Laurie Lee’ s evocative, authentic voice rings across time to bring us into a pivotal moment of the 20th Century. Spain is at war with itself, but that war is also the spark that signifies the beginning of a greater tragedy. How insidious are the cold-blooded calculations and miscalculations that led to World War II!
In A Moment of War, the young British idealist, Laurie Lee, sets out to revisit and defend the country he came to know a few years before while on a long rambling excursion into the heights and depths of Spain, described in his previous book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
As he writes of his solitary and stubborn trek over the Pyrenees: “I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible. I felt the seal of fate on me, and a certain grim intoxication, alone in this buried silence.”
What he finds is confusion, people appearing to be what they’re not, hunger, cold, and random brutality. The international volunteers are not trained and not armed. They are held in desolate places, starving and suffering from the cold and boredom. Every so often a speaker rallies them and they raise their fists, ready to fight and die in the fight against Fascism. Lee underscored the absurdity of the situation, and its likely uselessness, as he said: “Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, our torn coats flapping in the wind, and scarcely a gun between the three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, the soft evasions of our friends, and the deadly cynicism of Russia?”
He saw this and yet: “But in our case, I believe, we shared something else, unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass slaughter closed in.”
The savagery of modern technological war caught the Spanish government by surprise. Franco, who led the rebels, and was allied with Hitler and Mussolini, had no qualms about letting them use Spain as a testing ground: “Then there the firebombs, calculated, dropped on the old town and the poor. The Luftwaffe was clinical. Franco had said that he was willing to wipe Madrid from the earth rather than let it remain ‘in the hands of the Marxists’ so he gave it up to Luftwaffe.”
In the end, after months of hardship, Lee is taken on a wild ride to the front, when the war has turned in Franco’s favor, and many are getting out or getting what they can. He finds himself dumped, with a few others, with no idea where he is or where the enemy is. While he and a Russian and a girl try to find shelter, several men come toward them. A short struggle ensues. Lee takes the rebel soldier’s weapon, shoots and kills him. He then runs away with the few stragglers. On his way out of Spain, he wonders: “Was this then what I’d come for, and all my journey had meant – to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?”
Before he left Spain, he was arrested as a suspected spy, for the third time, and jailed again. Each time he was thrown into terrible conditions, the first time in a pit, and the last time in a filthy prison with crowded cells. Each time he is saved at the last moment by someone who recognizes him and has the authority to free him. Twice he is close to being executed before this happens. This is a story of war’s senselessness, subversion and exhaustion of human feeling.
The last time he is saved by Bill Rust, the editor of the Daily Worker, who gave him the task of sorting cards with the names and addresses of five or six hundred British and Irish volunteers. “Many – more than half – were marked ‘killed in action’ or ‘missing,’ at such fronts as Brunete, Jarama and Guadalajara. Public schoolboys, undergraduates, men from coal mines and mills, they were the ill-armed advance scouts in the, as yet, unsanctified Second World War. Here were the names of dead heroes, piled into little cardboard boxes, never to be inscribed later in official Halls of Remembrance. Without recognition, often ridiculed, they saw what was coming, jumped the gun, and went into battle too soon.”
This is the review of A Moment of War on Amazon.