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Books Hell and Good Company CoverThe civil war in Spain, 1936-1939, was the dark warning to the world of the war to follow, in almost every respect, from the warring alliances, to the weaponry, to the normalization of bombing non-combatants, to the leaps forward in communications, medicine, and logistics.

Richard Rhodes, not a scholar of that war,  nor of Spain in general, but a fine explainer of interesting things, from the life of  John James Audubon to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, adds a very nice volume to the histories of that war and that fracturing nation: Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made (2015).  Not a military history, though including moving descriptions of several of the battles – Madrid and the Jarama valley, among others– it does a particularly good job on what most war writing  omits — the challenge to and courage of those responsible for the care and healing of the wounded.  American and British medical personnel, and particularly the work of British nurses, get much of Rhodes’ attention.   He is interested in, he tells us,   “the human stories … not yet told, or told only completely.  I was drawn as well to the technical developments of the war … especially constructive technology which amplifies compassion….”   As a non-Spaniard looking in, he scatters the pages with accounts of non-Spanish participants — George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Andre Malraux among many–  to give today’s reader a strong impression of what moved so many to risk their lives.


While WWI and the trench warfare of 1914-18 had brought some improvements to battlefield medicine over that of previous wars, the theory of micro-organisms and infectious disease  was only 50 years old, from the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 1860s and 70s.  Antiseptic surgery –clean but not yet sterile– was only a bit more recent.  Ideas of blood transfusions were so primitive that they were only possible if a donor and recipient were lying in close proximity and still, survival was mostly due to chance.  Blood typology was only beginning to be understood and racial bias influenced who could get blood from whom.

The war in Spain saw major advances in refrigeration, sterilization and proper categorization of blood-types, from an innovative Catalan, Frederic Duran Jordá and a San Joaquin Valley, Californian, Oswald Robertson, credited with setting up the first blood-bank.  Another American, New Yorker Edward Barsky, created the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy (AMD) and led volunteers to set up a hospital, with some 20 tons of medical equipment, for the wounded  in the fateful Battle of Jarama February, 1937.

“I cut through clothing,” nurse Lini Fuhr recalls, “of boys I had danced with on the way to Spain.”

Norman Bethune, from the beginning a hero of the Republican side of the war, created and brought a mobile blood transfusion service to the front lines and recruited medical personnel, especially from Canada. In his capacity as surgeon and blood ambulance he witnessed many of the heaviest battles of the war, and the new innovations in bombing civilians.

In a broadcast made for Canadian listeners he said:

“After the bombs fall — and you can see them falling like great black pears– there is a thunderous roar.  Clouds of dust and explosive fumes fill the air, whole sides of houses fall into the street. From heaps of huddled clothes on the cobblestones blood began to flow–these were once live women and children.

Gas warfare, banned after the horrors of WW I threatened a reappearance.  J.B.S. Haldane, then becoming a famous biolgist, came to Spain to plan masks and other protections for civilians and Republican soldiers.


Though Madrid was bombed often and hard, and Barcelona in turn, it was the daily sorties over Basque country and the razing to the ground of Guernica that caught the world’s attention, an renewed as each generation takes in the awe-full mural Picasso created.  The bombings were carried out by the German Condor legion, organized by one Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin to WWI’s famous “Red Baron.” He in turn had developed his ideas from several years with Mussolini’s Italian Air Force in Ethiopia where General Giulio Douhet was developing his theories of targeting civilian populations in order to sow terror and break morale.

The Battle of Madrid in November 1936 went on for several weeks, involving not just valiant militiamen firing old rifles from behind the rubble, but tanks (German against Soviet,) bombers(German,) battalions of fierce Moroccan soldiers under Franco.  There were some 15,000 casualties on each side; 1.000 of the 3,000 International Brigadiers, dead.   That December 6,000 Italian  troops landed at Cadiz in the south, to be aimed northward to Madrid, followed by another 4,000 in January.  Mussolini was more eager to ‘blood’ his troops than Hitler, who denied a request for German troops by explaining that the longer the war in Spain dragged on the more would British and French attention be distracted from events in Gemany.   Though Rhodes’ angle of vision is from the Republican side he includes atrocities committed by them, as well as the many against them.


Among other interesting slices of history I did not know, despite immersion in Spanish history during a year I lived there, was  that a counter Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin was planned in Barcelona that fateful summer of 1936, called the People’s Olympiad;  that Muriel Rukeyser, the to-be well known American poet, was among those leaving as Barcelona erupted in fighting and flames;  that Luis Bunuel, the to-be famous film maker, participated in the defense of Madrid in the first days.

Andre Malraux, already a Prix Goncourt winner for his 1933, Man’s Fate, came to Spain soon after the Franco-led insurrection broke out. He began by patching together a small fighter squadron of obsolete French donated airplanes to harass, if not compete with, the first rate airplanes flown by experienced pilots from Germany and Italy. As the war went on, he toured the United States, trying to raise funds for the beleagured Republicans. He published Man’s Hope, a novel about the war, in 1938; the war was not to be over until April, 1939.

