The Siege of the Alcazar

(This was originally posted at The American Catholic and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might find it of interest.

Luis: Dad!
Moscardó: What’s going on with you, my son?
Luis: Nothing, at all… they say they will shoot me if the Alcazar does not surrender. But don’t worry about me.
Moscardó: If it is true commend your soul to God, shout Long live Spain, and you will be a hero who died for her. Goodbye my son, a big kiss, with much love!
Luis: Goodbye Dad, a big kiss, with much love!
Moscardó: You can all spare yourself the waiting for end of the deadline and start shooting my son. The Alcazar will never surrender!

Colonel Jose Moscardo, July 3, 1936.  His response to the militia commander of the besieging Republican forces who told him by phone that his son Luis would be shot if he did not immediately surrender the Alcazar of Toledo. His son, shouting defiance at his murderers, was executed a month later.  By coincidence, another of Moscardo’s sons was executed by Republican forces in Barcelona on the same date as the phone call.

Dale Price at Dyspeptic Mutterings looks at two books on the siege, both of which grace my library:

Given the general Anglo-American ignorance of things Hispanidad, it is not a surprise that the siege of the Alcazar in the Spanish Civil War is virtually unheard of in our circles today.

This is unfortunate, because as a matter of human drama alone it is worthy of study. 

On July 18-19, 1936, much of the Spanish army officer corps rose against the increasingly-anarchic Spanish Republic. One of the bastions that eventually threw itself in with the uprising was the Toledo Alcazar, an ancient fortress which at the time operated as an infantry academy. 

It was a military history museum when I visited it in 1989.  

Who knows what it will become of it if Spain’s misbegotten socialists enact their erase-the-past law. Seriously, read this. A sign of things to come world-wide, I am afraid.

Toledo is a little over 40 miles (73 km) from Madrid, and is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. 

Let me amend that: it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Like Venice, it leaves an indelible impression on the visitor.

The former capital of the Spains (until Philip II packed up and moved north to a then-insignificant market town called Madrid), it was the adopted home of El Greco and still contains some of the most marvelous architecture in the world. I will return there one day…if not soon.

El Greco’s View of Toledo, one of his two surviving landscapes.

The salient feature of the July 1936 officer alzamiento was that it succeeded in about 40 percent of the planned locations and generally failed in large cities. In Toledo itself, there was no attempt to take over the city. Those in charge of and manning the Alcazar were not part of the plotting and learned of it after the fact. However, they were in sympathy with the uprising and drifted into open rebellion.

The Alcazar’s semi-retired commander, Colonel Jose Moscardo Ituarte, was a soccer fanatic who had been looking forward to going to the Berlin Olympics to watch Spain’s national team in action. But once the uprising occurred, he became cagey in his dealings with Madrid. He refused (truly, if sometimes only technically) illegal orders to turn over weaponry and ammunition to the Republic’s partisan militias. He also stalled for time by asking for actual legal authorities in the defense ministry to follow the proper chain of command. In the meantime, he assembled as many reliable troops as possible–ranging from teenage cadets, police, Falangists and volunteers to a handful of regular soldiers–to man the defenses of the Alcazar. He also brought in at least 700,000 rounds (not a typo) of rifle ammunition from the city’s arms factory and as much spare food as could be found. In addition, the family and friends of the army and Guardia Civil who supported the rebellion were gathered in. 

Despite it being a conservative ciudad which had voted strongly for the right-wing coalition in the controversial February elections, there was no prospect of holding the entire city. There was some preliminary planning, but it was implausible, given the lack of troops. And it was recognized that since the Alcazar was the closest “success” to Madrid, that immediately made it a prime objective for the now-revolutionary regime there. Instead, a couple of blocking forces were placed at obvious choke points to hold off the enemy for a bit.

And it was not long after Moscardo had exhausted his passive-aggressive delays that the Republic rushed troops to take the fortress.

Moscardo expressed his belief that the siege would last 14 days, tops.

What followed next was a nearly eleven-week siege which reduced most of the fortress and outbuildings to rubble through accurate artillery bombardment and somewhat less accurate aerial bombing.

In the face of this overwhelming firepower, the 1,100 defenders had plenty of rifle ammunition, an artillery piece with a few rounds and a functional mortar–also with limited ammo. These latter two weapons were saved for breakthrough threats only. 

It was a nearly passive defense, with the defenders only firing when the militias launched infantry attacks on the grounds of the increasingly-destroyed fortress.

The civilians lived in the well-protected underground parts of the Alcazar, safe even from the massive and well-crewed 155 mm artillery pieces of the Republicans. No civilians died directly from the attacks themselves. 

