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lunes, 4 de julio de 2016

Belloy-en-Santerre and the Catalan volunteers (1916 – 2016)

Catalan volunteers (Public Domain)

In July 1st of 1916 the Battle of Somme began with the Anglo-French attack with the goal of easing German pressure over the sieged city of Verdun.


Battle of Somme was one of the most important battles of the Great War and the one with the most registered casualties of all history, more than one million between deaths, wounded and missing (in fact the British Army suffered nearly 20,000 deaths and more than 40,000 injured only in that first day).

Within the French Army offensive the 10th company of the 3rd battalion of the Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion (RMLE abbreviated from French) attacked the town of Belloy-en-Santerre at midday 12 o'clock of July 4th (yes, today 100 years ago) and achieved to occupy it after heavy fighting in the streets, defending the town of enemy attacks trying to reconquer it afterwards.

Ruins of Belloy-en-Santerre (Public Domain)

Casualties suffered by the Legion in this action also were very high: more than one hundred deaths, one hundred and fifty missing and nearly five hundred injured. Among the dead was American poet Alan Seeger (Pete Seeger's uncle) as well as fifty Catalans, among them the journalist and convinced Catalan nationalist Camil Campanyà, recipient of a starried Catalan flag sent to volunteers by Joan Solé i Pla, founder of the Comitè de Germanor amb els Voluntaris Catalans (Brotherhood Comitee with Catalan Volunteers).

Catalan and Spanish volunteers

RMLE insignia
(Public Domain)

Certainly it's true that Alfonso XIII's Spain was a neutral country during the Great War, but political tensions at the time and the world situation soon caused the appearnace of two sides: Germanophiles (supporters of the Central Powers) and pro Allied (supporters of the Triple Entente), who often accused the Spanish neutrality of disguised Germanophilia.

This situation gave rise to the enlistment of volunteers to the French Army or the incorporation of already naturalized citizens (i.e. those living in France from a long time due to economic reasons or having to flee Spain to political issues, like being involved in demonstrations due to reservists being sent to Melilla War leading to the events of the Setmana Tràgica (Tragic Week) or having problems with the Llei de Jurisdiccions (Jurisdictions Law) enacted following the Fets del ¡Cu-Cut! (¡Cu-Cut! Events) who would be part of Marching Regiments of the French Foreign Legion.

The origin of these volunteers is basically Catalan, although they also were Aragonese and Basque, besides it must be taken in account that inside enlisted Catalans there were some without a strong national feeling regarding Catalan independence, considering themselves only Spanish or both Catalan and Spanish at the same time.

Origins of the starry flag and the Catalan nationalist movements of the beginning of 20th Century

And if I'm beginning to talk about the Catalan independentist fellings it's good to remember (or know) that it's truly not a phenomenon born of the current political situation, quite the opposite.

Josep Narcís Roca i Farreras (1834-1891) already began to theorize about the own State in the pages of the newspaper La Renaixensa among other publications and even remembered the siege suffered by Barcelona and its fall to Bourbon troops in year 1714 (a topic that certainly I have spoken before) with two articles written at La Publicidad in September 14th and 16th of 1879 (you may read them at Arxiu de Revistes Catalanes Antigues).

In Catalonia appeared many independentist movements like Solidaritat Catalana by Enric Prat de la Riba (arising in 1906 due to the Fets del ¡Cu-Cut! and the Llei de Jurisdiccions) and Unió Catalanista in 1891.

Regarding the starried Catalan flag, the main icon of Catalan independentist movements, its origin can be traced to the 19th century Cuban independence flag, itself inspired in the United States of America flag (its first version created in Philadelphia in 1774 and also influenced the French Revolution flag of 1789): a white five pointed star to represent a colony or state, white color for liberty, red color for equality and blue color for fraternity.

Cuban flag

Senyera (Catalan flag)

Starried senyera of Santiago de Cuba (1903)

Starried senyera of Santiago de Cuba (1905)

Starried senyera of París (1908)

First version of the starried flag (a senyera with a white star in the middle) appeared hanging from the balcony of Centre Catalanista de Santiago de Cuba in 1903. Two years later members of the Centre created the Catalunya Grop Nacionalista Radical an the magazine Fora Grillons!, adopting as insignia the current version of the starry flag (the senyera with a blue triangle in one side with the star in the middle), although this design still took some time to be seen (without going any further in 1908 the headquarters of the Lliga Nacionalista Catalana in Paris the starry flags had a blue rhombus with the white star inside).

With the emergence in the 1910 decade of the Casal Nacionalista of Camagüey and the Cathalonia Blok Nacionalista of Guantánamo the starried flag was sent to Catalonia thanks to Vicenç Albert Ballester (1872 – 1938), son of a Catalan captain of the Chilean merchant navy that also followed his father steps obtaining the merchant pilot title in 1894, making many trips between Cuba and Catalonia, finally settling in Masnou.

Members of La Reixa (Public Domain)

Members of the solidarity association La Reixa (The Fence), created in Barcelona in 1901 after the arrest of 30 independentist activists trying to place a floral wreath in teh monument to the counsellor Rafael Casanova in September 11th, had as a symbol tiny ribbons with the four bars and the star to wear in the lapel and of course would be made due to the influence of Ballester (one of the promoters of the group).

Joan Solé i Pla and the Comitè de Germanor amb els Voluntaris Catalans


Documentary L'Estelada de Verdun (TVC | Youtube)

When the presence of Catalan volunteers among the ranks of the Foreign Legion became obvious thanks to the letters they sent it became clear in independentist circles the need of knowing how many and where they were destined, so doctor Joan Solé i Pla founded in late February of 1916 the Comitè de Germanor amb els Voluntaris Catalans (Brotherhood Comitee with Catalan Volunteers) along the lines of the of what was done with other allied troops contingents, in other words citizens of Catalonia were asked to take care of a soldier sending him letters of encouragement and goods to help him in his stay at the front lines, i.e. changes of clothes to help him to heat up and stay dry in the trenches, tobaco or treats like chocolate. This activity was also accompanied by a visit to the front lines which doctor Solé i Pla and other pro-allied catalanists in December 1917 to make contact with volunteers as can be seen in the following film.


Solé i Pla at the front in the Great War (Youtube)

Besides this activity the Comitè de Germanor also wanted to organize the grouping of the Catalan volunteers in only one corps as in the Czech Legion (fighting in behalf of the Entente powers to free Bohemia and Moravia from the Austrian Empire and the Slovak territories from the Hungary Kingdom), the Pole Blue Army or the Garibaldi Legion making the 4th March Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment. To achieve this Solé i Pla believed it was necessary to have an exemplary figure acting as inspiration for the volunteers who will become the corps' lider, so at first they thought about chosing Pere Ferrés-Costa (1888 - 1915), poet, educator and war correspondant for the Barcelona's newspaper Las Noticias who finished enlisting in the Legion, but his death at the front lines in Artois in 1915 make them thought about Camil Campanyà.

In May 1918, with the conflict near end, the Patronato de Voluntarios Españoles (Board of Spanish Volunteers) was established inspired by the labor done by the Comitè de Germanor and directed by José Subirà i Puig (1882 – 1980), nephew of Solé i Pla, and Duke of Alba, with the intention of replacing it with time, something it was clearly seen with the decrease of articles talking about the Catalan volunteers in the pro-Allied Spanish press and the decrease of French government interest in Catalan national claims which could affect its territory and destabilize Spain.

Camil Campanyà and the Trinxera Catalana

Camil Campanyà i Mas (1892 – 1916), head of the juvenile section of Unió Catalanista and contributor of the magazine La Tralla by Vicenç Albert Ballester and the newspaper La Nació, was forced into exile in Santiago de Cuba due to political problems derived from the Llei de Jurisdiccions, there he contributed to Fora Grillons! and later voluntarily enlisted in the Foreign Legion in 1915. In the exchange of letters between him and doctor Solé i Pla showed the young man's stron nationalist convictions and his believe in the need of creating a Catalan Legion, he also launched an informative monthly sheet for volunteers known as the Trinxera Catalana (Catalan Trench) with soldier's collaborations and which also would serve as means of contact for catalans at front lines.

First issue was dated July-September (making it impossible to see it in print by his creator as he died in the 4th) and it seemed to have followed reaching the seventh issue thanks to Daniel Domingo i Montserrat (1900 – 1968), although it's unknown if issues fifth and sixthe were published.

Catalan volunteers also received little ribons and small flags and insignia with the starried flag if asked for it and Campanyà quite possibly was the custodian of a large starried flag that was sent by doctor Solé i Pla or picked up by or he or he could have picked it from hands of doctor at the Diada of 1915. This flag is surely the one starring the myth of the starry flag used to wrap his corpse, but this is impossible because it disappeared during the combats.

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points

English Written documents
of the Comitè Pro-catalunya (Public Domain)

With the end of the war and the Peace Conference that gave birth to the League of Nations came the creation of the Comitè Pro-Catalunya (Pro-Catalonia Committee) to give support to the actions of the Comitè Nacional Català (Catalan National Comitee) in París.

The intention of both comitees was to take advantage of the program of the Fourteen Points of President Woodrow Wilson to get admitted to the Conference in order to publicize the desire of Catalan independence. To achieve this Josep Castanyer Prat, right hand of Solé i Pla in the Comitè de Germanor, was sent and he visited the newspapers L'Humanité and Le Populaire to try launching a journalistic campaign in favor of the Catalan cause.

He also visited the French Foreign Ministry and the Hotel Crillon, where Wilson was hosted, to talk with one of his secretaries, comander Tyler, in all cases Castanyer submitted various documents written in both French and English presenting the Catalan case.

However, these efforts did not help, because in June 28th of 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed and with it any chance of applying the Wilsonian way.

The remembrance of Catalan volunteers

Delivery of the flag of Volunteers
the Army Museum in Paris
(Public Domain)

The estimated number os Spanish volunteers in the Great War is about 1,000 and these were mostly Catalan (and did not reach 12,000 as it was said later and ratified in the French National Assembly by the journalist and politician Emmanuel Brousse (1866 – 1926) to reaffirm the aspirations of Catalan independence).

Diploma of Catalan volunteers (Public Domain)

Honorary medal of the Catalan volunteers (Public Domain)

The remembrance of these volunteers manifests today in several ways:

In France is possible to find the name of Camil Campanyà inscribed in the walls of the Pantheon in Paris with the other 650 writers dead during the conflict.

Nowadays the two main streets of Belloy-en-Santerre are known as rue de Catalogne i rue de Barcelone due to the fact that the Mancomunitat de Catalunya and the city council of Barcelona financed with half a million French francs of the time the reconstruction of the church and the city hall (where precisely there is a plaque in memory of Campanyà) and the construction of the memorial to dead Legion soldiers in the battle with a special remembrance for Catalan fighters with the inscription «Honneur à la Légion Étrangère et à ses vaillants catalans Juillet 1916».

Belloy-en-Santerre (2).JPG by APictche
(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Photograph courtesy of Le Grand Guerre

Coinciding with the centenary of the battles there's also a memorial ceremony.





In Barcelona the starried flag of Camil Campanyà and Joan Solé i Pla of 1915 recovered from the doctor's personal belongings is preserved in Museu d’Història de Catalunya and inside Ciutadella's Park gardens there's the statue to Catalan Volunteers, sculpted by Josep Clarà which was inaugurated in July 14th of 1936 and nowadays also remembers all Catalan dead in both world wars.

Als Voluntaris Catalans (Josep Clarà).
Parc de la Ciutadella (Barcelona) by Enfo

(CC BY-SA 3.0 es)

Als Voluntaris Catalans (Josep Clarà).
Parc de la Ciutadella (Barcelona) per Enfo

(CC BY-SA 3.0 es)

Bibliography and Internet sources

In addition to the links throughout the article I alos recommend you the following bibliography:

12.000! Els catalans a la Primera Guerra Mundial
Joan Esculies i David Martínez Fiol
Ara Llibres
ISBN: 978-84-15642-71-8

Cent Anys d'Estelada. Un segle d'iconografia independentista
Coordinació: Oriol Falguera i Ribas i Joan-Marc Passada i Casserres
Cim Edicions
ISBN: 978-84-937380-0-6

Joan Escolies: Reportatges i articles

Identidades cruzadas, identidades compartidas: españolidad y catalanidad en los voluntarios españoles de la Gran Guerra
David Martínez Fiol, Joan Esculies Serrat
Rubrica Contemporanea

This entry it's also available in the following languages:
Castellano Català

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