Finding the first Jarama memorial

Post date: 04/10/2022

José María Olivera Marco, a researcher specialising in the Spanish Civil War, reports on his project to locate the site of the lost memorial built by the 15th International Brigade in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Jarama.

This article appeared in the IBMT magazine, ¡No Pasarán! 3-2022To receive the latest issue of the magazine on time, ensure your membership is up to date by renewing here.

Update: As of September the Morata de Tajuña Town Council has shelved plans to locate and exhume graves at this site for the time being. José María Olivera Marco and other supporters continue the struggle to honour the International Brigades and resume the project.

Original memorial dedicated to the volunteers of the 15th International Brigade killed at the Battle of Jarama, erected in 1937.

On the afternoon of 29 April 1937, Fred Copeman and George Aitken approached a stone monument in the shape of a five-pointed star. Standing in a line were the men of the British and Spanish companies that made up the British Battalion at the time. At each point of the stone star stood a soldier with his head bowed and his rifle turned downwards. Around this stone cairn were numerous graves carefully decorated with flowers. This was the memorial erected at the site of the Battle of Jarama by the British Battalion in honour of their fallen comrades.

A few weeks after this event, on 17 June, the British Battalion departed the Jarama front, leaving behind the bodies of numerous comrades who had fallen during the battle. The Spanish soil served as a shroud for these volunteers who came to Spain to fight for freedom and democracy.

The memorial remained standing and intact until the end of the war but was completely destroyed thereafter, as were the markers on the numerous graves around it. Time and oblivion erased all traces of it. Only a handful of anonymous photographs and a brief reference found in the Russian archives are the sole graphic and written evidence of its existence.

At the beginning of 2021, I started a research project whose purpose was to find the exact location of the legendary monument. I began by searching and analysing the documentation of the Republican side contained in the archives of the Spanish Civil War, as well as the information of the Francoist units that had to face the British Battalion, offering interesting data for the research. I carried out a review of the abundant bibliography written by the British volunteers who took part in the battle, which, together with the previous documentation, helped me to map the movements of the British Battalion from February to June 1937. 

This allowed me to delimit the location of the specific sector of the battlefield where the burial of the volunteers took place. I then collected all the photographs of the memorial taken at the time, both those published and known, as well as those taken around it. After several months of searching, I located an unpublished 1938 aerial photograph taken by the Condor Legion that proved indispensable in unravelling and confirming the memorial’s location.

Using design software, I made a three-dimensional model from the existing photographs to study the layout and orientation of the olive trees shown in the photographs, comparing it with the layout shown in the 1938 photograph. The shadow cast by the trees and the human figures in one of the photographs was studied, coinciding with the time zone and orientation in which the photograph was taken.

As a final and essential step, I carried out intensive fieldwork to identify and delimit a candidate strip of land that met the necessary characteristics dictated by the previous points.

Once this strip of land had been delimited and a location proposed, I made an exhaustive comparison with existing photographs that matched the features of the terrain. This of course had to account for the significant transformations the terrain had undergone over the past century. I then proceeded to photomontage and merge the old photographs with the modern shots, which revealed an extraordinary similarity.

As a result of this study, after 85 years of being lost, the unequivocal location of the British Battalion memorial at the Battle of Jarama has been discovered and its mystery unravelled.

As it is a burial place it was brought to the attention of the Spanish authorities, who have approved a project to carry out a geophysical study to locate graves and possibly exhume the remains of the Brigaders buried there.

Until the authorities undertake this work, the location of the site will remain hidden so as to preserve it from acts of vandalism. Once safe to reveal, the IBMT, in recognition of its help and its commendable work in keeping alive the legacy of the volunteers, will be one of the first organisations to be informed.

Finally, I would like to highlight the symbolic significance of this location. The memorial served as a very early and important tribute to those who fought and died at the Battle of Jarama. Its rediscovery should serve to honour and uphold their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Posted on 4 October 2022.

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