23. Our man goes to war
In the Spring of 1937 José Enjuanes was called up and sent to a military camp at Faura (Valencia), where he ended up in the 101st Brigade, part of a communist Division commanded by the so-called El Campesino. Our man did not have any military experience, and after a brief period of training he was sent to the Madrid front. Here the republican command had prepared a major offensive, intended to push back the rebel lines from the capital. His baptism of fire was the Battle of Brunete, which began on the 5th July 1937 and ended on the 27th of the month. Twenty three days of almost continuous fighting that caused thousands of deaths and injuries; twenty three days of suffering from thirst, heat, disease, little sleep and death.
During the battle the 101st Brigade lost nearly a quarter of its troops (according to the memoirs of commander Pedro Mateo Merino). For the Republican Army as a whole there were some positives. On the one hand, for the first time since the war began it had mounted a major offensive, held the upper hand in a key sector of the front and defeated some of the best units of the rebel army. But conversely, what is clear is that the objective of the offensive was far from achieved. In this sense the attack was a failure, which contrasts with the version told by our man, who returned from the front with the conviction that they had triumphed. As he said, ” in the end we did well, we achieved our goals of conquering the ´Cerro de la Muerte` (Mountain of Death) and also Brunete City, and we got sixty thousand men fifty kilometres behind them before they even realised “. However, it is likely that reports of the true outcome of the battle did not reach the front, in which case our man would have remained ignorant of the facts. Both republican and fascist propaganda prevented bad news from reaching their troops, in the belief that negative information would cause a loss of morale and mass desertion.
24. Communist commissar by accident
One unexpected result of the Battle of Brunete was that because so many officers of the 101st Brigade had died they had to be replaced. At this time José Enjuanes was appointed political commissar of his battalion. It seems he was chosen because, as he says, he was one of the few who could read and write perfectly, and was also one of the few soldiers who understood the true meaning behind the struggle, probably thanks to the Rationalist teachers of his childhood. Another reason was that he was a member of the Unified Socialist Youth (see post 22 below), which at that time was fully under the orbit of the Spanish Communist Party. So without actively seeking the position, our man had become a political commissar in a communist army fighting fascism.
In his own words:
“When I became a commissar I had joined the army just three or four months beforehand and had already participated in the battle of Brunete. The position of commissar was created during the war in order to promote education and to control the military top brass, because the Republican People´s Army did not trust many senior officers. Many had reactionary ideas and were always thinking of ways to cross over to the fascist army, or how to help them from our side. Our role was to make especially certain that these officers were on the republican side the whole time, as well as to promote propaganda and literacy, because so many people were illiterate“.
From now on, our man must strive to instill courage in the troops, and make sure they do not lose hope. To succeed, sometimes he will have to believe his own lies
25. Relative calm around Madrid
After the battle of Brunete our man was based with his unit in Alcala de Henares. From here they were deployed around Madrid, fighting short actions against the fascists. They were sent two or three times to Casa de Campo, to Cuesta de la Reina, to Guadalajara, amongst other places. These were relatively quiet months, so at last he could learn the rudiments of military theory and practice.
Señor Enjuanes was billeted in Alcala de Henares together with other young soldiers who were from his village, Alcampell. At this time, almost twenty of Alcampell´s youth were mobilised by the republican government and enlisted in the popular army. They all ended up in the 46th Division commanded by the so-called El Campesino, where they were assigned to the 101st Brigade. The 101st was a kind of shock brigade; when opening a new front, or stopping the advance of the fascist troops, they were the first to go.
Our man also enjoyed the lively entertainment of war-time Madrid, which apparently was brilliant and the fun never ended. He used to hit the town with his village friends, and see the besieged and part destroyed capital that in their eyes was still full of charms. It was the first time they had been in such a big city, which despite its state of war was still pulsating with life. At least this is how José Enjuanes remembers it.
26. Conflicts between fellow sufferers
During these months of relative calm an incident occurred which affected our man a great deal. One day, amidst huge uproar, there was a fight between some of the young men from Alcampell. It was a clash of deeply felt ideologies; for among these young soldiers there were both supporters of the Democratic Republic and supporters of the fascists in arms. In fact, some of them and their families had suffered threats back in the village, and were accused by local anarchists of being members of right wing families. According to our man’s account tempers rose to a level where some of them told the others they would not rest “until you and your kind are razed from the face of the earth”.
Ever since that day the spirit of comradeship that had existed between the young soldiers was transformed. Despite having fought side by side in the bloody battle of Brunete, and regardless of belonging to the same battalion, as well as having shared the same hardships in their brief life as recruits, a gulf now existed between them that could not be bridged. A few days later some of these same young men bribed an official to obtain a pass to visit their village. Once there they decided to make a run for France, but were spotted at the border and detained.
