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Hemingway Reports Spain

During most of the past twelve months, Ernest Hemingway has been reporting the Spanish war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. As we did in our issue of May 5, 1937, we present below selected passages from several of his recent dispatches. They have already been printed in various newspapers affiliated with the Alliance, but such publication has often been incomplete because of lack of space.—THE EDITORS

When we got up with the Americans they were lying under some olive trees along a little stream. The yellow dust of Aragon was blowing over them, over their blanketed machine guns, over their automatic rifles and their anti-aircraft guns. It blew in blinding clouds raised by the hooves of pack animals and the wheels of motor transports.

But in the lee of the stream-bank, the men were slouching fearful and grinning, their teeth flashing white slits in their yellow-powdered faces.

Since I had seen them last spring, they have become soldiers. The romantics have pulled out, the cowards have gone home along with the badly wounded. The dead, of course, aren’t there. Those who are left are tough, with blackened matter-of-fact faces, and, after seven months, they know their trade.

They have fought with the first Spanish troops of the new government army, captured the strongly fortified heights and town of Quinto in a brilliantly conceived and executed fashion, and have taken part with three Spanish brigades in the final storming of Belchite after it had been surrounded by Spanish troops.

After the taking of Quinto, they had marched twenty miles across country to Belchite. They had Jain in the woods outside the town and had worked their way forward with the Indian-fighting tactics that are still the most life-saving that any infantry can know. Covered by a heavy and accurate artillery barrage, they stormed the entry to the town. Then for three days they fought from house to house, from room to room, breaking walls with pickaxes, bombing their way forward as they exchanged shots with the retreating Fascists from street corners, windows, rooftops and holes in the walls.

Finally, they made a juncture with Spanish troops advancing from the other side and surrounded the cathedral, where 400 men of the town garrison still held out. These men fought desperately, bravely, and a Fascist officer worked a machine gun from the tower until a shell crumpled the masonry spire upon him and his gun. They fought all around the square, keeping up a covering fire with automatic rifles, and made a final rush on the tower. Then, after some fighting of the sort you never know whether to classify as hysterical or the ultimate in bravery, the garrison surrendered.

Robert Merriam, former California University professor and chief of staff of the Fifteenth Brigade, was the leader in the final assault. Unshaven, his face smoke-blackened, his men tell how he bombed his way forward, wounded six times slightly by hand-grenade splinters in his hands and face, but refusing to have his wounds dressed until the cathedral was taken. The American casualties were 23 killed and 60 wounded out of a total of 500 of all ranks who took part in the two operations.

The total government casualties given in the entire offensive were 2,000 killed and wounded. The entire garrison of 3,000 troops in Belchite was either captured or killed except for four officers who succeeded in escaping from the town during the last night before the final assault.

On the Teruel Front

Ww crawled forward on hands and knees over the clean-smelling wheat and straw in the black dark of a front-line dugout. An unseen man said, “There, where the cross on the lens is, you see it?”

Looking out from the darkness through a small opening in the periscopic observation glasses across a bright sunlit, tawny plain, you detached a yellow, flat-topped, steep-flanked hill with a shiplike prow rising from the plain to protect the yellow brickbuilt town clumped above the river bank. Four cathedral spires rose from the town. Three roads ran from it lined with green trees. Around it were green sugar-beet fields. It looked pretty, peaceful and undamaged, and its name was Teruel. The Rebels had held it since the beginning of the war, and behind it were red cliffs, sculptured by erosion into columns that looked like organ pipes, and beyond the cliffs to the left was a devil’s playground of red, waterless badlands.

“You see it, don’t you?” asked the man in the dark.

“Yes,” replied the writer, and, returning from sightseeing to war, swung the periscope back to the solitary butte, studying the white scars and eruptions of its surface that showed the extent of its fortifications.

“That’s the Mansueto. That’s why we haven’t taken Teruel,” said the officer.

Studying that natural fortress, guarding the town to the east, flanked by several thimble-shaped hillocks thrusting up from the plain like geyser cones, also all heavily fortified, you realize the problem Teruel presented to any army trying to take it from any direction except the northwest.

While the Anarchist columns had lain in the hills above it for eight months, they had so much respect for the problem that they avoided all contact with the enemy. At many places the old lines we saw were from one to three kilometers from the enemy wire, with kitchens out in front of the front lines, which Avere regarded as places to retire to, and the only contact made with the enemy was on the purest friendly basis, according to a Loyalist officer now commanding part of this sector, when the Anarchists would issue invitations to.the Rebel forces for football matches.


They say you never hear the one that hits you. That’s true of bullets, because, if you hear them, they are already past. But your correspondent heard the last shell that hit this hotel. He heard it start from the battery, then come with a whistling incommg roar like a subway train to crash against the cornice and shower the room with broken glass and plaster. And while the glass still tinkled down and you listened for the next one to start, you realized that now finally you were back in Madrid.