As to rations, there was horse and mule meat (from the animals in the stables) sacks of wheat run through a jury-rigged grinder, occasional foraging raids which turned up other food and, later in the siege, two Nationalist airdrops. Water consisted of a liter of brackish cistern water per person per day.

With electricity cut, the defenders were unable to get a clear picture of the status of the uprising for two weeks. For all they knew, they might be alone. Finally, a working radio was cobbled together and the defenders learned that civil war was raging across Spain. While they were not alone, the nearest Nationalist troops were 300 miles away, and there was no guarantee the Alcazar would be considered worthy of relief, with the big prize of Madrid lying just to the north.

Fortunately for them, Francisco Franco, the bantam-sized commander of the Nationalists’ elite Army of Africa, thought the Alcazar was not only worthy of rescue, it was essential. While Franco’s tactical instincts were cautious, his political sense was usually correct, as it was here. The propaganda impact of the siege was already foremost in the minds of the warring sides–and the liberation of the Alcazar would be a huge boon to the Nationalist cause. So the African veterans were loaded into every conceivable motor vehicle which could be scrounged up (including a purple bus) and launched northward.

The siege ground on for almost eleven weeks, and despite the fortress being reduced to rubble, it was liberated by the Army of Africa on September 27, 1936–with Moroccan troops in the vanguard, barely beating a Spanish Legion spearhead racing for the prize. The Moroccans were greeting with overwhelming joy, and responded with gentleness to the emaciated and often traumatized defenders, reassuring them that after a couple of solid meals they’d be able to go off and kill Reds together.

The two best accounts of the siege in English are either out of print or available as reprints of possibly dubious quality.

The earliest is English historian Geoffrey McNeill-Moss’ The Siege of the Alcazar (the British version is entitled The Epic of the Alcazar). Moss was an English army officer and now-forgotten popular novelist and historian. He arrived in Spain shortly after the siege was lifted, had access to Moscardo’s daily log and interviewed numerous members of the garrison. He also acquired photographs of the fortress right after the siege, and had diagrams drawn up based on his interviews of the participants. Thus, his access to primary source material was unparalleled in English and remains essential. He tries to (and mostly succeeds) at being objective, not uncritically handing on all of the atrocity stories reported by the Nationalists, and he warns the reader when he cannot make judgments about disputed claims. But he clearly admires the defenders and ascribes their endurance to their Catholic faith. He notes that there was a stockpile of wheat that lay in the no-man’s land between the lines, but the garrison never emptied it out, instead taking what they needed to get by for a week or two at a time. He could only ascribe it to the decision to place themselves into the hands of Providence. He also notes (and backs it up with photographic evidence) that the garrison took care not to shoot at holy images when possible. The main failure of the book is also, weirdly, a strength, as it is a nearly-claustrophobic focus on the day-by-day events from the perspective of the Alcazar alone. But his skill as a writer keeps it from being monotonous. 

Nearly thirty years later, Cecil D. Eby, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, also recounted the siege in a book from Random House. Of the two, I would more quickly recommend Eby’s to the casual reader. Some reviews (wrongly) criticize Eby in comparison to McNeill-Moss, claiming his view of the siege pays less attention to the primary sources. A quick read of the bibliographical chapter essays at the end of the book disposes of that critique quickly. He was meticulous in his review of the sources, and handled all of them with a critical eye. Apart from that, what Eby does better is giving a fuller overview of the siege in the context of the wider war, and names more of the participants–when given permission. He recounts an odd moment where a surviving officer, who happily assisted with information, balked at being given an acknowledgment. The officer wasn’t worried about negative consequences, but could not see the point. So Eby respected that, albeit with bafflement. To use the modern parlance, it seems to be a Spanish thing which we Anglos can’t understand. Which is probably the best explanation of any.

So, my recommendation is the opposite of the way I did it–read Eby’s first, then get granular with McNeill-Moss if you want the Das Boot view of the conflict.

Go here to comment.

