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George Orwell > Homage to Catalonia > Chapter 3

Homage to Catalonia

Chapter 3

IN trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco,
candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in
that order, with the enemy a bad last. Except at night, when a surprise--attack
was always conceivable, nobody bothered about the enemy. They were simply remote
black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro. The real
preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm.

I ought to say in passing that all the time I was in Spain I saw very little
fighting. I was on the Aragon front from January to May, and between January and
late March little or nothing happened on that front, except at Teruel. In March
there was heavy fighting round Huesca, but I personally played only a minor part
in it. Later, in June, there was the disastrous attack on Huesca in which
several thousand men were killed in a single day, but I had been wounded and
disabled before that happened. The things that one normally thinks of as the
horrors of war seldom happened to me. No aeroplane ever dropped a bomb anywhere
near me, I do not think a shell ever exploded within fifty yards of me, and I
was only in hand-to-hand fighting once (once is once too often, I may say). Of
course I was often under heavy machine-gun fire, but usually at longish. ranges.
Even at Huesca you were generally safe enough if you took reasonable

Up here, in the hills round Zaragoza, it was simply the mingled boredom and
discomfort of stationary warfare. A life as uneventful as a city clerk's, and
almost as regular. Sentry-go, patrols, digging; digging, patrols, sentry-go. On
every hill-top. Fascist or Loyalist, a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering round
their flag and trying to keep warm. And all day and night the meaningless
bullets wandering across the empty valleys and only by some rare improbable
chance getting home on a human body.

Often I used to gaze round the wintry landscape and marvel at the futility of
it all. The inconclusiveness of such a kind of war! Earlier, about October,
there had been savage fighting for all these hills; then, because the lack of
men and arms, especially artillery, made any large-scale operation impossible,
each army had dug itself in and settled down on the hill-tops it had won. Over
to our right there was a small outpost, also P.O.U.M., and on the spur to our
left, at seven o'clock of us, a P.S.U.C. position faced a taller spur with
several small Fascist posts dotted on its peaks. The so-called line zigzagged to
and fro in a pattern that would have been quite unintelligible if every position
had not flown a flag. The P.O.U.M. and P.S.U.C. flags were red, those of the
Anarchists red and black; the Fascists generally flew the monarchist flag
(red-yellow-red), but occasionally they flew the flag of the Republic
(red-yellow-purple). The scenery was stupendous, if you could forget that every
mountain--top was occupied by troops and was therefore littered with tin cans
and crusted with dung. To the right of us the sierra bent south--eastwards and
made way for the wide, veined valley that stretched across to Huesca. In the
middle of the plain a few tiny cubes sprawled like a throw of dice; this was the
town of Robres, which was in Loyalist possession. Often in the mornings the
valley was hidden under seas of cloud, out of which the hills rose flat and
blue, giving the landscape a strange resemblance to a photographic negative.
Beyond Huesca there were more hills of the same formation as our own, streaked
with a pattern of snow which altered day by day. In the far distance the
monstrous peaks of the Pyrenees, where the snow never melts, seemed to float
upon nothing. Even down in the plain everything looked dead and bare. The hills
opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants. Almost always
the sky was empty of birds. I do not think I have ever seen a country where
there were so few birds. The only birds one saw at any time were a kind of
magpie, and the coveys of partridges that startled one at night with their
sudden whirring, and, very rarely, the flights of eagles that drifted slowly
over, generally followed by rifle-shots which they did not deign to notice.

At night and in misty weather, patrols were sent out in the valley between
ourselves and the Fascists. The job was not popular, it was too cold and too
easy to get lost, and I soon found that I could get leave to go out on patrol as
often as I wished. In the huge jagged ravines there were no paths or tracks of
any kind; you could only find your way about by making successive journeys and
noting fresh landmarks each time. As the bullet flies the nearest Fascist post
was seven hundred metres from our own, but it was a mile and a half by the only
practicable route. It was rather fun wandering about the dark valleys with the
stray bullets flying high overhead like redshanks whistling. Better than
night-time were the heavy mists, which often lasted all day and which had a
habit of clinging round the hill-tops and leaving the valleys clear. When you
were anywhere near the Fascist lines you had to creep at a snail's pace; it was
very difficult to move quietly on those hill-sides, among the crackling shrubs
and tinkling limestones. It was only at the third or fourth attempt that I
managed to find my way to the Fascist lines. The mist was very thick, and I
crept up to the barbed wire to listen. I could hear the Fascists talking and
singing inside. Then to my alarm I heard several of them coming down the hill
towards me. I cowered behind a bush that suddenly seemed very small, and tried
to cock my rifle without noise. However, they branched off and did not come
within sight of me. Behind the bush where I was hiding I came upon various
relics of the earlier fighting--a pile of empty cartridge-cases, a leather cap
with a bullet-hole in it, and a red flag, obviously one-of our own. I took it
back to the position, where it was unsentimentally torn up for

