Mine Were of Trouble – Peter Kemp and the Spanish Civil War

May 18, 2023

Here’s Peter Kemp, in Mine Were of Trouble:

“The bright sun shone golden on the fields and the olives; it shone also on the huddled corpses of the Frenchmen, heaped around the bridge where we had expected to find them. Most of them had been stripped of their boots and outer garments by the Moors and lay there in their underclothes in every attitude, grotesque and stinking, shriveled by two days’ hot sun. With ghoulish intensity Roth probed among the bodies, urging me to do the same. We found no trace of mutilation, but after ten minutes of this grisly business I was violently sick and told Roth I could not go on. My legs would hardly carry me back to La Marañosa, where I drank nearly half a bottle of Roth’s brandy before I began to recover. If this is the sort of thing I have to do to prove myself a man, I thought, I think I’ll stay a mouse. Roth was quite unmoved.”

Kemp, p 57.

In other words… War: it’s ugly.

The other side of the Spanish Civil War

Remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine meets a group of guys who are exactly like George, Jerry and Kramer… except at the same time they’re polar opposites?

They call it The Bizarro Jerry, and it’s based on a premise from the Superman comics, in which a parallel version of Superman is a villain on a cube-shaped planet called htraE – that’s Earth spelled backwards.

Elaine’s bizarro friends on Seinfeld are “nice people”. They do good things, they read books, they’re reliable, and they don’t apparently get into wacky adventures every week or engage in the usual Seinfeldian anti-social behavior the series is famous for.

In the beginning, she enjoys their company, but eventually, a conflicted Elaine has to choose between the two groups: the dull but basically decent group of bizarro-friends on the one hand, and their polar opposites – the gang of zany narcissists – on the other.

Great way to start an article about the Spanish Civil War, huh?

Well, it’s for a reason.

Peter Kemp’s “Mine Were of Trouble”

A couple of years ago I saw something on Twitter – something that suggested that if I wanted to have a standard narrative completely turned on its head, I should read Mine Were of Trouble, by Peter Kemp.

I bought the book on Kindle, not really knowing what it was going to be about.

Turns out, Peter Kemp is the bizarro George of the Spanish Civil War.

Regular George, of course, is George Orwell, whose book Homage to Catalonia is pretty much the canonical narrative for most of the English-speaking world. Check out my recent article on Orwell’s Spanish Civil War for more about that.

Peter Kemp is Orwell’s opposite. Graduating from university and coming to Spain in late 1936, he falls in with a rag-tag crew of tough but kind-hearted men battling an evil enemy for an unquestionably good cause…

All by joining the National side and fighting against the socialist, communist and anarchist “Reds”.

hemingway and others in spain in 1937
Here’s Hemingway (and a couple of others) somewhere in Spain. Colorization by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0.

Yes, Peter Kemp is the right-wing answer to George Orwell. Kicked out of the Cambridge University Conservative Association for being “too conservative” – at least according to his version – he joins up with a group called the Requetés on graduation, in order to fight against the forces of chaos, and have a little adventure before he’s tied down to a boring job as a barrister for the rest of his life.

He is, in other words, a private university kid taking a gap year – one that just happens to include some very bloody trench warfare.

And while Orwell’s stint in Spain is over in a few months, Kemp ends up fighting for the National cause for most of the war, first in the Requetés and then in the Spanish Legion – one of Spain’s toughest fighting forces.

In the end, he’s wounded several times, and spends the final months of the conflict back in England, only to return to Spain when it’s all over to meet Franco personally.

He’s a bit star-struck by the “master of Spain”, as well as by other important Nationalist figures: the Duke of Alba, General Millán Astray, etc. The kind of people who many Spaniards today would rather forget.

Welcome to Bizarro World: Spain, 1936

I’d like to express the (perhaps) unpopular opinion that Mine Were of Trouble is a better book than Homage to Catalonia. Mainly, because Kemp saw a lot more action than Orwell.

