Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide


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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 2 | Summary



Orwell and his company arrive near the front in January 1937. First the train journey ends at Barbastro, a town Orwell describes as looking "bleak and chipped." Traveling now by truck they arrive in a mountain village called Alcubierre, near the front at Saragossa. Orwell observes the town's "squalid misery," which he believes is the village's permanent state, whether in peace or war. He sleeps on a bed of chaff, the waste part of harvested grain. The weather is rainy and miserable, and there are still no guns. Soldiers on both sides, passing through Alcubierre, have reduced the town to "a state of unspeakable filth."

Occasionally fascist deserters sneak over to the Republican side in Alcubierre. Orwell believes many of them are "not Fascists at all," not in terms of political commitment. They are simply "wretched conscripts," and they look "indistinguishable from ourselves."

On the third day guns are finally issued; Orwell receives a rusty 40-year-old German Mauser rifle with a split stock (that is, the back part is broken). The best rifle is given to a 15-year-old boy everyone calls the maricon (a homophobic slur Orwell translates as "Nancy boy"). Everyone receives 50 cartridges.

Orwell's company—consisting of 80 men and several dogs—marches three miles to the front. They are led by Georges Kopp, a "stout Belgian comandante" mounted on a splendid horse captured from the fascists. The company "straggle[s] along with far less cohesion than a flock of sheep"; many of Orwell's fellow soldiers are "children—but I mean literally children" of 15 or 16 years old. They follow a mule track up a mountain and there meet the ragged company they are relieving, as well as the commander who will remain there, Benjamin. Orwell, a fellow Englishman named Williams, and Williams's brother-in-law secure for themselves one of the dug-outs that dot the ground "like rat-holes."

Orwell asks, "Where are the enemy?" In his "terrible" English Benjamin answers, "Over zere," waving his arm at the distance. Trench warfare as fought in Spain turns out to be nothing like Orwell pictured it; the enemy isn't just 50 or 100 yards away, but distant and invisible. Finally they glimpse two fascists on a far hillside; Benjamin fires but his cartridge is a dud. The rest of the company fires aimlessly and frantically. Orwell tries to explain to his fellow soldiers that their rifles don't have that kind of range. But he is pressured to fire too, and he does, at a tiny dot: "It was the first time in my life that I had fired a gun at a human being." Orwell is "disgusted" by the futility of this form of fighting. "They called this war!" he states. Soon afterward a bullet whizzes past him, and to his chagrin, he ducks.


George Orwell takes a train to the war, from Barcelona to Alcubierre. On the one hand there is nothing strange about this; troops have to get to the front somehow, and they no longer do so mounted on horses. But the train Orwell rides also represents the interface between civilian and military life—two realms that, by the conventions of modern warfare, should be kept separate.

In ancient times the only customs of war were those set by the fighters themselves. But since the Middle Ages in Europe, attempts have been made to impose laws on the seemingly lawless and chaotic pursuit of warfare. Increasingly in the late 19th and 20th centuries nations have cooperated in proposing international laws for the conduct of war. These efforts culminated in the Geneva Conventions (starting in 1864) and in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1897, which tried to protect the sick, the wounded, prisoners of war, and civilians from brutal treatment. Thus trench warfare is carried out in distant fields, while—for a time—the cities remain intact. But the interface of the train shows how permeable the boundary is. One incident in the Spanish Civil War would become a symbol for the heedless destruction of civilian life in wartime: on April 26, 1937, the Nationalist side bombed the town of Guernica, Spain, causing many civilian deaths and injuries. (The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso represented the outrage in a painting entitled Guernica [1937].)

But for Orwell in the winter of 1937, the problem is not that war spills over into civilian life. Instead, the war eludes Orwell; he trains and he waits and he trains and he waits, but the war seems never to begin. "Where are the enemy?" asks Orwell, only to be vaguely told the enemy is "Over zere," as Benjamin says in his accented English. "But where?" Orwell keeps asking. Orwell's war consists not of battles but of privation and filth; the bed of chaff he sleeps in is filthy with "breadcrusts, torn newspaper, bones, dead rats, and jagged milk tins." Orwell has an eye for the catalog; this is just one of his lists of minute particulars.

Even the firefight that erupts toward the end of Chapter 2 hardly settles the question of where the war is. The militiamen's actions seem only to terminate in impotence (Benjamin's first cartridge is a dud) and futility (the men fire at targets too distant to hit). In this skirmish Orwell fires upon a human being for the first time, but the momentous occasion is undercut by futility. The fascist he fires upon is a tiny dot, and if Orwell felt anything, he doesn't say what it was.

Orwell presumably finds the goals of the Nationalist side, and particularly the fascists, repellent. This is why he has come to Spain—to defend socialism and defeat fascism. However, Orwell does not dehumanize the enemy soldiers he encounters as deserters. Instead he notices how similar the fascist foot soldiers are to "ourselves."

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