Orwell’s company is sent to Siétamo, then to Alcubierre, two cities in the Aragón province, to the west of Cataluña. In a town on the way, Orwell sees a poster from the previous year announcing a bullfight in the local arena. He notices how faded the poster’s colors look and he jokes about the fact that bullfights, nowadays, no longer take place in this region because the best matadors happen to be Fascists.
When Orwell sees the poster of the bullfight, he realizes that the war has interrupted what is typically thought of as traditional Spanish culture. In the current context of the war, the country is indelibly divided into two irreconcilable halves (the Fascists and the anti-Fascists), even when it comes to a seemingly trivial activity such as bullfighting.
Between Siétamo and Alcubierre, the lorry driver gets lost and the men are forced to walk hours in the mist. Upon finally reaching Alcubierre in the middle of the night, Orwell experiences what he calls “the characteristic smell of war […] a smell of excrement and decaying food.” In general, he is struck by the misery of the villages in the Aragón region. The earth is dry and bleak, houses are small constructions made of mud and stone, and dirt roads often become muddy and difficult to travel. In the absence of a functioning lavatory, soldiers turn the church and the surrounding fields into a latrine.
Orwell’s experience of leaving for the front does not conform to a glorious vision of war. Instead of reflecting on the political ideals that animate the militia, Orwell focuses on the unpleasant nature of everyday life that constitutes his true experience of the war. The soldiers’ wrecking of the church stems from the Spanish revolutionary forces’ anti-Catholic, anticlerical stance.
After two days of waiting, the men still have not been issued rifles. In the glum, quiet town, the only excitement is the arrival of Fascist deserters, who, Orwell discovers, are hardly distinguishable from the soldiers in his own company. The only reason they must have joined the Fascist cause, Orwell reflects, must be because they were conscripted and have family in Fascist territory. Even when they decide to desert, they still believe in legends about the cruelty of the other side. After a long walk in no-man’s-land, the deserters arrive both terribly hungry and terrified of being shot by Orwell’s leftist militia, which rumor has portrayed as unforgiving and cruel. In order to assuage the deserters’ fears, Orwell’s company shows the men affection and kindness.
When Orwell sees Fascist deserters, he realizes that the division of Spain into two camps is, in many ways, arbitrary. He understands that there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about the Fascist fighters. Rather, the men’s allegiance to one side is often determined by local circumstances, seemingly trivial factors such as one’s native city or family background. At the same time, the deserters’ fear of Orwell’s company highlights the intense polarization that is affecting the country. Political rivalry has reached such heights that the Fascists view the Republicans as an almost demonic force.
When the rifles finally arrive on the third day, Orwell feels disheartened once again as he discovers that his weapon is over forty years old and almost unusable. Weapons, he realizes, are distributed randomly, with no attention given to merit or rank. As a result, the best rifle is absurdly given to a fifteen-year-old boy who does not know how to use it. However, despite the men’s inexperience, after only five minutes of instruction they are all sent to the Saragossa front line.
Once again, Orwell notices that the militia’s principles of social equality tend to generate chaos. Orwell criticizes the random distribution of weapons as counter-productive to efficacious military organization, as the most capable men, such as him, are not given the tools to serve the militia as best they can. In this way, he shows that lofty ideals often don’t square neatly with reality, especially in times of war.
Georges Kopp, a Belgian commander, leads Orwell and his company through bleak, infertile fields. During the trip, Orwell is privately seized by fear. Influenced by stories he has heard about the First World War, he realizes he is terrified of trench warfare and already dreads the cold. He is equally horrified at the thought of his fellow soldiers, which he considers a mob of pathetic, undisciplined children, a far cry from what real soldiers should be.
Orwell’s sudden fear serves as a brutal reality check. Despite his enthusiasm for the militia’s political cause, he is not truly prepared for the material difficulties of war. He is also skeptical that the principles of social equality that the militia abides by can actually produce decent soldiers and doubts that his companions are capable of fighting effectively in the war. In practice, Orwell thus implicitly adopts the anti-revolutionary, pro-Communist point of view, according to which revolutionary ideals hamper military efficiency.
After walking about three miles, the men arrive at a fortified post on a hill-top, known as a “position.” There, while stray bullets fly overhead, they are greeted by a Polish commander known as Benjamin. Orwell, Williams, and Williams’s brother-in-law immediately occupy a dug-out where they leave their belongings. A loud bang rings out, and suddenly one of the children in the company arrives with blood all over his face. As it turns out, the boy has wounded himself after involuntarily blowing out the bolt of his own rifle. It is the company’s first casualty and, as Orwell notes ironically, “characteristically, self-inflicted.”
Orwell’s fears about the militia’s incompetence are soon confirmed when the company’s first casualty is self-inflicted, the consequence of a blunder. Orwell begins to grasp that his fellow soldiers’ ineptitude might prove more dangerous to them than the enemy itself. In this way, Orwell’s experience of war proves yet again to be drastically at odds with the glamorized vision of war he held when he arrived in Spain.
Benjamin then shows the men around the position. Before the trench lie a ravine and some hills. Surprised at not being able to spot the Fascist position, Orwell asks where the enemy is. Benjamin points to a spot in the distance, and Orwell suddenly discovers, with great surprise, that the enemy are only visible as a tiny spot in the distance, where ant-like figures are moving around. Bewildered at realizing that the Fascists are so far way, Orwell realizes that, in these circumstances, the rifles they have been given are completely useless.
Orwell is shocked by the futility of the situation in which he finds himself at the front. His surprise at discovering how far the enemy truly is highlights his increasing disappointment at the unfolding reality of this war for which he had such elevated hopes. It also emphasizes Orwell’s sense of military superiority over his fellow militiamen.
The other men seem completely unaware of the fact that their distance to the enemy makes shooting rifles ineffective. Excited at finally being at the front, they begin to fire at anything and everything, convinced that they will be able to hit the enemy on the other hill. Against his will, Orwell is finally convinced by his companions to fire a single shot in the direction of the enemy. As Orwell sees it disappear in the distance, he realizes that this is the first time in his life that he has shot at a fellow human being.
Orwell’s serious approach to war contrasts with what he perceives as his companions’ childishness. When he sees their excitement at firing their weapons, despite the fact that the enemy is out of reach, his attitude is dismissive and critical. By contrast, when he fires his first shot himself, he is struck by the gravity of this action and realizes that he is capable of causing a man’s death. Again, the reality of war is a rude and startling awakening for Orwell.
In these dispiriting circumstances, Orwell becomes profoundly disgusted by the war. He judges that, from such a great distance, the enemy will never be able to hit him and, therefore, he makes no attempt to hide inside the trench while he walks around. His judgment is soon proven wrong, as on one occasion a bullet suddenly cracks past his ear, causing him to duck. He concludes that, however much he might think of himself as a brave and unflinching soldier, he has, in fact, very little control over his body’s instinct to protect itself.
Despite Orwell’s air of authority, his assertions are not always correct. When he is almost hit by a bullet, he becomes aware that the situation in the trench is, in fact, more dangerous than he had judged. He also realizes that, like any normal human being, he, too, can be seized by fear and panic. The episode forces him to adopt a critical approach toward his own feelings of superiority.