Mila Gutiérrez was born in July 1926 and witnessed the Spanish Civil War as a child in Madrid. In this edited excerpt from her memoir, ‘Spanish Civil War Baby’ (2020), Gutiérrez recounts scenes from the Battle of Madrid and the arrival of the 11th International Brigade in November 1936.
French volunteers of the 11th International Brigade arriving in Madrid. (Photo: Agencia EFE)
The events known as the ‘Battle for Madrid’ took place between early November 1936 and the end of March 1937, once the Battle of Jarama was over. In this chapter I shall relate the part I lived through in person, the failure to take Madrid, which Franco called off on 23 November 1936, and a few isolated incidents in the Battle of Jarama, in February 1937.
In November 1936, my dad decided to take us all back home to Campamento (a district of Madrid), to be with grandfather Martín and close to my brother Claro. If something should happen, then let us all face it together, he said. And of course, we all agreed entirely.
Nationalist reconnaissance aircraft were flying over Madrid on 7 November and they dropped leaflets again, which said that the day after they would bomb all military targets in the city, non-stop, and urged the population to flee to the north-east of the city.
Fortunately, it was totally cloudy and overcast on the morning of 8 November, and there were no air raids, so that morning, my father decided it was a good time to leave and go back to Campamento. We planned to get to the Segovia Bridge right after lunch and then walk up the length of the Extremadura Road by night, to be on the safe side, my dad thought.
As we crossed Madrid, we could see that many people were already crowding the wrecked pavements. Soon we heard that they were there to wait for the International Brigades, the 11th Brigade, to go on parade, one thousand nine-hundred troops, many of whom had no military experience, and were about to arrive just then.
People wanted to give them a warm welcome, even if it was a very quick and simple one, so that the soldiers could at least feel that Madrid had been looking forward to their arrival.
Madrid greeted those recruits with a downpour. They marched under the rain, with people very close by, who thanked and touched them, all the way from Atocha station to the University City front, which was quite a distance; they went up the Paseo del Prado, then the Gran Via, along Calle Princesa and through the Argüelles district, until they reached the front line. At about half past one in the afternoon, they arrived at the Philosophy and Letters faculty building, where they set up their headquarters.
Historians and some leading players in these events disagree here, and I do not understand why. Distinguished Hispanophiles like Paul Preston and Hugh Thomas, and other historians assert that the 11th Brigade got into Atocha station, in Madrid, on the morning of 8 November, and I saw them. There are many photographs to attest to that, and show that they went straight away to fight in the University City. On the contrary, General Vincente Rojo contends that they did not enter combat that day, but stayed behind the lines until 13 November.
We noticed how well turned out they were in their uniforms, the Brigaders parading through the central Madrid streets, and the stark contrast that made with the militiamen’s poor outfits; we admired their new black leather jackets, their dark blue berets and high boots, which were polished and also brand new. They didn’t stop singing 'The Internationale' for a moment, each in their own language, but even so the melody could be heard loud and clear, and in perfect tune. Even though I was little, that detail surprised me. I can still remember it well: it was the first time I had heard that anthem.
Many of those nineteen-hundred foreign idealists were to die in the next few days, some that very day, defending a city they never even got to know.
Posted on 16 July 2021.