The sun is setting and I’ve spotted some wild rabbits – their white flickering tails really give them away. They’re in an old trench digging diagonally into the pebbly soil, but possess no knowledge or concern over the possibility that they might be nesting alongside dismembered skeletons.
These soldiers’ untimely demise is marked only by the odd concrete outcrop doing its best to blend in but striking the eye with unease. Just a handful of Casa de Campo bunkers remain exposed, having stayed afloat as nature advanced around them. Join the dots between these wartime fortifications and you’ve found the old Western Front, and the most spectacular views over Madrid.
THE WESTERN FRONT
Parque Casa de Campo was a perfect vantage point for Franco’s troops to attack Madrid, so they set up a sequence of bunkers, trenches and machine gun posts in an almost uninterrupted north-south line, west of Madrid. Standing at each bunker, I can imagine Franco’s soldiers taking a brief moment to enjoy the sunset over Madrid, just like I am. But, unlike me, they had plans to conquer the city.
From the bunkers, I can see the buildings where the Republicans were staring right back. Around 25,000 men and women did their best to fight back from the city-side of the front line but, even with the arrival of some 2,500 International Brigades and a fire in their belly, they’d be pummelled.
The Casa de Campo was the scene of brutal killings during the Spanish Civil War. It would take eight years for Franco’s regime to clear away the blown-up bodies, shrapnel and unexploded ordnance before the public were allowed to enter the park once again. But why did they leave some bunkers behind? They’re stubborn but not unburiable. Perhaps they remain so we would never forget, yet somehow, many of us never even knew that they were here. With this map, all of that is about to change.
Between Casa de Campo, Parque de la Cuña Verde de Latina and Parque Jaime del Amo, here’s a gallery of the remaining Spanish Civil War fortifications I’ve found:
Over the decades, many bunkers have been buried by the park’s tides of mud and debris. Here, one small part remains exposed:
Behind the bunker below, we can see the remains of trenches weaving between the trees:
Note the rabbit holes behind the bunker, edging into the trenches. They’re dug diagonally into the buried fortifications:
Machine gun posts in Parque Oeste remain in almost perfect condition:
Subtle artwork carved directly into the concrete on the back of one of the gun posts:
A frame for a stork’s nest now sits on top of the tallest and best preserved machine gun post:
The entrance to the gun posts have been sealed up with concrete:
In Parque de la Cuña Verde de Latina, we can see some of the best preserved bunkers in the city:
A pillbox, perfectly preserved, on the side of a footpath:
And finally, here’s a huge crater caused by an underground explosion in a mine dug by Asturian miners to weaken Franco’s defences, who were positioned in the Hospital Clínico. There was no sign, no marker or plaque – just a fire pit in the middle.
MAP OF MADRID’S BUNKERS
When I finally connected the dots of Madrid’s remaining war fortifications – only the ones I happened upon myself – the Western Front suddenly reemerged before my eyes, as though it never really disappeared.
Many more fortifications along the Western Front remain unmarked and perhaps I’ve overlooked a dozen more. Take a walk along the front line using my map and see if you can find the bunkers and trenches I’ve marked, and those I’ve missed.
Leah, one of the many strengths of your site is the discerning eye you take with you when you wander Madrid. It would be so easy to write articles that would be run-of-the-mill “what to eat/what to drink/what to see” pieces. Walking the remains of the 1936 western front of The Siege of Madrid proves that you are willing to go far beyond the ordinary. Well done. I loved every word.
As you can tell from my prior comments at your site, I adore maps, particularly battlefield maps. Geography is a determinate in warfare, even during an age when aircraft move soldiers and supplies over mountain ranges and satellites provide real-time intelligence from thousands of miles away. Your field survey tells a story like all maps do. On the one hand, there is the obvious: the bunkers and machine-gun emplacements you found were no doubt placed to protect the commanding heights of the Casa de Campo as well as cover the intersecting roads nearby. If the Republicans attacked, there would be withering fire on their assault. When the Nationalists attacked, there would be harassment fire on the Republican lines and covering fire for the Nationalist axes of approach. In my opinion, Franco was no military genius – in fact, his tactics were pretty ordinary – and Mola was no better.
I know I’m playing armchair general, but I believe the real story your map tells is: Wait. Wait while the governing Republican junta in Madrid eats itself alive during the last part of 1936, with infighting between communists and anarchists that became a civil war within a civil war. Wait until Hitler and Mussolini provide more air power so Madrid can become one of the few capital cities hit with strategic bombing before World War II. Wait while the NKVD purges the militias in Madrid of “Trotskyites” real and imagined. Wait for all the manifold weaknesses of the Republican military to take their toll (issues ranging from commanders who had never even led troops on exercises let alone in the field to soldiers who often carried substandard rifles and only ten rounds each). Yes, there was a lot of heart – the street-fighting by Republicans in Moncloa comes to mind. But, there were many liabilities that played into the hands of the Nationalists. The ruthless shelling and aerial bombardment of Madrid by the fascists was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Other self-inflicted wounds damaged the Republican cause in Madrid far more.
Franco’s victory in Madrid was a horrible moment. He seized a capital city, gaining the mantle of legitimacy in the eyes of many governments then. Hitler and Mussolini learned once again that ruthless military action would reward their political goals. The world’s Great Powers – Britain, France, and the United States – looked weak and feckless as fascism rolled over one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
I will take up you invitation to walk the battle line. Perhaps I will find some new fascist outposts not yet covered by the sands of time, although I doubt it. (You’re better at this exercise than I am.) But I will walk with a heavy heart. What happened more than 80 years ago is still so sad – so very sad. Those events echo to this day.
Thanks for letting me spout. Please accept my best wishes.
Thank you, Paul! It’s true – there’s so much to learn about these turbulent times and your knowledge is fascinating! I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface of the Spanish Civil War myself, but I’ve always felt the need for a physical connection to history. And now, I hand the map over to you to follow my footprints, and step in theirs.
Although in Spanish they use the word bunker, in English they are pillboxes.
I know, but perhaps the word is changing. I spoke to many people about this, including experts, and felt that the definition of bunker is evolving to include pillboxes, especially via the Spanish translation.
Thanks for your help! The map helped a lot. Casa de campo is much bigger than I expected so the map helped a lot. Hard to imagine being that close to the city and failing to take it! There are echos of the battlefield all thru the area.