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Hemingway and the Peninsular War.

When I interviewed Martha Gellhorn for my biography of Hemingway, she told me that he'd been reading General Sir William Napier's History of the War in the Peninsula (1828-40) while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). During the Spanish Civil War Hemingway made three trips to Spain as a journalist and reported the major battles with a novelist's eye. Fascinated by the patriotic fervor he observed in the peasants and workers, he noticed the striking parallels between the Peninsular War and the Civil War. He looked up Napier's eye-witness account, which led him to later histories.

The Peninsular War, in the early nineteenth century, was part of the costly and protracted struggle that opposed Napoleon's attempt to conquer Europe. The British, under Wellington, joined forces with the Spanish and Portuguese armies, raised the blockade of their ports and drove the French from Spain. This war saw the emergence of guerrillas (Spanish for "little wars"), in which mobile bands of freelance fighters harassed the enemy and helped the allies defeat the French. Ronald Fraser's recently published Napoleon's Cursed War: Spanish Popular Resistance in the Peninsular War, 18081814 (NY, 2008) describes the valuable contribution of these independent fighters.

Like the Peninsular War, the Spanish Civil War was international in scope. Fascist Germany and Italy intervened on the side of General Franco; Communist Russia supported the Loyalists. The volunteers on the Loyalist side came from every country in Europe and joined the militias that were affiliated with various left-wing parties. But there was an important and tragic difference between the earlier and the later wars. In the Peninsular War the guerrillas had a unifying common goal and fought to support the regular armies; in the Civil War the Loyalists were not only overwhelmed by fascist military power, but rival militias also fought amongst themselves and the guerrillas disintegrated into brutal factions.

Hemingway learned of the guerrilla tradition, crucial to the idea of Spanish patriotism, from direct experience as well as from books. Broadcasting on Radio Madrid during the war, La Pasionaria, the famous Loyalist leader and orator, frequently evoked memories of the Spanish rising against Napoleon during the fight for independence in 1808. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, his particular blend of action, love story and documentary, Hemingway based the military leaders on real people and the progress of the war on actual events, but focused on how a particular guerilla group actually fought. He recreated the background, politics and tactics of a heterogeneous guerrilla band, acting independently yet following the orders of the regular army, and invented typically Spanish characters, inspired by men he had known before and during the Spanish Civil War.
   Into this context Hemingway placed his American volunteer hero,
   Robert Jordan, an anti-fascist but not a Marxist or Communist. He
   is a demolitions expert who has no contact with other American
   combatants in the International Brigades and fights an irregular
   war behind enemy lines. In a previous battle, he has been forced to
   kill his wounded Russian comrade, Kashkin, who was unable to move
   and unwilling to fall into the retributive hands of the enemy.
   Jordan's military mission is obstructed by his quarrel with Pablo,
   the treacherous leader of the guerrilla band. Their quarrel mirrors
   the conflict between the rival political factions on the left,
   whose internecine struggles were a major factor in the Loyalist

Fraser's description of the guerrilla bands in the Peninsular War illuminates the extensive parallels with the irregular bands that fought in the Spanish Civil War. The nineteenth-century guerrillas were small, mobile groups--with internal cohesion, collective identity and esprit de corps--that opposed a static regular army. They included some women; a significant number of outlaws, villains and troublemakers; and a number of foreign conscripts who had deserted from the French army. Most of the guerrillas and their leaders were peasants who had experienced collective violence at the hands of the enemy, "often with personal consequences: the death of close relatives, the abuse of female kin, forced labour in carrying or carting for the occupying army, the forcible seizure of food supplies and an infinity of individual indignities" (Fraser, 346). There were two main kinds of guerrilla bands: "Those who took up arms without any authorization from either civilian or military authorities could be called partisans; those who asked for and received official authorization to create new groups ... could be termed privateers" (344).

Operating behind enemy lines, the fighters were essentially territorial. The deep gorges, hidden valleys and numerous mountain ranges in Spain were perfect guerrilla country. The French soldiers, trained for the traditional order of battle, were neutralized by the hostile terrain and the surprise attacks. The bands also provided valuable intelligence for their allies: "Small military groups reconnoitered and probed the enemy's lines, seizing prisoners to gain information on their opponents' strength, movements, food supplies and battle plans.... It was the first time that the guerrilla became a nationwide form of resistance and a sanctified right of self-defence" (336). In this war, as in the Spanish Civil War, "reprisals on occasion rose to barbarous heights among the opponents in the guerrilla struggle" (411).

