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The story of the Ejército Popular

Ejército Popular officer Juan Modesto leading from the front at Brunete, July 1937.

The story of the regular Spanish Republican Army, the Ejército Popular, is perhaps less known than that of the International Brigades. Alex Clifford argues that it is nevertheless an important one that deserves attention. He presents the following article as an introduction to his book on the military history of the Republican Army.

The Spanish Republic faced a seemingly insurmountable task at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Due to the nature of the war’s outbreak, an attempted military coup, many army units that did remain loyal were swiftly dissolved and the inexperienced conscripts dismissed. The Republicans therefore had to fight a military rebellion without an army. This problem was initially overcome by the arming of the workers’ and peasants’ militias. While the militias, alongside loyal police units, had performed admirably in putting down the army revolt across much of Spain, by August 1936 a more conventional war was being waged, and their deficiencies became clear.

The problems that the militia faced were obvious. They had little to no training or experience. Their equipment and supply was haphazard and they possessed virtually no heavy weapons, nor the expertise to use them. They armed themselves however they could, with one peasant in Toledo province later explaining that he and his comrades raided a local collection of antique weaponry and set out to defend the Republic with lances and swords. The militias lacked military discipline or organisation; many appear to have gone on leave when they wished. Some columns operated like committees, with commanders elected and orders discussed and debated before being obeyed or discarded. Yet in a matter of months, this unpromising raw material was forged into a regular army, the Ejército Popular, best translated as the People’s Army.

While at the time the formation of the People’s Army was politically controversial (many revolutionaries opposed the creation of a regular army), there can be no doubt that it was the only reason the Republic was able to resist for so long against Franco’s fascists. Historians have not been especially kind to the Republican army, nor its leaders, and indeed rarely are to defeated militaries. However, when compared to other armies built in wartime, for instance the American Expeditionary Force of 1918, it can be seen that the People’s Army actually performed rather admirably and the issues it did face are in fact common to other similar attempts to build an army during wartime – a dearth of experienced leaders, poor logistics and organisation and shortages of crucial arms and equipment.

While fatally flawed, the People’s Army had two historically unique features: the International Brigades and a motley blend of professional and amateur officers. Readers of ¡No Pasarán! will doubtless be familiar with the international volunteers and their celebrated part in the story of the civil war. However, the story of the People’s Army as a whole and its ragtag leadership of loyalist professional officers, ‘geographically loyal’ generals and unlikely worker-soldiers is probably less well-known. A significant proportion of the 2,000 professional officers who fought for the Republic did not do so out of conviction, but out of necessity due to the geographical division of Spain in July 1936. Their performance was naturally lacklustre, given that many had more sympathy with the military Rebels than the Republic.

People’s Army advance at Brunete, July 1937.

On the other hand a small number, such as the Chief of the General Staff, Vicente Rojo, were both committed and talented and provided some much-needed expertise to the fledgling army. There is both romance and tragedy in the story of dozens of militia leaders, mostly young, working-class political activists, who rose to high command in the People’s Army. While mavericks such as Enrique Líster and the talented but caustic Juan Modesto were inspirational and determined commanders, other militia leaders proved well out of their depth and made disastrous mistakes. To further complicate matters there were also several Red Army officers who commanded divisions in Spain under false names, and their records were decidedly mixed.

The People’s Army has received scant coverage in the English-language literature on the Spanish Civil War, with historians more focused on the political, social and diplomatic aspects of the war. The academic is well-served by Michael Alpert’s in-depth study, but for all its virtues Alpert’s book is an organisational history that mentions combat, the raison d’être of any army, only in passing. After specialising in the Spanish Civil War at university, I continued to research the war, and in particular the International Brigades and the Republican army as I entered the teaching profession. After several years of study, I decided to write a book that would fill a gap in the historiography – a narrative account of the People’s Army from conception to destruction, focused on its three most significant and revealing campaigns, Brunete, Belchite and Teruel.

Wherever possible, I used eye-witness testimony to provide a real sense of what frontline service for the Republican army was like. Failure in these offensives would ultimately spell defeat for the Loyalists in the civil war, but understanding what went wrong, rather than writing the Republic off as incompetent and under-resourced, is far more revealing. The intensity of the aforementioned battles is testament to the strength, resilience and fighting power of the People’s Army and would likely surprise a general reader perhaps only familiar with George Orwell’s account of the conflict.

While the Republican People’s Army will not go down in history as a great fighting force, it can be argued that the Loyalists did nearly the best they could with what they had. Organisation, logistics, training and leadership were poor, and the Republic was probably guilty of not making the best of the scant military resources they acquired. However, Spain was fighting a civil war; troops were needed at the front immediately and there was no time for specialist training, tactical innovation or a thorough theoretical assessment of the military situation. That the Nationalists were able to manage their resources better and make the best of their own less substantial deficiencies is patently obvious by the final outcome of the conflict. But the People’s Army did give them an extremely tough fight and held out far longer than expected and in the end that was the greatest achievement of this unique makeshift military.

Alex Clifford's ‘The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War: A Military History of the Republic and International Brigades’ is published by Pen & Sword Books and is available now.

 

Posted on 5 March 2020.