A Moment of War


A Moment of War

"A Moment of War" (1991) by author Laurie Lee is the last book of his semi-autobiographical trilogy. It covers his time as a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, from 1937-38.The preceding books of the trilogy are "Cider With Rosie" (1959) and "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" (1969).

On 5 December 1937, aged 23, Lee crossed the Pyrenees in a snowstorm and, with the assistance of republican sympathizers, entered Spain.

There has been some confusion about exactly how long he stayed there and what part he played in the civil war, but he was actively involved and, with other veterans who had fought in the war, was granted Spanish citizenship in 1995. In "A Moment of War" he describes his being three times arrested, imprisoned, and on the brink of being shot as a fascist spy, and graphically describes the disorganization, amateurism, and squalid living conditions endured by republican recruits.

According to records of the International Brigades and Lee's own passport, he was at Figueras on 11 December 1937, arrived at Albacete on 15 December and, on the following day, at the training centre at Tarazona. On 17 December, having already suffered two epileptic fits while in Spain, he was assigned to the cultural commission. His conduct was variously described as ‘excellent’ and ‘exemplary’, his politics as communist, and his character as ‘responsible … and trustworthy’. A report drawn up on 23 December concluded that he was ‘a perfectly sincere comrade, who is very sympathetic to the Spanish government’, but being ‘generally speaking, physically weak, he will not be of any use at the front’ (Grove, 93). A French visa was issued to him at Barcelona on 14 February 1938, and he left Spain on 19 February, with ‘sale sin dinero’ (‘departed without money’) stamped on his passport.

Lee never claimed he had been recruited into active service or fought in the battle of Teruel (15 December 1937–20 February 1938): ‘I trained as a soldier, but I was mainly used in the International Brigade headquarters in Madrid during the siege, making short-wave broadcasts to Britain and America’ (Grove, 105). His violin, which he had taken with him to Spain and played on these radio broadcasts, again proved his saviour. Though his talents had been put to good use, this was not the role he had hoped to perform. He always regretted that he had been unable to do more and dedicated "A Moment of War" to ‘the defeated’.

Legacy

Laurie himself said that A Moment of War was ‘a book in which I tell a truth which is larger than my own particular experience’; in any case ‘there is no pure truth, only the moody accounts of witnesses’ ("I Can't Stay Long", p. 52) . A well-publicized debate about the veracity of Lee's claims in "A Moment of War" ensued after his death. Much of the criticism was unjustified. Lee certainly did exaggerate the length of time he spent in Spain and probably embellished the accounts of his arrests on suspicion of being a spy. He was also incorrect on minor historical details, but he admitted this when "A Moment of War" was published. His diaries for the period were stolen and he therefore relied solely on his memory, necessarily fragmented and subjective, however vivid. Yet it is a no less authentic account of one man's particular experience.

Sources

* Laurie Lee, "I Can't Stay Long" (1975)

* V. Grove, "Laurie Lee: the well-loved stranger" (1999)


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