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In the early months of 1937 the inhospitable Aragon landscape, combined with outdated weaponry and ammunition, created a military stalemate in the mountainous position occupied by Orwell’s POUM section.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