The Aragon Front is the mystery front in Spain. Stretching for about two hundred and fifty miles from the Pyrenees to the Teruel region, covering the cities of Hesca and Zaragossa, and guarding Catalonia and Valencia, the most important industrial areas, it has, nevertheless, hardly been heard from in the military annals of the present civil war. All the other fronts, Bilbao, in the North-West, Madrid in the center, and Malaga in the South-East, have been exceedingly active at one time or another. Up to very recently only Argon was silent. It was the ghost front of the war.
Almost the entire Aragon front is held by Catalonians, the majority of whom are under the influence of the Anarchists, Syndicalists, and Workers Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M.). Of the seven divisions, three are Anarcho-Syndicalist ("Durutti,” “Black and Red,” and “Ascaso"), one is the “Lenin” division of the P.O.U.M., while the three others are controlled by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (P.S.U.C.), the Catalan Republicans (Esquerra), and the regular army.
Naturally, the passivity of the Aragon Front has given rise to disquieting rumors from all sides. It is claimed that Catalonia is sabotaging the war and, giving way to her old weakness for autonomy, is interested only in her own independence. It is further claimed that the Anarcho-Syndicalists believe the Valencia regime is just as bad as the fascist and are retaining all arms in the rear among the proletarians in the factories, while their soldiers are quite content to maintain the status quo at the front. Finally, it is charged that the P.O.U.M. forces are agents of the fascists and have made a deal with them for mutual tolerance.
On the other side it is maintained that the People’s Front Government of Valencia is not interested in furnishing arms to the revolutionary sections of the troops but prefers to divert all military equipment to the sectors controlled by those parties favoring capitalist democracy. They point out that a real drive in the Aragon region would smash the fascists in two and settle the war at once. Since this drive has not been made, they insinuate that the bourgeois republican section of the People’s Front, with its officers caste, does not want to defeat Franco too badly, perhaps this would mean the elimination of an obstacle to the workers’ taking power completely.
I decided to investigate the spot, to go into the front line trenches, to speak with the soldiers in the dug-outs and the generals at headquarters. The place to go, obviously, was that sector of the front covered by the P.O.U.M. and the Syndicalists who were facing the city of Huesca and whose military center was at the village of Sietamo. Before going to Aragon, however, I resolved to track down the claim that Catalonia was sabotaging the war. There had just appeared in the Barcelona press a speech by Premier Caballero praising the Catalonians for having been the first to drive out fascism from their territory and hailing the large support that Catalonian factories were giving the war. With this report in hand I put the question squarely to Commissioner Miravilles, head of the publicity bureau of the Generality. Miravilles, himself a member of the Esquerra, proceeded to show me in great detail the falsity of the rumors spread about his country.
With a total population of less than three million, Catalonia had furnished over 85,000 soldiers for the front. Of the approximately 400,000 soldiers on the four principal battle areas in Spain, close to 60,000 were in Aragon. The others were spread, 150,000 in the Biscay region, 150,000 around Madrid, and 50,000 near Malaga. In Catalonia every able-bodied man available was being called to the colors or held in readiness, and already 40,000 more recruits had enthusiastically answered the conscription call and had been trained for service. Besides that, close to 125,000 men were working directly at war production. In addition, Catalonia was taking care of 350,000 refugees, and taking care of them better than France had done during the World War, especially in the case of the children who were being well fed and educated in the spirit of the republic.
At the outbreak of hostilities, Catalonia had had no industries that could be used immediately for war purposes. She had no metal works of importance, no furnaces nor forges, no large plants except the Hispano-Suiza motor concern. But, with the greatest ingenuity, the whole economy was being rapidly remodeled. Firms that used to produce rouge and lip sticks were now turning out cartridges. Every small plant available was being utilized for making powder, shells, bombs, parts of machine guns, etc. Now even some tanks were being produced and some aviation motors.
