Orwell on the Aragon Front
George Orwell fought on the Aragon Front in the Spanish Civil War around Alcubierre and later near Huesca. One of the front line positions he fought at has been preserved and reconstructed and is well worth a visit.
I drove south out of Huesca on the N330. About 15 kms out there is a signpost turning for Alcubierre. Heading east along this road it is narrow and flat. The land on either side is under cultivation but it seems otherwise to be an arid and dry area. There are low hills further east, to the north and south, Los Monegros.
Alcubierre is a small town. Orwell in not very complementary to then village where he spent some days before being sent to a position at the front, to the west. He was there in the dead of winter but it was early summer when I visited. It is hard now to imagine what it must have been like but Orwell makes a point of telling us how cold and muddy it was there during his stay.
His period in and around Alcubierre is notable for a number of reasons though. Firstly it was in Alcubierre that he received his first weapon for use in the war against fascism. He said though: ‘I got a shock of dismay when I saw the thing they gave me.’ It turned out to be a gun more than 40 years old – a German Mauser from 1896! Indeed the reality of ‘civil war within the civil war’ that was, at this time, beginning to gain momentum on the Republican side was brought home to him starkly by this key incident. He described the gun as follows: ‘It was rusty, the bolt was stiff, the wooden barrel-guard was split; once glance down the muzzle showed that it was corroded and past praying for’.
Alcubierre reminded me of a small market town in Ireland though it a lot dryer and hotter of course. But there was as they say a good country smell in the air. In front of the town hall, there was a kids’ playground area. The town hall itself was under renovation. A small cafe was open but overall it seemed like a sleepy place. But then I was there in and around siesta time. There were no signs anywhere around – that I could see anyway – for La Ruta Orwell. There were no signs anywhere around – that I could see anyway – for La Ruta Orwell. Like so much in Spain today to do with the Civil War, there is uncertainty about what place the Civil War should occupy. And of coure there is uncertainty – and in many cases, deep unease – about how to deal with the many scars that are there to see still to this day
Taking the road south out of Alcubierre, you veer to the west. There is a lot of desiccated vegetation and a white-grey ground which looks generally poor and unproductive. The road itself is good – it goes to Lecinena and then on into Zaragoza. As it climbs into the Monegros there are good views back toward Alcubierre and Monazon.
About 12 kms out on this road there is a small sign – quite easily missed – on the left hand size of the road: La Ruta Orwell. The sign leads onto a narrow unsealed road. Take it slowly. It goes uphill and winds for a bout 1.5 km. Then you come to a fork in the road. There should be a sign for which direction to take at this point but it was missing when I was there. Take the left hand fork in the road. This veers around sharply in a horseshoe and goes to hill top just about visible from back where the fork in the road was. The restored site is just at the top there.
It is an impressive re-construction. There are explanatory panels giving good background on the Alcubierre Front and on Orwell’s own observations. It is possible to see clearly from the vantage point of this restored frontline position what Orwell meant when he said ‘Now that I had seen the front I was profound disgusted’. The fascist positions were on the far off hills and the soldiers manning those position could barely be seen. The cold and boredom occupied Orwell’s day. There are occasional brushes with the enemy but there is a sense of no real movement. In another important observation made at this stage by Orwell, he explains how different the army is that he is now a member of is from a ‘traditional army’ – he spent some time in the British Army of course. He said ‘.., There was no military rank in the ordinary sense; not titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working of the classless society.’
A good deal of information is provided at the site. It is impressive and the general overview provided is good. One can see clearly the lie of the land – the difficulty in the terrain.
Overall is it well worth a visit. Armed with a copy of Homage To Catalonia you get a good feel for what it must’ve been like. You cannot escape though the sense of betrayal that Orwell unveils in HTC. Militias were fighting for a new society armed with outdated weapons. Yet not so far away, behind the front lines, the police and Guardia Civil were being armed with the latest weaponry for the eventual purpose of suppressing the revolution.
See also Ruta Orwell Monegros