This isn’t a political book: in fact, Kemp talks politics quite a bit less than Orwell does. I’ve read the whole thing twice and what I get is that he’s a traditionalist who’s against communism and who doesn’t appreciate the burning of chuches and killing of priests.

In describing his motivations for joining the national side, he says that the political motive was of importance only in helping him choose which side to fight on. But then he adds:

“But there’s another thing, just as important: If you’ve read the news reports published at the beginning of this war, before the imposition of censorship, you’ll know that there were appalling scenes of mob violence throughout Government territory, wherever the Reds took control. Priests and nuns were shot simply because they were priests or nuns, ordinary people murdered just because they had a little money or property. It is to fight against that sort of thing that I am going to Spain.”

Kemp, p 7.

That said, he doesn’t like the politics of the Falange, laments the Nationalists’ moves in the direction of totalitarianism as the war drags on, and doesn’t seem to be a fan of Hitler. (Although I should mention he’s writing well after World War 2 ends: Mine Were of Trouble was published in 1957, when apology for Hitler would probably have been a taboo even among old-school conservatives. Also, at the time of writing, he says that he looks back on his younger self as being “embarrassingly naïve”.)

“At least”, he tells a friend on the day of his departure, “the experience is bound to be useful, and anyway I’ve nothing to lose.”

Nothing to lose indeed.

Kemp doesn’t seem to be considering that he might be killed when he joins up. In fact, he thinks (like many people did at the time) that the Spanish Civil War was going to last just a few months – he’s worried it’ll all be over by the time he makes it to Spain.

He’s wrong. As the quote at the beginning of this article suggests, he sees plenty of violence.

photo of peter kemp and others in albania
This is Albania in 1943 or 1944, and Peter Kemp is the guy on the right in the balloon pants. Public domain photo from Wikipedia.

The infighting on the right and the left

Something I didn’t know about the Spanish Civil War is that at the beginning, there were several factions on the Nationalist side, and the fascists won out only through political manoeuvring and infighting.

At the beginning of the war, the Falange was a small, basically irrelevant fringe party, and Franco wasn’t a part of it. But in the course of the conflict, the two other generals who’d organized the coup – Sanjurjo and Mola – died, separately, in plane crashes. The founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, was executed in prison in Alicante. Franco had the new leader of the Falange arrested, and took over as the leader of the nationalist side of the war effort – making him the central “bad guy” in the Civil War narrative. But things could easily have gone in another direction.

According to Kemp:

“Of the Army officers I knew, either personally or by repute, scarcely any had Falangist sympathies; some were Monarchists, but the majority preferred to ‘leave that sort of thing to the politicians and get on with winning the war’.”

Kemp, p 20.

At the same time, over on the left, the anarchists, socialists, and “bourgeois democracy” types were being pushed out of the Republican war effort by the communists, with the aid of Stalin and the Soviet Union. That’s a large part of what happens in Orwell’s book.

Thus the “good guy / bad guy” narrative takes yet another hit: far from being a simple fight of democracy vs fascism, it turns out there were lots of different people, with lots of different motivations – many of them pretty shady – on both sides of the war.

Kemp describes groups like the Requetés and the Carlists joining the Nationalist uprising against the government in order to protect Spanish traditions and the church:

“Boys of fifteen and old men of seventy alike rose to defend la Fé and la Tradición, following in the steps of their ancestors who had fought under Zumalacárregui in the last century.”

Kemp, p 10.

Zumalacárregui was apparently a leader of the Carlists, who were a faction in a war that took place in the 1830s. Other than that, I know very little about it.

condor legion soldiers spanish civil war
German troops from the Condor Legion. Photo colorized by Cassowary Colorizations: CC BY 2.0.

Anyway, this “defending the church” thing seemed a bit dubious to me when I first read it, but then I thought back through the list of Spanish people I’d known. And I thought of a couple of friends from La Mancha years ago who were very Catholic, working class, and sympathetic with the anti-communist cause because of the burning churches.

