In 1936, as the first shots of the Spanish civil war were fired, two young South Australians found themselves accidental witnesses to an infamous civilian massacre.
In 1935, 21-year-old former Roseworthy College student Basil Gee, of Unley Park, travelled to Europe to study viticulture. He enrolled at the Ecole Nationale d’Agriculture in Montpellier, and here met a fellow South Australian, Bill Seppelt. After a year at Montpellier the two of them, in the tradition of so many young Australians, took to the road. In the summer of 1936, they toured through France and Germany, visiting chateaux and their wineries.
They appear to have had a wonderful time in their chauffeured Buick. From the salons of a succession of generous hosts, Europe seemed an idyllic and sensual place. Basil Gee reported the young Australians glided on, sampling wines: “through Nimes and Frontignan we visited Sete, the home of French Vermouth. Then on through Banyuls, where a sweet fortified Grenache is made, we passed into Spain.”
There followed a fortnight on the Costa Brava as guests of “Señor Forgas, a cork manufacturer … at his beautiful villa situated on a rocky headland”. Gee later recalled this fortnight as “the most enjoyable spent in Europe” before going on to state, rather flatly, that “unhappily, the place is now wiped out”. With what little complication people and places in Europe would vanish before the oncoming wave of war.
Seppelt and Gee entered Spain largely oblivious to the broader political context of the time. “Slight signs of unrest were beginning to manifest themselves and, against advice, we pushed on” from the Costa Brava. They arrived in Barcelona on June 24. “Everybody”, reported the Canberra Times, drawing on Gee’s letters home, “was making openly preliminary arrangements for the revolution as if it were the most natural thing in the world”. Street fighting was “in full blast”; their Buick was stolen, but they “recovered it in time to see the tyres slashed by the infuriated mob”. Having their boots shone outside a café, “a stranger handed a small parcel to the boot-black. Everybody nearby rushed away and Seppelt, realising it was a bomb, hurled it away just in time”.
How much truth is in this description of events is impossible to know. Gee’s account clearly reflects a young man with no idea of what was happening in Spain, though in his defence, he and Seppelt were driving into a thicket that even with decades of hindsight can be confusing. Regional papers loved it: “Australians’ Adventures: Handed a Bomb While Having Boots Shone” reported the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser in its edition of August 14, 1936. “Exciting Car Trip in Spain. Narrowly Escaped Being Blown Up” read the Mackay Daily Mercury on August 15.
Leaving Barcelona, Seppelt and Gee pressed on to Madrid. Why, against all advice, and having apparently narrowly escaped death by bombing, did they not turn back to the safety of France? Why press on into the maze, along the pot-holed roads, through the fractious and collapsing state of Republican Spain?
Gee judged Madrid to be “slightly seething and unsettled, a nasty sort of atmosphere”. Madrid in the summer of 1936 was a city of suspicion, exhaustion and street corner executions. “There occurred a couple of assassinations by the conflicting parties”, Gee tells us, before a machine gun battle that pins them down inside a bar decides the matter – they will “shake the dust of Madrid off the old heels”. They then made their way to Portugal – losing their Buick along the way to Republican soldiers – not knowing that in the meantime, nationalist forces under General Franco and his trusted co-conspirators had begun moving on Madrid from the south in an act of open rebellion. A few weeks later, as Seppelt and Gee returned to Spain from Lisbon in an attempt to recover the Buick, their paths crossed with these ferocious and pillaging forces in the town of Badajoz.
As Franco’s troops crossed from Africa into Spain and moved north, all the way from Cadiz to Madrid small towns fell to the nationalist rebels, who celebrated each conquest with unbridled looting, rape and killing. This insurrectionary force suffered very few casualties until reaching Badajoz. Enraged at meeting resistance there and losing many men in the final assault on the city, they entered Badajoz on August 14 furious for revenge. The next day Seppelt and Gee, with their customary poor timing, arrived in town.
