Many excellent books have been written about the Spanish Civil War. From the classics by Hemmingway and Orwell to secondary studies by Preston, Beevor et al. There have been memoirs, and biographies and organisations like the International Brigades Memorial Trust ensure we do not forget the sacrifices that so many people from around the world made in defence of democracy.
What we don’t have are many military histories of the conflict. Charles Esdaile’s ‘The Spanish Civil War: A Military History’ is a recent contribution as is a new book by Alexander Clifford 'The People's Army in the Spanish Civil War', which focuses on the wider People's Army, not just the International Brigades.
The Spanish Civil War is often described as the precursor to the Second World War. In fact, it was fought more like the First World War – a war of attrition that was won by the side that could amass the most men and material. That side was the rebel armies who not only inherited the majority of the Spanish Army but were generously supplied by the Fascist powers of Italy and Germany. The Soviet Union did supply equipment to the government forces, but it was often antiquated, too varied and supplies dried up in the latter stages of the war as Stalin lost interest.
Despite these disadvantages, the People’s Army did a lot better than many have given them credit for. They put together a force that was able to prolong the conflict and perform at least as well as similar armies thrown together a short notice. The author makes a good comparison with the failings of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.
The book starts with the causes of the war, followed by a detailed look at how the People's Army was constituted, and their rebel opponents. It then looks at three of the most significant battles of the war; Brunete, Belchite and Teruel. Examining the strategy and tactics adopted by the People's Army and its opponents.
The final chapter draws some conclusions and effectively challenges some of the common criticisms of the Republican strategy. The idea that the Republic could have adopted a defensive posture over a front longer than the Western Front in WW1 is rightly dismissed as impractical. It would have given Franco the initiative at every stage, and the benefits of defence have been overstated when you look at casualty rates in WW1 and in the SCW.
The creation of the People's Army was in itself controversial, with many at the time and since arguing that they should have retained the revolutionary militias. However, it was probably the only thing that prevented a swift rebel victory. Even quite experienced armies struggled to manage open warfare, like the British in 1918. That sort of warfare relies heavily on junior officers and NCOs, one of the People's Army's biggest weakness. Criticisms of the International Brigades miss the point that they were not a monolithic organisation. As with the wider People's Army, there were good and bad formations.
The People’s Army will not go down in history as a great fighting force, although some units performed extraordinarily well in hugely difficult circumstances. Despite being outgunned and outnumbered, they did give the rebels an extremely tough fight over several years. As the author concludes ‘that was the greatest achievement of this unique, improvised army’.
I had the benefit of a longish rail journey over the weekend to read this book in almost one go. It is well written and offers a different perspective on the Spanish Civil War. A worthy addition to the extensive literature on this conflict.
|People's Army regulars in 15mm|
|The rebels best troops - Morrocan units|