Madrid is quiet now. Aragon is the active front. There’s little fighting around Madrid except mining, counter-mining, trench raiding, trench-mortar strafing and sniping, in a stalemate of constant siege warfare going on in Carabanchel, Usera and University City. The cities are shelled very little. Some days there is no shelling and the weather is beautiful and the streets are crowded. The shops are full of clothing; jewelry stores, camera shops, picture dealers are all open and the bars are crowded.

Beer is scarce and whiskey is almost unobtainable. Store windows are full of Spanish imitations of all cordials, whiskies and vermouths. These are not recommended for internal use, although I am employing something called Milords Ecosses Whiskey on my face after shaving. It smarts a little, but I feel very hygienic. I believe it would be possible to cure athlete’s foot with it, but one must be very careful not to spill it on one’s clothes because it eats wool.

The crowds are cheerful and the sandbag-fronted cinemas are crowded every afternoon. The nearer one gets to the front, the more cheerful and optimistic the people are. At the front itself, optimism eaches such a point that your correspondent, very much against his good judgment, was induced to go swimming in a small river forming a no-man’s land on the Cuenca front the day before yesterday.

The river was a fast-flowing stream, very chilly and completely dominated by Fascist positions, which made me even chillier. I became so chilly at the idea of swimming in the river at all under the circumstances that, when I actually entered the water, it felt rather pleasant. But it felt even pleasanter when I got out of the water and behind a tree.

At that moment, a government officer who was a member of the optimistic swimming party shot a watersnake with his pistol, hitting it on the third shot. This brought a reprimand from another, not so completely optimistic officer member, who asked what he wanted to do with that shooting—get machine guns turned on us ?

We shot no more snakes that day, but-I saw three trout in the stream which would weigh over four pounds apiece; heavy, solid, deep-sided ones that rolled up to take the grasshoppers I threw them, making swirls in the water as deep as though you had dropped a paving stone into the stream. All along the stream, where no road ever led until the war, you could see trout; small ones in the shallows and the biggest kind in the pools and in the shadow of the bank. It’s a river worth fighting for, but just a little cold for swimming.

At this moment, a shell has just alighted on a house up the street from the hotel where I am typing this. A little boy is crying in the street. A Militiaman has picked him up and is comforting him. There was no one killed on our street, and the people who started to run slow down and grin nervously. The one who never started to run at all looks at the others in a very superior way, and the town we are living in now is called Madrid.

Brunete was not a last desperate effort by the government to relieve the siege of Madrid, but the first in a series of offensives launched on the realistic basis of regarding the war as of a possible duration of two years.

In order to understand the Spanish War, it is necessary to realize the Rebels are holding on to a single linked-up line of trenches on an 800-mile front. They are holding fortified towns, often unconnected by any defenses; but those which dominate the country around them, much as castles did in the old feudal days, must be passed, turned, encircled and assaulted as the castles were in olden times.

Troops that had been on the defensive for nine months, waiting to attack, learned their first lessons in April in Casa del Campo, that frontal assaults in modern war against good machine-gun positions are suicidal. The only way an attack can overcome the superiority machine guns give defense, if the defenders are not panicked by aerial bombardment, is by surprise, obscurity or maneuver.

The government first began to maneuver in a counter-offensive that beat the Italians at Guadalajara. At Brunete, the government troops were not yet experienced enough to turn and take their objectives on time so that the whole front could advance. But they held and threw back a counter-offensive that cost the Rebels more men than they could afford to lose. The Loyalist casualties were estimated at 15,000. The Rebel counter-offensive across that bare terrain, lacking any element of surprise, must have cost them many more than that.

While Franco’s troops have been advancing this week in the Asturias, the government troops have just completed another nibbling offensive in the extreme north of Aragon which brings when within striking distance of Jaca. Just now they are in striking distance of Huesca, Saragossa and Teruel. They can fight on this way indefinitely, improving their positions in a series of small offensives, with limited objectives, designed to be carried out with a minimum of casualties, while teaching their army to maneuver in preparation for operations on a grand plan.

While this goes on, Franco is constantly forced to divert troops to meet these small offensives. He can continue to take “name” towns of no ultimate strategic importance, working along the coast and thus improving his international position with obvious cashable successes, or he can face the unavoidable, though postponable, necessity of again attacking Madrid and its lines of communication with Valencia.

Personally, I think Franco got himself into a fix when he advanced into Madrid and failed to take it, a situation from which he can never extricate himself. Sooner or later he must risk everything in a major offensive on the Castilian plateau.

Loyalist Army Headquarters, Teruel Front

For three days, all Teruel’s communications had been cut and the government forces had taken successively Concud, Campillo and Villastar, important defensive towns guarding the city from the north, southwest and south.

Friday while we watched from a hilltop above the town, crouching against borders, hardly able to hold our field glasses in the fifty-mile gale which picked up the snow from the hillside and lashed it against our faces, government troops took the Muela de Teruel Hill, one of the odd thimble-shaped formations like extinct geyser cones which protect the city.

Fortified by concrete machine-gun emplacements and surrounded by tank traps made of spikes forged from steel rails, it was considered impregnable, but four companies assault it as though they never had had explained to them by military experts what impregnable meant. Its defenders fell back into Teruel, and, a little later in the afternoon, as we watched, another battalion broke through the concrete emplacements of the cemetery, and the last defenses of Teruel itself were squashed or turned.