I didn’t think of them as being fascist sympathizers, just small town folk. (I never asked, come to think of it.) In my mind, they were just nice people who were super excited about Catholicism and had some (in my opinion) rather old-fashioned ideas.

The Red Terror in Spain

Anthony Beevor, in The Battle for Spain, says that between 6000 and 7000 priests and nuns were killed during the war, especially during the first few months, when there was an outbreak of mob violence against the church and the bourgeoisie in Republican territory.

(The official number I see almost everywhere is the very precise figure of 6,832 people, including priests, nuns, bishops and other clergy.)

In his book, Orwell says that churches in Catalonia were burnt “as a matter of course” but laments the headline “Reds Crucify Nuns” in the Daily Mail as being bad journalism. Kemp mentions at least one village allegedly crucifying their priest, but the historical (non-memoir) studies I’ve read don’t mention crucifixions.

Anyway, why all this anger?

The Catholic church had a huge influence in Spain in the decades (and centuries) leading up to the war. They’d alienated quite a few working-class people in that time, with the idea that “the meek shall inherit the earth” which many considered to be a scam that benefitted the rich. Anarchists thought the Catholic church to be nothing more than the psy-ops branch of the state.

The Marxists would have agreed. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” and such.

So when the state started to collapse, people tried to get even with those in power wherever they found them. And it wasn’t just the church that was a target of violence. There were scores of all kinds to settle.

While one of Franco’s press attachés said that Spain would have to “cleanse the country of the proletariat”, socialist members of the Republican government wanted to get rid of the bourgeoisie.

In many places, people who owned land, factories or even shops were shot for belonging to the hated bourgeois class. Socialists might stage a show trial to “prove” their victims’ fascist sympathies. Anarchists, on the other hand, preferred shooting people on the spot to imprisoning them or putting them on trial: what kind of libertarian group is going to set up a prison?

If they became prison guards, they’d be no better than the state apparatus they hated… so, they ended up as executioners instead.

In other words, those were tough times for a lot of people.

There were atrocities committed by both sides, and in the end, far more by the Nationalists than by the “reds”. In part, of course, this was because the fascist government kept their witch-hunt going for a couple of decades after the war had ended.

Says Kemp…

Certainly the execution of prisoners was one of the ugliest aspects of the Civil War, and both sides were guilty of it in the early months. There were two main reasons for this: first, the belief, firmly held by each side, that the others were traitors to their country and enemies of humanity who fully deserved death; secondly, the fear of each side that unless they exterminated their adversaries these would rise again and destroy them.

Kemp, p 12.

One of the more emotional scenes in the book has Kemp overseeing the execution of an Irish prisoner. Kemp has tried to intervene on the man’s behalf, but orders are orders, and the commander wants prisoners to be shot.

A lot of people around him disagree with this policy, but there’s nothing to be done. Discipline in the Legion was quite different than in Orwell’s militia: Kemp knows he’ll be shot himself if he disobeys.

More quotes from “Mine Were of Trouble”

Here are a few more quotes to give you an idea, but you should really read the whole book if you’re interested in the topic.

Peter Kemp describes some of the evil fascists he’s fighting alongside:

“The Falange company stationed in the village were Canary Islanders. They were a gay and feckless lot who spent all their money in the taverns and most of their time singing and playing mouth organs, at which they were remarkably skilful. They seemed to regard the war as a joke and anything military as utterly ridiculous. We became very friendly with them, joining at their parties in the evenings and carousing happily together.”

Kemp, p 38.

On his brief stint on the Madrid front, fighting house to house in the Carabanchel neighborhood in the south of the city…

“Our only line of communications with Company Headquarters and the rear was the tunnel of sandbags. Through this had to come all our food, water, ammunition and supplies; through this we must evacuate our wounded. It could only be done at night, which meant that a wounded man might die before he could receive proper attention, for we had no doctor. Water was so scarce that there was no question of washing, or even cleaning our teeth. In a few days we were all infested with lice. Our food, which consisted chiefly of mule steak and dried codfish, was cooked at Company Headquarters.”