The Gendarmerie told them they had to return to Spain, but let them choose either of the two sides. Curiously, most of them chose to go to the fascist controlled areas and were enlisted in Franco´s army.
These events hit our man hard, and were to have repercussions in his later life, as we will see later.
27. Teruel alarm
On the 15th of December 1937 the Republican Government’s Chief of Defence, General Rojo, began the siege of Teruel, and in a matter of days received the surrender of the fascist garrison that occupied the city. At Christmas the fascists counter attacked, led by Franco’s best units, and recovered a part of the city. With the Republican troops scattered and disoriented a huge snowfall covered the whole front more than a metre deep. By the new year General Rojo had regrouped his forces and during a hellish storm, with temperatures of more than twenty degrees below zero, they reoccupied the city. Fighting from house to house, face to face, they forced the total surrender of the enemy on the 8th of January 1938. General Rojo thought that this time the fight was over, but a few days later the fascist Army of Turia returned to combat. They had been reinforced by numerous batteries of all calibres, some of them never seen before until then, and were supported by German and Italian aircraft, which were to prove highly effective in the ensuing battle.
Our man had been in Alcala de Henares for six months when, on the 21st of January1938 the 46th Division received the ominous order, “Proceed by road to Teruel. Further orders will be issued there“. The 101st Brigade arrived on the 24th to the Alfambra valley, in the North–East of the city, during a heavy blizzard. On the 27th they launched an attack. The attacking troops were soon discovered however and throughout the whole of that day were shot, bombed, strafed, mowed down. From dawn until night. The following day was the same, and they also lost two out of their three tanks. On the night of the 29th and 30th of January the attack was deemed a failure and the 46th Division was withdrawn. The Division had lost a third of its troops without having improved the situation on the Teruel front in any way.
28. The bloody battle of Teruel
After the disaster of the Alfambra valley, the 46th Division was redeployed to defend the city of Teruel from the hard siege to which it was subjected. Over the next couple of weeks, between intermittent shooting, our man watched the fighting and explosions creeping inexorably closer. On February the 17th 1938 the final attack on Teruelbegan with a massive artillery and air bombardment of unimaginable intensity.
On the 20th of February the attackers occupied the bullring and the central district of the city, cutting off all communications with the outside. That was, de facto, the first day of full siege. If until now they had suffered one disaster after another, from this day onwards things would only get worse.
The next day the fascists took over the cemetery and further encircled the Republican troops in the now destroyed historic city centre. The only radio they possessed stopped working, and in the last message they received the reception was so bad there were doubts whether they had been told “do not withdraw, stay in the square” or “you can withdraw at your discretion“. There was complete confusion. At the time they had already been without food for three days, but worse still was the state of their wounded. Many of the wounded were in a serious condition, but they lacked the most essential means for their care and treatment. The 101st Brigade had lost 500 men in the outer defence of Teruel, and now they were only half their effective strength; about 1,500 men and almost all without ammunition.
29. Should they stay or should they go?
Complete confusion in the city of Teruel, where the wounded crowd Plaza Torico, the main square in the centre, and ammunition supplies have stopped getting through to the troops. In the 3rd Battalion of the 101st Brigade a platoon starts to shoot their officers, accused of cowardice. One night a terrified Captain panicked and abandoned his position without firing a shot. For this he was summarily tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out the same night by the Captain who replaced him. The new man was actually the captain of the regimental band, and lacking much front line experience he suffered a nervous breakdown and also fled. So he too was tried and shot. The commanding officers were desperate to prevent any breakdown of discipline and dealt severely with such cases. Military law was implacable in the besieged fortress.
A mule train evacuating wounded to the rear failed to return, which made the soldiers even more nervous. They all wanted to leave, because everyone knew the battle was already lost, but they could not move. A rumour went around that a whole brigade of the 40th Division had mutinied because they did not want to return to the front to cover the retreat, and that they were now being shot as traitors. It seemed as if nothing mattered anymore.
A mortar bomb signalled the attack had resumed. Bombs rained down on all sides as the Italian air force threw everything at them, and more. At one point, just where Jose Enjuanes was fighting, an order came from headquarters telling them to resist at all costs. The order was signed by El Campesino, who just a few hours before was rumoured to have been killed. Supposedly dead, he was very much alive.
30. Breaking the siege
In the streets of Teruel chaos reigned, but Señor Enjuanes and the rest of the Republican soldiers had barricaded the streets as best they could to resist the enemy attacks.
