Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's time in Spain revisited, by Quentin Kopp

A firing position in the trenches overlooking the old road to the left – the modern road is to the right.

Homage to Catalonia describes many of the experiences which influenced George Orwell’s later work, in particular the last two novels. The heady days of the Republic and the co-operative approach to everything he saw in Barcelona when he arrived on the one hand, and the Stalinist repression of the POUM and others deemed to be Trotskyite on the other, can be seen in Animal Farm and then Nineteen Eighty-Four. The rats suffered by my father, Georges Kopp, in captivity by the Stalinists are central characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The book also describes the features of many wars, in that it describes long spells of boredom punctuated by frantic activity, whether in the trenches in the Monegros area of Aragon, the trenches in the siege of Huesca or three days perched high in the Poliorama above the Ramblas in the May fighting.

Sylvia Topp, who is writing a welcome biography of Eileen Blair, Orwell’s first wife, joined my wife Liz and I on what we hope will be the first of regular trips for OS members, which was led by Barcelona resident and OS member Alan Warren who has in-depth knowledge of the times and events. Alan is continuing his researches; indeed new information was unearthed during our trip. It was in many ways a fact-finding mission to establish how best to enable OS members to view the key sites and experiences. We arrived in Barcelona on the afternoon/evening of the Friday 18th May and spent the morning and early afternoon in Barcelona on the Saturday 19th learning about the events of the May 1937 fighting along the Ramblas. We drove the three hours or so to Aragon on the Saturday afternoon before seeing the trenches and sites of Aragon on the Sunday.

Barcelona Highlights – See Chapters 9 and especially 10 of Homage to Catalonia

The tour started appropriately in the Place Catalunya with a background talk and the key buildings and sites being pointed out to us, in particular the Telephone Exchange. It was the storming of this building by Stalinist controlled troopers which sparked the May 1937 fighting and the incidents along the Ramblas, which we were to see.

The key sites along the Ramblas were in the sequence of our walk from the Place Catalunya down the Ramblas towards the port. Alan had prepared readings relating to each site and also had a folder with a number of contemporary photos of the events.

I am the son of George Kopp, who was Orwell’s commander. I am very lucky that I have had such a wonderful opportunity to see where my father was and the places and actions vividly described by Orwell. To see these places in Barcelona and to see the reaction of local people was very emotional for me. Jan Pošner also fought in the War. My wife Liz, who is his daughter, has two photos of him then, but has no record or history.

Aragon Front Highlights – Near Alcubierre, Chapters 2 and 3

Alcubierre viewed from the direction of the trenches they marched to

Alcubierre viewed from the direction of the trenches they marched to.

Alcubierre was Orwell’s first point of departure for the trenches after his tortuous journey from Barcelona. We met Victor Pardo Lancina outside a council office building in the middle of the village, which had recently had the bullet marks from an execution squad’s efforts removed. Victor was a leading spirit in getting the trenches restored that we were to visit, in addition to creating the very interesting and well put-together exhibition at the Ruta de Orwell visitor centre in the nearby village of Robres. He was our guide for the trenches and the events around Huesca described in the next section.

 

Alcubierre is in one of the poorest areas of Spain and does not appear to have many buildings, which Orwell would not have recognised. The route up to the trenches is now replaced by a more modern road for all apart from the last mile or so. The last section is a steep challenge since it is loosely gravelled and has been worn into ruts by rain. Alan Warren asked me to read the section describing their march up to the trenches following my father on his black horse, which brought it all to life for me.

Once we reached the heights on which the trenches have been restored, the sections in which Orwell vividly described the scenery of flat topped hills and steep ravines came flooding back to me. These trenches are close to the ones Orwell occupied.

There was a good description of this with a map in the shelter on the approach to the restored trenches. 

It was a cold and a little bleak on the day of our visit and it was easy to picture all the soldiers huddled into the trenches waiting for the call to action while very aware of the proximity of the enemy 700 metres away on the hill top in the picture.

Huesca Front – Spring 1937, Chapters 6 and 7

La Granja is described in some detail from the size of the rats to the artillery-riddled church in these chapters. The church has relatively recently been returned to it pre-civil war state with religious scenes painted on the walls. The main gate is still there with its patched bullet holes clearly visible from the inside. The husband and wife who bought the farm a few years ago gave us a very warm welcome. Rather like the American Civil War sites we have seen in Virginia, people are still finding old munitions in various states, which have been unearthed. They showed us a selection as well showing us around the buildings and courtyard Orwell described.

