Immersed in life at the front, Orwell discovers that material concerns prove to be a more present worry than the enemy. In the trenches, what matters most is food, lighting, and, in particular, warmth. Orwell notes that, in general, throughout his time in Spain, he experienced very little actual fighting. He never lived through the bombings and attacks that are generally thought of as the horrors of war. Rather, in his experience of the trenches, opportunities to engage in combat and actually wound the enemy were extremely scarce.
The actual experience of the front in Spain does not conform to Orwell’s expectations of the war. Instead of fighting valiantly on the battlefield, Orwell’s energies are focused on surviving a scarcity of resources—a much less heroic hardship to endure. In this context, the Fascist enemy remains largely an abstract concept, something he is still fighting against but rarely gets to see with his own eyes.
During his day-to-day activities on the hill, Orwell reflects on the futility of this kind of war, while at the same time admiring the beauty of the landscape. He describes the long mountain chain of the sierra, the valley, the surrounding hills, and the Pyrenees seen in the distance. The landscape is quiet, bare, and strangely devoid of birds. To Orwell, it looks dead and empty.
Orwell’s description of the landscape serves as a reminder that, even in the midst of war, he remains an attentive, poetic observer. It underlines the fact that much of Orwell’s account of the war is impressionistic and sensorial, not just historical and political. Here, the bleak nature of the landscape mirrors the stagnation that Orwell experiences in this period of the war.
At night, patrols are sent to the valley between Orwell’s position and the Fascist trench. Despite the cold and the chance of getting lost, Orwell often takes advantage of this opportunity to walk, which he considers a welcome break from trench life. After various attempts, he manages, on one occasion, to come close to the Fascist line. Suddenly, he hears the sound of steps approaching him and, in his panic at being discovered, hides behind a bush. Luckily, the enemy passes by without noticing him.
Faced with the boredom of trench life, Orwell seeks opportunities for personal diversion. His lighthearted attitude toward night patrolling takes a dangerous turn when he suddenly finds himself in a situation where he believes he might be caught by the enemy. The contrast between the pleasantness of the walk and Orwell’s sudden, instinctual panic underscores the unpredictability of war—and the possibility for men to die or be caught in the most unexpected situations.
Orwell is given the title of corporal and put in charge of twelve men. He describes the difficulty of training the soldiers, most of whom are teenagers whose lack of discipline and experience represents a serious danger to their own companions. At the front, because of their need to sleep, young boys prove incapable of guarding a position at night. Orwell judges that, were the enemy to make any attempt to attack, they would have no difficulty in taking control of their vulnerable position.
The situation at the front is at once desperate and ridiculous, for Orwell judges that both the enemy and his own company are completely ineffective at warfare. His own soldiers are unable to guard the position but, at the same time, the enemy makes no effort to attack, resulting in utter stagnation. Orwell portrays the war as an absurd series of preparations for an attack that never ends up taking place.
Inefficiency, Orwell thinks, is inherent to the Spanish militias. As groups organized based on the founding principle of social equality, the militias aim to function as a model classless society, where all soldiers are treated just the same, regardless of rank and experience. Democracy is valued over hierarchy and, therefore, when it comes to obeying orders, men are free to disagree with their superiors. At the beginning, Orwell is skeptical of such a system. He believes that the militias are inefficient groups incapable of maintaining discipline and of winning the war. However, over time, his personal experience changes his views. The discipline that can be found in the militias, he argues, runs deeper than in ordinary armies, for soldiers’ commitment is rooted in personal conviction, not in fear, and they are therefore less likely to desert. In addition, Orwell argues, history would later show that the militias were in fact capable of defending the front on their own for many months, without any help from better-organized troops.
Orwell’s understanding of the militia’s effectiveness evolves over time. In the end, he defends the militia’s democratic organization on both a theoretical and a practical level. While he initially judges the militia’s adherence to the principle of social equality to be impractical, he later becomes convinced that this principle is not only revolutionary but also militarily effective in the long run. Orwell wishes to show that the militias were not merely guided by idealistic views of human relationships but, rather, that their ideology had concrete advantages over a more traditional military system. The length and detail of his argumentation on this subject can be understood in light of his later criticism of the media for misrepresenting the militias as incapable troops.
Meanwhile, life goes on in the trenches, where the soldiers are obsessed with everyday survival. Firewood is so scarce that soldiers spend all their spare time running around looking for fuel. They are so used to the task that they become experts at classifying plants according to their burning properties. On their expeditions, even though they are occasionally shot at by Fascist machine-guns, their desperate search for firewood always proves more important than the threat of sudden death.
Orwell’s focus on the soldiers’ everyday search for fuel dramatizes the fact that trench life at the front is not based on fighting the enemy, but on ordinary survival. Instead of honing their fighting skills, soldiers engaged in the seemingly trivial task of categorizing plants. The image of a soldier dodging machine-gunfire as he searches for firewood is at odds with more heroic conceptions of warfare.
Other discomforts are less important than the cold. Dirt becomes a normal part of life, and soldiers are treated well when it comes to the food, wine, cigarettes and candles they are rationed. In the trenches, even seemingly trivial objects such as candles are potentially life-saving. During night-alarms, for example, when soldiers are crawling around in the dark, a candle can save a man from being trampled to death.
Orwell becomes used to the ordinary life in the trench, far from the comforts of urban civilization. In the process, he learns new tricks about war-making. For example, he discovers that everyday objects such as candles are as capable of determining a soldier’s fate as the most sophisticated weapons.
This war of stagnation, which Georges Kopp calls “a comic opera with an occasional death,” has causes that Orwell is unaware of at the time. The nature of the terrain made any attack extremely difficult. Perched on individual hilltops, the positions are well protected, such that only artillery—which neither side possessed—would have allowed for actual fighting to take place. Additionally, war materials of all kinds were in short supply. Rifles were mostly useless, ammunition was sorely lacking, and there were very few revolvers, pistols, or bombs. Finally, there was also a shortage of other necessities, such as maps, telescopes, and even gun oil. All of these circumstances made direct battle difficult and unlikely.
The boredom that Orwell experiences on a personal level has political causes that he could not have foreseen. Thus, what Orwell originally interpreted as incompetence and lack of preparedness is shown to be part of a larger political context of which Orwell, as a foreigner, was unaware. The precariousness of the militias’ resources, which makes the war seem amateurish, highlights the gap between Orwell’s expectations of engaging in a difficult conflict for a noble cause and the daily monotony of life at the front.
As a result of shortages at the front, most of the casualties continue to be self-inflicted, the consequence of the bad quality of weapons, the soldiers’ general lack of experience, and the Spaniards’ tendency to treat firearms as a harmless toy. Life-threatening errors are ordinary occurrences. On one occasion, Orwell’s entire company shoots at him from the hilltop after mistaking him for the enemy. Another time, when Orwell is photographing soldiers with their machine-guns, one of them jokingly fires his gun, almost wounding him in the face.
Comical anecdotes of militiamen’s blunders reinforce the impression that this war is cannot be taken wholly seriously. The soldiers’ gaffes are humorous but, at the same time, fraught with the danger of taking away someone’s life. In keeping with Orwell’s tendency to make generalizations about others, he considers his companions’ disregard for the seriousness of their actions to be typical of Spanish aloofness and negligence.