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Trafalgar Square 2009
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For I am involved with mankind: Robert Capa and Gerda Taro at Cerro Muriano on the 5th of September 1936

I met Bruno Gómez Obrero at his bar, the Casa Bruno just after the breakfast rush; I was drinking a cup of strong coffee and munching on a toasted roll amongst the debris of the morning assault. It was a chance meeting. He had asked me to move my car which I had abandoned in my usual chaotic fashion. I muttered an apology and mentioned my reason for being there, Robert Capa, Civil War, Fallen Soldier, etc etc.

 

The Fallen soldier Image by Robert Capa
The Fallen Soldier Image by Robert Capa

Bruno told me that he had lived all of his life in the village as had his Father before him. Born in 1939 he was something of a local historian, having absorbed all of his
Father’s recollections, Bruno was a recognised authority on the village’s past.

Cerro Muriano lies just over 18 Kilometres from central Córdoba, the hill from which it gets its name is to the north and the redundant Rio Tinto mine to the south. A disused railway line passes through and the N432 bypasses it.
There was nothing remarkable about the town, its place in history due to the controversy surrounding a photograph made by a young Hungarian photojournalist in the autumn of 1936.

Did I want to see where Capa’s photograph was taken, Bruno said this in such a matter of fact way that it didn’t initially register. “Yes of course” I said, trying to hide my astonishment. I struggled to keep up with my guide as I juggled my camera case and note books, we crossed the overgrown railway line and past its forlorn station. The walk took us past a sports field and into a gully. The remains of the Minas Cobre buildings were to our right, a steep bank with a military perimeter fence running along the top to the left.

About 600 metres into the gully, Bruno pointed to the left, “Allí” he said, the climb looked steep. I was unbuckling my camera bag, when Bruno stopped and pointed to a less torturous if not longer route to the top. During this trek he acquainted me with the events of the fifth of September 1936, according to his Father recollections.
He told me several times and he stressed the point that there was no battle here, just a skirmish and sniping from the Nationalists. There were only a few Republicans in the mine-zone, these had come from the direction of Villa Del Rio to the east, but his Father was certain the photographers (Capa and Taro) were there. The nationalists entered from the north through Cerro Muriano while another column was reported to be moving up from Córdoba. Refugees were fleeing towards Pozoblanco to the north passing through the advancing column, many he said were put in the Nationalist trucks and never seen again.

We arrived at the top of the bank just inside the military zone very close to a cave entrance. This was, according to Bruno the spot were the Republicans and the photographers were. It had a clear view of the mine area, Cerro Muriano and the Lomo de las Malageu?as. The cave was said to be by the more romantic locals, a hiding place for the bandolero José Maria El Tempranillo, but more interestingly by the more level headed residents as a magazine dating from the Civil War.

The information I got from Bruno was at a very local level and had to be put into context. The diary of the Nationalist commander in the area, general Varela, states that the main concentration of the Republican force was on the Lomo de las Malageu?as, this would put Bruno’s position for Capa as some 1.3 Kilometres to the northwest. Some reports saying that the Alcoy CNT Militia which Capa had attached himself to was protecting an artillery battery; this is why the cave could be so important.

According to Varela’s diary his Right Column moved along the Alcolea-Madrid highway for five kilometres then headed to Cerro Muriano entering the town from the north. The Central Column moved along the Córdoba-Almadén highway towards La Lomo de las Malageu?as. The intention being a pincher movement directed at the main republican force for in the Malageu?as.

So far Bruno’s account and the official record appear to be consistent. The Column of the Right included native troops from Spanish Morocco, which ties in with evidence
from a third source, that of Borkena who states that Moorish troops attacked the small
detachment at Cerro Muriano. He goes on to say that the Republicans did not put up much of a fight but fled, he mentions seeing the CNT tasselled forage caps amongst the fleeing refugees, most would have made the 1.3 kilometre journey to the main force on La Lomo de las Malageu?as, however. This description ties in Bruno’s insistence that the action in Cerro Muriano was only a skirmish.

We have anecdotal evidence that puts Capa in the mine-zone of Cerro Muriano on or before the fifth of September 1936. In some of his photographs of the fleeing refugees the railway line is clearly shown, this would put him in the village proper, about 300 metre from the mine-zone and about 1.5 kilometres from the main force at La Lomo de las Malageu?as.

Was the picture real or faked?

There are many scenarios I will outline but two, one for either camp.

Borkenau’s evidence suggests that the contingent at Cerro Muriano and presumably the mine-zone were in high spirits, drinking wine and one was seen making off with an entire leg of ham. They were behind the Miaja’s main Republican force which was between them and the Nationalists. In this sort of mood they may well have performed for Capa. Images of the CNT Militia jumping a trench and another of them taking aim in the trench, do not show the type of body language which suggests they were under fire.

The Nationalist would not have blundered in town, but would have sent an advance guard, the Moroccans? Taking the cavorting Republicans by surprise and dropping our Militiaman in front of Capa’s lens.

Or perhaps!

We know that Miaja dithered and did not take his opportunity to attack Córdoba before Varela arrived with his reinforcements. This missed opportunity and the resulting idleness would have frustrated both Capa and the republican forces. The commanders would have agreed to almost any diversion in order to keep the men in good spirit. Capa may well have taken advantage and staged the pictures. The pictures of the refugees which were taken on the morning of the fifth may have been his last before he moved to a safer location with the main force at La Lomo de las Malageu?as.

The only thing of any certainty is that if the truth is know it will be none of the scenarios put forward, but a train of circumstances not even considered.

After visiting Cerro Muriano and other towns and villages in Andalucía, talking to ordinary people about the Civil War, it has made me realise how ‘UNIMPORTANT’ the authenticity of this picture is. Capa’s reputation does not stand or fall on this one picture.

A photographer who can capture all the horror of war in the eyes of fleeing refugees, without resorting to the shock tactics of mutilated corpses, is a true photojournalist of the highest order. Capa has proved time and time again not only to be involved with mankind but to be able to depict the plight of mankind to us lesser mortals.

As for the Spanish man or woman in the street, they aren’t concerned with the picture; they are concerned however with the lessons of their disastrous civil war and are also rightly proud of how they have become reconciled, put it behind them and looked to the future.

‘Enchanting
Spain’

A photo journey
through Spain

book

Written by:
John MacDonald
&
Patricia Díaz Pereda.

ISBN 978-1-909612-70-9
To order from Amazon.co.uk
Click here


by John MacDonald

 

Trafalgar

Moving on a pavement artist. London. 2009

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