baby!” a la Orwell, but they were quite happily shouting and practising their English in front of the crowd about thirty yards behind us. One brave soul occupied a dugout further to the front and we occupied an extensive trench system flanking it slightly to the rear. Our International “Brigade” of two French, one Yank and a Brit decided the co-ordinated plan of defence using my whistle (I like blowing whistles). Brendan scouted through scrub to our left and reported back what he was seeing. A track led up passing in front of our position, but visibility was hampered by big trees and scrub to our left. Our scout said that cavalry was coming up the road. We loaded our weapons, and as they appeared I asked for the password. They didnt know it, but explained that they were coming back from a patrol. They said that the enemy was advancing and that they had to report to the rear. We might have shot them! A few minutes later, a file of men marched up the same track. They didn’t know the bloody password either, but they looked like ours! Actually some of them were Valencians too and joined our ever more confident group. We decided to occupy a dugout further forward, and four of them bravely and enthusiastically ran over to occupy it. But they had all our grenades! One of them was standing up in full view of the enemy shouting at us something, but despite waving him down he was shouting to us words we could not clearly hear. In desperation, I shouted out in English whilst nearly tearing off my cap, that this wasn’t a bloody debating society, when he suddenly dived into the dugout as we all observed Moors advancing and firing. The Defence of Hill 519 had begun…….
Within seconds a grenade landed in the centre of the forward position. I felt a bit bad ordering good men to their deaths, but after observing the attack, I blew my whistle and with us giving covering fire, they all made it back to the trenches on our left. At the next blow of the whistle, half my group were to retire, while my Frenchies and me would cover them. But when I blew my whistle, the French started to retreat! After shouting at them and pulling them back into the trench, they reformed the firing line, but the enemy were close. Very close. Assuming that we had covering fire, I ordered the trench evacuated, and the French ran. However, as the last of us started to clamber out, Moors jumped into the trench, pulled us down and cut our throats and other body parts. We then happlly hid in the trench whilst the Moors did horrible things to us, and we all quietly talked about Schiller, Goethe, and the price of fish aswell as other silly things. As the second line was crushed, we ran quietly back close to the crowd barrier and then took part in the defense of the final position. We were subjected to an air raid with the cry of “Avions!” It was quite noisy and we all hugged the ground, crouching in the trenches. As the bombardment died down,we could see our trenches occupied by the enemy, with a couple of firemen checking for any fires. We were getting slightly bored, so we agreed double points for sniping a fireman. It helped pass the time.
A half hearted assault on the left flank of our trenches occurred and eventually the order was passed to retake the lost trenches. Messengers were running backwards and forwards from Capitan Eloy’s Estado Mayor. We organised ourselves into two groups and as the first line ran out, an order came to wait. But they had gone! So, shrugging my shoulders we happily charged down the hill too. Casualties were high and my men were dropping like flies. But we took the position! We had captured some Spanish troops and a very frightened Moor, who had his hands up against the trench and begging for mercy. It was sorely tempting. But the audience was there and we checked him over. I asked him what was in his bag and looked in. I pretended to see some women’s jewellery with blood on it, and he swore blind that his friend had given them to him. We took him into a side trench with the other prisoners and I offered water to the other prisoners while passing it close to the Moor. He was playing the game well, pleading for water. After all the others had received some I looked at him for a few seconds and grudgingly gave my water bottle to him! He then offered to sell me a nice pocket watch for 50 pesetas which was soon reduced to 5 pesetas! He also showed me some Brand new English whistles that he had and I asked him where he had got them from, but he soon quietened down
I had walked to the side of the position and found Brendan lying on the top of the trench acting dead with eyes wide open. I tried to get him to respond by shaking his leg, and even asking him to wake up! But he didnt reply. I went back to the prisoners who were being escorted back thinking deeply. What was curious was that later Brendan told me that the Moor who had tried to sell me the watch, had rifled his body and quietly told him that his wrist watch was inaccurate for the period and took it off him (he did give it back after the Battle!)! I wondered what I would have done to that Moor if I knew that he had killed Brendan? To make matters worse, Whilst dead, Brendan had overheard the Moors asking their officers if they should take prisoners, to which the reply was, “No”.
And so the Battle ended and everyone hugged and smiled as we walked down to hold a Parade with each side saluting the other. Lots of photos were taken with the audience and we had smiles as big as Cheshire cats! We had all had a bloody good laugh and even though we had only been in action for not more than an hour, we were exhausted and sodden with sweat! I have even greater respect for the Brigaders here fighting all day, day in and day out, with little support and rest.
In some ways, maybe this should be how Wars should be fought? Nobody gets killed and everyone enjoyed themselves. Plus we were all good friends at the start and the finish, and keen to each share and retell our experiences. I appreciate that some people do not like this sort of activity and I respect their viewpoint, but though I am fairly new to this activity, I now realise the confusion and stupidity of all War. It’s not bloody worth it. For me, this is. I would rather do this than really kill people, and to try to lightly touch and try to understand a tiny part (such as the intense confusion, boiling heat, lack of military coordination, language barriers and roller coaster emotional feelings felt during and after the fighting) of the actual experiences of the the men and women who fought here.
Here is a link to a video of the event. You can see me at 11’43” cowering from a talcum powder bomb, and at 18’17” interrogating prisoners!
Thanks for reading this.