Notes from the Aragón front

Post date: 26/11/2020

Margaret Powell (1913-1990) served as a front-line nurse in Aragón in the winter of 1937-1938 and was later transferred to Barcelona where she worked in several hospitals. She was the last British International Brigade nurse to leave Spain, losing her passport in the chaos of the retreat into France as hundreds of thousands of Republicans fled from Franco’s advancing army in January 1939. At the border she was arrested by French police and taken to the refugee camp at Argelès-sur-Mer, where refugees lived on sand dunes with no shelter and in appalling sanitary conditions. She was later rescued by a Quaker relief team and was later honoured by the exiled Spanish Republic ‘for her valiant action as a nurse...for her faith, self sacrifice and devotion to our wounded and to our war victims’. After the war she married International Brigader (and former IBMT Chair) Sam Lesser.

This is an extract from an article she wrote while in Spain for the April 1938 issue of British Nursing Journal, which was reprinted in the IBMT Newsletter Issue 27/Autumn 2010.

Left: Margaret Powell (top left) with other volunteer nurses at Poleniño Hospital, Aragon, in 1937. Right: Margaret Powell (right) in Barcelona Hospital No.7 in 1938.

After spending several months in a small village on the Aragón front serving at an urgent surgical centre, the division to which we were attached became a ‘shock division’ moving from place to place; we, as the mobile surgical team, moved with it. We reached the end of our journey, which was high up in the Pyrenees at midnight and for the rest of the night we heard mules and trucks go by towards the front line in some places less than four miles away.


Early next day we commenced making our preparations, selecting for the theatre a shed which had been used as a slaughterhouse (there was no other choice). At least it had the virtue of a roof, even if some of the walls were missing. Blankets were hung where the walls should have been, whilst the remaining walls should have been, whilst the remaining walls were white-washed and the mud scraped off the floor…


All the afternoon and evening we heard the sound of battle, and we knew that soon our period of ‘idleness’ would cease. The wounded began to arrive at about six o’clock in the morning, a grim contrast to the loveliness of the Pyrenees, and we started our work without doing more than struggle into our clothes and washing our hands.


In addition to being surgically responsible for our own division of over 10,000 soldiers, we were also detailed to attend another 3,000 men because their division had no surgeon.


All the wounded, many of whom had to be brought down from the mountains on mules, were first treated at the first aid stations and then came on to us. Ambulance after ambulance – ‘six abdominals and a couple of heads – all for operation’. Next one: more abdominals, more heads, compound fractures, ‘all for operation’. And for all this, only one surgeon – Spanish – who just goes on and on, speaking only to enquire what is next; making anxious enquiries about the state of the last case; asking about the stock of sterile material, and above all passing never-failing words of encouragement to the wounded, even after 24 hours of constant work.


We had no electricity, but worked with primus lamps and candles and when all the mantles broke, just candles. Imagine if you can, a surgeon performing a laparotomy, finding and suturing a liver wound, or maybe 24 or more intestinal perforations, performing a nephrectomy, removing a spleen, all by candlelight. Meanwhile we grope around the table for instruments, thread needles, break catgut capsules all in the flickering light…

Blood transfusions were given whenever possible, but we could not employ the tubes of blood because we had no refrigerator in which to store them, so the direct method was always used. There were times when it was impossible to find a donor, for everyone within reach had given as much as they could. 


We were, I suppose, always in some sort of danger, but somehow when one is surrounded by danger one does not think of it, and in any case we did not have the time to worry. The only fear which haunted us was the fear that we should not have enough material with which to work. There are things which the Spanish people are able to supply us with, but there are many necessities they cannot provide. We depend on our [Spanish Medical Aid] Committee for these, and so far they have not failed us. The thought that some day they might have to stop supplies through lack of funds is too terrible to contemplate…


If you could know the Spanish people as I have come to know them, you would find the ordinary people brave and kind, fighting not because they love bloodshed as many people would have you believe, but because they know that they MUST fight to save their homes and for the right to live peacefully and decently. They feel and indeed they know that the victory of the Fascist force would mean tyranny and oppression for them and for Spain.

Posted on 26 November 2020.

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