War in Aragon, Part 1

While the Brunete offensive had resulted in failure, the need to relieve the beleagured Basques was as great as ever. And so another Republican operation was planned just six weeks after the Brunete catastrophe, east of Madrid, in Aragon.

The Aragon front was chosen for primarily political reasons. The communists could not select Extramadura because it would be a virtual admission that the Brunete strategy was wrong and Largo Caballero's project right. The major reason for moving the fighting east, however, was the intention of Negrin's government to reassert control over Aragon and Catalonia. Regionalism had been partially stamped out in Barcelona already, the next stage was to fill Aragon with communist troops and crush the Council of Aragon. The Council's president, Joaquin Ascaso, was a controversial and flamboyant figure. Communists accused him of acting like a Mafia chieftain. His anarchist supporters however defended him vigorously when he was accused of smuggling jewellery out of the country. Ferocious attacks were made on the anarchist system of agricultural collectives in the main Party newspapers, because it ran counter to the 'controlled democracy' the communists and Negrin advocated.

At the end of July the carabinero border guards were used to harass the collectives across Catalonia and Aragon. On the 11th August the Council of Aragon was disbanded by decree, and the three anarchist divisions kept busy at the front so they were cut off from news of what was happening. The anarchist members of the Council were the first to be arrested, and they were fortunate that they were not promptly shot out of hand. A spectacular show trial was prepared for Ascaso, but he had to be released a month later as the communists could produce no evidence. (La Pasionaria tried to revive these accusations in 1968, saying that Ascaso had fled to South America and was living in luxury on his booty. In fact, he was working as a servant in a hotel in Venezuala).

The justification for this operation (whose 'very harsh measures' shocked even some Party members) was that, as the collectives had been established by force, Enrique Lister's soldiers were just liberating the peasants. But the fact that every village was a mix of collectivists and individualists proved that, while there was undoubtably pressure, the peasants had not been forced into collectivist farming at the point of a gun. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony against the communists is the number of collectives that managed to reassert themselves as soon as Lister's troops were gone.

Apart from reducing the pressure on Santander the principle military objective of the Aragon campaign was the city of Saragossa. This regional capital was filled with Republican supporters despite it being under Nationalist control since the early days of the civil war, and was the communication centre of the whole Aragon front. The plan was to break through at seven different points on a 100km wide front between Zuera and Belchite. The object of splitting their forces in this way was to divide any Nationalist counterattack and present fewer ripe targets to Nationalist artillery or bombers. The main weight of the offensive was concentrated on the south side of the Ebro Valley, with Lister's division, spearheaded by nearly all the T-26 and fast BT-5 tanks, driving towards Saragossa.

The Republic had overwhelming local superiority on the ground and in the air, and Modesto's order for attack made the whole operation sound like a foregone conclusion. He emphasised that the enemy front was defended by a few poor quality troops, and that there were few reserves in Saragossa. Modesto seemed more interested in making sure that Lister's communists would have the glory of entering Saragossa first, rather than in considering alternatives should the offensive not be the walkover he assumed. It may have been only six weeks after Brunete but Modesto seems to have forgotten what happened there, unless he believed the propaganda which turned defeat into victory.

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