Commemorating the Battle of the Ebro in the Terra Alta, Catalunya

There’s something of a feel of the backwoods in the northern hills of the Terra Alta, that part of Catalunya tucked into the mountains west of the Ebro. Here, the high ground to the north of the main valley is scored with crooked lines of olive and almond trees, stone-terraced into the hillsides between patches of parched scrubland and isolated wooded summits. An occasional ruin breaks the skyline or nudges into the side of a barranca but by Irish standards, the landscape is depopulated and abandoned. The area is, perhaps as a consequence of this, extraordinarily beautiful and unspoilt. Most people from around here live in the small towns of la Fatarella, Vilalba dels Arcs or further west in Batea. Isolated farmhouses do hang on in decreasing numbers, some offering rough wine-tasting during the day, others a rustic bed and breakfast to souls needful of a particular quality of isolation. For here ruins remain ruins. There are no dilapidated fincas receiving the attentions of well-intentioned ex-pats, there are few enough Es Ven signs fixed to broken walls. Here the crumpled sun-dried placards advertising properties notionally marketable in an earlier economy, lie forgotten alongside the road, littered among rusting sherds of shrapnel and fragments of human bone.

Historic landscapes
The valley below carries the main road from coastal Tarragonna west into Aragón. The ruined hilltop village of Corbera d’Ebre, its hardly-conserved church spire proud and intact, dominates the eastern end of the valley and overshadows the new town straddling the main road below.

Windmills today mark the line of the Great Retreats

Corbera was heavily bombed by the Nationalists over the course of the great Ebro offensive launched by the Republic in July 1938. Like Belchite to the west, it has been left to the elements and to the tourists, discomforting reminders of an unresolved conflict, the memory of which so-far has been successfully managed by the Catalan state.

The main road continues west to the town of Gandesa, the military focus of the offensive, which though lasting just 115 days took over 130,000 lives. South of here are the Serra Cavalls which rise up into the serrated peaks of the Serra de Pàndols, their heights delineated by the pine tree line which occasionally obscures the ridge. Go further west through Calaceite and here the high ground recedes at either side. Beyond Alcañiz and further into Aragón the landscape opens onto a wide upland plateau ringed by distant mountains, with massive fields of winter wheat carpeting a rolling steppe extending onwards to a point just beyond eyeshot. On the road to Belchite, an compound of several square kilometres accommodates a sun farm, manifesting on the landscape as an army of flat-headed alien warriors arranged in tilted ranks, dwarfing a surprisingly flimsy fence.

Sun farm close to a rearguard position outside Belchite

Belchite is a ruined town straddling the side of a hill, with two Baroque churches and several buildings just inside the medieval gate, roofless structures accessible through piles of masonry, bricks and roof tiles supporting charred roof timbers aligned at crazy angles. The town saw two major battles during the war: its initial assault by American troops in 1937 was followed by its abandonment the following March when it suffered heavy and sustained bombardment by Nationalist planes and artillery. Most of the upstanding ruins, which in 1989 perhaps represented as much as 40 percent of the surviving fabric of the streetscape, have now disappeared under an anonymous rolling terrain of demolition material.

The ruined town of Belchite

The ruined town of Belchite

The levelled town thus demarcated appears itself to diminish around the edges and is being recycled elsewhere as hardcore or landfill. Although over 300 people lived in the town in 1955, a family of seven or eight were the only inhabitants there in 1989 and the place is now abandoned each evening after the last visitor departs the gates an hour after sunset.

All of these landscapes are central to the history of the XV International Brigade, from the initial storming of Belchite and Quinto but more crucially to what become known as the Great Retreats of March and April 1938, where Republican forces were progressively routed back eastwards, back towards and across the Ebro. Many Internationals caught behind the lines were summarily executed with others surviving the remainder of the war in concentration camps such as San Pedro de Cardeña outside Burgos. When the Brigade advanced back across the Ebro the following July, local people showed them the mass graves into which their comrades had been thrown, often after the quick executions they themselves had been forced to witness. In any event, the Brigade never succeeded in taking Gandesa and was withdrawn in September after 60 days in the line. A huge and disproportionate causality list records the crucial positions held by the Brigade during the advance, along with the several key fortified hilltops they never succeeded in capturing.

Human bones at the edge of a forest outside la Fatarella

The Ebro offensive was the last throw of the dice for the Republican government and its initial success was something of an embarrassment for Franco, who was again forced to call upon his German and Italian allies just at the point where he was about to send them home. The nature of Franco’s defeat of the Republican government and the subsequent repression which lasted well into the 1970s was particularly felt in Catalunya, which apart from its separatist aspirations was the principal industrial base of the CNT, the main anarchist trade union. In the countryside, the repression was initially marked by the execution of anyone said to have actively opposed the coup, followed quickly by the banning of the Catalan language and a rationing system which was markedly more severe than in ostensibly ’loyal’ areas. Nationalist battlefield fatalities were recovered and buried in the combatants’ home localities. International causalities, with a few significant exceptions, were buried hurriedly in mass graves or, in more remote areas, piled into the barrancas and pine copses which bestow the hills their remarkable landscape. Only occasionally were they covered with cairns of stones.

