George Orwell route

George Orwell spent the freezing winter of 1937 on the Alcubierre front in Aragon. The Sierra de Alcubierre at heights of 700-800 metres dominates the plains of the Ebro Depression and who controlled the sierra would control the northern access to Zaragoza, and so the Republican spent great efforts trying to break through the front here. The trenches, refuges and other military remains have been now restored and rebuilt as part of the so-called Ruta George Orwell. Panels explain the historical context.

The trenches and fortifications at Monte Izaro have been rebuilt with mocked-up sandbags, barbed-wire and information panels describing Orwell’s experiences here. This forms part of the “Ruta George Orwell” set up by the government in part to attract tourists to this often forgotten corner of Aragón. Orwell’s commander was a portly captain called Georges Kopp. The two men got on, behaving like xxxxx. Claiming falsely to be an ex-Belgian military officer and successful engineer, Kopp had come to fight in Spain in September 1936, possibly as a way of escaping from a broken marriage.

Orwell was not in high spirits when he arrived in the village of Alcubierre:

It was vile weather, with alternate mist and rain. The narrow earth roads had been churned into a sea of mud, in places two feet deep, through which the lorries struggled with racing wheels and the peasants led their clumsy carts which were pulled by strings of mules, sometimes as many as six in a string, always pulling tandem. The constant come-and-go of troops had reduced the village to a state of unspeakable filth. It did not possess and never had possessed such a thing as a lavatory or a drain of any kind, and there was not a square yard anywhere where you could tread without watching your step. The church had long been used as a latrine; so had all the fields for a quarter of a mile round. I never think of my first two months at war without thinking of wintry stubble fields whose edges are crusted with dung. More here including his rather negative views on Aragonese villages.

Temperatures dropped that winter to -18ºC and real day-today for both sides was keeping warm. Today they are forested in scrub and low trees, but as many photos attest and Orwell described, in 1937 they were bare, their trees long since felled for firewood, the slopes overgrazed by goats. Orwell grew to hate the huge rats which scuttled through the trenches at night, surely leading him to imagine their use in Room 101 in 1984. He also described the lice-ridden clothes, the interminable political arguments in the POUM militia, and the woeful lack and quality of their gear and weapons – some of his comrades had weapons dating from the Crimean War, in part due to Soviet pressure not to supply the non-Soviet aligned POUM’s militias. 

The boredom was occasionally broken by the shots of snipers and attacks from enemy planes,  on one occasion dropping “white glittering things that turned over and over in the air”. They turned out to be copies of the Heraldo de Aragón printed in Zaragoza on 9 February 1937 celebrating the fall of Malaga to demoralise the Republican militia 

Around 15 February 1937, Orwell was transferred to the siege of Huesca.

Fascist positions at San Simón (Tres Huegas)

A few kilometres further on the A-129 towards Lecinena (wooden signpost on the right), a Francoist military camp just behind the frontline has been restored. The difference in quality of the facilities compared with the Republican militia positions is striking. Parts of the camp are concreted over and there is a stone kitchen. A bunk room has also been restored with a dozen sleeping places, their reduced length reminding the visitor of how short Spaniards were in the 1930s.

Above the camp is a car park and an esplanade with a Francoist statue to a group of falangists who lost their lives here on the hilltop of San Simón. On the night of 9th April 1937, a group of Catalan Republicans of the Maciá- Companys division silently crept up on the position and killed 50-80 Falangists. Many of the the defenders had their throats slit in their sleep so as not would not raise the alarm, although the Catalans only managed to defend the position for another night. Those who died were anointed as martyrs by the Franco regime and the site became as Victor Pardo succinctly told me “Aragón’s Valley of the Fallen”, a place of yearly pilgrimage on the day of the slaughter for the regime and its local supporters. An information board, shows the hill in 1974 with several thousand Franco supporters who had come here to pay homage to their dead. As of 2017, just a handful of old people turn up accompanied by a scary dozen neo-nazis who daub their slogans on the concrete trig point.

At the entrance to the camp there is a memorial stone, decorated with a cross and symbol of the Falange remembers in Spanish; “Here with a heroic shout were silenced many voices who clamoured for Fatherland, Bread and Justice.”  “Por la Patria, el Pan y la Justicia” was a Falangist slogan made popular by a speech by its leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The stone is regularly repainted and adorned with fresh flowers.

Accommodation

There aren’t many options in the area, but the reformed monastery of Albergue Monegros near Lecinena  (www.alberguemonegros.com) is an interesting place to stay with good meals. The building dates from the 13th century although it was partially destroyed in the Napoleonic and Civil wars. It had been taken by Republican militiamen in the summer of 1936, but fell two months later as the Nationalists moved into the Sierra de Alcubierre. Ask the manager to show you the Nationalist cartoons they’ve found in the rooms.

See also

Spanish Civil War guided tours in Barcelona

Civil War Interpretation Centre in Robres

Part of the George Orwell Route is formed by a great little interpretation centre on the war in the Monegros in the village of Robres, including Orwell’s time in Aragón. I was most struck by a wall containing the names of more than 8500 Aragonese men and women who were shot by the Francoists during the war and until 1944. Open. Saturday mornings and late afternoons, and Sunday mornings.

The George Orwell Route and the museum work done on the battlefront in the Monegros was the brainchild of local journalist Victor Pardo.

Links

  • Good page in Spanish with lots of details and maps of the front.
  • Orwell on the Aragon Front Good article: “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.
  • The George Orwell route
  • Photo of the Aragon Front Orwell is pictured with other members of the POUM, and his wife Eileen. She had been staying in Barcelona while Orwell fought