Recalling the First War Against Fascism: Richard Rhodes on the Spanish Civil War (Interview)

Historians/History
tags: Spanish Civil War, interview, Richard Rhodes



Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney and features editor of the History News Network. His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, NW Lawyer, Re-Markings, and other publications. He has a special interest in the history of medicine and of conflict and human rights. He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com.

Richard Rhodes



War is psychologically like hell: supernaturally like it

and also, as we have been taught to expect, full of good company.

Dr. Edward Barsky, Volunteer Surgeon with

American Medical Aid, Spain (1937-1939)

From 1936 to 1939, a brutal civil war raged in Spain, leaving over half a million dead from combat or hunger and disease. Many more were seriously wounded and hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes.

The war pitted the forces of the democratically-elected Republic, including workers and idealistic international volunteers, against fascist Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco and supported by much of the military, and monarchists, landowners and the Catholic Church. With the help of the dictatorships in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy—as western democracies including the United States stood by—Franco emerged victorious and ruled Spain until 1975.

The Spanish Civil War is often seen as a “dress rehearsal” or “laboratory” for the Second World War. In his vivid new book Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made (Simon & Schuster), award-winning historian Richard Rhodes recounts the war through the breakthroughs—military, cultural, medical and more—that took center stage in the bloody worldwide war that followed.

Mr. Rhodes examines the human stories of the war that were overlooked or forgotten, focusing on doctors and nurses who developed new technology for treating battlefield wounds; military strategists who devised bombing campaigns against civilians with new aircraft; and iconic writers and visual artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Andre Malraux and George Orwell as well as Picasso and Miro whose great works grew out of the pain and suffering on the Iberian peninsula.

Mr. Rhodes’ book is based on extensive research, including correspondence and documents that never had been published previously. The book has been praised for its graphic portrayal of the human cost of war, its research and its lively prose. Booklist honored the book with a “starred” review: “It is through the lives and works of individuals involved in this wasteful conflict [The Spanish Civil War] that Rhodes so graphically allows contemporary readers to appreciate all the nuances of what transpired in Spain in those dark years." And a Library Journal reviewer commented: “Readers unfamiliar with the Spanish Civil War will discover the tragicomic experiences and human costs of Europe’s first war against fascism.”

Mr. Rhodes is the author or editor of two dozen books including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award; as well as Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World;Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race; Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb; Why They Kill; a personal memoir, A Hole in the World; a biography, John James Audubon; and four novels. He has received numerous fellowships for research and writing, including grants from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He also has been a host and correspondent for documentaries on public television's Frontline and American Experience series.

Mr. Rhodes graciously talked about his new book on the Spanish Civil War by telephone from his home near Half Moon Bay, California.

Robin Lindley: You’ve written extensively on twentieth century history, often on science and medicine. How did you come to write your new book on the Spanish Civil War?

Richard Rhodes: I was looking for my next book, and I was looking at the 1930s. I’m not sure why, except that I was born in 1937 and I was curious about that era. As soon as I noticed, particularly the medical stories that turned up in my literature review, I realized there were whole aspects of the Spanish Civil War that I knew nothing about and had never read about. It’s a common experience that I have in looking into history that academic historians traditionally have focused on politics and the war, but much less on technology, particularly medical technology.

I noticed that stored blood was first used in battle in the Spanish Civil War. It had been developed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s because it was such a big country that they needed a way to haul the blood that they collected in Moscow up to 11 time zones away. They had pioneered the technology, but nobody had applied it in war, so that was unique about the Spanish Civil War.

Volunteers treating the wounded at an improvised hospital in a cave


The characterization of the Spanish Civil War was that it was “a little world war.” Time magazine gave it that catch phrase. They talked about how many other countries participated directly or indirectly in the war: Germans, Italians, and Soviets—but not the British and not the Americans, unfortunately for the good guys.

All of these contributions from so many different places made it interesting to me technologically. Of course, I was aware of the story of the bombing of Guernica and Picasso’s painting, my favorite of all paintings. Looking into that work extended to another technology that was pioneered in Spain, the deliberate firebombing and utter destruction of civilian populations and cities. That follows out in a direct line to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the bombing of Dresden and the destruction of most of urban Germany during the Second World War. This new technology the Germans devised in Spain came back to haunt them.

