Orwell in Spain

Fearing possible execution for espionage and treason, George Orwell fled Spain on this day in 1937. A corporal on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell had fought on the Barcelona streets and at the Aragon front, where he was shot in the throat by a sniper. With the revolution in chaos and a warrant issued for his arrest as a Fascist—the side he had been fighting against for the previous six months—Orwell escaped by train, posing as a tourist.

Orwell left Spain without his notebooks, but he would write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia and in a series of essays over the next decade. In “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell goes beyond his specific arguments in favor of the Republican cause (and socialism in general) to make several broader points. One is that atrocities and cover-ups always occur, on all sides. Another is the reminder that war, as viewed from ground level, is about food, latrines, and horror: “Bullets hurt, corpses stink, men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers.” As if a footnote to that, he recalls one night at the front when he and a fellow combatant had crawled out into no-man’s-land–a 300-yard-wide beet field with little cover–to snipe at the enemy, only to be caught by dawn:

We were still trying to nerve ourselves to make a dash for it when there was an uproar and a blowing of whistles in the Fascist trench. Some of our aeroplanes were coming over. At this moment, a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran…. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.