Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The company's commander, Benjamin, asks for 15 volunteers; they are going to attack the fascist redoubt at Huesca that night. (A redoubt is a fortress.) Orwell is among the volunteers. The plan is to sneak up to the fascist position under cover of darkness, cut the perimeter wire, move in closer, and use hand grenades to drive the fascists from their parapet. At the same time, 70 Shock Troopers will attack another nearby fascist position.

At first there is nothing to do but wait. Rumors about hot coffee and brandy spread, but there is no truth to them. Finally, on a rainy, windy night, the company sets out. They creep over the mud, trying to move quietly. Jorge cuts the perimeter wire.

There is a skirmish, with the PM militia throwing grenades and the fascists firing a machine gun. Several militiamen are wounded. Then the fascists retreat and the militiamen swarm the abandoned parapet. To Orwell's dismay they have taken the machine gun with them, but then he finds something much more valuable, "an enormous telescope." The militia could use it to observe troop movements.

Orwell and the other militiamen know the fascists will return to the parapet soon. It is not long before someone shouts they are closing in. In the ensuing fighting there are more injuries, and Orwell learns the group of Shock Troopers has been decimated, with only a handful of survivors remaining. Orwell and the other militiamen retreat and are forced to abandon the hard-won telescope. As dawn comes the fascists return to the parapet. Later Orwell and the others learn "the action had been a success, as such things go." Drawing the fascists into a firefight had relieved some pressure on nearby anarchist troops.

Analysis

Chapter 6 is the only extended blow-by-blow description of a battle in Homage to Catalonia. The street fighting in Barcelona in Chapter 8 has a much more lasting impact on George Orwell, but those events are dispersed over several days, and Orwell is not always a central actor in those battles. Almost everything that can go wrong in the raid on the fascist position does go wrong. Orwell and his company fail to capture the machine gun because the fascists take it with them. The one valuable piece of booty Orwell's company seizes—the telescope—has to be abandoned as Orwell's company retreats. Jorge is wounded, and the Shock Troopers suffer tremendous causalities. Additionally, the battle seems futile in its result: Orwell's company seizes the parapet for a brief while, only to have to hand it back to the fascists later that night. But in a larger sense, as Orwell points out, the battle is a success, in ways not apparent to Orwell's company while they are in the thick of the fight. The attack on the fascist parapet results in no gain of territory, but it achieves a strategic aim by deflecting the fascists' attention from the anarchists, father down the front on the other side of Huesca.

Orwell is measured in his appraisal of the battle's success; he calls it a success "as such things go." There is a heavy cost for the minor strategic victory, a cost of human lives. The worst causalities in this battle are among the German Shock Troopers, and these deaths happen "offstage," so to speak, out of sight of Orwell and undescribed by him. But Orwell conveys the shock and the waste of human life by the way he describes this loss. When readers first see the Shock Troopers in Chapter 5, Orwell emphasizes how impressive they are. The Shock Troopers are "on quite a different level from the rest of the militia—indeed, [they] were more like soldiers" than anyone else Orwell has seen in the war. Then in Chapter 6, before the nighttime raid, Orwell hears 70 Shock Troopers will also participate, attacking a nearby fascist position. When the Shock Troopers turn up, Orwell—and perhaps the reader—thinks his side is rescued. But then he learns the Shock Troopers have suffered heavy casualties; the few he sees are all that remain. The "offstage" or undescribed deaths of the Shock Troopers emphasize Orwell's theme of the futility of war; even these professional and skilled soldiers are cut down.

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