I had been made a corporal, or cabo, as it was called, as soon as we reached
the front, and was in command of a guard of twelve men. It was no sinecure,
especially at first. The centuria was an untrained mob composed mostly of boys
in their teens. Here and there in the militia you came across children as young
as eleven or twelve, usually refugees from Fascist territory who had been
enlisted as militiamen as the easiest way of providing for them. As a rule they
were employed on light work in the rear, but sometimes they managed to worm
their way to the front line, where they were a public menace. I remember one
little brute throwing a hand-grenade into the dug-out fire 'for a joke'. At
Monte Pocero I do not think there was anyone younger than fifteen, but the
average age must have been well under twenty. Boys of this age ought never to be
used in the front line, because they cannot stand the lack of sleep which is
inseparable from trench warfare. At the beginning it was almost impossible to
keep our position properly guarded at night. The wretched children of my section
could only be roused by dragging them out of their dug-outs feet foremost, and
as soon as your back was turned they left their posts and slipped into shelter;
or they would even, in spite of the frightful cold, lean up against the wall of
the trench and fall fast asleep. Luckily the enemy were very unenterprising.
There were nights when it seemed to me that our position could be stormed by
twenty Boy Scouts armed with airguns, or twenty Girl Guides armed with
battledores, for that matter.

At this time and until much later the Catalan militias were still on the same
basis as they had been at the beginning of the war. In the early days of
Franco's revolt the militias had been hurriedly raised by the various trade
unions and political parties; each was essentially a political organization,
owing allegiance to its party as much as to the central Government. When the
Popular Army, which was a 'non-political' army organized on more or less
ordinary lines, was raised at the beginning of 1937, the party militias were
theoretically incorporated in it. But for a long time the only changes that
occurred were on paper; the new Popular Army troops did not reach the Aragon
front in any numbers till June, and until that time the militia-system remained
unchanged. The essential point of the system was social equality between
officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the
same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If
you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him
for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at
any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood
that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an
order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior. There
were officers and N.C.O.S. but there was no military rank in the ordinary sense;
no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to
produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless
society. Of course there was no perfect equality, but there was a nearer
approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in
time of war.

But I admit that at first sight the state of affairs at the front horrified
me. How on earth could the war be won by an army of this type? It was what
everyone was saying at the time, and though it was true it was also
unreasonable. For in the circumstances the militias could not have been much
better than they were. A modern mechanized army does not spring up out of the
ground, and if the Government had waited until it had trained troops at its
disposal, Franco would never have been resisted. Later it became the fashion to
decry the militias, and therefore to pretend that the faults which were due to
lack of training and weapons were the result of the equalitarian system.
Actually, a newly raised draft 'of militia was an undisciplined mob not because
the officers called the private 'Comrade' but because raw troops are always an
undisciplined mob. In practice the democratic 'revolutionary' type of discipline
is more reliable than might be expected. In a workers' army discipline is
theoretically voluntary. It is based on class-loyalty, whereas the discipline of
a bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear. (The Popular Army that
replaced the militias was midway between the two types.) In the militias the
bullying and abuse that go on in an ordinary army would never have been
tolerated for a moment. The normal military punishments existed, but they were
only invoked for very serious offences. When a man refused to obey an order you
did not immediately get him punished; you first appealed to him in the name of
comradeship. Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say
instantly that this would never 'work', but as a matter of fact it does 'work'
in the long run. The discipline of even the worst drafts of militia visibly
improved as time went on. In January the job of keeping a dozen raw recruits up
to the mark almost turned my hair grey. In May for a short while I was
acting-lieutenant in command of about thirty men, English and Spanish. We had
all been under fire for months, and I never had the slightest difficulty in
getting an order obeyed or in getting men to volunteer for a dangerous job.
'Revolutionary' discipline depends on political consciousness--on an
understanding of why orders must be obeyed; it takes time to diffuse this, but
it also takes time to drill a man into an automaton on the barrack-square. The
journalists who sneered at the militia-system seldom remembered that the
militias had to hold the line while the Popular Army was training in the rear.
And it is a tribute to the strength of 'revolutionary' discipline that the
militias stayed in the field-at all. For until about June 1937 there was nothing
to keep them there, except class loyalty. Individual deserters could be shot--
were shot, occasionally--but if a thousand men had decided to walk out of the
line together there was no force to stop them. A conscript army in the same
circumstances--with its battle-police removed--would have melted away. Yet the
militias held the line, though God knows they won very few victories, and even
individual desertions were not common. In four or five months in the P.O.U.M.
militia I only heard of four men deserting, and two of those were fairly
certainly spies who had enlisted to obtain information. At the beginning the
apparent chaos, the general lack of training, the fact that you often had to
argue for five minutes before you could get an order obeyed, appalled and
infuriated me. I had British Army ideas, and certainly the Spanish militias were
very unlike the British Army. But considering the circumstances they were better
troops than one had any right to expect.

