Deciding what to do. Wait!
7th June, 2014.
Filming the Last Stand of the XV Brigada Mixta/XV International Brigade for Catalan TV3 at La Fatarella, Saturday, 7th of June, 2014.
I have just returned from a very enjoyable day being filmed by Catalan TV3 for a film about re enactment (as one afficionado of re enactment once said, “It’s the best fun you can have with your clothes on” and I agree!).
Unfortunately I was suddenly put in command of the remnants of the XV Brigada Mixta as a teniente with my trusty Cabo, Oriol. I was a bit worried. Would they understand me in the heat of the action? Miguel, the Carlist commander and I discussed the plan of the attack as best we could, and away we went. As my dear friend Larry often said to me, “Just do it, boy!”. So we did. Cameras! Action! The actual last stand at La Fatarella took place on November 15th 1938 (but we did it in the boiling heat of June!) after the Internationals had been withdrawn, and so I was acting that I was only going back to see them from Ripoll to say a final goodbye to my Spanish comrades in the now XV Brigada Mixta before we returned to the UK! I think the commander was ill or something when I turned up, and I just happened to be in the trenches when a mass of Carlists and Moors attacked, so I bravely “took command”. I had beside me as my trusted runner, Pau. He was only twelve years old or so (the Republic had Biberons of 16 and 17 years of age, but by November 1938 they must have been pretty desperate to have a kid like Pau in the Popular Army!). As he was quite small with a high pitched voice, I could only think of him as Angel the barber in Alvah Bessie’s “Men in Battle” (“Bessieeeeee! Es muy malo. Muy malo!”)! He literally stuck to me like glue as we scampered up and down the trenches trying to co -ordinate the ragged and piss poor defence whilst the camera crew filmed, with Pau following me like a devoted puppy dog! For a giggle. I scribbled a message to the Estado Mayor in the rear and gave it to Pau telling him to run there as quick as he could and get permission for us to retire to the next line. He shot off like a rabbit towards the rear, scrambling up over the terraces. I momentarily wondered if he would make it. I then occupied my time happily taking pot shots from the trenches with my trusty (and very sexy) replica Mauser M98 pistol ( I really like this weapon with its wooden holster that doubles up as an shoulder extension to make it into a small sub-machine gun. See James Neugass’ “War is Beautiful” for a description of staff officers mounting the same guns when enemy Cavalry were spotted near General Walter’s Estado Mayor between Belchite and Lecera in early March 1938), whilst reassuring and asking the men as to ammunition, water, grenades etc..
The idiots had left a box of machine gun ammo in the bunker, so being last out I grabbed it and ran out into the bright sunlight to be immediately captured by Carlists lining either side of the trench, grinning happily and pointing nasty rifles at me. Bugger! As they shoved me out along the trench, having taken my pistol, I was happily eating the paper I held with the vital information they would need. They wondered what I was doing, but didn’t realise what I was eating, probably thinking that I was just a mad Englishman! I experienced in the darkness of the bunker some confusion as to what we were trying to do. Thunderflashes outside the bunker, Oriol shouting and poor old Pau almost in tears! Heaven knows what it must have been like in reality. One felt a slight ghost of understanding of what might have happened there seventy five years ago, but without people really being killed, thank goodness.
This time we had to hold the first line and “die”. Easy peasy. Even I can do that. After being shot as the Carlists jumped into our trench, I was acting as a wounded Republican and asking for medical aid and a Carlist (Thank you, Ramon) kindly shot me! Nice people. Pretending to be dead, I whispered to a nasty Moor idly standing nearby asking him if he wanted a nice watch and my gold fillings. He got in on the act with great aplomb worthy of my dear old friend Larry, kindly stealing my watch before roughly checking my mouth for any gold fillings, but luckily I didn’t have any so he didn’t have to use the butt end of his rifle to get them out! We negotiated that he could have everything I had, providing he didn’t castrate me. He kindly explained that he didn’t eat “cojones” only “Rojos”! We played dead in the trenches whilst the Carlists enjoyed themselves several times for the film crew clearing out the positions. After they had shot each defender of one fire position, they shouted out “Limpio!” (Clean!) and then moved on to the next one. Frightening. Imagine if you were wounded and incapacitated, hearing that as they got closer and closer to you, hearing the pistol shots to finish off the other wounded in the earlier trenches and waiting, waiting, waiting……Bang! “Limpio!”
