The following summary is based on a later edition of the book which contains some amendments that Orwell requested: two chapters (formerly chapters five and eleven) describing the politics of the time were moved to appendices. Orwell felt that these chapters should be moved so that readers could ignore them if they wished; the chapters, which became appendices, were journalistic accounts of the political situation in Spain, and Orwell felt these were out of place in the midst of the narrative.
The book begins in late December 1936. Orwell describes the atmosphere in Barcelona as it appears to him at this time. "The anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing ... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle ... every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle ... every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized." "The Anarchists" (referring to the Spanish CNT and FAI) were "in control", tipping was prohibited by workers themselves, and servile forms of speech, such as " Señor " or " Don ", were abandoned. He goes on to describe the scene at the Lenin Barracks (formerly the Lepanto Barracks) where militiamen were given "what was comically called 'instruction'" in preparation for fighting at the front.
He describes the deficiencies of the POUM workers' militia, the absence of weapons, the recruits mostly boys of sixteen or seventeen ignorant of the meaning of war, half-complains about the sometimes frustrating tendency of Spaniards to put things off until " mañana " (tomorrow), notes his struggles with Spanish (or more usually, the local use of Catalan). He praises the generosity of the Catalan working class. Orwell leads to the next chapter by describing the "conquering-hero stuff"—parades through the streets and cheering crowds—that the militiamen experienced at the time he was sent to the Aragón front.
In January 1937 Orwell's centuria arrives in Alcubierre, just behind the line fronting Zaragoza. He sketches the squalor of the region's villages and the "Fascist deserters" indistinguishable from themselves. On the third day rifles are handed out. Orwell's "was a German Mauser dated 1896 ... it was corroded and past praying for." The chapter ends on his centuria's arrival at trenches near Zaragoza and the first time a bullet nearly hit him. To his dismay, instinct made him duck.
Orwell, in the hills around Zaragoza, describes the "mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare," the mundaneness of a situation in which "each army had dug itself in and settled down on the hill-tops it had won." He praises the Spanish militias for their relative social equality, for their holding of the front while the army was trained in the rear, and for the "democratic 'revolutionary' type of discipline ... more reliable than might be expected." "'Revolutionary' discipline depends on political consciousness—on an understanding of why orders must be obeyed; it takes time to diffuse this, but it also takes time to drill a man into an automaton on the barrack-square." Throughout the chapter Orwell describes the various shortages and problems at the front—firewood ("We were between two and three thousand feet above sea-level, it was mid winter and the cold was unspeakable"), food, candles, tobacco, and adequate munitions—as well as the danger of accidents inherent in a badly trained and poorly armed group of soldiers.
After some three weeks at the front, Orwell and the other English militiaman in his unit, Williams, join a contingent of fellow Englishmen sent out by the Independent Labour Party to a position at Monte Oscuro, within sight of Zaragoza. "Perhaps the best of the bunch was Bob Smillie—the grandson of the famous miners' leader—who afterwards died such an evil and meaningless death in Valencia." In this new position he witnesses the sometimes propagandistic shouting between the Fascist and Socialist trenches and hears of the fall of Málaga. "... every man in the militia believed that the loss of Malaga was due to treachery. It was the first talk I had heard of treachery or divided aims. It set up in my mind the first vague doubts about this war in which, hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple." In February, he is sent with the other POUM militiamen 50 miles to make a part of the army besieging Huesca; he mentions the running joke phrase, "Tomorrow we'll have coffee in Huesca," attributed to a general commanding the Government troops who, months earlier, made one of many failed assaults on the town.
Orwell complains, in chapter five, that on the eastern side of Huesca, where he was stationed, nothing ever seemed to happen—except the onslaught of spring, and, with it, lice. He was in a ("so-called") hospital at Monflorite for ten days at the end of March 1937 with a poisoned hand that had to be lanced and put in a sling. He describes rats that "really were as big as cats, or nearly" (in Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four , the protagonist Winston Smith has a phobia of rats that Orwell himself shared to some degree). He makes reference to the lack of "religious feeling, in the orthodox sense," and that the Catholic Church was, "to the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, a racket, pure and simple." He muses that Christianity may have, to some extent, been replaced by Anarchism. The latter portion of the chapter briefly details various operations in which Orwell took part: silently advancing the Loyalist frontline by night, for example.
One of these operations, which in chapter five had been postponed, was a "holding attack" on Huesca, designed to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist attack on "the Jaca road." It is described herein. Orwell notes the offensive of that night where his group of fifteen captured a Fascist position, but then retreated to their lines with captured rifles and ammunition. The diversion was successful in drawing troops from the Anarchist attack.