To these facts, Miravilles added some historical data to prove that Catalonia could not have been guilty of sabotage of any war against monarchical reaction. He pointed out that ever since the days of the Inquisition, Catalonia had been the most rebellious province in Spain. In 1812, it was a Catalan who was at the head of the Cortes of Cadiz. In 1873, of the four presidents who led the republic of fourteen months, two, Figueras and Salmeron, were Catalan, and the other two, Pi y Margall and Castelar, found Catalonia a pillar of support. It was a Catalonian and Spanish paramilitary assembly that had met secretly to demand a constitution in 1917. Catalonian capitalists traditionally had fought the obstructive policies of the monarchy. Similarly, it was the Catalonian proletariat that had always been in the lead in the general strikes that had shattered the old regime.
In the present rebellion, Catalonian workers had been the first to disarm the 12,000 fascists soldiery, entrenched in strong fortifications in Barcelona, and had driven back the fascist army into Aragon all the way to Huesca. Miravilles was no adherent of Anarcho-Syndicalism nor of the P.O.U.M. but he admitted that it was these elements which had been the earliest to mobilize their militia, the former under Durutti and Ascaso, the latter under Maurin, and had sent their best forces with these leaders to die in the struggle. The victory of the workers in Barcelona had inspired the rest of Spain to resist the surprise attack of fascism and had been one of the main factors in gaining for all Spain the necessary time to give battle to the forces of the old regime.
It was for this reason, because the Anarcho-Syndicalists and the P.O.U.M. had been the chief factors in the field, that they had been included in the first government formed after the July upheaval. At that time neither the Socialists nor the official Communists were very strong in Catalonia. They were to increase their strength only later when the situation became more stable and when Russia had added her might to the side of the Loyalists.
I was soon to see at first hand what the P.O.U.M. and Anarcho-Syndicalist troops had been able to accomplish in the early days when each division acted for itself and was furnished with supplies by the activity of its own organization. The village of Sietamo itself, which was now the headquarters of the P.O.U.M. “Lenin Division”, was mute witness to their valor. The village looked for all the world like a Hollywood stage drop of some war-torn hamlet. Huge holes gaped at the spectator from every house that was still able to stand on its own four walls. These holes had been made not by the fascists, but by the artillery of the Leftists which had driven the enemy out of their stronghold. The soldiers recounted to me how their opponents, in rage at being forced to retire from Sietamo, had bound eight workmen together and run over them with their tanks, leaving their bodies to be buried by the Loyalists. Now Sietamo was well in the rear of the front lines which had been pushed up close to the very walls of the city of Huesca.
I went with a military guide up to Mount Aragon, the highest eminence in the region from which one can get an uninterrupted view of close to thirty miles. It was a bright May day and in the limpid air the poppies showed startlingly red among the sedge-like grasses and thistles of the rather barren region. To our right were the purple Pyrenees. The blue river wound below, and between us and the silhouette of the Huesca cathedral in the distance occasional white puffs of smoke marked the dull boom of cannon. The ride had been a hurried one, scurrying behind the rough fence of saplings that had been set up to shield from enemy fire the cars going up the mountain.
Mount Aragon rises steeply out of the countryside overlooking a terrain gullied by erosion resembling some of the lands in Nevada or Arizona. For centuries the ancient fort built in the time of the Romans had been used by the lords of the region watching over their territory. At first I supposed the ruins of the fort to be due to the shelling of the Loyalists when the position had been held by the fascists. But my guide asked me to look on top of the ruins and to note the plants that were growing there. He then explained that the walls were five feet thick and so strongly cemented together by the action of time that the shells had merely bounced off the hard rock damaging it but slightly. Mount aragon, in fact, had been considered almost impregnable.
And yet the fortress had been taken by the joint action of the Lenin-Durutti divisions. With daring enthusiasm the soldiers had scaled the impossible walls and driven out the three hundred fascists defenders behind whom were many thousands of other soldiers in support. In the operations around Mount Aragon, the workers’ militia had lost about two thousand men. And, later, when Franco had received help from Italian and German aviators and the trenches had been severely bombed, over six hundred casualties were recorded in one hour and a half. All in all, the Lenin Division of the P.O.U.M. alone had suffered over three thousand men lost.
