A beloved country at war with itself

Lee was one of hundreds from around the world who joined the International Brigades in their fight against fascism.
Lee was one of hundreds from around the world who joined the International Brigades in their fight against fascism. / SUR
  • Laurie Lee (1914-1997). A Moment of War (1991)

A central vein of disappointment and sadness runs through A Moment of War, Laurie Lee’s unrelentingly bleak account of his experiences during the Spanish civil war. As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning - the conclusion of which is this book’s beginning - is a colourful celebration of Spain and its people, full of optimism, life and vigour; A Moment Of War, by contrast, is a lament for the country’s vastly diminished beauty and pride during its tortuous internal conflict, a picture painted with a palette of far bleaker colours.

When civil war broke out in Spain in July 1936, Lee was picked up from Almuñécar and taken back to England by a British destroyer. Lee went somewhat reluctantly from this small fishing town - already a Republican stronghold - in which he had enjoyed a warm reception in December 1935 and since spent a happy seven months: “A year’s life in a few hours ended,” he wrote mournfully at the close of As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning.

The 1930s England to which Lee returned - “snoozing under old newspapers and knotted handkerchiefs” - struck him as unendurably dull and parochial. Even falling deeply in love with a wealthy, “demandingly beautiful” married woman who adored him couldn’t keep Lee from returning to Spain, a country now fighting against itself. In the autumn of 1936 he left London for France and by December 1937 he had reached the Pyrenees. Suicidally, Lee chose to cross the mountains by himself and on foot, narrowly avoiding dying in a blizzard before arriving “back in Spain, with a winter of war before [him]”.

Lee was propelled back into his beloved Spain, at severe personal risk, by a mixture of boredom, bravado and idealism. Like many young men who volunteered for the Republican International Brigades to fight against Franco’s fascists, he was looking for adventure justified by a lofty cause; in this case, “the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again.”

The International Brigades, alongside the Spanish Republicans, saw themselves as fighting for the liberation of an underclass who had been, for far too long, the exploited tools of a wealthy, right-wing elite. Lee and his fellow idealists were invigorated by a speech given by Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist Party, at their training camp in Tarazona de la Mancha; Pollitt assured the increasingly demoralised Republicans that their efforts could “capture the whole world for the workers”.

Lee’s involvement in the conflict, though, was more personal than that of many of his comrades, for whom the political goal - a hazily-defined version of Communism - was all, at least at the beginning of the conflict. Lee already loved and understood Spain deeply, so a sense of irretrievable loss informs his observations of a country and people that would never quite be the same again. He found Spain sadly, unrecognisably altered from the land that had made his childhood dreams come true just one year earlier: on the train to his brigade’s military barracks in Albacete, Lee sensed “an infection so deep it seemed to rot the earth, drain it of colour, life and sound. The landscape was plagued, stained and mottled, and all humanity seemed to have been banished from it”. Saddest of all for the young poet was the realisation that a large part of Spain was going to disappear forever, whatever the outcome of the conflict: “Worse than a country at war, this one was at war with itself - an ultimate, more permanent wastage.”

One reads in Lee’s book, as one does in so many first-hand accounts of war, that a mind-numbing monotony is randomly punctuated by moments of great fear and violence. Lee admits to killing a man in a flurry of hand-to-hand combat outside Teruel: “I remember his shocked, angry eyes. There was nothing I could say to him now.” It was a traumatising experience that effectively ended his time as a Republican fighter; after languishing in an abandoned barn in “a state of sick paralysis, knowing neither time nor place”, Lee was found and taken back to Tarazona. From there, via a pointless three-week incarceration in Barcelona followed by a train journey through France, he arrived back in London, where his beautiful lover was waiting for him at Victoria station.

Lee returned to England more disillusioned and just as unfulfilled as he had been upon leaving it in the autumn of 1936, intending to fight for a new Spain in which even the poorest peasant could enjoy a civilised autonomy. Back in the cosy affluence of Hampstead, in bed once more with his devoted lover, Lee could not shake the feeling that he’d contributed nothing to a now-doomed cause. He ends his story on a note of exquisite, sullen desolation: “I remember the flowers on the piano, the white sheets on her bed, her deep mouth, and love without honour.”