Unthinkable Sacrifice: The Untold Story of Colonel Moscardó and his Son

It would be easy to visit the Alcázar in Toledo, Spain, and miss one of its most remarkable rooms. After all, there is a lot to see in this massive fortress which is built at the highest point in the city and is the site of Roman ruins from the 3rd Century. It houses a fascinating military museum, which chronicles over 2,500 years of warfare, from the Celtiberians to the present day, including swords (the sword used by King St. Fernando III is a highlight), artillery, and representations of what the Romans, Visigoths, Christians and Moors looked like in battle. In the midst of this museum, a library, an Imperial Chapel, scenic courtyards and breathtaking views of Toledo; and just off of the main hallway, which is renovated, freshly painted, and filled with sightseers; there is a solid wooden door with a small sign next to it, which reads “Despacho del Coronel Moscardo,” or “Colonel Moscardó’s office.” Simple and unassuming from the outside, you would not imagine that when you step inside you will be transported to the summer of 1936, in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, in the first days of a long siege where 2,000 men, women and children would remain in the Alcázar for 10 weeks.

Colonel Moscardó’s office has been preserved exactly as it was on July 23, 1936, the third day of the Siege of the Alcázar. The ceiling is falling down, there are bullet holes in the walls, and what is left of the wallpaper has been faded by the hot Castillian sun coming through the window over the past 80 years. There is not much furniture in this room besides an old wooden desk, a table, a few chairs, and two old-fashioned telephones enclosed in glass. One wall is lined with pictures of military personnel and before and after photos of the Alcazar–before the siege, when it was intact, and after the siege, when much of this seemingly impregnable fortress was reduced to rubble.

On the opposite wall there are two paintings, which will haunt me for years to come. One is of a father, a man in his fifties in a military uniform, papers in one hand, and a ceremonial sword in the other–his weary eyes look into the distance, his shoulders are slumped just slightly, almost imperceptibly, as if he carries an invisible burden, one too heavy for any man to carry on his own, as if something or someone supports his every step, and as if without this support he would collapse on the ground. The other painting is of a son, a handsome sixteen-year-old boy in a white button down shirt and trousers, his arms crossed in youthful defiance. These paintings are of Colonel Moscardó and his son, Luis, and this is their incredible story.

By the early 1930s the government in power, the Second Spanish Republic, had showed itself to be deeply anti-Catholic. They had closed Catholic schools, forbade priests and nuns to teach, and seized Church property. Some people who had supported this government burned Catholic churches and killed priests. In these years labor strikes were frequent and political violence was commonplace. On July 13, 1936, a conservative politician named Calvo Sotelo was assassinated. Days later on July 17 General Francisco Franco led a military rebellion (Franco’s side was known as the Nationalists) against the Second Spanish Republic (this side is often called the Republican side, but was at that time called the Reds or Marxists). The Republicans fought back and a bloody civil war began.

Because it had long been the center of the Catholic Church in Spain, no city saw more bloodshed than Toledo. Thousands were killed on both sides of the war in Toledo, and much of the killing and counter-killing was out of revenge, but in the midst of all of this violence the story of Colonel Moscardó and his son came to symbolize what the Nationalists were fighting for.

When Franco and his men initiated the military uprising, the senior official in Toledo, fifty-eight-year-old Colonel José Moscardó e Iriarte, summoned all the military personnel in the area into the Alcázar. On July 21 approximately 2,000 men, women, and children entered the fort, not knowing that they would remain there for 70 days. On July 23, the third day of the siege, a Republican official called Colonel Moscardó on the telephone to attempt to coerce him into surrendering. He told him that they had his son, Luis, and that if he did not surrender the Alcázar, his son would be shot. The following conversation ensued:

Republican: Do you perhaps think my statement is untrue? You are now going to speak with your son.

Luis: Papa!

Moscardó: What’s happening, son?

Luis: They say they’re going to shoot me if you don’t surrender.

Moscardó: Then commend your soul to God, shout “¡Viva España!” and “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” and die like a hero.

Luis: A very strong kiss, Papa.

Moscardó: Goodbye, my son, a very strong kiss.

Moscardó did not surrender, and his son was shot. It has been said that this event fortified those who were in the Alcázar to face starvation and death, “because who could go to the colonel and complain about what the siege was costing him when the Colonel had given his son?”

When the Republicans realized they would not be able to coerce Moscardó into surrendering they tried everything they could think of to bring down the Alcázar—heavy artillery, airplane bombing, they even brought coal miners from the north of Spain to dig a tunnel underneath the building, which they filled with explosives. On the morning of the 60th day of the siege, September 18, they detonated the explosives, and the blast could be heard as far away as Madrid, which is 40 miles north of Toledo. The explosion destroyed the southwest tower, but in order to take the Alcázar the Republican forces would have had to climb the hill and take it at bayonet point.

Moscardó and his men were able to hold on, against all odds and under constant attack, long enough for Franco’s troops to finally arrive. By the time the Nationalists reached Toledo on September 28 many of the defenders of the Alcázar had died in the fighting, and others had died of causes related to starvation. But they had succeeded in holding the Alcázar, under continuous assault, for seventy days.

One can only imagine that it was the memory of Colonel Moscardó’s son Luis that inspired them to face starvation and death, rather than surrender. This story is one of many accounts of heroism that took place during the Spanish Civil War, a war in which 7,000 priests and religious (including 13 bishops who refused to leave the country) were murdered, and thousands of churches were destroyed by the Republican army. One thousand martyrs from the Spanish Civil War have been beatified or canonized, and the process is underway for 2,000 more. These sacrifices must not be forgotten, but it is important to understand that both the Nationalists and Republicans committed atrocities, and by the end of the war 500,000 people had been killed.

On September 14, 1936 Pope Pius XI gave a speech to a group of Spanish refugees, in which he condemned Communism, but also condemned retaliation and civil war. While parts of the speech were used by the Nationalists as propaganda, neither side was happy with it in its entirety. Pius XI’s words are moving, and perhaps represent the only accurate depiction of the Spanish Civil War:

“Civil war, war between sons of the same country, of the same people, of the same motherland, my God! War is always terrible and inhuman: man searches for man to kill him, to kill the greatest number possible, inflicting damage to him and his belongings with increasingly powerful and murderous means . . . . And what can be said when war is between brothers?”

May the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. May the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, and Luis Moscardó, pray for us!


Sarah Metts is a freelance writer and an aspiring Spanish historian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in Counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is inspired by the lives of the saints, beauty, and the writing of Leo Tolstoy. She and her husband Patrick reside in the Atlanta area with their sons Jack and Joseph.

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