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.
The following lecture was delived at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, as part of an event to commemorate the centenary of Jack Jones’ birth.
Seventy-five years ago, a young trade unionist and Labour councillor from Liverpool took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. The young man was, of course, Jack Jones. To some contemporary audiences, this can seem an astonishing thing to do, yet for those who volunteered to fight at the time, it was often a simple and straight-forward decision. The issue was put starkly by the English poet, Stephen Spender, for whom the war in Spain was ‘an absolute choice between good and evil.’ The 1930s, wrote a volunteer from Wembley (John Bassett), were ‘a time of hope, when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs.’
The reasons that lay behind the decision of some 2500 men and women from Britain and Ireland to go to Spain had more to do with events outside the country than within. While the vast majority of the volunteers from Britain knew little of Spanish politics, they certainly had personal experience of the powerful forces engulfing Europe in the 1930s, which had encouraged many to shift politically to the left. First had come the Great Depression, the catastrophic economic crisis that followed the stock market crash of 1929 and put over two million Britons out of work by 1930.
Alongside the economic turmoil came a political storm, one that had been growing since the end of the First World War and now swept across Europe. The birth of Mussolini’s fascist state in 1922 was followed by the establishment of other European dictatorships, most significantly in Germany following Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship in 1933. By the mid-1930s, essentially constitutional states such as France were themselves seemingly under threat. And, of course, fascism was not just a continental phenomenon. In Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (known as the Blackshirts) which had been founded in October 1932, appeared to present a similar threat to democracy. Mosley’ Blackshirt thugs were involved in vicious attacks on opponents, in particular in Jewish neighbourhoods such as Cheetham in Manchester and London’s east-end.
So, when on 17 July 1936, a military uprising was launched in Spain in order to overthrow the democratically elected government, Spain appeared to be the latest country about to succumb. However, while the rising scored some initial successes, it failed to capture significant parts of Spain, including the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao. Here opponents of the rising took to the streets, erected barricades and confronted the insurgents under the rallying cry ¡No pasarán! (They shall not pass).
Faced with determined opposition, the generals saw that their rebellion was in real danger of being defeated. With their best soldiers, Franco’s elite Army of Africa, trapped in Morocco, the Rebel officers turned to fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for assistance. After some hesitation, both Hitler and Mussolini sent help, providing vital aircraft to ferry Franco’s troops across the Strait of Gibraltar onto the peninsula, where they were able to head rapidly north, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake.
Desperate pleas for assistance from the Spanish Republican government, initially regarded with sympathy by France, met with firm opposition from Stanley Baldwin’s national government in Britain. Determined to avoid a wider European conflagration, and maintaining that appeasement of Germany and Italy was the best means of preventing it, the European democracies chose not to come to the Republic’s aid. Instead a ‘non-intervention agreement’ was created, to which Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the USSR all signed up – in writing at least.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the agreement strongly favoured the Rebels, who continued to receive covert assistance from Germany and Italy. Indeed, for many supporters of the Spanish government, the non-intervention pact was the real villain of the story, and George Orwell later argued that the fate of the Republic ‘was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin – at any rate not in Spain’.
So for Jack and other supporters of the Spanish Republic the war was never seen as a domestic conflict. The view is often expressed in interviews with brigaders, that ‘Although the war was fought exclusively on Spanish soil, I never saw it as a domestic conflict.’ To the volunteers, Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries, a perspective lucidly expressed by the sculptor, Jason Gurney from London, who arrived in Spain in December 1936:
“The Spanish Civil war seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and you went out to fight it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth…for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have a national boundary.” (Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain, p.36.)
Therefore fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe: conversely a victory for Franco was seen, by extension, as a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for the Spanish Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided anti-fascists with convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
Around the world supporters of the Spanish Republic held meetings and demonstrations, collected food, money and medical supplies. However, some felt that sending help and money was not enough. Spain needed arms, as one young Spaniard argued: ‘We Spaniards are greatly thankful for your charity and your lint and your ointments which you send us to repair Don Quixote’s wounds; but we would be much more thankful if you were to outfit him with a new lance and an up-to-date shield.’
