Looking over hundreds of olive trees, fringed by fragrant thyme and rosemary, it was hard for me to cast my mind back to the bloody scenes in February 1937. We were south of Madrid at the site of the Battle of Jarama and between 1937 and the end of the Spanish Civil War around 15,000 people from the Nationalist and Republican sides lost their lives here.
We had driven our much loved campervan along more gravel tracks during our seven weeks in Spain than the ‘van had been on for all of it’s previous three and a half years and every time we were searching out something relating to the Spanish Civil War. Off-road driving was starting to become the norm and the blue of the ‘van was disappearing until a layer of dust.
It was a sunny but breezy Sunday morning when we bounced down the tracks above Morata de Tajuna looking for an insignificant memorial to the International Brigades who had fought in the battle for Madrid. It was a Sunday morning and on the tarmac roads we had passed hundreds of cyclists in large groups and on their own, all out for a ride, this is clearly a Spanish thing.
After parking up we stood looking at the slightly disappointing memorial of rocks and rusting tins and other debris. This isn’t the stunning clenched fist memorial in the photograph and I was struggling to take much from it as we tried to read the faded plaque. I guessed it related to the Spanish Civil War but couldn’t be sure. Then a knight in shining armour / cyclist pulled up and said, ‘I guess you are from the British van’ in excellent English. Remarking on his fantastic grasp of our native tongue he explained his mixed European heritage and that he had lived in the UK for around 15-years but now lived near to this hill of olive groves. He explained that cycling around the area every week he became interested in the history and had done some research.
He told we were standing on Suicide Hill and the Republican 15th Brigade, including the British Battalion [not all of them were from Britain], were killed in huge numbers over three days of fierce fighting here in February 1937. A few of the 500 – 600 men in the British Battalion had seen previous combat but many had never fired their weapons and ill equipped, unprepared and newly trained, these volunteers faced an attack from Franco’s elite Nationalist Army of 40,000 experienced troops that were well armed, had some air support and tanks. The Nationalists had control of most of the main roads to Madrid and had a clear objective to cut the Madrid to Valencia road, thus circling and isolating Madrid and forcing its surrender.
The numbers and certainly names of the soldiers who died here are mostly unknown. It is estimated 600 British soldiers fought for the Republicans at Jarama and many died on the first day of fighting. Remarkably, although so many lost their lives, courage and conviction enabled the Republicans to more or less hold their positions and after three days of desperate fighting the two armies dug in here until the last days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The name Suicide Hill started to make sense.
Our guide told us that on his regular cycle rides he passes the remnants of old trenches among these olive groves and bullet holes are still visible on the tree trunks. This is a landscape still scarred by the war but does not receive the huge numbers of visitors seen at the World War One battle areas. After sharing the history of Suicide Hill, he pointed us in the direction of the stunning memorial in the photograph and recommended the small and moving museum in Morata de Tajuna at Mesón El Cid and open at the weekends 12.00 – 14.00. If you’re passing I recommend you take a look.