Seema Syeda describes the life of a journalist who was never far from the front-line: George Orwell.
In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers’ table. He was a tough-looking youth of 25 or 26, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye.
He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me.
It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend – the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist.
There were both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors… I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone – any man, I mean – to whom I have taken such an immediate liking.
So George Orwell, literary giant of the 20th century, began his celebrated classic on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938). As demonstrated by the ancient commanders Julius Caesar and Xenophon before him, some of the liveliest war reportage is written by those who have taken part in the action themselves.
And George Orwell was hungry for action. When he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, six months into the Spanish Civil War, and announced to John McNair of the Independent Labour Party Office, ‘I’ve come to fight against Fascism,’ he seemed an unlikely recruit to a revolutionary Marxist movement.
AN UNLIKELY REPUBLICAN
Educated at Eton, Orwell (which was his pen name; his real name was Eric Arthur Blair) was born into a relatively affluent colonial family with aristocratic links. He spent his early years near his birthplace in Motihari, India, and, after moving to England for his education, went back East at the age of 19 to work as a colonial policeman in Burma.
This was a formative experience for Orwell. Working for the Indian Imperial Police from 1922-1927, his conclusions about the role of the British state in India did not endear him to his fellow colonisers. He viewed the British treatment of native Burmese to be oppressive, and criticised the way the English often saw those they colonised as an inferior race.
On resigning from the service, he put his analysis into Burmese Days (1934), billed as a fictional account to spare him from claims of libel. Names were changed so individuals could not be identified, but Orwell admitted of the novel, ‘I dare say it is unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen.’
Reflecting back on his life, he wrote of his guilt at aiding the work of empire, adding that ‘he began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed’. Wanting to experience what life was like for the British and French working-class, he lived in poor suburbs in London, northern England, and Paris, reporting on life in poverty for outlets like the Tribune, LeMonde, and Le Progrès Civique.
It was in these years that he developed his ideological commitment to socialism – and this drove his desire to produce accessible writing for the masses. Whatever his detractors thought of his political philosophy, his cuttingly succinct prose, deeply provocative subject matter, and resolute commitment to distil complex ideas into formats accessible to a wide audience helped popularise Orwell’s writing style.
But Orwell wanted to put his ideas into action, so he travelled to civil war Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. With his cadet corps and police training, he was quickly promoted to corporal, and sent to the Aragon front. He saw little action there, and was then moved to Huesca, where he took part in a night-time attack on the Nationalist trenches, chasing an enemy soldier with a bayonet and bombing a Nationalist rifle position. He describes the action vividly:
I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out of my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there – a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. Of course, he knew the ground better than I and had soon slipped away from me.
But Orwell’s luck was about to turn and he was soon to encounter a near-death experience: he was shot in the throat while in the trenches. His description of the event is oddly light-hearted and removed:
In the daytime we sniped from no-man’s land. By crawling a hundred yards you could get to a ditch, hidden by tall grasses, which commanded a gap in the Fascist parapet. We had set up a rifle-rest in the ditch. If you waited long enough you generally saw a khaki-clad figure slip hurriedly across the gap.
I had several shots. I don’t know whether I hit anyone – it is most unlikely; I am a very poor shot with a rifle. But it was rather fun, the Fascists did not know where the shots were coming from, and I made sure I would get one of them sooner or later. However, the dog it was that died – a Fascist sniper got me instead.
Luckily, Orwell survived the bullet wound, but his health would never be the same. In Republican Spain, the political situation had deteriorated, as the Communist Party, under orders from Stalin, turned on the more radical revolutionary groups, like the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity), with which Orwell had been associated.
The radicals were labelled ‘TrotskyFascists’ – a ludicrous slur – and subjected to military repression. The experience left Orwell forever disillusioned with totalitarian regimes, and he became an outspoken critic of the USSR. The situation in Spain becoming ever more dangerous, Orwell and his wife returned to England in 1937.
SECOND WORLD WAR
But the worst violence to shake Europe and the globe was yet to begin. After Britain was plunged into war in 1939, Orwell was soon recruited by the BBC to work in their India section as a news commentator. His writing from this period is less well-known, despite him having produced hundreds of thousands of words of commentary. But Orwell himself found the work distasteful, writing in his diary in March 1942:
I have now been in the BBC about 6 months… Our radio strategy is even more hopeless than our military strategy. Nevertheless one rapidly becomes propaganda-minded and develops a cunning one did not previously have. E.g. I am regularly alleging in all my newsletters that the Japanese are plotting to attack Russia. I don’t believe this to be so, but…
He later decried his role as a propagandist at the BBC, resigning from the role in 1943, and was eventually hired in 1945 as a war reporter for The Observer. Stationed in Paris, he met the writer P G Wodehouse (then under house-arrest for suspected collusion with the Nazis), and later travelled across the border to Germany to witness its fall to the Allies.
Writing in The Observer on 8 April 1945, he mused, ‘To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.’ A few months later, he published Animal Farm (1945), an allegorical critique of top-down control in the Soviet Union.
Orwell had borne witness to the darkest facets of humanity. He lived through the 20th century’s most terrifying decades. His political views are anathema to some, but there is no doubt that his writing left a lasting impact, not just on popular literary and journalistic style in the English language, but also on the ideological landscape of the contemporary world.
By Seema Syeda
This article appeared in the July 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the print magazine, click here.