Generally lost to history, the Spanish Civil War occurred prior to the outbreak of World War II, and marked one of the first defenses against Fascism, as the Spanish Republicans (Loyalists) fought to save Spain from the military coup led by General Francisco Franco in 1936.
Ben Hughes new book They Shall Not Pass is the wonderful account of the exploits of the XV Brigade’s British Battalion in the battle along the Jarama River on February 12-15, 1937. It expertly chronicles a cast of over 45 characters along with the battlefield detail that Osprey Publishing is known for.
Hughes’ style is engaging, and he does a wonderful job keeping the British combatants straight. Often in books like this it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to who, or at least it is when I read them. Tacked into the book is a list of “Dramatis Personae” in case you do forget who you’re reading about. But enough about that.
Piecing together the events of Jarama from a countless number of memoirs and official accounts They Shall Not Pass opens with a group of British volunteers, mostly idealistic Socialists, giving up comfortable lives in the United Kingdom to enlist in the fight against Fascism. Hughes does yeomen’s work done in explaining why each of the main characters introduced would do such a thing. How strong must your convictions be (whether they’re right or wrong — this book doesn’t take sides) to risk your life in another country’s civil war?
The book’s initial chapters address the lack of training and decent equipment that Republican forces, especially the foreign volunteers, were given. Often grouped with their countrymen and handed a one hundred year old rifle, they were told to engage a professional army backed financially by both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. You get the sense that for many of the volunteers it felt like a game, an excuse to dress up and have an adventure playing army men. For many others, however, it was a chance to prove the strength of their Socialist ideology. Once the battle starts it becomes readily apparent that this will not be a leisurely picnic in second hand military boots, but a fierce fight for survival against a ruthless enemy who is clearly not in this for the lulz.
The majority of the book covers the back and forth between the Republicans and the Nationalists as they try to take and defend the banks of the Jarama River. The descriptions of the battles are intense and very graphic (the Spanish Civil War is renowned for the ruthlessness shown by both sides, although any of the larger atrocities do not occur in this battle). Each advance and defense is given an excellent amount of coverage and analysis. There’s a good sense of the nuts and bolts involved in miliary action, without it resorting to too much mind-numbingly technicality about which charge went up which hill at what time something something something (I tend to space out during those).
Hughes is able to paint each character with enough detail so that they don’t become interchangeable cannon fodder once the bullets start flying. You grow to like many of these people. I was particularly fond of Tom Wintringham, Sam Wild, André Diamant, and Jock Cunningham. I assure you that you will find your own favorites.
Jarama marked the first time that Franco’s armies were defeated. It was an incredibly bloody battle. The Nationalists would lose 20,000 men and the Republicans lost 25,000 themselves. The Republican victory would prove to be short lived. Despite the best of intentions, the International Brigade and the rest the Republican forces were ultimately doomed by in-fighting and a flat out better army in the Nationalists. With the writing on the wall many of the Volunteers high tailed it out of Spain to the cheers of gracious crowds. By 1939 the fighting was over, and Spain was in the hand of Franco and the Fascists.
Hughes is able to take a small, forgotten battle in a largely unknown war and elevate it to high drama. The bravery of the British Battalion against pretty overwhelming odds needs to be more widely known and celebrated. There are few consensus opinions in politics and history, but a low opinion of Fascism seems to be one of them. Everything I am politically is based on reading WWII books and saying, “Boy, this Hitler guy sure sucks,” so to read an account of anyone standing up to Fascism is pretty inspiring.
I’ve always found history to be more engaging than standard fiction. Being a history buff is a lifelong affliction. I was the kid in fifth grade who would check out all the WWI and WWII books out twice. Ben Hughes has added another notch to the list of wonderful books that I’ve read. I highly recommend this to my fellow amateur historians who are looking for a deeper understanding of the Spanish Civil War.
Matt Barham is the Art Director for Game Trade Magazine. Don’t get him started about good history books, you’ll be there for awhile.