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Reporting America At War
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Richard Harding Davis
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The Reporters

MARTHA GELLHORN:
High Explosive for Everyone

Madrid, July 1937

At first the shells went over: you could hear the thud as they left the Fascists' guns, a sort of groaning cough; then you heard them fluttering toward you. As they came closer the sound went faster and straighter and sharper and then, very fast, you heard the great booming noise when they hit.

But now, for I don't know how long — because time didn't mean much — they had been hitting on the street in front of the hotel, and on the corner, and to the left in the side street. When the shells hit that close, it was a different sound. The shells whistled toward you — it was as if they whirled at you — faster than you could imagine speed, and, spinning that way, they whined: the whine rose higher and quicker and was a close scream — and then they hit and it was like granite thunder. There wasn't anything to do, or anywhere to go: you could only wait. But waiting alone in a room that got dustier and dustier as the powdered cobblestones of the street floated into it was pretty bad.

I went downstairs into the lobby, practicing on the way how to breathe. You couldn't help breathing strangely, just taking the air into your throat and not being able to inhale it.

It seemed a little crazy to be living in a hotel, like a hotel in Des Moines or New Orleans, with a lobby and wicker chairs in the lounge, and signs on the door of your room telling you that they would press your clothes immediately and that meals served privately cost ten percent more, and meantime it was like a trench when they lay down an artillery barrage. The whole place trembled to the explosion of the shells.

The concierge was in the lobby and he said, apologetically, "I regret this, Mademoiselle. It is not pleasant. I can guarantee you that the bombing in November was worse. However, it is regrettable."

I said yes, indeed, it was not very nice, was it? He said that perhaps I had better take a room in the back of the house, which might be safer. On the other hand, the rooms were not so agreeable; there was less air. I said of course there wouldn't be so much air. Then we stood in the lobby and listened.

You could only wait. All over Madrid, for fifteen days now, people had been waiting. You waited for the shelling to start, and for it to end, and for it to start again. It came from three directions, at any time, without warning and without purpose. Looking out the door, I saw people standing in doorways all around the square, just standing there patiently, and then suddenly a shell landed, and there was a fountain of granite cobblestones flying up into the air, and the silver lyddite smoke floated off softly.

A little Spaniard with a lavender shirt, a ready-made bow tie and bright brown eyes was standing in the door watching this with interest. There was also no reason for the shells to stay out of the hotel. They could land inside that door as well as anywhere else. Another shell hit, halfway across the street, and a window broke gently and airily, making a lovely tinkling musical sound.

I was watching the people in the other doorways, as best I could, watching those immensely quiet, stretched faces. You had a feeling you had been waiting here forever, and yesterday you felt the same way. The little Spaniard said to me, "You don't like it?"

"No."

"Nothing," he said. "It is nothing. It will pass. In any case, you can only die once."

"Yes," I said, but without enthusiasm.

We stood there a moment, and there was silence. Before this the shells had been falling once a minute.

"Well," he said. "I think that is all. I have work to do. I am a serious man. I cannot spend my time waiting for shells. Salud," he said, and walked out calmly into the street, and calmly crossed it.

Seeing him, some other men decided the shelling was finished too, and presently people were crossing that square, which now was pock-marked with great round holes, and littered with broken cobblestones and glass. An old woman with a market basket on her arm hurried down a side street. And two boys came around the corner, arm in arm, singing.

I went back to my room, and again suddenly there came that whistle-whine-scream-roar and the noise was in your throat and you couldn't feel or hear or think and the building shook and seemed to settle. Outside in the hall, the maids were calling to one another, like birds, in high excited voices. The concierge ran upstairs looking concerned and shaking his head. On the floor above, we went into a room in which the lyddite smoke still hung mistily. There was nothing left in that room, the furniture was kindling wood, the walls were stripped and in places torn open, a great hole led into the next room and the bed was twisted iron and stood upright and silly against the wall.

"Oh, my," the concierge said miserably.

"Look, Conchita," one of the maids said to the other; "look at the hole there is in 219 too."

"Oh," one of the younger maids said, "imagine, it has also spoiled the bathroom in 218."

The journalist who lived in that room had left for London the day before.

"Well," the concierge said, "there is nothing to do. It is very regrettable."

The maids went back to work. An aviator came down from the fifth floor. He said it was disgusting; he had two days leave and this sort of thing went on. Moreover, he said, a shell fragment had hit his room and broken all his toilet articles. It was inconsiderate; it wasn't right. He would now go out and have a beer. He waited at the door for a shell to land, and ran across the square, reaching the café across the street just before the next shell. You couldn't wait forever; you couldn't be careful all day.

