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1937: Two Weeks in Spain, Two Irish Casualties

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The 12th century town of Belchite in northern Spain now sits as an eerie ruin since an intense two week period of fighting during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. From August 24th to September 7th the small town of Belchite on the Aragon Front played host to fierce fighting between Republicans and fascists. After their defeat at the battle of Brunete, Republicans turned their attention to the towns of Quinto and  Belchite which they tried to use as buffers to slow down Francos forces advancing north.

With air support from his fascist allies in Italy and Germany,  Franco  launched a brutal campaign to conquer northern Spain while the Republican side resisted by occupying towns and villages in the Aragon Front such as Belchite, a hilltop town some 300 kilometres west of Barcelona. After two weeks of hellish conflict and a death toll reaching 3,000 the town of Belchite, or rather what was left of it, was abandoned and a ‘new’ Belchite town was built nearby. After the Spanish Civil War General Franco ordered  the ruined town to be left as a national monument and to this day it serves as an untouched reminder of a dark chapter in Spanish  history.

Thousands perished during the Aragon offensive including Irish man Peter Daly, a commander in the 15th International Brigade. Daly was born of Irish parents  in Liverpool in 1904. In 1911 the Daly family moved back to their native County Wexford and in 1918 young Peter Daly joined the IRA youth wing Na Fianna Eireann. Daly subsequently became involved in the fight against the black and tans and during the Irish civil war he remained true to his Republican ideals and fight against the Free State government. Dalys republican activities would result in imprisonment, first in Portlaois Prison and then in the Curragh Internment camp where he embarked on a hunger strike. After 18 days on hunger strike Daly was released on health grounds but life in post civil war Ireland was not an easy place for someone like Daly and , like many others, he had to take the boat to England to find employment.

In 1926 Daly joined the British army, a rather surprising move for an Irish Republican but, he had an alterior motive. Daly rose to the rank of sergeant but in 1930 he had to leave the British army when it was discovered he had been moving ammunition from British bases to the IRA! Daly returned  to Ireland where he became a training officer for the IRA but blacklisting meant he had to go to England again to find employment. In London his left wing views florished and by 1937 he chose to go to Spain with the International Brigade to  fight Francos fascists.

Daly was in the thick of action in Spain, he was injured twice but returned to the battlefield each time he recovered. He quickly rose through the ranks of the 15th International Brigade to  become a commander in the British and Irish Battalion. On August 24th Republican forces moved towards the towns of Quinto and Belchite on the Aragon Front in order to stem the advancement of the Francoists northwards. On the outskirts of Quinto Francos troops, along with German Nazi backup, built a fortification on Purburrell Hill and Daly’s battalion was tasked with the job of storming it.

On August 25th Daly led a charge on the hill but he received a number of bullets to his stomach. Daly was stretchered to the nearest first aid tent and then to hospital where he lingered for ten days. Peter Daly died on the 5th of September and was buried in Benicassim cemetery. Two days before, in Belchite, another Irishman would give his life in defense of the Spanish Republic.

Jim Woulfe from Athea, Newcastlewest County Limerick was a card carrying member of  the Communist Party. Like many of his generation he had to leave the land of his birth for employment. Woulfe went to Canada from where he would venture to Spain with the Mackenzie Papineau battalion of the 15th International Brigade in 1937.

At the height of the fighting in the town of Belchite on September 3rd, Woulfe was one of 22 men who tried taking the church of San Augustine from the Francoists.  A grenade attack resulted in 20 of the 22 men dying instantly including Woulfe. Today the church still stands, albeit a shell, and in Ottowa Canada Jim Woulfe’s name is included on a memorial to those who went to fight against fascism in Spain.

Those weeks on the Aragon Front 80 years ago were one of the fiercest in the Spanish Civil War. After the Battle of Belchite a Scottish volunteer with the International Brigade Hugh Sloan wrote: ” I remember walking up what you could call the main street and I couldn’t bear the smell of death. We came to the square, there was a very large heap of dead human beings piled up and in the very hot weather the smell was completely unbearable.”

Another eye witness account in the immediate aftermath of the two week battle was Ernest Hemingway. He was one of the first correspondents to arrive at the decimated town and his words paint an apocalyptic picture – ” People were digging under piles of mortar bricks and beams pulling out corpses. Mule carcasses, cooking pots, framed lithographs, sewing machines all covered with flies made a surreal collage. Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell.”

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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