Sunday, February 10, 2013

On This Day 10th February 1939

General Franco seals the Spanish/French border in the Eastern Pyrenees to stop the escape of Republican soldiers and sympathisers in the aftermath of the fall of Barcelona.

The Spanish Civil War was fought from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939 between the Republicans, who were loyal to the established Spanish republic, and the Nationalists, a rebel group led by General Francisco Franco who had links with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

By late 1938 the Nationalists had the upper hand and they launched an offensive against Republican controlled Catalonia and its capital Barcelona.

Towards the end of January 1939 the Republican forces in Barcelona found themselves out numbered six to one, short of food (according to one estimate the daily ration down to to 100 grams of lentils) and subject to daily bombing raids by the Nationalist air force. The defence of the city was impossible and on 26th January 1939 the troops of General Franco occupied Barcelona.  

Nationalists Troops in Barcelona on 26 January 1939

The fall of Barcelona caused a massive exodus of people away from the encroaching Nationalist army of Franco towards the only safe haven available - France.  They were ill prepared for the wintry conditions and progress was also made hazardous by attacks from Nationalist aircraft. This migration has become known as the Retirada (from the Spanish for 'retreat'.)

Initially the French border remained closed, the French authorities fearing an influx of revolutioary communists. Thousands gathered at border checkpoints - there were no open borders then but armed guards at border crossing points to check papers. 

Refugees Waiting to Enter France at le Perhus

The border was finally opened by the French on 28 January 1939, but only for civilian refugees. Soldiers who had fought with the Republican army had to wait until 5th February to be allowed to enter into France.

It is estimated that from 28th January to 9th February, as many as 500,000 men, woman and children crossed the Pyrenees, eventually passing into France.

Freedom Trails

Some through regular border crossings, like le Perthus, where their entry would have been regulated and recorded, others across high mountain passes where there was no official control of movement. 500,000 leaving behind their homes, the majority of their possessions and their work.

On February 10th, Franco had the border shut reducing the number of refugees fleeing although those determined enough could still pass over the Pyrenees on the harder mountain paths.

Once the refugees had made the difficult journey and crossed the border, things did not immediately improve for the majority. The cold, hunger, uncertainty, fear and death remained. The French government had envisaged an influx of refugees but nothing on such a huge scale and found themselves overwhelmed and unable to cope. The stop gap solution consisted of internment of refugees in 'concentration' camps hastily built on the beaches at places like Argelès and Rivesaltes. Initially mostly barbed-wire enclosures on the sand, without basic shelter, sanitary or cooking facilities. Refugees slept on the sand and had to build the barracks that offered protection from the elements themselves. 

The Camp at Argeles sur Mer

The Camp at Argeles sur Mer

Conditions were very harsh. Lack of shelter, food, sanitation and clean drinking water led to many deaths. Some estimates put the number at 10,000

Memorial to Those Refugees Who Died at Argeles sur Mer

Despair and frustration at the conditions and their treatment from the French authorities led some refugees to choose to return to Franco’s New Spain rather than stay in France. For those who remained in exile – some 200,000 – there was the Second World War to deal with. Some  joined the French Resistance to fight the Nazi occupiers.  They hoped to hasten the defeat of Nazi Germany so that the post WWII democracies would overthrow the Franco regime. The Nazis were defeated but Franco remained in power until 1975.

Many foreigners fought in the Spanish Civil War on both the 'left' and 'right'. Laurie Lee, the author ('Cider With Rosie') fought for the Republicans and wrote about his experience in the book 'A Moment of War' (1991). To get to Spain involved crossing the Pyrenees which Lee accomplished in December 1937 during a snowstorm! George Orwell also fought in the war as did Ernest Hemingway.

Laurie Lee 'A Moment of War' (1991)
George Orwell 'Homage to Catalonia'
Museu Memorial de l'Exili, La Junquera. A museum devoted entirely to the Retirada
Robert Capa photographs of the Argelès Internment Camp

Documentary (in French) Many good photographs and footage