We didn’t choose which side to be on, as almost no one did in that war – Spanish Civil War Baby
Castleisland District Heritage is hardly the place where you would expect to find a memoir about the Spanish Civil War. A copy of the recently published Spanish Civil War Baby, however, has been kindly donated to the Castleisland archive courtesy Killarney couple John and Frances O’Toole – who, incidentally, are mentioned in the book – who have offered to help distribute it in Ireland in aid of the Mari Paz Jiménez Casado Foundation, of which the 94-year-old author, Mila Gutiérrez Pérez, is Honorary President.
Spanish Civil War Baby is Mila’s fourth book and its launch has been hampered by the current lockdown conditions. Mila, like so many, is frustrated by the restrictions in the Spanish nursing home from where she has written her memoir:
My life is gradually slipping away … all I really long for is to have my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren close to me.
The subject matter has not been easy for Mila to tackle, ‘There ought to be no place for war in the memories a child gathers’:
These recollections make me very sad. Here, alone in my room in the home, I am overcome by emotion and cannot speak. I am telling this whole story out loud. My trembling, old hand and poor eyesight won’t allow me to write down my memoirs any more. I’m upset. I must stop the recording. I’ll carry on later.
Mila makes clear from the outset her memoir is not intended as a scholarly work, but as contribution to a far-reaching episode in Spain’s history which began on 18 July 1936, when she was just ten years old.
Mila was then living with her Roman Catholic parents Andrés Gutiérrez and Ángela Pérez and siblings in Campamento. Her father was an entrepreneurial man, well known and well liked, who had bought land at Campamento in an area which traversed the Extremadura Road.
He built a house and a bar, El Cruce (The Crossroads) which opened in 1921. The bar also had a wine cellar which would prove to be a place of safety and save many lives during air raids and military attacks. On the doorstep of the bar was a stop for the tram, on the other side of the road her father ran a petrol station. In July 1936, he was laying the foundations for a restaurant close by.
Thus the scene is set for events which would unfold along an 8km stretch of the Extremadura Road between Segovia Bridge and Cuatro Vientos military compound in Republican and Nationalist zones in the ensuing years.
Mila describes the day the uprising took place in Campamento. She recalls her alarm and growing fear at the military activity taking place around her as she walked home with her mother from Carabanchel Cemetery where they had been laying flowers on her brother’s grave. ‘Our house was at sixes and sevens,’ she writes, and the family took shelter in the cellar.
They were subsequently forced to flee to Pozuelo. As they were leaving Campamento, the ten-year-old girl witnessed murderous scenes and ‘dead bodies scattered around’ and the harrowing slaying of her friend’s father by the militiamen:
They put him up against a tree and shot him several times with a rifle, they left his lifeless body lying there under the tree and went away.
In the period that followed, as the ‘leaderless militia factions ran riot,’ total mayhem, anarchy and chaos reigned until the spring of 1937. The family returned to Campamento but their bar, located on the junction of the two most important roads in the area, and the petrol station, made it a meeting place for militiamen and soldiers loyal to the Republic.
Mila witnessed countless scenes of horror including the execution of priests, like Don Ángel, the Campamento Chaplain, and the burning of churches and of religious artefacts at the chapel of Santa Cristina. The statue of the Sacred Heart (Sagrado Corazón Monument) at Cerro de los Angeles became a target for the anti-clericalism of the day. A Carmelite convent built on the hill in 1925 was vacated after the arrest of the five Carmelites there, and the statue was then open to full destruction.
The Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, who were treating sick children, were ordered to leave and were then killed. The same happened to other hospitals run by the same religious order. Many of the religious were killed in front of the sick children they were treating.
Mila and her family joined the long line of refugees who set out to find shelter with family or friends in the city during The Battle for Madrid (November 1936-March 1937).
Mila describes the first armed clash between international volunteers in Titulcia. They were Irish Volunteers who had joined one of the international brigades who came face to face with Eamonn de Valera’s old opponents recruited by Eoin O’Duffy.
Mila records buildings lost to the war like the Bofarull Palace, on which site today stands a hypermarket, and the White House on the Extremadura Road which was blown up on 19 June 1937.