Some anti-fascists agreed and took the decision to volunteer to go to Spain, determined to seize this opportunity to halt the spread of authoritarian right-wing regimes across Europe. As Jack explained:
“The awful realisation that black fascism was on the march right across Europe created a strong desire to act. The march had started with Mussolini and had gained terrible momentum with Hitler and was being carried forward by Franco. For most young people there was a feeling of frustration, but some determined to do anything that seemed possible, even if it meant death, to try to stop the spread of fascism…This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.” (Introduction by Jack Jones in Judith Cook, Apprentices of Freedom, pp.vii-ix.)
The first volunteers consisted mainly of German and Italian anti-fascists, plus some British, French and Polish left-wingers. Sprinkled among the Spanish defenders at the rate of one to four, the brigaders both boosted their morale and trained them in the use of weapons such as machine-guns. The arrival of a well-disciplined group of soldiers provided an important psychological boost to the Republican forces. To many observers’ surprise, the defenders of Madrid managed to halt the advance of General Franco’s forces at the gates of the Spanish capital.
Yet when Jack first approached the Aid Spain Office in Liverpool’s Haymarket in order to offer his services to the Spanish Republic, he was turned down, despite having experience in the Territorial Army. Instead, he was told that he would be of more use staying in Britain and working on behalf of the Spanish Republic, including helping to recruit volunteers for the International Brigades.
However, after several requests, in early 1938 Jack’s efforts to volunteer were finally rewarded and permission was granted for him to go. However, it was not easy to get to Spain, for volunteering for the Spanish war had been made illegal in Britain, so the journey had to be undertaken in secret. Jack’s organisational experience meant that he was sufficiently trusted to be put in charge of a group of British volunteers. They followed the by now well-trodden route: from London by train and boat to the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades in Paris and then on by train once again to Perpignan in southern France.
With the border between France and Spain closed, volunteers were forced to undertake an exhausting nine hour climb over the Pyrenees to get into Spain – carried out at night to avoid the patrols set up to catch them. Jack’s group arrived in Spain in March 1938. Upon his arrival he was given some brief training in the fort at Figueras in northern Catalonia, before being allowed to carry on to Barcelona to deliver a letter he was carrying from Ernest Bevin to representatives of the socialist trade union, the UGT. After delivering the letter, Jack briefly joined a UGT unit fighting on Aragon front [near Lerida], an experience he later described in his autobiography, Union Man:
“My character was hardened by many experiences at that time but one incident stands out vividly in my memory. ‘Yo lucha para Libertad! (‘I fight for liberty’) shouted the old Spaniard, digging in alongside me. The ground was hard and stony and with the aid of a trenching tool it was possible to dig only a shallow strip and use what natural cover was available. Laying his trenching tool on the ground, he picked up his rifle to fire at the opposing force. We faced a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire and shells came flying over at the same time. I looked at the unlikely soldier by my side and marvelled at his courage. He had a gnarled bronze face, a heavy body, and was wearing the cap and overalls of a working man. He was afraid of nothing. It turned out that he was an anarchist, but he typified for me the resolve of so many Spaniards who hated the idea of a Fascist take-over. [But] in his courage he was reckless, a recklessness which did for him, for he was killed within minutes of his picking up his rifle and firing a few shots.” (Jack Jones, Union Man, 2008, p. 68.)
Despite choosing to wear a black leather jacket – he later admitted it was not exactly the most effective form of camouflage – Jack survived a period of service with the Spanish UGT unit, before rejoining his compatriots. Jack Jones from Liverpool became volunteer number 1788 of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade.
Probably due more to his political, than military experience, he was appointed as political commissar to the No. 1 Major Atlee Company. Jack described his role as ‘a combination of welfare advisor and political advisor’; but he would have been unusual if he had not been informed that he should both keep watch over – and a watch on – the men in his company. Based primarily on the model of the Soviet Red Army, the political commissars operated as a parallel command structure to the military and were responsible for both morale and discipline within the Communist-dominated International Brigades.