Arthur Koestler, reporting for a London newspaper was at the fall of Malaga to Italian, German and Nationalist troops at the end of January, 1937 where he was captured and imprisoned. Spanish Testament, and a subsequently re-worked, Dialogue with Death, as well as much of his most famous Darkness at Noon came from his experience of three months waiting execution.


Of the Spaniards, Rhodes gives interesting details about Pablo Picasso coming out of several fallow years to create a post-card size series titled Sueno y Mentira de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco,) in retrospect, a preparation for what was to come. Agonizing in his Paris exile, reading daily about the war, he accepted a commission for a large mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the up coming World’s Fair in Paris.

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As the bombings of Spanish cities continued In the spring of 1937, and the deadline for his promised mural neared, Picasso began his development of  the long deferred painting.  Then, on Monday, April 27, 1973 — a market day– the bombing of Guernica began. Picasso saw reports and photos in the April 28 newspaper, Ce Soir, in Paris.  His way forward was now clear. In a few days, large sketches indicated the finished form of the Guernica we are familiar with today.   Rhodes gives a helpful several page analysis of the images and the histories behind them. (There are, of course, entire books about the painting.)

Joan Miró, also in Parisian exile from Barcelona, prepared his Spanish Pavilion contribution, The Reaper, or, The Catalan Peasant.  with his anguished, Still Life With An Old Shoe:

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Ernest Hemingway and others spent 18 days in Madrid under Nationalist bombardment, writing news dispatches and collecting impressions for later fiction.  He was not the only English speaking author in Spain.  The English poet, Stephen Spender was in Valencia to head up a Socialist radio station; a short account of a meeting between the two is a nice quick sketch of both.  John Dos Passos was there as well, the early friendship between him and Hemingway going bad by the Spring of ’37.  Martha Gellhorn, not yet Hemingway’s third wife, nor the world-famous war reporter she was to become, comes to Madrid and, confronted by Hemingway, began to write abut the war.

Gellhorn was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was unsuccessful at getting the White House to push back against American Catholic opposition to bringing Basque refugee children to the U.S. (Basques supported the Republic against Franco and so, in American prelate’s eyes, despite being Roman Catholic were “anti-catholic.”)  She did get an audience for Hemingway, herself and Joris Ivens to show The Spanish Earth the film they were working on, to the President; Roosevelt told them to pull no punches… “make it stronger.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, already well known but not yet the author of  The Litte Prince, shared the bombings in Madrid with others and gave away his private store of grape-fruit after the Hotel Florida itself was hit.  Ilya Ehrenburg, the Russian journalist and novelist was there and subsequently went with Hemingway to the front lines.

The December, 1937, bombing of Barcelona is given its own place. J.B.S. Haldane, visiting as a university consultant, witnessed one attack:

“While I am aware of the glorious record of the Italian Air Force…it is not every day that they can kill 83 orphans with one bomb.  Their average is very much lower.”

By May of 1938, he reported that “the number of Spanish children known to have been killed by bombing was 10,760…”

The International Brigades, and especially the American contingents,  are a major thread of Rhodes’ story, not only their fighting and dying but the mounting of  twenty-four field hospitals, with six thousand beds.  Two American brigades, both greatly reduced from their original sizes,  were merged in the spring of 1938, and filled out with some four hundred Spanish boys.

“Most were conscripts from farm, factory and office …  All seemed to be at that stage of adolescence where they were more girls than men,” wrote Alvah Bessie.

Dr Edward Barsky’s desperate attempt to get a medical contingent up through the mountain snow-drifts to Teruel is a small thriller in itself, and of course no war writing can go without a love story, this one not from Hemingway’s pen but an actual “beginning of the world” for nurse Patricia Darton and International Brigadier, Robert Asquist, a German Jew from Palestine.  It is war, and so the ending is written.


Hell and Good Company is a book to like.  Though somewhat of a whirl of people and events which for some will seem more interesting than substantial, it will in many cases, lead readers out and away into more of the many novels and histories written about that terrible, pivotal war.  The courage of the Spaniards, defending their elected government against a military take-over, of the volunteers who went to help,  of the doctors and nurses who endured months in unheated cave-hospitals inventing new means of treatment, of transporting and storing blood, the journalists who braved the freezing trenches, small arms fire, tanks and airplanes were all part of something enormous.

What I haven’t seen anything of is the story or analysis of how the Nationalist/Franco forces were so successful in their international propaganda.  Years after it was over, as I was talking to my grandmother, good Scot-American Catholic, she expressed dismay that she had believed the news coming from the war about Franco rescuing Catholic Spain from the devil himself.  She was still coming to grips with it as I told her what I knew.

Richard Rhodes has done us a great favor by reminding us, and bringing new faces and names to the memory wall.