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George Orwell > Homage to Catalonia > Chapter 6

Homage to Catalonia

Chapter 6

MEANWHILE, the daily--more particularly nightly--round, the common task.
Sentry-go, patrols, digging; mud, rain, shrieking winds, and occasional snow. It
was not till well into April that the nights grew noticeably warmer. Up here on
the plateau the March days were mostly like an English March, with bright blue
skies and nagging winds. The winter barley was a foot high, crimson buds were
forming on the cherry trees (the line here ran through deserted orchards and
vegetable gardens), and if you searched the ditches you could find violets and a
kind of wild hyacinth like a poor specimen of a bluebell. Immediately behind the
line there ran a wonderful, green, bubbling stream, the first transparent water
I had seen since coming to the front. One day I set my teeth and crawled into
the river to have my first bath in six weeks. It was what you might call a brief
bath, for the water was mainly snow-water and not much above freezing-point.

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into
the habit of saying that this wasn't a war, it was a bloody pantomime. We were
hardly under direct fire from the Fascists. The only danger was from stray
bullets, which, as the lines curved forward on either side, came from several
directions. All the casualties at this time were from strays. Arthur Clinton got
a mysterious bullet that smashed his left shoulder and disabled his arm,
permanently, I am afraid. There was a little shell-fire, but it was
extraordinarily ineffectual. The scream and crash of the shells was actually
looked upon as a mild diversion. The Fascists never dropped their shells on our
parapet. A few hundred yards behind us there was a country house, called La
Granja, with big farm-buildings, which was used as a store, headquarters, and
cook-house for this sector of the line. It was this that the Fascist gunners
were trying for, but they were five or six kilometres away and they never aimed
well enough to do more than smash the windows and chip the walls. You were only
in danger if you happened to be coming up the road when the firing started, and
the shells plunged into the fields on either side of you. One learned almost
immediately the mysterious art of knowing by the sound of a shell how close it
will fall. The shells the Fascists were firing at this period were wretchedly
bad. Although they were 150 mm. they only made a crater about six feet wide by
four deep, and at least one in four failed to explode. There were the usual
romantic tales of sabotage in the Fascist factories and unexploded shells in
which, instead of the charge, there was found a scrap of paper saying 'Red
Front', but I never saw one. The truth was that the shells were hopelessly old;
someone picked up a brass fuse-cap stamped with the date, and it was 1917. The
Fascist guns were of the same make and calibre as our own, and the unexploded
shells were often reconditioned and fired back. There was said to be one old
shell with a nickname of its own which travelled daily to and fro, never

At night small patrols used to be sent into no man's land to lie in ditches
near the Fascist lines and listen for sounds (bugle-calls, motor-horns, and so
forth) that indicated activity in Huesca. There was a constant come-and-go of
Fascist troops, and the numbers could be checked to some extent from listeners'
reports. We always had special orders to report the ringing of church bells. It
seemed that the Fascists always heard mass before going into action. In among
the fields and orchards there were deserted mud-walled huts which it was safe to
explore with a lighted match when you had plugged up the windows. Sometimes you
came on valuable pieces of loot such as a hatchet or a Fascist water-bottle
(better than ours and greatly sought after). You could explore in the daytime as
well, but mostly it had to be done crawling on all fours. It was queer to creep
about in those empty, fertile fields where everything had been arrested just at
the harvest-moment. Last year's crops had never been touched. The unpruned vines
were snaking across the ground, the cobs on the standing maize had gone as hard
as stone, the mangels and sugar-beets were hyper--trophied into huge woody
lumps. How the peasants must have cursed both armies! Sometimes parties of men
went spud-gathering in no man's land. About a mile to the right of us, where the
lines were closer together, there was a patch of potatoes that was frequented
both by the Fascists and ourselves. We went there in the daytime, they only at
night, as it was commanded by our machine-guns. One night to our annoyance they
turned out en masse and cleared up the whole patch. We discovered another patch
farther on, where there was practically no cover and you had to lift the
potatoes lying on your belly--a fatiguing job. If their machine-gunners spotted
you, you had to flatten yourself out like a rat when it squirms under a door,
with the bullets cutting up the clods a few yards behind you. It seemed worth it
at the time. Potatoes were getting very scarce. If you got a sackful you could
take them down to the cook-house and swap them for a water-bottleful of

