Homage to the fallen of Catalonia, 80 years on

Article published at The Telegraph, 17th July 2016

On the spot where she had made her vows 13 years earlier, Rachel Ritchie leafed through her wedding album, showing me photos of herself and her husband, Gerard Amorós, and their many guests. One was in Lederhosen, another in a Hawaiian shirt. “It was,” she said with a grin, “a bit of a weird and wacky wedding.”

Strangest of all was the venue: a wide, shallow cave like a toothless mouth, opening in a hillside outside the village of La Bisbal de Falset, in the green Catalan mountains of north-eastern Spain. It’s a shrine to Saint Lucy (Santa Llúcia in Catalan), patron saint of the blind. It also once served as a field hospital.

Here, during the Battle of the Ebro, the bloodiest of the Spanish Civil War, casualties were brought in, assessed with a triage system (now standard in A&E departments) and – a few of them – saved with some of the earliest blood transfusions. Patients included members of the International Brigades: volunteers from Britain, Ireland, the United States and other countries who had signed up to fight fascism. Some of the nurses were British too. Three generations on, their compatriots are helping locals to keep alive the memory of what happened there.

Rachel, from Hest Bank, near Morecambe, Lancashire, has been living in Catalonia for 21 years, and now runs bespoke wine, food and history tours from Falset. She first visited the village in the late Nineties from Barcelona University while researching the Civil War. There she met the historian Angela Jackson, who was uncovering the story of the cave hospital (and has told it in her book Beyond the Battlefield) and who introduced Rachel to the man she would end up marrying. Both women were founding members of No Jubilem La Memoria, an organisation dedicated to the history of the Second Republic and the Civil War.

What do locals make of the involvement of outsiders? “We’re seen as impartial,” says Rachel. When people talk to us, they’re not thinking, ‘Who am I talking to? What did their family do? Which side were they on?’ ”

Eighty years on from the outbreak of the Civil War on July 17 1936, these questions, for many in Spain, are still relevant. After the death of Franco in 1975 and the end of the dictatorship, a “pact of oblivion” silenced mention of the past in the interests of a still-fragile democracy. Many people were denied the opportunity to find, bury and mourn their dead, let alone to commemorate them.

Since the start of this century, though, a popular movement has sprung up dedicated to “the recovery of historical memory”, leading to the excavation of mass graves and to routes linking sites associated with fighting, atrocities or repression. That process, according to Alan Warren, another British incomer, is one in which Catalonia is “kilometres ahead of the rest of Spain”.

Alan, who taught English and archaeology at the old University of Newport, moved to Barcelona in 2008 and leads Civil War tours for locals and visitors. Some came initially because they had relations who fought in the Battle of the Ebro. Several have returned to explore more of the Terra Alta, or highlands, the poorest district of Catalonia financially but certainly not scenically: it’s a spectacular landscape of bare stone peaks, hair-raising slopes and hidden valleys that produce olives, wine and olive oil.

I spent a couple of days with Alan, taking in scenes of fighting, including Cim (Hill) 705 – which has a memorial to British and Irish volunteers on the Republican side – a Nationalist command post and places that form part of the Memorial Consortium of the Battle of the Ebro Sites (Comebe).

Hill 705 (its altitude in metres) is a mirador, a viewpoint, with views over the countryside. But it’s a mirador where spilt blood is inseparable from scenic beauty. We looked out from it towards Hill 565. “Imagine it at night-time,” Alan said, “lit up like a blizzard of fireflies with all the rifles going off.”

In Corbera d’Ebre, north of Hill 705, we met Josep Maria Solé i Sabaté, a historian at Barcelona University, author of more than a dozen books on the war and coordinator of the Ebro memorial sites. His interest is more than academic: his father fought on the Republican side, part of the so-called quinta del biberón (“baby-bottle call-up”), in which boys as young as 16 were conscripted. “My father never considered himself a hero,” he told me. “Throughout his life, he thought of himself as a survivor of the Ebro.”

Read the full article here.

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