Republican Army myths dispelled

Post date: 01/10/2020

IBMT member Chris Hall reviews ‘The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War: A Military History of the Republic and International Brigades 1936-1939’ by Alexander Clifford (Pen & Sword Military Press, 2019). This review originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2020, published in May and now available online. Members receive three issues of the IBMT magazine a year. To ensure you receive your copy on time, join or renew your membership here.

There have been many books written about the military side of the Spanish Civil War of varying quality, some very good, others very opinionated and expressing common assumptions. Recent books like Charles Esdaile’s ‘The Spanish Civil War: A Military History’ and James Matthews’s ‘Reluctant Warriors’ – about conscripts in the civil war – along with Michael Alpert’s earlier work on the Republican Army discuss in detail the organisation, performance and problems the force faced. Authors like Michael Hooton and Anthony Beevor, although giving very detailed accounts of the civil war and its battles, have little sympathy with the problems that the Republicans faced in organising an army from scratch.

Alexander Clifford’s book is sympathetic to these problems and points out the faults in its organisation and occasionally in its leadership. His account is well-researched, balanced and written in an engaging style throughout.

Clifford concentrates on four aspects of the People’s Army. The first three are detailed accounts of offensive action by the Republican forces. His narrative covers the period when the two sides briefly had some parity in forces and equipment. He covers the Brunete campaign in the summer of 1937, the autumn campaign aimed at the capture of Saragossa which included the actions at Quinto, Belchite and Fuentes de Ebro and finally what he sees as the turning point in the civil war: the winter offensive of 1937-38 against Teruel. In the fourth part of his book he looks at the performance of the Republican Army, where he gives a balanced, critical summary of their strengths and undoubted weaknesses. 

There are two elements of this book I found particularly good. The first was his use of personal accounts of individuals involved in the battles on both sides. He combines foot soldier accounts with grand battle strategy without losing the flow of the battles, which gives them a more human feel rather than just a mass of division numbers and X went to Y to fight A. In each battle you get a very clear idea of the ebb and flow of the action and what it was like to have fought in that action. 

The second element that was particularly good was that Clifford broke down the myth of the Republic receiving a similar quantity of arms to the Nationalists and that their incorrect deployment was the cause of defeat; a theory championed by Hooton in his recent book on the civil war. As Clifford points out, much of the equipment sold to the Republicans was of very poor quality and obsolete. Yes, they did receive good quality Soviet equipment but never in enough quantity to make a difference. Republican equipment, when it wore out, often could not be replaced. The Nationalists simply received replacements from Italy and Germany. Having a mass of different shells, ammunition and arms meant re-supplying Republican units was a logistical nightmare. Artillery differences between the two sides was crucial in every major action. The Nationalists were able to amass more guns and were able to fire many more shells per gun. The Nationalists also had a significant advantage in having a greater number of military aircraft.

Clifford does point out the weaknesses of the Republican Army. These included promoting some officers higher than their ability warranted, a lack of trained junior officers and the way the army was organised in ‘mixed brigades’ which was wasteful of precious equipment. In some battles he is critical of Republican commanders pressing on with First World War attacks for no good reason when the attack had already stalled. He does not hide the fact that when the best military equipment arrived it was allocated to those units that had the highest morale and best combat ability; these tended to be communist units and the International Brigades. I previously was of the opinion that this was done mainly for political reasons but Clifford argues well that with the bulk of the Republican forces in static trenches or if a unit is a conscript unit with low morale it makes little sense to arm them with your best weapons if they are in short supply. The ideal tactic is distributing the best weapons to your most combat effective units, regardless of their political persuasion.

I really enjoyed this book and find it hard to be critical, so these are not so much criticisms as what I would have liked. I understand why the author concentrated on the three battles he chose as these battles occurred when the two sides were more evenly matched, and the result of the civil war was still in the balance. I personally would have liked more on the early days of the People’s Army pre-Brunete and would have liked the Battle of the Ebro to have been covered in more detail. His eyewitness accounts of the battles are a little top heavy in favour of those who served in the International Brigades. I would have liked more accounts from Spanish Republicans. 

Overall, I would have no hesitation in recommending this book to people who, like me, are fascinated by the military side of the Spanish Civil War, but also to general readers who I believe would enjoy this too. Each battle is covered in detail but is never boring and the section on the performance of the Republican Army dispels myths of Republican incompetence or communist blame. Clifford rightly points out the Nationalists’ overwhelming arms advantages caused by ‘nonintervention’ and their ability to replace any losses of equipment was the decisive factor in their victory.


Posted on 1/10/2020.

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