Republican Army in Spain

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War it is estimated that the Republic had retained the loyalty of aboonalist parties.

When Francisco Largo Caballero came to power in September 1936 he attempted to create a new Republican Army. With the help of two senior officers, General José Asensio and General Vincente Rojo, he established a central command and appointed generals to command specified areas in Spain. Militias were placed under military law and schools were established to train future officers in the army.

Political commissars were created in the Republican Army in October 1936. These men served as education officers for soldiers who did not have a full understanding of fascism. This included the publication of army newspapers and the teaching of literacy.

In October 1936 large quantities of Soviet tanks and aircraft began arriving in Spain. They were accompanied by a large number of tank-drivers and pilots from the Soviet Union. All told, about 850 Soviet advisers, pilots, technical personnel and interpreters took part in the Spanish Civil War.

A total of 59,380 volunteers from fifty-five countries served in the International Brigades during the war. This included the following: French (10,000), German (5,000), Polish (5,000), Italian (3,350), American (2,800), British (2,000), Canadian (1,000), Yugoslavian (1,500), Czech (1,500) Hungarian (1,000) and Scandinavian (1,000). These men were organized into the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th of the Mixed Brigades.

Volunteers included Bill Alexander, George Orwell, André Marty, Christopher Caudwell, Jack Jones, Len Crome, Oliver Law, Tom Winteringham and John Cornford. Volunteers came from a variety of left-wing groups but the brigades were always led by Communists. This created problems with other Republican groups such as the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and the Anarchists.

The performance of the Republican Army gradually improved but the lack of experienced junior officers meant that they were rarely able to take full advantage of breaking through Nationalist frontlines. In the spring of 1938 the Republicans were unable to block the Nationalist drive to the Mediterranean. Republican forces were also badly beaten in Aragon and Catalonia and at the beginning of February 1939, they began crossing into France.

Members of the Republican Army that were captured were treated harshly. Volunteers, militia officers, political commissars, professional non-commissioned officers, and any soldier who was not a conscript were court-martialled for military rebellion.

After the war it is believed that the government of General Francisco Franco arranged the executions of 100,000 Republican prisoners. It is estimated that another 35,000 Republicans died in concentration camps in the years that followed the war.

Primary Sources

(1) A member of the Labour Party, Emanuel Shinwell initially argued that the British government should give support to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He wrote about his views in his autobiography, Conflict Without Malice (1955)

While the war was at its height several of us were invited to visit Spain to see how things were going with the Republican Army. The fiery little Ellen Wilkinson met us in Paris, and was full of excitement and assurance that the Government would win. Included in the party were Jack Lawson, George Strauss, Aneurin Bevan, Sydney Silverman, and Hannen Swaffer. We went by train to the border at Perpignan, and thence by car to Barcelona where Bevan left for another part of the front.

It soon became clear to me that the bravery of the Republican soldiers was not going to be enough. Ill-equipped, only partially trained, lacking arms (I was always asking to see heavy artillery and was always promised that I should see it - later), the Army seemed to me to be doomed to defeat unless a miracle happened or the democracies intervened.

(2) Bill Paynter, article published in Volunteer for Liberty (5th October 1937)

The Government forces are now on the offensive, and this in itself bears witness to the tremendous growth and development of the Popular Army. We cannot pay too high a tribute to the people of Spain and the Popular Front Government, when we remember that this powerful army has been forged even while, with immense handicaps, the Fascists were being kept at bay. Only the profound faith and determination of a democratic people in the cause they were fighting could have accomplished this. Such an example should sharpen our intelligence and better equip us to participate in the progressive movements of our own countries.

This experience should give us confidence for the future. Even closer relationships must be developed between the British in the Battalion and the Spanish comrades. In training, in reserve, on rest, in battle, there must be no separation by nationalities. We must see the fight as one of a people for whom national barriers do not exist.

Without this close cohesion of all sections, companies, the Battalion cannot be an effective fighting unit. We have therefore to remove bad habits of the past and attain a more intimate knowledge and relationship with our Spanish comrades. With such unity in the command and throughout the Battalion every order and command will be responded to by a united and powerful Battalion.

Our Battalion has earned a name on the battlefronts of Spain of which we can be justly proud. We have taken part in the most decisive battles in the war, and contributed much toward producing the present favourable position for the Government forces. The most decisive battles are just ahead. It is our duty here and at home to continue to assist our Spanish comrades in every possible way until final victory has been won.

