The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
Helen Graham’s latest monograph, The War and its Shadow, is not an introductory text to the Spanish Civil War, nor is it an easy read. While only 150 pages long, the text’s richness and complexity, the scope and ambition, the intelligence and sheer breadth of knowledge contained within make it both thought-provoking and challenging. Important and timely too. One of the major issues currently facing the International Brigade Memorial Trust is how to explain to a contemporary audience the significance of a war which was fought in Spain over seventy years ago. This book provides detailed evidence of the enduring relevance of the Spanish Civil War and the thirty-five years of malevolent and vengeful dictatorship which followed.
In structure, the book comprises a number of essays, implicitly divided into three main sections. In the first, the author discusses the legacy of the First World War, which saw the mortal wounding of many European ancien regimes but not, as yet, their destruction. During what was essentially becoming a European civil war, nationalist movements fought to reassert what they believed to be their natural right to rule. The second section examines the notion of the volunteers (originally raised in her inaugural professorial lecture) for the Spanish Republic as ‘border-crossers’. For Helen Graham, many of the International Brigaders were, to use her rather elegant expression, ‘the stormy petrels of social change’, members of a vanguard fighting for ‘cosmopolitan cultural modernity’. The third, final section of the book is a passionate essay on contemporary Spain, the enduring legacy of Francoism and the current battles to control historical memory.
The book provides a trenchant demolition of some of the more enduring myths of the Franco dictatorship. As the author points out, the Spanish Civil War was the first battle of a war ‘waged predominantly on civilians’ and there is no shortage of evidence that murder and rape were used deliberately as a weapon to break down resistance. As the leader of the military rebels, General Emilio Mola declared, they were determined to eliminate ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do.’ This included not just members of the ‘left’ and members of some imaginary ‘judeo-masonic conspiracy’, but any representatives of progress and modernity: teachers, trade unionists, homosexuals and ‘modern women’ too, as the accounts in chapter three of the viciousness visited on the Barayón family make only too clear.
Like Paul Preston’s acclaimed Spanish Holocaust, Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow reiterates that Franco’s dictatorship was not ‘softer’ than those of Hitler and Stalin, remarking pointedly on a persisting lack of awareness of the vast number of ‘extra and quasi-judicial’ killings enacted by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1975. The chapter on Franco’s prisons is particularly harrowing. ‘All Spain is a prison’ wrote Marcos Ana, as Franco’s regime set about ‘teaching the defeated the meaning of their defeat’. As evidence of the truly repugnant nature of Franco’s Spain, the author reminds us that even Heinrich Himmler was shocked by the extent of judicial murder when he visited Spain in October 1940 (though admitting that his main concern may have been the wastage of potential slave labour). The book explains how the victimisation continued within the prisons, with ‘the rape/sexual assault of women prisoners was systematically perpetrated with impunity by the servants of the Franco regime’, and children removed from what were considered to be ‘unfit’ mothers.
The book concludes with a rather depressing, though no doubt accurate, assessment of the situation in contemporary Spain, which finds the conservative Partido Popular in power during a time of severe financial crisis. Attempts to recuperate historical memory are becoming increasing difficult, as court cases are launched against those – however prominent – involved in investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. As the author explains, while there have been many positive changes in Spain since the death of Franco, ‘many of its most damaging effects endure within the constitutional polity.’ Clearly much of Spain remains in shadow and the task of dismantling the Francoist structure has some way to go.
This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 34, January 2013, pp. 24-5.
When ninety-four year old David Lomon died just before Christmas 2012, he was almost certainly the last of the volunteers from the Spanish Civil War still to be alive in Britain. While his former comrade from London, Geoffrey Servante, was known to be alive a few years ago living in the Forest of Dean, no word has been heard for some time, so it seems all too probable that he too is, sadly, no longer with us.
There is, though, still one British veteran who is still very much alive and well. However he no longer lives in Britain, but in Australia. In Yarrawonga, to be precise, just over 200km north of Melbourne, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. It’s a long way from his birthplace of Newhaven (looking at the map, it’s a long way from anywhere).
