A Moment of War is the third and final book in Laurie Lee’s autobiographical account of his childhood and youth. I read the second, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning a couple of months ago but, as with this one, had read bits of it before while studying the Spanish Civil War and the role of foreign volunteers.
As I Walked Out… finishes with Lee’s decision to return to Spain now that the Civil War was underway, to fight for the Republican cause, and making a difficult journey alone and on foot over the Pyrenees. This is, then, where A Moment of War starts as he is briefly taken in by a family and then promptly arrested as a spy. It wasn’t the done thing, to simply turn up on your own, most had their passage secured by the Communist Party, for example, and many people assumed that this young, blonde foreigner was German. He is eventually released and taken to be with other International Brigaders in Figueras. After a period of inactivity, he is arrested again. On inspection of his passport, it is revealed that he spent time in the South and in Morocco, the birthplace of Franco’s coup attempt at the time the plotting was taking place. Once again, he is released and returned to do, well, not much really.
The bulk of the book is made up of Lee and his fellow volunteers sitting around, underfed and cold in the bitter winter, waiting for something to happen. What this account really makes clear is how boring war is for so much of the time, when you are fighting a losing a battle and stuck behind the lines. It also highlights perfectly some of the reasons why the Republic eventually succumbed to Franco’s Nationalists. They were poorly resourced, and very quickly sapped of morale when faced with German bombing raids. The Republican side was an uncomfortable mix of Spanish socialists, anarchists, and liberals along with apolitical people who just wanted to defend their homes and families, alongside well-meaning but ultimately naive foreign intellectuals and labourers. It is an understatement to say that they just didn’t really get along all the time that well. See George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for the proof of this playing out in the bloody Barcelona May Days.
As I said when reading As I Walked Out… this book benefits greatly from hindsight. It was not written/ published until 1991, and thus is full of comments about how the Spanish Civil War can be seen as the opening shots of the Second World War and is clearly written with the Republic’s forthcoming defeat in mind. But unlike the previous volume, it is not as poetic and lyrical, taking a colder eye on the unfolding tragedy.