I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) this week, which includes an eyewitness account of megaphone warfare in the trenches during the early period of the Spanish civil war. Orwell’s description of an unorthodox military manoeuvre is the subject of this blog post.
In the 1930s Spain was politically torn between right-wing nationalist and left-wing republican factions. The nationalists included monarchists, landowners, the army and the Roman Catholic Church. The republicans consisted of workers, socialists, trade union members and labourers, or peasants. When the army (under General Franco) removed the republicans from power in 1936, civil war erupted in Spain.
The nationalists were supported by fascist governments in Germany and Italy; the republican cause was backed by communists in Soviet Russia. Once the fighting started in earnest it became clear that the nationalists were far better trained and equipped. An early defeat for the republicans appeared inevitable inspiring communists, Marxists, socialists and other broadly leftist sympathisers from across the world to travel to Spain to form so-called international brigades to combat fascism.
In December 1936, English author and journalist George Orwell enlisted to fight with the republican militia against the fascist army. Orwell spent six months in Spain, mainly stationed not far from Zaragoza on the Aragon front where initially there was little military action. Homage to Catalonia was written on his return to England, seriously wounded, in the summer of 1937. The book describes Orwell’s experiences with the United Marxist Workers Party (POUM) militia in Spain; it makes clear his commitment to working-class struggle and socialist principles; it documents the lack of munitions, kit and basic supplies available to the republican ‘troops’; and it records his response to the practice of megaphone warfare.
In the early months of 1937 the inhospitable Aragon landscape, combined with outdated weaponry and ammunition, created a military stalemate in the mountainous position occupied by Orwell’s POUM section. Conventional combat methods were ineffective. The most useful weapon was no longer the rifle but the megaphone: ‘being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead,’ explained Orwell.*
Whenever the republican and nationalist lines were within a reasonable distance of one another the shouting began, from trench to trench, across the valley and back again. Orwell indicated that the republicans worked from a script, a set-piece:
full of revolutionary sentiments which explained to the Fascist soldiers that they were merely the hirelings of international capitalism, that they were fighting against their own class, etc., etc., and urged them to come over to our side. This was repeated over and over by relays of men; sometimes it continued almost the whole night.
Orwell remembered one man at a neighbouring post who was an especially persuasive when he had charge of the megaphone:
Sometimes, instead of shouting revolutionary slogans he simply told the Fascists how much better we were fed than they were. His account of the Government rations was apt to be a little imaginative. “Buttered toast!” – you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley – “We’re just sitting down to lovely buttered toast over here! Lovely slices of buttered toast!” I do not doubt that, like the rest of us, he had not seen butter for weeks or months past, but in the icy night the news of buttered toast probably set many a Fascist mouth watering. It even made mine water, though I knew he was lying.
The numbers of Fascist deserters – and the absence of any viable alternative – convinced Orwell that this unconventional method of combat worked although ‘at the beginning it dismayed all of us; it made us feel that the Spaniards were not taking this war of theirs…seriously’:
I was amazed and scandalized when I first saw it done. The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him! I now think that from any point of view it was a legitimate manoeuvre. In ordinary trench warfare, when there is no artillery, it is extremely difficult to inflict casualties on the enemy without receiving an equal number yourself. If you can immobilize a certain number of men by making them desert, so much the better.
During this phase of the war the use of direct propaganda had developed into a credible technique, almost an art form, used by both sides to undermine the morale of the enemy. Shouting, not shooting, across no man’s land to steal a march on the opponent.
*all quotations are from pages 42-43 of the 1984 Penguin edition of Homage to Catalonia
In June 1949 Winnie sent a postcard from Ramsgate in Kent to friends in London.
On the back of the postcard Winnie wrote:
Thank you for the card. The weather here is very cold. We are wearing big coats. We both look well, in fact sights. Sheila’s face is the colour of her hair and mine is about the same as when I left. We will be home early on Sunday. I have a nice Rock for you. They had the police to control the “Rock Crowd”. My love to you all. Winnie
In September 1962 an unmarried woman received this colourful postcard of Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester from a male friend.
The message on the reverse of the card read:
Here I am in the middle of the Derbyshire Moors, very flat and featureless on top but deep, steep sided valleys are fairly impressive. I came out here for a breath of fresh air, Manchester is oppressive; the top of the moor really is unbelievably flat, and certainly doesn’t reward the climb.
Last term I ran a short course for adult learners called ‘Tourist London Since 1800’ at Bishopsgate Institute. As with all the courses I deliver, I selected a range of original sources from the Institute’s library and archive collections to direct the learning process and each week students explored a different theme using tourist guidebooks, restaurant guides, and so on.
The final week’s theme was ‘Nights Out in London’. As I gathered materials for the session, I stumbled upon this slim pamphlet.
