A Brandlerite Militant

Three Months on the Huesca Front (April-June 1937)

What follows is a description of the activity of the POUM militia on the Aragon front, and it should be studied along with George Orwell’s accounts in Homage to Catalonia and in his collected articles. It was translated by Mike Jones, to whom we are also indebted for the explanatory notes, from Drei Monate an der Huescafront (April bis Juni 1937) in the Gruppe Arbeiterstimme’s Der Spanische Bürgerkrieg, Nuremburg 1987, pp.60-8, where it is mistakenly ascribed to Waldemar Bolze, who was in prison at the time of these events.

In spite of extensive research and inquiry by Mike Jones among the survivors of the Brandlerite movement both in Germany and Britain, it has still not been possible to identify the author of this piece.

1. The Positions of the POUM Militias

The front around Huesca entered a positional war at the start of this year. First of all, the Sietamo-Huesca highway, which had been taken by the POUM and CNT militias, was fortified to about 600 metres in front of Huesca. The fortifications benefitted by the construction of earth embankments of up to 15 metres high along the sides of the highway. They were built in accordance with all the rules of the modern art of fortification, and were armed with heavy machine guns and mortars. Government artillery was concentrated nearby.

It must be noted that these fortifications were easily reconnoitred, as highways are shown on any decent map and offer an easy clue to any hostile reconnaissance aeroplanes. But they gave protection against artillery and aerial bombardment as the defender was sufficiently covered. Any ground attack would require considerable material and human resources if it was intended to break through at this point.

From the end of this section of the highway, which was blocked by a high sandbag barricade, a turning led left via the old fort of Mont Aragon along to the huge belt of fortifications around Huesca, which ran in a semicircle up to the foothills of the Pyrenees, and swung again in the direction of Huesca shortly before the main Huesca-Jaca road. The foremost point of the belt ended 300 metres in front of Huesca (there were times when our night patrols pushed forward up onto the Huesca football ground). This whole belt of fortifications was dominated by the POUM and CNT militias. I was not able to establish the exact number of militia troops, it was a few thousand, but, in my layman’s opinion, it seemed too few to be able to resist a really concerted enemy offensive.

Numbers, however, are very relative in war, especially in a positional war. As has often been proved, an excess concentration of troops and materials in an endangered spot can have a deleterious effect by weakening the front as a whole. Feint attacks in different places can deceive the enemy as to the real relation of forces up until the decisive battle, and can likewise make up for lack of weight in absolute numbers. Surprisingly few people can hold a well fortified trench with a machine gun. The condition is, above all, that the intelligence service of the enemy is not functioning, or that it has been led astray, and that there is sufficient weaponry at one’s disposal. (More about that later.)

The trench positions of the POUM militias were in good condition. The trenches were between 1.6 and 1.8 metres deep. The loopholes for guns were built with sandbags. The local earth is ideal for trench building, being clay soil abundantly mixed with stones, which the summer’s scorching heat turns very hard and solid. The nature of the soil enabled proper underground dug-outs to be built, four or five metres deep, and able to contain between six and 15 men. These ‘refugios’ were strengthened by gothic arches of earth, or by planks.

The refugios gave effective protection to the trench garrison from shrapnel or grenades exploding directly in the trenches, or aerial bombs, as they were built in a semi-circular form in the ground. They also had two exits, thus lessening the danger of people being buried by a collapse. But none of these refugios experienced a direct hit from a 100 or 150 kilo bomb, or endured a heavy grenade attack. During the first few months, at least, the enemy hardly used heavy ordnance, and the dug-outs under four or five metres of earth stood up to lighter fire.

The forward trenches were dug in zigzags, the expediency of which is obvious. A flank attack on straight trenches is dangerous because an enemy machine gunner can fire along the entire length of the trench, and put it out of action. As can be seen, the very extensive trench system was constructed with the experiences of the [First] World War in mind. However, the security of the perimeter of the forward trenches was amazingly careless. It was partly equipped with trip-wires, barbed wire and simple alarm devices. There were few advanced outpost holes for the forward lines. This was all the more incomprehensible as the terrain, with its numerous undulations, crevices and scrub, offers protection to friend and foe alike, and allows anybody to sneak unnoticed right up to the trenches. The danger of a surprise attack was great, especially at night. The reason for the neglect of security measures is to be found in the recent stagnation of the positional warfare on the Huesca front, which, when it did occur, only involved the use of modern weaponry in a few cases.

The staff was linked to the forward lines via communication trenches. A peculiar feature of militia warfare was that senior staff from battalion commander to brigade commander stayed constantly in the front line. Our battalion staff stayed about 150 metres behind the forward lines. This arrangement does, of course, contradict the military principle concerning the security of the operative leadership. It does, however, have the advantage that the forward lines were in immediate contact day and night with their senior command.

The trenches did not form an uninterrupted belt. There were gaps of some kilometres in length, because of advantages provided by the terrain. A small troop on one of the many hillocks could effectively dominate the trench-free terrain with a machine gun.