Archaeology and the politics of wind power
The roads in the Terra Alta are dark and untravelled at nighttime. The older ones, tarred-over dusty tracks, snake over the hills in tight curves around stepped orchards and dry stream beds. The main roads into Gandesa and Ascó are now being straightened to facilitate the construction of a large wind farm enveloping the hilltops in seemingly arbitrary patterns covering perhaps some 80km. The 6km between la Fatarella and Vilalba accommodates some 22 windmills, with bulldozers clearing stretches of land for associated access roads and ancillary structures. Driving along at night, their gigantic spines rear up on all sides, frozen shadows projected in random sequence against the verges, caught in the pulsing strobes from the derrick lights high above. Local environmentalists opposed to this section of the wind farm were not slow to recognise its route across a massive graveyard in their campaign to halt their development. One such opponent, blogger Elies 115, graphically illustrated the human remains encountered on a walk through the hills near la Fatarella in July 2008 and the story was picked up all over Catalunya. Many subsequently voiced an opinion in the local media that had Roman remains been encountered, all works would have stopped to allow a thorough investigation.

Excavating the dead
What differentiates the remains recorded by Elies 115 from those emerging from other mass graves in the Spanish countryside is the fact that they most probably belong to members of the International Brigades. Although it is not suggested here that this has precluded a proper investigation of their remains, it is nonetheless of interest given the considerable body of literature associated with the Brigades when compared to their number relative to the republican army as a whole. For archaeological work engaging with Franco-era Spain has concentrated on civilian mass grave sites. These hold the remains of the many thousands of socialists, communists, anarchists, schoolteachers and even liberals, executed for their beliefs, their resistance to the victors or simply by hearsay. The excavations throughout Spain have now uncovered hundreds of burials, emphasising the oppression supposedly forgotten under the post-Franco pact of amnesia, where old wounds were let lie for the good of the fledgling democracy. Politically, this is to the advantage of the Socialist PSOE and the enacting of the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) in 2007 has undeniably given the excavations a legislative basis, irrespective of feelings on the Nationalist side. Often undertaken in the media spotlight with relatives of the deceased present standing along the baulks, the excavations provide harrowing testimony of the extent of the Nationalist repression.

Other more contentious issues have emerged: the muted enthusiasm of some families for the closure provided by the recovery of physical remains of their loved ones contrasted with the discomfiture evident on the faces of the family of Federico García Lorca, as they awaited the excavation of his remains after refusing for many years to have disturbed what they thought had been his grave. In Galicia and León former huídos, partisans who remained behind to continue the war from the mountains, have argued that the remains of their comrades should stay in the ground as incontrovertible and enduring evidence against Franco and his regime.

An archaeological investigation undertaken prior to the construction of another wind farm elsewhere in the Terra Alta made little of the human bones and battlefield détruis scattered high along the terraces and in the scrub. The report made more of the trenches, the rude caves and refugios carved out of the sandy subsoil, lending thirsty shelter from the constant Nationalist bombardment; the physical manifestations of the Ebro offensive which today survive on the landscape. Yet, despite the plethora of recent work on the period, both academic and commemorative, there has been little attempt made to contextualise the human remains, which as likely date to the Great Retreats as they do to the offensive. Moreover, there has been little discussion as to what should now be done with the bones, whether they should lie there in perpetual memory of the war or whether they should be systematically collected and placed in the monument at los Camposines which acts as a ossuary for human remains recovered from the surrounding fields and hillsides.

Commemoration, conservation and construction
State-sponsored commemoration of the battle of the Ebro was prompted by the recent 70th anniversary and has taken the form of a series of panels located at significant points on the landscape, all anchored to an interpretative centre in Corbera and notionally to the monument in los Camposines.

Monument to the battle incorporating an ossuary at los Camposines

Under the auspices of Memorial Democràtic the Catalan government has certainly made an effort to commemorate both sides of the conflict, the rusty orange signage and an accompanying series of information leaflets brands its commemoration for modern, all-embracing consumption. The souvenirs and tee shirts available at the 115 Days centre in Corbera are based on the graphic of a military helmet, one curiously more Republican than Nationalist in its typology. The interpretation within is dispassionate and uncontroversial; the centre, an anodyne exercise in contemporary architecture, was deserted the afternoon we visited.