With this as our aim we shall be able to continue and accomplish our historic tasks here in Spain, and at the same time inspire the people of Britain into decisive action alongside the peoples of the world to crush Fascism and reaction wherever it raises its head.

(3) Edward Knoblaugh, Correspondent in Spain (1937)

Largo Caballero began to realize the need for immediate drastic action. As president of the U.G.T., he summoned the sub-leaders of this Revolutionary Socialist group and impressed upon them the desperateness of the situation. The result was a round-table conference among the U.G.T., the heads of the Syndicalists National Confederation of Labor (C.N.T.), The Federation of Iberian Anarchists (F.A.I.), The Trotsky Communists (Partido Obrero Unificado Marxists - P.O.U.M.), The Stalin Communists and the Left Republicans. In the first agreement which these divergent factions had been able to reach since the beginning of the war they approved the immediate mobilization of all able-bodied men in Loyalist territory. A decree to this effect was issued. Whether they wanted to join or not, all men between the ages of 20 and 45 were pressed into military service. From this moment on, the Loyalist army ceased to be a voluntary army.

(4) Tom Murray, Voices From the Spanish Civil War (1986)

The role of the commissar of course is an extremely interesting one and a valuable aspect of a popular army. You see, in the days of Cromwell and the Roundheads, they had what was similar to commissars, but they weren't called commissars - they were really religious to some extent. But it's noteworthy that the commissar in the Spanish army had a dual role. He had an equal military status with the commander of the unit to which we was attached as commissar. But he never interfered with the commander unless he felt that something required to be corrected. All the time I was a commissar Jack Nalty, an Irishman, was our company commander, and a very capable man he was. Unfortunately, he was killed in the last stages of the War. Jack Nalty and I of course ran this organization of the Company and only on one occasion did I exercise my authority as a commissar against him. He was dead beat and we were marching along a road with the machine guns and I was becoming more and more conscious of the feeling that we were going in the wrong direction. I said to him, "Well now, don't you think you should halt the Company and let us think about it?" Oh, he wasn't in favour. He says, "We're all right." "Well," I says, "I'm afraid that I've got to exercise my authority as commissar," and I halted the Company. A runner from the British Battalion, whose commissar was Bob Cooney, had been sent down in fact to see where we were. And right enough, if we'd gone round another corner we'd have been bang into a group of Fascists with machine guns. That was the only occasion on which I exercised my authority to supersede the function of the commander of the company. But it illustrates the high responsibility which rested on the shoulders of the commissar.

The commissar was the master of all trades, as it were. Our job was to look after the welfare of the personnel, their clothing, their recreation, their food, the distribution of food, and the general military efficiency. The military efficiency of course was the primary consideration over-shadowing everything else, and we had the job of dealing with any people who were browned off or who had been there maybe for a long time and had come back into the company from the front, from the earlier actions before the rest of us were there at all. And some of them of course were exhausted, mentally and physically exhausted and we had to get them back to a normal state by whatever form of special treatment that was desirable.

One of the jobs of the commissar when people were killed was to take their personal effects off their bodies and send them home to their people. Also our job was to bury the dead. And as a matter of fact, up on these sierras or mountains, Sierra Pandols, you could scarcely get enough earth to cover them. It was a most difficult job finding ways and means of covering the dead bodies.

Then another job that the commissar had to do was to create a wall newspaper. And we had wall newspapers with all kinds of press cuttings and contributions from various people who were writing up little stories and so on, and writing up reminiscences and their observations and so on. And the wall newspaper was always a popular rendezvous for people to meet and discuss things.

(5) Ernest Hemingway was interviewed by a representative of the Spanish Press Agency on 11th May 1937.

All civil wars are naturally long. It takes months, sometimes years, to create a war organisation of the front and the rear and to turn thousands of ardent civilians into soldiers. And this transformation can only take place by their going through the living experience of battle. If you neglect this fundamental rule you risk getting a false idea of the character of the Spanish civil war.

A great number of American newspapers, admittedly in good faith, not very long ago were giving their readers the impression that the Government was losing the war owing to its military inferiority at the outbreak of the conflict. The error of these American newspapers was to mistake the character of the civil war, and not to deduce from it the logical conclusions of the history of the American Civil War.

The Spanish military situation, following the encouraging days of March, has consistently improved. A new regular army is taking shape which is a model of discipline and courage and which is secretly developing new cadres in the military academy and schools. I sincerely believe that this new army, born of the struggle, will shortly be the admiration of all Europe, despite the fact that hardly two years ago the Spanish army was considered an agglomeration of individuals resembling actors in a comic opera.

