“Homage to Catalonia” is a short memoir written by George Orwell and published in the United Kingdom in 1938. The book was not published in the United States until almost twenty years later in 1952.
The memoir tells the story of Orwell’s time acting as a militia man in the Spanish Civil War for nine months from December of 1936 to July of 1937. Reviews of the book were mixed with some praising it and other’s decrying it for its Socialist ideas.
Reviews of the book were mixed with some praising it and other’s decrying it for its Socialist ideas.
The book did not see much success in England in the 1930’s but reemerged almost thirty years later in America in the 50’s and 60’s, the anti-Fascist message making a large impact on young people in the hippie age.
In the book, Orwell describes his time on the Spanish war front and the small impact that he felt he made as a soldier. Orwell writes about the boredom and shortages that soldiers faced during the war and how he felt during that time. A section of the book is also devoted to speaking about the bullet that he took to the neck that put him out of commission for several weeks and got him medically excepted from the fighting. Most of the book is devoted to detailing Orwell’s realizations about Socialism and his gradual change over into a Socialist.
The first chapter of the book begins in December of nineteen thirty-six. Orwell begins by noting that he was in Barcelona at this time and describing the atmosphere of the city.
“The anarchists,” he says:
“Were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing… it was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle… ever shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized”.
He talks about a Spanish mailman that he bumped into on the street and the way the man grasped his hand when they realized they had a language barrier between them. Orwell notes that this mailman with his shabby uniform and sad face typifies for him the special atmosphere of the city in that time.
The Spanish Civil War was on and “The Anarchists” (the Spanish labor unions called the CNT and the FAI) were in control. Tipping had already been forbidden in the city and all respectful forms of address, such as Senor and Don were prohibited.
Orwell talks about the Lenin Barracks where his century (his unit of one hundred men) is stationed. “The Lenin barracks were a block of splendid stone buildings with a riding school and enormous cobbled courtyards; it had been a cavalry barracks and had been captured during the July fighting”.
Orwell’s centuria sleeps in one of the stables since the horses have been seized and are being used for the war front. Orwell says that there were perhaps a thousand or so men serving in the militias at that time and a few women although not very many.
There were still women serving at this time, but ideas were changing and men were beginning to laugh at the idea of women serving next to them.
The POUM, or Party of Marxist Unification workers militia is also present. Orwell lists their deficiencies, saying that they have no weapons and the soldiers are mostly teenage boys of sixteen or seventeen.
Orwell praises the spirit of the Spanish people and the generosity of the Catalan workers although confesses that he struggles with learning their language and sometimes gets frustrated with their tendency to put things off until “manana”. He also talks about the parades through the streets that took place when his centuria was sent to the Aragon front.
In January of nineteen thirty-seven, Orwell’s centuria was sent to Alcubierre, near the front lines. He describes this village as such:
“Alcubierre had never been shelled and was in a better state than most of the villages immediately behind the line. Yet I believe that even in peacetime you could not travel in that part of Spain without being struck by the peculiar squalid misery of the Argonese villages. They are built like fortresses, a mess of mean little houses of mud and stone huddling round the church, and even in spring you see hardly a flower anywhere; the houses have no gardens, only back-yards where ragged fowls skate over the beds of mule dung”.
He says that the only source of excitement during his first two days there was the arrival of the “Fascist deserters” who were brought under guard from the front line. Most of the troops that Orwell’s centuria were facing were not actually the fascist enemy they had been lead to hate. They were largely “wretched conscripts” who had been doing their military service when war broke out and were all too anxious to get out of the service.
The deserters were the first “real” fascists that Orwell had ever seen and it strikes him that they look exactly the same as he does.
On the third day, rifles are finally handed out to the centuria. Orwell is given a German Mauser from eighteen ninety-six which he describes as “corroded” and “past praying for”. The centuria was then sent to the front near Zaragoza and Orwell is almost shot on their first day there.
“Now that I had seen the front I was profoundly disgusted. They called this war! And we were hardly even in touch with the enemy! I made no attempt to keep my head below the level of the trench.”
A bullet whizzes by Orwell and he ducks, to his dismay as he swore that when a bullet came for him, he would not duck.
Over time in Zaragoza, however, Orwell discovers that the enemy is the last on the list of the average soldiers fear. First is the possibility of freezing to death. Obtaining firewood and keeping the fire lit become Orwell and his centuria’s first priorities.