In many ways it was not an auspicious time to join the International Brigades. The appalling number of casualties in the battles of Jarama and Brunete around Madrid the previous year, meant that those who arrived in 1938 could have no illusions of the danger they faced. Furthermore, the massive offensive in Aragon launched by Franco at the end of February 1938 had ended with his soldiers dancing triumphantly in the Mediterranean at Viñaroz, splitting the Republican zone in two.
During the chaotic retreats at least 100 members of the British Battalion were killed and many more wounded. A similar number were captured and imprisoned in prisoner of war camps. The following photograph was taken of the defiant British survivors responding to a story in a pro-Franco British newspaper which had triumphantly announced the annihilation of the International Brigades.
Yet, when Jack joined the battalion in the summer of 1938, he found the men in training at Fontanella, a pretty valley surrounded by rugged hills and mountains near the Catalonian village of Marsa. The volunteers christened it ‘Chabola Valley’ after the small rough shelters they constructed under the hazelnut bushes that proliferated in the barrancos, the small dried up river gullies.
The volunteers were kept busy with ‘training, marching or rifle practice’ and ‘the procedures for crossing rivers’, while at night one of the volunteers who was a particularly strong swimmer (Lewis Clive) swam clandestinely across the Ebro to reconnoitre the Nationalist positions. Benefiting from regular food and sleep, and safe from the daily risk of death, some came to see this as one of their most pleasant periods in Spain, as one Scottish member of the battalion described: ‘In this happy existence, which was really enjoyable, we were out in the fresh air and we were sleeping under the open sky. The weather was fairly good and we were getting plenty of exercise and plenty of food.’
On 8 July the battalion was visited by a travelling van fitted out with hot showers. Many volunteers also took the opportunity to lose themselves in a book. Their ranks included a number of voracious readers and they had amassed a huge library of English books; these were stored at a nearby hacienda, where they managed to rig up electric lighting and could read long into the night. ‘It was a strange, argumentative army of thinkers,’ remembered one young Briton. Jack described his time at Chavola Valley to the historian Max Arthur:
“Life wasn’t easy, but a good spirit prevailed in the ranks. Food was short; our main meals consisted of beans, lentils and chickpeas, sometimes beans with dried fish in a stew, or beans with mule meat or old goat, stewed and topped off with rough – very rough – red wine. Some of the lads visited an old chap in a nearby village who, allegedly, made stew from mice, but nobody would admit to having tasted it. Needless to say, there were no cats or dogs around!” (Interview with Jack Jones in Max Arthur, The Real Band of Brothers, p. 137.)
Towards the end of July 1938, the period of training finally came to an end. Now promoted to Commissar of Number Four Company, Jack and his comrades in the International Brigades were to be part of a huge – and ambitious – Republican offensive back across the River Ebro.
During the nights of 23 and 24 July 1938, the British Battalion marched nearly thirty kilometres to their crossing point over the river near Ascó. Early the following morning, the British followed the Canadian battalion over the river, most of them taken over in small rowing boats, while others crossed on pontoon bridges rapidly erected during the morning by Republican engineers.
Initially, the Republican soldiers found the Nationalists unprepared and they were able to advance rapidly. By the afternoon of 25 July, Jack and the other British volunteers were within two kilometres of the village of Corbera, that lay between them and their principal target, the small town of Gandesa, the key to the Ebro offensive.
