The night the world ended


Few reporters make the ranks of poets.  My namesake Hugh Christopher Holme was one of them.  As a Reuters correspondent he brought the horror of the bombing of Gernika (Guernica) to the world’s attention.

His dispatches triggered an enormous international response, immortalised in Picasso’s painting, and also forewarned of the real truths of Nazi war-making.

But Holme was also a gifted poet whose undergraduate works were considered worthy enough to be published alongside those of MacNeice, Spender, and Auden. His poetry relating to the Spanish Civil War has largely remained hidden, although a small selection was published privately for his friends after his death in 1991.


GERNIKA, APRIL 26, 1937,

The world ended tonight.

There in that unreal desolation

Of molten tunnel, flame-arched passageway,

House-hung setpieces dripping cement and bricks,

A handful of dim creatures

Are scratching for fragments of their slaughtered world.

Humbly they lived, where now this mock-sunset

Affronts and dulls the moon.

They worked and slept, none too busy, not over-anxious

To air their civic pride at large.

That blood-red and sinister glow

Which feverishly quickens the outer night

In a far more spectacular pall

Than they would have chosen to cover up their day.

Aeroplanes, bombs, German invaders

Are easy embodiments of hatred

For daily sufferers, easy too the description

”Death rained’, ‘Wings darkened the sky”.

But what later uprush of indignation can outburn

The shining grape-clusters of aluminium

Which unthinking as the boyish hands that hurled

Have caused this dumb life after death,

This timorous, unbelieving survival

Of a few not now nor again ever fittest?

A few pots, a sewing machine, some bedding piled

Within heat-glare, spark-throw of the unhalted flames

May still be of use to the undead, after-living,

But what will tell the visitor from another life,

Stepping delicately among fallen tramwires,

Counting seconds till the next crash of fire-soaked masonry

How time itself was shattered by those frequencies,

Intolerable air displacements beyond sound,

Quarrying the public square at random?

He will see, and talk with some, seeing and hearing

Will dawn into the full sense of what has been done.

And then he will go, and then hotly

Pour it down the runnels to his outer world,

Where maybe an inkling will make headway.

And then?


Spokesmen will get up among the well-fed and comfortable

And tell those dead and the unliving survivors

What fires they lit to consume their own homes.

What mines they laid to blow themselves up.

What lies they told of an air-fleet which destroyed their world.

Poem published by permission of Mrs Anthea Holme.

Chris was a modest chap so there aren’t that many good photos of him. This one from the LSE library shows him on train – in British Army uniform and I think working in Germany in 1947.Christopher_Holme_,_1947_(4598278853)

His poem was first published in the Herald 20 years ago, with a piece from me on the 60th anniversary of the bombing available online here:

There has been a lot of good writing about Gernika in the intervening years but here’s the orginal piece as text………

Three British war correspondents were sitting down to dinner at a Bilbao hotel in April 1937: Christopher Holme, of Reuters, George Steer of the London Times and Noel Monks of the Daily Express. They were joined by Mathieu Corman, a Belgian working for the French newspaper Ce Soir. It had been an exhausting day. Out on the road that afternoon they had been strafed by German aircraft, a fact which would be significant later on. Around ten, a distraught Basque Government official told them a town some 15 miles away had been bombed and was still burning.

They could have stayed on for more drinks and tried to catch up on the story the next day. Instead they followed two classic reporting maxims: they made their excuses and left, then went to see what was happening for themselves. The next four hours were to change their lives and the course of history. The town was Guernica.

Holme, by virtue of the fact he worked for an international news agency, was the first to bring the story to the world’s attention. It made the evening newspapers on April 27 and The Herald used his copy the next day under the headline ”Basque Town Now Heap of Ruins”.

All four reporters were clear on the basic facts. German aircraft from the Condor Legion fighting with Franco’s Nationalists had systematically annihilated the ancient Basque town in the raid lasting three hours. They came in waves, first dropping heavy bombs and hand grenades, then incendiaries to set the whole area ablaze. Fighters machine-gunned the fleeing civilian population and 1000 people or more were killed.

There was no obvious military target, apart from a small factory and a bridge, both of which were untouched. The town was a historic symbol of Basque independence: the home of their parliament and the ancient oak tree where Spanish monarchs used to swear to observe local customs. Air-raid shelters had been dug after the bombing of another town, Durango, at the start of the northern offensive by the Nationalist army commanded by General Emilio Mola. Unlike Durango, however, the devastation at Guernica was complete and the use of incendiary bombs seemed calculated to inflict maximum terror and civilian casualties. It was full of refugees, farmers, and peasants who had come in for market day.

The dispatches from Holme, Monks, Corman, and Steer triggered a huge emotional response throughout the world, achieving for Guernica a notoriety far greater than earlier massacres committed by both sides. The Spanish war was already awash with propaganda. Franco was seen by many newspapers as the saviour of the church and country from the terrors of communism and anarchism. Against him the Republic had La Pasionaria and the better writers like Malraux, Hemingway, and Orwell. But they were no match for the straightforward news reporting provided by Holme, Steer, and Monks. Holme’s introduction to journalism was fortuitous. He endured Rugby School, Oxford University and a couple of uninspiring posts before walking into Reuters and asking for a job. A skilled linguist, he was immediately sent to Berlin for the trial after the burning of the Reichstag and later covered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

None of the British reporters nor the organisations they represented could be described as pro-Republican which made the veracity of their reports difficult to counter. Quite simply, neither Mola, Franco, nor Hitler had envisaged the international backlash or else they thought it would be diverted by the despatches of the journalists following Mola’s army which arrived in Guernica three days later.

