Madrid and Barcelona were the two great Republican triumphs in July 1936. Each city had over one million inhabitants, dwarfing other cities in Spain. Valencia, the next largest, was less than one-third that size, followed by Seville with a population of about 250,000. Holding on to Madrid and Barcelona was vital for the Republic, and winning them was a necessary aim of the Nationalists.
In the short term, nothing could be done about Barcelona, which was surrounded by Republican territory, with secure land access to the French frontier, and protected by sea by ships under Republican control. Indeed, almost 20,000 Anarchists, left-Catalans, Socialists, Communists and anti-Stalinist Communists in the POUM, with a small number of regular soldiers, set off from Barcelona to take the war and the revolution west into Aragón. They got within sight of Saragossa before the front settled in a wiggling, north-south line that crossed the River Ebro south-east of the city. Notwithstanding the bravery of militia
Volunteers leaving Madrid on 29 July 1936 surrounded by cheering crowds. Once the attempted rising in Madrid had been defeated, volunteers rushed to the Guadarrama hills to prevent rebel forces commanded by General Mola from taking the city from the north. In bitter fighting they succeeded. (Topham Picturepoint)
They shall not pass.' Republican Civil War poster illustrating the defence of Madrid by young men and women volunteers. The great Communist orator Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) made 'They shall not pass' the rallying slogan of Republican Madrid, as rebel forces attempted to take it, first from the north, then from the south-west. (Author's collection)
leaders like Durruti, and the maverick direct hit from the air on the shrine of the Virgin of the Pillar in the Saragossa basilica - the bomb, some thought miraculously, did not explode - the motley Republican forces advanced no further for another 18 months.
Madrid was a very different matter from Barcelona. Right in the centre of Spain, where Philip II had decided back in the 16th century the capital should be, it was protected by Republican territory all the way south to the Mediterranean. But to the north-east, north, north-west and west, only a narrow arc of land lay between it and Nationalist Spain. Madrid looked vulnerable. On 19 and 20 July young men, and some young women too, had grabbed rifles and converged on the rebel garrisons in Madrid, which they took with the aid of loyal armed Assault Guards. Once this heroic task was accomplished, they commandeered lorries
Republican militia women in the Spanish Civil War Women as well as men seized rifles and went to the front to defend the Republic in the first phase of the war Many also began to wear practical, unisex dungarees -the mono. Francoists considered this military role for women a perversion. (AKG, Berlin, and Aisa)
and rushed out of the city to defend the northern approaches from rebel advances. These improvised militias, wearing blue workers' overalls and dungarees instead of military uniform, headed for the Guadarrama hills to the north-west and north, and surged north-east to the towns of Alcalá and Guadalajara, both of which they took from rebel garrisons.
Meanwhile, General Mola sent Colonel García Escámez, some troops and about 1,000 Nationalist militia composed of armed Carlists, called requetés, and Falangists, south from Navarre towards Guadalajara. But they were unable to reach it - the first of many efforts to reach Madrid had failed. Garcia Escámez then circled round east to the Somosierra pass, almost due north of Madrid, to hold it for the Nationalists on 25 July. At the same time, other Nationalist forces headed down from Valladolid to the Alto del Leon pass between Avilá and Segovia, which they took on the 22nd. Lack of ammunition, however, as well as determined Republican resistance, prevented these various columns under Mola's ultimate command from getting any closer to Madrid. Republicans continued to hold the major pass between Somosierra and Alto del Leon, at Navacerrada, right to the end of the war. For a while the front stabilised. At some points it was only 40 miles (64 km) north-west of the capital.
This early fighting was brave and brutal on both sides, setting a pattern that would continue in the long struggle for territorial domination. On both sides, too, the militias were vitally important. The Communists were soonest and best organised among the Republicans, with militia groups in Madrid swiftly being incorporated into the new Communist Fifth Regiment, under leaders like Juan Modesto and Enrique Lister. But the existence of separate Anarchist, Socialist and Communist columns represented an enormous problem as well as a resource for the government. They were determined to retain their own political identity and autonomy, even at the front. The most revolutionary militias, the Anarchists and the POUM, would not obey orders they
disagreed with. Militias based on the various trade unions and left-wing parties were instinctively suspicious of army leaders, and often with good reason: for instance, General Luis Castelló, appointed Minister of War on 19 July, fled to France early in August.
Apart from the action around Madrid, and in Aragón, local changes in military control occurred in several other places in late July. Rebel garrisons in San Sebastian and Valencia, which were enclaves in
General José Sanjurjo, 1932. On 10 August 1932 the monarchist General Sanjurjo attempted a coup against the Second Republic in Seville. It failed. Sanjurjo was imprisoned, then later released and went into exile in Portugal. From there he directed the conspiracy which resulted in the rising of July 1936, but he was killed in a plane crash as he set off to lead it. (Topham Picturepoint)
Republican areas, were overwhelmed. Militias from Valencia then advanced as far north as Teruel, the south-east extreme of rebel territory, though they failed to take it. The Nationalists also made some gains. In particular, General Queipo de Llano extended his control across the south-west corner of the country, linking the towns already in rebel hands by conquering the surrounding countryside. Two weeks after the initial risings, the Republic was stronger in the east and north, the Nationalists in the south-west, but the overall balance of forces had not changed dramatically.
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