Spanish Civil War veteran tells harrowing tale of hunger, brutal repression
Lt. Col. Ovidio Botella, head of the Republican Army of the Ebro Engineering Corps, poses along with two aides next to a bridge over the Ebro River destroyed by Nationalist bombings, in Mora de Ebro (Tarragona), Sept. 1938. EFE-EPA FILE/JUAN GUZMAN
Republican troops preparing to advance toward the line of fire during the Battle of the Ebro, Gandesa, Spain, Aug. 18, 1938. EFE-EPA/ARCHIVE
View of the Ebro Valley, controlled by the Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War's Battle of the Ebro, near Gandesa, Spain, fall (undated) of 1938. EFE-EPA FILE/JT
Col. Juan "Modesto" Guilloto (R), head of the Republican Army's V Division, with communist political commissar Santiago Álvarez (L), during the Battle of the Ebro, Spain, Aug. 1938. EFE-EPA FILE/JGB
Nationalist troops advance toward the front during the Battle of the Ebro, Gandesa, Spain, Aug. 1938. EFE-EPA FILE/JT
Gen. Francisco Franco and Gen. José Solchaga walk towards their command positions during the Battle of the Ebro, Spain, Aug. 19, 1938. EFE-EPA/ARCHIVE
The commander of the Maestrazgo Army Corps, General Garcia Valiño (L), standing next to his aide-de-camp at an observation point during the Battle of the Ebro in Gandesa, Spain, Sep. 8, 1938. EFE-EPA FILE/FS
Regular Nationalist troops returning from the front line, Gandesa, Spain, Nov. 19, 1938. EFE-EPA/ARCHIVE
Madrid, Jul 25 (efe-epa).- A 101-year-old veteran of the Spanish Civil War who survived the brutal Battle of the Ebro, the last major Republican offensive of the conflict, told EFE in an interview on Wednesday that if he had been given the chance, he would have starved former military dictator Francisco Franco to death, as he held the late general responsible for the agony he endured during a post-war era marked by hunger and repression against those defeated in the fratricidal struggle.
When he was just a teenager, Manuel Gallego-Nicasio volunteered to defend the democratically-elected Republican government from the failed 1936 coup d'etat carried out by reactionary officers with the support of the Catholic Church, which later evolved into a civil conflict that pitted Spaniard against Spaniard and devastated the country in the prelude to World War II.
"The war was won by the Germans, the Italians and the Moors, not Franco," Gallego-Nicasio said, in reference to the military and economic support provided by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and ruthless Moroccan mercenaries to Franco's Nationalist army.
He was part of the so-called "Baby-Bottle Gang," a levy of 27,000 young men born slightly before 1920, who enlisted at least three years before the usual enrollment age in order to battle against the fascist rebels.
Gallego-Nicasio, a self-described "socialist from the bottom of my heart," first fought in the Battle of the Jarama (Feb. 6-27, 1937), in which each side suffered between 6,000-25,000 casualties, according to various estimates.
No military breakthrough was achieved there by neither the Nationalists _ who had hoped to cut off Valencia, the Republic's provisional capital, from Madrid _ nor Republicans, whose inexperienced and under-equipped troops suffered heavy losses, leading many to mutiny.
His second major combat experience came during the Battle of Brunete, fought 24 kilometers (15 miles) west of Madrid, which ended in a Republican retreat.
Gallego-Nicosio lost an eye during the battle.
Later that year, he fought in the Zaragoza Offensive (Aug. 24- Sep. 7), where a "bomb from the fascists" blew off his entire right hand.
One-eyed, one-handed and with the middle finger of his left hand missing, Gallego-Nicosio still decided to take part in the Battle of the Ebro.
"I wanted to finish Franco off," he explained. "I'd do it again. If I'd gotten my hands on him, I would've starved him to death!"
He told EFE that hunger had been "the worst thing, the hardest part" of the war.
According to Gallego-Nicasio, his most recurring memory of the time was not the suffering in the trenches, or the bombings, or the dead, or the sieges by Franco's troops: it was the burial of a neighbor who had starved to death in the winter.
When asked what he did after the war, he said: "I was famished!"
"Franco took away all our pay. He left us all to rot. There was no water, no electricity. Now we've got everything," he said.
"Franco didn't win the war, eh!" he added. "The war was won by foreigners."
Once the fighting had ended, he and his wife, Agustina Gómez Calcerrada _ with whom he later had six children _ returned to his small village in central Spain, in the province of Ciudad Real, where they worked as gatekeepers at a rural estate.
"They were living without a salary, almost like slaves," said Gallego-Nicosio's granddaughter, Loli.
"It was the worst of the war: people were starving and dying! I hate Franco," added her grandfather.
Much of Spain's agricultural produce was at the time being sent to Germany as part-payment for the military assistance provided by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, leaving the favored Nationalists as the only sector of society with relatively easy access to foodstuffs, as historians have recorded.
Loli said that the couple's children were tasked with collecting whatever edible substances they could find out on the field, including the dregs that had been thrown to the animals and potato peels to make soup.
It wasn't until Franco's death in 1975, and the subsequent government of Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez (1976-81), that Gallego-Nicasio started receiving a small pension.
He was later awarded another pension as an ex-combatant in the war, which allowed the couple to leave the estate and move to their own home in the village.
The veteran said that of the few comrades who survived the war, "all of them are dead now."
He still listens to the news on the radio every day, as it remains his favorite pastime.