A few thoughts:

  1. The Spanish language writings on the siege are immense, with lots of primary accounts.  Little of it has been translated of it into English.
  2. Moss was a novelist and a career British Army officer who retired with the rank of Major after World War I.  His account of the siege has held up remarkably well over 84 years.  He made no bones about the fact that he was a partisan of the Nationalists and had no access to Republican sources, but he strove for factual accuracy and usually achieved it.  A prize in my personal library is a 1937 first American edition of his book on the siege.
  3. Cecil Eby is still with us at age 94.  He has authored numerous books and articles on a wide range of historical topics.  I heartily recommend his 1969 Between the Bullet and the Lie study of Americans who served in the International Brigades.
  4. The last defender of the Alcazar passed away in 2018.  This is all still very much recent Spanish history, with the Socialist Party in Spain practicing a nasty brand of grievance politics with one sided attacks on the Nationalists in a war which ended eight decades ago, but the  hatreds of which the Left in Spain wishes to keep ever green.  One wonders if we ever learn anything from History after all other than how to endlessly repeat old errors.
  5. The Alcazar was no fortress but rather a museum piece.  It is amazing that the defenders held it over a seventy day siege.  It might as well have had death trap painted all over it.
  6. The garrison was an eclectic mix:  800 men of the Guardia Civil, 6 cadets of the Military Academy, one hundred Army officers and 200 civilian volunteers.  They guarded 670 civilians, mostly women and children of the garrison.
  7. During the siege the garrison was under constant artillery bombardment and aerial attack.  Sniping was constant with the combatants often separated only by a few yards.  The garrison beat off eight full scale infantry assaults from the besieging forces that vastly outnumbered them.  The garrison sustained 92 dead and 540 wounded.
  8. The garrison was visited under a flag of truce by Major Vicente Rojo Lluch.  He urged them to surrender but made no secret that he hoped they would hold out.  Urged to stay with them, he said that the Republicans would murder his wife and kids before nightfall if he did.  His last words to the garrison was for them to keep digging to detect the Republican mines being planted under the Alcazar.  He would rise to be a Lieutenant General in the Republican Army and Chief of Staff.  He returned to Spain in 1957.  Franco so admired him that his pension as a retired Lieutenant General was paid to him, and he lived peacefully in Spain until his death in 1966.
  9. Rojo asked the garrison if there was anything he could do for them.  They told him they needed a priest to baptize the two kids born during the siege and to give all of them communion.  A left wing priest was sent in who had been in hiding.  Initially he attempted to persuade the garrison to surrender.  He was bluntly advised that all they required of him were the sacraments, which he did and which were reverently received.
  10. The commander of the garrison, Colonel Moscardo, is an interesting figure.  His world revolved around the trinity of God, Spain and his family.  Up until the Civil War his military career had been a failure in his eyes.  He often told young officers of his first duty as a newly commissioned officer in 1896:  the burial of a white haired elderly Lieutenant, a symbol to him of how badly awry a military career could go.  Although he had reached the rank of Colonel, his career now consisted of dead end assignments.  He was so little thought of, that he was not made a party to the plans for the military rising and had to find out about it over the radio.  Circumstances often bring to the fore unsuspected abilities, and so it was for Moscardo who became the heart and soul of the resistance of the Alcazar.  After he had sacrificed his beloved son in the cause of Spain, none of his officers ever suggested surrender, although the odds against them were staggering.  During the siege, when they could get their radios to operate, Moscardo would issue daily reports consisting of two words:  Sin Novedad, nothing to report.  A calculated insult to the besiegers, the phrase became a rallying cry in Nationalist Spain.  He would repeat the words to Franco when the garrison was relieved.  He was promoted to General, ultimately reaching the top rank of Captain General.  He received permission from Franco to wear a black mourning cape over his uniform for his murdered sons.  During World War II he was noted as being the most anti-Axis and pro-Allied of Franco’s generals.
Published in: on May 25, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Siege of the Alcazar  
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Spanish Civil War Histories: Guides for the Perplexed

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic and I thought the Spanish Civil War mavens of Almost Chosen People might find it of interest.)


Dale Price at Dyspeptic Mutterings continues his look at the Spanish Civil War:

Building upon the review of Mine Were of Trouble, I would like to offer a list of books to help cradle English speakers get a grip on the War in Spain.

I am compelled to offer three framing comments at the beginning.

1. First, works about the War–even in English–are inevitably politicized. The War inspires strong passions in the Western world to this very day, and the historians who write about it are no exception. Even the act of toning down one’s reactions and trying to assess the facts objectively, in a comparative framework with other ideological conflicts, is subject to accusations of bias. One is accused of (or lauded for) being pro-Republican or pro-Nationalist, pushing a narrative. And readers can be sucked in as well.

Raises hand.

The necessity for the reader is to recognize the historian’s biases and his own and to engage in periodic reality checks.

For example: is the author presenting one side’s atrocities in a different light than the other’s? Pro-Republic authors frequently have a tic in this respect. This is best seen in what I call “the church caught fire and the priest died” pro-Republic depictions of the Loyalist pogroms of 1936.