From there we went to the front line trenches around Huesca, the posts closest to the city held by the P.O.U.M. Seventeen thousand men were concentrated around Huesca forming a hairpin bend that was almost closed, [as the accompanying military map given me by the commanders in charge shows]. The six thousand men of the P.O.U.M. with two thousand others in reserve, held about 46 kilometers. For the entire force around Huesca there were only five effective cannon of 70-75 mm., about sixty machine guns, and one airplane (not in use). The soldiers complained to me that after the Madrid-Valencia government had centralized all the armed forces in its hands, the men had only twenty cartridges apiece, up to several months ago. Many of these cartridges were “refills,” so that they were wont to become swollen and jam in the breech, rendering any effective rifle action impossible. Since no bayonets had been issued until very late in the struggle, hand to hand charges to drive the enemy out of their positions were not to be thought of. Headquarters estimated they had no more than 3% of the material they actually needed.
Opposed to the Loyalists the fascists had placed around Huesca some ten thousand trained soldiers supplied with at least six batteries of 100-105 mm. How effective their fire was I could see in what remained of the little hamlet of Tierz which had just been bombed. The Loyalists, however, had been instructed not to fire their largest cannon because they might damage the “famous Cathedral in Huesca” which, as a matter of fact, was now used for military purposes by the fascists. For similar delicate scruples, when a few airplanes were loaned to the Aragon Front, they, too, were instructed not to bomb the Cathedral which was a “work of art.”
Concurrently with these orders from the general command not to fire their cannon, came periodic orders of re-organization which strongly tended to demoralize the forces of the Leftists. At first the instruction had been to form regiments and brigades, then the order came to form divisions without the brigades. Then new changes took place. In each case a complete overhauling of the army division of labor was necessary. In the beginning the various political groups had selected their own commanders to head their columns which they themselves had recruited. Now the divisions were no longer part of a loose revolutionary workers’ militia; they had become incadrated into the regular army and had to wait for the general command to act. But the general command refused to act. And month after month had gone by with a steadily growing demoralization taking place among the soldiers.
It was not that the will to fight was lacking on the part of the soldiers in the trenches, the men all earnestly informed me. It seems they had repeatedly demanded that the perpetual re-organizations be stopped, that adequate arms and equipment be sent them and that a general advance be ordered. By now the Spanish Leftist army was composed of men who had become seasoned under fire and were quite equal to the professional troops of the enemy. The numerical strength was about two to one in favor of the loyalists. The fascists had only enough power to strike at one point at a time. While Bilbao was being attacked, that was the time for a general advance throughout Aragon that would have broken the enemy. The soldiers asked me to look at the map to see how Huesca was almost entirely surrounded and could be completely cut off with but a comparatively slight effort. And the same situation prevailed around Zaragossa to the South.
All this argument had been in vain. Instead, the soldiers had to hear the insistent propaganda that they, who had been among the very first to enter into the combat, did not want to fight and were sabotaging the struggle. There had been one time when the Loyalist troops had taken some of the enemy’s trenches but had been so unsupported by the artillery that they had had to yield the ground again to their opponents. This failure had been played up in the rear to show the incapacity of the Anarcho-Syndicalist and P.O.U.M. soldiers in the fight.
As a final act, the general command had sent them General Pozas to re-organize them once again. General Pozas had been a member of the extreme Right political faction before the July days. Of all the generals still available to the Valencia Government, there was none farther removed from the ideals of the proletariat. Here was the man the Socialist War Minister had sent to displace the command of the Anarchist and P.O.U.M. leaders who had taken the strongest positions when they had been only loose militiamen. General Pozas, moreover, had been also made responsible for the maintenance of order in the rear of Catalonia. It was quite clear to all that one man could not possibly handle both jobs, policing the rear in an explosive revolutionary situation, and making plans for an advance on the Aragon Front. One or the other would have to be sacrificed. The soldiers were not slow to guess that Pozas, at least in May, had been sent to keep the proletariat in order and not to prepare for a general offensive.