And still nothing happened, nothing ever looked like happening. 'When are we
going to attack? Why don't we attack?' were the questions you heard night and
day from Spaniard and Englishman alike. When you think what fighting means it is
queer that soldiers want to fight, and yet undoubtedly they do. In stationary
warfare there are three things that all soldiers long for: a battle, more
cigarettes, and a week's leave. We were somewhat better armed now than before.
Each man had a hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition instead of fifty, and by
degrees we were being issued with bayonets, steel helmets, and a few bombs.
There were constant rumours of forthcoming battles, which I have since thought
were deliberately circulated to keep up the spirits of the troops. It did not
need much military knowledge to see that there would be no major action on this
side of Huesca, at any rate for the time being. The strategic point was the road
to Jaca, over on the other side. Later, when the Anarchists made their attacks
on the Jaca road, our job was to make 'holding attacks' and force the Fascists
to divert troops from the other side.

During all this time, about six weeks, there was only one action on our part
of the front. This was when our Shock Troopers attacked the Manicomio, a disused
lunatic asylum which the Fascists had converted into a fortress. There were
several hundred refugee Germans serving with the P.O.U.M. They were organized in
a special battalion called the Batallon de Cheque, and from a military point of
view they were on quite a different level from the rest of the militia--indeed,
were more like soldiers than anyone I saw in Spain, except the Assault Guards
and some of the International Column. The attack was mucked up, as usual. How
many operations in this war, on the Government side, were not mucked up, I
wonder? The Shock Troops took the Manicomio by storm, but the troops, of I
forget which militia, who were to support them by seizing the neighbouring hill
that commanded the Manicomio, were badly let down. The captain who led them was
one of those Regular Army officers of doubtful loyalty whom the Government
persisted in employing. Either from fright or treachery he warned the Fascists
by flinging a bomb when they were two hundred yards away. I am glad to say his
men shot him dead on the spot. But the surprise-attack was no surprise, and the
militiamen were mown down by heavy fire and driven off the hill, and at
nightfall the Shock Troops had to abandon the Manicomio. Through the night the
ambulances filed down the abominable road to Sietamo, killing the badly wounded
with their joltings.

All of us were lousy by this time; though still cold it was warm enough for
that. I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds, and for sheer
beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects,
mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren't resident
vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly
in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of
getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white
eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own
at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate
their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war
all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at
Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae--every one of them
had lice crawling over his testicles. We kept the brutes down to some extent by
burning out the eggs and by bathing as often as we could face it. Nothing short
of lice could have driven me into that ice-cold river.

Everything was running short--boots, clothes, tobacco, soap, candles,
matches, olive oil. Our uniforms were dropping to pieces, and many of the men
had no boots, only rope-soled sandals. You came on piles of worn-out boots
everywhere. Once we kept a dug-out fire burning for two days mainly with boots,
which are not bad fuel. By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send
me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable, but even in
Barcelona everything was running short, especially tobacco. The tea was a
godsend, though we had no milk and seldom any sugar. Parcels were constantly
being sent from England to men in the contingent but they never arrived; food,
clothes, cigarettes--everything was either refused by the Post Office or seized
in France. Curiously enough, the only firm that succeeded in sending packets of
tea--even, on one memorable occasion, a tin of biscuits--to my wife was the
Army and Navy Stores. Poor old Army and Navy! They did their duty nobly, but
perhaps they might have felt happier if the stuff had been going to Franco's
side of the barricade. The shortage of tobacco was the worst of all. At the
beginning we had been issued with a packet of cigarettes a day, then it got down
to eight cigarettes a day, then to five. Finally there were ten deadly days when
there was no issue of tobacco at all. For the first time, in Spain, I saw
something that you see every day in London--people picking up fag-ends.

