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.
The Battle of Jarama in February 1937, the first action of the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, provided a brutal wake-up call for both the volunteers themselves and the British Communist Party, which had recruited them. During three days of bitter and sustained fighting, the six hundred poorly-trained, ill-equipped ‘city-bred young men’ were attacked by an overwhelming force, comprising the cream of Franco’s professional army, backed up by German armour. That the British Battalion managed to hold the line – just – was a feat of both stubborn defiance and astonishing bravery. But the cost was substantial. After the three days of fighting of 12-14 February, less than half the Battalion remained; Suicide Hill was not named in vain. As the Scottish Political Commissar, Peter Kerrigan, later stated, ‘this battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’
Ben Hughes new study places the battle of Jarama at the centre of the story of the British and Irish in Spain. Drawing on the numerous memoirs, both published and held in archives around the world, They Shall Not Pass! successfully weaves the volunteers’ accounts together, contextualising them within a clear narrative. This is a satisfyingly well-written account which tells the, often horrifying, story with both verve and understanding.
Divided into three parts, the book’s scope actually extends beyond Jarama, though the main focus of the book is, of course, the battle itself. Part one begins with a chapter to set the scene, before two chapters briefly sketch out the volunteers’ journeys to Spain and the hurried and limited attempts to transform the volunteers’ political will into military skill. Hughes then returns to the Jarama Valley, concluding his first section at lunchtime on 12 February 1937, with the battalion under attack, but dug in, still determined that that the fascists will not pass.
In the second and crucial section of the book, Hughes reveals how the naïve optimism of the novice volunteer soldiers was violently shattered by the terrifying onslaught of Franco’s elite troops of the Army of Africa. Ten graphic chapters provide ‘a micro history’ of the battle, almost forensic in the attention to detail. Hughes has clearly spent considerable time on his primary research here and the work certainly pays off. The events are recounted from, in Hughes words, ‘a worm’s eye point of view,’ which provides the reader with an understanding of how shocking the experiences of the Jarama battle – and the war in Spain for that matter – really were for the volunteers.
The third and final part of the book provides an account of the experiences of the British and Irish volunteers from the battle of Brunete of July 1937, through to their return to Britain at the end of 1938. Unfortunately, this section is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps because the previous sections have set such a high standard. Increasingly reliant on secondary sources, it offers nothing like the level of detail of the earlier chapters and is correspondingly less original and informative.
Interest picks up again in the epilogue, which brings the account up to the present day, revealing what happened to the veterans of Jarama during the Second World War and thereafter. For example, the later lives of the three commanders of the battalion at Jarama, Tom Wintringham, Jock Cunningham and Fred Copeman, certainly make interesting reading.
The book also benefits from two useful appendices, including directions to help locate the actual site of the February battle, which I’m sure a number of IBMT members will find beneficial. There is a thorough index and copious footnotes, both of which should prove valuable for students and researchers. All the maps are very clear and other good touches are the brief biographies of the dramatis personae and the numerous photographs, including a number of colour pictures of Jarama features such as the sunken road and ‘the knoll’ in the present day.
There are, of course, a few areas where the reader may disagree with Hughes’ approach or conclusions – I think that he overestimates the casualty rates at Jarama, for example – and there are a number of oversights and little errors, inevitable in a book of this scope and probably only apparent or of interest to the specialist. Most, though, do not detract from what, I think, is one of the best recent additions to the collection of studies on the brave group of British and Irish volunteers, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.