Photo by Gerda Taro © 2002 International Center of Photography
Robert Capa at the Segovia Front, May 1937
On the morning of Saturday, September 5th 1936, General José Varela was preparing to direct his forces against those of his opposite number on the Loyalist side, General José Miaja. With the Spanish Civil War barely two months old, the battlefield was still a place of rapid movements with quick victories, not yet the terrible war of attrition with its attendant miseries of muddy trenches, prolonged exposure and disease.
Miaja had been threatening the small Nationalist garrison in Córdoba, concentrating his army on La Loma de Las Malagueñas, a hill some 15 kilometres east of the city. His 3,000 men, although largely an untrained workers’ militia, should have been sufficient to guarantee success against the city’s defenders. However, indecision allowed Varela to reinforce the garrison in Córdoba, consolidate his position and go on the offensive in early September 1936.
Varela’s Nationalists engaged the Loyalist forces sometime during the afternoon of September 5th, breaking off action for the night and continuing at dawn, taking all their objectives by 10am. The action did not change the course of the war, nor was it remarkable for any brilliant military manoeuvre. Around 10 Nationalists died while an estimated 120 Loyalists were killed, some low-grade military equipment was captured and the defeated militias made off in the direction of Madrid.
Known as the Battle of Cerro Muriano, after a small mining village in the vicinity of La Malageuñas, it was to become famous because of one photograph. In the time it took to activate the shutter, perhaps 500th of a second, history was made. Most commonly titled ‘Death of a Loyalist’, or ‘The Fallen Soldier’, it has been published under many names. The photograph depicts a CNT (National Confederation of Labour) militiaman at the moment of his death, apparently shot by a sniper. The photographer was the young Hungarian Robert Capa, who, along with his German girlfriend and colleague Gerda Taro, was recording the war out of deep anti-fascist sentiment, moving from front to front, hoping to document a Loyalist victory.
The photograph is one of the great shots of the 20th century, an eloquent memorialising of a tragic death. The Picture Post declared Capa the greatest war photographer of all time and the photograph became an icon of the conflict, spoken about in the same breath as Picasso’s Guernica.
Then, in 1972, the magazine Fotografia Italiana printed a layout of pictures taken with Capa’s Leica camera, which included the ‘Fallen Soldier’ photograph. The famous photo appeared first. Further on in the sequence was an image of soldiers waving their rifles, as if in triumph, and one of these individuals bears a striking resemblance to the fallen soldier. His facial features, shirt colour, ammunition pouches and a distinctive pouch worn across his left shoulder are all identical to those of the fallen Loyalist. The magazine suggested that Capa had asked this fighter to pretend to be a man shot by a sniper; the response was that the negatives could have been printed in reverse order. The negatives, including that of ‘Fallen Soldier’, have since been lost, making it impossible to confirm Fotografia Italiana’s print order; all subsequent prints of the photograph have been made from a copy negative. If the original negatives are eventually discovered in some long-forgotten dusty archive, a further twist in the saga of Capa’s most recognised image is promised.
The authenticity of the photograph was challenged again, in 1975, by O.D. Gallagher, a South African-born journalist who in 1936 was in the employ of the British Daily Express newspaper. (Editorially, the paper was not a supporter of the Loyalist cause in those early days of the War.) Gallagher said in an interview that he and Capa had been in San Sebastián covering improvised manoeuvres by the Nationalists when the photograph was supposedly taken. But the picture was taken on September 5th, when San Sebastián was still in Loyalist hands, not falling to the Nationalists until the 13th. Besides which, Capa was not interested in covering Nationalist manouevres; he had been on the run from various fascist authorities since he was 17.
Then there are those who can place Capa in the vicinity of Cerro Muriano on that September afternoon in 1936. Bruno Gómez Obrero, café owner and local historian, was born in the village in 1939, and has lived there all of his life. He knows its topography, history and people. Bruno’s father lived in the village during the Civil War, making certain that his memories of those dark and dangerous days were passed on to his son and so perpetuated.
Bruno tells his father’s story in the matter-of-fact way of all historians—dates, places, events. His father recalled the two photographers with a small party of CNT militia in the village, an easy walk from the main Loyalist positions on La Malageuñas. The group were in the area of the Rio Tinto copper mine, on a bank overlooking the track to La Malageuñas. Bruno stated that this was on the day the sniping from the Nationalists started. Varela’s right column was on the heights of the Clavellinas hill at 5.30am on September 5th, 10 kilometres from the village.
This puts Capa and Taro in the right place at the right time, and with the right side. Bruno reiterated the fact that there was no full-scale battle around the village, only sniping until the Loyalist retreat the next morning. Some of the pictures show relaxed and unconcerned soldiers, while others show civilians fleeing in panic towards nearby Pozoblanco—the atmosphere certainly changed from one moment to the next. Perhaps that is when the CNT militiaman was dropped by a Nationalist bullet. Bruno’s account appears accurate in all the verifiable points, and there is little reason to doubt his positioning of Capa and Taro on September 5th, 1936.
Robert Capa’s Civil War photographs depict people affected by the conflict, and when the viewer sees the pain and anguish on their faces, they live again through the brilliance of his photography. If the ‘Fallen Soldier’ photograph is ultimately found to have been staged, which seems unlikely, it will still not diminish the impact and mastery of the bulk of his work.