2. The Positional War and the Armament of the Militias

During the first few months on the Huesca front, it was no more dangerous than crossing a busy street in London or Paris. The artillery flashed here and there in the early morning and afternoon for an hour or two, so regularly that you could set your watch by it. Here and there we had poor aiming, and sometimes there were more duds than exploding shells. The positional war was limited to exchanges of rifle or machine gun fire. As the positions were between 200 and 800 metres apart, on normal days there were few casualties.

The bombardment of Huesca is a story in itself, the poor results being the responsibility of either saboteurs or idiots. Our aeroplanes could be seen every day over Huesca. They only bombed the military positions of this highly fortified town, although our senior command in Valencia knew that Huesca’s civilians had been evacuated some time before. With the approach of dusk each evening, signals were broadcast from the church towers in Huesca to the surrounding enemy positions.

Every movement in our sector during the day was visible to the observation posts in the tall church towers. The enemy artillery in Huesca frequently shot at our staff cars and small troop transports. General Lukács [1] and his political commissar of the Garibaldi International Brigade were killed in June in this way. That is only one example.

From a military point of view, it was blatantly obvious that the church towers represented one of the most important enemy positions. Our staff had repeatedly drawn the attention of the senior command in Valencia to this, and demanded the bombing of the church towers, and as their exact positions are marked on every map, they presented an easy target. The senior command did not accede to these requests.

I couldn’t find out the reason for this strange behaviour. Did they not wish to offend the sensitivities of the believers? Or did they want to sabotage the militias, fearing that their military success would simultaneously strengthen the revolutionary workers’ organisations behind the lines? The POUM militias had no airforce of their own, and they were also forbidden to move their artillery forward without authority, and so the Huesca church towers remained unmolested and could happily signal away.

The conclusion to be drawn in this connection, that the militias were appallingly armed, and remained so until their dissolution, is nothing short of astonishing. Thanks to the initiative of the POUM and CNT leaderships, every miliciano had least obtained a rifle (usually a model 98) and a carbine. But there was a continuous struggle to obtain carbines for the reserves. As the Spanish rifle ammunition gives off thick smoke, which usually rapidly soiled the barrel (so we used the superior Mexican ammunition for heavier activities), and the cartridge cases, owing to inaccurate production, often stick in the barrel, or owing to inaccurate powder distribution (or dynamite filling), the bolt chamber or barrel sometimes breaks, the guns suffer heavy wear and tear. There were no replacements for the damaged guns which were sent to the armourers.

These unfortunate circumstances were partly allayed by the militias establishing primitive armouries in the immediate vicinity of the forward trenches. The only time we ever saw Russian guns was when they were used by the asaltos or the International Brigades. The government had no decent guns left for us. The carbine was the main weapon, and often the only one, of the milicianos. There were no sidearms. We were only recently supplied with sufficient cartridges.

It was the same with Mexican egg or cube grenades. Previously we had to put up with the Spanish FAI hand grenades, an experience which makes you wonder how any of us survived after throwing them. They were constructed to an antediluvian pattern. They were detonated (or should have been) by the unrolling of a linen strip which was sealed with wax. Most of them exploded between six and 10 metres from the thrower’s head.

The Mexican cube grenades, which were later produced in Spain as well, were good, whereas the eggs were merely tin capsules, the explosion of which produces an extraordinarily loud bang and blast. They gave those indirectly affected a hefty fright, but otherwise leave them without serious injury, the intention being to damage the enemy’s morale.

The most important, most dangerous and most decisive weapon, not just in trench warfare but in the whole of modern warfare, the heavy machine gun, was not available in adequate numbers. Our battalion, for example, with four miles of trenches in all directions, had only six light and four heavy machine guns at the best of times. Only the skilful placing of the machine guns prevented the enemy from taking advantage of the unavoidable gaps in our trenches.

In theory the security of our trenches was ultimately guaranteed by the use of light and heavy artillery and air power, but in practice it transpired that an effective combination of these was seldom achieved.

Finally, we also received some light mortars, which functioned badly. But here also the militias proved resourceful, for one of the armourers, a POUM comrade, improved them by means of an iron spindle on which the shell was fixed, which improved its aim, so that the shells did not splutter around us but actually hit the target. The effective range of the shell, which looked like an enlarged cube grenade with fins, was 100 metres. Hundreds of these mortars were later produced.

To sum up, as these descriptions indicate, the armament of the militias was totally inadequate, a condition for which the Catalan and the central governments were responsible.

3. The Political and Moral Quality of the POUM Militias

Around 20 per cent of the POUM militias on the Huesca front were POUM members. There were sections of the troops where the percentage of party members was higher, the small troop units, which were almost exclusively composed of party members (shock troops, intelligence services, etc.). The machine gun guards, mortar and artillery troops, and the ‘grenaderos’ (hand grenade shock troops) likewise belonged, with fewer exceptions, to the party, as did the officers.

These militarily and politically qualified layers represented the élite of the militias. The politically unorganised sections of the militias were organised in the UGT or CNT, or sympathised strongly with the POUM. There were also individuals from the PSUC or Esquerra in the POUM militias. Nearly every POUM miliciano paid between five and 10 pesetas of his fortnightly pay of 150 pesetas to the Socorro Rojo, the POUM’s Red Aid.