Kemp, p 47.

Here’s Kemp shooting at the Reds during the Battle of Jarama, one of the larger Civil War battles, immortalized in the song Jarama Valley by Woodie Guthrie:

“My throat was dry, my face hot and my hands shaking as I feverishly loaded and fired my rifle. With a great effort I pulled myself together and began to fire more slowly, checking my sights, resting my elbows on the parapet and taking careful, aimed shots. This had a steadying effect on me and I began to feel much better. I began, too, to feel a kind of pity for my enemies, exposed in the open to this murderous fire, so that, as I aligned my sights on one of them and pressed the trigger with a slow, steady pressure, as I had been taught, I found myself praying that my bullet might put him out of action, but not maim him grievously for life.”

Kemp, p 62.

On entering the newly-“liberated” city of Santander, where incidentally, I’ve spent a lot of time…

As we neared the centre of the town we found the road lined deep with civilians, who waved to us, pelted us with flowers and cheered as though they had gone mad. I noticed women and girls wearing their best clothes, pathetically shoddy though they were, their faces transported with joy, yet showing the signs of months of fear and famine that no make-up could conceal. Republican rule in Santander had been particularly savage; hundreds of Nationalist supporters were thrown to their death from the top of the cliffs near the lighthouse on Cabo Mayor.

Kemp, p 80.

On a few occasions, Kemp describes meeting the people in the towns they win from the Reds, who are apparently overjoyed to see Nationalist soldiers taking over the city. This doesn’t fit with the standard good guy vs bad guy story very well, but it may have been true. It’s also possible that non-combatants who were sympathetic with the nationalist side at the time later had decades to change their minds. Or that people will be polite to whoever happens to be marching through their town with a lot of guns.

Did Franco have popular support during the war? Was he popular during his years in power? Somehow, I doubt they were doing a lot of public opinion surveys during the dictatorship. Anyway, I’ll look into it.

monument to the fallen in santander
Monument to the fallen in Santander. Photo by Emilio Gómez Fernández, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the meantime…

Not your great granddad’s gap year

I wonder what the generation of Kemp and Orwell would think about men living now, whose adventures mostly amount to the meaningless flickerings on the screen of some video game.

Both Kemp and Orwell did basic military training as part of their schooling, and apparently thought nothing of risking their lives in a foreign conflict for a few pesetas a day. Orwell was 33 years old when he did so, Kemp just 21.

An Orwell quote: “It is better to die violently and not too old.”

Maybe that was just the time they lived in. Growing up during World War I is bound to give you a certain perspective about violence and death most people today wouldn’t understand.

Like I said earlier, Kemp was on a gap year, before settling down to a boring job in London. Here’s a quote about his experience in one of the many battles…

Our orders, Cancela explained, were to hold our positions at all costs; rather than retreat we must die where we stood. Remembering the open ground across which our ammunition supplies would have to reach us, I wondered if we should be able to achieve even that usefully.

Kemp, p 139.

Here’s the first time he’s seriously wounded…

As I unwound the tape from a grenade and slung it across the clearing I understood that at last I was face to face with death; that there was nothing I could do about it. With that realization there came over me an extraordinary sense of freedom and a release from care. A few yards in front of me I caught sight of the red and yellow colours of a Nationalist flag which had been carried by one of our pelotones; it was on the ground beneath the dead body of its bearer. Running forward—I realize now, of course, that this was the most puerile dramatics—I seized the flag and ran back with it; calling encouragement to my men, I waved it in a wide arc. Whether this nonsense had any moral effect I am unable to say: a second or two later there was a soft thud beside me, an anguished shout of warning from my runner—‘Cuidado mí Alférez !—and a violent explosion.

