Review: La Nueve: 24 August 1944. The Spanish Republicans who liberated Paris - Evelyn Mesquida

Review from the Kate Sharpley Library of a book devoted to the involvement of one group of Spanish exiles in the second world war.

La Nueve was the ninth company – made up of exiled Spaniards, ‘most of them anarchists’[1] – of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division. They exemplify the contribution of Spanish anarchists and other republicans to the fight against Hitler. It’s a remarkable story. These men fought on all fronts in the Spanish Civil War. Some had survived the retirada – the retreat over the Pyrenees in January and February 1939. Others had sailed on the Stanbrook, the last large vessel out of Alicante in March 1939.[2]

There were few options for these despised refugees. Going back to Spain meant a Francoist firing squad. Many of the men who would join La Nueve survived disease and hunger in the French concentration camps like Argelès-sur-Mer or Le Vernet[3]. The main way out was ‘volunteering’ for labour battalions or the French Foreign Legion. Those who made it or were sent to North Africa suffered too. One survivor of the Vichy regime’s Hajerat M’Guil ‘labour camp’ described it as ‘a French Buchenwald’ (p44).

But these exiles had two things going for them: they knew which side they were on and they knew how to fight. ‘The vast majority had no military mindset and were even antimilitarists, but they were magnificent soldiers, valiant and experienced warriors.’ (Raymond Dronne, Captain of La Nueve, p92). They also knew the art of ‘spontaneous transfer’: many deserted to join Leclerc. War makes for strange bedfellows. Leclerc, general of the 2nd Armoured Division, was a career officer from an aristocratic family. He’d welcomed Franco’s coup and would later fight in Indochina (now Vietnam). Few of La Nueve‘s fighters followed him: ‘there was nothing of mine lost over there’ (Germán Arrúe, p149), ‘I told them that the Chinese hadn’t done me any harm’ (Fermín Pujol, p177).

Mesquida’s book has a good photo section but needs a better map. It’s easy to read ‘It took us nearly a month to cover on foot the 4,000 kilometres between us [in Senegal] and the Gaullist units in Brazzaville’ (Fermín Pujol, p173); it’s less easy to imagine. And that’s before the long trek to Libya! This is the full story of La Nueve, not just their role in liberating Paris. Nor was that their final battle. The end of the war found them at Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s nest’ (and taking his chess set! – p139).

Their plan had always been to deal with Franco after Hitler. Mesquida doesn’t detail the ‘reasons of state’ that prevented that: ‘The Allied powers had not gone to war to “preserve democracy”: they had gone to war to preserve themselves’.[4] However, the recycling activities of La Nueve kept the Spanish resistance armed for years.[5]

The second half of the book is made up of personal testimonies, gathered by Mesquida in interviews with La Nueve‘s survivors. Here they can speak for themselves: ‘We all had experience of our own war behind us and we were well aware of what needed doing without anyone’s having to tell us anything.’ (Germán Arrúe, p145). The anecdotal touches show their humanity, even after years of fighting: having captured a German unit ‘We had a worse time later with the priest because he wanted to see them all dead for having torched the church. We had to disarm him of the machinegun he had grabbed and one of the officers told him: “Monsieur le curé, this isn’t your job. These men are prisoners and they’re coming with us.”’ (Manuel Fernández, p205-6).

The anarchists and other republican exiles of La Nueve made history in conditions not of their own choosing. This excellent book means they’ll no longer be merely a footnote in a story told by others.

Notes

1 testimony of Luis Royo, republican veteran of La Nueve (p183).

2 Captain Dickson’s contemporary account of the rescue is at: http://www.elpais.com/elpaismedia/diario/media/200904/01/espana/20090401elpepinac_2_Pes_PDF.pdf An alphabetical list of the 2,638 people rescued by the Stanbrook is at: http://www.fpabloiglesias.es/sites/default/files/docsbio/stanbrook_lista_alfabetica.pdf

3 ‘While not to be equated with the death or slave labour camps that were later to surface in Nazi or Soviet territories, in many of these French camps there was a foretaste of the perverse, unrelenting brutality that characterised most of the concentration camps and their guards.’ (p24).

4 I couldn’t paint golden angels, Albert Meltzer (p124).

5 More details are given in ‘Leclerc’s Spaniards’ by Eduardo Pons Prades (translated by Paul Sharkey) http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/2015/04/leclercs-spaniards-by-eduardo-pons-prades-translated-by-paul-sharkey/

La Nueve – 24 August 1944. The Spanish Republicans who liberated Paris by Evelyn Mesquida. Preface by Jorge Semprún, four articles by Albert Camus and postscript by General Michel Roquejeoffre. Translated by Paul Sharkey. Published by Christiebooks ISBN 9781873976708, 264pp, 16pp photos., paperback. £15 / $23 Publication date 8 June 2015. [url=http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/2015/04/la-nueve-24-august-1944-the-spanish-republicans-who-liberated-paris-by-evelyn-mesquida-preface-by-jorge-semprun-and-afterword-by-general-michel-roquejeoffre/ ]http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/2015/04/la-nueve-24-august-1944-the-spanish-republicans-who-liberated-paris-by-evelyn-mesquida-preface-by-jorge-semprun-and-afterword-by-general-michel-roquejeoffre/ [/url]