As a war correspondent I must say that in few countries does a journalist find his task facilitated to such a degree as in Republican Spain, where a journalist can really tell the truth and where the censorship helps him in his work, rather than impeding him. While the authorities in the rebel zone do not permit journalists to enter conquered cities until days after, in Republican Spain journalists are asked to be eye-witnesses of events.

(6) Eleanora Tennant, Spanish Journey (1936)

In a small village beyond the town of Merida, Jose halted the car so that I might examine a wall surrounding the village cemetery which had been used by Red firing-squads as a place of execution. This wall was about 7 feet high, and part of the wall, about 12 feet in length, was pitted with hundreds of bullet-holes. Only a space about a foot in width at the top and a foot wide at the bottom was free of bullet-marks.

Talavera had suffered the usual Red atrocities before the Nationalists arrived. More than 100 of the inhabitants were shot, including a number of priests and nuns. Many of these suffered appalling tortures. The prison conditions as recounted by a refined English woman (married to a Spaniard), who had been in Talavera under the Reds, are too horrible to record in detail. Suffice to say that over 50 men and women were imprisoned for many weeks in one small room and never allowed to leave it under any pretext. Hardly any furniture and no conveniences of any kind were supplied. The centre of the room had to be used as a public latrine. The atmosphere became so unbearable that some died and others continually lost consciousness.

(7) Statement issued by the Nationalist government on 3rd May 1937.

With the unanimity which might appear to suggest obedience to orders many English and French newspapers are using a comparatively minor event such as the hypothetical bombardment of a small town as the basis of a campaign designed to present 'Nationalist' Spain as anti-humanitarian and opposed to the principles of the laws of nations, thus serving the ends of the Soviet faction which dominates the Spanish 'Red' zone. These newspapers clamour against the bombardment of open towns, attempting to lay the blame for such outrages upon the 'Nationalists'. 'National' Spain energetically rejects so injurious a campaign and denounces these manoeuvres before the world.

The newspapers now crying aloud remained silent when in Madrid, under the presidency of the 'Red' Government, thousands of innocent beings were murdered. Over 60,000 died at the hands of the 'Red' hordes without any motive other than the whims of a militiaman or a servant's dislike, in this way perished old people, women, and children, all of them innocent. In the Madrid prisons murders were committed without check under the supervision of the 'Red' Government agents. There fell intellectuals, politicians, many Republicans, Liberals, Democrats, and members of the Right.

At Barcelona also 50,000 or 60,000 horrible murders have been committed, and there have been many thousands more killed in Malaga, Valencia, and other large towns after barbarous tortures. This was not war. It was crime and vengeance. But then the newspapers which are today defending so-called humanitarian principles were silent or spoke timidly or even attempted to justify such barbarous crimes. They were silent too when bishops and thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were cruelly done to death and beautiful artistic treasures were burned in the churches of Spain.

The hospitals at Melilla, Cordova, Burgos, Saragossa, and recently the schools at Vallodolid and towns miles from the front have been bombarded by the 'Red' aeroplanes. There were numerous victims among the women and children without any word of protest being heard from the self-appointed champions of humanity. The city of Oviedo has been literally destroyed by the 'Red Huns' and aeroplanes in the same silence.

And now the Basque Soviet allies have blown up Eibar, a hard-working industrial city before the entry of our troops. They used dynamite and liberally sprayed petrol until most of the buildings were destroyed. But those who today weep for Guernica remained unmoved and suffered no scandal. Irun suffered a similar fate under the eyes of European journalists and witnesses from Hendaye in the same negligent or culpable silence.

Guernica, less than four miles from the fighting line, was an important crossroads filled with troops retiring towards other defences. At Guernica an important factory has been manufacturing arms and munitions for nine months. It would not have been surprising if the 'National' 'planes had marked Guernica as an objective. The laws of war allowed it, the rights of the people notwithstanding. It was a classical military objective with an importance thoroughly justifying a bombardment. Yet it was not bombarded.

It is possible that a few bombs fell upon Guernica during days when our aeroplanes were operating against objectives of military importance. But the destruction of Guernica, the great fire at Guernica, the explosions which during the whole day occurred at Guernica - these were the work of the same men who at Eibar, Irun, Malaga, and countless towns of Northern and Southern Spain demonstrated their ability as incendiarists.