The result of all this was a situation that would have dismayed the stoutest enemy of fascism. When our party first entered the trenches the fascists must have been able to see us for at once, from their lines some 150-300 yards away, the bullets came whining over, lashing like whips at the sand bags in front of us. But after the first flurry had passed, hours went by without a single shot being fired on either side. Fascist soldiers could shout through loud speakers that soon, “in twenty days,” an armistice would be declared and all would be shaking hands as brothers. In the course of the war, the P.O.U.M.-Syndicalist troops had been able to win over about one thousand deserters from the enemy ranks, but of late these conversions had stopped. The lack of struggle made the armistice talk almost plausible.
Behind the trenches, only a few hundred yards away, life was going on as normally as though nothing in the world was taking place. Men and women were swimming in the river, farmers were busy with their ploughing and planting. And even in the trenches phonographs were playing and men were dancing one with the other. Some went about in shorts as though they were in some vacationist camp. Only the vicious crack of some sharpshooter’s bullet from time to time reminded one that it was war.
From the time of the May Days’ barricade fighting in Barcelona, especially, the men in the trenches had continued their vigil with one ear cocked to hear the sounds coming from the rear. It was plain their mind was on the struggle that was being waged in the streets of the city. When they first heard of the May 3rd events, the men were restrained with great difficulty from returning at once “to clean out the capitalist counter-revolution.” As it was, half of them prepared to leave and one thousand P.O.U.M. did start to march back. Halfway on the road to Barcelona they were stopped by agents of the Valencia Government who informed them, if they would return to the trenches, Valencia would send no soldiers into Barcelona. The men called P.O.U.M. headquarters which told them to go back, and they did. The next day five thousand Valencia Guards entered the capital of Catalonia.
When I saw them, the men in the trenches in front of Huesca had no heart to fight under a command which they did not trust, made up of officers trained in the same school as Franco, officers interested in building up a new army separate from the people so that new careers could be made for themselves and their children on behalf of a capitalist system which the workers detested. In the old days of the workers’ militia, officers and men had come from one proletarian class, took the same pay, wore no separate insignia, had common revolutionary ideals. Now all this was changed.
The P.O.U.M. and Anarcho-Syndicalist organizations had done considerable political educational work at the front. Thousands of newspapers come from Barcelona daily, the P.O.U.M. also putting out its own daily in Sietamo, El Combatiente Rojo, The Red Soldier, covering all events carefully. Every soldier believed he knew the plans of the People’s Front Government of Spain to dissolve the special workers’ divisions and fuse them with others into one general army headed by officers no longer under workers’ control. The former revolutionary divisions would be displaced by others who were not concerned with their ideals of making the war subordinate to and intertwined with the victory of Socialism. Soon the 40,000 new recruits that the Generality of Catalonia had trained would be placed on the Aragon Front, the old P.O.U.M. and Anarcho-Syndicalist commanders dismissed and their forces either dissolved or broken up and sent to other parts to be fused with P.S.U.C. or republican battalions.
Nor had any of the organizations effectively prepared to resist this new development. The Socialists and official Communists favored it. The Anarchists and Syndicalists had not believed in a regular army but relied solely on volunteer militia democratically controlled. Only the P.O.U.M. had advocated a regular army under workers’ control and had actually formed its own officer school giving three month courses to 120 worker-cadets. This party had also published and distributed the works of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Maurin and other Communist leaders on how to build up a revolutionary army.
However, outside of the P.O.U.M. none of the proletarian organizations had seriously undertaken to form a cadre of worker-officers approaching a professional standing. Now that a regular army was being evolved, the class conscious workers felt they were being militarized under a system similar to what they had overthrown and against which they were now fighting.
The result is that at the front, as well as in the rear, new struggles are brewing, as the question once more becomes acute whether Spain is to stop halfway at a mere political revolution or to enter the path of a thorough-going social revolution.