In zero weather, with a wind that made living a torture, and intermittent blizzards, the army of the Levante and part of the new army of maneuver, without the aid or presence of any International Brigades, had launched an offensive which was forcing the enemy to fight at Teruel when it was a matter of common knowledge that Franco had offensives against Guadalajara and Aragon.

When we left the Teruel front last night for the all-night drive to Madrid to file this story, the presence of 1,000 Italian troops drawn from Guadalajara front was signaled north of Teruel, where their troops, trains and transport had been bombed and machine-gunned by Loyalist aircraft. Authorities estimated that 30,000 Fascist troops were already massing on the Catalayud-Teruel road for a counter-offensive. So, regardless of whether Teruel is captured, the offensive has achieved its purpose of forcing Franco’s hand and breaking up plans for simultaneous Guadalajara and Aragon offensives.

Across a country cold as a steel engraving, wild as a Wyoming blizzard or a hurricane mesa, we watched the battle which may be the decisive one of this war. In the Peninsular War, Teruel had been taken by the French in December and there was good precedent for an attack on it now. On the right were snowy mountains with timbered slopes, below was a winding pass which the Rebels held above Teruel on the Sagunto Road, from which many military authorities had expected a Franco attack to the sea to be launched. Below was the great yellow battleship-shaped natural fortification of Mansueto, the city’s main protection, which the Loyalists had slipped past to the northwards, leaving it as hopeless as a stranded dreadnaught.

Close below were the spire and ocher-colored houses of Castralvo, which government troops entered as we watched. On the right, by the cemetery, there was fishing and shell bursts plumed up, while beyond, the city, neatly ordered against its fantastically eroded background of red sandstone, stood quiet as a tethered sheep too frightened to shiver when wolves are passing.

What Franco’s Italians and Moors will do in the present situation of weather conditions in Teruel remains to be seen. Horses could never have stood up under the conditions of this offensive. Cars had their radiators frozen and their cylinder blocks cracked. But men could stand it, and did. One thing remains. You need infantry still to win battles, and impregnable positions are only as impregnable as the will of those who hold them.

Loyalist Army Headquarters, Teruel Front

On our left, an attack was starting. The men, bent double, their bayonets fixed, were advancing in the awkward first gallop that steadies into the heavy climb of an uphill assault. Two men were hit and left the line. One had the surprised look of a man first wounded who does not realize the thing can do this damage and not hurt. The other knew he had it very bad. All I wanted was a spade to make a little mound to get my head under, but there weren’t any spades within crawling distance.

On our right was the great yellow mass of the Mansueto. Behind us the Spanish government artillery  was firing, and, after the crack, came the noise like tearing silk and then the sudden spouting black geysers of high explosive shells pounding at the earth-scarred fortifications of the Mansueto.

Suddenly we heard cheering run along the line and across the next ridge we could see the Fascists running from their first line.

They ran in the leaping, plunging gait that is not panic but a retreat, and to cover that retreat their farther machine-gun posts slithered our ridge with fire. I wished very strongly for the spade, and then up the ridge we saw government troops advancing steadily. It went on like that all day and by nighttime we were six kilometers beyond where the first attack had started.

No smoke blew that day. After the Arctic cold, the blizzard and the gale that blew for five days, this was Indian-summer weather and shell bursts flowered straight up and slowly sank. And all day long the troops attacked, held, attacked again. As we had come along the road, the troops waiting in the ditch, mistaking us for high staff officers because there is nothing so distinguished as civilian clothes at the front, would shout, “Look at them up there on the hill. When do we attack? Tell us when we can go.”

We sat behind trees, comfortable thick trees, and saw twigs clipped from their drooping lower branches. We watched the Fascist planes head for us and hunted shelter in a soil-eroded gulch only to watch them turn and circle to bomb the government lines near Concud. But all day long we moved forward with the steady, merciless advance the government troops were making. Up the hillsides, across the railway, capturing the tunnel, all up and over the Mansueto, down the road around the bend from Kilometer Two and finally up the last slopes to the town, whose seven church steeples and neatly geometrical houses showed sharp against the setting sun.

The late evening sky had been full of government planes, the chasers seeming to turn and dart like swallows, and, while we watched their delicate precision through our glasses, hoping to see an air fight, two ti’ucks came noising up and stopped, dropping their tailboards to discharge a company of kids who acted as though they were going to a football game. It was only when you saw their belts with sixteen bomb pouches and the two sacks each wore that you realized what they were, “Dynamiters.”

The captain said, “These are very good. You watch when they attack the town.” So, in the short afterglow of the setting sun, with all around the town the flashing of the guns, yellower than trolley sparks but as sudden, we saw these kids deploy a hundred yards from us, and, covered by a curtain of machine-gun and automatic-rifle fire, slip quietly up the last slope to the town’s edge. They hesitated a moment behind a wall, then came the red and black flash and roar of the bombs, and over the wall and into the town they went.

This article appeared in the January 12, 1938 issue of the magazine. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons