CARDEDEU, Spain – Andreu Canet turns 100 next month. And the year he was born, it turned out, was a curse.
After being drafted into the Spanish Republican Army at the age of 17, he is now a rare survivor of a contingent of around 27,000 soldiers known as “baby bottle conscription”. They were all born in 1920 and called up by the Republican government in 1938 to replenish the ranks of the army as it prepared a final attempt to prevent General Francisco Franco from winning the country’s civil war.
That July, as he has done every year for the past three decades, Mr. Canet made his annual trip to a peace memorial erected on hills near the Ebro – the site of a major counterattack launched by Republican forces in July 1938 The Difficult Pilgrimage was made even more difficult by the pandemic. And for the first time, he said, he was the only one who turned up on the day of the commemoration.
“Maybe I am actually the only one left alive,” he said wistfully.
Mr Canet’s story is just one chapter in a civil war legacy that Spain is still trying to grapple with.
In September, the government, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, tabled a bill aimed at reviving and expanding a 2007 law to facilitate the opening of more than 2,000 mass graves scattered across Spain and to identify the remains of inmates . Most are said to have died during or shortly after the war from 1936 to 1939.
The government also plans to shut down any company or institution that glorifies Franco’s dictatorship and renew the huge underground mausoleum from which his remains were exhumed last year and taken to a cemetery where his family already had a crypt.
Looking back on the war, Mr Canet said he was completely unprepared for battle when he was drafted at 17.
“We had to bring our own clothes and a blanket and I fought in my espadrilles because my family was simply too poor to be able to afford shoes,” he recalled in a recent interview in his apartment in Cardedeu, about 40 km northeast of Barcelona. “We have no training and no instructions on what to do and of course I had never seen the Ebro until I was told to get over it.”
Their crossing of the river that cuts through northwestern Spain enabled the Republicans to reclaim part of the territory conquered by Franco. But amid heavy bombing by German and Italian planes flown by his fascist allies, the Republican advance soon stalled and the fighting became the longest, largest, and deadliest battle of the war.
While historians have offered varying numbers, most estimate the death toll of at least 20,000 soldiers from both sides during the nearly four months that the battle lasted. After the Republican forces were pushed back across the Ebro, Franco secured his victory, which paved the way for a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.
Mr Canet, whose 100th birthday is November 30, said he had vivid memories of the trench warfare that followed the treacherous river crossing and the aftermath of the conflict. He spent the first part of the post-war period in a military hospital, recovering from typhus, which he probably caught on a rat-infested island in the middle of the Ebro.
“The rats kept crawling over my face when I tried to sleep,” he said.
Avoiding any notion of heroism, he said that his military promotion, eventually to the rank of sergeant, reflected a lack of officer candidates rather than his own merits.
“When we conquered our first hill,” he recalled, “I really remember how tired and thirsty I was, even forced to drink my own urine, and how little pride there was when so many others had died were. ”
He was torn as he remembered the cruelty of some of his commanders who once threatened to shoot him for falling asleep while on a night watch.
After surrendering to Franco’s troops, Mr. Canet was drafted again – but this time for military service in Franco’s army. His battalion in the northern city of Burgos was full of defeated Republicans.
“The war had been terrible,” said Mr. Canet, “but such was my military service among officers who hated us while suffering the humiliation of marching through villages with children spitting at our feet.”
And while Mr Canet was the only one to show up for this year’s commemoration, Víctor Amela, a writer who recently published a book on conscription, said the veteran is likely not the only surviving member of the “baby bottlers”. Mr. Amela estimates that there are around a dozen survivors left, most of whom live in the Catalonia region.
He said that the 1989 monument near the Ebro was funded by former soldiers and their families because “the Spanish state has unfortunately refused to look back and face the legacy of our civil war, let alone join a group excuse children who were forced to fight in it. “
The conscription “baby bottle” showed “the miserable side of a very ugly war,” said Amela, as most of the teenagers recruited came from poor families with no personal connections that allowed others to avoid the draft. “I consider it a crime for a government to send 17-year-olds to an almost certain death, knowing full well how superior Franco was at this late stage in the war.”
When Mr Canet finally returned to the civilian population in late 1943, he worked in a factory that made fountain pens and then set up his own shop in the entrance hall of one of the metro stations in Barcelona selling pens and lighters and sold and repaired clocks.
Until he became more frail, Mr Canet said he loved to go to schools to tell children about the experiences of “conscription for baby bottles” in hopes of keeping the soldiers’ memories alive.
But he is unfazed by the recent attempts by the government to restore the historical record of the war.
“It just all feels too late,” he said. “The current generation has no idea what the war really was like, and no government has ever done anything for us.”