‘People in objects’ is a phrase that lies at the heart of modern conflict archaeology, the new subdiscipline, and it is central to Salvatore Garfi’s investigation of the conflict landscapes of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.
The reason, of course, is that landscapes are artefacts, and the enduring example from this bitter civil war is the two opposing trench lines stretching north–south across Spain. Garfi’s focus is a section of the 56km2 area of the Mediana Lines south-east of Zaragoza in Aragón, occupied from the Republican offensive of August 1937 until March 1938, when Franco’s Nationalists launched a counter-offensive.
The approach is admirably interdisciplinary, blending traditional archaeological fieldwork with historical documentation, and analysis of 38 photographs from the 15th International Brigade. For Garfi, studying the photos is akin to sampling an archaeological site by excavating test trenches as ‘slices of space and time’.
The author painstakingly annotates the photos, identifying, numbering, and describing all observable features, from a worn-grass path to a dugout’s window frame and an anonymous smoking soldier. While correlating these photographic details with the corresponding explanatory text can be time-consuming, the overall approach is highly effective and skilfully done.
One key element that frames the study is the author’s interest in what would be called the ‘trench world’ or ‘trench culture’ for the First World War, but which is referred to in this book as the ‘anthropocosmos’, or the ‘world of man’.
Garfi uses the term to describe and assess field fortifications and dwellings – the social world of everyday experience. He recognises key similarities and differences between Nationalists and Republicans.
As the archaeology reveals, the living conditions for both were similar, though the International Brigades’ trenches were named according to the spirit of the times – after Marx, Lenin, and Times Square. As the analysis of the archaeological and historical evidence progresses, Garfi makes pertinent observations that cross the boundary between military history and cultural history, as in the case of the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion.
Its members constructed magnificent dugouts and spacious and clean trenches, but they had learned nothing from their predecessors’ experience during the First World War. For all their cleanliness and comparative luxury, the Americans in Spain dug their trenches in a straight line, so that if one section was overrun the whole line would fall.
Wars in the 20th century sometimes have famous names attached: T. E. Lawrence in the Middle East and Ernest Hemingway on the Italian Front being the two most-famous First World War examples. For the Spanish Civil War, there was George Orwell, who spent 115 days in the Aragónese front-lines outside Huesca in the north-east, and wrote of his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Garfi weaves Orwell’s observations into a phenomenological aspect of his investigations, bringing to life the dangers of the trenches with such vivid Orwellian phrases as ‘bullets are singing’ and ‘the smells of urine and rotting bread’.
This is an expert, informative, and often intriguing investigation of a historically recent battle-zone landscape by an archaeologist whose innovatory approach deploys photographs, maps, and historical (and literary) background context to make a powerful contribution to modern conflict archaeology. In the end, as Garfi himself admits, history is not enough: being in the landscape and doing the archaeology of conflict is what really counts.
Review by Nicholas Saunders
This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.