The Iron Column (Columna de Hierro)

Anarchist militia column raised in Valencia (Las Salesas) in 1936; it was particularly feared by a variety of communists and reactionaries and none too well-liked by the CNT leadership because of its ideological staunchness and commitment to social revolution and libertarian communism. It grew out of the banding together of anarchist assault forces (from the CNT, FAI and FIJL) that stormed the barracks in Valencia. These original numbers were made up entirely of the most tried and tested, steadfast components of Valencian anarchism (the most uncompromising CNT and FAI personnel: according to some sources, the more moderate members favoured the Torres-Benedito Column). It was organised into centuries which tended to be trades-based (which is to say, specialising in health and cleaning, transport, metalworking) and which - unlike in other columns - were not amalgamated into agrupaciones [groups of 5 centuries] but each sent a delegate of its own to the column’s War Committee. Initially 12,000 enlisted but there were weapons for only 3,000. The first poorly armed eight centuries set off from Valencia on 8 August 1936, with a clear idea in mind: war and revolution were one and the same. Shortly after the column was launched it equipped itself with a War Committee, plus ancillary services, and membership of these included José Pellicer, Montoya, Pascual Rodilla, Ángel Gómez de la Higuera, Rafael Martí, Morell, Serna, Rufino, Elías Manzanera, Gumbau, José Segarra, Dolz and Canet, plus servicemen Pérez Salas and Gallego and the commanders of the various centuries. That October a radio station (run by José Segarra and Cortés) was added to its resources. The number of fighters rose to 15,000, joined later (despite the difficulties placed in the way by the government and the CNT’s national leadership) by a further three thousand: several hundred inmates freed by the libertarians themselves joined up and together they all headed for the Teruel front (Barracas, Sarrión, Puebla de Valverde), manning Valencia’s defensive position between Andeguela and Formiche), barring the fascist advance (on 12 August 1936 they defeated the Carlist columns venturing out of Teruel under Cívera and Pérez del Hoyo) and settled in Sarrión, shortly afterwards capturing La Puebla de Valverde and moving on to the fortified Puerto de Escandón less than twenty kilometers from Teruel where, like Durruti in Zaragoza province, they dug in and set up their lines. The column positioned itself southeast of Castralvo with 2,000 men and a battery (machine-guns, mortars and two armoured vehicles): they established libertarian communism in that area (radiating outwards from Sarrión and Mora de Rubielos). The column had two mouthpieces, one called Línea de Fuego (a daily from September 1936 on) and another in Valencia called Nosotros (which also served as the organ of the FAI and FIJL). The column quickly earned great notoriety for its rabid anarchism which prevented it from countenancing pro-collaboration and compromise views, on which grounds its was vilified (especially by the Stalinists of the Spanish CP). In October 1936 it issued an exceptionally inflexible manifesto in which, after rebutting the slander campaigns mounted by reactionary infiltrators and “antifascists”, it called for the Civil Guard to be disarmed and disbanded, for the armed State corps in the rearguard (carabineers, Assault Guards and Security Guards) to be dispatched to the front immediately as well as for the destruction of the records and files of capitalist and state institutions. This manifesto went beyond mere words because shortly after that the column started to put it into practice. Further confirmation of its extraordinarily libertarian purism was its spectacular objection to the CNT’s entry into the government (November 1936). Shortly after that, as rumours began to spread of militarisation of the militias, the Iron Column’s delegates articulated its total opposition to this (at a plenum in November 1936 one of its delegates rejected imposition of the militarisation plan over the heads of the militias): the column was undergoing an overhaul and so in December 1936, it carried out a restructuring in accordance with the militias’ wishes (into groups of 10, three-groups per section, 110-member centuries, banded together into 1,000-man divisions, divisions grouped into sectors), in accordance with a resolution signed by Pellicer appointing a new War Committee (made up of Pellicer, Segarra, Cortés, Espí, González and Montoya, with Morell, Quiles, Serna and Gumbau heading up the sections, and with Rufino, Villarroya, Navarro, Sanchís, Rafael Alonso and Mármol as divisional delegates - shortly thereafter reshuffled into a line-up made up of Montoya, Rufino, Serna, Espí, Rodilla, José Pellicer, Peñarrocha, Canet, Gomez, Dolz, Morell, Diego, Manzanera, Cortés, Segarra, Quiles and Pedro Pellicer). In January 1937 it sponsored a get-together of all the confederal militias in Valencia, at which the Tierra y Libertad and Iron Columns were alone in opposing the government’s militarisation plans. From January 1937 on, the Iron Column was virtually on its own in keeping the anti-militarisation flag flying (at around this time, seeing that many CNT militants were backing militarisation, personnel were starting to jump ship) but there was a palpable feeling that the race to militarisation was unstoppable: a report from the column’s War Committee that month bluntly summed up its choices as “disbandment of the column or militarisation”. Two months after that the central government, with the acquiescence of the reformist leadership of the CNT and FAI, issued an ultimatum: the militias on the Teruel front would fall under the oversight of the Ministry of War which appointed Benedito as commander and it would also start to act upon the December 1936 regulations (which stated that funding to un-militarised units was to be terminated). The government’s note outraged the vast majority of the column who, as a sign of protest, agreed to quit the front, leading to clashes in the rearguard (in Burriana,Vinalesa and Alfara) with the state’s apparatus of repression, resulting in the arrest of nearly a hundred militians,forcing the War Committee to issue a statement declaringthat the column“was asking to be relieved, but has neither disbanded nor militarised”. By mid-March 1937, the column had largely been disbanded, very many of its militians having quit and this was the backdrop to an Assembly held in Valencia on 21 March which opted for militarisation as the lesser evil (albeit with a lot of protests): shortly after which, the remaining 4,000 militians (out of a total of nearly 20,000) were converted into the 83rd Mixed Brigade under the command of Pellicer, with Segarra as political commissar (the staunchest anti-militarists - Pellicer, Segarra, Cortés, Rodilla and Ángel Gómez were awarded high ranks). This, along with the 58th and 59th Mixed Brigades made up the 41st Division under Colonel Eixea. In May 1937 the Brigade set off for Benicarló and relieved the Espana Libre unit in Moscardó, where it was attacked from the rear (24 July 1937) sustaining heavy losses, as a result of which it had to be relieved: it was reorganised in Tejadillos (in Cuenca) and took part in the Teruel offensive (December 1937), resisting the Francoist onslaught on Morella before making for Castellón where it was halted and had to undergo reorganisation in Libras. Later, in March 1939, it set off for Madrid to support Mera and Casado and saw out the war in Alcalá under the command of Mares. Before the column disbanded its assets were shared around rationalist schools, CNT field hospitals, anarchist prisoners’ aid and propaganda and cultural activities. In short, it was a purely anarchist column, for which reason it came under frequent attack from its natural enemies (the communists and the right) and from “circumstantialists” (high-ranking CNT and FAI committees, the CNT National Committee, the FAI Peninsular Committee, the Valencian CNT Regional Committee), all of which made much of the presence of ex-cons in its ranks (actually, there were not that many, nor, of course, were they all that vicious). Furthermore, it should be remembered that when the column’s War Committee learnt that armed gangs purporting to be from the column were engaged in looting, it had them arrested and executed. Apparently, at a point when the counter-revolution and the state’s recovery were gratifying even to certain CNT personnel, the Iron Column was a real nuisance.

From: Revised entry for his Historical Encyclopaedia of Spanish Anarchism, unpublished.. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.