On or about December 28th 1936, John Cornford, who was fighting with the British Battalion of the International Brigades at Lopera, near Córdoba in Spain against Franco’s fascist forces, was wounded and subsequently died. He was 21. His poems and other writings were published posthumously: the collection has most recently been published as Understand The Weapon, Understand The Wound (Carcanet).
‘Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears me by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves.’
On the day that Cornford died, George Orwell was on a train travelling south through France to cross the Spanish border near the Mediterranean and continue into the Republican heartland of Barcelona. He had soon enrolled in the POUM Militia, due to his letters of introduction from the Independent Labour Party in Britain which had an affiliation with the POUM, and received basic training in the Lenin Barracks. Quickly he was sent to the front, ahead of the arrival of a British ILP contingent.
His wife Eileen followed him, running the ILP office in Barcelona and at least once (recorded in a photograph) visiting the squad on the front near Huesca. Probably due to his great height Orwell was to be shot through the throat, putting his already precarious health at even greater risk, even after he had been treated at a militia sanitorium on the outskirts of Barcelona. When the Communists turned on the POUM, alleging that it was a fascist organisation masquerading as Trotskyist, the Orwells managed to escape – disguised as tourists – back into France. Orwell’s commander, Georges Kopp, was captured and starved to half his weight before he was released just before the Second World War; another Briton, Bob Smillie was not so lucky, he died, probably kicked to death.
For where is Manuel Gonzalez,
And where is Pedro Aguilar,
And where is Ramon Fenellosa?
The earthworms know where they are.
Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.
In the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2016 we remember the fighters of 80 years ago with the words of Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler, Arrival And Departure.
L J Hurst
Last Updated: 30 December 2016