Memories of war in the olive groves

Added to the site, August 24th 2006.

This article gives a few extra details I didn't have, like Donnie Ahern being in Company C. The story about smuggling out 3 Republican soldiers is not mentioned anywhere else in the literature. There WAS ONE man smuggled out, but that was Frank Thomas, a Welsh volunteer for Franco.

Ciaran Crossey, 24 August 2006]

Tom Coleman spoke to Moss Fennell in the Irish Times, 30th April 1987.

On December 12th, 1936 Moss Fennell was on his way to Spain to fight on Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War. Like most young men going to war he had clear convictions on the rightness of his cause.

At 28 years old, he had no political affiliation. Today he says he is still apolitical, that he was moved at the time by the horror stories in the press about atrocities against the Church in Spain. He was later to see some of these atrocities at first hand, to see how hate reduces men to savagery.

He had left for Spain with Donie Aherne of Monagay, the only other West Limerick man in the 600-strong Irish Brigade. They made thei way to Galway and the Dun Aengus tender rang with the strains of 'Faith of our Fathers' as they pulled out to sea.

They had to wait a day and a night outside the Aran Islands before the German grain-boat which was to take them to Spain could show up. To climb by ladder up into a heaving ship in high winds was an awesome task for all; for some it proved too much - about 50 were too weakened or frightened to make it. Crossing the Bay of Biscay was even more terrifying as the boat, empty of cargo and riding high on the waves, tossed and turned in the storm.

Donie and he tried to stay together and Moss remembers the day that mail came through from home and the names were being called out. 'The sergeant paused after 'Legionnaire D Aherne' to emphasise loudly the 'BA' (which Donie got in Maynooth) which his proud mother had put on the envelope. The camp collapsed with ribald laughter and comments. Later he was to see Donie blown high into the air by a shell.

"He turned over and over before falling beneath a pile of rubble. I was sickened to think of him dead but glad it was quick. Then the rubble moved and Donnie got up, shock himself and carried on shocked but unscathed. I cannot understand it to this day", he says.

After a training period in Caceres he recalls the cold fear and self analysis that is prelude to the first exposure to fire.

"Would I turn and run, would I be too terrified to move? From another viewpoint the enemy had dear ones as had I; could I bring myself to kill him? If I get wounded and cannot move? Looking back now it seems miraculous that not one of these thoughts ever entered my head when I came face to face with the stark reality of war.

As they moved forward to the battle area they came to Valdermora where they found

"no sign of enemy or friendly troops except some dead ones lying crouched here and there amid the smouldering ruins. It was sickening, scorched and blood-spattered walls and the stench of death. Even one's own comrades looked grim and grusesome some as light faded."

The next morning in hot sunlight they moved up through the acres of olive groves, many of the younger men shedding their clothing in the heat - mistakenly as the nights were bitterly cold. Some swapped their makeshift rope webbing which chafed with the weight of grenades and ammunition for more comfortable equipment which they took from those who would never need any again.

In the noise and the smoke andthe screaming, under fire from mortar shells, machine gun and rifle fire, he found himself strangely calm. "It is amazing how quickly one adjusts to the circumstances in a situation such as this. One's fears and foreboding seem to vanish and instead there is a feeling of elation."

He saw Tom Hyde from Midleton, a veteran of the War of Independence, walking upright and slow to give encouragement to his less experienced comrades. I saw him fall mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, his futile courage in some way instilling greater commitment to the raw troops.

He feels that in the short time available they were fairly well trained. The officers were good and the discipline sound, and in this regard they felt they had a great advantage over their opponents.

His platoon captured three British Republicans and smuggled them back to Ireland to save them from Spanish retaliation. They could not believe the organisation and morale of the Irish troops- in spite of the fact that they were involved in trench warfare (in the Jarama Valley on the Madrid front) for much longer than was usual in the First World War.

Among the irritants shared by all soldiers, there was the trench feet, toothache, backache and the legions of lice, everywhere "on your head, on your eyebrows, by the fistful on your crotch."

A nightmare sill with him to this day is of diving for cover during an attack. "After the dirt and stones showered down and the smoke cleared away, a sickening sensation gripped me - it was the stench of rotting human flesh. There were three dead and decaying bodies partially covered, one only inches away and seemingly looking straight at me, the glazed and sightless eyes partially falling out of their sockets."

Many of the memories are sharp, some faded. The Irish got on great with the Moors; the Germans were well supplied and sent them tea; the Italians needed four times more men to cover the same terrain.

Other memories include a day and night in a slit trench forward of the lines, when he was in a volunteer sabotage crew; a friend with a leg blown off; a High Mass in Caceres before going to the front, when they were told that to die in this fight was true martyrdom.

He still says that it wasn't political affiliations that made him want to fight, but he is still stung by the insinuation that they were all Fascists. He finds Christy Moore's recent song, 'Viva La Cinque Brigada', "offensive, ignorant and insensitive. It's a pity after all these years he couldn't rise above jingoism."

"I don't know did it (the war) change a whole lot. Our side won. The losers have made a virtue of incompetence and body counts. But I suppose any fellow who would put his life in danger can't be a bad man.

"Your job is to protect your own life in doing what you're told to do - there's no animosity. I never had hate, I don't think. I'm very glad, proud I made my protest, proud of the lads. I don't think I could be blamed for that. And if I am I don't care.

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