Best Defense

May 20, 1937: Orwell is shot in the neck

This is from the chapter of the book that I most enjoyed writing.



Tom note: This is an excerpt from my new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, which is being published this week by Penguin Press. In this section, George Orwell, fighting for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, is hit by a sniper’s bullet. This is from the chapter of the book that I most enjoyed writing.

Orwell expected to remain at the front until late summer. But around dawn on May 20, 1937, he was moving through the trenches, checking on the sentries, when he was hit. He knew it was a dangerous time because his trench, facing west, had the rising sun behind it, which silhouetted his tall frame for enemy snipers. Of being shot, he would write, “Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock — no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into immense distance.” The bullet’s impact knocked him to the ground. “All of this happened in a space of time much less than a second. … I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.”

The American sentry with whom he had been speaking started toward him. “Gosh! Are you hit?” The American, named Harry Milton, recalled, “I thought he wouldn’t make it. He had bitten down hard on his lip, and I thought there must be a lot of damage. But he was breathing, and his eyes were moving.”

Orwell provides one of the best accounts ever written of what it is like to be badly wounded by a bullet and expecting to die soon. He knew he had been shot, but could not tell where. When informed that it was a neck shot, “I took it for granted that I was done for. I had never heard of a man or animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it.” Blood dribbled from a corner of his mouth. He assumed that a carotid artery had been severed, which would mean that he had only a few minutes to live. “My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.”

But the minutes passed and he did not die. He could not know that, with enormous luck, the bullet had shot through the tiny space of about one centimeter between the carotid artery and his larynx, with the impact bruising his vocal cords. A bit to the left or right, or more tumble in the high-velocity bullet, and he likely would have died that day. Because the shot hit him at an angle, the bullet passed out the back of his neck without severing his spine, even though it apparently grazed a nerve, causing the temporary paralysis of one arm.

He was carried on a stretcher about a mile to a field hospital, where he was given a shot of morphine, and then was taken to a larger military hospital in the nearby village of Sietamo, just east of the provincial capital of Huesca. His old comrades dropped by, expressed pleasure that he was alive, and then relieved him of his watch, pistol, flashlight, and knife, knowing that all those likely would be stolen from him in the hospital, and that the gear was needed at the front. For weeks, his voice was a croak that sounded like the grinding brakes of an old Model T, and could not be heard from more than two yards away, reported his battalion commander, Georges Kopp.

Excerpted from Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017), by permission of me.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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