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George Orwell > Homage to Catalonia > Chapter 8

Homage to Catalonia

Chapter 8

THE days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet--
chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming.
Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild
roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round
Torre Fabian. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their
ears. In the evenings they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You
spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise
like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running
towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him,
whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only
male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.

There was a section of Andalusians next to us in the line now. I do not know
quite how they got to this front. The current explanation was that they had run
away from Malaga so fast that they had forgotten to stop at Valencia; but this,
of course, came from the Catalans, who professed to look down on the Andalusians
as a race of semi-savages. Certainly the Andalusians were very ignorant. Few if
any of them could read, and they seemed not even to know the one thing that
everybody knows in Spain--which political party they belonged to. They thought
they were Anarchists, but were not quite certain; perhaps they were Communists.
They were gnarled, rustic-looking men, shepherds or labourers from the olive
groves, perhaps, with faces deeply stained by the ferocious suns of farther
south. They were very useful to us, for they had an extraordinary dexterity at
rolling the dried-up Spanish tobacco into cigarettes. The issue of cigarettes
had ceased, but in Monflorite it was occasionally possible to buy packets of the
cheapest kind of tobacco, which in appearance and texture was very like chopped
chaff. Its flavour was not bad, but it was so dry that even when you had
succeeded in making a cigarette the tobacco promptly fell out and left an empty
cylinder. The Andalusians, however, could roll admirable cigarettes and had a
special technique for tucking the ends in.

Two Englishmen were laid low by sunstroke. My salient memories of that time
are the heat of the midday sun, and working half-naked with sand--bags punishing
one's shoulders which were already flayed by the sun; and the lousiness of our
clothes and boots, which were literally dropping to pieces; and the struggles
with the mule which brought our rations and which did not mind rifle-fire but
took to flight when shrapnel burst in the air; and the mosquitoes (just
beginning to be active) and the rats, which were a public nuisance and would
even devour leather belts and cartridge-pouches. Nothing was happening except an
occasional casualty from a sniper's bullet and the sporadic artillery-fire and
air-raids on Huesca. Now that the trees were in full leaf we had constructed
snipers' platforms, like machans, in the poplar trees that fringed the line. On
the other side of Huesca the attacks were petering out. The Anarchists had had
heavy losses and had not succeeded in completely cutting the Jaca road. They had
managed to establish themselves close enough on either side to bring the road
itself under machine-gun fire and make it impassable for traffic; but the gap
was a kilometre wide and the Fascists had constructed a sunken road, a sort of
enormous trench, along which a certain number of lorries could come and go.
Deserters reported that in Huesca there were plenty of munitions and very little
food. But the town was evidently not going to fall. Probably it would have been
impossible to take it with the fifteen thousand ill-armed men who were
available. Later, in June, the Government brought troops from the Madrid front
and concentrated thirty thousand men on Huesca, with an enormous quantity of
aeroplanes, but still the town did not fall.

When we went on leave I had been a hundred and fifteen days in the line, and
at the time this period seemed to me to have been one of the most futile of my
whole life. I had joined the militia in order to fight against Fascism, and as
yet I had scarcely fought at all, had merely existed as a sort of passive
object, doing nothing in return for my rations except to suffer from cold and
lack of sleep. Perhaps that is the fate of most soldiers in most wars. But now
that I can see this period in perspective I do not altogether regret it. I wish,
indeed, that I could have served the Spanish Government a little more
effectively; but from a personal point of view--from the point of view of my
own development--those first three or four months that I spent in the line were
less futile than I then thought. They formed a kind of interregnum in my life,
quite different from anything that had gone before and perhaps from anything
that is to come, and they taught me things that I could not have learned in any
other way.