Towards the end of March I got a poisoned hand that had to be lanced and put
in a sling. I had to go into hospital, but it was not worth sending me to
Sietamo for such a petty injury, so I stayed in the so--called hospital at
Monflorite, which was merely a casualty clearing station. I was there ten days,
part of the time in bed. The practicantes (hospital assistants) stole
practically every valuable object I possessed, including my camera and all my
photographs. At the front everyone stole, it was the inevitable effect of
shortage, but the hospital people were always the worst. Later, in the hospital
at Barcelona, an American who had come to join the International Column on a
ship that was torpedoed by an Italian submarine, told me how he was carried
ashore wounded, and how, even as they lifted him into the ambulance, the
stretcher-bearers pinched his wrist-watch.

While my arm was in the sling I spent several blissful days wandering about
the country-side. Monflorite was the usual huddle of mud and stone houses, with
narrow tortuous alleys that had been churned by lorries till they looked like
the craters of the moon. The church had been badly knocked about but was used as
a military store. In the whole neighbourhood there were only two farm-houses of
any size, Torre Lorenzo and Torre Fabian, and only two really large buildings,
obviously the houses of the landowners who had once lorded it over the
countryside; you could see their wealth reflected in the miserable huts of the
peasants. Just behind the river, close to the front line, there was an enormous
flour-mill with a country-house attached to it. It seemed shameful to see the
huge costly machine rusting useless and the wooden flour-chutes torn down for
firewood. Later on, to get firewood for the troops farther back, parties of men
were sent in lorries to wreck the place systematically. They used to smash the
floorboards of a room by bursting a hand-grenade in it. La Granja, our store and
cook-house, had possibly at one time been a convent. It had huge courtyards and
out-houses, covering an acre or more, with stabling for thirty or forty horses.
The country-houses in that part of Spain are of no interest architecturally, but
their farm-buildings, of lime-washed stone with round arches and magnificent
roof-beams, are noble places, built on a plan that has probably not altered for
centuries. Sometimes it gave you a sneaking sympathy with the Fascist ex-owners
to see the way the militia treated the buildings they had seized. In La Granja
every room that was not in use had been turned into a latrine--a frightful
shambles of smashed furniture and excrement. The little church that adjoined it,
its walls perforated by shell-holes, had its floor inches deep in dung. In the
great courtyard where the cooks ladled out the rations the litter of rusty tins,
mud, mule dung, and decaying food was revolting. It gave point to the old army

    There are rats, rats,
    Rats as big as cats,
    In the quartermaster's store!

The ones at La Granja itself really were as big as cats, or nearly; great
bloated brutes that waddled over the beds of muck, too impudent even to run away
unless you shot at them.

Spring was really here at last. The blue in the sky was softer, the air grew
suddenly balmy. The frogs were mating noisily in the ditches. Round the
drinking-pool that served for the village mules I found exquisite green frogs
the size of a penny, so brilliant that the young grass looked dull beside them.
Peasant lads went out with buckets hunting for snails, which they roasted alive
on sheets of tin. As soon as the weather improved the peasants had turned out
for the spring ploughing. It is typical of the utter vagueness in which the
Spanish agrarian revolution is wrapped that I could not even discover for
certain whether the land here was collectivized or whether the peasants had
simply divided it up among themselves. I fancy that in theory it was
collectivized, this being P.O.U.M. and Anarchist territory. At any rate the
landowners were gone, the fields were being cultivated, and people seemed
satisfied. The friendliness of the peasants towards ourselves never ceased to
astonish me. To some of the older ones the war must have seemed meaningless,
visibly it produced a shortage of everything and a dismal dull life for
everybody, and at the best of times peasants hate having troops quartered upon
them. Yet they were invariably friendly--I suppose reflecting that, however
intolerable we might be in other ways, we did stand between them and their
one-time landlords. Civil war is a queer thing. Huesca was not five miles away,
it was these people's market town, all of them had relatives there, every week
of their lives they had gone there to sell their poultry and vegetables. And now
for eight months an impenetrable barrier of barbed wire and machine-guns had
lain between. Occasionally it slipped their memory. Once I was talking to an old
woman who was carrying one of those tiny iron lamps in which the Spaniards bum
olive oil. 'Where can I buy a lamp like that?' I said.' In Huesca,' she said
without thinking, and then we both laughed. The village girls were splendid
vivid creatures with coal-black hair, a swinging walk, and a straightforward,
man-to-man demeanour which was probably a by-product of the revolution.