Kemp, p 143.

And here’s how he explains his final moments as part of the war, when he’s wounded by a grenade inside a dugout…

I had started to explain my plan, using my hands for gestures, as one does when speaking Spanish, when a grenade burst in the opening beside me. I barely heard the explosion: I was conscious of it only as a roaring in my ears, a hammer blow on the left side of my face and a sickening dizziness as I fell to the floor. My mouth seemed to fill with a sea of pebbles; as it fell open the sea resolved into a deluge of blood and the pebbles into fragments of my back teeth; twice more the [blood] welled up into my mouth to pour in a widening pool across the floor. I watched with a detached bewilderment, changing to near-panic. ‘Oh God!’ I prayed, ‘don’t let me die like this, in terror!’ I took a grip on myself, remembering how someone once said to me, ‘You’re never dead till you think you are’. Cancela, on the bed, was unhurt; he provided a comic interlude by standing over me, exclaiming in tones of sincere and horrified concern: ‘Are you hit, Peter? Tell me, are you hit? He pulled himself together; faintly through the singing in my ears I heard his strong voice calling for stretcher-bearers.

Kemp, p 150.

His description of getting a grenade blast to the chin is a lot better than Orwell’s description of getting a bullet in the neck. Like I said, this book just might be better than Homage to Catalonia.

Peter Kemp’s later life

Kemp recovered from his busted jaw. He had reconstructive surgery, and in photos, looks fine.

After the Spanish Civil War, he had some World War II adventures as a member of the British Special Operations Executive. His missions took him to Albania, Poland, and occupied France. He was imprisoned by the Soviets, and went to Asia, where he spent some time running guns for the French in Laos. He was, in other words, an adventurer.

Finally retiring from the army due to tuberculosis, he became a writer and insurance salesman. As a reporter, he went to Central and South America, Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo, Hungary, etc. He wrote three books besides Mine Were of Trouble, all memoirs of his life and war experiences.

He died in 1993, at age 80. He never became a barrister.

Could the Civil War have been avoided?

All this reading has completely disabused me of the notion that there was any possibility of a happy ending to the Spanish Civil War, in which the good guys could have won and everybody would live peacefully ever after.

The situation during the Republic itself was bad enough, with peasant revolts brutally squashed by the Guardia Civil, constant strikes, and members of the government calling for violent revolution. Some alternative tellings of the story even suggest that the Republic had completely lost control of the country before the National uprising, and that the army was simply stepping in to maintain order.

In other words, they say that the Civil War actually started before 1936, and it was the left who started it.

I used to think that was a pretty ridiculous take, but situations like the 1934 Revolution, in which the PSOE organized a revolutionary general strike in an attempt to take down the government, seem to lend it some credibility. While the “revolution” was raging in Asturias, the Catalans declared independence, sort of. They seem to do that from time to time. In this case it only lasted for a few hours, but the central government had time to declare an “estado de guerra” before it was all over.

bunker in cordoba province spain
Civil War bunker in Córdoba province. Photo by Edmundo Sáez, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The fact is, people on the left had been talking about civil war for some time before the thing actually started. Socialist Largo Caballero (nicknamed the “Spanish Lenin” – and later president of the Republic for a while) suggested that declaring civil war might be the left’s only option in January 1936, months before the military coup.

Hugh Thomas, author of the definitive history The Spanish Civil War (currently on my bookshelf, but not yet read) called the conflict “the culmination of a hundred years of class war”.

Taking that into account, and knowing what I know, I don’t think the civil war was anybody’s fault in particular. The Spanish situation was bad, and one way or another there was going to be violence. There was plenty of violence happening before the war broke out, in fact.

In any case, Kemp is happy when Franco wins. Orwell seems to have thought that Spain would have been better off with Stalin.

Knowing what we now know about the situation of the Soviet Union during those years, this seems very doubtful. It could have been far worse if the Soviets had won.