Hundreds of copies of the POUM papers La Batalla and Adelante arrived daily from Barcelona and Lérida, and were distributed free at the front. In Sietamo, where the POUM General Staff was stationed, the POUM front paper Alerte was printed and distributed from there to the whole front. Alerte was a bad paper in every respect, but it had the advantage for the rural layers of the militias in that it was simply written. Solidaridad Obrera was also occasionally received. The supply of papers was quite superb, although the POUM’s rich range of Marxist literature was seldom found at the front.

The fractions of the POUM held regular meetings about current affairs, but the energy put into these activities bore no relationship to the general low level of political life at the front. The front was somewhat isolated, and the revolutionary militias had little influence in the rear. This is how it appeared to foreign observers.

Why was it so? Did the military tasks absorb all their revolutionary energy? Was the tiring positional war to blame for the political exhaustion? All these factors may have contributed to this low political level. The miliciano usually lived a boring day at the front. There wasn’t much to do in the trenches. Some occasional repairs were made to the trench fortifications, but much of this work was carried out by special groups of workers who were no longer considered capable of military activities. The daily duty of the miliciano consisted of being in a permanent state of readiness, only interrupted by the daily aerial bombing, artillery fire, or by a direct rifle attack. During the night every miliciano had to take part in the routine trench guard or patrols. Beyond that, no regular duty existed, either in respect of broadening our knowledge of weapons or our general military knowledge. Only the shock troops, the armourers and the officers had some hours of regular duties

Much could have been done to provide military and political education for the milicianos during the long hours at their disposal, especially if this was limited to a few circles for a few set hours a week. It was not that the collective will of the milicianos was lacking, they were, in that classic Spanish tradition, always ready to learn. What was really lacking was the necessary precondition of soldiers’ councils, and very much lacking were the militarily and politically educated cadres, who understood how to transform the remaining militia formations into a regular Red Army. (I need hardly add that the necessary preconditions in the rear for such things are abstracted from this picture.)

It would, however, be wrong to draw purely negative conclusions about the revolutionary morale of the milicianos from these descriptions of the situation at the front. The morale of the milicianos after eight months of war was just as admirable and unbroken as in the first days. Two unforgettable impressions in particular showed the intense and disciplined firmness of this morale. One was the stormy response of the milicianos to the Barcelona May Days, and the other was their reaction to the government order for the arrest of some leading POUM officers.

On both of these occasions, a large part of the milicianos wanted to rush, arms in hand, to help the hard-pressed revolutionary workers in the rear, and it was hard to convince them that such a step would have had incalculable consequences for the anti-Fascist cause at the front. But once they accepted this argument, their revolutionary discipline was such that they stayed at the front, despite the fact that the Republican government, on account of the milicianos’ discipline, could now massacre their beloved party in the rear. There can be no more poignant testimony than this to the sublime revolutionary and anti-Fascist devotion of the POUM militias.

4. The Soldiers’ Councils, the Political Commissars and the POUM

In January a military conference of the POUM took place in Lérida, in which all the important political and military cadres participated. This conference adopted, among other things, an excellent and thorough resolution on the soldiers’ councils in the military formations. All the decisions were published in a small pamphlet, The Military Policy of the POUM. At this moment I do not have this pamphlet, which only exists in Spanish, to hand to be able to quote from it. However, the basic concept expressed therein in respect for the necessity of soldiers’ councils consists in the recognition that:

  1. The tendency towards the use of modern methods in present-day wars is no longer in doubt, and success depends upon the creation of a unified central supreme command.
  2. That the forms of independent, federalist party militias must be replaced by the formation of a revolutionary army.
  3. Consequently, a concerted move towards revolutionary militarisation must be started.
  4. That in this process the soldiers’ committees are to be the democratic organs of the soldier masses, just as the factory committees, the political control committees and the village committees embody the proletarian democracy of the working class in the towns and countryside.

A thoroughgoing military policy based on this resolution would have resulted in the CNT and POUM militias combining to form revolutionary army units. The conference also took concrete decisions on the structure, tasks and rights of the soldiers’ councils, and on the political commissars of the revolutionary army.

From proclaiming the need for the creation of soldiers’ councils to putting the idea into practice was, taking the prevailing conditions into consideration, a considerable step. Up until January, neither in the POUM nor in the CNT militias were there more than the puny beginnings of so-called soldiers’ councils. Elections to the soldiers’ councils in the militias started in April, but they went no further than politically lively units.

Why did not the POUM workers, who proved to have a superbly reliable understanding of all the important political problems of the revolutionary process up until then, also lead the way in creating soldiers’ councils prior to then? That was one of the first questions that occurred to an observer. There were two factors apparent at the front that seemed to answer that question.

It was indisputable that, in theory, the military leadership of the POUM supported the soldiers’ councils as a necessity, but that in practice they feared, more or less rightly, that the creation of soldiers’ councils would disturb the military unity of the militia troops through free political discussion, an assumption they held for the reason that, as the soldiers’ councils would become the democratic organs of control, so to speak, of the army leadership, starting with elections of officers, it would end up with interference in military operations. Hence the ‘militaries’ let things carry on as before.