I realized that there were whole aspects of the war that had been bypassed—explored to some extent in the specialty literature, but not in the general histories. So there was a book to be written, and I got increasingly engaged in it.

Robin Lindley: As you mention, the war became a testing ground for the Second World War, and the fascist regimes and the Soviet Union participated, but the democracies refused to intervene. Why do you think the democracies didn’t aid the democratic Republican forces?

Richard Rhodes: It was somewhat different in each country. In the United States, there was a very strong Roman Catholic lobby, and the Roman Catholic Church in Spain was on the fascist side, as it had been on the side of the rich landowners since the late nineteenth century. The Church had taken over public and private education in Spain. Most of the people in Spain were illiterate as late as the 1930s. So the Church had a big stake in the status quo. When the war came, the Church outspokenly sided with Franco and the Nationalists.

And [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who might have come in on the side of the Spanish Republic, felt hobbled by the Roman Catholic lobby in the United States. He acquiesced to a policy of neutrality. But it wasn’t really neutral. Oil companies in Texas were selling oil to Franco on long-term loans, whereas the Republic had to buy everything with gold from the Spanish treasury, cash up front.

The British were very anti-communist in the 1930s. There had almost been a revolution in England in 1935 by labor and the Communist Party and that set up a hostile conflict like the hostility we have in the United States today between Republicans and Democrats. So the British government had no interest in helping the Spanish Republic, which it viewed as a Communist government. Of course, there was a Communist Party in Spain that got support from the Soviet Union, but it was part of a coalition government that was formed in 1931 when they threw out the King and others and started a serious attempt at a republic.

The French were bullied by their fear of the Germans and wanting to stay on the good side of Britain. They basically closed their borders after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The military equipment that had flowed to Spain through France, particularly the aircraft, had to come in by other ways after that, mostly by ship from the Soviet Union.

So for various reasons, the democracies—which should have had every reason to fight fascism in Spain—took a timid approach that left them standing aside. By standing aside, the democracies encouraged Hitler and Mussolini and of course Franco, and it’s the reason ultimately that the Republic lost the Spanish Civil War. They simply couldn’t match the kind of arms that were flowing into Spain for Franco who, after every defeat, would be propped up further by the fascists.

Once Germany and Italy began supporting Franco, they couldn’t afford to lose the war, because they didn’t want to show the world that they might be weak. So they kept feeding in more armaments and more men as needed until Franco finally prevailed. I think that’s why the war was such a terrible bloody war for the Spanish. In a country of about 21 million people, they lost half a million men, and then thousands more because, once he won the war, Franco had at least one hundred thousand people executed. If you were a member of a labor union, that was good enough. They’d take you out and shoot you.

Robin Lindley: You book reminds readers of the war’s significance. You found unpublished material and human stories that hadn’t really been told before. What was your research process and what new information did you find?

Richard Rhodes: As is always the case with traditional history, the focus is events and documents rather than the stories of people, which tend to go by the wayside. But you can’t delve into any period in history very long without finding rich documentation of peoples’ memories and experiences of their lives.

With the Spanish Civil War, the real discovery for me was the Tamiment Labor Library at New York University, which has a rich collection of largely unexplored memoirs, letters and other personal documents of the many volunteers who went to Spain, mostly from the United States, and left behind records of their experience. To take the most wonderful example, Dr. Edward Barsky was a successful New York surgeon, the son of one of the founders of New York Hospital. He was also a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, like so many liberal people in the United States and Great Britain, because the Communist Party seemed to be the only political party concerned about the great disaster of the Depression.

American surgeon Edward Barsky


Barsky volunteered even though he was not in good health. He had Crohn’s disease, which kept him skinny and suffering throughout the war. But he volunteered anyway. He was a good surgeon with lots of years of experience. He left behind an entire book manuscript of almost 400 pages that he wrote right after he got back from Spain in 1939 with the help of a journalist. It had never been published. It was sitting there in typescript in the library at New York University. The paper was so brown with age that we couldn’t word-scan it, so I had to have an assistant make photographs of the pages. It was a beautiful book and it’s extraordinary that it wasn’t published. Lost books are another tragedy of this war.

