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Jarama, Brunete and the Valley of the Fallen

Irish Labour historian Emmet O’Connor at the monument to those killed fighting for the Spanish Republic during the Battle of Jarama, February 1937
Irish Labour historian Emmet O’Connor at the monument to those killed fighting for the Spanish Republic during the Battle of Jarama, February 1937

Having spent the last two summers exploring civil war battle sites in Aragon, this year saw the return of four historians, two from Ireland (Emmet O’Connor and Barry McGloughlin) and two from England (John Halstead and myself), to explore some of the sites around Madrid. Our trip was given added poignancy by the knowledge that Emmet’s father fought with the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Having arrived in Spain in December 1936, Peter O’Connor fought in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and at Brunete five months later, where he was wounded. Following pressure from Irish Republican leader Frank Ryan, O’Connor was repatriated shortly afterwards ‘for political reasons … with an excellent record’ (International Brigade Archive Box 39, file A/29).

The memorial to Kit Conway, killed at the Battle of Jarama on 12 February 1937
The memorial to Kit Conway, killed at the Battle of Jarama on 12 February 1937

Our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Brunete, though, sadly, not much evidence remains. You can get a good sense of the overall layout from a viewpoint just south of Valdemorillo, but both the village of Villanueva de la Cañada (where Falangist defenders held out, crucially delaying the Republican advance) and the ultimate objective of the 15 International Brigade, Mosquito Ridge, have been built up and developed.

Fortunately, the Jarama battlefield remains much as it was nearly 80 years ago. It’s easy to find, lying just off the M302, three kilometres west of Morata de Tajuña and is marked by the large monument to the battle (see image above). The sunken road, mentioned in many accounts of the battle, is roughly 500 metres further west of the monument and runs south-west off the M302 (though it’s not sunken any more). This leads you right to the site itself and the memorial to the Irish volunteer, Kit Conway, who commanded the British Battalion’s Number One Company and was killed on the first day of the battle. Walk through the olive groves and scrub, rich with the pungent smell of wild thyme, and you will see the positions that the British Battalion attempted to defend on 12 February 1937. The Knoll, Conical Hill and ‘Suicide Hill’ on which the ill-prepared and poorly-armed volunteers were cut to pieces can all be made out clearly. Sobering.

Map of the British Battalion’s positions on the first day of the Battle of Jarama
Map of the British Battalion’s positions on the first day of the Battle of Jarama
Franco’s memorial to the Nationalist dead, Valle de los Caidos
Franco’s memorial to the Nationalist dead, Valle de los Caidos

Our third visit was not to a battle site, nor to a memorial to the International Brigades; in fact, quite the opposite. Surprisingly none of us had ever previously visited Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s monument to the Nationalist dead. Set underneath a 150 metre high cross, the memorial houses one of the world’s largest basilicas, dug out of solid rock, in which rest the tombs of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish Fascist party. The monument bears all the hallmarks of fascists architecture: it’s huge, overbearing, pompous and dripping with pseudo-religious imagery and rhetoric. Thousands of Republican prisoners died during its construction and, to this day, debates rage over its future. Should it be pulled down, as was the case with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, or should it be kept as a reminder of the brutal and murderous excesses of Franco’s regime? On balance I favour the latter, despite the monument’s undeniable grandiose ugliness.

The last stop was Calle de Toledo, which runs south from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Today, the attractive, narrow little street is lined with cafés and bars full of tourists enjoying a cooling drink or sampling tapas as people bustle past, fending off hawkers. However, in November 1936, it looked rather different, becoming the scene for one of  the most famous photographs of the civil war. The banner hung across it by defiant Madrileños proclaimed that ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism!’ ¡No Pasarán! they declared, ‘They Shall Not Pass!’

Calle de Toledo, 1936
Calle de Toledo, 1936
Calle de Toledo, 2016
Calle de Toledo, 2016

The banner spoke true, of course, for Madrid was never conquered militarily, only being occupied following the Republic’s collapse, which brought the war to its sorry conclusion. From Franco’s first assault on the Spanish capital in November 1936 to the end of the civil war in March 1939, the Madrileños, supported by volunteers from around the world, held out. The fascists did not pass.

p.s. Despite having visited the Madrid battle sites before, I found David Matthieson’s book, Frontline Madrid, invaluable. It gives precise locations of places of interest, along with detailed, comprehensible directions on how to find them. Recommended.

Comments

Keith Macnair
Reply

Hello Richard .. I’ve unwittingly followed your trail and today I spent traipsing over Jarama and the surrounding areas trying to locate it all. this is my 3rd time in Jarama I’ve done Aragon and pretty much the rest of Spain during the last 10 years. I’ve had communication with Paul Preston over the years and spent a lot of time exploring the darker secrets of madrid .. today however I couldn’t quite locate suicide hill in amongst all the off road tracks .. i drove this part … got the memorial to the brigades ok and the cookhouse .. spent time in San Martin and been to El Cid museo in morata plus the trincheros round the hospital at Arganda but for the life of me I can’t locate the bloody hill although I’m sure at several times I was next to it … any more clues you could give me? I would also be interested to talk about your experiences when I return .. I’m from Glasgow and interested in Spain’s politics and the legacy of la Guerra civil espanola .. hasta entonces !

rbaxell
Reply

It is awkward to find. The easiest way is to walk along the sunken road leading off the M302, until you reach the monument to the 15th IB at the fork in the road. From there, Suicide Hill is just under half a km NW of you. It’s not easy to make out, unless you know what you’re looking for. David Mathieson’s book is helpful, as is AABI secretary, Almudena Cros, who lives in Madrid.
BW,
Richard

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