Spanish Civil War: The Epitaph


THE notepaper scrawl pencilled in the trenches at the Battle of Jarama is barely legible: “In a battle just taken place the British and Irish showed up well. Three Belfast men have been wounded. You will likely read about those who have been killed when official confirmation has been received….”

In another scribbled note Belfast born Liam Tumilson writes: “ . . . the mud here is terrible. Some nights we get flooded and we are beginning to hate the weather more than the Fascists.” I also have beside me his last letter penned hours before he fell to a sniper’s bullet.


Liam’s letters were written to his fiancée, Kathleen Walsh, a correspondent of Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (La Pasionaria). My father, an associate of war correspondent Ernest Hemingway, was also Liam’s comrade.

Sharing trenches they were fighting shoulder to shoulder when he saw Liam fall. Had the Nationalist sniper missed his target then I would not have been born for my father subsequently married Liam’s fiancée. Such are the quirks of fate.

Even the Olives are Bleeding

Fought in mid-winter the battle’s attrition rate was similar to that of Ypres and Mons; the toughest, bloodiest battle of the entire campaign. A British Battalion coming under fire was reduced to 160 out of the original 600 soldiers. My father’s battalion suffered 66 per cent casualties. “Even the olives are bleeding,” said poet Charles Donnelly before he too was machine gunned.

My interest was understandably ignited. I learned that off the battlefields the renegades, the lawless and the vengeful of both sides committed the most appalling atrocities not only against each other but against innocent civilians too.

Dreadful Atrocities

A father’s partiality or a religious position was all that was needed for the release of the most primitive passions for which neither side can take any credit. It’s the same in other civil wars when the bestiality of man, red in tooth and claw emerges

I saw things differently than did my father. Born in Donegal, Ireland in 1902 he was tormented by Black and Tan atrocities, then the War of Independence; shaped further by International Communism. This had set out its bloodstained stall as the panacea for the world’s ills: A heady mix during times of unimaginable poverty and injustice, father’s stance was understandable.

Born into far different circumstances I didn’t share his beliefs and so it was that we became estranged and remained so. Our fractured relationship was yet another casualty of the Spanish Civil War.

God will surely judge us not for whom we fought but for why we fought.

I think I am as well placed to offer condolences to all that war’s victims and their loved ones. I hope the atrocities of all sides will be forgotten but the ideals of the truly honourable will live on. Their bravery and sacrifices should stand as silent witness to man’s constant struggle for a better world. God will surely judge us not for whom we fought but for why we fought.

By Mike Walsh


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