The second significant fact lies in the fact that the officers considered that because of the specific relationship between them and their central leadership and the milicianos, no special rights are necessary. The officers are revolutionaries, just like the milicianos, and as they are usually former milicianos, they had their trust. There were only two or three cases where they abused that trust, and the officers in question were severely punished.

Finally, as for mess facilities, the officers ate from the same pot as the milicianos, and complained jointly with them in the odd case when the food was poor. There were disputes around other issues, such as what the political delegates of the troops should be informed about on their part, in order to consult with the political commissar.

In actual fact, the particular development of the political delegates, who were appointed in each company by the POUM fraction and who were subordinate to its control, led them to become, to a certain degree, a substitute for the soldiers’ councils. As a supplement to the political commissars the delegate system was a very useful means of representing the specific interests of the soldiers, and of helping to uphold the political and military cohesion of the troops.

In this context it is necessary to make some comments on the political commissars. The political commissar was appointed by the party leadership, in agreement with the central military committee of the POUM. Each battalion had a political commissar, and the companies had, as we have said, political delegates. The political commissars of the battalions were equal in rank to the battalion commanders. Each order of the battalion commander had to be countersigned by the political commissar.

The next highest post was the brigade political commissar, and then the divisional one, and they were equal in rank to the brigade and divisional commanders.

It is clear that the political commissars were drawn from the ranks of the most politically and militarily experienced party comrades. Their tasks were the political and military control of the conduct of the war, security and jurisdiction at the front, the elimination of all possible grievances among the troops, political work among the troops, the supply of mess provisions, control of the troops’ equipment, participation in all military deliberations, the regulation of leave, etc. In short, the tasks of the political commissars were, in the first instance, to maintain the political, moral and physical well-being of the troops.

From April onwards, the POUM militias were also recognised as regular troops by the Valencia government, and their supreme command was put under its orders and paid by it. The POUM’s political commissars, or as they are now to be officially named, ‘comisario de guerra’ (war commissars), all remained in their posts, but their appointments were now to be ratified by the supreme command in Valencia.

By the end of June, however, the step-by-step disbandment of the POUM militias on the Aragon front had already begun, and as a consequence, the development of soldiers’ councils was stifled. This was a bitter outcome, especially as the original conception of the Executive Committee that was set out at Lérida was being implemented at the front. In the meantime, it emerged that the soldiers’ councils were unable to act as controlling organs of the military conduct of the war (since they are unable to survey the military operations in a total context), but that for this special task, a functionary with special qualities and competence was ready to hand, the ‘comisario de guerra’, who was at the disposal of the soldiers’ councils at all times, and was accountable to them. In the further development of the soldiers’ councils, it soon emerged that representatives of the Central Soldiers’ Council were obliged to belong to the military supreme command as well.

5. The POUM Officers

The POUM officers were mainly former milicianos who went to the front in August and September 1936, had been wounded, and had attended the military academy whilst convalescing. There were many workers among the officers. I will cite just one case. Puj, the brigade commander of the POUM militia on the Huesca front, was a typographer from Barcelona, a POUM member, and 23 years old at the outbreak of the July Revolution. A man of sturdy stature, he went to the front as a miliciano in September 1936. He took part in wild militia operations, which consisted merely of hazardous surprise attacks, before which the Fascists ran like rabbits.

After being wounded some months later, Puj attended the POUM’s military academy in the Lenin Barracks. After graduation he soon became the battalion commander of the 128th Brigade on the Huesca front. He distinguished himself, and several months later went into the front line. As an officer he was also one of the best comrades you could imagine. You always wondered from where Puj found the maturity, experience and confidence which he possessed. Puj was the model revolutionary commander.

In the June offensive before Huesca the brigade commander, Cahuge (a mechanic from Lérida) fell, and the young Puj was promoted to his place on the battlefield. In August Puj was killed, and one of the best hopes of the POUM was lost.

The commanders I came to know were not typical general staff types, but milicianos from the ranks who were promoted to officers, who went through the civil war in the towns and the whole mess at the front, and hence possessed little general staff knowledge, but instead had much rich experience of the partisan-type revolutionary warfare of the militias.

This has its advantages and disadvantages. The revolutionary reliability of the POUM officers, as it was encountered at the front, was beyond any doubt. But they lacked the tactical and strategical skills of modern warfare, and as modern operational and logistical methods were not applied during the partisan warfare or the early stages of the positional war, but only during the most recent offensives, they had little opportunity to become acquainted with them.

Among the older officers there were foreigners, who stood the test less successfully than the miliciano officers. The Spanish comrades among the older officer cadre had already acquired very valuable partisan experiences in the hard school of the civil war years. There have always been special military departments within Spanish revolutionary parties, which carried out an underground semi-military struggle against the military dictatorships, and they also maintained an internal intelligence service for observing both the enemy and its own camp. The larger strikes usually led to armed activities, and both sides carried out acts of individual terror. Already in their partisan groups, the revolutionary workers developed a specific range of revolutionary war skills – explosives, bomb-making, knowledge of weapons, etc. – and from this indomitable school emerged the type of revolutionary worker officer who would later partly lead the militias.

