From the stony soil of the Sierra Palomera to the comfortable bed in the Gran Hotel at Zaragoza was the sort of sudden change that we came to accept as natural during the Civil War.
By about Chapter Three of Peter Kemp’s Mine Were of Trouble, you start to get a grasp of how surreal an experience the Spanish Civil War really was. Kemp, an Englishman who served for the Nationalists during the war, described his experiences in the form of a retrospective memoir written and published in the 1950s. Part historical survey, part experiential retelling, Mine Were of Trouble stands as one of the few works in English that describes the international fighters, politics, and events of the Nationalist coalition first-hand.
This quote is taken from toward the end of the book, after several violent, bloody and—generally—only mildly successful campaigns against Republican forces. In between weeks or months of sleeping on gravel, dodging artillery fire, avoiding friendly bombs, leading or defending from charges across open countryside, are weeks or months of sleeping in comfortable inns and expensive hotels, eating reasonable food, and joking with waitresses and bartenders in a certain cities mostly untouched by the carnage. Kemp could on one day be emptying a magazine into an advancing line of charging infantrymen, and a week later be emptying a pot of coffee with an American reporter in a Zaragozan cafe. The schizophrenia the nation suffered as a consequence of Communist forces destabilizing Spain found a strange mirror in the schizophrenia with which the war itself played out.
On that note, when we speak of the Spanish Civil War, we too often find the penetration of Communist propaganda into the conversations of even the most uninterested and uninformed commentators. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, however, as Kemp notes rather early in the book how the international efforts of groups like ComIntern had successfully ginned up international support for the Republicans at the expense of the Nationalists. The inferno of Guernica, commonly attributed to the Nationalists even today, was intentionally misattributed at the time—simple research and testimony is enough to reveal the truth, but the international media, like it does today, sided with communist interests at the expense of nationalist’s. This reveals the fundamental difference in their belief systems, too: for the communist, the real war is over information and clout; for the nationalist, it’s over the tangibles of culture.
Along these lines, it’s no surprise that in popular culture, the crimes of the Communists during the war are often brushed over while those of the Nationalists are highlighted. The summary executions of soldiers is one such example. Kemp describes several scenes of firing squads executing captured soldiers of the Republicans’ International Brigades, a practice he understandably found shocking and abhorrent. In a particularly dramatic scene, he’s tasked with executing an Irishman who claims to have been captured by the Republicans after a shipwreck and conscripted into their army. Kemp’s superior officer has him executed anyway.
Although the shock execution squads never wears off, the practice is at least made understandable slightly earlier in the book. Cancela, a Spaniard Kemp is paired with for much of the book, makes clear the reality of what civil war entailed:
“You’re not a Spaniard. You haven’t seen your country devastated, your family and friends murdered in a civil war that would have ended eighteen months ago but for the intervention of foreigners. I know we have help now from Germans and Italians. But you know as well as I do that this war would have been over by the end of 1936, when we were at the gates of Madrid, but for the International Brigades. At that time we had no foreign help. What is it to us if they do have their ideals? Whether they know it or not, they are simply tools of the Communists and they have come to Spain to destroy our country! What do they care about the ruin they have made here? Why then should we bother about their lives when we catch them? It will take years to put right the harm they’ve done to Spain!”
Americans know well a particular notion of foreign intervention after the last twenty years of Middle East occupation and nearly a century of imperialism worldwide. But it’s easy to forget what it’s like on the opposite side of the ocean, when the foreign army is in your country and it’s exacerbating the already delicate political situation. Worse, unlike the history of American efforts at regime change, the International Brigades were organized by internationalist forces and comprised of various people from all over Europe—they weren’t a monolithic force under the auspices of a single regime so much as a dumping ground for idealistic young communists to go test their mettle in a foreign country.
This puts into perspective Kemp’s own enlistment with the Nationalists. The Spanish war was treated by foreigners, as Kemp notes in his visits returning to England or to France, with the detachment of intrigued bystanders observing a train derailment from afar. The pillaging of cities, looting of religious orders, executions of combatants and civilians, and general depravity of modern warfare were things they only concerned themselves with if they happened to personally know a foreigner who was fighting through all of it.
Many of these men didn’t make it home. Kemp’s illustration of how suddenly a man’s life ends is carried by his dryly English commentary in a number of places. His meetings and friendships with Nationalist co-sympathizers tend not to last, as reassignments shuffle the soldiers all over the country. Apparently having done the legwork after the war, Kemp notes—with some forced detachment—on whatever engagements some of these friends were involved with after their parting, and often how they died.
The book’s penultimate adventure details a nearly-fatal wound Kemp received toward the end of the war. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but it’s some of the grisliest descriptions of its kind I’ve read in recent memory. Kemp’s dry commentary makes the ordeal seem all the more horrifying, despite assurances that—obviously—it wasn’t fatal, as he survived to not only write this book, but even to serve as a British commando during the Second World War.
First printed in 1957, the book had been out of print for six decades until Mystery Grove Publications reprinted it earlier this year. At just over 150 pages in length, it’s a slim volume that can be read comfortably over the course of a couple afternoons. While I don’t suggest it for bedside reading, it’s definitely worth a look, particularly for those paranoid enough to notice the writing left on the wall after the last month of rioting and burning. Highly recommended.