The Fifth Regiment

The Fifth Regiment was established by the Communist Party on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Based on the ideas of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, important leaders included Juan Modesto and Enrique Lister. It fought primarily in the battles in and around Madrid throughout the second-half of 1936. The Fifth Regiment eventually had a membership of 15,000 men but was dissolved on 21st January 1937.

Primary Sources

(1) Claude Cockburn, The Daily Worker (7th September, 1936)

The story of the creation of the Fifth Regiment of the militia - which, together with its fifteenth company being formed today is shortly to become a division - is too long to tell here with anything approaching adequacy.

This regiment is the backbone of the People's Army on fronts around Madrid and its steel companies and victory brigades have been active on other fronts, too.

In a magnificently furnished room, among gorgeous tapestries, pictures and carved bookcases full of rare volumes in costly bindings, I attended a few days ago a meeting of all the commanders of the companies of the Fifth Regiment from all sections of the sierra and Extremadura fronts.

There were present all ages, all trades. There were mechanics, chauffeurs, shopkeepers, bootmakers, bakers and barbers.

In overalls, with stars showing the rank to which they had been elected by the men under their command, with pistols and rifles, they had come straight from the battle front to take part in a conference.

Every man reported on the military, political and general situation on his section of the front. Each report was given briefly from notes scribbled while in the front line, then briefly discussed by all.

Problems which would have disconcerted and even appalled men of lesser character and ability or men fighting for a lesser cause, were described and dealt with in a spirit of cool objectivity and with a calm grasp of the whole situation - local, national and international - which frequently gave one an impression of being present at a meeting of leaders from some almost fabulous or legendary race of persons endowed with more than human qualities.

(2) André Marty, letter sent to the General Consul of the Soviet Union in Barcelona (14th October, 1936)

In the period from 18th July to 1st September, the members of the Communist party were absorbed with the armed struggle. Thus, all of the work of the party was reduced to military action, but largely in an individual sense, rather than from the standpoint of political leadership of the struggle. At best, the party committees discussed urgent questions (the collection of weapons and explosives, supplies, questions of housing, and so on) but without setting forth perspectives for the future or still less following a general plan.

Beginning on 18th July, many leaders headed the struggle and remained at this work later, during the formation of the columns. For example. Cordon is the assistant commander of the Estremadura column; Uribe, the deputy for Valencia has the same position in the Teruda column; and Romero is in the column that is at Malaga; del Barrio is in the column at Saragossa. But it must be said that only a very few of the leaders have the requisite military abilities (I do not mean personal bravery). Thus, of the four just mentioned, Cordon is a brilliant commander, del Barrio is quite good, and the rest are worthless from a military point of view.

The political activity of the party has been reduced to the work of the leadership (editorship of the newspapers, several cells, demarches to the ministries). Party agitation, not counting what is carried out in the press, has come to naught. Internal party life has been reduced to the discussion of important, but essentially practical and secondary, questions.

Meanwhile, recruiting has moved and continues to move at a very rapid pace. The influx of new members into the party is huge. For the first time intellectuals and even officers are being drawn into the party. Already the most active elements from the middle cadres began in July to set up militia units which subsequently were transformed into the Fifth Regiment. The general staff of the Fifth Regiment, consisting of workers or officers who are Communists or sympathizers - this is the best thing that we have in the entire fighting army.

(3) Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, letter sent to the General Consul of the Soviet Union in Barcelona (14th October, 1936)

In Madrid there are up to fifty thousand construction workers. Caballero refused to mobilize all of them for building fortifications around Madrid ("and what will they eat") and gave a total of a thousand men for building the fortifications. In Estremadura our Comrade Deputy Cordon is fighting heroically. He could arm five thousand peasants but he has a detachment of only four thousand men total. Caballero under great pressure agreed to give Cordon two hundred rifles, as well. Meanwhile, from Estremadura, Franco could easily advance into the rear, toward Madrid. Caballero implemented an absolutely absurd compensation for the militia - ten pesetas a day, besides food and housing. Farm labourers in Spain earn a total of two pesetas a day and, feeling very good about the militia salary in the rear, do not want to go to the front. With that, egalitarianism was introduced. Only officer specialists receive a higher salary. A proposal made to Caballero to pay soldiers at the rear five pesetas and only soldiers at the front ten pesetas was turned down. Caballero is now disposed to put into effect the institution of political commissars, but in actual fact it is not being done. In fact, the political commissars introduced into the Fifth Regiment have been turned into commanders, for there are none of the latter. Caballero also supports the departure of the government from Madrid. After the capture of Toledo, this question was almost decided, but the anarchists were categorically against it, and our people proposed that the question be withdrawn as inopportune. Caballero stood up for the removal of the government to Cartagena. They proposed sounding out the possibility of basing the government in Barcelona. Two ministers - Prieto and Jimenez de Asua - left for talks with the Barcelona government. The Barcelona government agreed to give refuge to the central government. Caballero is sincere but is a prisoner to syndicalist habits and takes the statutes of the trade unions too literally.