Several people wrote books like Barsky’s, but they were swallowed up in the Second World War, which came nine months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Second World War was such a huge conflict that the Spanish Civil War got buried. Then after the war, because people like Barsky had been members of the Communist Party, the whole United States McCarthy era came down on them. Barsky actually served six months in a federal prison for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee who were the other members of a publication he was a part of. He lost his license to practice medicine for six months when the New York State Medical Board withdrew it because of the criminal conviction. Eventually, he got his license back and continued to practice medicine all of his life and to be involved in causes.

But here was this wonderful narrative that was beautifully told, full of anecdotes and experiences, just sitting in the archives. And that made the book much stronger than it could have been otherwise.

Robin Lindley: You detail medical advances in the Spanish Civil War from blood storage techniques to wound treatment and battlefield medical management. 

Richard Rhodes: There were three really important medical advances during the Spanish Civil War beyond the obvious change with the arrival of the more technically advanced medical people from the United States and Britain in Spain.

Spain had a backward medical system. Many doctors weren’t scrubbing in for surgery yet—something that developed in England in the 1880s. They thought they had a better feel for the operating field when they weren’t wearing rubber gloves. Aseptic, sterile field surgery developed early in the twentieth century, but it just hadn’t made it to Spain.

The nurses in Spanish hospitals were by and large nuns and they weren’t about to do anything so bawdy as actually touching and washing the bodies of the wounded. These poor soldiers would be brought to the hospital with dirty uniforms and lice-ridden bodies and their dripping wounds and they’d be put onto a dirty bed that was bloody from a previous occupant. They were fed, but otherwise just left lying.

The nurses who came from England, particularly my favorite, Patience Darton, got busy cleaning up these god-awful lice-ridden beds and taught the young Spanish women how to properly care for patients. They didn’t make progress with the nuns, but they taught the young chicas to do patient care. And the chicas were eager to learn, as part of the mentality of we’re going to be a free people and get the church out of our lives and have public education. So in the hospitals, there was a move to train young women and the doctors as well in the latest medical technology.

Valiant British nurse Patience Darton


Then there was the development of blood collection and storage. A thousand women in Madrid, and another thousand in Barcelona volunteered to give a pint of blood a month. The blood was treated to prevent it from clotting and refrigerated for up to two weeks. Before, when the young soldiers were wounded, they would have to be transported from the front lines back to a city hospital, which might involve three or four or ten hours of the roughest kind of travel over the terrible Spanish roads. They would often bleed out and die before they made it to the hospital. So a Spanish internist, and, independently, a Canadian volunteer surgeon, each developed systems for collecting and transporting the blood to the patients rather than the patients to the blood—a lifesaving breakthrough which was then ready to go for the Second World War when hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives were saved by this technology developed in this much smaller war in the mid-1930s.

Another development was triage. Dr. Barsky was among a group of surgeons who realized that the traditional manner of dealing with the wounded as they came into emergency centers was wrong for a war situation. The traditional approach was to treat the most seriously wounded first and those with less serious wounds later, and those with less serious wounds usually got worse while waiting. It seemed to Barsky and his colleagues that, when your main purpose is to get lightly wounded soldiers back to battle, you should develop a system that focuses first of all on sorting the patients into three or four categories. They called this system triage. The first category were those who needed immediate care within fifteen minutes to save their lives, after which they could be held for a time before further treatment. Those would be people with airway obstruction, profuse bleeding, and so forth. Next would be the lightly wounded. People who were very seriously, even mortally wounded might just be given pain relief and allowed to die if there was no hope they could be cared for.

This system of triage was used in the Second World War; a less desperate version is used in peacetime disasters today. When emergency medics arrive at a car accident today, they immediately do triage on the injured people, only there the concern is to first take care of people where immediate care can preserve their lives long enough to get them to the hospital. That’s a slightly different system, but the concept is very much something that was tested and developed in the Spanish Civil War.

Another treatment was virtually unknown until recently. A Spanish surgeon, Josep Trueta, had learned a method from reading a Nebraska surgeon on dealing with serious fractures in an era when antibiotics had not yet been developed, particularly compound fractures where the bone is not only broken but sticks out through the skin, admitting infection into the wound. The first antibiotic, sulfa, was only beginning to be used in England in 1937, and never made it to Spain during the war.