Not much is known about ninety-five year old Stan Hilton, and much of what we do know is a little vague. In order to find out more, he was tracked down by the film maker David Leach, who wrote and produced the 2001 documentary, Voices from a Mountain. The film includes interviews with a number of British volunteers: John Dunlop, Sol Frankel, Jack Jones, George Wheeler and Alun Williams. It also has an unforgettable score, a beautiful reworking of the famous song from the civil war, Ay Carmela. I’m pleased to say that the documentary can still be watched on Youtube.
According to what he told David, Stan was nineteen when he jumped from his ship, the S.S. Pilson in Alicante in November 1937, after hitting an officer who’d been pushing him around. While the former ship’s steward apparently recalled little of his time in Spain, he did remember assaulting another officer he had taken a dislike to. He also described how, contrary to his and many other volunteer’s perceptions, Spain was by no means always sunny. In fact, ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he recalled.
We know from documents held in London and Moscow that, following a period of training with the British Battalion, Stan became caught up in the chaotic Republican retreats which resulted from Franco’s colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up swimming across the River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse) by Franco’s soldiers, before deciding that he had had enough of the Spanish war. In March 1938, with the British captain’s permission, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. And there he remained.
Stanley Gordon Hilton is now ninety-five years of age. He is also, as David Leach will testify, still alert, fit and healthy. They say that the struggle keeps you young and it certainly seems to be the case with Stan. Which struggles, however are not entirely clear. As David Leach explained, although English-born, Stan has always possessed a traditional Australian attitude towards authority:
‘I liked mucking about,’ Stan recalled over a glass of red wine at home in Yarrawonga. ‘I didn’t like being ordered around.’
In addition to being shortlisted for the 2013 Political Book Awards’ political history book of the year, Unlikely Warriors has received a number of good reviews:
‘Well researched and luminously written, Baxell’s book shows us what these volunteers were like – their grand heroism and their petty hatreds, the miseries they endured, the awfulness of war.’
Francis Beckett in The Tablet
Read Francis Beckett’s review here.
‘Baxell draws painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men. It’s beyond history; it’s myth.’
Gideon Lewis-Kraus praises the book’s ‘careful scholarship’ in the London Review of Books.
Read Gideon Lewis Kraus’s review here
‘Richard Baxell’s magnificent Unlikely Warriors is surely set to become the definitive account of the British in the Civil War’s International Brigades. A brilliant piece of military history at its best, capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’
Mark Perrman in thesubsntive.com.
Read Mark Perryman’s review here
‘Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment … A remarkably well balanced and fair minded account … This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale. War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in. Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account.
Peter Stansky, author (with William Abrahams) of Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, in ALBA’s newsletter The Volunteer.
Read Peter Stansky’s review here
‘The high quality of the research, and the writing and the fascinating, beautiful and dreadful human story they relate, make Unlikely Warriors essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War.’
Lewis Mates, author of The Spanish Civil War and the British Left, in the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s newsletter.
Read Lewis Mates’ review here.
‘Not just another book about the British volunteers who served in Spain … over 500 pages in length and with 16 pages of photographs, some of which have never previously appeared in print, taking several years in the writing, [Unlikely Warriors] is a superb piece of work.’
Cliff Kirkpatrick describes Unlikely Warriors as ‘a model of good writing’ in España, the journal of the Spanish Study Circle.
Read Cliff Kirkpatrick’s review here.
‘Most interesting, because previously least known, are Richard Baxell’s detailed descriptions of the backgrounds of the individual volunteers, drawn from unpublished diaries and oral histories, and the reception they received on their return home.’
Journalist and biographer Caroline Moorehead writes in the Literary Review.
Read Caroline Moorehead’s review here.
Unlikely Warriors is available from all good bookshops both online and on the high street.
The following is an extended version of the obituary that appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Other Lives’ on 8 January 2013.
