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Did Spain Send Its Army To Die Uselessly In The Cuban War? The Still Open Wound Of 1898

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When the Cuban Liberation Army undertook the invasion of western Cuba in the fall of 1895, Spain had 96,000 soldiers ready to fight the insurgents. To these were added between 20,000 and 30,000 more Cubans, many of them born in the peninsula, who worked in urban militias as firefighters or guerrillas. And throughout the three years of conflict, we also carried out the second-largest displacement of soldiers in history, after the one carried out by the United States in the Normandy landings during World War II. In total, 200,000 Spaniards to face 40,000 men from the Liberation Army.
If we look at these figures, it is easy to think that the independentists should have been wiped off the map, but they were not, not even before the intervention of the Americans in the last months of the war. “The numbers are misleading, the Spanish army was completely inadequate and practically useless for the type of war that had to be fought in Cuba,” said John Lawrence Tone in “War and genocide in Cuba, 1895-1898” (Turner, 2008).

Since that disaster in which Spain lost its last overseas territories and until today, historians, politicians, and the military have been asking the same questions. Did our government send a disproportionate number of soldiers to certain death? Was it a suicidal act perpetrated by politicians from the comfort of their armchair in Madrid? Was the Army prepared to win a war like that? Were you equipped with what you need to fight in such a different territory and more than 10,000 kilometers away? In the debate, he even entered the cinema. The actor Luis Tosar spoke about it, on the occasion of the premiere, four years ago, of 1898. The last of the Philippines, The film speaks clearly and harshly of the absurdity of war. This is reflected in the younger characters, poor replacement soldiers who come from remote towns in Extremadura or Andalusia and are suddenly seen fighting overseas, without really knowing what hosts they are painting there. They are those things of the great empires.

The controversy was already anticipated by the writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez in February 1895, two weeks before the start of the war, in his article “The Gray Flock”: “If they are disabled, they can learn to play the guitar to ask for charity from any one of those families enriched in Cuba. They may throw two cents at them from their carriages. And he stressed it later, once the conflict was over, in January 1899: «Those unfortunate Spaniards are the only victims of patriotic follies and government errors, as they continue to be victims when they set foot on the Peninsula, and not because of misfortune unavoidable nationals, but by voluntary oversights.

What jingoistic follies did the author of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” refer to? Well, to the alleged lack of foresight of the politicians and the negligence of the Government to prepare the Army as it should for a war like that. The same governor-general of Cuba, Martinez Campos, seeing what was coming to him in the first stages of the war, tried to resign from his position, but they did not let him resign and soon began to show his dejection. “I am sad and tired,” he wrote to the overseas minister. And to President Antonio Cáanovas del Castillo he conveyed a gloomy image of the island’s military and political situation, “My loyal and sincere opinion is that before twelve years we will have another war.” But they ignored him.

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Lawrence also argues that, in addition to lacking effective leadership, the morale of the Spanish soldiers was low and their training inadequate. But what he most regretted is that they were continually ill. “Between February 1895 and August 1898, just over 41,000 Spanish soldiers, 22% of the Cuban army, died of the disease. For comparison, only 3% of the US forces sent to the island in 1898 died for this reason, while in the Liberation Army, only 1,321 men, according to official figures compiled by the Minister of War, Carlos Roloff  counts in his book. In November 1895, when the independence leaders Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez began their march to the east, about 20,000 men, just over 20% of the Spanish forces at that time, were prostrate in hospital and clinic beds by malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and dysentery, among other diseases. In this way, the 96,000 soldiers who made up the Spanish Army in Cuba in the fall of 1895 were reduced to less than 66,000, many of whom were not in a position to fight either.

And in 1898, virtually all Spanish soldiers had spent some time hospitalized and out of combat.The Nobel Prize, In this sense, Santiago Ramón y Cajal also recalled in his memoirs the unfortunate conditions that the Spanish had to endure in the Cuban War, where he spent his youth as a doctor. He spoke of camps set up in the middle of swamps, of stagnant pools of water that were left as is next to cots and hammocks, and of the omnipresent mosquitoes. “We were also mortified by an army of fleas, cockroaches, and ants. The wave of parasitic life enveloped us threateningly ”, described the Nobel Prize in Medicine, who traveled to the island hoping to find an earthly paradise, but came out of it considering it“ uninhabitable.

To alleviate this suffering, Army engineers built dozens of hospitals and field clinics, but doctors were overwhelmed with work and lacked adequate medicines and supplies to treat such a large number of patients. They did not even have good medical protocols to treat some diseases, which made the treatment itself fatal on many occasions. “Also, the moment doctors were discharging patients, the Army would bring them back to the front line, a practice that also had deadly consequences,” says Lawrence.

