Jarama: A walk through the valley of death

Jarama witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of Spain's civil war. Stephen Kelly joined the families of those who served in the International Brigades to discover how the fallen are finally being honoured

Thursday 17 March 2011 01:00 GMT

It was the fragrance of wild thyme that many would remember. And for the survivors it was a smell that would always bring back painful memories. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama, in which Republican forces lost 10,000 soldiers, including at least 139 from the British International Brigade, many of them fighting in Spain for the first time. In all, more than 15,000 died on both sides, making it one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war.

Looking over the Jarama valley today, little has changed. The only sign of the 21st century is Madrid gleaming in the far distance beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the occasional car on the nearby road. Even today, the hills around the Jarama river are still abundant with the wild thyme and lavender that flourish in the olive orchards.

Every February, old Brigaders, families, friends and sympathisers gather here to remember their dead comrades. In more recent years, the number of Brigaders has dwindled and last week there was only one, a sprightly 97-year-old Spanish soldier who sounded every bit as committed as he was back in 1937. They come from Germany, America, Belgium and France as well as Britain to remember, carrying their flags and banners and singing their songs.

At the beginning of 1937, Franco's forces, having been pinned back on the outskirts of Madrid, decided to refocus their attack and instead push east in an attempt to cut off the vital Madrid-to-Valencia highway. Their attack centred on the valley of Jarama and before dawn broke on 12 February, elite Moroccan soldiers, under cover of darkness, slipped silently across the Jarama river at the Pindoque bridge, where they knifed the unsuspecting sentries to precipitate the Nationalist attack. Over the next three days, fierce fighting followed. Many of the British volunteers had just arrived and had no inkling of the ferocity that was about to be unleashed.

When the morning came, it was one of sparkling sunshine with a faint breeze drifting through the olive orchards, but any exhilaration the British soldiers might have felt was to be shattered by a brutal bombardment. The weather was also about to change, becoming bitterly cold at night and wet during the day, turning the hillsides into slippery slopes.

The volunteers were a mixture of Communists, Labour Party members, socialists, trade unionists and other sympathisers, all bitterly opposed to the idea of fascism. They came primarily from the unemployed areas of Merseyside, Manchester, Scotland, Tyneside and London. Many were young and inexperienced; others had served in the First World War and were now too old for a struggle of this nature. Nearly all were fresh recruits just arrived in Spain. As the men of the mainly British 15th Brigade made their way up an outcrop that was later to become known as "Suicide Hill", they were mown down mercilessly. They had little or no chance. It's still debatable how many British were killed here and figures are continually being revised, but the guess is that only 200 of the original 600 came out unscathed. Some just turned and deserted, only to be forced back under duress once they had been discovered. Other volunteers from the US in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as well as German and French soldiers, also died in the onslaught. Historian and author Richard Baxell says that "for many of the British volunteers, this was their first experience of action; they had been given as little as six weeks' training and they faced the battle-hardened elite regulars of Franco's Army of Africa". It was a no-contest but, remarkably, Republican troops held the line for nearly three more years.

It was also a cock-up. The men were barely trained, equipment was poor, even unusable in some cases, and the back-up was amateurish. Food and water were in short and irregular supply. Orders were also confusing, plus they were led by an incompetent, gung-ho Hungarian-Russian called "General Gal" (Janos Galicz), who was loathed by his men. But what they lacked in military hardware and training they more than made up for in courage, which is perhaps why they are most remembered today.

In the end, the battle achieved little. After the initial onslaught, both sides dug in, retreating to their trenches and tunnels, and a stalemate ensued until the last days of the war in 1939, when the remnants of the Republicans were captured and many of them slaughtered as the Moors took their brutal revenge with gruesome trophies.

While the battlefields of the Somme, Ypres and Normandy attract visitors in their thousands, Jarama, like other Spanish battlefields, attracts only a modest number. As a result, 74 years on, the trenches are still intact with their caves, tunnels and machine gun positions clearly visible, while the battlefield remains scattered with rusting bits and pieces including sardine tins, bullets, shrapnel, and even the odd live hand grenade.

There are no official reliable accounts of the battle. What has been learnt has mainly been gleaned from personal testimony and, as ever, it can be tinged with inaccuracy, misinformation and, especially, in this instance, political prejudice. The blame for the débâcle has been apportioned to various people in a bitter row that continues even to this day. "Nobody will ever know exactly how many died, let alone the names of all those who fought there," says Dan Payne, a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who organised this year's party of visitors. For some years he has been piecing together the names and biographies of all those who came from Merseyside. "Every year, a new name crops up and we learn a little more about who went from my area," he says, adding that "we now know of 17 Merseysiders who died in the battle". At a guess, it's reckoned that of the 600 British volunteers who fought on the first day, at least 139 were killed and considerably more wounded over the three days.

After Franco's death, a "pact of oblivion" was agreed in Spain by the transitional government with the intention of not raking up the past, yet as the years come and go there is an increasing interest in the war. At Morata de Tajuña, close to where the battle took place, a small museum is now increasingly given over to the Civil War and the Battle of Jarama. "It's now legal to have such museums; five years ago, it was semi-legal, and before that illegal," says Gregorio Salcedo Diaz, the museum's curator. But old memories still linger. The nearby clenched-fist memorial to the Republican dead up on the hills among the olive orchards has, since last year, been daubed with paint, presumably by some local Falangists.

The curator picks up a water bottle punctured by a bullet. There's also half a hand grenade, bullets and a brass Republican machine gunner's badge. "Next year, I want to put up more pictures of the International Brigaders for the 75th anniversary," he says. Already the museum's collection of memorabilia picked up from the fields includes guns, badges, uniforms, pens, and even a radio or two.

Almost certainly there will be no British survivors at next year's 75th anniversary gathering. As many as 2,500 British volunteers fought in Spain, with 530 of them killed. Of those who did return, only four are known still to be alive, plus another in Australia and perhaps one in Canada; they are all in their mid-nineties. Two leading Brigaders, Sam Lesser and Jack Edwards, and the last surviving woman volunteer, nurse Penny Feiwel, have all died in recent months. Indeed, it is unlikely that any of the British Brigaders will ever return to Spain, giving next year's ceremony an added poignancy. And once they have died, the final link with Jarama and the International Brigade will have gone, save for the museum, some personal testimony and the wild thyme that still grows on the hillside.

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