by John Corcoran
Don Watson and John Corcoran recorded the memories of many International Brigade veterans from the North East of England in their book An Inspiring Example and in the summer of 2002 were privileged to be shown by Seve Montero of the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades the remains of the British and Irish Battalions positions on the Jarama front. In February 1937 having failed to take Madrid by frontal assault, Franco gave orders for the main road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A fascist force of 40,000 men crossed the Jarama River on 11th February 1937. In the Battle of Jarama alone, 7000 Republican soldiers, including Christopher Caudwell , gave their lives in the fight against fascism.
On 12th February, at what
became known as Suicide Hill (seen to the left of the picture), the Republicans
suffered heavy casualties. The British and Irish battalion was forced to
order a retreat back to the next ridge. The Fascists then advanced up Suicide
Hill and were routed by Republican machine-gun fire; it is believed that
Christopher Caudwell was killed whilst manning a machine gun in this phase
of the battle. Coming under heavy fire, the British and Irish, now numbering
only 160 out of the original 600, had to establish defensive positions
along the “sunken road” which is off the road between San Martin
de la Vega and Morata de Tajuna.
A view from a gun slit in
a defensive position built by the British and Irish battalion, one of the
more durable of the defences at the site, it looks across to where the
fascists forces were arraigned against the International Brigade’s (IB’s)
positions. Many veterans we interviewed referred to an abiding memory of
the perfume of wild thyme on the Jarama battlefield, the same scent pervades
their positions today, and was particularly noticeable on the warm breeze
that evening when these photographs were taken.
One of the gun positions
on the IB’s entrenchments opposite Suicide Hill, one of the few stone built
defensive positions to be found on this part of the battle field, although
there are numerous defensive diggings still to be seen in and around the
area. Surprisingly perhaps, the area has apparently not changed greatly
since 1937, being of use only as marginal agricultural land
Another stone defended gun
position, as with all of the locations visited there was a considerable
amount of rusting shrapnel and other wartime detritus strewn around. According
to Seve Montero, a local scrap dealer made a small fortune in the years
after the war removing the heavy ordinance, but smaller items such as bullets
and shrapnel remain all over the site.
A view, from the main road
from Morata de Tajuna, where the remains of the “clenched fist” memorial
are deposited. The surviving British and Irish battalion members constructed
the memorial after the battle. It was a block stone construction of a clenched
fist and had a commemorative inscription in Spanish carved upon it. It
would have been visible from the road when it was first erected. Unsurprisingly
perhaps, the fascists bulldozed the memorial after their victory, but the
component blocks still lay strewn beside this bend in the road.
Directly opposite the remains
of the “clenched fist” memorial you can look down on the village of
Morata de Tajuna. This was the main base behind the front line for immediate
medical care. Most casualties of the battle were initially buried where
they fell, but after the battle the villagers removed many of the bodies
and buried them in the village, in collective graves, which the fascists
were later to desecrate.
A shot of one of the component
blocks of the “clenched fist” memorial, the words “ AIDA DE LA…” are still
clearly visible. Nearby other bulldozed blocks had continuing words carved
upon them, one had the year “1937” inscribed upon it.
This is the first memorial
to the fallen of Jarama in the cemetery at Morata de Tajuna placed by Francois
Mazou, a French International Brigade volunteer. Immediately after
the battle, as many of the bodies of the fallen which could possibly be
retrieved from the surrounding battlefields were buried in the local cemetery.
Once the Franco regime was fully established, a concerted effort was made
to remove these remains from the consecrated grounds of the cemetery, and
the remains were literally thrown on to the waste ground behind the cemetery
walls. Francois Mazou, appalled to discover that the resting place of so
many of his comrades had been defiled, returned later from France with
this memorial stone and placed it at the far end of the cemetery.
John Corcoran and Don Watson
(l-r) in front of the only memorial plaque to the British writers who fell
in defence of the Spanish Republic in the Residencia de Estudiantes in
the Pinar area of Madrid http://www.residencia.csic.es/english/info/where.htm
This is the entrance to a
building used by the British and Irish Battalion throughout the battle
and referred to by many interviewed volunteers as the “Cookhouse”, it is
now once again a restaurant and is located on the road between Morata de
Tajuna and Chinchon. The old wooden entrance gate and the tiled perimeter
wall, remarkably, remain just as described by many Jarama veterans.
This memorial is just above
the memorial stone placed by Francois Mazou and is dedicated to the members
of International Brigade who fell at Jarama . It is moving to visit the
memorial in the cemetery, and the presence of floral and written tributes
in front of the wall plaque and memorial stone provides confirmation that
the sacrifice of Christopher Caudwell and his many comrades has not been
Photos and text by John Corcoran
Page by Helena Sheehan