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George Orwell > Homage to Catalonia > Chapter 12

Homage to Catalonia

Chapter 12

IT must have been three days after the Barcelona fighting ended that we
returned to the front. After the fighting--more particularly after the
slanging-match in the newspapers--it was difficult to think about this war in
quite the same naively idealistic manner as before. I suppose there is no one
who spent more than a few weeks in Spain without being in some degree
disillusioned. My mind went back to the newspaper correspondent whom I had met
my first day in Barcelona, and who said to me: 'This war is a racket the same as
any other.' The remark had shocked me deeply, and at that time (December) I do
not believe it was true; it was not true even now, in May; but it was becoming
truer. The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with
every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a
truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.

One could begin now to make some kind of guess at what was likely to happen.
It was easy to see that the Caballero Government would fall and be replaced by a
more Right-wing Government with a stronger Communist influence (this happened a
week or two later), which would set itself to break the power of the trade
unions once and for all. And afterwards, when Franco was beaten--and putting
aside the huge problems raised by the reorganization of Spain--the prospect was
not rosy. As for the newspaper talk about this being a 'war for democracy', it
was plain eyewash. No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of
democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so
divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to
be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class
dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the
direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer
name, and--because this was Spain--more human and less efficient than the
German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse
dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with
Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economicszones.

Whichever way you took it it was a depressing outlook. But it did not follow
that the Government was not worth fighting for as against the more naked and
developed Fascism of Franco and Hitler. Whatever faults the post-war Government
might have, Franco's regime would certainly be worse. To the workers--the town
proletariat--it might in the end make very little difference who won, but Spain
is primarily an agricultural country and the peasants would almost certainly
benefit by a Government victory. Some at least of the seized lands would remain
in their possession, in which case there would also be a distribution of land in
the territory that had been Franco's, and the virtual serfdom that had existed
in some parts of Spain was not likely to be restored. The Government in control
at the end of the war would at any rate be anti-clerical and anti-feudal. It
would keep the Church in check, at least for the time being, and would modernize
the country--build roads, for instance, and promote education and public
health; a certain amount had been done in this direction even during the war.
Franco, on the other hand, in so far as he was not merely the puppet of Italy
and Germany, was tied to the big feudal landlords and stood for a stuffy
clerico-military reaction. The Popular Front might be a swindle, but Franco was
an anachronism. Only millionaires or romantics could want him to win.

Moreover, there was the question of the international prestige of Fascism,
which for a year or two past had been haunting me like a nightmare. Since 1930
the Fascists had won all the victories; it was time they got a beating, it
hardly mattered from whom. If we could drive Franco and his foreign mercenaries
into the sea it might make an immense improvement in the world situation, even
if Spain itself emerged with a stifling dictatorship and all its best men in
jail. For that alone the war would have been worth winning.

This was how I saw things at the time. I may say that I now think much more
highly of the Negrin Government than I did when it came into office. It has kept
up the difficult fight with splendid courage, and it has shown more political
tolerance than anyone expected. But I still believe that--unless Spain splits
up, with unpredictable consequences--the tendency of the post-war Government is
bound to be Fascistic. Once again I let this opinion stand, and take the chance
that time will do to me what it does to most prophets.

We had just reached the front when we heard that Bob Smillie, on his way back
to England, had been arrested at the frontier, taken down to Valencia, and
thrown into jail. Smillie had been in Spain since the previous October. He had
worked for several months at the P.O.U.M. office and had then joined the militia
when the other I.L.P. members arrived, on the understanding that he was to do
three months at the front before going back to England to take part in a
propaganda tour. It was some time before we could discover what he had been
arrested for. He was being kept incommunicado, so that not even a lawyer could
see him. In Spain there is--at any rate in practice--no habeas corpus, and you
can be kept in jail for months at a stretch without even being charged, let
alone tried. Finally we learned from a released prisoner that Smillie had been
arrested for 'carrying arms'. The 'arms', as I happened to know, were two
hand-grenades of the primitive type used at the beginning of the war, which he
had been taking home to show off at his lectures, along with shell splinters and
other souvenirs. The charges and fuses had been removed from them--they were
mere cylinders of steel and completely harmless. It was obvious that this was
only a pretext and that he had been arrested because of his known connexion with
the P.O.U.M. The Barcelona fighting had only just ended and the authorities
were, at that moment, extremely anxious not to let anyone out of Spain who was
in a position to contradict the official version. As a result people were liable
to be arrested at the frontier on more or less frivolous pretexts. Very possibly
the intention, at the beginning, was only to detain Smillie for a few days. But
the trouble is that, in Spain, once you are in jail you generally stay there,
with or without trial.

