Spain’s “Valle de los Caídos” where 40,000 of the fallen of the Spanish Civil War are buried is known around the world. Indeed Franco’s tomb lies amongst them in a monument part constructed by Republican prisoners, thousands of whom died in the process. However there is another “Valley of the Fallen” where to this day the bones of those who perished under the Nationalist onslaught still lie on the ground.
To find this valley you have to travel to La Salada, a mountain between Tereul and Castellón along which passed the famous XYZ defensive line. Unlike the Maginot Line which was an elaborate system of fortifications and bunkers built with reinforced concrete the XYZ was just trenches and bunkers but used the difficult terrain of the region around Valencia which it was built to defend.
This was the scene of some of the most terrible battles of the Spanish Civil War which marked the Batalla de Levante. The corral of the Panpasiempre rises up to the peak of La Salada between the mountains of Javalambre and Espadán. Here in the summer of 1938 at 1,500 metres above sea level, the bloody battle raged that saw Franco lose 20,000 men and the Republicans 4,000.
Facing each other were the African troops, Falangists and regular forces of General Aranda against various divisions of Republicans organised in the XYZ defensive system under Coronel Matallana. It was on July 22 to 23 that the most terrible conflicts raged at La Salada at Peña Juliana. Each side attacked each other and reports talk of the scene being a slaughterhouse.
This is the time of year for forest fires in Spain and one in July hit the sierras. However it was another fire on August 12 1993 that brought back terrible memories for the people of the area who had lived through the Civil War years. There are still numerous munitions and grenades from the conflict on La Salada and these were set off as the flames ignited over the mountain. It was a spectacular night of explosions but for the aged residents of the local village, El Toro, it was like reliving the days of the battle.
Men from the village went up to the mountain with saws to clean up after the blaze. The inferno had not only set off the ammunition but had also laid bare the thousands of human remains from the battles. The bones are largely those of the Republicans because the Nationalist troops arranged for their fallen to be buried in local cemeteries.
In 1939 the mayor of the village of Abejuela wrote to his neighbouring counterpart in El Toro calling for the dead on the mountain sides to be given a Christian and dignified burial. In 1950 nothing had still been done and the Governor General of Castellón wrote to the Justice of the Peace in El Toro saying: “In the boundary of this municipality, at the place known as the “Mountain of the Dead” exists the human remains without burial, that are left from the War of Liberation... take the necessary steps to have them interred.”
That was never done and the task now rests with the group dedicated to the Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica de Valencia (GRMH). The archaeologist working with the group, Tatiana Fargalló, says that apart from the fallen remains there are a number of communal graves. “It is difficult to calculate, but we are talking of thousands of people.” GRMH has found two large graves at La Salada near a hospital that was for the wounded. These are six fosses with between 50 and 100 bodies in each.
There are still survivors of the battle and that bloody era in Spanish history. In addition the families of those who were slaughtered still live in the same villages and know that their grandparents, uncles, cousins, fathers and brothers bones lie scattered over the mountain sides. Matías Alonso, the secretary of the Memoria Histórica del PSPV-PSOE (the socialist party in the region) stated: “We are preoccupied by the lack of sensitivity of the authorities” he also added that some tombs had been destroyed that would have served to help identify whose remains were in them.
The mayor of El Toro is now Ana María Orduña of the Partido Popular. The centre right PP would prefer to forget about the events of the Civil War but she says she is not opposed to the dignified burial of these victims. However she adds it is the responsibility of the province or regional government authorities as El Toro is a poor community.
Archaeologist Tatiana Fargalló observed that in the trenches of La Salada there is the energy of the places where there has been a large amount of suffering. She added: “They died with dignity”: what remains to be seen is whether over 74 years on they will finally be buried with dignity.
The Aragon offensive took place because Franco, to the dismay of his generals and German and Italian allies, decided to take Valencia – the republican capital – rather than make a rapid advance on Barcelona which did not fall to January1939. The reason was he feared French intervention in Cataluña following the Anschluss. It is also said he didn't want a swift end to the war, as he wanted a war of annihilation against the Republic in order to crush all opposition. Poet and Spanish politician, Dionisio Ridruejo, a member of the famed Generation of 1936, said: “A long war meant total victory. Franco chose the crueller option which, from his point of view, was also more effective.” The memorial to his blood thirsty policy rests in Spain’s other “Valley of the Fallen” at La Salada.
(This article was published in the London Progressive Journal on Thursday August 2 2012).