PETER FROST looks back 75 years to celebrate the heroes of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Spanish Civil War.
Eric Edney was a long way from home in the hot dry summer of 1938. He was camped on the banks of Spain’s biggest river the mighty Ebro.
Eric, a lifelong communist from Wiltshire, volunteered to serve in the International Brigades. He arrived in Spain January 1937.
Tomorrow Eric and his International Brigade comrades would cross the river to re-establish communication with the main Republican forces.
Franco and his fascist rebels had succeeded in splitting the legitimate Spanish Republic and its army in two. Tomorrow’s advance would see Republican Spain united again. At least that was the plan.
Tonight Eric had another important job to do; he, and the entire International Brigade were firm believers in the socialist maxim, coined by 1912 women textile strikers in Massachusetts – “Give us bread but give us roses”.
Even in the harsh and difficult conditions of this Spanish battlefield Eric had borrowed a wind-up gramophone to organise a cultural evening of music.
Although the XV brigade had their own stirring battle hymns, tonight, on the eve of battle the soldiers wouldn’t want their famous Jarama Valley or Viva la Quinta Brigada.
Many years after he returned from Spain Eric would tell me that the most popular music requested by his British comrades at times like this were pastoral works by the likes of Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst and George Butterworth.
Eric and his listeners knew these were composers who had honed their left politics at William Morris‘s Hammersmith Socialist Society Meetings. Their strongly held principles could be heard in their music.
More important tonight however, these gentle, but powerful, melodies also brought the atmosphere of cool green English meadows to the bloodstained sun-baked sands of Spain.
The battle of the Ebro was to be the last major Republican offensive of the conflict. It was the longest and the bloodiest of the entire Spanish Civil War.
Eric himself would be wounded in the savage fighting.
Sadly this battle would actually be the opening act of the death of democracy in Spain for forty years. It was to be the beginning of the end for the young Spanish Republic.
Republican troops started to cross the Ebro River under cover of darkness on the night of 24-25th of July. The few tanks they had were winched across on steel cables through the foaming torrent.
One young tank driver, Juan Moreno, confessed his fear of the crossing to his son Manuel much later in life. Not fear of the fighting to come but because he could not swim.
The initial attack was successful although the crossing was hard. Once across they fought on for 25 miles to the outskirts of Gandesa.
Franco rushed his fascist units to the front from other sectors to try to stop the Republican advance.
Nazi planes of the German Condor Legion rained down bombs hampering the Republican supply chain. Bridges across the Ebro were hit hard.
Italian fascist aircraft also played their part in the fierce fighting.
By early August a combination of Franco’s fascists, German and Italian support from the air and superior artillery were tearing the heart out of the Republican offensive.
The tide of the war was turning. It seemed like this might be the beginning of the end.
Republicans tried to hold the ground they had taken, sometimes at any cost. The hard relentless fighting went on for over three months.
By early November the Fascist forces had exhausted the Republican army.
It wasn’t just the enemy at home. Morale was hit hard by news from abroad. British and French appeasement of Hitler at Munich seemed to end any hope of an anti-fascist alliance.
Finally, after all that fighting, the Republicans were back where they started, driven back to the banks of the Ebro river.
The Republican losses had been heavy; 75,000 killed, wounded or captured.
Franco’s fascists seized the initiative and launched their offensive across the Ebro and into Catalonia.
Now only Madrid, Barcelona and a few other strongholds were held by the Republican’s; gradually they too fell to the fascists.
Franco finally proclaimed his victory on radio on 1 April 1939 when the last of the Republican units surrendered.
The armed rehearsal was over. Just six months later the whole of Europe would be at war as Hitler and Mussolini flexed the muscles they had built up in Spain.
German and Italian Fascists had sniffed victory in Spain and it had given them a taste for a fascist Europe, a fascist world.
Tragically the lessons of Spain simply had not been learned.
Franco took his personal revenge on Republican enemies. His were harsh reprisals.
Thousands of Republicans were imprisoned and as many as 200,000 were executed.
Many others were put to slave labour, they built railways, drained swamps, and cut canals.
He was particularly vicious in his treatment of the Catalonians. He banned their language and drove their rich culture underground.
The Communist Party was banned although brave heroes like Julian Grimau and many of his comrades worked underground in Spain or organised in exile.
Hundreds of thousands of Republicans fled abroad, half a million went to France where as refugees they were confined in squalid internment camps. Some lived in inhuman conditions corralled on French beaches.
Many Spanish and Catalonian children were sent to a new life abroad, away from Franco and his fascist ways.
Meanwhile Eric Edney’s memory lives on, one of his finest poems, Salut! is still popular. You will find it in many anthologies along with other of his poems such as The Battalion Goes Forward.
Salut! is still often read aloud whenever and wherever a new generation gather to pay tribute to those who fought for democracy in Spain and on the banks of the Ebro River 75 years ago.
Some of those heroes came in International Brigades from all over the world to fight fascism in Spain.
Many more were Spaniards and Catalonians fighting Franco in their own native soil.
Few of those Civil War heroes are still alive. Over the last few years we have said our last goodbyes to many International Brigade veterans. Eric Edney himself died in the summer of 1989.
Tragically they were not successful, fascism was not halted, and the world paid a high price. We are paying it still.
What we do pledge is that the heroism, and sacrifice of those who fought Franco and his fascists will never be forgotten.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star in July 2013 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of the Ebro River.
Eric’s Poem Salut!
Men of all lands from field and factory fled
United in purpose, but of that purpose dumb
to one another till Spain welcomed them
And, understanding each man hither came
First heard the word: Salud
A nation’s mighty purpose in one word
That moment shared; and each one felt his heart
Uplifted, and his will and arms more strong
And in the struggle played a worthier part
For hearing that: Salut!
A fuller life of Eric Edney can be found among the many communist biographies at www.grahamstevenson.me.uk