So they had to deal with infection in the old-fashioned way, largely by cleaning the wound and draining it. Dr. Trueta found that you could clean a wound, pack it with sterile gauze and then cover it with a plaster cast and just leave it alone. By leaving the wound covered and undisturbed for 30 days or more while the bone itself was healing, when they took the cast off there was this clean, pink wound that had healed with no infection.

Trueta later taught at Oxford University in England, where he escaped to after the war. He experimented there to see what was happening in his casting treatment. He determined that it established an ecological zone where benign bacteria basically suppressed the toxic bacterial infection. That’s why the wounds didn’t infect.

This, then, was an advanced methodology for healing wounds without antibiotics. In doing research for the book, I learned from a surgeon friend that the Trueta system had been independently reinvented in 1997 to deal with large wounds such as bedsores that were unresponsive to modern antibiotics. One notable difference between Trueta’s system and the modern reinvention had to do with wound drainage. Trueta’s method allowed the cast to soak up the drainage, which would decay and stink to high heaven. The Spanish patients had to be isolated in their own separate ward because the caregivers and the other patients couldn’t stand to be around them. The new version uses a low-pressure vacuum system to keep the cast free of drainage, which is much more pleasant for everyone involved. But this brand-new technology, which helps with the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, actually had its origin in the Spanish Civil War.

Robin Lindley: That’s a remarkable story of rediscovery.

Richard Rhodes: Yes. One of the things that always happens with wars is that people develop these skills and technologies and then, between wars, they get forgotten. The same thing has been true of what was called shell-shock in World War I and is called post-traumatic stress disorder today: forgotten between wars and rediscovered from painful fresh experience.

Robin Lindley: You also describe developments in military tactics such as the use of incendiary and carpet bombing—as well as targeting civilians, as illustrated by the destruction of Guernica.

Richard Rhodes: Yes. In the Spanish Civil War, while the Spanish were simply fighting for their lives, the Germans and the Italians helping Franco realized that this was a chance to try out whatever new technologies they had been developing after the First World War.

The Germans began with World War I aircraft and the dual-purpose airliner-bombers they had developed disguised, as it were, as passenger planes. Germany had been forbidden an air force under the terms of the surrender. So Hitler developed a covert air force, officially Lufthansa airlines, with military pilots and crews in civilian uniforms. The planes were designed to be easily convertible from civilian to military use. For example, the opening event of the war was Franco in northern Africa needing to fly his African mercenaries across the Mediterranean to Spain. He tried to do it with ships, but the Spanish Navy sunk the shipping. The Germans then came through with Lufthansa planes and, in the world’s first large military airlift, transported Franco’s North African mercenaries to Spain.

Later, Hitler loaned Franco an air force that was, in fact, piloted by German pilots—the famous Condor Legion—consisting of about five thousand German pilots, mechanics and crews. Over time, the Condor Legion was able to experiment with different methodologies of bombing following the First World War classic theory that led to the development of strategic air forces not only by the Germans, but also by the United States.

At the same time, the Germans developed various fighter planes, and the Russians sold fighter aircraft to the Spanish Republic. The Germans realized the Russian planes were immensely superior to theirs, so they got busy and built a whole new fighter wing as the result of their experiences in Spain. Those planes and aircraft designs were used through the Second World War.

Robin Lindley: It’s remarkable how quickly the Germans designed more effective aircraft.

Richard Rhodes: Yes, the Stukas and the Messerschmitts in particular. Those planes guarded the bombers that the Germans used in places like Guernica. At the same time, the Germans contributed tanks to Franco’s forces. The Russians contributed considerably better tanks to the Republican forces.

Everybody who contributed to the war jumped in to test their new equipment. The United States sent observers even though we were officially neutral. These military people sent back extensive reports about this new equipment, battlefield tactics, what worked and didn’t, and so on. So we got a lot out of the war even though we were officially hands off. The British blockades prevented the Spanish republicans from getting supplies by sea as part of their embargo on shipping materials to the war.

So everybody jumped in and used the war as what some called a “laboratory” or a “test bed” for the equipment and tactics for the war to come. Again, most notably, there was the development of high explosives and firebombing of civilians in cities and the deliberate attempt to create firestorms that would burn down entire cities.