Finally we had the last defence where “Charley” was killed. We were using a terribly co-ordinated and messy fire and movement plan back down the trench, eventually getting killed (again!) at the place near where Charley was found. The same bloody Moor took my watch again from my “dead” body, but they also found my map case and the Carlist officers opened it up to find a nice map with all our positions marked on it! They were very happy! But again I was “dead”!
The second to last scene was very odd for me. We decided that Pau would be wounded and carried out on a stretcher. Actually, we chose him simply because he was the lightest to carry! Poor old Pau was told to die near the end of the trench very close to me as we retreated. I shouted out for the stretcher bearers while cursing as I tried to reload my Mauser pistol, and they came bounding up and popped him on the stretcher while I was also frantically trying to organise our rapidly crumbling defence and making sure that Pau was taken away. This was pretty disturbing, even though we were only playing. I cannot explain it, but I was very concerned for Pau. He was my runner, for goodness sake! After the take, I noticed Pau’s hat lying forlornly on the ground where the stretcher had been and I picked it up and purposely walked to the rear to give it back to him. I wanted to see him and see how he was. He was lying on the stretcher and the medics were happily bandaging him up and smearing tomato ketchup quite liberally all over him! I knelt down and gave him his hat with a quick squeeze of his tomato smeared lower arm (yuck!) and a (hopefully) reassuring smile saying that I would visit him at the hospital as soon as I could and also write to his Mother telling her what had happened! Later I had to lend Pau a damp handkerchief to wipe the remaining tomato ketchup off his face. War can be very messy!
This was a very, very odd experience. I was very moved and in some strange way very concerned about the “fate” of Pau. He was my enlace after all, and we were enjoying ourselves talking earlier in the trenches. I am very moved by this activity, but I wanted to write up my experiences and feelings immediately after this action. It is very odd.
Finally Pedro had the honour of taking the part of Charley and “died” three or four times as the film crew filmed him doing so. A Nationalist was filmed lobbing a grenade into the trench (trying not to hit Pedro on the bonce!) with Pedro trying to throw it back, as according to the forensics a grenade blew up in Charley’s hand, causing severe trauma and death. He died very well for the cameras! I think he deserves an Oscar!
They say that revenge is best served cold, and I unwittingly achieved this just before lunch. After the battle had ended, I was chatting with my kleptomaniac Moorish pal and asked him if he wanted any water. He said yes, so I happily and unthinkingly passed him my canteen. He took a swig, immediately spat it out swearing violently saying that it was hot! I said that this was 1938, living history and all that, but he preferred water as we find in 2014-ice cold! I immediately thought of the Italian pilot brought down by the British (John Dunlop had something to do with that and a Czech machine gun) near Corbera in early September 1938 (I have the pilot’s name somewhere), when Bob Cooney gave him what he thought was water from a water canteen, from which he drank deeply, but the bottle contained spirits of some sort, and the poor pilot choked, thinking that they were trying to poison him!
The Moor who stole my watch-twice!
“It’s a Wrap!”.
So I hope that Pau made it. Well, actually, I know he did because afterwards we all ate together in Can Rius in La Fatarella with the film crew and sundry Moors, Carlists and Republicans happily nattering about SCW stuff. Pau sat next to me nattering away to all and sundry around us, and we agreed to share our photos with his Mother. Seems that Pau’s grandfather was a Captain in a Republican Artillery Unit, but he didn’t know which one. But he was very proud to tell me that! And Pau wants to be my runner at Fayon next July 26th!
Anyway, here are some photos of the day and what took place. I look forward to the next event at Fayon this July 26th and catching up with my runner Pau! He’ll make a sargento one day, if he survives! I think (and hope) he will……….
Many thanks to Associacio Lo Riu, Ejercito de l’Ebre, TV3 and the re enactors aswell as the many people watching and taking photos of us playing, all of us taking part in many different ways as part of this very interesting day. And many thanks to Ventura for acting as the driver and stills photographer! I hereby award an Oscar to Pedro who starred as “Charley”, and a medal for exceptional bravery to Pau for acting as my enlace and runner while bravely scrambling through intensive enemy fire, even though he never bloody well returned with the vital message giving us permission for us to retire! Because of that we were all “dead”. But in this game there is always the next time, thank goodness! I wonder if dear old Larry approves of my acting debut? Hope so!