Meanwhile, firewood--always firewood. Throughout that period there is
probably no entry in my diary that does not mention firewood, or rather the lack
of it. We were between two and three thousand feet above sea-level, it was mid
winter and the cold was unspeakable. The temperature was not exceptionally low,
on many nights it did not even freeze, and the wintry sun often shone for an
hour in the middle of the day; but even if it was not really cold, I assure you
that it seemed so. Sometimes there were shrieking winds that tore your cap off
and twisted your hair in all directions, sometimes there were mists that poured
into the trench like a liquid and seemed to penetrate your bones; frequently it
rained, and even a quarter of an hour's rain was enough to make conditions
intolerable. The thin skin of earth over the limestone turned promptly into a
slippery grease, and as you were always walking on a slope it was impossible to
keep your footing. On dark nights I have often fallen half a dozen times in
twenty yards; and this was dangerous, because it meant that the lock of one's
rifle became jammed with mud. For days together clothes, boots, blankets, and
rifles were more or less coated with mud. I had brought as many thick clothes as
I could carry, but many of the men were terribly underclad. For the whole
garrison, about a hundred men, there were only twelve great-coats, which had to
be handed from sentry to sentry, and most of the men had only one blanket. One
icy night I made a list in my diary of the clothes I was wearing. It is of some
interest as showing the amount of clothes the human body can carry. I was
wearing a thick vest and pants, a flannel shirt, two pull-overs, a woollen
jacket, a pigskin jacket, corduroy breeches, puttees, thick socks, boots, a
stout trench-coat, a muffler, lined leather gloves, and a woollen cap.
Nevertheless I was shivering like a jelly. But I admit I am unusually sensitive
to cold.

Firewood was the one thing that really mattered. The point about the firewood
was that there was practically no firewood to be had. Our miserable mountain had
not even at its best much vegetation, and for months it had been ranged over by
freezing militiamen, with the result that everything thicker than one's finger
had long since been burnt. When we were not eating, sleeping, on guard, or on
fatigue-duty we were in the valley behind the position, scrounging for fuel. All
my memories of that time are memories of scrambling up and down the almost
perpendicular slopes, over the jagged limestone that knocked one's boots to
pieces, pouncing eagerly on tiny twigs of wood. Three people searching for a
couple of hours could collect enough fuel to keep the dug-out fire alight for
about an hour. The eagerness of our search for firewood turned us all into
botanists. We classified according to their burning qualities every plant that
grew on the mountain-side; the various heaths and grasses that were good to
start a fire with but burnt out in a few minutes, the wild rosemary and the tiny
whin bushes that would burn when the fire was well alight, the stunted oak tree,
smaller than a gooseberry bush, that was practically unburnable. There was a
kind of dried-up reed that was very good for starting fires with, but these grew
only on the hill-top to the left of the position, and you had to go under fire
to get them. If the Fascist machine-gunners saw you they gave you a drum of
ammunition all to yourself. Generally their aim was high and the bullets sang
overhead like birds, but sometime they crackled and chipped the limestone
uncomfortably close, whereupon you flung yourself on your face. You went on
gathering reeds, however; nothing mattered in comparison with firewood.

Beside the cold the other discomforts seemed petty. Of course all of us were
permanently dirty. Our water, like our food, came on mule-back from Alcubierre,
and each man's share worked out at about a quart a day. It was beastly water,
hardly more transparent than milk. Theoretically it was for drinking only, but I
always stole a pannikinful for washing in the mornings. I used to wash one day
and shave the next; there was never enough water for both. The position stank
abominably, and outside the little enclosure of the barricade there was
excrement everywhere. Some of the militiamen habitually defecated in the trench,
a disgusting thing when one had to walk round it in the darkness. But the dirt
never worried me. Dirt is a thing people make too much fuss about. It is
astonishing how quickly you get used to doing without a handkerchief and to
eating out of the tin pannikin in which you also wash. Nor was sleeping in one's
clothes any hardship after a day or two. It was of course impossible to take
one's clothes and especially one's boots off at night; one had to be ready to
turn out instantly in case of an attack. In eighty nights I only took my clothes
off three times, though I did occasionally manage to get them off in the
daytime. It was too cold for lice as yet, but rats and mice abounded. It is
often said that you don't find rats and mice in the same place, but you do when
there is enough food for them.