Thousands of Catholics–laity, clergy and religious–were targeted and slaughtered by Republican forces in the wake of the rising of the generals.

In a grand irony, this butchery turned the officer corps’ rising into a Catholic crusade. The initial proclamations of the Generals explicitly spoke of restoring order to the Republic and respecting its institutions, including the separation of church and state. And there really is no evidence that such were insincere. 

The massacre of the Faithful changed all of that, with Catholics of every class and region under Nationalist control becoming fiercely pro-Nationalist and swelling the ranks and resources of the Generals’ forces. This forced the Generals to change their tone fairly quickly: by autumn of 1936 the Crusade for Catholic Spain was on.

The slaughter is acknowledged by Republic-favoring historians, but it is often described in the passive voice, occurring as opposed to directed, spasmodic, spontaneous and unforeseeable–definitely not the systematic killing of Nationalist firing squads. 

Um…no. The Republic threw open the arsenals to anti-religious fanatics and what followed was entirely foreseeable. Anti-religious rages had been blazing, albeit at a much lower level, for months before the War. What did they expect when they handed the militias military weaponry and the color of law? 

It is true that members of the Republican leadership tried–sometimes successfully–to intervene to save people, and eventually the pogrom wound down. But this was due as much to the flight of Catholics to Nationalist territory and the sending of the fanatical militias to the front lines to do some actual fighting against people who could shoot back as to policy. 

Bottom line: watch how each side is depicted for similar actions. Because pro-Nationalists get their passive voice on as well.

2. Secondly, have a note pad handy. It is taken me years to get the names of the various personages straight. When you first run across someone who appears to be a major personage, write down his or her name and political affiliation. Gil Robles was not Calvo Sotelo–that took me a while, for some reason. 

And do the same for the major factions. Because, you see, there is usually a very unhelpful Spanish acronym, or a puzzling adjective before an otherwise understandable noun, which describes the welter of contending organizations.

Trust me: you do not want to confuse the CEDA with the CNT, the PSOE for the PCE or POUM, or the Alphonsine monarchists with the Carlist ones, etc.

3. Learn Spanish.

At least the pronunciation–you are much less likely to sound like an idiota. Canada and Cañada are…different places after all.  But getting at least a tentative grip on the language will help you see the mindsets better, too.

With those advisories in hand, on to the recommendations:

1. Hugh Thomas’ one volume history. Still the gold standard. First published in 1961, and considered fair enough by the censors to be published and sold in Franco’s Spain. Genuinely even-handed, even if it focuses more on the Republic. Which is actually fair enough in and of itself: the dysfunction of that half of Spain necessitates more words.

2. The Victorious Counterrevolution by Michael Seidman. Absolutely essential. It could also be entitled “How the Nationalists Won.” A searching evaluation of the factors that led the Spanish “Right” to win their civil war when similar forces in Russia and China lost theirs. 

Bottom line: no bleed-out from a previous war (World Wars I and II, respectively), better logistics, better use of resources, much less corruption and infighting. Nationalist soldiers ate well and civilians had a functional currency which meant they managed to do the same. Foreign assistance was not as decisive as pro-Republic historiography suggests–the Nationalists just did better with theirs than the Republic did. Alas for Spain, the regime would founder economically after the War and only start to get its legs underneath it with American aid and the abandoning of quasi-fascist demands for autarky.

3. Martin Blinkhorn’s history of the Carlists in the Second Republic and the War. At least you will understand how one of the major members of the Nationalist coalition thought and fought.

Go here to read the rest.  I agree with Dale’s choices and his general advice.  There is a great deal of drek in English language accounts of the Spanish Civil War, with quite a few authors demonstrating a very shallow knowledge of Spanish history and obviously recycling anecdotes from prior bad histories.  The Spanish Civil War had a very long fuse, extending well into the Nineteenth Century.  Indeed, a good argument could be made that the Spanish Civil War was the ending of the long Spanish Nineteenth Century.  Unless that period of Spanish history is mastered any history of the Spanish Civil War reads like a review of a play which is confined to the last act of the play.  It also does not help that the war was massively complicated with numerous factions, many of which are quite obscure outside of Spain.  Here are some additions to Dale’s list:


The go to man on the Spanish Civil War is Stanley Payne.  He has been writing on the conflict since the Fifties.  He interviewed many of the leaders of the various factions in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.  Originally a man of the Left, I think it would be fair now to call him a conservative, but what he is above all is a first class historian.