After the latter incident, Mila’s father evacuated his young family to Villamantilla. ‘That farewell was certainly very painful and cruel, I can tell you.’ Unwittingly, however, the children had been placed in what was to be the heart of possibly the fiercest battle to come, the Battle of Brunete (to which an entire chapter is devoted). As Mila observes, ‘to grab a few metres of ground temporarily, some 50,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides died in just three weeks.’
The sufferings endured are hard to imagine today, and took many forms. ‘Little by little all the city’s dogs and cats vanished. The water rats also vanished. Animals in the zoo were slaughtered.’
‘A burst of sudden and prompt humanity’ occurred in the midst of ‘the most bitter hatred.’ A dog crossed what was known as the ‘Deadly Walkway’ bridge over the River Manzanares during the hostilities and was injured. The dog was howling in pain for some time until a bizarre unspoken truce allowed the animal to be rescued. It was subsequently christened Shrapnel.
In January 1938, just when Mila began to believe the war was coming to an end, the Calle Torrijos arsenal blew up in the centre of Madrid. Between 300 and 2000 people were killed, most of them women who were making shells and other components for artillery munitions. Shrapnel numbered among the casualties.
On the political front, the deaths of General José Sanjurjo, original leader of the uprising, in 1936 and Nationalist General Emilio Mola in 1937 left the way clear for Franco to become head of state. On 27 February 1939, France and the United Kingdom recognised Franco’s government, which was the death blow for the Republic. The official state of war, however, lasted until 1948.
Mila devotes a chapter to the sufferings of her brother Claro, who was arrested and imprisoned while doing military service as a volunteer. He had taken part in the traditional Maundy Thursday vigil, which was interpreted as openly showing Roman Catholic fervour. Claro returned to his family when the prisons were opened at the end of the war. Mila devotes a chapter to post-war prisons, notably Valdenoceda in Las Merindades.
Mila also returned home to her family after the war and describes the early post-war years in Madrid and in her home town of Campamento where she found ‘the streets around our way were full of cripples and broken bodies.’
Spanish Civil War Baby is a well-told, painstakingly researched, and elaborately presented first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War. Mila Gutiérrez Pérez and her family must be commended for their valuable literary contribution to this episode in Spanish history.
Further details from Aoife O’Toole , Arts Management & PR, telephone 087-2678209 / email firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Page 66. Spanish Civil War Baby Spanish Civil War and Post-War Memoirs by a Madrid Girl Caught Between Two Sides (2020) by Mila Gutiérrez Pérez. Mila’s parents shared conservative ideas though held no particular allegiance to a political party.  IE CDH 07. Frances and John are mentioned on page 10. Frances writes, ‘This book was written by our friend Javier and his mother Mila. John met Javier through work in Liebherr many years ago and they worked together on many projects down the years all over the world. When John left Liebherr ... they stayed in touch.’  Page 107 & 117.  Andrés Gutiérrez died in 1959 (p115).  It became quieter in the Campamento zone from late 1936 to Easter 1937, the bar was open, the petrol station working, ‘Soldiers bearing all sorts of other flags such as the Portuguese and Germans all passed through, came to our house, in order to while away the time, forget the war for a few days.’  It was reduced to rubble on 7 August 1936 (p68).  Page 88.  ‘The fratricidal battle between Irishmen lasted for five days, at the end of which the attackers withdrew to Maranosa hill’ (p89).  Description of its fall, p134.  ‘On that terrible terrain 50,000 innocent lives were mowed down. May they all rest in peace. I hope we learn the lesson’ (p107).  Page 81. ‘People went so far as to eat writing paper and newspaper. The rations were nearly all full of maggots but people just ate the lot’ (p125).  Pages 73-77.  The explosion occurred on 10 January 1938. Madrid was the world’s first city to suffer indiscriminate bombing on its civilian population, and the munitions store below ground was installed in the Torrijos metro station (Conde de Penalver) in the Salamanca district.  Page 122.  Mila was later schooled in the Guardian Angels school at Calle Ayala after which she returned home and was later married to Ignacio and raised her family.