As I mentioned in my review of Pan's Labyrinth, ever since reading For Whom The Bell Tolls, I've been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. It was a breathtakingly ugly war, with atrocities committed on both sides. It began as an idealistic People versus Dictator attempting a coup, but degraded into a choice between the fanatical right (Franco and the Nationalists) and the fanatical left, represented by the heavy handed Soviet Communists.
At the start of the war, there was hope of a real "workers paradise", which drew many idealistic foreign nationals into the fray. There was even an entire brigade, called, appropriately enough, the International Brigade, fighting on the Republican side. One of the people drawn to their side was a young reporter called George Orwell (soon to be famous for the books Animal House and 1984). After arriving in Spain, he immediately joined the P.O.U.M. militia and was sent to the Catalonia front.
After a couple of months in the trenches, not really doing much, he went back to Barcelona on leave, where he became an eyewitness and participant to an uprising "behind the lines", where some groups on the left battled against the growing Soviet influence. Some blood was shed, but eventually calm was restored. He went back to the front, where he was wounded. After spending some time in hospitals, he went back to Barcelona, only to find that the P.O.U.M. had been outlawed and many of his friends and compatriots had been grabbed and thrown in jail. He managed to avoid this fate, sometimes just barely and came back to write Homage to Catalonia about his experiences.
What a great book, perhaps the best first hand account of trench warfare I have ever read. He really captures the tedium, excitement, danger and fear of the soldiers waging war. He even gives a very convincing and realistic description of taking a bullet. His foray into explaining the political situation is a little dry these days, as the events he describes happened 70 years ago. But it is indicative of just how reporting can be biased, something all too familiar today.
Kudos to SteveP for recommending the book. Even if you aren't interested in the Spanish Civil War, if you want a clear and involving description of what it is like to be a soldier in a confusing war, this is a great book. It is filled with humor and pathos, and you can feel the Orwell's outrage as he decries the abuses of power against his comrades, thrown into jail with little or no pretense, many of them destined to die there. He also has some great descriptions of the Spaniards. I loved this passage, as he is taking a train from the field hospital ostensibly to Barcelona, where his wife is staying:
One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to Barcelona today.. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station. It was only when the train was actually starting that the hosptial orderly who travelled with us casually let fall that we were not going to Barcelona after all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. "Just like Spain!" I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire never got there.