However, within two hours of the first troops crossing, Nationalist aeroplanes had begun attacking the temporary bridges over the river. A lack of supplies, especially food and water, were becoming problematic as the battalion’s supply line became dangerously over-extended. Nevertheless, in increasingly difficult conditions, the battalion pressed on towards Gandesa. As Spanish forces battered the town itself, the British Battalion was ordered to capture a hill, just over a kilometre to the east, nicknamed ‘The Pimple’ by the British. The Pimple (Hill 481) overlooked Gandesa, and though not the highest hill in the vicinity, its capture was vital if the attack on the town was to stand any chance of success. Unfortunately, Franco had by now brought up reinforcements and the attacking Republican forces met with extremely fierce resistance, particularly aircraft and artillery fire. The volunteers in the battalion faced what one described as ‘a withering, murderous reply of shells, rifle and machine gun fire’ from the resolute defenders on Hill 481 and from Nationalist positions on the surrounding heights and on top of high buildings within Gandesa itself. Between 27 July and 3 August, in searing heat, the battalion launched increasingly desperate assaults on the hill, but all were repulsed, as Jack sadly recalled, ‘at great cost’.
Even for men hardened to the brutal realities of warfare, the number of casualties sustained on Hill 481 was deeply shocking. Many of them were popular, long-standing members of the battalion, who had fought in Spain since the very creation of the battalion eighteen months earlier. One of many casualties of the first day’s fighting on the hill was Jack himself, as he describes:
“Once more I had clambered up the hill with my comrades, taking cover where we could and firing at the enemy wherever he appeared. The bullets of the snipers whizzed over, grenades and shells were striking the ground, throwing up earth and dust and showering us with shrapnel. Suddenly my shoulder and right arm went numb. Blood gushed from my shoulder and I couldn’t lift my rifle. I could do nothing but lie where I was. Near me a comrade had been killed and I could hear the cries of others, complaining of their wounds. While I was lying there, to make things worse, a spray of shrapnel hit my right arm. The stretcher bearers were doing their best but could hardly keep up with the number of casualties. As night fell I made my own way, crawling to the bottom of the hill. I was taken with other wounded men down the line to an emergency field hospital at Mora del Ebro where I was given an anti-tetanus injection. The place was like an abbatoir; there was blood and the smell of blood everywhere.” (Jack Jones, Union Man, 1986, pp. 75–6.)
Transferred from hospital to hospital, it soon became clear that Jack’s wounds were not going to recover easily and the decision was taken to send him home. Jack was finally repatriated on 14 September 1938, and he left Spain accompanied by his friend and former company commander, the Irishman, Paddy O’Daire. Back home he was reunited with his fiancée Evelyn, the widow of his friend, George Brown, who had been killed whilst serving as the British Battalion’s political commissar at Brunete in July 1937. Jack & Evelyn married the following month, in October 1938.
His wounds healed, Jack returned, as he put it, to ‘the world of ships and cargoes and the human problems of the waterfront.’ But he continued to work for Spain and campaigned to bring an end to the western democracies’ policy of non-intervention. After the final defeat of the Republic in March 1939, Spanish seamen stranded in British seaports who did not want to return to Franco’s Spain sought – and secured – Jack’s help. His connections arranged their transportation to Argentina to begin new lives. He also kept in clandestine contact with the illegal trade union movement in Spain and provided help and legal assistance to those imprisoned by the Franco dictatorship. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Jack lent his support to the re-establishment of independent trade unions in Spain.
As Jack declared in the postscript to the 2008 edition of his autobiography, the cause of democracy in Spain and the contribution of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War remained important to him throughout his life. When Jack died in 2009, he was the President of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a position he had held since its inception in 2001.
The following 2 minute video clip is of Jack Jones talking about his time in Spain, from his participation in the battle on Hill 481 near Gandesa, to his rather sobering assessment of the legacy of the Spanish war. The interviews are from David Leach’s Voices from a Mountain, 2001.
James Larkin ‘Jack’ Jones, 29 March 1913 – 21 April 2009.