At first no one dared leave. It was very dangerous because they were running the risk of being accused of desertion. They withstood the fascist attacks for a few more hours, until finally they decided to break the siege.
The commissars and officers tried to assemble their remaining troops, as well as others separated from their units who were wandering the streets without a clue what to do or where to go. They tried to raise their morale, promising not to abandon anyone, and giving them coffee and cognac.
Our man describes what happened to him inside the besieged city:
“I was wounded on the barricade when I was fighting in the asylum…in the asylum building, where I spent almost a whole month resisting the fascist attacks…we were inside collapsing a wall to get out, when suddenly a Captain and two enemy soldiers appeared, and they called out “we have a commissar! Here! in here…death, kill him”….I took my gun and…bang! I shot the captain in the head…and the others disappeared. But they also got me. I was wounded in my left wrist, the bullet came in here and went out this side. It affected the whole of my left arm. I managed to get back to our lines and as I was wounded I was taken to Plaza Torico. Night had fallen. Then an armoured car came into the plaza and to everyone’s surprise our commander El Campesino got out. He organised and authorised the withdrawal of all the Republican forces that could still walk. Our commanders (Mateo Merino and El Campesino) told us “we will get all of you who can still walk out of here tonight…the enemy will try to stop us, but we’ll do it”. Then the regimental band started playing the anthem of the Brigade…pretty scary! the enemy thought that we were still a force to be reckoned with, and our soldiers started to push forward until they broke the fascist cordon around Plaza Torico. We all just ran to get out of the city…as if the hounds of hell were after us“.
31. Running into the night
On the night of 21 February 1938 the Commanders of the 46th Division had decided to break the siege of Teruel. At ten o’clock, launched by hand grenades and machine gun fire, they fell on the fascist positions downstream of the Turia River, and they pressed forward for hours in the darkness, unable to distinguish friend from foe.
While fighting they had crossed the river in the middle of the night wading through the water colder than ice, trying to keep their balance against the strong current and with their weapons raised in order to avoid getting their ammunition wet. After crossing the river, those who were left kept onwards, shipping again and again, falling and tripping over the icy terrain. At last, many of these survivors reached the village of Villaespesa, located within the Republican lines, where they were given brandy and were able to rest for a little while.
Among the survivors there were soldiers who belonged to the Divisional band, though the band had suffered heavily, losing forty-five of its sixty members. After counting the survivors of the 101 Brigade, they realized that the Brigade had lost two thirds of its soldiers.
On February 25 the Battle of Teruel ended. The colonel of the Fifth Army Corps, Modesto, managed to stabilize the front and the fascists dug in to defend their positions. According to the contemporary sources, almost 50.000 soldiers died on each side. The Republican government issued an official statement saying that: “The evacuation was carried out with perfect military order, without loss of personnel and materials, according to the predictions of the command head“. As everyone knows, in time of war information becomes a weapon of war. Our man, to perform his role as commissar, had no choice but to accept such statements as true. If not, he could not hope to convince the troops, and so boost their morale.
32. Saved and sent to the front again
After breaking the siege of Teruel, our man explains how they were evacuated to the rear:
“The ambulances were waiting for us down the road, seven or eight kilometres far from Teruel. Then we went to Pozo Rubio, which was a village in the Province of Cuenca, or maybe Albacete, where there was a hospital. It was an old convent that had been transformed into a hospital. The ambulances crews gave us a can of condensed milk, some of us drank a little, but others drank it all and many then died, because it softened inside of their stomach… (their stomachs had become unaccustomed to such rich foodstuffs)… Arriving at Pozo Rubio the first thing they did with us was to put all of together into a large shower, and then we went through a kind of tunnel that was about ten meters long and with only our heads outside, and they sprayed us with a gas to kill all our lice and all the misery we brought with us. Because we were all infested with lice, and… ohh… it was really a disaster. They healed my arm, which was badly hurt. But I could not get much rest because we were immediately sent to another hot spot: the Lleida front”.
Indeed, it was just then (March 1938) that the Fascist offensive on the Aragon front was launched, which a few months later allows Franco’s army to break the Republican zone into two parts, reaching the Mediterranean Sea at the city of Vinaròs.
This was a time of increasing tension in Europe: Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria and the political climate became more and more sinister, increasing the isolation and loss of outside support for the young Spanish Republic, ignored and boycotted by all the supposed “neutral” European powers.
Against this background, on the 13th March 1938, the 46th Division, back to full strength with fresh recruits, received the order to move to the Aragon front. Our man included, of course.