The ruins of the old town of Corbera

Just up the street from the interpretative centre is a private museum, Exposició La Trinxera, which trades in bullets, guns and (mostly) republican uniforms draped over ‘70s shop window mannequins. Here a very different experience is to be had: the exhibition is confined to one large cluttered room, old-fashioned display cases line the space containing a mesmerising quantity of personal equipment and assorted militaria;

Private museum at Corbera

the walls are covered with campaign maps, propaganda sheets and government proclamations. The floorspace is taken up with a full sized Republican command post along with various large weapons and a mule professionally fashioned from wire, carrying the obligatory ammunition boxes and medical stretchers. The owner/curator has a large shed to the rear crammed with similar booty and takes particular pride that his Maxim machine gun is an original artefact, unlike that one displayed in another semi-private museum down the road in Gandesa. One returns blinking into the October sunlight with thirsty lungs, persuaded that the patched, ragged costumes within have been taken from the dry bones lying out on the hillsides.

A different engagement with the memory of the battle in Corbera can be experienced in the ruined village on the hilltop, itself a protected historical site.

Jesús Pedrola, curator of the Alphabet of Peace

Here local artist Jesús Pedrola has for several years curated the Alphabet of Freedom, a collaborative project comprising large letters arranged throughout the ruined streetscape by visiting artists in a variety of media and styles. More recently a more formal entity, the Patronage del Poble Vell, has been set up by members of the community backed by the local council with the clear objective of ‘preserving and restoring’ the site. According to their website

“A lot of people visit the site and it concerns our own history. A history testified in the stones which we wish to restore and preserve, to leave in better condition for the younger generation. We don’t wish the site to be lost or to deteriorate more.”

The inherent technical challenge of trying to preserve a site already in ruins has not however been addressed and it will be interesting to see how in the future Corbera will weigh up against Belchite, a less visited spot yet one which seems to disintegrate and diminish with each passing year.

One of the objectives of the Patronage is to create a photographic archive that will serve to preserve the memory of the village as it was, while at the same time providing an exhibition space for donated works from artists associated with the alphabet project. A semi-derelict house on the edge of the old village has been acquired and is about to undergo conservation works, funded by ANAV, the power company which operates the 40-year old nuclear plant on the Ebro at nearby Ascó. The house stands directly beside the building Pedrola has been reconstructing over several years at his own cost, which functions as an information point for those visiting the ruined village. He is now under pressure from the town hall to close up the building, which provides him with a meagre income to protect the alphabet through the sale of books and posters. He worries how Corbera’s story will be presented in the new building and is suspicious of the input from ANAV, where the power plant is still seen as a legacy of the dictatorship.

Those supporting the construction of the wind farms point to the nuclear plant and its abysmal safety record. The most recent incident relates to a serious leak which occurred in November 2007: although radioactive particles were still being detected outdoors on 14 March 2008, the Spanish Nuclear Energy Authority was not informed of the incident until 4 April. Local groups were incensed that staff at the plant had allowed a school trip to go ahead just a day before the leak was made public. In August the Energy Authority announced penalties against the plant of up to €22.5 million for a series of breaches, including their failure to immediately report the leak. The Zapatero government has pledged to make Spain nuclear-free, but has not proposed a meaningful time frame. Meanwhile it’s hoped that the sun and the wind can provide an ever-increasing proportion of the country’s needs into the future.

Graffito in la Fatarella opposing the windfarms

Back up in the hills, the construction of the wind farm continues apace. With most of the windmills already erected, those opposed to their construction are admitting defeat. But what of the human remains that have been disturbed in their construction? On 17 June 2009 the Catalan parliament passed legislation on the recovery and identification of those who disappeared during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. The new law places the onus on the Catalan state to locate the graves of missing persons, supporting the rights of their descendants to obtain information about their fate and, if appropriate, to exhume their remains. The law further supports the marking of such mass graves and their preservation as places of memory, to satisfy people’s right to know the truth of events during the period and the political circumstances in which the disappearances occurred.

In the light of recent revelations regarding the execution of Robert Hale Merriman (the American chief of staff of the XV Brigade), it is only a matter of time before the families of the International fallen will request the assistance of the Catalan government in identifying the burial sites of their own disappeared.

As García Lorca’s descendants were sadly not to discover, the science of DNA matching has advanced sufficiently to allow the identification (or otherwise) of remains from known burial sites. Attempting, however systematically, to recover individual lives and histories from disarticulated bones gathered from the hillsides is another story. Given that the remains are as likely to belong to volunteers from outside Spain renders the task all the more impossible. It thus perhaps serves a greater purpose that the bones should remain where they lie with their anonymity intact, a reminder for all of the sacrifices made in the attempt to defeat fascism in Spain. In an economy where ruined villages compete with private museums and interpretative centres, where international solidarity has been replaced by the globalised capital of the power companies, the sacrifice has become all the more undermined. Perhaps the only real experience left is to walk through the landscape on your own, your back to the windmills and your eyes to the ground against the sun.

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