Although city blocks peek over its walls, Huelva´s Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) cemetery is serene and beautifully maintained. The cool shadow of a lone cypress tree is draped over the grave of ‘The Man Who Never Was’, identified by an amateur historian as Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant Welsh alcoholic who ingested rat poisoning and died of chemical pneumonia.
But it has since been claimed that he was another man - the victim of a fatal accident onboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier. Because dense secrecy surrounded the real identity of ‘Major William Martin’ it retains an enduring and beguiling hint of mystery.
Also puzzling is why he was not buried in the adjacent cementerio británico (British cemetery). It was the first place in which I searched for his grave two years ago but a wild and thick tangle of tall vegetation obscured graves and made exploration difficult. Intrigued by the little I was able to discover I made a second visit earlier this year. There had been an attempt to tame the rampaging undergrowth and although now permanently locked-up and badly neglected, a straggle of surviving tree and shrub species suggest the cemetery was once well cared for.
The partial clearance enabled me to discover the military gravestones of two airmen, one British and the other Australian. Both died on the 19th April 1942. One was 21 years of age and, according to an inscription, ‘for honour, liberty and truth he sacrificed his glorious youth’. The other was 27 years of age. The headstones appear to be of the standard War Graves Commission type, an organisation which usually preserves war graves in immaculate condition. But these burial places had long been abandoned to the whims of nature and vandals.
I wondered who these young men were. Where had they come from? How had they died? And why were they buried in a Huelva cemetery? It is ironic that they share their last resting places with those of Germans who had lived and worked harmoniously alongside Britons. As well as the graves of Britons, and their children, who died in the service of the Rio Tinto Mining Company, several bear German names as there was a strong German connection to the mining company.
Someone had placed artificial flowers on the airmen’s headstones. And on each occasion I have visited the grave of ‘The Man Who Never Was’ a bunch of artificial flowers has been replaced with new ones. Cemetery attendants could only tell me that the mysterious visitor is a woman. What, I asked myself, has inspired this touching display of compassion towards long-dead strangers?
On the wall behind these graves is a plaque commemorating a Royal Navy sailor who died on 14th December 1918 aged 24 - a futile token of remembrance to one more forgotten victim.
On entering or leaving the British cemetery, it is easy to walk pass the bullet-scarred exterior of the gates and walls, also lightly daubed with faded political graffiti, without recognising them as tangible and moving evidence of Huelva province’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Against these walls, between 1936 and 1941, hundreds of republican sympathisers and activists from across the province, many whose identity remain a mystery, were executed by firing squads.
The executions followed the defeat of the republican forces in Huelva. From the start of the war in mainland Spain on 18 July until19 September 1936 when the province was completely subdued and occupied by nationalist forces, Huelva was ensnared in a gruesome spiral of violence.
Miners throughout the province mobilized in defence of the republican government’s cause. At Rio Tinto, La Zarza and Corrales they converted vehicles into armoured cars and made grenades and other accoutrements of war. A column of armed Rio Tinto miners on their way to recapture Sevilla were routed. Twenty Five were killed, and most of the rest wounded or taken prisoner. Two truckloads of Tharsis miners, also headed for Sevilla, failed to arrive due to a muddle and returned home in disarray. Soon after, two Royal Navy destroyers evacuated British women and children to Gibraltar.
In Huelva city a convent and church were set ablaze and the houses of Rio Tinto Spanish staff dynamited. Right-wing prisoners held in coal hulks in the harbour were being put to death up until the time nationalist forces seized the town on 29 July when the army, in its turn, immediately began trying and executing republicans.
Elsewhere in the province churches were ransacked and burned and middle class houses destroyed. In one incident 22 people died in the flames or were shot trying to escape. An attempt by miners to capture the Civil Guards barracks at Tharsis was driven off. Nationalist forces entered the village the following day, imprisoning 280 miners. At about the same time Corrales was captured and more arrests made. Executions of republicans, including the mayor of Tharsis, began at once.
At Valverde del Camino Rio Tinto miners attacked a temporary army base. Forty of them were killed, many more wounded and the attack abandoned. Following five days of heavy aerial, artillery and mortar bombardment, the defenders of the Rio Tinto mines surrendered to nationalist forces on 26 August.
With the collapse of republican resistance, the army exacted a bloody vengeance and were determined to eradicate any potential republican resurgence. No village in the province, however small, was exempt from courts martial and summary executions. Day after day there were arrests. Men at work in the mines or workshops were taken in to custody and executed.
According to the book ‘La Guerra Civil en Huelva’ (The Civil War in Huelva) published in 1996, executions exceeded 5,400, the victims being women, students, labourers and business owners among others, whose ages ranged from 16 through to the late 60's. Many more died in the provincial prison or while fighting.
In the cemetery office the names of those shot against the wall of the British cemetery are recorded in several disintegrating hard-backed exercise books. Dusty and held together with brown paper tape they indicate, in fading ink, the causes of death as being, for example, ‘haemorrhage’ or ‘tuberculosis’. They also show that the victims were buried in an unmarked common grave in the Spanish cemetery.
A simple but prominent and dignified memorial has since been erected on the site. Tall cypress trees enclose it and a tablet, which seems to erupt from the Andalucian soil, bears the inscription “El Ayuntamiento de Huelva. A los que Murieron por la libertad, 1936-1941” (‘The City Council of Huelva. To those who died for freedom, 1936-1941’).
The war still has the power to arouse and drive emotions deep enough to propel foreigners and Spaniards alike into passionate arguments for or against the republican or nationalist causes. But standing alone in the penetrating stillness of the graveyard and with the lengthening March shadows closing around me, definitive argument dissolved under an overwhelming and indefinable sense of how utterly mysterious life is. The often quoted words of John Donne, the 17th century English poet, came unsummoned to mind: “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”