It’s interesting that Hitler never developed a strategic bombing force during the Second World War. The Germans used their aircraft for close support for the frontlines and therefore they didn’t use strategic bombing to any great scale after they lost the Battle of Britain—as they had done in the Spanish Civil War. But we did. We who couldn’t put our troops on the ground in Europe until late in World War II were constantly worried that Stalin might feel betrayed by the West and sign a separate peace with Hitler. We decided to bomb Germany as a way of showing our support. And we did that to such an extent that we destroyed 25 percent of German industry, not to mention the immense civilian casualties.

We did the same thing more totally over Japan for much the same reason. We weren’t ready to invade Japan and hoped we might avoid having to do so if we used this technology developed in the Spanish Civil War to bomb Japan until every city of more than 50,000 population was totally burned out.

Robin Lindley: Weren’t more lives lost in the firebombing of Tokyo than were lost in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined?

Richard Rhodes: Yes. In fact, that’s one of the things I tell people when they ask “How could we have dropped the atomic bombs?” I say that decision was made in 1943 when we began to firebomb Germany. Once you decide to firebomb cities and kill civilians, whatever your rationale, whether you use an atomic bomb or not is irrelevant. The first atomic bombs produced destruction from mass fire comparable in scale to the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo.

Robin Lindley: It seems that the character of war changed dramatically in the Spanish Civil War with the targeting of civilians; you didn’t see the same level of civilian losses in previous wars.

Richard Rhodes: Exactly.

Robin Lindley: And you detail appalling atrocities by both sides, often with civilian victims. There didn’t seem to be much respect for the rules of war or the Geneva conventions then.

Richard Rhodes: At the outset of the Spanish Civil War, it was very much a political war and it was particularly bloody—civil wars always are. People notoriously fight more desperately when defending their own ground, and in a civil war, both sides are defending their own ground. You get a correspondingly higher level of violence and brutality and atrocities.

At the outset of the war, the Spanish generals seemed traitorous to the people of Spain who were basically attacked one day by their North African mercenaries who were Muslim and famous for their brutality. People were terrified of them. When Franco’s forces took over a town, they would go in and shoot the men, rape the women, and loot the place. The fact that they were Muslim and not Christian was another aspect of their alienation from the people they were slaughtering. Of course they were encouraged by Franco and his generals.

The Spanish generals who fought with Franco had learned their trade in Africa fighting against the very same people who were now mercenaries fighting with them. Because these people in the generals’ eyes were colonials they considered them savages. The generals didn’t think they were quite human and they had no hesitation in mass killing and the worst kind of slaughter in the villages of North Africa. And from the point of view of the Spanish generals, the supposedly communist people of the Spanish Republic were little better than savages themselves. They had no compunction about slaughtering them in large numbers and in brutal ways.

The wars in North Africa were essentially ground wars for territory. Once you took a piece of land, you had to hold it by pacifying the people behind the lines. You couldn’t just walk through them and move your line forward. You had to suppress them politically as well, and the easiest way to do that was to terrorize them And that’s basically how Franco conceived of the war against the Spanish Republic. The German generals who advised him said all you have to do is take Madrid, you don’t have to destroy the whole country. And Franco said no, that’s not how we’ll do it. We’ll fight our way forward one village and town at a time and pacify that village or town and then take on the next one and move on from there. Pacifying meant shooting anyone of the opposite political position. He determined their loyalties by such things as whether they had a union card in their pocket or if they were an intellectual meaning a doctor or lawyer or a schoolteacher or anyone who was a member of the middle class, unless they were good Catholics who were on his side. So his war was a war of pacification so-called as well as a war of taking and holding territory. For that reason, atrocities were boundless during the war.

On the other side, the Republicans were so angry at the Church which had suppressed them for hundreds of year and, in the late nineteenth century, moved to take the side of the rich and the nobility. So there was a lot of pent up hatred for the Church. There’s that famous photograph of the line of young men “executing” a statue of Christ. That statue was one of many located all over Spain by a right-wing civilian fellowship of the Roman Church formed in the early twentieth century to renew the spirituality of the church in Spain, which meant to renew its control over Spain. They had no love for that side of the Spanish Church and by shooting the statue they were saying, all of this has to fall.

