Shouting, not Shooting

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.

orwell-iwm
Orwell (back row, middle) and other members of the Independent Labour Party photographed in a garden shortly before leaving England for Spain, December 1936. Image reproduced under creative commons licence, copyright IWM (HU 51080)

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In the early months of 1937 the inhospitable Aragon landscape, combined with outdated weaponry and ammunition, created a military stalemate in the mountainous position occupied by Orwell’s POUM section.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

 

 

 

 

Passages from “Passages in…”

Bamford001

Passages in the Life of a Radical (London, 1859) provides an invaluable record of an increasing sense of class consciousness and unity of purpose among large sections of the artisan and labouring classes in Britain during a very specific time frame (1816-21). The author Samuel Bamford (1788-1872) describes an era of growing political unrest in which he was directly involved as a working man, activist and reformist radical. In a brief introduction to the account, Bamford acknowledged his interest:

‘The writer was a partaker in most of the scenes he will describe. They are vividly impressed on his memory; some of them are also interwoven with the feelings of his heart.’

In other words, Passages in… was not written to provide an objective chronicle of events. Parts of the text are didactic or polemical in tone and content. At one point, Bamford launches an impassioned appeal for a more egalitarian society (‘cheap food for the hungry, – cheap clothing for the naked…cheap rents for the farmer, – cheap education for everyone…’).

Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.419
Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.419

Elsewhere, Bamford provides an overview of the unrest that was spreading across Britain’s industrial towns and cities. The factors causing this were unemployment, the high price of basic foodstuffs and the limits of the franchise: at this time very few people had the right to vote and power remained in the hands of a privileged and wealthy elite.

Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.6
Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.6

Bamford also allows us behind-the-scenes access into the everyday or routine life of a political activist. His descriptive passages make it possible to ‘know’ – in the absence of visual records – what it was like to attend a typical meeting of working men indoors in early-nineteenth-century London: ‘many would be speaking at once, and the hum and confusion would be such as gave an idea of there being more talkers than listeners.’

Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.20
Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.20

But Passages in the Life of a Radical is perhaps best-known today for the eyewitness testimony it provides of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place on 16 August 1819. Bamford was among the estimated 60,000 men and women who assembled on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demonstrate peacefully for Parliamentary Reform and a repeal of the Corn Laws. Many of those present had attended to hear the popular radical orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835) but whilst Hunt was speaking from the platform – and acting on the orders of local magistrates who had become anxious when they realised the size of the crowd – mounted yeomanry moved in to arrest him. A sea of people closed ranks around the platform in an attempt to block the arrest; the yeomanry panicked and charged the crowd. As Bamford explains:

‘The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabres were plied to hew away through naked held-up hands, and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs, and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.’

Within a few short moments of panic and mayhem (‘in ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc, the field was an open and almost deserted space.’) fifteen people were killed and more than 400 wounded. Roughly a quarter of those wounded were women.

Some ten days later, Bamford was arrested and charged with a breach of the law relating to the gathering at St Peter’s Fields. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison. His account of the trial includes some brief explanation about the social and political conditions informing the original peaceful protest as well as witness testimony of events on the day: ’She likened her house to an hospital after a military slaughter.’

Bamford_p344

Passages in the Life of a Radical, p.344

You can find out about the Peterloo Massacre and the campaign to recognise the sacrifice of the pioneer campaigners for justice, equality and voting reform here.  To read more about Samuel Bamford, click here.