Later, you could see people around Madrid examining the new shell holes with curiosity and wonder. Otherwise they went on with the routine of their lives, as if they had been interrupted by a heavy rainstorm but nothing more. In a café which was hit in the morning, where three men were killed sitting at a table reading their morning papers and drinking coffee, the clients came back in the afternoon. You went to Chicote's bar at the end of the day, walking up the street which was No Man's Land, where you could hear the shells whistling even when there was silence, and the bar was crowded as always. On the way you had passed a dead horse and a very dead mule, chopped with shell fragments, and you had passed crisscrossing trails of human blood on the pavement.

You would be walking down a street, hearing only the city noises of streetcars and automobiles and people calling to one another, and suddenly, crushing it all out, would be the huge stony deep booming of a falling shell, at the corner. There was no place to run, because how did you know that the next shell would not be behind you, or ahead, or to the left or right? And going indoors was fairly silly too, considering what shells can do to a house.

So perhaps you went into a store because that was what you had intended doing before all this started. Inside a shoe shop, five women are trying on shoes. Two girls are buying summery sandals, sitting by the front window of the shop. After the third explosion, the salesman says politely: "I think we had better move farther back into the shop. The window might break and cut you."

Women are standing in line, as they do all over Madrid, quiet women, dressed usually in black, with market baskets on their arms, waiting to buy food. A shell falls across the square. They turn their heads to look, and move a little closer to the house, but no one leaves her place in line.

After all, they have been waiting there for three hours and the children expect food at home.

In the Plaza Major, the shoeblacks stand around the edges of the square, with their little boxes of creams and brushes, and passers-by stop and have their shoes polished as they read a paper or gossip together. When the shells fall to heavily, the shoeblacks pick up their boxes and retreat a little way into a side street.

So now the square is empty, though people are leaning close against the houses around it, and the shells are falling so fast that there is almost no time between them to hear them coming, only the steady roaring as they land on the granite cobblestones.

Then for a moment it stops. An old woman, with a shawl over her shoulders, holding a terrified thin little boy by the hand, runs out into the square. You know what she is thinking: she is thinking she must get the child home, you are always safer in your own place, with the things you know. Somehow you do not believe you can get killed when you are sitting in your own parlor, you never think that. She is in the middle of the square when the next one comes.

A small piece of twisted steel, hot and very sharp, sprays off from the shell; it takes the little boy in the throat. The old woman stands there, holding the hand of the dead child, looking at him stupidly, not saying anything, and men run out toward her to carry the child. At their left, at the side of the square, is a huge brilliant sign which says: GET OUT OF MADRID.

* * *

No one lived here anymore because there was nothing left to live in, and besides the trenches were only two blocks away, and there was another front, in the Casa de Campo, down to the left. Stray bullets droned over the streets, and a stray is just as dangerous as any other kind of bullet if it hits you. You walked past the street barricades, past the ruined houses and the only sound you heard was a machine gun hammering in University City, and a bird.

It was a little like walking in the country, over gutted country roads, and the street barricades made it all seem very strange, and the houses were like scenery in a war movie; it seemed impossible that houses could really be like that.

We were going to visit a janitor who lived in this section; he and his family. They were the only people here, except the soldiers who guarded the barricades. His name was Pedro.

Pedro lived in a fine apartment house; he had been the janitor and caretaker for eight years. In November a bomb fell on the roof; Pedro and his family had been in their tiny basement apartment when the bomb hit, and they were all safe. They saw no reason to move. They were used to living there, and in time of war a basement is more desirable than in time of peace.

They showed us their building with pride. We went into a marble hall, past an elevator, through a mahogany front door, and were in a room that was all dust and broken plaster. Looking up, for eight stories, you could see the insides of all the apartments in that building. The bomb had fallen squarely, and now only the outside walls remained. There was a very fine bathroom on the seventh floor, and the tub was hanging into space by its pipes. A cabinet with china in it stood on the fourth floor, and all the china was in neat unbroken piles. The concierge's two little daughters played in this destruction as children play in an empty lot, or in caves they have found beside a river.

We sat in their underground apartment, with the lights burning, and talked. They said yes, of course, it was difficult to get food, but then it was difficult for everyone and they had never really been hungry. Yes, the bombing had been very bad, but they had just waited in the basement and finally it had stopped. The only trouble, they said, was that the children couldn't go to school because the school had been bombed, and it was impossible to let the children go all the way across Madrid to another school, because bullets whined up past the street barricades at the end of their block and they couldn't risk having the children hurt.

Juanita remarked that she didn't like school anyhow very much, she wanted to be an artist and it was better to sit at home and paint. She had been copying a picture — with crayons on wrapping paper — of a very elegant Spanish gentleman whose portrait hung on the wall of a ruined first-floor apartment in their building.

Mrs. Pedro said it was wonderful now, women could have careers in Spain, did I know about that? That was since the Republic. "We are very in favor of the Republic," she said. "I think Maria may be able to get training as a doctor. Isn't it fine? Can women be doctors in North America?"

