Living Museums

Discover bunkers, trenches and one man’s life-long collection of wartime objects from the Jarama Valley

6 September 2021

The Battle of Jarama

In February 1937, Franco’s Nationalist army launched a massive attack on Republican lines in the Jarama valley to the southeast of Madrid. Their objective was to cut off the road between Madrid and the Mediterranean port of Valencia, restricting vital supplies of food, fuel and munitions to the besieged capital.

Their attack centred on the valley of Jarama, and in the early morning of 12 February, Moroccan soldiers moved silently across the Jarama river at the Pindoque Bridge, where they stabbed the unsuspecting Republican lookouts. Over the next three days, fierce fighting ensued.

The site of the Battle of Jarama
The finca where International Brigades stationed themselves before heading into the field

The International Brigades

Foreign fighters from Liverpool, Manchester, Scotland, Newcastle and London travelled by boat and land to join the fight. Hardened by the British weather, they hadn’t anticipated Madrid’s temperature drops at night and it weakened them. For many of the British volunteers, this was also their first experience of action and they had been given as little as six weeks’ training when they faced Franco’s battle-hardened and weather-ready Army of Africa.

The path the International Brigades took towards the battlefields of the Jarama Valley
A monument to the International Brigades sits at the top of the Jarama Valley and can be seen from the roadside

Despite all setbacks, including poor and limited equipment, Republican troops held the line for nearly three more years, during which time both sides fortified their positions with bunkers, trenches and tunnels which can still be seen today, eerily, as though the troops were there are recently as yesterday.

The Trenches

Walking through the trenches, which vary in depth between being able to pop my head above ground level and being completely hidden while stood tall, it feels as though they are still in action. There are seating areas at crossroads and perfectly geometric tunnels that haven’t smoothened after all these years. Not even shrubs have attempted to inhabit the hillside carvings and, inside the tunnels where few dare to tread for fear of collapse, soldiers’ footprints may still be visible.

The Battle of Jarama © Hulton Deutsch
The same trenches today

The fact that these fortifications are so perfectly preserved says a lot about the awareness of their existence. If these battlefields were visited by the hordes, as is the case for the Somme and Normandy, there’d be signs, paths and even a visitor’s centre. But here the land is wild and unspoilt.

Unless you’re standing in them, they’re almost impossible to see
Perfectly preserved trenches, bunkers and tunnels
A bunker carved into the hillside in the Jarama Valley
A series of underground routes carved into the hillside in the Jarama Valley
The entrance
A fortified trench and bunker in the hillside of the Jarama Valley
Inside the bunker, the path leads deep into the valley

The Death Toll

It’s estimated that Republican forces lost around 10,000 soldiers and Nationalist forces around 5,000 making the Battle of Jarama one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Spanish Civil War. However, nobody will ever know exactly how many died, let alone the names of all those who fought there.

Almost a century on, after occasional heavy rain, bones of lost soldiers still emerge from the slopes of the gravelly valley – in Jarama and even in Madrid City – and the numbers are edited. The valley also continues to reveal the soldiers’ long-lost possessions: sardine tins, flasks, unused bullets and even pieces of uniform.

Visitors collect objects they find in the battlefield and leave them at the memorial to the Republican soldiers

The Museum

At Morata de Tajuña, a village near to where the battle took place, there’s a small but ever-growing museum to the Battle of Jarama. As a concept, it was banned until very recently which Gregorio Salcedo Diaz, the museum’s curator explained. Gregorio has spent his whole life sifting through the Jarama battlefields for scrap metal, which is how his family survived during the post-war period.

A part of the fortified Jarama Valley where Gregorio has spent his life exploring

While looking for metal, Gregorio also began rescuing other objects. His findings include ration cards, maps, photographs, helmets with bullet holes, mortars, decaying food cans, lighters, guns and bullets, cannons, medicine bottles, flasks and coins.

After several decades, the field has now been cleared of most of its scrap metal and larger wartime objects, which Gregorio has now put together as a collection in a purpose-built museum at the back of his restaurant in his village. Filling in the historical gaps between these objects, he has added old photographs, descriptions and mannequins to wear the uniforms he found. Gregorio has also received donations from Spanish Civil War historians and associations, which even include vehicles and heavy artillery to be displayed as part of his collection.

Belongings of soldiers who fought in the Battle of Jarama
Wartime medicine bottles collected from the Jarama Valley

Historical Memory

The most striking aspect of this museum is that it does not appear to take sides. Both Republican and Fascist symbols are displayed, and neither are presented more prominently than the other. Gregorio takes the stance that the ghosts of this battlefield have been silenced for long enough, and that this collection should offer an educational role about the brutalities of the Jarama Battle itself without ideology.

This stance is controversial and one that is increasingly being discouraged by both societal mood and Spain’s new Historical Memory Law, which makes it unlawful to continue perpetuating the idea of ​​symmetrical responsibility. Fines up to €150,000 will now be handed out for destroying or defacing memorials to victims of Franco, and for failure to remove Francoist symbols and relics, which may mean that some displays in Gregorio’s museum may have to go.

Regardless of how Gregorio has presented this rare time capsule to the most harrowing battle of the war, his work brings to life an important event in Spain’s history that has been silenced for too long. Just like the battlefields of the Somme and Normandy, Jarama should be visited, signposted and cherished as one of Spain’s tangible, perfectly preserved and last remaining sites of the Spanish Civil War.

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