This chapter reads like an interlude. Orwell shares his memories of the 115 days he spent on the war front, and its influence on his political ideas, "... the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism ... the ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England ... the effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before." By the time he left Spain, he had become a "convinced democratic Socialist." The chapter ends with Orwell's arrival in Barcelona on the afternoon of 26 April 1937. "And after that the trouble began."
Herein Orwell details noteworthy changes in the social and political atmosphere of Barcelona when he returns after three months at the front. He describes a lack of revolutionary atmosphere and the class division that he had thought would not reappear, i.e., with visible division between rich and poor and the return of servile language. Orwell had been determined to leave the POUM, and confesses here that he "would have liked to join the Anarchists," but instead sought a recommendation to join the International Column, so that he could go to the Madrid front. The latter half of this chapter is devoted to describing the conflict between the anarchist CNT and the socialist Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the resulting cancellation of the May Day demonstration and the build-up to the street fighting of the Barcelona May Days. "It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it—ultimately, between Anarchists and Communists."
Orwell relates his involvement in the Barcelona street fighting that began on 3 May when the Government Assault Guards tried to take the Telephone Exchange from the CNT workers who controlled it. For his part, Orwell acted as part of the POUM, guarding a POUM-controlled building. Although he realises that he is fighting on the side of the working class, Orwell describes his dismay at coming back to Barcelona on leave from the front only to get mixed up in street fighting. Assault Guards from Valencia arrive—"All of them were armed with brand-new rifles ... vastly better than the dreadful old blunderbusses we had at the front." The Communist-controlled Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia newspapers declare POUM to be a disguised Fascist organisation—"No one who was in Barcelona then ... will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs ...." In his second appendix to the book, Orwell discusses the political issues at stake in the May 1937 Barcelona fighting, as he saw them at the time and later on, looking back.
Here he begins with musings on how the Spanish Civil War might turn out. Orwell predicts that the "tendency of the post-war Government ... is bound to be Fascistic." He returns to the front, where he is shot through the throat by a sniper, an injury that takes him out of the war. After spending some time in a hospital in Lleida, he was moved to Tarragona where his wound was finally examined more than a week after he'd left the front.
Orwell tells us of his various movements between hospitals in Siétamo, Barbastro, and Monzón while getting his discharge papers stamped, after being declared medically unfit. He returns to Barcelona only to find that the POUM had been "suppressed": it had been declared illegal the very day he had left to obtain discharge papers and POUM members were being arrested without charge. "The attack on Huesca was beginning ... there must have been numbers of men who were killed without ever learning that the newspapers in the rear were calling them Fascists. This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive." He sleeps that night in the ruins of a church; he cannot go back to his hotel because of the danger of arrest.
This chapter describes his and his wife's visit to Georges Kopp, unit commander of the ILP Contingent while Kopp was held in a Spanish makeshift jail—"really the ground floor of a shop." Having done all he could to free Kopp, ineffectively and at great personal risk, Orwell decides to leave Spain. Crossing the Pyrenees frontier, he and his wife arrived in France "without incident."
The broader political context in Spain and the revolutionary situation in Barcelona at the time is discussed. The political differences among the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC—entirely under Communist control and affiliated to the Third International), the anarchists, and the POUM, are considered.
An attempt to dispel some of the myths in the foreign press at the time (mostly the pro-Communist press) about the street fighting that took place in Catalonia in early May 1937. This was between anarchists and POUM members, against Communist/government forces which sparked off when local police forces occupied the Telephone Exchange, which had until then been under the control of CNT workers. He relates the suppression of the POUM on 15–16 June 1937, gives examples of the Communist Press of the world—( Daily Worker , 21 June, "SPANISH TROTSKYISTS PLOT WITH FRANCO"), indicates that Indalecio Prieto hinted, "fairly broadly ... that the government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms." He quotes Julián Zugazagoitia, the Minister of the Interior; "We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like."
In a letter he wrote in August 1938 protesting against the treatment of a number of members of the Executive Committee of the POUM who were shortly to be put on trial on the charge of espionage in the Fascist cause, Orwell repeated these words of Zugazagoitia. An editorial note on the letter (taken from Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War 704) adds: "During a cabinet meeting, 'Zugazagoitia demanded if his jurisdiction as Minister of the Interior were to be limited by Russian policemen' ... Had they been able to purchase and transport good arms from US, British, and French manufacturers, the socialist and republican members of the Spanish government might have tried to cut themselves loose from Stalin."