Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Five things are important to all soldiers in trench warfare, says Orwell, and he lists them in descending order of importance: "firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy." Soldiers on both sides, Republican and Nationalist, chiefly concern themselves with staying warm.

Orwell shifts focus to give a thumbnail sketch of his entire stay in Spain, starting with the fact he "saw very little fighting" in Spain. He was on the Aragon front from January to May, and for the first three months nothing happened. In March there was heavy fighting, but Orwell "played only a minor part in it." In June there was a fierce battle at the town of Huesca, but Orwell had already been wounded and sent away from the front by then. He then describes the "horrors of war" that passed him by. He didn't suffer aerial bombardment, and no artillery shells ever exploded near him. He saw hand-to-hand combat only once—"once is once too often, I may say." He was often under machine gun fire, but he felt relatively safe, considering how far away the enemy was.

Instead Orwell was subjected to the "boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare." In October, months before Orwell arrived in Spain, there had been "savage fighting" on the front in Saragossa. But by now, in January 1937, "each army had dug itself in and settled down on the hill-tops it had won." Orwell gazes out at the hilltops and "marvel[s] at the futility of it all."

To break up the boredom, Orwell often volunteers to go on patrol in the valley, creeping toward the fascist lines. The patrolling is done at night or in foggy weather; because of the cold and the danger of getting lost, few soldiers volunteer. Orwell finds it "rather fun wandering about the dark valleys with the stray bullets flying high overhead like redshanks."

As soon as he got to the front Orwell had been made a corporal, or cabo, he now reveals. He again complains about the youth of his fellow soldiers. He thinks the militia's position on the hillside could be "stormed by twenty Boy Scouts armed with air-guns." But he defends the militias' "democratic 'revolutionary' type of discipline" from criticism. If the militias were not very effective, that is only because all new and ill-equipped recruits are bad at soldiering. The democratically organized militias show more tenacity than draftees, Orwell says. Their "class-loyalty" is superior to the discipline one might see in a fear-based army of conscripted, or drafted, men.

The militias face many shortages: firewood, food, clean water, ammunition, maps, binoculars, tools, and even oil for cleaning their rifles. The chief danger they face is from friendly fire; several militiamen die in accidental shootings. "Nothing will convince a Spaniard, at least a young Spaniard, that fire-arms are dangerous," Orwell remarks. Orwell photographs some fellow militiamen while their machine guns are pointed at him. "Don't fire," he tells them lightly. But they accidentally fire anyway, and "a stream of bullets [tears] past [Orwell's] face." The other militia members find this uproariously funny.

Analysis

On George Orwell's list of soldiers' top five concerns in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), the enemy is dead last. Weapons and ammunition don't even make the list at all. By describing the soldiers' concerns in this way, Orwell emphasizes an unexpected truth: in trench warfare, most of a soldier's time is spent not fighting. But this time of not-fighting is hardly a vacation; instead it is a difficult time of privation, physical discomfort, and boredom.

Most of Chapter 3 is devoted to cataloging the many difficulties of life in the trenches—or, more accurately, life in the dug-outs, since the hillside is pocked with dug-outs like vertical foxholes. By complaining, Orwell could easily seem self-absorbed, and this could lose him the sympathy of his readers. At the end of five months on the front, Orwell went to England, alive and relatively unscathed. In order to prevent readers from thinking of him as a whiner, Orwell briefly switches focus to acknowledge all that he did not suffer; he never had to endure aerial bombardment, for example. In giving this brief sketch, however, Orwell has to mention a few things he did undergo: hand-to-hand combat, machine gunfire, and being wounded. To keep the focus on not whining, Orwell minimizes these things: he only fought hand to hand one time; the machine guns firing at him were far away; and his war wound kept him out of the serious fighting at the town of Huesca. Downplaying his own suffering may make Orwell seem more trustworthy to readers. His account of the privations can be trusted because he is not a man to exaggerate his own suffering.

As a first-person account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia has to keep not only its readers' trust but also their interest. Orwell achieves this by standing somewhat apart from the ordinary Spanish soldier. Orwell is English and comes across as something of a solitary man, even amid the near-constant company of other soldiers. Orwell volunteers for patrol duty, and he finds it "rather fun wandering about the dark valleys with the stray bullets flying high overhead like redshanks." (A redshanks is both a Scottish bird and the nickname of a particularly fierce Scottish mercenary.) This description makes Orwell seem both insouciant about danger and alive to the beauty of the world around him. Orwell can fascinate readers with his account of the world because he himself is fascinated.

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