This was an item I hadn’t seen before. Attracted by the cute jester on the front cover, and overlooking the rather dog-eared appearance otherwise, I popped the pamphlet on to the top of a set of materials on pubs, clubs and dining out at the very last minute – and started to deliver the class without having looked inside this one item. Honestly, this is not how I usually plan my sessions.
As the group started to explore the sets of archive materials laid out for them, one student called me over to share an incredible find. On every page of ‘Tabarin Club’ someone had annotated the illustrations with droll remarks. With the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute, I’ve reproduced this fabulously acerbic set of marginalia here for your enjoyment over the bank holiday weekend.
These scribbled lines smartly undermine the formal, almost pompous, tone of the printed content that outlines the facilities offered at the Tabarin Club (‘special care has been given to the proper ventilation to ensure a refreshing and invigorating atmosphere…’). They also offer insight into popular catchphrases and comic conventions of the 1920s.
I would like to thank my eagle-eyed student Jacqui Ross for bringing these previously overlooked notes to my attention – and now also to yours. As is often the case with original historical sources, this item asks more questions than it answers. Most obviously, who wrote the comments? Were they based on personal experience of nights out at the Tabarin Club (“why do we do this?” “you’re not going home yet sweetie…”)?
And what else can we discover about the Tabarin Club? Street directories from the 1920s give the club’s stated address of 31 Tottenham Court Road as the Rector’s Club rather than the Tabarin. Yet the production of a high quality brochure of this type suggests a degree of permanence or longevity as opposed to a short-lived residency. This useful website mentions the Tabarin in the body of a longer piece of writing on London’s interwar jazz clubs but otherwise I’ve been unable to find out more about the club. Anyone able to provide fresh insight is invited to comment below. Similarly, anyone wishing to get their hands on this and dozens of other original sources on the history of ‘London at Play’ is encouraged to sign up for my next archives-based course at Bishopsgate Institute, starting on Monday 9 May. This annotated pamphlet will also be featured in a session delivered as part of Duckie’s Quite a Lot of Balls weekender on 7-8 May.
Most regular users at the British Library have a favourite seat. It appears that this has always been the case. In 1928 the mysterious ‘W’ sent a postcard from the British Museum in London to a female friend or relative in Ireland, in which he explained where he usually sat to carry out his research. The front of the card shows the Reading Room with its distinctive circular layout. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the British Library had been located in the great court at the British Museum but it 1997 it moved to purpose-built library premises near Kings Cross.
The rear of the postcard is covered in cramped handwriting and signed Y.E.L. W; that is, your ever loving ‘W’ (William? Walter? Wilfred?).
The message is dated 23 January 1928. It includes a description of the British Museum reading room (‘a beautiful, large, roomy place, well-warmed…’) as well as some incomplete data on ‘W’s research topics and processes. In full, the message reads:
Many thanks for sending the Gazette, which I was glad to receive; the report of Mr Hammond’s Dublin Anniversary address has raised one or two interesting new lines to me. I shall be glad of any help, and thank you for thinking of it. I have most of the literature now; but if any old magazines (July 1927; or before October 1926) are available (without trouble), I should be happy to receive them. I see in the leaflet “Who is sufficient…” the snap of nine of the Lisburne family. Olive seems quite happy with her companions!
Liley [?] says, in a note, that, if I write to you before she does, I have to say thank you very much for the photo. They are evidently very pleased.
Thank you for your letter of Saturday. The “idea” you raise is just the very thing, and I hope that it will be possible. HBR returns this week – he is away in the South – and perhaps we can get things fixed up more definitely soon. The weekend or so will be to me much more than “restful”! I am really glad, too, to come and see the works.
We had rather a quiet Sunday evening, with 14 in; but it was nice to have it quieter and less crowded.
This is P.P.C. [picture postcard] no.7 (I think!). The Reading Room is a beautiful, large, roomy place, well-warmed and well provided with splendid desks. It holds about 400 or 500 seats. The picture is taken from the entrance (the passage under the clock is the Inner Library). I usually sit on the left of the entrance. The round shelves in the centre hold the Catalogue. The room is usually crowded. I am hoping (despite 2 or 3 meetings this afternoon and evening) to write a short letter and to post it tomorrow. D. sends her love (and W.D., too!). Y.E.L. W.
The postcard recipient is a Miss Dodwell. Her address is given as Manor House Home, a children’s home in Lisburn near Belfast in Ireland. Manor House Home opened in 1927, the year before this postcard was written. ‘W’ expresses an interest in coming to ‘see the works’ a hope that suggests Miss Dodwell is involved in managing the home in some way. But there is no way of knowing this for sure from the message, just as there is no way of discovering, without further research, whether ‘W’ and Miss Dodwell were sisters, cousins, comrades, friends or sweethearts.