Men in ragged blue shirts and black corduroy breeches, with broad--brimmed
straw hats, were ploughing the fields behind teams of mules with rhythmically
flopping ears. Their ploughs were wretched things, only stirring the soil, not
cutting anything we should regard as a furrow. All the agricultural implements
were pitifully antiquated, everything being governed by the expensiveness of
metal. A broken ploughshare, for instance, was patched, and then patched again,
till sometimes it was mainly patches. Rakes and pitchforks were made of wood.
Spades, among a people who seldom possessed boots, were unknown; they did their
digging with a clumsy hoe like those used in India. There was a kind of harrow
that took one straight back to the later Stone Age. It was made of boards joined
together, to about the size of a kitchen table; in the boards hundreds of holes
were morticed, and into each hole was jammed a piece of flint which had been
chipped into shape exactly as men used to chip them ten thousand years ago. I
remember my feelings almost of horror when I first came upon one of these things
in a derelict hut in no man's land. I had to puzzle over it for a long while
before grasping that it was a harrow. It made me sick to think of the work that
must go into the making of such a thing, and the poverty that was obliged to use
flint in place of steel. I have felt more kindly towards industrialism ever
since. But in the village there were two up-to-date farm tractors, no doubt
seized from some big landowner's estate.

Once or twice I wandered out to the little walled graveyard that stood a mile
or so from the village. The dead from the front were normally sent to Sietamo;
these were the village dead. It was queerly different from an English graveyard.
No reverence for the dead here! Everything overgrown with bushes and coarse
grass, human bones littered everywhere. But the really surprising thing was the
almost complete lack of religious inscriptions on the gravestones, though they
all dated from before the revolution. Only once, I think, I saw the 'Pray for
the Soul of So-and-So' which is usual on Catholic graves. Most of the
inscriptions were purely secular, with ludicrous poems about the virtues of the
deceased. On perhaps one grave in four or five there was a small cross or a
perfunctory reference to Heaven; this had usually been chipped off by some
industrious atheist with a chisel.

It struck me that the people in this part of Spain must be genuinely without
religious feeling--religious feeling, I mean, in the orthodox sense. It is
curious that all the time I was in Spain I never once saw a person cross
himself; yet you would think such a movement would become instinctive,
revolution or no revolution. Obviously the Spanish Church will come back (as the
saying goes, night and the Jesuits always return), but there is no doubt that at
the outbreak of the revolution it collapsed and was smashed up to an extent that
would be unthinkable even for the moribund C. of E. in like circumstances. To
the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket
pure and simple. And possibly Christian belief was replaced to some extent by
Anarchism, whose influence is widely spread and which undoubtedly has a
religious tinge.

It was the day I came back from hospital that we advanced the line to what
was really its proper position, about a thousand yards forward, along the little
stream that lay a couple of hundred yards in front of the Fascist line. This
operation ought to have been carried out months earlier. The point of doing it
now was that the Anarchists were attacking on the Jaca road, and to advance on
this side made them divert troops to face us.