When I give lectures and talks about the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, I am often asked not just about the motivations of the volunteers themselves, but mine too. What led me to become interested in a foreign war fought so many years ago? Did any of my family fight in Spain, perhaps? The answer to the last question is simple: no. The answer to the first, however, is more complicated. Like many others in Britain, I suppose, it all began with George Orwell…
I was a big Orwell buff when I was at secondary school. I read most of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm obviously, but I also enjoyed his non-fiction, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London (I was probably the only schoolboy in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would not be true to say that, at that stage, I had become fascinated in the Spanish Civil War. My two strongest feelings on reading the book were probably confusion over the numerous acronyms in the two chapters on Spanish politics and disappointment that Orwell’s brave adventure in Spain ended with him fleeing Spain pursued by those who were, ostensibly, on the same side. That was about it, for some ten years.
While it may sound a little hyperbolic and pretentious to describe a book as life-changing, I have no doubt that, in this case at least, one undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I cannot now remember where the the copy of the book came from, whether it was a present or that I had picked it up on a whim, but I began to read Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite Hemingway’s use of archaic dialect (and other oft-cited weaknesses of the book), I was immediately taken with the story of the young American who had chosen to volunteer to fight in defence of the Republican government against a military uprising.
[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captivated me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he stoically prepares for the end he, and we, know is inevitable. When I finished reading the book I could think of little else for days and it still puts a lump in my throat, even to write about it. It is a terribly, terribly sad story, particularly when you are aware of the parallel in the real world. In Spain in September 1938, of course, it was actually the tearful foreign volunteers who were plucked from the arms of la niña bonita, as the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was known. The famous quote by Albert Camus from 1939 sums up the tragedy and why it is still so affecting for me – and many others:
‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’
As an undergraduate student during the early 1990s at Middlesex University (or Polytechnic, as it was then), I threw myself into studying the Spanish Civil War, taught by Clive Fleay, who had published an article in the Historical Journal on the British Labour Party’s response to the conflict. I spent most of my final year in the British newspaper library in Colindale, perusing copies of The Times¸ the News Chronicle and The Morning Post as research for an undergraduate dissertation on the coverage of the war in the British Press.
A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying for an M.A. at the Institute of Historical Research, as I began to put together an annotated list of the 2500 or so volunteers who left Britain and Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. This was later expanded to become the foundation for my Ph.D. thesis, when I was lucky enough to be accepted to study under one of the world experts on twentieth century Spain, Professor Paul Preston, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the L.S.E. was – and still is – a central hub for scholars from around the world interested in contemporary Spanish history. As a research student there, between 1997 and 2001, I listened to papers from many distinguished historians, including Helen Graham, Enrique Moradiellos, Gabriel Jackson and many, many others. Milton Wolf, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln battalion in Spain, came to give a talk and a number of British veterans of the International Brigades were regularly in the audience, including the former Daily Worker and Morning Star reporter, Sam Lesser (then using his nom-de-guerre from Spain, Sam Russell), Bill Alexander (Milton Wolf’s opposite number in the British Battalion) and David Marshall, one of the early volunteers and the only surviving member from the iconic photograph of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936.
With the death of Bill Alexander in 2000, my relationship to the Spanish Civil War dramatically changed, when I became involved in attempting to establish a new charitable trust, intended to unite two existing organisations, the International Brigade Association and the Friends of the International Brigade.
Over a course of meetings, expertly and diplomatically chaired by Paul, the International Brigade Memorial Trust eventually came into existence. Alongside Paul and Ken Livingstone as patrons, there were three veterans of the Spanish Civil War on the committee: David Marshall and Sam Russell/Lesser were joined by the Liverpool Trade Unionist Jack Jones. A number of family members such as Marlene Sidaway (David Marshall’s partner) and Peter Crome, son of Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the Republican 35th Division medical services joined the committee; as did a recently graduated doctoral student of the LSE: one Richard Baxell. The organisation published its first newsletter in February 2002 and a website and Facebook page followed.
Being a member of the committee and meeting numerous veterans and the families obviously changed the nature of my relationship, making it more personal. This presents obvious challenges to objectivity. However, the value of the help, support and contacts that membership of the committee the IBMT itself, have been incalculable. I have no doubt that my recent oral history of the volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, would have been very much poorer without it.
Richard Baxell, October 2013.