Friday, 28 June 2013

Battle of the Ebro: a 'Grotesque Gamble'!

WHEN, in 1963, my boss at the Casa Such in Denia, Alicante, bought a new wagon to carry the cans of butane gas to the villages of San Antonio the make of the vehicle was 'Ebro'.  It was named after the famous river in Aragón, where in 1938 the Battle of the Ebro was fought.  Next month, on the 6th, July, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) is commemorating and celebrating the 75th anniversary of that battle at an assembly at Jubilee Gardens on London's South Bank.  There will be 'Guest Performers and speakers', and a social gathering from 2.30pm in the Camel & Artichoke at 121, Lower Marsh Street, London.

Yet, ought the IBMT to be 'celebrating' the Battle of the Ebro? 

After the collapse in Aragón during the spring of 1938, the republican government tried to reconstitute an army from the formations that had been pushed back into the isolated eastern zone.  This had the River Segre to to the west and the Ebro to the south, the republicans were lucky in that they had 18,000 tons of war material which had come over the French frontier between March and mid-June.  The call-up had been extended to the 'quinta del biberon' (baby's dummies call-up) of 16-year-olds, and their middle-aged fathers.

After the peace overtures of the pro-communist republican leader Negrin had failed, he obtain the support of the communists to seek to attract international attention by launching something heroic and that turned out to be the Battle of the Ebro.  In his book 'The Battle for Spain,' Anthony Beevor writes:
'This reasoning... contained several basic flaws... European attention was much more preoccupied with events in the east, especially Hitler's designs on Czechoslovakia' and '[t]here was no prospect of Franco changing his refusal to compromise, nor of Chamberlain coming to the aid of the Republic.'

It seems the military justification for the project consisted of a vain plan to recapture the nationalists' corridor to the sea and link up the two republican zones again.  Beaver writes: 
'[T]his was wildly optimistic and demonstrated that the government and the communists still refused to learn from their own disastrous mistakes.  The pattern was entirely predictable.  Even if the republican attackers achieved surprise, the nationalist armies, with their American trucks, would redeploy rapidly to halt the offensive.'

Clearly Negrin and his communist friends refused to see that another battle involving heavy casualties would damage republican morale, probably irretrievably. 

When it all ended in tears, the communists tried to blame General Rojo and the general staff, as usual these people, like Togliatti, cried 'sabotage and malevolent action' of others such as 'General Miaja and other commanders at the centre'.  And yet, Beevor writes as a military historian:
'The fact that the whole strategy had been agreed between Negrin and the communists, and the army had been commanded by a communist who refused to retreat, were of course ignored.  So was the fact that the whole plan had been ill thought-out. 

Beevor continues to illustrate this folly of the Battle of the Ebro:
'To attack a sector so close to the bulk of the nationalist Army of Manoeuvre meant that the enemy could counter-attack rapidly; and to choose to fight with a large river just behind your front line when the enemy had a crushing air superiority to smash your supply lines was idiotic; to refuse to pull back after a week when it was clear that you had no chance of achieving your objective was bound to lead to the useless sacrifice of an army which could not be replaced.  It was beyond military stupidity, it was the mad delusion of propaganda.'

Some communist party critics of the historian Anthony Beevor describe him as 'a Cold War Warrior', but the readers must judge for themselves.  What he write here seems perfectly plausible, and it often seems to me that many communists suffer from what the philosopher Wittgenstein call 'aspect blindness'.

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