Brothers in Arms: Thoughts on a Tour
You know if you have been on a good tour if it continues to occupy your thoughts long after you return home and I can honestly say that this is the case with our Spanish Civil War tour, ‘Brothers in Arms’.
Working with Jason Webster, we tried to create something that told the whole story of the Civil War - from its origins to its conclusion - and did so, in as far as was possible, in terms of geography and chronology over the course of eight days. At the tour’s heart is a fantastic story made up of multiple threads: A country divided against itself and a proxy for the clash of the leading ideologies of the twentieth century – fascism and communism; a struggle fought along trench lines in the manner of the First World War, but a conflict that was also to be the proving ground for the techniques and technologies of the Second World War, like Blitzkrieg and Area Bombing. Added into this mix was a sense of a righteous cause and the rush to aid a democratically elected Republican government by a generation of idealists from some fifty countries. Among their number were writers, poets and artists who flocked to join the International Brigades.
It was a war that had the wrong ending in many people’s eyes as the Nationalist Dictator Francisco Franco overcame the armies of the Republic, and Spain entered a long period of totalitarian rule in which memory of the war was suppressed and sacrifice primarily remembered only from the Nationalist perspective. Now, there is a sense that a process of change is well underway in Spain and I was struck by how many young people wanted to talk about the War and engage with us about its legacy as we travelled around.
Fortifications and trenches high in the hills above Sarrion
In Teruel, the local Newspaper did an interview with Jason Webster, as they were keen to understand what brought a group of British visitors to their town in pursuit of the history of the conflict. Our coach driver, bought up in an era when the War was not much discussed, was increasingly interested to find out about the sites we were visiting and the stories we were telling.
A large number of sites remain from the War and form part of a rich battlefield archaeological heritage. We visited many of these places: Pillboxes in the Parque del Oeste in Madrid, the Alcazar in Toledo, the ruins of Belchite, and bunkers high in the hills above Sarrion with their collections of rusty tin cans that date from the conflict. The Ebro, scene of the War’s largest and ultimately most decisive battle, is now a network of small museums and memorials.
Memory of the conflict is still raw for some and the desire to examine the events of the past remains uneven. At Belchite, a plaque to remember both sides in the conflict has been destroyed with the original Francoist plaque now fully visible beneath. At some memorials, Anarchist symbols and Right Wing graffiti compete with one another for attention. If there is a pattern, the Left wants to remember and the Right forget, but increasingly historical memory seems to be emerging as the winner in this battle to commemorate the 500,000 people killed in this brutal conflict.
In a sense there are two stories in our ‘Brothers in Arms’ tour. There is the story of the War itself, fought 75 years ago in the towns and olive groves of a divided country and a battle being fought today by an increasing number of people who wish to remember the War and those who still want to forget.
Written by Mike Ivey, co-founder of Historical Trips.
'Even the olives were bleeding'. Local guide Diego explains the Jarama battlefield