33. Going to the Aragon front
The 46th Division left Alcalá de Henares, heading North up through the coastline. When passing by the village of Vinaròs they came across groups of retreating Republican soldiers scattered everywhere. On March the 27th they arrived at the village of Les Borges Blanques, near the city of Lleida, where they remained encamped two days while awaiting fresh orders. The things they had seen on their journey up had confirmed their worst fears: the situation on the Aragon front was much worse than the official propaganda would have them believe.
Then the Commander of 46th Division, Valentín Gonzalez “El Campesino”, disappeared; nobody knew where he was, and no orders on his part had been received by anyone. On the 28th of March, an exasperated Pedro Mateo Merino, the Commander of the 101st Brigade (and at this time second in command of the whole Division), decided to send a reconnaissance patrol to the west of Lleida to find out where the enemy actually was.
Near the village of Almacelles the reconnaissance patrol found the XIII International Brigade, retreating, and clearly having taken heavy casualties. José Enjuanes thought that the commander of this International Brigade was Tito (later president of Yugoslavia). As he explains:
“There was the whole of El Campesino’s Division, and Tito’s Brigade. That Tito from Yugoslavia… he also did good work there … When the Aragon front fell, Tito’s Brigade was in reserve in the village of Tamarit de Llitera. Volunteers of all over the world where in Tito’s Brigade, but intellectual people, mind. We … if we saw them near our Division, we felt better… He was not a large man physically, but he was big as a person“.
Actually the commander of the XIII International Brigade was Mikhail Járchenko, whom our man in his account confused with Josip Broz “Tito”, (theoretically Tito was in Paris at this time, organising the sending of volunteers to Spain to fight in the International Brigades, although it is suspected that in 1938 he visited several places in the Republican rear. In any case, as the historian Angela Jackson says in her study about the volunteers:
“the phrase ‘Tito was here‘ is said with such conviction among the people of these villages that often the man has achieved a folk status far above that of any other foreigner volunteer”.
34. Wounded and fucked
Finally, El Campesino, the commander of the Division, reappeared and moved his forces to the defense of the city of Lleida, just at the time when they all knew that the General Staff of the East Army had declared it occupied by the enemy. But, in fact, the enemy was still twelve kilometers from the city, in the road to the village of Almacelles, precisely at the point where the second Battalion of the 101st Brigade were positioned. Together with the remnants of the XIII International Brigade, the 2ndBattalion engaged the enemy vanguard, and there followed a hard fought battle, in which our man was wounded once again, this time seriously. As he explains:
“Many of us had been injured before. I was all bandaged because of the wound Igot at the Battle of Teruel, but my right arm was still OK. At five in the morning we arrived in Lleida, and then we were sent to the small hill of La Cerdera, a few kilometers to the North. There we met the Moorish cavalry singing the Fascist hymn “Cara al sol”. The fascists had already occupied the city of Fraga and had not encountered any resistance anywhere… The Aragon front had been completely overrun… But we stopped them in a very tough battle, with many casualties. Our Captain, Pascual, took a burst of seven shots in the stomach… I was also hurt again, right at his side, and he kept on saying to me ‘please Enjuanes, don’t leave me here, don’t leave me here’. We gave him the first aid right there, at La Cerdera hill. For further treatment we went back to the village of Torrefarrera, near Lleida. I was losing a lot of blood. It was the third time I had been injured. The first one in the battle of Brunete, the second one in the battle for Teruel, and the third one there, in the defense of Lleida. I was well fucked.”
So José Enjuanes had to be evacuated because of his wounds, while the Republican soldiers delayed, for a few more days, the fall of the city of Lleida into fascist hands.
35. The battle of Lleida
The battle of Lleida took place over the first few days of April 1938. In the words of the Commander of the 101st Brigade, Pedro Mateo Merino, it was a battle for which
“all evidence indicates that the High Command had made no contingency plans, (they were) bewildered by the collapse of the front, with little information and troops, and unsure about the possibility of holding the natural line of the river Segre, andmounting a defence there”
(source: Mateo Merino, P. Por vuestra libertad y la nuestra, Disenso, Madrid, 1986).
However, the republican forces did stop the fascist offensive and also established an effective line of defence.
The heavy bombing leading up to the fascist attack had left the city half deserted. All those able to escape had done so by the time El Campesino established his headquarters at the Bank of Spain building, in the city centre. On the 1st of April, the fascist army launched a determined attack which, preceded by an artillery and aerial bombardment, aimed to encircle the city. This forced the Republicans to move the Divisional Headquarters to the other side of the river, and in the absence of El Campesino who, once again, had disappeared without a trace, Pedro Mateo Merino was put in charge of the defence of the city. His orders were to offer maximum resistance and, should he be forced to withdraw, to destroy the bridges over the river Segre.