He notes that during his time in Spain he saw very little fighting. He was only on the Aragon front from January to May and during that time not many battles happened besides the battle at Teruel which he was not present for and heavy fighting around Huesca which he relates that he played only a very small part in.
In June, there was a large attack on Huesca where several thousand men were killed by Orwell was wounded shortly before this attack and therefore had already been taken off the front.
He writes: “The things that one normally thinks of as the horrors of war seldom happened to me. No aeroplane ever dropped a bomb anywhere near me, I do not think a shell ever exploded within fifty yards of me, and I was only in hand-to-hand fighting once, (once is once too often, I may say).”
In fact, Orwell describes his boredom during this time and the shortages that his centuria experienced such as, food, tobacco, candles, firewood and munitions. After three weeks at the front, Orwell joins a contingent of English soldiers sent by the Independent Labour Party to Monte Oscuro.
“There were about thirty of ourselves, including one Spaniard… and there were a dozen Spanish machine-gunners”.
The English and the Spaniards got along well, despite the language barrier. Once again Orwell waits for something interesting to happen on the front, despite the fact that the enemy is only three or four hundred yards away. From this new position he sees the shouting between the two sides, Fascist and Socialist trenches and it is through this shouting that he learns that the town of Malaga has fallen.
“The news sent a sort of chill all along the line, for, whatever the truth may have been, every man in the militia believed that the loss of Malaga was due to treachery. It was the first talk I had heard of treachery or divided aims. It set up in my mind the first vague doubts about this war in which, hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple”.
That February, Orwell is sent with the other POUM militiamen to Huesca. He mentions a running joke within the militia, “Tomorrow, we’ll have coffee in Huesca” that was originally said by the General commanding the government troops who was then proven to be wrong when his men were badly defeated the next day.
More stagnation awaits Orwell in Huesca. Spring arrives and with it come to an infestation of lice. Orwell is sent to the “so-called” hospital at Monflorite at the end of March nineteen thirty-seven with a poisoned hand that had to be lanced.
He mentions rats that were “as big as cats, or nearly” and writes a bit about the religion of the men in his militia. The Spanish people did not seem to have much faith in the Catholic church at the time and that Christianity may have been replaced by Anarchism.
The last pages of chapter five include several descriptions of operations in which Orwell took part, such as the effort to quietly advance the Loyalist front line after dark. Another operation was a “holding attack” on Huesca which was an effort to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist Attack. That night, Orwell’s troop captured a Fascist position and then retreated back with stolen ammunition and guns.
The diversion was a success, and the Anarchist attack went forward without a hitch. Midway through the book, Orwell shares the influence that his one hundred and fifteen days spent on the war front had on his political ideas.
This changing of ideas is demonstrated in chapter 8 when Orwell writes such passages where he is describing the newly Socialist city of Aragon.
“Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory, it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism”. And: “The ordinary class division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England”. And, most tellingly: “The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before”.
Orwell relates that he did not realize at the time that this change was taking place inside of him and that like everyone around him, he was only conscious of his troubles.
But, later he learned of the importance of that time in his life and he came to consider it one of the most important times in his life. He recalls incidents from that time, a time when he was the dug-out at Monte Pocero, a time when he lay hidden beneath the tall fur trees at Monte Oscuro with three other soldiers while Fascists climbed the hill to the right of them, a time when he was in line for food in the yard at La Granja, waiting for his portion with hundreds of other men when a shell exploded overhead and everyone in the yard had to run for cover.
On April 25th, another section relieved Orwell’s and he handed over his rifle, packed his kit and marched back to Monflorite. He says that he was not sorry to leave, as the conditions were horrible and he was covered in lice.
He arrives in Barcelona and chapters eight ends with the quote “And after that, the trouble began”. Orwell describes all of the changes in the atmosphere—both social and political—of Barcelona since he was last there. The city had undergone many changes while Orwell was on the war front. It now was less revolutionary and the class divisions seemed to have returned, surprising Orwell.
Orwell seeks to join the International Column (a paramilitary group) so that he could go to the front in Madrid. However, he had to obtain a recommendation from someone in the Communist party to do so. Orwell seeks out a Communist friend who was attached to the Spanish Medical Aid and asks him for a recommendation. His friend was only to happy to oblige and asked Orwell if he might recruit some of his other English friends from his troop as well. Orwell tells him that he will consider doing so but that he needs a short break to recuperate first.
While he is waiting in Barcelona, Orwell was sent to guard a POUM controlled building while the infamous Barcelona street fighting that kicked off when the Government Assault Guards tried to take a Telephone Exchange building from the CNT was going on.
