Remembering the Battle of Jarama and the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War

Historian David Mathieson revisits the site of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles.

Remembering the Battle of Jarama and the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War
Archive photo from the Spanish Civil War: AFP

In the early hours of the morning on 12th February 1937 a fleet of trucks pulled up outside a farm house in the Jarama valley some 30 km south east of Madrid. 

About 500 British lads jumped out pulling their ruck sacks after them and headed into the courtyard of the house where they were given hot black coffee and chunks of bread.  One of them later recalled they looked to all the world like a group about to go on a Sunday outing. 

Archive photo: D. Mathieson / Frontline Madrid

But this was to be no picnic.  In less than 72 hours more than half the group would be dead or badly wounded.  For the rest, none of their lives would ever be the same again.   The group was soon embroiled in one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish civil war. 

Alongside local Spaniards and thousands of volunteers from other countries, the British were about to be thrown into a conflict which tore Spain apart between 1936-39 and paved the way for the greater clash to come – World War II.

The battle of Jarama was one of the most important actions in the entire Spanish civil war.   The previous summer, in July 1936, four Generals of the Spanish army had declared a military uprising – or golpe de estado. 

The rebels, known as Nationalists, expected to topple the Republican government based in the Madrid with ease and so take control of the entire country.  Their success, however, was patchy.  Many parts of the Spain remained loyal to the Republic including, crucially, Madrid.   

A planned take-over the capital by soldiers from the Montaña barracks (which stood on the site of what is now Templo Debod) simply never took off and Madrid remained firmly in Republican hands. 

Undeterred, nationalist forces led by General Franco fought their way to Madrid and laid siege to the city throughout the late autumn of 1936.  Bitter nationalist assaults on the western side of the Madrid – along the Parque Oeste and campus of the Complutense university – failed to break Republican defences, however and Madrid defied the nationalist attacks under the slogan ‘No Pasarán’.

The Jarama valley: How it looks now. Photo: D. Mathieson 

Weary and frustrated by the lack of success on the western flank of Madrid, General Franco was forced to think again.  Early in 1937 the nationalist army – a force of some 25 000 professional soldiers equipped with the latest weaponry sent by Hitler and Mussolini – launched a massive onslaught to the south east of the city.  Franco’s objective was to cut off the main road between Madrid and Valencia. 

The highway was the capital's umbilical cord – vital supplies of food, fuel and munitions passed along the road from the Mediterranean sea-port to the besieged capital.  A key element in the nationalist plan was to spearhead an attack through the valley of the river Jarama less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Madrid. 

What happened next has entered into the legend of the Spanish civil war and the history of conflict.  The nationalist offensive was halted only in the nick of time and at enormous cost. 

Ranged against Franco’s crack troops was the rump of the Republican army and a few thousand untrained volunteers who had arrived from dozens of different countries to fight for the Spanish Republic. 

Known as the International Brigades and armed with more commitment than experience, they suddenly found themselves were in the vanguard of the forces which struggled to stem the nationalist advance.  Undrilled and overwhelmed they suffered very heavy losses but their line proved tough enough to hold Franco’s forces until reinforcements arrived.  

Today, the Jarama valley is well worth a visit.  The small town used by the Republican commanders as their base, is called Morata de Tajuna and there is a fascinating local museum with artefacts collected over the years from the battlefield in the restaurant Meson el Cid.

The memorial in the Jarama Valley: D. Mathieson / Frontline Madrid

Entry is free and the Meson also does cheap, tasty menu del dia lunches.  Perhaps the best way to find out more about the battle, however, is to take a walk. 

Even today debris from 80 years ago can be found in the surrounding fields and the scars of the war are visible on the hillsides. 

In the quiet olive groves beside the farm tracks some of the volunteers still lie in graves unmarked, where they fell.   It is here that the indomitable spirit of the International Brigadiers can be captured on the breeze from the valley and in the song that immortalised their fight

“There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama

It’s a valley we all know so well

It’s the place where we fought against the Fascists

And saw that peaceful valley turned to hell”

The remains of a bunker in the olive groves of Jarama. Photo: D. Mathieson / Frontline Madrid

Dr David Mathieson is author of Frontline Madrid a guidebook to battlefield sites of the Spanish civil war.  David organizes tours to the Jarama valley and other battlefield sites with full details on


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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner