The Aragon Front, 1936

John Cornford’s Diary Letter to Margot Heinemann [Aragon] [16-30 August 1936]

Ecelan“… At the moment I am on top of a hill at the front in Aragon. A complete circle of rocky mountains, covered with green scrub, very barren, with a few fields in between. Two kilometres away a village held by the enemy. A grey stone affair with a big church. The enemy are quite invisible. An occasional rifle shot. One burst of machine-gun fire. One or two aeroplanes. The sound of our guns sometimes a long way off. And nothing else but a sun so hot that I am almost ill, can eat very little, and scarcely work at all. Nothing at all to do. We lie around all day. At night two hours on the watch–last night very fine with the lightning flickering behind Saragossa, miles away. Sleeping in the open with a single blanket on the stones–last night it rained, but just not quite enough to get through the blanket. How long we are to be here I don’t know. And now comes the catch–I came up to the front and Richard was left behind. Enlisted here on the strength of my party card. There was one little Italian comrade with some broken English. Now he’s been sent off. So I’m here and the only communication I have is with the very broken French of a young Catalan volunteer. And so I am not only utterly lonely, but feel a bit useless. However it couldn’t have been expected that everything would go perfectly as it did do here. This loneliness, and this nervous anxiety from not knowing when or how to get back, and not yet having been under fire, means that inevitably I am pretty depressed. Even thought of using my press ticket to get home, but it would be too ridiculous to come out here to fight and go back because I was a bit lonely. So I am here provisionally until the fall of Sargossa whenever that is…

In the morning–it was a Sunday– before it was yet hot, the bells of the enemy village of Perdiguera sounded very slow and mournful across the distance. I don’t know why, but that depressed me as much as anything ever has. However, I’m settling in now. Last night we began to make ourselves more comfortable–dug little trenches to sleep in and filled them with straw. So long as I am doing anything, however purposeless, I feel fine. It’s inactivity that just eats at my nerves. But the night before last I had a dream. One of the toughest people when I was small at school was the captain of rugger, an oaf called D–. I was in the same dormitory and terrified of him. I hadn’t thought of him for years, but last night I dreamed extremely vividly about having a fight with him and holding my own, and I think that’s a good omen. I don’t know how long we stay on this hill, but I am beginning to settle down to it…”

Collected Writings, John Cornford, Carcanet Press Limited, 1986.

Photograph: Ecelan