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Ghosts of Mount Urgull


Friday, 29 July 2011


Forgotten and all but forsaken in a resting place far from home

'Existence had become a tunnel whose walls were death and within which prevailed no hope of rescue or deliverance. The sky had ceased to be, and the sun and stars. All that remained was the earth, the churned riven dirt which seemed to wait at each man's feet to receive his spilling guts, his shattered bones, his blood, his life'…

Current state of the monument's sculpture

Current state of the monument's sculpture

Sorry to give you the horrors, but Gates of Fire, the epic novel by Steven Pressfield, is full of stirring passages like that. It's a fictionalised frontline account of Thermopylae, the historic battle first chronicled by Herodotus in the 5th century BC; the story of Spartans versus Persians and still a powerful and dangerous metaphor for the fault line between west and east, democracy and despotism, reason and mysticism.

No one, to my knowledge, has written anything comparable about Oriamendi. It's not that it doesn't have the same heroically-doomed cachet, with 'feats of heart-stopping valour' as Pressfield would put it. Rather, as skirmishes go, it's simply too obscure.

The elements have taken their toll

The elements have taken their toll

So, no best-selling blockbuster about the soldiers buried in a mass grave here, on a foreign field - or a hill, strictly-speaking - looking out to sea at San Sebastian in Spain, although fans of Patrick O'Brian or Bernard Cornwell might know better. No Wootton Bassett for that matter, either. These British servicemen never came back.

At least they face home. Reached via a series of winding paths and ramps up Mount Urgull, following the arrows marked Cementerio de los Ingleses, their headstones are oriented across the Bay of Biscay towards the British Isles. A monument features a mock parapet and turret, an eagle and regimental coat of arms, and a life-size sculpture of four soldiers clustered around the wheel of a cannon. Two of the heads and one entire torso have been lopped off, and the entire set-piece has been engulfed by ferns, moss and ivy and left untended and apparently unremembered. This is a lonely place, steep and precarious, with only the endless sea for company.

Mount Urgull from the beach at San Sebastian

Mount Urgull from the beach at San Sebastian

One hundred years before the famous International Brigades fought against Franco, another army of British volunteers saw action in an earlier Spanish civil war. The country was in turmoil, having lost its colonies in the New World and been occupied by Napoleon, and liberals and conservatives led by the queen Isabella II and her uncle Don Carlos respectively, were disputing the Spanish throne.

Battle scene from Historia de San Sebastian, by J & A Sada

Battle scene from Historia de San Sebastian, by J & A Sada

In 1836, upon Isabella's request for greater intervention from her allies, Britain committed a voluntary or Auxiliary Legion of 10,000 men. The following year they captured a strategic hill at Oriamendi close to San Sebastian but were subsequently driven back by a Carlist counteroffensive, losing 1,500 men. Only covering fire from the offshore British navy prevented a greater catastrophe.

The Carlists celebrated victory by adopting an anthem that became known as Marcha de Oriamendi. Legend has it, the score was discovered without lyrics in the belongings of a fallen British soldier.

Henry Wilkinson's 1838 sketch of the site

Henry Wilkinson's 1838 sketch of the site

A contemporary sketch by Henry Wilkinson, a British military physician, shows the cemetery as it looked in 1838. The original caption reads: 'In the midst of this impressive landscape that seems born of a terrible convulsion of nature, in a small sheltered corner, now hallowed ground, just below the steep slope and cliff can be seen numerous mounds marking the remains of many brave officers of the British Legion. They have erected a few simple wooden crosses bearing the initials of those who fell'.

It wasn't until 1924 that an official ceremony took place in which a memorial was unveiled with the inscription, 'England confides his glorious remains. Nuestra gratitud velara su eterno reposo - Our gratitude will ensure their eternal rest'.

Two of the headstones commemorating British soldiers

Two of the headstones commemorating British soldiers

According to an article in the Diario Vasco newspaper (www.diariovasco.com) the mayor of San Sebastian addressed the British ambassador thus: "Tell your nation that the people of this city are chivalrous, known to deliver what they promise… So tell your people that they can be sure that the remains of their children left among us today will be as revered as if they were our sons".'

I'm sure they were. Time, sadly, isn't so respectful.


'Reached via a series of winding paths and ramps up Mount Urgull, following the arrows marked Cementerio de los Ingleses, their headstones are oriented across the Bay of Biscay towards the British Isles'


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