In other ways we were not badly off. The food was good enough and there was
plenty of wine. Cigarettes were still being issued at the rate of a packet a
day, matches were issued every other day, and there was even an issue of
candles. They were very thin candles, like those on a Christmas cake, and were
popularly supposed to have been looted from churches. Every dug-out was issued
daily with three inches of candle, which would bum for about twenty minutes. At
that time it was still possible to buy candles, and I had brought several pounds
of them with me. Later on the famine of matches and candles made life a misery.
You do not realize the importance of these things until you lack them. In a
night-alarm, for instance, when everyone in the dug--out is scrambling for his
rifle and treading on everybody else's face, being able to strike a light may
make the difference between life and death. Every militiaman possessed a
tinder-lighter and several yards of yellow wick. Next to his rifle it was his
most important possession. The tinder-lighters had the great advantage that they
could be struck in a wind, but they would only smoulder, so that they were no
use for lighting a fire. When the match famine was at its worst our only way of
producing a flame was to pull the bullet out of a cartridge and touch the
cordite off with a tinder-lighter.

It was an extraordinary life that we were living--an extraordinary way to be
at war, if you could call it war. The whole militia chafed against the inaction
and clamoured constantly to know why we were not allowed to attack. But it was
perfectly obvious that there would be no battle for a long while yet, unless the
enemy started it. Georges Kopp, on his periodical tours of inspection, was quite
frank with us. 'This is not a war,' he used to say, 'it is a comic opera with an
occasional death.' As a matter of fact the stagnation on the Aragon front had
political causes of which I knew nothing at that time; but the purely military
difficulties--quite apart from the lack of reserves of men--were obvious to

To begin with, there was the nature of the country. The front line, ours and
the Fascists', lay in positions of immense natural strength, which as a rule
could only be approached from one side. Provided a few trenches have been dug,
such places cannot be taken by infantry, except in overwhelming numbers. In our
own position or most of those round us a dozen men with two machine-guns could
have held off a battalion. Perched on the hill-tops as we were, we should have
made lovely marks for artillery; but there was no artillery. Sometimes I used to
gaze round the landscape and long--oh, how passionately!--for a couple of
batteries of guns. One could have destroyed the enemy positions one after
another as easily as smashing nuts with a hammer. But on our side the guns
simply did not exist. The Fascists did occasionally manage to bring a gun or two
from Zaragoza and fire a very few shells, so few that they never even found the
range and the shells plunged harmlessly into the empty ravines. Against
machine-guns and without artillery there are only three things you can do: dig
yourself in at a safe distance--four hundred yards, say--advance across the
open and be massacred, or make small-scale night-attacks that will not alter the
general situation. Practically the alternatives are stagnation or suicide.

And beyond this there was the complete lack of war materials of every
description. It needs an effort to realize how badly the militias were armed at
this time. Any public school O.T.C. in England is far more like a modern army
than we were. The badness of our weapons was so astonishing that it is worth
recording in detail.

For this sector of the front the entire artillery consisted of four
trench-mortars with fifteen rounds for each gun. Of course they were far too
precious to be fired and the mortars were kept in Alcubierre. There were
machine-guns at the rate of approximately one to fifty men; they were oldish
guns, but fairly accurate up to three or four hundred yards. Beyond this we had
only rifles, and the majority of the rifles were scrap-iron. There were three
types of rifle in use. The first was the long Mauser. These were seldom less
than twenty years old, their sights were about as much use as a broken
speedometer, and in most of them the rifling was hopelessly corroded; about one
rifle in ten was not bad, however. Then there was the short Mauser, or
mousqueton, really a cavalry weapon. These were more popular than the others
because they were lighter to carry and less nuisance in a trench, also because
they were comparatively new and looked efficient. Actually they were almost
useless. They were made out of reassembled parts, no bolt belonged to its rifle,
and three-quarters of them could be counted on to jam after five shots. There
were also a few Winchester rifles. These were nice to shoot with, but they were
wildly inaccurate, and as their cartridges had no clips they could only be fired
one shot at a time. Ammunition was so scarce that each man entering the line was
only issued with fifty rounds, and most of it was exceedingly bad. The
Spanish-made cartridges were all refills and would jam even the best rifles. The
Mexican cartridges were better and were therefore reserved for the machine-guns.
Best of all was the German-made ammunition, but as this came only from prisoners
and deserters there was not much of it. I always kept a clip of German or
Mexican ammunition in my pocket for use in an emergency. But in practice when
the emergency came I seldom fired my rifle; I was too frightened of the beastly
thing jamming and too anxious to reserve at any rate one round that would go

