For over a month, until late March, absolutely nothing happens and the only danger at the front comes from stray bullets. Shell-fire is ineffective and, as such, serves as a small diversion for the men, who watch their shells fall far from their parapet. Orwell becomes attuned to the sound of shells and learns to recognize instinctively how close each will fall. The shells are of terrible quality and often fail to explode.
As usual, the militiamen learn to entertain themselves with whatever they can, however dangerous or deadly the activity might be. Orwell develops skills that have little use outside of the front. This highlights how separate a soldier’s experience at the front is from everyday life. The militiamen are entirely isolated from the civilian population’s concerns.
At night, small patrols are sent into no-man’s-land to listen to the Fascist lines and try to deduce from the sounds of their activity what they are planning in Huesca. The men are told to pay particularly close attention to the sound of church bells, since the Fascists are said to be in the habit of attending mass before going into battle. Orwell reflects on the eerie feeling of having to cross no-man’s-land for field duty and walk through fields which should have been harvested but whose crops, due to the outbreak of war, have remained untouched. The peasants, he imagines, must resent both sides of the conflict equally for creating such a useless, devastating war. The militiamen often crawl into the nearby potato field to gather potatoes, a dangerous job in which the men have to hide from enemy fire.
The militiamen’s attentiveness to church bells underscores the ideological division between the Catholic Fascists and the revolutionary militiamen, who are violently opposed to the Catholic Church. Orwell suggests that such ideological differences might have little meaning for the peasants, who carry on their daily work as usual, indifferent to the politics of the war. At the same time, the very factions harming the peasants’ harvest are in fact fighting over the peasants’ future—specifically, over the economic organization of the country, including the status of the lower class and the distribution of land.
Meanwhile, the soldiers are restless and constantly wonder when actual fighting is going to start. Despite the dangers of war, they are desperate to engage in battle rather than suffer the boredom of trench warfare. Reflecting on this period, Orwell believes that rumors in the press about upcoming battles are probably lies that were deliberately spread in order to boost the troops’ morale.
Orwell’s fellow soldiers’ restlessness indicates their eagerness to translate their political convictions into action. Orwell, who believes this goal to be noble, does not directly condemn the lies disseminated in the press. While he will later vehemently criticize lying for political purposes, he seems tolerant of lying for certain military purposes.
The only action that happens nearby is a Republican attack by a special unit called the Batallón de Choque (Shock Troopers) on the Manicomio, a disused building that the Fascists occupy as a fortress. Although Orwell considers the Shock Troopers one of the best groups in the Republican army, the attack fails because of gross incompetence. The captain of the troops that were supposed to support the Shock Troopers threw a bomb at the Fascists from too far away, thereby inadvertently warning the Fascists of their arrival. The man who threw the bomb was deemed a traitor and was shot dead by his men on the spot. Orwell approves of the execution. As a result, however, the Shock Troopers’ surprise attack failed entirely. Orwell harshly criticizes the failure, commenting bitterly on the fact that Republican attacks constantly fail because of human mistakes.
Orwell is once again forced to confront the fact that his own side might be infiltrated by traitors. In this episode, he approves of the immediate execution of a captain whose status as a traitor has not officially been proven. His acceptance of such violent methods contrasts with his later rejection of the POUM’s persecution, where militiamen were arrested without evidence. Here, it seems, Orwell considers the captain’s action proof enough of his culpability, or perhaps believes his execution justified in the name of military efficiency. It remains ambiguous whether Orwell believes that Republican attacks most often fail because of such treasonous acts or because of mere incompetence.
In the meantime, as the cold has diminished, Orwell and his companions begin to suffer from lice. Orwell describes lice as the universal symbol of war—one that is particularly unpleasant and ignoble. To fight off the lice, the men attempt to burn out the eggs and bathe in the ice-cold river as often as possible.
There are shortages of most things, including much-needed uniforms and boots. Orwell’s wife occasionally manages to send him tea, chocolate, and cigars from Barcelona, but even in the city things are running short. Toward the end of March, Orwell suffers from an injured hand, which forces him to stay ten days in the hospital. During that period, the hospital staff steals all his belongings, including his camera and photographs. Orwell notes that stealing at the front is extremely common and that hospital staff is notoriously bad in this regard.
Orwell’s good fortune in receiving luxury goods from the city highlights his privileged status as an upper-class foreigner. This status, however, does not protect him from the ordinary predicaments of the front as he, like any other soldier, suffers from theft. His mention of personal belongings such as a camera brings to light his intention not only to fight in the war, but to record it on a personal and historical level.
Because of his wound, Orwell spends a few days resting at the hospital and walking around in the countryside. He visits Monflorite, the town where his hospital is, and when he walks into an empty flour-mill, he laments the fact that agricultural machines are left unused because of the war and that the soldiers have removed crucial pieces of wood from the mill to use as firewood. In general, Orwell notes that the buildings that the militias seize are always treated terribly, regardless of their historical or aesthetic value. Most rooms are generally used as latrines.
Orwell laments the effects of war on the ordinary life in the countryside. His observation of the destroyed flour-mill suggests that repairing the damage caused by this war will be a laborious task. The physical damage inflicted on this historical site represents, on a small scale, the damage that is currently being done to the country’s culture and history as it is torn apart by a brutal civil war.
When spring finally arrives, peasants begin plowing again. Orwell does not succeed in figuring out what the official agricultural system is. He remains uncertain of whether the fields have been collectivized, but he notes that, whatever the official situation might be, the peasants seem happy to get back to work. He is impressed, in general, by their friendliness. However much the militia’s presence might impede the workings of everyday life, he concludes, the peasants must be grateful for the fact that the revolutionary militias helped kick out their former, wealthy landlords.