The essential point is that all this time I had been isolated--for at the
front one was almost completely isolated from the outside world: even of what
was happening in Barcelona one had only a dim conception--among people who
could roughly but not too inaccurately be described as revolutionaries. This was
the result of the militia--system, which on the Aragon front was not radically
altered till about June 1937. The workers' militias, based on the trade unions
and each composed of people of approximately the same political opinions, had
the effect of canalizing into one place all the most revolutionary sentiment in
the country. I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any
size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism
were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of
thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all
living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was
perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense
in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of
Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of
Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life--snobbishness,
money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.--had simply ceased to exist. The
ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost
unthinkable in the money--tainted air of England; there was no one there except
the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of
course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and
local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of
the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who
experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards
that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been
in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the
word 'comrade' stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug.
One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion
to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the
world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving'
that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the
grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism
quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and
makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is
the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless
society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in
the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted,
were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one
was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and
no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages
of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it
deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism
established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was
due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency
and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of
Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.

Of course at the time I was hardly conscious of the changes that were
occurring in my own mind. Like everyone about me I was chiefly conscious of
boredom, heat, cold, dirt, lice, privation, and occasional danger. It is quite
different now. This period which then seemed so futile and eventless is now of
great importance to me. It is so different from the rest of my life that already
it has taken on the magic quality which, as a rule, belongs only to memories
that are years old. It was beastly while it was happening, but it is a good
patch for my mind to browse upon. I wish I could convey to you the atmosphere of
that time. I hope I have done so, a little, in the earlier chapters of this
book. It is all bound up in my mind with the winter cold, the ragged uniforms of
militiamen, the oval Spanish faces, the morse-like tapping of machine-guns, the
smells of urine and rotting bread, the tinny taste of bean-stews wolfed
hurriedly out of unclean pannikins.

The whole period stays by me with curious vividness. In my memory I live over
incidents that might seem too petty to be worth recalling. I am in the dug-out
at Monte Pocero again, on the ledge of limestone that serves as a bed, and young
Ramon is snoring with his nose flattened between my shoulder-blades. I am
stumbling up the mucky trench, through the mist that swirls round me like cold
steam. I am half-way up a crack in the mountain-side, struggling to keep my
balance and to tug a root of wild rosemary out of the ground. High overhead some
meaningless bullets are singing.

I am lying hidden among small fir-trees on the low ground west of Monte
Oscuro, with Kopp and Bob Edwards and three Spaniards. Up the naked grey hill to
the right of us a string of Fascists are climbing like ants. Close in front a
bugle-call rings out from the Fascist lines. Kopp catches my eye and, with a
schoolboy gesture, thumbs his nose at the sound.

I am in the mucky yard at La Granja, among the mob of men who are struggling
with their tin pannikins round the cauldron of stew. The fat and harassed cook
is warding them off with the ladle. At a table nearby a bearded man with a huge
automatic pistol strapped to his belt is hewing loaves of bread into five
pieces. Behind me a Cockney voice (Bill Chambers, with whom I quarrelled
bitterly and who was afterwards killed outside Huesca) is singing:

    There are rats, rats,
    Rats as big as cats,
    In the. . .

A shell comes screaming over. Children of fifteen fling themselves on their
faces. The cook dodges behind the cauldron. Everyone rises with a sheepish
expression as the shell plunges and booms a hundred yards away.

I am walking up and down the line of sentries, under the dark boughs of the
poplars. In the flooded ditch outside the rats are paddling about, making as
much noise as otters. As the yellow dawn comes up behind us, the Andalusian
sentry, muffled in his cloak, begins singing. Across no man's land, a hundred or
two hundred yards away, you can hear the Fascist sentry also singing.

On 25 April, after the usual mananas, another section relieved us and we
handed over our rifles, packed our kits, and marched back to Monflorite. I was
not sorry to leave the line. The lice were multiplying in my trousers far faster
than I could massacre them, and for a month past I had had no socks and my boots
had very little sole left, so that I was walking more or less barefoot. I wanted
a hot bath, clean clothes, and a night between sheets more passionately than it
is possible to want anything when one has been living a normal civilized life.
We slept a few hours in a barn in Monflorite, jumped a lorry in the small hours,
caught the five o'clock train at Barbastro, and--having the luck to connect
with a fast train at Lerida--were in Barcelona by three o'clock in the
afternoon of the 26th. And after that the trouble began.

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