6. Why did Huesca not fall through the Offensive of the Militias?

I have already made clear that the armament of the militias was such that they could hardly defend themselves, even less go onto the attack. Today, even though the conditions at the front are quite different, we can still say that the militias in Aragon would not be able to withstand a serious concerted offensive by the enemy. But it has not come to that. The enemy has been unable to weaken our front.

The enemy has always been well supplied with materials. Through deserters we were continually kept informed of the huge material superiority of the enemy. We heard that numerous German and Italian technicians, instructors, officers and other skilled personnel were supporting the Nationalist troops. There were a few German soldiers in the opposite trenches.

What was more dangerous was that the Germans directed the war machinery, and under their immediate direction Huesca had become a fortress, against which the militias, as often as they tried to storm it, have broken their teeth. It had already proved difficult to take positions. On the front side of Huesca, where we were entrenched, there were tall fortified barracks, and behind them the church, all of which were obviously equipped with heavy machine guns.

The Fascists had dug their deep, cemented bomb-proof trenches in the adjoining outlying land, which was intersected by small hillocks and mounds. The trenches were linked to Huesca through underground tunnels. The Fascists could, therefore, maintain their weapon and ammunition supplies, and, if it came to the worst, dynamite their trenches and seek refuge in Huesca. The higher-placed enemy trenches were more resistant than ours, since they were designed under the direction of foreign military personnel with some experience of war. There were also Italian military personnel in the trenches (Mussolini was more generous than Hitler in providing cannon fodder), otherwise the enemy soldiers were mainly Spanish Fascists, forced recruits and Moors. There were not many Catalans.

It was obvious that the poorly armed militias could do little against the well-defended town of Huesca. Madrid showed that even troops armed with all the modern equipment have trouble in taking a town that is fortified to the last house. The city gates of Santander, Bilbao and Badajoz were opened to the besiegers by traitors, or fell because of the rapid demoralisation of the defenders. All these defeats were the result of the bourgeois counter-revolutionary policy of the Republican government, rather than the direct result of the military siege itself. And so you can see how difficult it would have been for the poorly-armed militias to storm towns!

When critically assessing the militias’ seige of Huesca, it is necessary to take other factors into account. What was the general military situation at the time? The decisive axis of the war had meanwhile shifted to Madrid, and troops and equipment had been withdrawn from other fronts to help Madrid. This placed a heavy burden on the Republican government, but this was necessary if it was not to succumb to Franco.

Secondly, in order to storm a strongly fortified town, its key military positions must be destroyed by bombardment, or the enemy enticed into flanking battles on free terrain, where it can be smashed more easily.

In both cases, however, the militias around Huesca had barely sufficient small arms, let alone heavy weapons, artillery, tanks, flame throwers, trench guns, mortars, armoured cars, bombers, etc., at its disposal. The central government had laid its hands on these from the outset.

There was, of course, a further point of which the seige of Huesca had made us aware. Huesca, like Saragossa, was prior to July a town with a strong CNT presence. The workers could have undermined the town from within by making it easy for the militias to enter the town, if the government had adopted a revolutionary policy which could have won over the peasants. Earlier, where the militias entered villages that had previously been occupied by the Fascists, they were received like long-lost relations. The peasants were establishing their own rural communes even before the last of the milicianos had arrived in the village. And when collectivisation was not forced on them, the peasants and workers always remained friends.

So why did the militias around Huesca fail to achieve what Franco, for his part, achieved in Santander? “Give us the weapons and we will give you Huesca.” That was an actual demand of the workers and militias to the government. But for them to succeed seriously, the committees in the entire Catalan war industry would have needed to take the distribution of weapons into their own hands, and the port authorities would have had to have been under the control of the workers.

In short, the continuation of the revolution would have immediately resulted in the strengthening of the front and the seizure of Huesca and Saragossa. The Aragon front is an eloquent example of the relationship between war and revolution. Huesca had to be seized quickly, as the enemy within the walls managed early on to finish off the revolutionary workers and to fortify the town to the last house. But the government chose a different course. Workers from Huesca who came across into our lines had given a favourable picture, and so it was up until the end of last year. But we lacked the necessary weapons to storm the town when the enemy’s hold over it was still insecure.

When at last the Russian ships with arms cargoes entered the Barcelona docks, the weapons were denied to the CNT and POUM militias. For months the papers of these organisations reported that cargoes of weapons belonging to the central government were still unpacked in the warehouses. They were put aside for the People’s Army. [2]

Was the government afraid that the capture of Huesca and Saragossa by the revolutionary militias would have strengthened the influence of the revolutionaries in Catalonia to the degree that the re-establishment of bourgeois democracy, in Catalonia at least, was unthinkable? Certainly!

However an examination of the issue may begin, it ends with this conclusion: in order to pamper the People’s Army, the militias had to be compromised before the general public. They were not to be allowed to win a victory. This policy was very clearly represented by the Catalan party of ‘proletarian unity’, the PSUC. In spite of the militias being denied the necessary weapons, the PSUC press complained daily that the militias were living a good life, and did not want an offensive on the Aragon front. The Republican censor removed from the war reportage even the smallest successes of the militias. All this is known.