We were still at Huesca, but they had placed us further to the right,
opposite the Fascist redoubt which we had temporarily captured a few weeks
earlier. I was now acting as teniente--corresponding to second-lieutenant in
the British Army, I suppose--in command of about thirty men, English and
Spanish. They had sent my name in for a regular commission; whether I should get
it was uncertain. Previously the militia officers had refused to accept regular
commissions, which meant extra pay and conflicted with the equalitarian ideas of
the militia, but they were now obliged to do so. Benjamin had already been
gazetted captain and Kopp was in process of being gazetted major. The Government
could not, of course, dispense with the militia officers, but it was not
confirming any of them in a higher rank than major, presumably in order to keep
the higher commands for Regular Army officers and the new officers from the
School of War. As a result, in our division, the agth, and no doubt in many
others, you had the queer temporary situation of the divisional commander, the
brigade commanders, and the battalion commanders all being majors.

There was not much happening at the front. The battle round the Jaca road had
died away and did not begin again till mid June. In our position the chief
trouble was the snipers. The Fascist trenches were more than a hundred and fifty
yards away, but they were on higher ground and were on two sides of us, our line
forming a right-angle salient. The corner of the salient was a dangerous spot;
there had always been a toll of sniper casualties there. From time to time the
Fascists let fly at us with a rifle-grenade or some similar weapon. It made a
ghastly crash--unnerving, because you could not hear it coming in time to dodge
--but was not really dangerous; the hole it blew in the ground was no bigger
than a wash-tub. The nights were pleasantly warm, the days blazing hot, the
mosquitoes were becoming a nuisance, and in spite of the clean clothes we had
brought from Barcelona we were almost immediately lousy. Out in the deserted
orchards in no man's land the cherries were whitening on the trees. For two days
there were torrential rains, the dug-outs flooded, and the parapet sank a foot;
after that there were more days of digging out the sticky clay with the wretched
Spanish spades which have no handles and bend like tin spoons.

They had promised us a trench-mortar for the company; I was looking forward
to it gready. At nights we patrolled as usual--more dangerous than it used to
be, because the Fascist trenches were better manned and they had grown more
alert; they had scattered tin cans just outside their wire and used to open up
with the machine-guns when they heard a clank. In the daytime we sniped from no
man's land. By crawling a hundred yards you could get to a ditch, hidden by tall
grasses, which commanded a gap in the Fascist parapet. We had set up a
rifle-rest in the ditch. If you waited long enough you generally saw a
khaki-clad figure slip hurriedly across the gap. I had several shots. I don't
know whether I hit anyone--it is most unlikely; I am a very poor shot with a
rifle. But it was rather fun, the Fascists did not know where the shots were
coming from, and I made sure I would get one of them sooner or later. However,
the dog it was that died--a Fascist sniper got me instead. I had been about ten
days at the front when it happened. The whole experience of being hit by a
bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.

It was at the corner of the parapet, at five o'clock in the morning. This was
always a dangerous time, because we had the dawn at our backs, and if you stuck
your head above the parapet it was clearly outlined against the sky. I was
talking to the sentries preparatory to changing the guard. Suddenly, in the very
middle of saying something, I felt--it is very hard to describe what I felt,
though I remember it with the utmost vividness.

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion.
There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I
felt a tremendous shock--no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an
electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being
stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into
immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by
lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang
and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and
shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second. The next
moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a
violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a
consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.

The American sentry I had been talking to had started forward. 'Gosh! Are you
hit?' People gathered round. There was the usual fuss--'Lift him up! Where's he
hit? Get his shirt open!' etc., etc. The American called for a knife to cut my
shirt open. I knew that there was one in my pocket and tried to get it out, but
discovered that my right arm was paralysed. Not being in pain, I felt a vague
satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought; she had always wanted me
to be wounded, which would save me from being killed when the great battle came.
It was only now that it occurred to me to wonder where I was hit, and how badly;
I could feel nothing, but I was conscious that the bullet had struck me
somewhere in the front of the body. When I tried to speak I found that I had no
voice, only a faint squeak, but at the second attempt I managed to ask where I
was hit. In the throat, they said. Harry Webb, our stretcher-bearer, had brought
a bandage and one of the little bottles of alcohol they gave us for
field-dressings. As they lifted me up a lot of blood poured out of my mouth, and
I heard a Spaniard behind me say that the bullet had gone clean through my neck.
I felt the alcohol, which at ordinary times would sting like the devil, splash
on to the wound as a pleasant coolness.