Day and night they suffered heavy rainfalls, along with fierce winds which made it difficult to observe the movements of the enemy. On the 3rd of April, under pressure from the fascist forces, the retreat over the river Segre began, over the railway bridge, the only bridge that was still intact. It was a complex operation which took several hours under intense enemy fire. The next day, shortly before dawn, Mateo Merino ordered the destruction of the bridge.
On the 5th of April the fascists reached the river, along its whole length, but they were unable to cross. There, along the banks of the River Segre, the front stabilised for several months, right up until the final fascist assault into Catalonia in December 1938/January 1939. The consequences for the city of Lleida however, were severe, for it was practically destroyed by the shelling exchanged between the two armies.
36. The mysterious disappearance of El Campesino
One of the mysteries of the battle of Lleida was the disappearance of the Commander of the 46th Division, El Campesino, who was absent for much of the fighting. According to the official version, El Campesino was allowed to leave Lleida for health reasons. He was later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Fifth Army Corps.
In his place, Pedro Mateo Merino was named interim Commander of the 46th Division. Merino’s opinion was that although El Campesino had been a courageous guerrilla leader during the early days of the war, as the conflict developed, he was unable to understand the military logic of a large scale war. Ultimately he could do nothing but display his ineptitude, with a string of defeats until the final great defeat. Merino also suspected that the army High Command protected El Campesino unconditionally, because they needed him. They exploited his image as a man who leaves his village and from nothing stands up in the fight against the fascists, for propaganda purposes, and to boost the popular legitimacy of the army.
Subsequent events in the life of Valentin Gonzalez, “El Campesino”, after the Spanish war are worthy of a brief mention. After being dismissed as a commander in the Spanish Republican Army, he went into exile, arriving in the USSR in 1939. Here he entered a military academy with the rank of General, but following a series of disagreements with the Soviet authorities, he was sentenced to spend time in a labour camp in Siberia.
In 1949 he escaped through Iran, heading for France. He then settled in Paris with the help of Julian Gorkin, a former POUM member (the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, an unorthodox and influential Marxist party of the 30s, leaded by Andreu Nin and Joaquín Maurín) and devoted his time to the anti–Stalinist cause. In 1977 he returned to Spain and expressed his sympathies for the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) of Felipe Gonzalez. It was during this time that he discovered that his wife and children, who he believed had died during the Spanish war, were still alive. Moreover, he produced two books, written and compiled by his friend Gorkin, which illustrate his adventures very well: “Life and Death in the USSR” (1951), and “Communist in Spain, anti–Stalinist in the USSR” (1953).
37. A man lost in an isolated republic
A time of loss, irretrievable for the Spanish people, came about with the connivance of many powers around the world.
With the fascist advance to Vinaròs on the 15th of April 1938, the territory of the Spanish Democratic Republic was divided into two areas; the Region of Catalonia on the one side, and the Centre-Southeast area (of the Iberian Peninsula) on the other side. From now on everything would be more difficult for the Spanish Democrats. Everything would be more difficult for Jose Enjuanes. Meanwhile foreign intervention was increasing, especially in support of the fascists. More and more Italian forces were disembarking at Cadiz and Seville, while German forces were doing the same at Bilbao and Pasages. In the meantime the Portuguese government gave the fascist coup their full support and sent back to Spain all the people who had escaped into Portugal, fleeing the new terror regime.
The main Western democracies had a highly ambiguous attitude in the face of these events, pursuing as they were a policy of appeasement with Hitler. Regarded as a purely internal conflict, both Britain and France left the Spanish Republic in the hands of the European fascisms, especially after the signing of the Munich Agreement. It is likely that the revolutionary nature of the struggle in Spain tended to favour support for the fascist rebels. The British foreign minister, Eden, declared that England had no interest in the form of government in Spain, that the only concern was for the interests of British companies in Spain, which presumably would be safer with the authoritarian order that the rebels would establish, than with the revolutionary experiments on the Republican side. In fact, Franco always had the support of major British and American oil companies, despite the international embargo established against the Spanish Republic. The only country that gave some support to the Republic was the USSR, but always with conditions and at a price, and according to the rhythm of the interests of Stalin’s government; its diplomatic needs and its preparations for the next world war.
In this adverse international context our man still thought the Republicans were winning the war. But the severity of his injuries made it impossible for him to remain at the front, and he was sent to a hospital in Barcelona.