Although he now realizes that he agrees with the fighter’s cause, Orwell is annoyed to be caught up in the fight after having just returned from the front.
Assault Guards from Valencia marched in to break up the fighting. The Communist newspaper the ‘Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia’ declared POUM to be Fascist run which set off a whole new wave of fear within the city.
Orwell takes Chapter eleven to muse about how the Spanish Civil War might have ended. He gloomily predicts that the post-war government would have to be Fascistic by nature in order to maintain control.
Soon he is sent back to the front where he is quickly shot in the throat by a sniper. Orwell is standing at the corner of a parapet at five o’clock in the morning talking to a sentry when suddenly in the middle of a sentence he is shot.
He notes that he wishes to go into vivid detail describing the sensation of being shot as he feels it is interesting and not something that a lot of people can describe from experience.
He says: “Roughly speaking, it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock…with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.”
Orwell assumes at first that it was friendly fire and the sentry that he was speaking to calls for a medic. He began to think that this wound would please his wife as she wanted him to be injured so that he could come home.
The injury sends Orwell to the hospital and off of the war front. He spent some time in a hospital near the town of Lleida and was then moved to Tarragona a week later where he finally began to get proper treatment for his wound.
After this, Orwell was moved from hospital to hospital around Spain and was finally declared medically unfit for the war and discharged.
Returning to Barcelona, he finds that the POUM has been suppressed and declared illegal. POUM members were being arrested without charge. Worried that he, too will be arrested although he is legally discharged, Orwell spends the night in the ruins of a church in hiding.
Orwell was able to get to the British Consulate and meet with his wife, who was waiting there for him. Orwell and his wife visited the commander of the ILP Contingent, Georges Knopp while he was in a makeshift jail which Orwell describes as, “really the ground floor of a shop”.
Orwell had served with Knopp for months and had, at great personal risk and putting himself in physical danger, tried his best to get Knopp freed from his jail.
Orwell can do nothing to help Knopp and decides to leave Spain with his wife. He and his wife make it to France without trouble and then back to England.
In the final pages, Orwell writes: “I suppose I failed to convey more than a little of what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with.” And: “This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had a glimpse of such disaster as this—and however it ends, the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings”.
George Orwell Biography
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25th, 1903 in Mothari, India and was educated in England at Eton College.
Orwell’s father, Richard worked for the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service and his mother grew up in Burma due to her father’s business ventures.
When Orwell was just a year old, his mother brought two of her children back home to England and settled in Oxfordshire. Orwell was brought up by his mother and did not see his father again until the age of nine. While in secondary school, Orwell began writing and wrote two poems that were published in the local paper.
After school, however, Orwell decided to join the Imperial Police (the Indian Police Service) and he moved to Burma and served with the police there from 1922 to 1927. After which he returned to England and decided to follow his dream of becoming a writer.
For many years he struggled to get published and lived in poverty and poor health in England and in Paris, France. Out of this experience cane his first book, ‘Down And Out in Paris and London’, a memoir which was published in 1933.
Around this time, Orwell began a teaching career at a small school in Hayes, West London but shortly became disillusioned with the job and began working for a bookseller in Hampstead, London.
In 1935, Orwell met his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy at a party thrown by his landlady and the two married a year later on June 9th, 1936.
Orwell’s second non-fiction work, “Burmese Days” about the sordid conditions of the homeless in Burma was published in 1935 and Eric Arthur Blair officially changed his name to George Orwell.
In 1936, Orwell investigated the social divisions in the then severely economically depressed north of England and wrote what became his third book, “The Road To Wigan Pier” which was published later that year.
Also that year, Orwell joined the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. The description of his experiences, in “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) forms one of the most moving accounts of this war ever written.
After his time in the war, Orwell’s political convictions underwent a profound change. His condemnation of totalitarian society is expressed in the brilliantly witty allegorical fable, ‘Animal Farm’ published in 1945.
That year, Orwell’s wife Eileen underwent a hysterectomy complication and passed away at her sister-in-laws country home in County Durham. After his wife’s untimely death, Orwell began writing more and published 130 articles and essays.
It was during this time that he wrote his most critically acclaimed and famous novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949).
Orwell remarried in 1949 to Sonia Brownell who nursed him in the final months of his life. Orwell began experiencing trouble with his lungs and he passed away suddenly on January 21st , 1950.
According to his wishes, Orwell was buried in the graveyard of the closest church to where he died in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire where his grave is still standing today.