The Spanish and part of the foreign press duly reported the 'Red' Militia's threats to destroy Madrid before the 'National' troops entered it. The blowing up of great buildings which are today still mined has been systematically prepared by the 'Red' Government, which is indirectly served by those now clamouring about Guernica. Let this manoeuvre at the service of 'Red' Spain cease and let the world know that Guernica's case, though clumsily exploited, turns against this Government of incendiarists and assassins, who at Russia's orders pursue the systematic destruction of the national wealth of Spain.

(8) Manuel Portela Valladares, the Spanish prime minister between 30th December 1935 and 19th February 1936, was interviewed in Barcelona on 8th January 1938.

My opinion is that the Republican army is stronger than the rebel army. I said this three months ago, and now the capture of Teruel has proved it to the world. The northern front collapsed because it was technically impossible to defend, because it lacked unity of command, and because it was geographically inaccessible. In spite of his 80,000 Italians and 10,000 Germans, in spite of all the supplies provided by these two great nations, Franco is now being defeated because he has aroused the spirit of independence in the Spanish people.

Ten thousand officers are graduating from the Republican academies each year. War production has been organised. The Republican command, which contains 6,000 officers belonging to the former Spanish army, has growing intelligence and technical services. But nothing is more tremendous than the spirit of resistance which has withstood all defeats. The war of the Republic is only now beginning. The Negrin Government has restored order in Republican Spain to such a degree that the percentage of crimes is lower than ever before. It has instituted full and normal constitutional law and respect for this law.

(9) Juan Negrin, radio broadcast (27th February 1938)

The loss of Teruel was an episode of the war brought about by the enormous quantity of arms and men sent to the assistance of Franco by Italy and Germany. We need the aid of no one. With the men, material, and ideals at our disposal we are certain of ultimate victory, which has been so long postponed. The delay in victory is due solely to the intervention of foreign Powers and the injustice of the Non-Intervention Committee which hinders our purchase of armaments.

We believe that German and Italian superiority in armaments will not last long and that the Spanish Government with its resources will supply the Republican Army with all the aeroplanes and war material which are required, superior to the Fascists. The Spanish people have shown in history what they are capable of when their country and liberties are in danger and at stake. The country of so much suffering and of so great morale will win in the long run.

(10) Francisco Franco, statement (18th July, 1938)

Our fight is a crusade in which Europe's fate is at stake. That is why since the beginning Russia has taken her place unconditionally on the side of the Spanish Republic by sending tanks and a thousand war-planes, and by mobilizing the undesirables of all Europe to fight for the Red Army. Our triumph is immense, in spite of the difficulties of the enterprise. No difficulties have prevented the rescue of over three million Spaniards from Red barbarism during the second triumphal year.

I beg your affectionate remembrance of our brothers who are suffering from the effects of lawlessness in the Red zone, and your prayers for the martyrs of our cause. I pay tribute to those who have fallen far from their own countries - the natives, the volunteers, the legionaries who left their home to enrol in the forces of the crusade and to demonstrate in Spain the fullness of their countries' identification with the cause of firmness and friendship professed by them towards Spain.

The Reds assassinated over 70,000 in Madrid, 20,000 in Valencia, 54,000 in Barcelona. Such crimes are the work of the Comintern and its agents Rosenberg, Marti, Negrin, Del Vayo - all servants of Soviet Russia.

Spaniards have a duty to remember that Christian charity is boundless for the deluded and the repentant but they must observe the dictates of prudence and not allow the infiltration of the recalcitrant enemies of Spain. Those proceeding from a politically infested area must undergo quarantine to avoid the contamination of the community.

I denounce the new Red campaigns of those posing as defenders of Spanish independence against foreign invasion. The foreign invasion came through the Catalan frontier, whence entered the undesirables who sacked and destroyed Spanish towns and villages, looted banks, destroyed homes, and stole our patrimony of art.

The Reds who pursued these treacherous tactics in the Nationalist rear, in attempting to destroy our unity, will continue these tactics after the war, when our vigilance and our care for the purity of our creed must increase. The Nationalist movement has ousted the old political intrigues and is guiding the nation to greatness and prosperity.

Spain was great when she had a State Executive with a missionary character. Her ideals decayed when a serious leader was replaced by assemblies of irresponsible men, adopting foreign thought and manners. The nation needs unity to face modem problems, particularly in Spain after the severest trial of her history.

Separatism and class war must be abolished and justice and education must be imposed. The new leaders must be characterized by austerity, morality, and industry.

Spaniards must adopt the military and religious virtues of discipline and austerity. All elements of discord must be removed.