At exactly the same time that he was fighting the Peninsular War in Spain, Napoleon rashly invaded Russia. Like the Spanish, the Russians opposed a superior army that had overextended itself into hostile territory. They avoided the confrontation of massive forces in traditional warfare, sanctified by Karl von Clausewitz, and concentrated that unknown quantity, the spirit of the army, in a series of sporadic guerrilla encounters. Leo Tolstoy had fought in the Caucasus (1852-53) and during the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War (1854-56). In a passage that Hemingway had certainly read, Tolstoy expounded the principles of the guerrilla war against Napoleon, used in Spain as well as in Russia, in a vital chapter of War and Peace (1869):

One of the most conspicuous and advantageous departures from the so-called rules of warfare is the independent action of men acting separately against men huddled together in a mass. Such independent activity is always seen in a war that assumes a national character. In this kind of warfare, instead of forming in a crowd to attack a crowd, men disperse in small groups, attack singly and at once fly, when attacked by superior forces, and then attack again, when an opportunity presents itself. Such were the methods of the guerrillas in Spain; and of the mountain tribes in the Caucasus, and of the Russians in 1812. (NY, 1949, 972)

As in the Peninsular War, the guerrillas in For Whom the Bell Tolls belong to a lawless mobile band that fight against a regular army; include women and foreigners; and recruit peasants who'd been persecuted by the enemy. They gather intelligence, are patriotic and territorial, and operate in a mountainous terrain that is hostile to the fascists. They carry out the same sudden and surprising, probing and withdrawing, hit-and-run attacks, ambush enemy columns and terrorize them in hand-to-hand encounters. They are quite capable of barbaric reprisals.

Hemingway based aspects of Robert Jordan on T.E. Lawrence, who adopted the tactics of his Spanish and Russian predecessors and used them while brilliantly leading the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. Both Lawrence and Jordan are foreign technical experts who assume command of a guerrilla group operating behind enemy lines. Both have a scholarly background, have spent many years in the country before the war, and have a sound knowledge of the language and culture of the people they lead. Both adopt the local customs, do not feel like outsiders and are not treated as such. Both take up an alien cause for their own idealistic reasons, destroy trains and bridges by detonating explosives, and are forced to kill their own wounded companions.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls hundreds of guerrillas are fighting in the mountains around Madrid. The most important group, led by El Sordo ("the deaf one"), join the attack on the bridge and are wiped out by enemy aircraft. In the novel all the guerrillas are peasants and many--like Pablo and Anselmo--are illiterate. They all dress in black peasant smocks, stiff gray trousers and rope-soled shoes, and Jordan wears the same clothing. They use the familiar form of address, tu instead of usted; call each other camarada (comrade); and say Don and Senor only when they're joking.

Hemingway artfully combines many elements to suggest the difficulty of the undertaking and intensify the suspense. The mission must be timed precisely and Jordan must impose discipline upon the guerrillas, yet the group dynamics conspire against him. Pilar fatalistically prophesies that Jordan will meet his death, and Pablo treacherously undermines the attack. Jordan's love for and sex with Maria arouses Pilar's jealousy and the men's hostility. There is a heavy snowstorm, Pablo steals the detonators and the enemy discovers their plans. The cavalry patrols the area, the bridge is unexpectedly defended and fascist planes drop bombs. El Sordo's band is massacred, and Andres is unable to deliver Jordan's message warning Golz to cancel his attack. Afterwards, the group finds it difficult to escape to the Gredos mountains.

At the end of the novel, when all Jordan's doubts and fears have been realized, he's forced to launch his "surprise attack" on an enemy who is expecting it. In this battle, the good men--Anselmo, Agustin, Fernando, Andres, Eladio and Primitivo--are killed. Pablo and Rafael, who look out for themselves, manage to escape with Pilar and Maria. Jordan blows up the bridge, but breaks his leg when his horse is shot by the enemy and falls on him. Like Kashkin, he prefers to die rather than be captured, tortured and executed. He remains behind to kill the fascist Lieutenant Berrendo, who cut off the heads of El Sordo's men, and to be killed by his soldiers. The last sentence of For Whom the Bell Tolls leaves Jordan close to the earth but not yet in it: "He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest" (NY, 1940, 471). It also repeats both the first sentence of the novel, completing the circular unity of the book, and echoes the last sentence of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (Short Stories, NY, 1938, 77): "But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart."

Hemingway was pro-Loyalist but did not write propaganda. Critics on the left attacked his realistic portrait of guerrillas in action. His great novel, which drew on his reading about the Peninsular War as well as on his contemporary reporting in Spain, portrays both the triumphs and failures of the guerrilla war: the idealism and treachery, patriotism and cowardice, courage and brutality, sacrifice and selfishness, comradeship and anarchy, executions and remorse. Hemingway's vision of the world, embodied in Jordan, is essentially idealistic and romantic. He contrasts this view with the peasant cunning of Pablo. Jordan speaks for the author when he reflects on the fighting spirit and conflicting motives of the Spanish peasants. Alluding to Madame de Stael's maxim, "Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner," Jordan concludes: "There is no finer and no worse people in the world. No kinder people and no crueler. And who understands them? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all" (355). In the twenty-first century guerillas continues to pin down and damage well-trained regular armies, and have remained as ruthless, effective and flawed as Hemingway's Spanish fighters.

Jeffrey Meyers, Berkeley, California
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Title Annotation:Ernest Hemingway
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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