We had no tin hats, no bayonets, hardly any revolvers or pistols, and not
more than one bomb between five or ten men. The bomb in use at this time was a
frightful object known as the 'F.A.I. bomb', it having been produced by the
Anarchists in the early days of the war. It was on the principle of a Mills
bomb, but the lever was held down not by a pin but a piece of tape. You broke
the tape and then got rid of the bomb with the utmost possible speed. It was
said of these bombs that they were 'impartial'; they killed the man they were
thrown at and the man who threw them. There were several other types, even more
primitive but probably a little less dangerous--to the thrower, I mean. It was
not till late March that I saw a bomb worth throwing.

And apart from weapons there was a shortage of all the minor necessities of
war. We had no maps or charts, for instance. Spain has never been fully
surveyed, and the only detailed maps of this area were the old military ones,
which were almost all in the possession of the Fascists. We had no
range-finders, no telescopes, no periscopes, no field-glasses except for a few
privately-owned pairs, no flares or Very lights, no wire-cutters, no armourers'
tools, hardly even any cleaning materials. The Spaniards seemed never to have
heard of a pull-through and looked on in surprise when I constructed one. When
you wanted your rifle cleaned you took it to the sergeant, who possessed a long
brass ramrod which was invariably bent and therefore scratched the rifling.
There was not even any gun oil. You greased your rifle with olive oil, when you
could get hold of it; at different times I have greased mine with vaseline, with
cold cream, and even with bacon-fat. Moreover, there were no lanterns or
electric torches--at this time there was not, I believe, such a thing as an
electric torch throughout the whole of our sector of the front, and you could
not buy one nearer than Barcelona, and only with difficulty even there.

As time went on, and the desultory rifle-fire rattled among the hills, I
began to wonder with increasing scepticism whether anything would ever happen to
bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war. It was
pneumonia that we were fighting against, not against men. When the trenches are
more than five hundred yards apart no one gets hit except by accident. Of course
there were casualties, but the majority of them were self-inflicted. If I
remember rightly, the first five men I saw wounded in Spain were all wounded by
our own weapons--I don't mean intentionally, but owing to accident or
carelessness. Our worn-out rifles were a danger in themselves. Some of them had
a nasty trick of going off if the butt was tapped on the ground; I saw a man
shoot himself through the hand owing to this. And in the darkness the raw
recruits were always firing at one another. One evening when it was barely even
dusk a sentry let fly at me from a distance of twenty yards; but he missed me by
a yard--goodness knows how many times the Spanish standard of marksmanship has
saved my life. Another time I had gone out on patrol in the mist and had
carefully warned the guard commander beforehand. But in coming back I stumbled
against a bush, the startled sentry called out that the Fascists were coming,
and I had the pleasure of hearing the guard commander order everyone to open
rapid fire in my direction. Of course I lay down and the bullets went harmlessly
over me. Nothing will convince a Spaniard, at least a young Spaniard, that
fire-arms are dangerous. Once, rather later than this, I was photographing some
machine-gunners with their gun, which was pointed directly towards me.

'Don't fire,' I said half-jokingly as I focused the camera.

'Oh no, we won't fire.'

The next moment there was a frightful roar and a stream of bullets tore past
my face so close that my cheek was stung by grains of cordite. It was
unintentional, but the machine-gunners considered it a great joke. Yet only a
few days earlier they had seen a mule-driver accidentally shot by a political
delegate who was playing the fool with an automatic pistol and had put five
bullets in the mule-driver's lungs.

The difficult passwords which the army was using at this time were a minor
source of danger. They were those tiresome double passwords in which one word
has to be answered by another. Usually they were of an elevating and
revolutionary nature, such as Cultura--progreso, or Seremos--invencibles, and
it was often impossible to get illiterate sentries to remember these
highfalutin' words. One night, I remember, the password was Cataluna--eroica,
and a moonfaced peasant lad named Jaime Domenech approached me, greatly puzzled,
and asked me to explain.

'Eroica--what does eroica mean?'

I told him that it meant the same as valiente. A little while later he was
stumbling up the trench in the darkness, and the sentry challenged him:

'Alto! Cataluna!'

'Valiente!' yelled Jaime, certain that he was saying the right thing.


However, the sentry missed him. In this war everyone always did miss everyone
else, when it was humanly possible.

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