They laid me down again while somebody fetched a stretcher. As soon as I knew
that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was
done for. I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the
middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the comer of
my mouth. 'The artery's gone,' I thought. I wondered how long you last when your
carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry.
There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed.
And that too was interesting--I mean it is interesting to know what your
thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was
for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world
which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very
vividly. The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaninglessness of it! To be
bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale comer of the trenches, thanks
to a moment's carelessness! I thought, too, of the man who had shot me--
wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or a foreigner, whether he
knew he had got me, and so forth. I could not feel any resentment against him. I
reflected that as he was a Fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that
if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would
merely have congratulated him on his good shooting. It may be, though, that if
you were really dying your thoughts would be quite different.

They had just got me on to the stretcher when my paralysed right arm came to
life and began hurting damnably. At the time I imagined that I must have broken
it in falling; but the pain reassured me, for I knew that your sensations do not
become more acute when you are dying. I began to feel more normal and to be
sorry for the four poor devils who were sweating and slithering with the
stretcher on their shoulders. It was a mile and a half to the ambulance, and
vile going, over lumpy, slippery tracks. I knew what a sweat it was, having
helped to carry a wounded man down a day or two earlier. The leaves of the
silver poplars which, in places, fringed our trenches brushed against my face; I
thought what a good thing it was to be alive in a world where silver poplars
grow. But all the while the pain in my arm was diabolical, making me swear and
then try not to swear, because every time I breathed too hard the blood bubbled
out of my mouth.

The doctor re-bandaged the wound, gave me a shot of morphia, and sent me off
to Sietamo. The hospitals at Sietamo were hurriedly constructed wooden huts
where the wounded were, as a rule, only kept for a few hours before being sent
on to Barbastro or Lerida. I was dopey from morphia but still in great pain,
practically unable to move and swallowing blood constantly. It was typical of
Spanish hospital methods that while I was in this state the untrained nurse
tried to force the regulation hospital meal--a huge meal of soup, eggs, greasy
stew, and so forth--down my throat and seemed surprised when I would not take
it. I asked for a cigarette, but this was one of the periods of tobacco famine
and there was not a cigarette in the place. Presently two comrades who had got
permission to leave the line for a few hours appeared at my bedside.

'Hullo! You're alive, are you? Good. We want your watch and your revolver and
your electric torch. And your knife, if you've got one.'

They made off with all my portable possessions. This always happened when a
man was wounded--everything he possessed was promptly divided up; quite
rightly, for watches, revolvers, and so forth were precious at the front and if
they went down the line in a wounded man's kit they were certain to be stolen
somewhere on the way.

By the evening enough sick and wounded had trickled in to make up a few
ambulance-loads, and they sent us on to Barbastro. What a journey! It used to be
said that in this war you got well if you were wounded in the extremities, but
always died of a wound in the abdomen. I now realized why. No one who was liable
to bleed internally could have survived those miles of jolting over metal roads
that had been smashed to pieces by heavy lorries and never repaired since the
war began. Bang, bump, wallop! It took me back to my early childhood and a
dreadful thing called the Wiggle-Woggle at the White City Exhibition. They had
forgotten to tie us into the stretchers. I had enough strength in my left arm to
hang on, but one poor wretch was spilt on to the floor and suffered God knows
what agonies. Another, a walking case who was sitting in the corner of the
ambulance, vomited all over the place. The hospital in Barbastro was very
crowded, the beds so close together that they were almost touching. Next morning
they loaded a number of us on to the hospital train and sent us down to