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This historian emphasizes that the famous ill health of the Spanish troops was not exclusively due to the climate or the state of medical science at that time, but, above all, to the negligence of the Government and the Army commands. In the first place, because the private did not receive even the minimum rations of food, which was limited most of the time to a little boiled white rice. And secondly, because the pay that corresponded to them to fight rarely reached them. “Besides,” he adds, “recruits from the lowest strata of Spanish society were not usually very robust, and in Cuba, they quickly lost what little body fat and energy reserves they might have.

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There are many researchers who have wondered throughout these 120 years why Spain did not foresee this disaster before and put a stop to it if it had enough information to do so. In fact, given the economic problems and the political history of Cuba, the uprising and the declaration of independence of Baire, on February 24, 1895, should not have surprised the Spanish. The island’s captain-general, Emilio Calleja, had already expected a movement of this nature before. For months, officials had been warning him of the possibility of a landing of Cuban emigres armed, to the teeth, to support a major rebellion.

Proof of this is an event that occurred in the United States. On January 8, 1895, a Florida coast guard boarded three ships hired to transport expedition members and weapons to Cuba. These had been hired to take Maximo Gomez and other important exile leaders to different points on the coast, where armed groups awaited their arrival to start the uprising. Calleja, therefore, knew that something important was about to happen, but made no effort to stop it: not patrolling the coast, not breaking into revolutionary clubs, or arresting the more well-known activists.

Juan Gualberto Gomez, the man in charge of leading the uprising in the Havana region, continued to brandish his pen against the Spanish regime until the very moment he took up arms to confront it. The newspaper ‘La Protesta’, linked to the revolutionary leaders, published revolutionary slogans in the days prior to the Baire events. Men close to Calleja maintained close ties with Manuel García, a famous bandit and patriot known as the “king of the Cuban fields,” who kidnapped Spanish and pro-Spanish Cubans and handed them over to the insurgency. But, meanwhile, the captain-general of Cuba apologized to the captured rebels and insisted that he did not need Madrid’s help, despite the fact that his troops were in a sorry state. The rebellion prospered because Spain was not in a position to respond. The Spanish army in Cuba previously had less than 14,000 soldiers, of which only 7,000 were able to fight. The rest were ill or had been separated by their superiors to work on the large plantations or on the ranches. The Spanish government in Havana, far from what was expected of a regime with a reputation for brutality, reacted with surprising parsimony, both before and after the Grito de Baire. That allowed the insurgency to gain momentum, “explains the American historian.

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At the time, Calleja’s critics attributed his inaction to stupidity and laziness. Worse still, to complicity with the Cuban insurgents, but he was not to rule with an iron fist and also believed that a series of reforms would prevent the bloodbath. “That indolence earned Calleja the reproach of his contemporaries for not having seen the insurrection coming or willing to accept the imminence of war. The captain-general’s reaction was anything but determined. Of course, it did not occur to him to annihilate the insurrection. On the other hand, it did not seem at all necessary to act while in the metropolis the reformist aspirations of the island were debated, taking into account that the small insurgent groups of Matanzas and Port-au-Prince had been quickly neutralized, ”commented Andreas Stucki in Cuba. Violence and concentration camps (1868-1898) (La Esfera de Los Libros, 2017).

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In the opinion of this historian as well, the Spanish troops were poorly trained, insufficiently supplied, and with considerable difficulties since the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). A deficiency that was not only manifested in his fight against the Cuban mounted infantry. In many places, it was the climate and ignorance of the terrain that caused them so many headaches, also due to the lack of local guides, which are very difficult to recruit, and the deficient cartographic material. “For the Spanish officers, the limited combat capacity of the troops was explained by poor coordination and by the decision to spread the detachments throughout the country to carry out police work,” he concludes. As Blasco Ibáñez pointed out, hell did not end there.

The Spanish soldiers who were lucky enough to survive the war and return to Spain –after a hellish journey of two weeks, all crammed into ships with hardly any food or drink, mixed healthy and sick and with hardly any health care– had to suffer another Another ordeal: that of his social and labor reintegration in a country in serious difficulties. Many became invalid, unable to return to their jobs tilling the fields or bending the olives. It was like going back to poverty and the government could not give an answer to it. They were not aware of the social problem that was coming upon them. When they left, they gave them everything: money, tobacco, wine, scapulars. And on the way back, not even good morning “, the Aragonese historian Javier Navarro, founder of the association” Return with Honor “, explains to ABC. identify the more than 58,000 deaths that the Cuban War produced.

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