We were sixty or seventy hours without sleep, and my memories go down into a
sort of blue, or rather a series of pictures. Listening-duty in no man's land, a
hundred yards from the Casa Francesa, a fortified farm-house which was part of
the Fascist line. Seven hours lying in a horrible marsh, in reedy-smelling water
into which one's body subsided gradually deeper and deeper: the reedy smell, the
numbing cold, the stars immovable in the black sky, the harsh croaking of the
frogs. Though this was April it was the coldest night that I remember in Spain.
Only a hundred yards behind us the working-parties were hard at it, but there
was utter silence except for the chorus of the frogs. Just once during the night
I heard a sound--the familiar noise of a sand-bag being flattened with a spade.
It is queer how, just now and again, Spaniards can carry out a brilliant feat of
organization. The whole move was beautifully planned. In seven hours six hundred
men constructed twelve hundred metres of trench and parapet, at distances of
from a hundred and fifty to three hundred yards from the Fascist line, and all
so silently that the Fascists heard nothing, and during the night there was only
one casualty. There were more next day, of course. Every man had his job
assigned to him, even to the cook-house orderlies who suddenly arrived when the
work was done with buckets of wine laced with brandy.

And then the dawn coming up and the Fascists suddenly discovering that we
were there. The square white block of the Casa Francesa, though it was two
hundred yards away, seemed to tower over us, and the machine--guns in its
sandbagged upper windows seemed to be pointing straight down into the trench. We
all stood gaping at it, wondering why the Fascists didn't see us. Then a vicious
swirl of bullets, and everyone had flung himself on his knees and was
frantically digging, deepening the trench and scooping out small shelters in the
side. My arm was still in bandages, I could not dig, and I spent most of that
day reading a detective story--The Missing Money-lender its name was. I don't
remember the plot of it, but I remember very clearly the feeling of sitting
there reading it; the dampish clay of the trench bottom underneath me, the
constant shifting of my legs out of the way as men hurried stopping down the
trench, the crack-crack-crack of bullets a foot or two overhead. Thomas Parker
got a bullet through the top of his thigh, which, as he said, was nearer to
being a D.S.O. than he cared about. Casualties were happening all along the
line, but nothing to what there would have been if they had caught us on the
move during the night. A deserter told us afterwards that five Fascist sentries
were shot for negligence. Even now they could have massacred us if they had had
the initiative to bring up a few mortars. It was an awkward job getting the
wounded down the narrow, crowded trench. I saw one poor devil, his breeches dark
with blood, flung out of his stretcher and gasping in agony. One had to carry
wounded men a long distance, a mile or more, for even when a road existed the
ambulances never came very near the front line. If they came too near the
Fascists had a habit of shelling them--justifiably, for in modern war no one
scruples to use an ambulance for carrying ammunition.

And then, next night, waiting at Torre Fabian for an attack that was called
off at the last moment by wireless. In the barn where we waited the floor was a
thin layer of chaff over deep beds of bones, human bones and cows' bones mixed
up, and the place was alive with rats. The filthy brutes came swarming out of
the ground on every side. If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a
rat running over me in the darkness. However, I had the satisfaction of catching
one of them a good punch that sent him flying.

And then waiting fifty or sixty yards from the Fascist parapet for the order
to attack. A long line of men crouching in an irrigation ditch with their
bayonets peeping over the edge and the whites of their eyes shining through the
darkness. Kopp and Benjamin squatting behind us with a man who had a wireless
receiving-box strapped to his shoulders. On the western horizon rosy gun-flashes
followed at intervals of several seconds by enormous explosions. And then a
pip-pip-pip noise from the wireless and the whispered order that we were to get
out of it while the going was good. We did so, but not quickly enough. Twelve
wretched children of the J.C.I. (the Youth League of the P.O.U.M., corresponding
to the J.S.U. of the P.S.U.C.) who had been posted only about forty yards from
the Fascist parapet, were caught by the dawn and unable to escape. All day they
had to lie there, with only tufts of grass for cover, the Fascists shooting at
them every time they moved. By nightfall seven were dead, then the other five
managed to creep away in the darkness.