Militarily, this unofficial armistice on the Aragon front only benefitted the enemy. The enemy was allowed time to build huge fortifications. What remained of the revolutionary workers in Huesca were forced into compulsory fortification work and the war industries, or were immediately shot. Deserters told us that at night lorries loaded with corpses left the town, that for sabotage every fifth man was shot, that the town was now quiet, and that it was teeming with soldiers.

The militias also experienced sabotage on the part of the government command at the front, although not so often. I mentioned above the refusal of the high command to agree to our demands to destroy the church towers in Huesca. During a surprise attack on Manicomio last March, our storm battalions were left in the lurch by the government airforce, although it had pledged its support. Sometimes the artillery or airforce failed to intervene at the agreed time, or did not appear at all. All this could be seen as gross negligence, or even as sabotage. [3]

In the first months of the year no government aeroplanes appeared for weeks on end, although our positions were bombed almost daily. Proposed operational plans from our divisional command were vetoed, whilst their precondition, a supply of weapons, piled up.

In June 800 asaltos were placed under our command for an attack on Loma Verde, and by failing, in part, to occupy the positions they were supposed to take, the attack failed. In this last attack, by the way, it was possible to make a comparison between the combat value of the militias and a regular troop unit, the asaltos. The execution of the planned operation was extremely difficult. The target was a hillock around 150 metres in front of Huesca, upon which the Fascists occupied a well extended trench. The supreme command of the eastern front, which handed the responsibility for this operation to our battalion command, had as good as demanded that we should advance as far as the first houses of Huesca, so near to Huesca were these positions situated.

It was impossible to hold a newly-captured position for long in a situation such as this; the enemy knew the distance to the position, its strengths and weaknesses. The enemy could raze the position to the ground by an aerial bombardment. Our advancing troops were obliged to have at their disposal sufficient reserves either to advance further or to make an orderly retreat. An advance to within 150 metres of Huesca with 1,000 men was suicidal. Ordered to retreat, our troops were obliged to return over an unoccupied hillock which was exposed on both sides to the sharpest enemy fire.

The chances of success were accordingly very slim. But then this assault was just a minor part of the supreme command’s general plan. The supreme command wanted the constant harassment of the enemy as part of its big offensive against Chimilla and Huesca.

The asalto command, who had been informed of the plan of attack from our trenches by our officers, considered that the worries of the militia officers were totally unjustified, and reckoned that we would be occupying the position “before breakfast” and that “in 14 days we’ll be drinking coffee in Huesca”.

Amongst ourselves we gave due respect to this dare-devil attitude. At first, the asaltos made a marked impression on us. Strong young soldiers, they all carried brand new Russian guns, and had heavy mobile machine guns, cartridges, hand grenades and mines in abundance. Now, all at once, we could see the weaponry that we had been requesting for months.

The attack commenced at 2.00 a.m. Our troops had sneaked so close to the enemy lines that we could hear them talking amongst themselves. We had to mount a surprise attack. But our first hand grenades were immediately answered by a murderous hail of fire from the enemy’s machine guns and mortars. We were pinned down. Whilst the milicianos held their ground, the asaltos made no attempt to advance further. Their morale was considerably inferior to their weapons, whereas the morale of the milicianos was 10 times better than their weapons.

After three hours of fire a retreat became unavoidable, as daylight was fast approaching. The asaltos were in a state of some panic. Our milicianos gathered up some of the guns which the asaltos had ‘lost’.

The enemy staged a counter-attack in the morning, starting with Junkers trimotor bombers, which raked our point trenches with heavy fire. Everybody huddled in the refugios. Smoke bombs were dropped straight after the bombardment. Our milicianos immediately climbed out of the trenches, as they were expecting an enemy attack under the cover of the smoke, and the trenches offered little protection. The asaltos, for all their better military training, remained huddled in the trenches. Many of them fell victim to the advancing Moorish soldiers, who were expert close-combat fighters. That we managed to recapture our trenches was mainly due to the milicianos, who immediately staged a successful hand grenade attack.

7. The People’s Army and the Militias

Let us now speak of another example. The first Republican offensive was launched on the Huesca front in the second week of June. Caballero himself had stated (I think) in April that the government needed to win time in order to prepare itself thoroughly for large-scale offensives. That was the government’s strategy. In this context, the relationship between the government and the militias became even clearer – we had to refrain from launching large-scale attacks so that the military impetus and material should not be expended prematurely.

Things changed with the encirclement of Bilbao. The supreme command finally had to move onto the offensive, partly to relieve Bilbao, and partly to offset the demoralising effect that would occur with a defeat at Bilbao by a success on another front.

By this time the government’s supreme command was paying great attention to Huesca, and announced the plan of an offensive with Huesca as its target. The big push would occur in combination with the militias of the POUM and the CNT. The ‘mando unico’ (united command) for the eastern front had already been created in April. The militias had been paid since May by the Valencia government. The financial crisis of the Catalan Generalitat had resulted in its being unable to pay the militias after the middle of April. Incidentally, contrary to rumours spread by the PSUC, the refusal to pay the militias 150 pesetas did not create much fuss. The milicianos accommodated themselves without further ado to the unfortunate circumstances. Once paid by the Valencia government, the militias were recognised as official army corps.

