On the morning of February 27, 1937, which began cold and gray, a few hundred Americans waited to storm a hill southeast of Madrid, near the Jarama River. They were volunteer soldiers, drawn to Spain by a noble cause. Germany belonged to Hitler, and Italy to Mussolini, but there was still a chance that the Spanish Republic—governed by an unstable coalition of liberals, socialists, and anarchists—could fight off a cabal of right-wing generals who called themselves Nationalists. The previous year, the Nationalists had tried to take over the country, touching off a civil war. Leftist volunteers from around the world flocked to the Republican side, seeing the war as a struggle between tyranny and freedom that transcended national boundaries. The fight felt almost holy—“like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion,” Ernest Hemingway wrote, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The Americans had been brought to Spain by Comintern, the worldwide Communist organization, but, to disguise their allegiance, the troops had been given an irreproachably non-Communist name: the Abraham Lincoln battalion.
Entrenched at the top of the hill, behind a shot-up olive grove, were Moorish troops, flown in from Spain’s protectorate in Morocco in planes furnished by Hitler and Mussolini. The Moors were known to be especially formidable. “It was terrifying to watch the uncanny ability of the Moorish infantry to exploit the slightest fold in the ground which could be used for cover, and to make themselves invisible,” a volunteer later recalled. “It is an art that only comes to a man after a lifetime spent with a rifle in his hand.”
From The New Yorker.