The Nationalist press office in Salamanca did its best. It was staffed largely by military types, including Captain Gonzalo Aguilera, a Spanish grandee whose mother was a Scots woman named Munro.

The Nationalists hectored and bullied correspondents. Even reporting the presence of Italian or German troops in Spain was strictly forbidden: Monks, who like Holme had previously worked from the Nationalist side, had once been hauled before Franco for breaking this taboo and was threatened with a firing squad before being expelled.

The first line of defence, that bad weather prevented any aircraft flying that day, was almost immediately exposed as false. Then Aguilera blamed Asturian miners for dynamiting the houses. Even pressmen brought in with Mola’s army confirmed that aircraft had inflicted at least part of the damage. This did not prevent a backlash against the initial four correspondents but, commendably, their bosses stood by their men in the field.

Reuters then scored an own goal in another story on April 29 rebutting Franco’s denial of the raid. Holme filed the types of aircraft involved: Junkers 52 and Heinkel 111 bombers and Heinkel 51 fighters, but a sub-editor in London confused the aircraft types for numbers involved. The mistake was corrected within an hour, but nonetheless proved a gift to the German Press. The Frankfurter Generalanzeiger called Holme an idiot and the Nazi Volkischer Beobachter called for his dismissal claiming he was in the direct pay of the Bolshevists.

Reuters’ archives show a more sinister threat. Holme had reported seeing an unexploded bomb with German markings at Guernica which attracted the attention of the Nationalist radio commentator General Queipa de Llano. Another Reuters correspondent in Spain reported to London that Holme, Monks, and Steer would run a real risk of being shot if the rebels ever got hold of them. De Llano had been mentioning Holme by name. Holme himself remained unruffled. ”I am not surprised that German official quarters should be upset by the reaction to the destruction of Guernica by German aircraft,” he said in a letter to his managing director.

The atrocity triggered heated exchanges between the German and British Governments. In Parliament, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was evasive in his answers to opposition calls for an international inquiry. In private, he was fully aware of the reality: Ralph Stevenson, the British consul in Bilbao, visited the scene 24 hours after the bombing. His report to Eden confirmed correspondents’ accounts as did the testimony of Father Onaindia, a Basque priest. A senior official at the Foreign Office minuted dryly: ”Guernica has taught us what to expect from the Germans and it has also shown how inefficient is the propaganda department of the Franco Government.”

The controversy over Guernica continued to rage well after the war. In his memoirs published in 1955, Noel Monks, himself a Catholic, noted: ”Rome put the official seal on Franco’s denial and to this day only ‘bad’ Catholics believe that the Germans destroyed Guernica.”

The reasons for the attack are difficult to fathom. For many it appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. Colonel von Richtofen, leader of the Condor Legion, and a cousin of the First World War ace, revealed in his diary that he had conferred with Mola’s chief of staff before the raid took place. Whether Franco knew in advance is not clear.

In the two years before the advent of the Second World War, visiting Luftwaffe aircrew in London boasted of the attack and the lessons they had learned from it.

The scale of the devastation appears to have shocked both the German aviators and Franco, which may explain their desire to cover up. In 1945 Goering is said to have claimed it was a ”testing ground” for Luftwaffe blitzkrieg tactics but Guernica seems to have had little impact in deterring the RAF and US Air force from saturation bombing of predominantly civilian targets.

The Herald’s leader on April 30 probably correctly identified it as a terror attack intended to force Bilbao to give in without a fight, as it did soon after: ”There is the psychological weapon. What, it can be argued, is more likely to terrorise Bilbao into surrender than a not-too-distant demonstration of frightfulness?”

Guernica certainly fuelled calls for re-arming and also galvanised neutral or previously supportive opinion against the Nationalists. After Guernica, Time, Life, and Newsweek all took the side of the Republic.

Of the four reporters in the Bilbao hotel, Christopher Holme was the only one not to write a book about his experiences, although he did provide some information in a letter to Herbert Southworth, author of the standard work on the bombing and how it was reported.

A modest and self-effacing man, it is perhaps just as well his poems were not published at the time, given Franco’s antipathy towards journalists. He was even less forgiving to poets, like Spain’s greatest, Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot, almost casually, by Nationalist partisans in 1936.

Reporting carried its risks then as it does now. The German photojournalist Gerta Taro, a colleague of the Hungarian Robert Capa, became the first of her profession to be killed in the war four months after Guernica.

Holme used his wages from Spain to buy a luxury Lagonda car. He was posted to the Reuters Vienna bureau where he met his wife, Anthea. The car came in handy when the Nazis marched in to Austria at the time of the Anschluss. Neither Holme nor his Jewish assistant Alfred Geiringer would have been safe to stay. They zig-zagged up in to Germany avoiding the direct route into Switzerland in an escape which could have been taken from the plot of The Lady Vanishes. Geiringer hid in the boot when he thought he might have been recognised.

Holme went on to become the first assistant director of the Third Programme, and a translator and producer of radio plays. Geiringer provided the expertise that revived Reuters financial information services which were to underpin its news gathering and secure the agency’s later immense profitability.

Last year, the German government, after a decade of campaigning by the Green activist, the late Petra Kelly, agreed to pay compensation to Guernica for the devastation caused by Hitler’s bombers.

Christopher Holme would probably have viewed it as belated poetic justice.



Categories: gems from the archive, history on the web

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2 replies

  1. Another fascinating snapshot of history from the eloquent Chris Holme.


  1. Flight of the Condor over the Forth | The History Company

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