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Tales from the Spanish Civil War

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Nearly seventy-five years ago over two thousand men left the shores of Britain to take up arms in a foreign war against a belligerent and brutal enemy. Five hundred and twenty six men, over a quarter of their number, would never return.

On the 17th July 1936, General Francisco Franco and his fellow Spanish Army generals launched a coup d’état against the democratically elected government of the Second Spanish Republic. In response liberals, socialists, communists, Marxists, and anarchists formed an uneasy alliance to defend Spanish democracy and once again the mask of war slid across the face of a Europe still mourning the slaughter of the Great War. Atrocities were committed by both sides. It is claimed that the Nationalists keen to eradicate leftism from Spain, were responsible for at least 130,000 executions whilst an estimated 55.000 died in Republican held territory. The civilian population became guinea pigs for the industrial scale city bombings that would serve to foreshadow the blitzkriegs and carpet bombing of the Second World War. Franco’s forces were formidable. Aided by Fascist Italy and Germany and bolstered by North African conscripts, the Nationalists’ rebellion of monarchists, Catholics, Carlists, conservatives soon gained ground and a lengthy war of attrition began. From across the world intellectuals and idealists, the unemployed and the working class, writers and artists, all colours and creeds left their homelands to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people against the Nationalist threat. In all over 30,000 foreign national volunteers from 53 countries fought for the government forces in what were known as the International Brigades. The brigades were broken down into individual units of made up of volunteers of the generally the same nationality. The Germans fought in the Thalmann Battalion; the Americans, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion; the Canadians, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion; the French, the Commune de Paris. The volunteers from Britain and Ireland were formed into the rather unimaginatively titled British Battalion.

No matter how many books and articles that you read on the International Brigade and their role in the Spanish Civil War, nothing can offer a greater understanding than visiting the country itself. I have recently returned from Catalonia where I have been carrying out research for my forthcoming biography on British Battalion volunteer Ivor Rae Hickman, Ivor: The Lost Life, Love and Letters of an International Brigader in Spain (Published July 2010). In the company of Alan Warren of Porta de la Historia, I was expertly guided around some of the most emotive locations that I have ever been to. Alan offers bespoke tours of the battlefields and surrounding areas for a very reasonable price and one could not possibly wish for a more knowledgeable and personable character to be your guide. In fact as a non-Catalan speaker, my entire trip would have been in vain without Alan there to translate and interpret.

My experience began in the 11th century village of Montsonis in the Catalan region of Lleida. One and half hours inland from Barcelona and 90km from Andorra, this picturesque village consisting of just two main streets has a permanent population of just nineteen residents.  There are various houses and apartments to rent in the village through the organisation “Castells de Lleida” ( We stayed in a superb apartment above the “Botiga”, an eatery which apart from selling souvenirs and local produce offers typical Catalan fayre for a very reasonable price.

Air raid shelter

Air raid shelter

The first day began with a tour of the defence posts around Artesa de Segre which had been organised by the Consell Comarcal de Balaguer (Balaguer County Council). We were shown the “Les Forgues” bunker in Foradada with its typical sand-bag formed concrete and network of galleries or tunnels which stretched under the top of the hill and then some trenches which were used by the Republican forces to observe the main road to Balaguer and Lleida from Artesa de Segre.

One of the many unique and otherwise inaccessible locations that I was taken to was the Escola Militar at Tudela on the River Segre, a Republic officer’s school during the conflict. I had the privilege of being one of the first English visitors to this privately owned site that is rarely open to the public. The walls of the school are still festooned with propaganda murals and slogans painted by some long forgotten idealistic Republican more than seventy years ago. The classroom still has tactical maps and even instructions in chemical warfare (!) beautifully painted on the walls. In the same village as the school I was also shown an underground tunnel in a private house that served as a bomb shelter for the village. There is a communal entrance to the basement which runs from outside the medieval wall of the village. Not for the claustrophobic but a vital element towards understanding the conflict from a civilian perspective.