It was the height of summer in one of the hottest parts of Spain, and the streets were full of dead bodies. Seppelt told Smith’s Weekly, “Mopping-up operations were still going on as we arrived, and the slaughter that followed the surrender of the town was sickening. Men and women survivors had been huddled into the bull-ring, and, although all pleaded their innocence, no-one’s word was taken.”
“I saw many corpses in the streets, but was spared seeing any executions,” claimed Gee to the Adelaide Advertiser in a despatch sent from London in October 1936. Yet in December 1937, writing for The Student magazine of Roseworthy College, he claimed, “Every hundred yards we came upon looters and search parties, the latter executing all and sundry without even the most summary trial.” In this latter article, he recounted one of the most famous anecdotes of the fall of Badajoz: “If a man’s shoulder – or a woman’s for that matter – was bruised from firing a rifle, the whole family was summarily executed. This, before our eyes, not once but several times.” He adds, in his characteristic flat tone, “Pretty grim and sordid to see such bestiality”. Gee was nothing if not a master of the understatement.
Seppelt repeated the account of citizens condemned on the damning proof of a bruised shoulder. “In this way over 2000 people, 300 of them women, were sent to their death.” It is unclear how Seppelt arrived at this figure (or the specific number of women), though subsequent forensic analysis has shown this figure to be surprisingly accurate. “We saw several men shot in cold blood,” Seppelt later said, which contradicts both of Gee’s assertions that he had seen no executions, on the one hand, and that he had witnessed several families (not just men) being shot, on the other.
What to believe? “There can be no question of the authenticity of their grisly adventure, both being the highest type of young Australians,” Smith’s Weekly asserted, marshalling the question of social class to settle any lingering doubts as to historical accuracy. Seppelt, also a master of the understatement, referred to the townspeople of Badajoz – who by his own reckoning had just seen over 2000 innocent men and women executed – as “the unfortunate populace” who had been “numbed by the experiences they had passed through. Occasionally we met children crying bitterly for their parents who had been shot,” he said, before relating another story that Gee does not mention: “A particularly gruesome sight greeted us near the cemetery, where 300 bodies had been piled up to make a bonfire. A priest presided over their terrible ceremony, and when we spoke to him he laconically remarked that the wretched dead had got what they deserved.” This now infamous and gruesome incident was corroborated by various other international witnesses.
Australian newspapers were happy to talk up these lurid events, bending truths wherever necessary. “Thrills In Spain. Adelaide Tourists in Midst of Fighting” read the Canberra Times; “Two Australians’ Thrilling Experiences in Spain” announced the Grafton Daily Examiner; “Terrible Atrocities. Torture and Burials Alive” read the Broken Hill Barrier Miner. “Blood Lust Of Black Savages Of Spanish Rebel Forces” yelled Smith’s Weekly, in reference to the nationalists’ use of Moroccan soldiers as frontline shock troops.
In retrospect, Basil Gee and Bill Seppelt were simply two young South Australians from comfortable backgrounds, looking to pursue careers in the wine industry, who lacked the verbal or emotional dexterity to process what they had witnessed. Their political inclinations were conservative, yet they attempted to account for horror on both sides. Gee’s occasional lapses into a boy’s-own-adventure style partly reflects the age, his audience, and his inability to verbalise what had happened.
The 1936 massacre of Badajoz vanished for many years under layers of time. Some would never be convinced the killings took place; others shook their heads but acknowledged the unfortunate necessity of murder. Walls were bulldozed or painted; street geography changed; new constructions remapped the townscape. Participants and witnesses died. Life continued, smothering memories under the weight of the quotidian. Yet here in Adelaide, for many years, the event lived on in the persons of Bill Seppelt and Basil Gee, and the exceedingly rare photos they managed to take in those devastated streets of Badajoz.
Luke Stegemann is a writer and Hispanist based in southeast Queensland. He is the author of The Beautiful Obscure (2017)