I would recommend his The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union and Communism, and for background his Spain a Unique History, which is not only an overview of controversies in Spanish History, but also a memoir of his life spent studying Spanish History.  His look at how the present Spanish Socialist government is using the Civil War for political purposes is biting and  incisive.

Here is a link to his books on Amazon.  Everything he has written is worth reading, and I have read most of his work.

Anthony Beevor, although somewhat sympathetic to the Anarchists, did an excellent one volume history a few years ago which is superb about showing the military mistakes of the Republic.

The best memoir of a participant that I have read is Combat Over Spain by the Duke of Lerma.  He served as a nationalist pilot during the war.  Growing up in a bi-lingual family, he wrote his memoir in both English and Spanish.  His descriptions of life in Spain prior to the Civil War and during it give the reader a feel for the conflict lacking in other works.

Spain in Arms:  A Military History of the Spanish Civil War by E. R. Hooton is one of the better military histories of the struggle that I have read, but it is cursed by bad maps.

Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Civil War:  Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The late Mr. Bolloten made an in depth study of magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and other publications published in Spain during the war. You find material in his history you find nowhere else. He is especially good on the byzantine Republican factional infighting.

Jose Alvarez has written two volumes on the Spanish Foreign Legion in the Rif War and in the first year of the Spanish Civil War.  Lots of painstaking original research.  Three drawbacks:  the writing is dry, the minute account of skirmishes and battles can blur together and the maps are close to useless.

I have learned more about Spain and the Spanish Civil War from Gironella’s trilogy of novels, however, than I have from all the hundreds of histories I have read on that conflict.  In the first volume in his trilogy,  the lead up to the war is depicted in The Cypresses Believe in God;   the war  is set forth unforgettably in One Million Dead;  and the aftermath of the war is depicted in Peace After War.   Gironella, a veteran of the Nationalist Army, achieves the remarkable feat of creating sympathetic characters in all the warring factions.  Many of these characters do terrible things, but Gironella skillfully leads the reader to understand why they did them without condoning their actions.  Spain is very much a figure in these novels as the characters act out the various aspects of the Spanish character and fight over what Spain was, is and should be.  The whole work is suffused by a deeply Catholic spirit and sensibility as the characters come closer to God or repel themselves away from Him.  The finest novels I have ever read.

In studying the Spanish Civil War I ever keep in mind the foreword that Gironella wrote to his trilogy for his American readers:

“Author’s Note for the American Edition
Spain is an unknown country. Experience proves that it is hard to view my country impartially. Even writers of high order succumb to the temptation to adulterate the truth, to treat our customs and our psychology as though everything about them were of a piece, of a single color. Legends and labels pile up: black Spain, inquisitorial Spain, beautiful Spain, tragic Spain, folkloric Spain, unhappy Spain, a projection of Africa into the map of Europe.
I defend the complexity of Spain. If this book attempts to demonstrate anything it is this: that there are in this land thousands of possible ways of life. Through a Spanish family of the middle class–the Alvears–and the day-by-day living of a provincial capital–Gerona–I have tried to capture the everyday traits, the mentality, the inner ambiance of my compatriots in all their pettiness and all their grandeur. In Spain the reaction to this novel has been that it is “implacable”. Nothing could satisfy me more.
This book spans a period of five years, five years in the private and public life of the nation: those which preceded the last civil war, which speeded its inevitable coming. The explosion of that war, its scope, and its significance are described in minute detail.
A single warning to the American reader: Spain is a peculiar country and its institutions therefore take on unique coloration. Certain constants of the Spanish temperament operate under any circumstance. A Spanish Freemason is not an international Freemason. A Spanish Communist is not even an orthodox Communist. In every instance what is characteristic is a tendency toward the instinctive, toward the individualistic, and toward the anarchic. Spaniards follow men better than they follow ideas, which are judged not by their content, but by the men who embody them. This accounts for the inclemency of personal relationships, the small respect for laws; this, too, is what causes our periodic civil wars.
To bear all this in mind is important in understanding this book. When the narrative deals with a priest, a policeman, a Socialist, a bootblack, it is essential to remember that it is dealing with a Spanish priest, a Spanish policeman, a Spanish Socialist, a Spanish bootblack, not with generic types. This warning is doubly necessary with reference to Freemasonry, Communism, and Catholicism, the interpretation of which will undoubtedly clash with the American reader’s concept of these doctrines.
The book’s protagonist–Ignacio Alvear–is a type of young man who abounds in present-day Spain.
Palma de Mallorca, Spain
August 1954
José Maria Gironella”

Published in: on March 3, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)