The photograph of Christ’s “execution” was circulated by the fascists to show what brutal atheists these Spanish communists were. I thought it was witty, executing a statue of Christ to express their contempt for the Church’s long years of repression.

I quote at some length people talking about their anger with the Church and their hatred of the Church. They displayed the bodies of deceased nuns and priests, hauled up out of the catacombs, to show that they were human beings and had bodies that rotted just like any other human body in the grave. But they also committed atrocities. There were about six thousand priests executed in the first six weeks of the war by the civilian militias that were defending their towns and villages. They would line up the local priests and shoot them. There’s a famous scene in Hemingway’s very accurate novel For Whom the Bell Tolls of a town getting rid of all of its fascists, including its local priests, by running them off a cliff.

That went on all over Spain, but once the Spanish government took control of the war, the executions on the Republican side basically stopped. Franco’s executions went on throughout the war and, indeed, after the war he had a hundred thousand people shot –those who’d fought against him, those with union cards, anyone deemed suspicious.

Robin Lindley: And, as you write, the Republican atrocities during the war pale when compared to those of the Nationalists under Franco.

Richard Rhodes: Exactly. Franco’s men would gather together the leaders of the town and anyone else who looked at them sideways and take them to the local bullring and machinegun them in large numbers. I found a bloodcurdling description by an English journalist who went to a bullring and said the blood was three inches deep all over the plaza. There’s a lot of blood in 1700 bodies, he wrote. That’s the kind of thing that happened all over Spain.

Robin Lindley: You also discuss the legacy of the war in terms of culture and offer details on the lives of writers such as Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell and also artists such as Picasso and Miro.

Richard Rhodes: These are stories that people may have read elsewhere. I tried to pull them into the book and reconstruct them in the context of what was happening at the time. Then I hoped to enrich the story with narratives like Dr. Edward Barsky’s that people have probably never read because they’re still languishing unpublished in the archives.

Another story is about a wonderful, charming, tough British nurse named Patience Darton who fortunately left behind a cache of letters and an oral history. She fell in love with a member of one of the International Brigades, the foreign volunteers who fought with the Republic. He was a German Palestinian Jew and a carpenter. They were together off and on throughout the war, deeply in love, and then he was killed in one of the final battles. Patience worked with Barsky, among other doctors—these characters often overlapped in time and place. She had dinner one evening with Hemingway and the British poet Stephen Spender and was amazed they were interested in her opinion.

There’s a moment late in the book that to me was one of the most extraordinary parts of the whole story: the establishment of a field hospital above the Ebro River in eastern Spain, where one of the final battles of the war was fought. They needed a place to treat the seriously wounded, someplace near the front lines but protected from the strafing and the bombing of hospitals that was part of the Condor Legion’s contribution to the bloodiness of the war.

The found a remarkable Paleolithic cave shelter under a huge lintel of rock in the side of a mountain that was accessible by a narrow road. I visited it when I was researching in Spain—it’s a memorial now, and well worth visiting. The cave was about 40 feet deep and about 150 feet long. The lintel overhead protected it from being bombed, and because it faced into a narrow, canyon-like valley, the planes couldn’t dive in at an angle that would allow them to strafe into the shelter. In that protected space, which almost miraculously had a spring of fresh water flowing from the back wall, they built a 120-bed hospital complete with a surgery.

Patience treated these dying soldiers there that were brought back from the Ebro River where they had been shot or bombed or torn by artillery fire. Patience sat up all night with the dying boys and held their hands. While she was working in the cave hospital she learned that her lover, who was now her common-law husband—they were married by their military unit—had been killed. She was driven almost insane by the loss. The doctor she was working with, a wise man, said, “You need to come up to the frontlines with me and help me take care of the wounded there where bullets are flying.” And Patience went forward with him to the frontlines and finished out her work in the war.

It’s a beautiful and tragic love story. I give Patience the closing lines in the book from her writing after the war. As described in the epilogue, at the end of her life in the 1990s, having never traveled to Spain, she joined these now-elderly people who had served in the war and went back for a final reunion. Spain awarded them honorary citizenship. That night, the lupus that she had lived with for years took her. She died in a Spanish hospital. I’m almost in tears telling this story.

Wasn’t she wonderful? She threw the nuns out of the hospitals where she worked and cleaned the places up. Nurses are the angels of the world.



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