BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.
When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.
Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.
From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.
Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.
After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.
Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.
For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.
In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’
Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.