General Pozas, an old reactionary, an unpolitical soldier as it were, by which we mean he now owed his allegiance to the PSUC, was appointed the commander of the eastern front. His political commissar was Del Vayo, Foreign Minister under Caballero. [4] At the end of April Pozas inspected the POUM militias on the Huesca front. He expressed his loyalty to the POUM. He had nothing to do with the political wrangling. He assured the POUM officers that their excellent approach to the war could withstand any criticism from the professionals.

His Excellency Pozas (this label seemed unavoidable) was most pleased with the results of his tour of inspection. He assured the command of the POUM’s Lenin Division that everything would be left as before, and the political commissars and officers would remain at their posts. Equally, from now on the militia groups would be armed like the other troop units. Naive folk would have thought that everything was from now on straightforward.

We now belonged to the Republican People’s Army, without, however, His Excellency Pozas having to subscribe to the revolutionary ‘soul’. I do not know what position the POUM Executive Committee had adopted on it. Apparently it was in agreement with this ‘solution’. The divisional command of the POUM seemed to find itself agreeing, without great discussion, with these conditions of the circumstances, once it could no longer “talk itself out of it”.

The plan of the Republican offensive against Huesca was divided into two strategic tasks: firstly, to cut off the Huesca-Jaca road, and secondly, to thrust beyond Huesca, regardless of whether it fell immediately or not, since with the road cut, Huesca would be starved out. A frontal attack on Huesca was to be avoided.

So far the plan seemed to us to be viable. A third operation provided for a thrust beyond Huesca up to the Ebro, in order to bring relief to Bilbao. This seemed rather utopian to us.

The main Huesca-Jaca road was the only lifeline of the almost besieged Huesca, along which flowed the town’s sustenance. Cutting through it would, as we have said, expose Huesca to hunger. In such a precarious position, the enemy would be expecting an attack, and would place themselves outside Huesca for a battle. This would be far more favourable for our troops than making frontal attacks on the town. But we also had to reckon with the fact that an attempt to cut the town’s lifeline would be resisted by the enemy with everything at its disposal. Every attempt by the militias to cut the road had been fruitless.

Much blood had been shed over this section of the Huesca front. The last attempt was by the CNT militias in April. It had almost climbed the long hillock overlooking the road, but it had been repulsed with heavy losses. Had the CNT militias then possessed the material that was now employed in the Republican offensive, the objectives of the breakthrough would have been achieved.

The road was well protected. From Huesca the road ran along an incline of some hillocks, passed by the small town of Chimilla, and then dipped behind some long hillocks. The whole area lay immediately before the front line of the CNT and POUM militias. All the hillocks through which the Jaca road traversed were occupied by Fascists, as was Chimilla. After Chimilla there was a big hill, and from there a plain stretc.hed out. We occupied a wood just in front of the plain, and this was the outermost end of our positions.

Considerable military forces had been concentrated for the Republican operation. There were the Garibaldi International Brigade plus Spanish troop units, CNT and POUM militias, which were to intervene after the attack on Chimilla, large quantities of machine guns, hand grenades, mortars, etc. (we had been adequately armed), 40 tanks, up to 150 aeroplanes, and adequate reserve army units, such as intelligence troops, medical corps, etc. Neither the amount of equipment nor the number of personnel left much to be desired.

The first attack was at dawn in the direction of Chimilla. Our side did not appear to have made any artillery preparations on the previous day. On the other hand, the enemy, which had observed our troop movements, maintained a powerful defensive fire throughout the day. The first thrusts already showed that the enemy had also greatly concentrated its forces.

Despite extremely heavy counter-fire, the International Brigade fought their way to the outskirts of Chimilla. We had carried out a feint attack during the night from our trenches to the left of Chimilla, well coordinated with the International Brigade’s attack from the right. Our field telephone reported that the first groups had penetrated Chimilla before 9.00 a.m. Under the protection of tanks, the Garibaldi shock troops had reached the first houses of Chimilla. A massive bombardment from our heavy artillery began to pound the surrounding hillocks occupied by the Fascists. The government bombers flew in and attacked the enemy’s artillery positions.

Victory seemed certain. With the occupation of Chimilla, the offensive against the Fascist hillocks on the Jaca road had become possible.

But it became clear that the shock troops were unable to hold Chimilla. The reinforcements apparently could not be brought in quickly enough. Moreover, the Fascists’ rapid withdrawal had deceived the Pozas staff as to the actual strength and operational intentions of the enemy. We did not know what the enemy had been doing in Chimilla. It was not possible to take Chimilla by a surprise attack.

We heard that the retreating Fascists had regrouped and returned to Chimilla, and were able to drive our troops out. They spared no energy in their counter-attack. Once back in charge of their positions, the Fascists immediately let loose heavy machine gun and mortar fire upon our retreating troops, who were an easy target in the open terrain. Our whole operation was a failure.

There was a respite from the fighting for the infantry columns. A new assault upon Chimilla had to be prepared, this time making full use of the airforce and the government artillery. General Pozas had investigated the shortcomings of the fighting in order to prepare for a more effective assault.