Not directly connected with the civil war but a “must see” is the Santuari de Salgar, a monastery that was built in the gorge and caves formed by the River Segre. In fact the word “algar” appears in Medieval Catalan and means “cave” or “grotto”. The first documented references to the monastery are dated from the 11th century whilst during the 15th century it was used by the Carmelites. Nowadays the small church is used for occasional masses and concerts but the monastery is not inhabited. During the civil war the inhabitants of Artesa de Segre used the caves as shelters from the Nationalist air-raid attacks. The more intrepid visitor can climb through the caves and tunnels that are carved into the Catalan rock above the monastery. The views across the Segre are quite simply stunning whilst the caves offer a contemplative refuge for the weary legged.

Near the hydroelectric plant of Camarasa is ‘El Merengue’, a hill fortification that has been restored to illustrate the defences of this near impregnable site. It is essentially a small hill surrounded by relatively flat land and with a clear view of the larger mounts of the Montsec. In 1938, a force of Republican troops (The “Biberons” or Baby Bottle Soldiers as they were known due to their age. They were not meant to do their military service until 1941) were ordered to take the hill. Their officer ordered them to attack with the words “Come on boys let’s take this hill like we were eating a meringue”. The reality turned out to be far from this as the attacks over seven days in May 1938 were a disaster and both sides suffered horrendous casualties. In one day, for example, 300 were killed. One can feel their ghosts even under the heat of the Catalan sun. A profoundly moving site.

The remaining days were devoted to areas of interest more directly related to my research on Ivor Hickman.  Using period photographs, Alan has been able to pinpoint locations and he led me to the exact spot where the British Battalion crossed the Ebro in July 1938 near Asco. Using the same methods, I was shown the headquarters of Robert Merriman, commander of the Lincoln Battalion in March 1938, a small stone building that, although crumbling, was instantly recognisable from the contemporary photographs. Hill 481 where the British Battalion suffered horrendous losses was climbed and explored whilst Alan read from unpublished Brigaders’ accounts to put the landscape into context and help an understanding of the conditions of the time. Shrapnel, bullets and bones still litter the area. I kept a few pieces of shrapnel as souvenirs and we re-buried many of the bones under small stone cairns. I cannot put into words the emotion at such finds can bring.

My personal highlight was when Alan led me to the site of the last stand of the British Battalion in September 1938. This was where Ivor Rae Hickman was killed during the last few hours of battle. Again the area is peppered with trenches, shrapnel and even unexploded grenades, testimony to the brutal hand to hand fighting that took place over seventy years ago on this spot. Looking across the terraces and mountains, it is hard to imagine that this landscape of drama and beauty was once one of mayhem and destruction.

Finally after seeing the areas necessary for my research, I spent a morning undertaking some field archaeology with Alan. He has been looking for the XV Brigade headquarters near Corbera. We explored hills, caves and tunnels in search of the elusive HQ but unfortunately one morning’s hunt was not long enough. We did however have many finds of interest including a rather intricate trench system peppered with shrapnel and grenades. The signs of battle are everywhere and offer a symbolic explanation for the red earth of much of Catalonia.

It is impossible for me to list the amount of things that I saw and experienced in my four days in Catalonia in few words. Alan worked in conjunction with Sara Hamill and Sandy Graupera on the Montsonis and Segre section of the visit and hopes to be able to offer clients the benefit of their expert local knowledge to add yet another dimension to his already near definitive tours. Accommodation was excellent, especially the apartments at Montsonis arranged by Sara and Sandy. The Catalan cuisine is simple yet excellent providing imaginative tastes combined with good value for money. There is also the opportunity to stay in an ex-dressing station, Mas Torrenova, near La Fatarella which offers comfortable lodgings and a superb breakfast served up in the family kitchen; a unique chance to sample real Catalan culture.

For further details contact Alan Warren at Tours can be tailored to the needs of the individual’s requirements.

John L. Wainwright’s book Ivor: The Lost Life, Love and Letters of an International Brigader in Spain is released in July 2010 by Warren and Pell Publishing.

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