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“Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell #2

The experience of battle was frustrating. The enemy came last in a list of priorities which included firewood, food and tobacco; Orwell lived to smoke: in The Road to Wigan Pier he derides those who refuse to smoke in order to prolong their lives by a few years. And smoking is a good way to kill the boredom of trench warfare. In Sebastian Junger’s fabulous journalistic treatise on the war in Afghanistan – an heir to Homage in many ways- the physicians sometimes tell non-smoker grunts to start the habit to keep sane. And how boring it must have been when, for a start you rarely saw the enemy and when you did, they were too far away to kill with a gun.

Orwell writes with compassion and wisdom. On the subject of maintaining discipline in the ranks he has this to say: “When a man refused to obey an order you did not immediately get him punished; you first appealed to him in the name of comradeship. Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say instantly that this will never ‘work’,  but as a matter of fact it does ‘work’ in the long run.”

Militia forces held the front line against the fascists while the Popular Army was preparing for war in the rear; the militiamen were very young and indisciplined but did seem motivated by a sense of solidarity and idealism. A revolutionary army, Orwell reckoned, would stay the course out of a sense of class solidarity while fear is required to motivate a regular one. It was all the better because the resistance had no time to waste; they had to do something to check Franco because, had they waited to recruit and train a regular army, Franco would have rolled over them.

It was all about firewood it seems: the cold was the more immediate enemy than the Fascists. Unfortunately, there was little enough of it to be found: “All my memories of that time are memories of scrambling up and down the almost perpendicular slopes, over the jagged limestone that knocked one’s boots to pieces, pouncing eagerly on tiny twigs of wood.” There were other pressures: you almost never took your clothes off because you had always to be ready to go in case of an enemy attack. This meant you stank, and: “It is often said that you don’t find rats and mice in the same place, but you do when there is enough food for them.”

R.H.