It also could have been worse if Franco had been on friendlier terms with Hitler. As it is, Spain didn’t join World War II, but fascism survived for decades. Things turned out badly enough.

Several people in Kemp’s book mention that it would have been better for foreigners to just stay out of the whole thing, and let the Spaniards take care of their own problems. And they probably had a point.

According to Anthony Beevor, in 1936, the Spanish military didn’t have enough ammunition for even a full day of war. Without the flood of foreign weapons, bombs, tanks and planes, the whole thing might have been over pretty quickly – or maybe it just would have ground on with strikes, political assassinations and minor street fights for decades.

Who knows? It’s all speculation at this point.

Spain in the aftermath of the Civil War

Years ago I heard a someone on a podcast – I forget which – say that the most significant event in the American Civil War is what happened after it was done: everyone stopped killing each other.

This is not, he went on to explain, what usually happens in civil wars. Most of the time, the winning side continues the persecution, killing and imprisoning the losers for years or sometimes decades afterwards.

Continued killing and repression is exactly what happened in Spain, post-1939. The World War II years and thereafter were no picnic, especially if you were known to be from a family that was on the left during the Civil War.

mass grave spanish civil war
Mass grave in Estépar, Burgos. Photo by Mario Modesto Mata, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Spanish people of the older generations (older than me, at least) have told me that Spain is still divided between victors and vanquished: that which side your family was on makes a big difference in your life to this day. I don’t know if younger people feel the same way. Maybe I’ll ask some.

Anyway, the postwar and transition to democracy is the topic of a future article. I’ve got Giles Tremlett’s book Ghosts of Spain – which seems to deal with that sort of thing – here on my shelf, waiting to be read.

For now, let’s leave aside our Bizarro World and our speculations.

I have a little idea I like to call the “history sucked hypothesis”, which basically states that previous decades and centuries were dirty and dangerous and we’re lucky to be alive today.

Full disclosure: I’ve spent plenty of time wishing I were around in the 1960s in Greenwich Village, or the 20s in Paris. But when you get into the gritty details: the poverty, the STDs, the lack of basic civil rights and indoor plumbing, etc, I figure we’re mostly better off here, in the 21st century. Although I guess I could be proven wrong by future events. That’s why it’s just a hypothesis.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, or gotten something interesting from it. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks of my life reading and rereading Civil War books and articles, and I’m aching to do something different.

Hasta la próxima,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I guess I’ll do Ghosts of Spain a bit later on. I might also do Hemingway. Subscribe to my email updates or my podcast for more. It’s called Spain to Go and it’s on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, among other places. Enjoy!

P.P.S. Update, December 2023: Only tangentially related, but I’ve got a new article up about the Russian Revolution. If you’ve gotten through these 4700 words about Peter Kemp, you might like that. I also expand a bit on the “history sucked” hypothesis over there, because boy did the Russian Revolution get ugly. Check that out, let me know what you think here in the comments, etc. Have a good one, and as always, thanks for reading.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Greetings again from Boston. I hope all is well with you. Great article/podcast as ever. I love this topic. Hughes’ was a great book as was Ghosts of Spain. I also liked The Spanish Civil Way by Paul Preston. Another fun read that includes cynical descriptions of countries all around the med (including Spain) is Paul Theroux’s travel log, called The Pillars of Hercules (I love all his books).

    1. Hey Jim, thanks for the book recommendations. I recently read something by Theroux about a train trip across Asia. “The Great Railway Bazaar”, I think it was called. I’ll check out “Pillars of Hercules”. Have a good one!

  2. Thanks Daniel, interesting and enlightening article. I too have a couple of unread books on Spanish Civil war/Spain under Franco. A Concise History (Preston) & The Face of Spain (Brendan) I will read them this year. Last year I read Voices of the Old Sea (Norman Lewis)about a remote fishing village back in the day. (…the unravaged coast of Spain) Kind of melancholy but paints a picture. I liked it. Best regards Paul. Australia

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