For anyone connected with the British volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during Spain’s civil war, 2013 has great and heavy significance. It seems almost certain that this is the first year since the start of the war itself that there are no British veterans around to explain the relevance of the events in Spain all those years ago. Over the years, I have got to know a number of former volunteers: some like Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and David Marshall were members of the committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; others such as Bill Alexander, Bob Doyle, Fred Thomas and George Wheeler I got to know having interviewed them. However, it was not until February 2011 that I first met former British volunteer David Lomon. Having returned from Spain in 1938, he had lost touch with his former comrades in the International Brigades. Only when he came across an article in the April 2009 issue of the magazine of SAGA, the organisation aimed at the over 50s, was David prompted to get back in touch. The article, by the historian Max Arthur on the Britons who fought against Franco, reported that only eight veterans of the Spanish war were still alive; David of course knew otherwise. He contacted SAGA in order to put the matter right and his letter was spotted by a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who informed the committee. I arranged to meet David at his house in Bourne End, in Buckinghamshire in order to interview him about his time in Spain.
Clichéd though it may sound, when I turned up at his home and David answered the door, I sincerely believed that I was talking to his son. Only when he introduced himself did I realise that the smartly-dressed, polite and welcoming man was a ninety-two year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The interview was a similar surprise; despite apologising for being unable to remember precise details, David talked lucidly for two hours on his experiences in Spain and afterward. It was a fascinating story and the interview formed the basis of a short piece in the May 2011 issue of the IBMT newsletter. It also provided me with great new material for my then forthcoming book Unlikely Warriors and, above all, it enabled me to get to know a thoroughly likeable and decent man who had lived a long and fascinating life.
Born David Solomon in Manchester on 22 November 1918, David was the youngest of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. David was schooled in Manchester, but the early death of his father when David was only fifteen brought his education to an abrupt halt, dashing any dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, his mother decided to move the family to Hackney, in London’s east-end, to be nearer her relatives. There David soon became caught up in the growing resistance against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were virtually besieging the area and terrorising its Jewish population. Galvanised by his participation in anti-fascist demonstrations, including the huge and infamous confrontation around Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, the young Jewish clothing cutter took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. In order to establish sufficient political credentials, he joined the Young Communist League and in December 1937 volunteered to join the International Brigades. ‘After the Mosley East-End business’, David explained to me, ‘I wanted to go to Spain, so I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people, who I could use to get over to Spain … I wanted to do something, I wanted to fight fascism.’
Prudently changing his surname from Solomon to Lomon in order to avoid being singled out if captured, David travelled to Paris using the familiar route of the British volunteers: a weekend ticket, which did not require a passport. From there he travelled south by coach to the Spanish border and underwent an exhausting and dangerous trek over the Pyrenees at night. United with his comrades from Britain, he joined the Clement Attlee Company of the British Battalion as a machine-gunner and infantryman. Amongst the volunteers, David was unusual in having studied Spanish and Spanish politics at school, so was given a political appointment. He was lucky enough to meet both the British Labour leader, Clement Attlee, and the American singer Paul Robeson who performed for the members of the battalion and shook all their hands. After minimal training, David was rushed up to the front in the spring of 1938 and joined the desperate Republican efforts to repulse a colossal Francoist offensive. Thirteen divisions, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean outnumbering the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the government lines virtually collapsed. David was one of more than one hundred members of the battalion to be captured by Italian soldiers at Calaceite in eastern Aragon on 31 March 1938.
Driven off by truck, he and the other prisoners were incarcerated in the Francoist concentration camp in the old decaying monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos in northern Spain. As many former inmates attest, the conditions in the camp were overcrowded, insanitary and extremely cruel: ‘We never dreamt that guards could be so brutal to other human beings,’ remarked one of David’s fellow prisoners. In June David was transferred to an Italian run camp at Palencia, where the inmates sung a version of the song that had been popular since the first battle of the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937, sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a prison in Spain called Palencia
’Tis a place we know all too well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And spent months of misery and hell.
Surrounded one day by Italians
Who with guns bought by Chamberlain’s gold
Blown to hell by artillery and avion
That’s how our brave comrades were sold.
