24th February 2023 – honouring those who died at Tarancon
The weekend’s commemorations started on Friday 24th February with a visit to the cemetery at Tarancon, a town near Madrid with a proud socialist history. It was a Republican stronghold during the Civil War and the population were to suffer greatly for their stand. During the Civil War the town bore the brunt of bombing and after the defeat of the Republic vicious reprisals were meted out to those suspected of Republican links.
In the cemetery there are several memorials: one marks the names of the thirty nine Scottish Brigaders who fell at Jarama, another, the civilians of Tarancon tortured and killed under Franco’s dictatorship. The most recent plaque is to those killed while fighting in the anti-fascist militias and the Republican Popular Army. We know that maybe three Scots were originally buried in the Cemetery. A number of Scots Brigaders, wounded at Jarama, were taken to one of the hospitals in the town that received many of the wounded from the battle.
After paying our respects to the Republican dead, we were taken to the town hall at Morata de Tajuna where Jose Maria Olivera Marco, an historian of the area, gave a fascinating presentation of the painstaking work he and his team had undertaken to locate the exact spot where the memorial to the British Battalion stood. Destroyed by the fascists, it contained a precious record of those who fell during an offensive on 27th February, two weeks after the initial British involvement in the fighting. Olivera and his team are in the process of re-creating the memorial exactly as it was, including all the names of the fallen. We were taken to view the original site at a distance, because the landowner has denied permission for the memorial to be erected there. However, an alternative site has been designated nearby.
Thomas Elliot, a shop assistant and member of the Labour Party from Worthing, killed at Jarama in June 1937, was probably one of the last British volunteers to lose his life in the battle, as the British Battalion was withdrawn from the line about that time and new recruits sent south to Pozoblanco, near Cordoba.
We were then taken to a vantage point above the Knoll and Suicide Hill where so many of the newly-formed British Battalion had fought and died. Mike Arnott, Scotland representative of the IBMT, explained their significance in the action of the British Battalion at Jarama. Of the 500 men of British Battalion who went into action at Jarama on February 12th 1937, at least 136 were killed, a similar number seriously wounded, and fifty left the front line, although some of these later returned to the Battalion. (see Richard Baxell ‘British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War p. 84.) These casualties were to be the worst suffered by the British Battalion in a single day in the entire course of the war.
February 25th 2023 – Jarama March pays tribute to the Dombrowski Battalion
Beneath the bright blue skies of a February morning, 500 people retraced the course of an easterly section of the southern front of the Battle of Jarama. We started from the landmark of the Portland cement works in Valderrivas to follow the route to the monument that the Council of Arganda had commissioned in 2016 to honour the Polish Dabrowski (Dombrowski) Brigade, which had fought in the area. Miguel Ángel, member of the Asociación TAJAR, a local group from Morata de Tajuna, acted as our guide. He showed us key sites along the way where action took place. Representatives of associations of friends of the International Brigades from France, Italy, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, the USA, and of course Poland, took part. Also accompanying us were the Mayor of Morata, and a delegation representing the Arganda Council. Arganda, like Morata, one of the small towns that ring the Jarama battlefield, and has played an important role in keeping alive the memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Jarama. Among the marchers was Oisín, son of the late Eddie O’Neill, who had played a leading role over the years in the Jarama March.
At the memorial to the Dombrowskis floral tributes were laid and Inga, one of the Polish comrades, gave a colourful and moving account of the life of her grandfather, who was killed at Jarama. For more on the Dombrowskis, follow the link to the piece on the IBMT website.
The day after the Jarama March, some of us took part in a walk around the Parque de Oeste in the company of Seve Montero, an outstanding authority on the military history of the Civil War in Madrid. He showed us buildings in the newly-opened University that, even today, bear the marks of shelling. He told us how bravely the Dombrowskis fought, using books to ward off the bullets, but only six remained alive at the end of the battle. They made a heroic contribution to stop the fascists taking Madrid. Franco’s forces never took the capital until the defeat of the Republic at the end of the Civil War.
British Brigader Sam Russell, later to become foreign editor of the ‘Daily Worker’ and then ‘Morning Star’, served with the Dombrowskis during that crucial battle and recollected in later life how the books acted as shields in what was the first urban battle at close quarters in modern times, preceding by several years the Battle of Stalingrad.
I was pleased to meet Nancy Hall Brooks, daughter of a volunteer with the Lincolns. We found we had much in common when comparing our family histories.