And then, for many mornings to follow, the sound of the Anarchist attacks on
the other side of Huesca. Always the same sound. Suddenly, at some time in the
small hours, the opening crash of several score bombs bursting simultaneously--
even from miles away a diabolical, rending crash--and then the unbroken roar of
massed rifles and machine-guns, a heavy rolling sound curiously similar to the
roll of drums. By degrees the firing would spread all round the lines that
encircled Huesca, and we would stumble out into the trench to lean sleepily
against the parapet while a ragged meaningless fire swept overhead.

In the daytime the guns thundered fitfully. Torre Fabian, now our cookhouse,
was shelled and partially destroyed. It is curious that when you are watching
artillery-fire from a safe distance you always want the gunner to hit his mark,
even though the mark contains your dinner and some of your comrades. The
Fascists were shooting well that morning; perhaps there were German gunners on
the job. They bracketed neatly on Torre Fabian. One shell beyond it, one shell
short of it, then whizz-BOOM' Burst rafters leaping upwards and a sheet of
uralite skimming down the air like a nicked playing-card. The next shell took
off a corner of a building as neatly as a giant might do it with a knife. But
the cooks produced dinner on time--a memorable feat.

As the days went on the unseen but audible guns began each to assume a
distinct personality. There were the two batteries of Russian 75-mm. guns which
fired from close in our rear and which somehow evoked in my mind the picture of
a fat man hitting a golf-ball. These were the first Russian guns I had seen--or
heard, rather. They had a low trajectory and a very high velocity, so that you
heard the cartridge explosion, the whizz, and the shell-burst almost
simultaneously. Behind Monflorite were two very heavy guns which fired a few
times a day, with a deep, muffled roar that was like the baying of distant
chained-up monsters. Up at Mount Aragon, the medieval fortress which the
Government troops had stormed last year (the first time in its history, it was
said), and which guarded one of the approaches to Huesca, there was a heavy gun
which must have dated well back into the nineteenth century. Its great shells
whistled over so slowly that you felt certain you could run beside them and keep
up with them. A shell from this gun sounded like nothing so much as a man riding
along on a bicycle and whistling. The trench-mortars, small though they were,
made the most evil sound of all. Their shells are really a kind of winged
torpedo, shaped like the darts thrown in public-houses and about the size of a
quart bottle; they go off with a devilish metallic crash, as of some monstrous
globe of brittle steel being shattered on an anvil. Sometimes our aeroplanes
flew over and let loose the aerial torpedoes whose tremendous echoing roar makes
the earth tremble even at two miles' distance. The shell-bursts from the Fascist
anti--aircraft guns dotted the sky like cloudlets in a bad water-colour, but I
never saw them get within a thousand yards of an aeroplane. When an aeroplane
swoops down and uses its machine-gun the sound, from below, is like the
fluttering of wings.

On our part of the line not much was happening. Two hundred yards to the
right of us, where the Fascists were on higher ground, their snipers picked off
a few of our comrades. Two hundred yards to the left, at the bridge over the
stream, a sort of duel was going on between the Fascist mortars and the men who
were building a concrete barricade across the bridge. The evil little shells
whizzed over, zwing-crash! zwing-crash!, making a doubly diabolical noise when
they landed on the asphalt road. A hundred yards away you could stand in perfect
safety and watch the columns of earth and black smoke leaping into the air like
magic trees. The poor devils round the bridge spent much of the daytime cowering
in the little man-holes they had scooped in the side of the trench. But there
were less casualties than might have been expected, and the barricade rose
steadily, a wall of concrete two feet thick, with embrasures for two
machine-guns and a small field gun. The concrete was being reinforced with old
bedsteads, which apparently was the only iron that could be found for the

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