At Palencia David became good friends with Clive Branson, a talented artist from Battersea in London. Branson made a number of highly accomplished sketches of prisoners at San Pedro and Palencia, including David and a young volunteer and Communist Party member called Alfred Sherman who, much later in his life, would found the Thatcherite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Though Clive Branson was killed in Burma during the Second World War, the drawings remain and I was fortunate enough to be at the Marx Memorial Library last year, when David took his very first glimpse of the sketch since it had been drawn in Palencia all those years ago.
David was released in October 1938 and repatriated. Back home he returned to his former work as a clothing cutter and studied as a designer. He also married Millie Levine, who he had known from his time in the YCL. She would later follow him when he decided to leave the Young Communist League for the Labour Party, appalled at Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939: ‘I was pleased I didn’t join the Communist Party because, being Jewish, well, that Stalin should link up with [Hitler] was unbelievable’, he told me.
With one child already and another on the way, David was not able to return to war until 1941. Seeing the two wars as part and parcel of the same conflict, he volunteered to join the navy. ‘I had to join up. I had to do something,’ he explained to me. He joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was rejected as a pilot as he could only breathe through one nostril, following an unsuccessful operation. Instead he joined general service and was selected to join an Officer Training Course in Scotland. It was not to last long. He was soon dismissed by an ‘aggressive’ superior, after David refused to box with an opponent who was much weaker than himself, ‘a nervous, gentle sort of lad,’ as he described him. David used to box with the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and, all too typically, opposed what he felt would not be a fair fight. He was returned to general service as a navigator’s yeoman on a minesweeper, sweeping the English channel before D Day and through the landings themselves. He was then sent to the far east around Burma and the Malaya Strait and Rangoon where his fleet was subjected to a terrifying attack by Japanese Kamikazi planes, in which they lost two of their ships.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, David was demobbed and returned to London, to resume his life and work. Introduced to a Mr. Lawson, the head of a large retail company in Glasgow, David was asked to become a partner in a new wholesale group he was setting up in London’s west-end. David would remain at the group, Barnett Lawson Trimmings, until he retired as Managing Director, thirty-five years later.
‘Wrapped up in family life’, as he put it and having left the YCL for the Labour Party on his return from Spain, David made no contact with his fellow veterans of Spain in the International Brigade Association. It was only when he saw the SAGA article in 2010 that David felt prompted to make contact. Having received a warm welcome from the members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he generously donated his time and energy in travelling around Britain and Spain delivering eloquent speeches on the importance of the war in Spain. In October 2011, David was one of a handful of surviving veterans to return to Madrid for a reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation on the International Brigades. David’s speech, given at the inauguration of a new memorial to the International Brigades in the Spanish capital’s University City, is worthy of repeating:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism.
We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. ¡Salud!
When the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition was shown in Eastbourne in April 2012, David was there to lend his support and encountered a young Spaniard from Burgos in northern Spain: ‘Gracias de mi corazón’ (‘my heartfelt thanks’) he declared. David was also present at the annual commemoration of the IBMT at London’s south bank in July 2012, where he laid a wreath and was presented with a flag by Almudena Cros of the Spanish Asociación des Amigos de Brigadas Internacionales. David was as charming as as ever and I suspect Almudena gave him her heart as well as the flag. He was, as his obituary in the Daily Mail portrayed him, ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. I will always treasure the Christmas card he sent me this year, in which he jokingly thanked me ‘for keeping this old dinosaur going’. As I told his son Irving, aside from the respect I had for David for his actions in the past, I had got to really like him for the way he was in the present: open, generous and genuinely modest.
Right to the end, David remained proud of the efforts made by him and his fellow international volunteers on behalf of the Spanish government during the civil war. The award of Spanish citizenship to David in May 2011 was an honour that he richly deserved and I know it gave him great pleasure and pride.
David’s wife Millie died in 1997, but he will be sorely missed by his three children, Stanley, Yvonne and Irving, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and by all of those who remain eternally grateful of the efforts made by him in Spain and around the world to help defeat the evils of fascism and Nazism.
David Lomon, the last of the UK-based unlikely warriors, 22 November 1918 to 21 December 2012.