While the peasants’ ordinary activities might initially seem apolitical, Orwell notes that they are, in fact, tied to important political decisions about economic relations between employers and employees. In the countryside, the revolutionary militias played a crucial role in liberating the peasants from an oppressive system in which they were subservient to rich landlords. Orwell’s comment that the peasants seem content, however, relies on anecdotal evidence rather than in-depth analysis of the situation, and can be read as a naïve rather than well-informed conclusion.
Occasionally, people seem to forget about the war. When Orwell asks an old lady who is carrying a small olive-oil lamp where he might be able to buy one, she replies, without thinking, that he should go to Huesca. When she realizes that Huesca is currently under Fascist occupation, they both laugh at her moment of forgetfulness.
The war is such an absurd event, at odds with the ordinary rhythms of everyday life, that it sometimes strikes the people who experience it as a surreal occurrence. The old woman’s reaction highlights the extraordinary nature of this war. It shows that the war is destroying an entire local way of life, established over the course of many years.
Orwell comments on his shock at discovering the agricultural tools the peasants use, which are terribly out-of-date. Metal is so expensive that even common tools such as rakes and pitchforks are made out of wood. Orwell feels physically ill at the thought of the extreme poverty and the amount of effort that the peasants must have to exert to make such outdated implements work. As a result of these observations, he is moved by a renewed appreciation for industrialism, which he had previously viewed with a more critical eye.
Orwell is forced to reconsider his ideological views about industrialism. He realizes that industrialism—which it seems he considered an oppressive system for the working class—does have the power to lift the lowest classes of society out of extreme poverty. This suggests that modernization is not entirely bad, even if it is driven by capitalism. Orwell’s witnessing of individuals’ reality is thus capable of modifying his understanding of large-scale economic processes. This demonstrates his willingness to adapt his political opinions to the reality on the ground.
When Orwell wanders into the town’s graveyard, he realizes, with shock, that in it he can find no sense of religious respect for the dead. All the plants are overgrown, human bones are to be found lying everywhere, and there are extremely few religious engravings on tombstones. In general, Orwell feels that this entire part of Spain is devoid of religious sentiment in the conventional sense. He concludes that the leftist, anti-Catholic revolution must have truly succeeded in annihilating the influence of the Catholic Church. Spaniards generally tend to see the Catholic Church as a fraudulent authority. Orwell reflects that Anarchism might have served a quasi-religious function for these people, replacing the age-old ideology of Catholicism.
In religion as in economics, Orwell draws general conclusions based on his own limited experiences. From the observation of a single town’s graveyard, he establishes an entire theory of the nation’s religious sentiment. His conclusions about the disappearance of the Catholic Church has in Spain are based on appearances and on impressions gathered from his limited interactions with the Spaniards he met during the war. As such, readers would do well to remember that they are liable to be at least partly false, incomplete, or lacking nuance.
On the day Orwell returns to the front, his company launches an attack to advance the line. The goal of this attack is to divert the Fascists while the Anarchists are attacking a more crucial target elsewhere. The conditions in which the soldiers find themselves are terrible: for seven hours, they have to lay in a horrible, smelly marsh, in the coldest night that Orwell can remember in Spain. However, the attack is planned and executed perfectly—a feat of organization that, Orwell concedes, the Spanish are occasionally able to pull off. In great silence, in the dead of night, the men build a large distance of parapet farther down the line and are able to surprise the Fascists with their advance in the morning.
This military success contrasts with the inglorious conditions through which he and his companions must suffer to achieve it. This episode serves as yet another reminder of the gap between people’s ordinary conception of the glory of war and the messiness of the situation in reality. Orwell’s admiration for this well-organized attack still signals that he tends to judge military occurrences in cultural terms, for he attributes the success of this event to yet another typically Spanish trait.
The next morning, the Fascists discover what has happened and begin firing their machine-guns at the newly-built Republican position. The men hurriedly dig trenches while Orwell, who cannot dig because of his wound, spends the day sitting in the wet earth reading a detective novel. The company begins to suffer casualties, although far fewer than they would have if the militiamen had not built the parapet so efficiently during the night. Getting wounded soldiers out of the trenches is a complicated operation, and ambulances that come too close to the trenches are often shelled by the Fascists, a move that Orwell considers justified since ambulances often conceal ammunition. Five Fascist sentries, his company learns from a deserter, are shot for negligence as a result of this attack.
Orwell’s reading of a novel seems absurd in the face of such violence. This action can be understood as his attempt to maintain a sense of normality in the midst of the violence that surrounds him. This episode emphasizes the fact that his memories of the war are not historical, based on an objective assessment of military events, but entirely focused on his own sensorial experience. Orwell accepts the morally questionable act of attacking ambulances by taking a realistic approach to the war, accepting that the militiamen did in fact use ambulances for military (rather than medical) purposes. This demonstrates his capacity to criticize his own camp and, more generally, his commitment to honesty and truth.
After spending the following night waiting in a filthy barn, the attack the men were supposed to participate in is canceled at the last moment. During the following days, the militiamen hear the sounds of Anarchist attacks on Huesca. Torre-Fabián, the militia’s cookhouse, is shelled by the Fascists but succeeds in producing food for the soldiers nevertheless, an exploit that Orwell admires. Meanwhile, on this side of the front, as always, almost nothing is happening. Orwell learns to distinguish the different sounds of guns and Fascist snipers occasionally manage to hit a few militiamen.
The cancellation of an attack at the last minute, despite hours of waiting, fits into Orwell’s depiction of this war as an unpunctual, disorganized affair. Because of the lack of actual fighting at the front, war-time heroism is expressed in other ways, for example through the cooks’ dedication to producing food for the soldiers. This suggests that typical visions of glory are not relevant in this war, but that men are still capable of expressing valor and courage in other ways.