* * *

I always got a shock from the Palace Hotel, because it had a concierge's desk and a sign saying "Coiffeur on the First Floor," and another sign saying how beautiful Majorca was and they had a hotel to recommend there. The Palace Hotel had its old furniture, but it smelled of ether and was crowded with bandaged men. It is the first military hospital of Madrid now. I went around to the operating room, which used to be the reading room.

There were bloody stretchers piled in the hall, but it was quiet this afternoon. The Empire bookcases, where they used to keep dull reading for the hotel guests, were now used for bandages and hypodermic needles and surgical instruments, and there were brilliant lights in the cut-glass chandeliers to make operating easier. The nurse on duty told me about the men on the sixth floor and I went up to see them.

The room was full of sun. There were four men. One of them was sitting with his leg up on a chair; it was in plaster. He had on a red blouse and was sitting in profile. Beside him, a man with a beret was working quietly, drawing his portrait in pastels. The two other men were in bed. One of them I tried not to look at. The other one was quiet and pale and looked tired. Once or twice he smiled, but did not speak. He had a bad chest wound.

The man in the red blouse was a Hungarian; his knee had been smashed by a piece of shell. He was handsome and very polite and refused politely to talk about his wound because it was of no importance. He was alive, he was very lucky, the doctors were fine and his knee would probably get well. At any rate, he would be able to limp. He wanted to talk about his friend who was making his portrait. "Jaime," he said, "is a fine artist. Look how well he works. He always wanted to be an artist but he never had so much time before."

Jaime smiled and went on; he was working very close to the paper, stopping now and again and peering at the man in the red blouse. His eyes looked a little strange, filmed over and dim. I said it was a fine portrait, a great likeness, and he thanked me. A little later someone called him and he left and then the man in the red blouse said, "He was wounded in the head; he covers it with the beret. His eyes are not very good; they are very bad, really. He does not see much. We ask him to paint pictures of us to keep him busy and make him think he still sees well. Jaime never complains about it."

I said, softly, "What happened to that boy over there."

"He's an aviator."

He was blond and young, with a round face. There was nothing left except the eyes. He had been shot down in his plane and burned, but he had been wearing goggles and that saved his sight. His face and hands were a hard brown thick scab, and his hands were enormous; there were no lips, only the scab. The worst was that his pain was so great he couldn't sleep.

Then a soldier I knew, a Pole, came in, and said, "Listen, Dominie in room 507 has some mimosa. A whole big branch of it. Do you want to come up and see it? He says it grows all around where he lives in Marseille. I never saw any flowers like that before."

* * *

Every once in a while the actors would stop talking and wait; shells were exploding down the street in the Plaza Major and to the right of the Gran Via and when they hit too close you couldn't hear the lines of the play, so they waited. It was a benefit performance on Sunday morning; it was to make money for the hospitals.

An amateur had written the play and amateurs directed, costumed and acted it; it couldn't' have been more amateur. The audience was delighted; it was a dramatic play, all about the moral and psychological crisis of a young man who decided not to enter the priesthood. The audience thought it was terribly funny and laughed with great good will at the emotional places.

The hero came out, after the curtain rang down, and said he was sorry he'd forgotten his lines that way but he hadn't had time to memorize them. He'd been in the trenches near Garabitas until just a few hours ago (everyone knew an attack had been going on there for two days), and so he couldn't memorize things.

The audience applauded and shouted that it was quite all right; they didn't care anyhow. Then he said he had written a poem up there in the trenches and he would like to recite it. He did. It rolled and tossed and was full of enormous big words and remarkable rhymes and his gestures were excellent and when he was through the audience cheered him and he looked very happy. He was a nice boy, if not a brilliant poet, and they knew he had been in a bad piece of trench, and they liked plays and theaters, even bad plays and even theaters just down the street from where the shells were landing.

* * *

Every night, lying in bed, you can hear the machine guns in University City, just ten blocks away. Every once in a while you can hear the dull, heavy explosion of a trench mortar. When the shells wake you, you think first that it is thunder. If they are not too close, you do not really wake.

You know that in November there were black Junker planes flying over and dropping bombs, that all winter long there was no fuel and the days were cold and the nights were colder, you know that food is scarce, and that all these people have sons and husbands and sweethearts at the front somewhere. And now they are living in a city where you take your chances and hope your chances are good. You have seen no panic, no hysteria, you have heard no hate talk. You know they have the kind of faith which makes courage and a fine future. You have no right to be disturbed. There are no lights anywhere and the city itself is quiet. The sensible thing is to go back to sleep.


Copyright © 1937, Martha Gellhorn. Reprinted with permission of the Martha Gellhorn estate. Originally published in Collier's, 1937.

Photo: Martha Gellhorn talks to children in Madrid Reporter's Notebook
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