Event: Let Us Eat LocalSeptember 12, 2011
Making a Close CallSeptember 23, 2011
A good book is like a friend. It may have nothing in common with others you like, but there is something about it that you respond to. Such is the case with the subject of today’s blog post, Esmond Romilly’s Boadilla.
Written by Winston Churchill’s nephew (though there were rumors that he was actually Churchill’s illegitimate son), Boadilla is the historical account of Romilly’s experience as a member of the International Brigades, the famed group of volunteers that fought on the side of the liberal coalition during the Spanish Civil War. These men and women traveled to Spain from far and wide with the aim of defeating fascism. Many were young, most were idealistic, and a large percentage of them never made it back to their home countries.
Romilly was a precocious young man who ran away from school at the age of 15 to establish a newspaper. He was just 18 by the time he arrived in Albacete, Spain. The book is his account of the months he spent on the front lines, leading up to and including the last battle in which he participated, in late 1936, just outside of Madrid in a small town called Boadilla Del Monte.
Among the members of his unit—which included young men from the Soviet Union, France, Germany, Italy, the US, and a group of fellow Brits—Romilly was one of the few survivors of this particular skirmish. He eventually got out of Spain and wrote the book in 1937 (the war continued until 1939), while working just across the border in France as an unofficial reporter to the short-lived autonomous Basque Republic.
Boadilla is not a perfect book—it lacks the depth and sophistication of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (on Orwell’s stint as a volunteer soldier in Spain) or Hemingway’s fictional account of the war, For Whom the Bell Tolls—but when you think about Romilly’s relative youth, you cannot help but be struck by how perceptive and talented he was. It’s especially poignant to read Hugh Thomas’ introduction and find out that Romilly survived the war but died just four years later, shot down during a bombing raid over Nazi Germany at the age of 23.
Though I read Boadilla as research for my novel, I recommend it here because it’s a book that transcends any interest in this specific historical event. In the grand tradition of front-line reportage, Boadilla reminds us that—no matter how honorable the cause—the day-to-day reality of war is messy, banal, and often tragic.
Romilly’s great achievement is the way he captures the spirit of his brothers in arms, who—despite their struggles with exhaustion, hunger, and other physical discomforts, such as Romilly’s own bouts with diarrhea on the long ride out to the front—stayed put in service of the greater good.
For some, it was as much self-preservation as idealism. The most moving part of the book is his account of the Germans in his unit (and remember that this was written in 1937, before World War II): “I thought of all these men, exiles. For them, indeed, there could be no surrender, no return; they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting as well for a home to live in … they had known the horrors of Nazi concentration camps … I could not bring myself to try to visualize and speculate on the future of these men, but I felt deeply for the first time a sense of the tragedy inherent in the very fact of these German volunteers—a tragedy almost as great as the Spanish war itself…”
In the end, he is left with a combination of pride and weariness that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read a book or watched a film about the grim realities of war. “There is something frightening, something shocking about the way the world does not stop because those men are dead,” he writes. “I realize that there will never be peace, or any of the things I like and want, until that mixture of profit-seeking, self-interest, cheap emotion and organized brutality which is called fascism has been fought and destroyed for ever.”
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the authors of Shelf Awareness, an online publication that covers the publishing industry. It is there that I first learned about the existence of Boadilla. If you work in the book trade, you probably already get their daily emails, but if you’re just looking for good reading suggestions, you’d do well to sign up for their free e-newsletter for readers.