Chimilla was subjected to intense bombing by around 50 or 60 government aeroplanes, among them five Russian trimotors. These we saw for the first time. They seemed to be larger and more powerful than the Junkers. Again and again they circled over Chimilla, dropping an enormous amount of bombs on it. Chimilla was veiled in smoke for two hours.

We thought that no stone could be left standing on another after that. All life seemed extinguished. The capture of Chimilla would be a walkover. The enemy airforce had not showed itself. The International Brigade once more stormed Chimilla, this time in broad daylight. Suddenly the enemy machine guns hammered out. They had escaped the bombardment. We learnt how the machine gun is able to triumph over heavy military equipment. It remains the most deadly of weapons. The Fascist machine guns slew row after row of our attacking troops. The machine gunners must have been devilishly tough Civil Guards.

The intervention of the government tanks could not delay any further the collapse of our attack. Their freedom of movement was severely restricted by the barrage from the enemy’s rapid-firing guns. From our position we saw three tanks knocked out of action. (We only saw eight of the 40 we were promised. Perhaps the others were not used because of their ineffectiveness.) The tanks were powerless in the face of such a barrage. They presented an easy target on the plain. They drove desperately to and fro, firing ineffectively at Chimilla’s houses with their small calibre guns. Within range of heavy artillery, the tank is a weapon of doubtful value.

A further attack that same night failed as well. Violent aerial battles broke out over the next three days. For a while 150 government aeroplanes were involved. In comparison, the Fascists were able only to transfer between 50 and 60 from other fronts.

The Republican offensive ended with 3000 losses. A few days later we heard that Bilbao had fallen.

There is already much food for thought in this brief survey of the Republican offensive. First of all one notes the obvious chronic weakness of the leadership of the People’s Army. The lack of a strategic leadership, with which the militias have been reproached, showed itself here in an even greater degree on the part of the military professionals, who were controlled solely by the government. Moreover, this offensive showed that the intensification of bourgeois Republicanism was accompanied by the decline in the morale of the regular troops. Finally, the offensive disposed of the idle chatter that insisted that the militias could have taken Huesca a long time before, had they really wanted to. The enemy was always underrated. The hesitations of the government and the supreme command have led to the Fascists today being more equal than ever to the exigencies of war.

And now to the People’s Army. I could not judge the quality of the People’s Army as a whole from our sector of the front. It is, however, possible to make some remarks, taking into account what we could see, and what we heard from reliable sources.

The People’s Army certainly possessed far greater human reserves than the voluntary militias. General Pozas told our militia officers at a meeting that the government had a great advantage over the Fascists in that there were still three age groups to mobilise, which Franco had conscripted some time previously. The government is much better placed in respect of human material.

Moreover, the morale of the government troops stands far above that of the Fascists. On the other hand, we had to make some allowance for the drop in the morale of the Republican troops after the events in Bilbao and Santander. Such occurrences naturally and inevitably strengthen the morale of the Fascist troops. Among the conscripted government troops are layers of bourgeois youth, who have only recently been pressed into military service. Thousands of them deserted to the Fascists at the earliest opportunity.

The military training of the conscripts amounted to many months of barrack-square drill. Large sections of the militias had proved themselves to be militarily capable at the front because their military education was in the hard school of experience at the front. The present state of affairs in the International Brigades enables one to foresee just what those trained in mechanical obedience will be able to achieve.

The composition of the new officers is decisive. The class conscious proletarian element has been almost eliminated, or has been completely subordinated to the military professionals. The new young officers at the front for the first time have only three or six months of military schooling behind them. They are drawn from the petit-bourgeoisie or bourgeoisie. Do not be fooled by the recently acquired PSUC or PCE membership card. Events at the front show their doubtful allegiance to the Republican cause. I know from trustworthy sources that numerous Republican officers deserted to the Fascists on the Saragossa front. This must have had a terrible effect upon their troops, who must have felt betrayed in every attack.

On the other hand, the revolutionary militias are increasingly being eliminated from the body of troops. The POUM militias on the Huesca front were dissolved in July. The young comrades of military age were dispersed and enrolled in regular army units, where an especially vigilant eye was kept on them. The older comrades were sent to the rear, and some were even imprisoned.

Other militia components were placed first in the line of the heaviest fire. This happened at Saragossa. The CNT militias were regrouped slowly, but the longest serving militias were deliberately eliminated. All the time tragedies are being played out – Santander, to mention but one.

The militias were, of course, only capable of a partisan style resistance against the Fascist army, and were not capable of carrying out a modern war. But the defeat of the revolution in the rear hindered the necessary development of the separate militia columns into a regular workers’ and peasants’ Red Army.



1. Lukács was the pseudonym of General Mata Zalka Kemeny, a Hungarian novelist who had trained with the Red Army, and was commander of the Twelfth International Brigade. He was killed by a shell in front of Huesca.

2. The professional army of the Republican government.

3. For the Manicomio de Huesca offensive, cf. Bortenstein’s description, above p.119, which confirms the picture given here.

4. For Pozas, cf. above p.211 n26, and for del Vayo, p.213 n64.

Updated by ETOL: 31.7.2003