I was five or six days in Lerida. It was a big hospital, with sick, wounded,
and ordinary civilian patients more or less jumbled up together. Some of the men
in my ward had frightful wounds. In the next bed to me there was a youth with
black hair who was suffering from some disease or other and was being given
medicine that made his urine as green as emerald. His bed-bottle was one of the
sights of the ward. An English-speaking Dutch Communist, having heard that there
was an Englishman in the hospital, befriended me and brought me English
newspapers. He had been ter-ribly wounded in the October fighting, and had
somehow managed to settle down at Lerida hospital and had married one of the
nurses. Thanks to his wound, one of his legs had shrivelled till it was no
thicker than my arm. Two militiamen on leave, whom I had met my first week at
the front, came in to see a wounded friend and recognized me. They were kids of
about eighteen. They stood awkwardly beside my bed, trying to think of something
to say, and then, as a way of demonstrating that they were sorry I was wounded,
suddenly took all the tobacco out of their pockets, gave it to me, and fled
before I could give it back. How typically Spanish! I discovered afterwards that
you could not buy tobacco anywhere in the town and what they had given me was a
week's ration.

After a few days I was able to get up and walk about with my arm in a sling.
For some reason it hurt much more when it hung down. I also had, for the time
being, a good deal of internal pain from the damage I had done myself in
falling, and my voice had disappeared almost completely, but I never had a
moment's pain from the bullet wound itself. It seems this is usually the case.
The tremendous shock of a bullet prevents sensation locally; a splinter of shell
or bomb, which is jagged and usually hits you less hard, would probably hurt
like the devil. There was a pleasant garden in the hospital grounds, and in it
was a pool with gold-fishes and some small dark grey fish--bleak, I think. I
used to sit watching them for hours. The way things were done at Lerida gave me
an insight into the hospital system on the Aragon front--whether it was the
same on other fronts I do not know. In some ways the hospitals were very good.
The doctors were able men and there seemed to be no shortage of drugs and
equipment. But there were two bad faults on account of which, I have no doubt,
hundreds or thousands of men have died who might have been saved.

One was the fact that all the hospitals anywhere near the front line were
used more or less as casualty clearing-stations. The result was that you got no
treatment there unless you were too badly wounded to be moved. In theory most of
the wounded were sent straight to Barcelona or Tarragona, but owing to the lack
of transport they were often a week or ten days in getting there. They were kept
hanging about at Sietamo, Barbastro, Monzon, Lerida, and other places, and
meanwhile they were getting no treatment except an occasional clean bandage,
sometimes not even that. Men with dreadful shell wounds, smashed bones, and so
forth, were swathed in a sort of casing made of bandages and plaster of Paris; a
description of the wound was written in pencil on the outside, and as a rule the
casing was not removed till the man reached Barcelona or Tarragona ten days
later. It was almost impossible to get one's wound examined on the way; the few
doctors could not cope with the work, and they simply walked hurriedly past your
bed, saying: 'Yes, yes, they'll attend to you at Barcelona.' There were always
rumours that the hospital train was leaving for Barcelona manana. The other
fault was the lack of competent nurses. Apparently there was no supply of
trained nurses in Spain, perhaps because before the war this work was done
chiefly by nuns. I have no complaint against the Spanish nurses, they always
treated me with the greatest kindness, but there is no doubt that they were
terribly ignorant. All of them knew how to take a temperature, and some of them
knew how to tie a bandage, but that was about all. The result was that men who
were too ill to fend for themselves were often shamefully neglected. The nurses
would let a man remain constipated for a week on end, and they seldom washed
those who were too weak to wash themselves. I remember one poor devil with a
smashed arm telling me that he had been three weeks without having his face
washed. Even beds were left unmade for days together. The food in all the
hospitals was very good--too good, indeed. Even more in Spain than elsewhere it
seemed to be the tradition to stuff sick people with heavy food. At Lerida the
meals were terrific. Breakfast, at about six in the morning, consisted of soup,
an omelette, stew, bread, white wine, and coffee, and lunch was even larger--
this at a time when most of the civil population was seriously underfed.
Spaniards seem not to recognize such a thing as a light diet. They give the same
food to sick people as to well ones--always the same rich, greasy cookery, with
everything sodden in olive oil.

One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to
Barcelona today. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was
coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station.
It was only when the train was actually starting that the hospital orderly who
travelled with us casually let fall that we were not going to Barcelona after
all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. 'Just
like Spain!' I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold
up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire
never got there.