While Orwell was at La Granja he suffered a badly poisoned hand, which was treated in a “field hospital” in a nearby village called Monflorite. The old Church had been restored, but the village retained the old street pattern and many of the buildings described by Orwell. Almudena Gros, who was with us to translate for Victor, spoke to some of the villagers and discovered which house he had been treated in. It had been the local doctor’s house. He was a Franco supporter and had been driven out by the villagers.

The Huesca Front and Huesca – Summer 1937, Chapter 12

We went from Monflorite to an old church just outside Huesca called Ermita de Salas. There has been a lot of conjecture about where the sniper fired from when he shot Orwell in the neck. After researching detailed contemporary maps Alan Warren believes that the bullet was fired from the only high point in the vicinity, which is the tower of the Ermita de Salas, which itself is still scarred by incoming bullets and shells.

There is such a lot to see that we ran out of time to see all we might have. This included some of the other sites around Huesca and the Sanatori Maurin in the suburbs of Barcelona. The Sanatori was where, after a complicated and difficult journey, Orwell was taken to recover from his neck wound. We had a really interesting and for me emotional visit and are convinced that there is plenty to interest Orwell Society members and that to do justice we need to allow a little bit more time. In consequence, watch this space, as we plan for a new trip to offer members around the same time next year.

Quentin Kopp

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5 thoughts on “Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's time in Spain revisited, by Quentin Kopp

  1. Thank you, Quentin Kopp, for this report on a fantastic Barcelona trip. I do hope to participate in such a trip one day.
    I’m writing a novel about Orwell in Spain, and am looking for the letters Georges Kopp sent to George Orwell on 14 Dec 38 and 10 Jan 39, in which he told of his hardships in the Spanish jails.
    ( Bernard Crick talks about this in his biography)
    If anyone knows where they can be read, I’d be most grateful.

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  2. Hi Christian,

    I’m currently working on an Orwell doctorate and did a bit of sleuthing after reading your post. I’m afraid I can’t specifically answer your question. I’m assuming that you’ve read the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Volume 1 page 409 – is Orwell’s letter to Jack Common which records the fact that despite being in Marrakech, Orwell had indeed heard from Kopp, particularly concerning his inhuman internment at the hands of the GPU. Kopp had apparently lost seven stone in weight during his 18 month incarceration. However, although complaining about the vagaries of the Moroccan postal service, Orwell doesn’t actually refer to the date(s) when he received Kopp’s letters.

    If you haven’t yet done so, I’d recommend reading The Lost Orwell edited by Peter Davison. Pages 83-91 deal in detail with the Kopp/Orwell (Eileen and George!) relationship. I’ve checked Orwell’s Morocco diary over the relevant period but no mention of correspondence from Kopp, I’m afraid.

    Hope this helps a bit,

    Best wishes,

    Nigel HWilliams

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  3. Hi Christian

    I wish I could help. My Father died when I was 4. we were living near Marseilles at the time, and had to return to England. In consequence most of my Father’s books and papers were lost. I do have some of his drawings for the designs of things he invented, which I have mentioned in an article to be printed in the next OS Newsletter.

    Nigel’s advice is excellent and I am sure will give you the help you need.

    We are planning another trip to the Spanish Orwell sites, using the knowledge gained this time, to hopefully improve on the good time we had. We feel that it would benefit from being a little longer. The target time would be a similar time in Mid May next year. If you are able to join us we would be delighted.

    Best wishes

    Quentin

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  4. Hello Christian,

    Nigel is right. ‘The Lost Orwell’ but also other work of professor Davison collects most of the correspondence between Georges Kopp and Orwell. Crick, Shelden and Bowker give diverse interpretations of their relation.
    If you have some time you can wait until I publish a biography of Georges Kopp. I wrote a Dutch book in 2010 and I’ve just finished the extended English version. Needless to say that Orwell is one of the protagonists. Quentin has kindly helped me to realise this project. Professor Davison wrote an introduction.
    Just like Quentin I visited all the sites guided by Alan Warren and Victor Pardo in 2011. An experience I recommend everyone.
    I can’t say when it will be published but I can give away the working title: “The enigma of Georges Kopp, Orwell’s commander in Spain.”

    Kind regards,

    Marc Wildemeersch
    Belgium

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  5. Dear Christian Lehmann,

    as Bernard Crick clearly indicated in a footnote, both letters are to be found in the Orwell Archive in London University. If you go there to read them you might also have a look at a longer essay, in French, on th Spanish War. Anyway, the essence of th Koppstory is, indeed, in Peter Davison’s “Lost Orwell”

    All the best with all yout Kopp-projects great and small!

    Bert Govaerts
    Antwerp

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