They had put us into ordinary third-class carriages with wooden seats, and
many of the men were badly wounded and had only got out of bed for the first
time that morning. Before long, what with the heat and the jolting, half of them
were in a state of collapse and several vomited on the floor. The hospital
orderly threaded his way among the corpse--like forms that sprawled everywhere,
carrying a large goatskin bottle full of water which he squirted into this mouth
or that. It was beastly water; I remember the taste of it still. We got into
Tarragona as the sun was getting low. The line runs along the shore a stone's
throw from the sea. As our train drew into the station a troop-train full of men
from the International Column was drawing out, and a knot of people on the
bridge were waving to them. It was a very long train, packed to bursting-point
with men, with field-guns lashed on the open trucks and more men clustering
round the guns. I remember with peculiar vividness the spectacle of that train
passing in the yellow evening light; window after window full of dark, smiling
faces, the long tilted barrels of the guns, the scarlet scarves fluttering--all
this gliding slowly past us against a turquoise-coloured sea.

'Extranjeros--foreigners,' said someone. 'They're Italians. 'Obviously they
were Italians. No other people could have grouped themselves so picturesquely or
returned the salutes of the crowd with so much grace--a grace that was none the
less because about half the men on the train were drinking out of up-ended wine
bottles. We heard afterwards that these were some of the troops who won the
great victory at Guadalajara in March; they had been on leave and were being
transferred to the Aragon front. Most of them, I am afraid, were killed at
Huesca only a few weeks later. The men who were well enough to stand had moved
across the carriage to cheer the Italians as they went past. A crutch waved out
of the window; bandaged forearms made the Red Salute. It was like an allegorical
picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the
maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks
making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling,
so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.

The hospital at Tarragona was a very big one and full of wounded from all
fronts. What wounds one saw there! They had a way of treating certain wounds
which I suppose was in accordance with the latest medical practice, but which
was peculiarly horrible to look at. This was to leave the wound completely open
and unbandaged, but protected from flies by a net of butter-muslin, stretched
over wires. Under the muslin you would see the red jelly of a half-healed wound.
There was one man wounded in the face and throat who had his head inside a sort
of spherical helmet of butter-muslin; his mouth was closed up and he breathed
through a little tube that was fixed between his lips. Poor devil, he looked so
lonely, wandering to and fro, looking at you through his muslin cage and unable
to speak. I was three or four days at Tarragona. My strength was coming back,
and one day, by going slowly, I managed to walk down as far as the beach. It was
queer to see the seaside life going on almost as usual; the smart cafes along
the promenade and the plump local bourgeoisie bathing and sunning themselves in
deck-chairs as though there had not been a war within a thousand miles.
Nevertheless, as it happened, I saw a bather drowned, which one would have
thought impossible in that shallow and tepid sea.

Finally, eight or nine days after leaving the front, I had my wound examined.
In the surgery where newly-arrived cases were examined, doctors with huge pairs
of shears were hacking away the breast-plates of plaster in which men with
smashed ribs, collar-bones, and so forth had been cased at the dressing-stations
behind the line; out of the neck-hole of the huge clumsy breast-plate you would
see protruding an anxious, dirty face, scrubby with a week's beard. The doctor,
a brisk, handsome man of about thirty, sat me down in a chair, grasped my tongue
with a piece of rough gauze, pulled it out as far as it would go, thrust a
dentist's mirror down my throat, and told me to say 'Eh!' After doing this till
my tongue was bleeding and my eyes running with water, he told me that one vocal
cord was paralysed.

'When shall I get my voice back?' I said.

'Your voice? Oh, you'll never get your voice back,' he said cheerfully.

However, he was wrong, as it turned out. For about two months I could not
speak much above a whisper, but after that my voice became normal rather
suddenly, the other vocal cord having 'compensated'. The pain in my arm was due
to the bullet having pierced a bunch of nerves at the back of the neck. It was a
shooting pain like neuralgia, and it went on hurting continuously for about a
month, especially at night, so that I did not get much sleep. The fingers of my
right hand were also semi-paralysed. Even now, five months afterwards, my
forefinger is still numb--a queer effect for a neck wound to have.

The wound was a curiosity in a small way and various doctors examined it with
much clicking of tongues and 'Que suerte! Qye suerte!' One of them told me with
an air of authority that the bullet had missed the artery by 'about a
millimetre'. I don't know how he knew. No one I met at this time--doctors,
nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients--failed to assure me that a man who is
hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not
help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.

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