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.
On 28 October 1938, the emotional departure from Spain of the foreign volunteers was marked by a huge farewell parade in Barcelona. The remnants of the International Brigades, a few thousand in all, led by military bands, set off nine abreast from the bull ring at the end of Diagonal, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The 15th International Brigade, the last to be established, brought up the rear.
At the end of the parade, a huge rally was held at which important Republican figures, including President Manuel Azaña and Prime Minister Juan Negrín, expressed their thanks to the Internationals. The volunteers’ sacrifices had earned the eternal gratitude of the Spanish Republicans, eloquently expressed by Dolores Ibárruri (the legendary orator from Asturias, known as La Pasionaria) at a huge farewell parade held in Barcelona on 28 October 1938. ‘We shall not forget you,’ she had assured them, promising that, one day, they would be welcomed back to a free, democratic Spain:
“Those of you who have no country will find one, those of you deprived of friendship will find friends and all of you will find the love, affection and gratitude of the whole of the Spanish People.”
A month and a half later, on 7 December 1938, the surviving members of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade arrived back on British soil, having endured a very rough crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven. They hardly received a heroes’ welcome; instead they were met with an interrogation by customs and Foreign Office officials, as representatives of the British security services looked on. Put on a train to London, the exhausted soldiers, many of them heavily bandaged and a number on crutches, disembarked to find a very different welcome at Victoria Station. A vast crowd of family members, friends and supporters had assembled to welcome them home. Among the waving Union Jacks were flags bearing the names of British trade unions and left-wing political organisations. Others bore one simple phrase: ‘¡No pasarán!’
To commemorate this homecoming, ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, Philosophy Football, in association with the IBMT and Thompsons Solicitors, organised a gala evening at the Rich Mix arts centre in London on 7 December 2013.
The evening began with Maxine Peake’s passionate rendition of La Pasionaria’s farewell speech to the International Brigades, followed by performances by poet Francesca Beard and singer Maddy Carty, both of whom had been commissioned to produce work specifically for this event.
I followed a typically ardent delivery from Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the RMT. Not an easy task. Fortunately, I was able to begin by showing film of the British volunteers returing from Spain in 1938, which the BFI had generously digitised especially for the event (a low resolution version of the film can be found online). The film is without a soundtrack, but on IBMT Secretary Jim Jump’s suggestion, the Philosophy Football team added an entirely appropriate score: the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’, which was composed in honour of the volunteers who died in Spain. The combination of the film and music was absolutely electrifying. When it was first performed in April 1939, the music was accompanied by the words of poet Randall Swingler and I felt it was entirely appropriate to precede my talk by reading them:
You who stand at your doors, wiping hands on aprons,
You who lean at the corner saying ‘We have done our best’,
You who shrug your shoulders and you who smile
To conceal your life’s despair and its evil taste,
To you we speak, you numberless Englishmen,
To remind you of the greatness still among you
Created by these men who go from your towns
To fight for peace, for liberty, and for you.
They were men who hated death and loved life,
Who were afraid, and fought against their fear.
Men who wish’d to create and not to destroy,
But knew the time must come to destroy the destroyer.
For they have restored your power and pride,
Your life is yours, for which they died.
My (occasionally bleak) account on the experiences of the British fighting fascism between 1932 and 1945 in Britain, Spain and Europe followed, leading in to a brief discussion with writers Paul Mason and Daniel Trilling, Stop the War campaigner Salma Yaqoob and Olga Abasolo from Spain’s Los Indignados movement.
After the interval, comedian Mark Steel‘s set took well-aimed and often very funny pot-shots at Margaret Thatcher, north Londoners and Chelsea supporters (amongst others), all neatly linked by a diatribe on the difficulty of adapting to change. Socialist R’n’B band Thee Faction and a DJ set from PanditG completed what was, by all accounts, a very successful and highly enjoyable night.
In May 2013 an article entitled, ‘Homage to Latakia’ appeared in the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine Maclean’s. Written by historian and journalist, Michael Petrou, the piece argued passionately for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds and drew comparisons with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when the western powers had refused to intervene. However, in the six months since the article appeared – chemical weapons inspections aside – the west has not shown any great enthusiasm for doing so.
While debates on the advisedness – or not – of intervention continue, so does a tendency, within the media in particular, to view the Syrian conflict through the prism of the Spanish Civil War. As with many of these comparative exercises, while it’s interesting to engage in, I’m not convinced how useful it actually is.
There are certainly parallels which can be drawn; the most glaring being that in both Syria and Spain foreign powers provided significant military support, while the western powers watched on. The disparate and fragile nature of the coalition facing Assad’s military junta seems, on the surface, to echo Spain, but here too we should exercise caution. (It seems to me the situation in Egypt is actually a closer parallel, where a military coup was launched against a legally elected government).
The most recent attempt to compare Syria with Spain was on 24 November 2013, when I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend (you can listen to my brief interview by clicking the audio-player above). The interviewer, Shaun Ley, was particularly interested to know, first, why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain, given that it was a country of which most of them knew very little and, second, in the light of the experiences of those returning from Spain seventy-five years ago, how any survivors from the 200 or so Britons presently fighting in Libya might be viewed on their return.
Answering the first question is straightforward and clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of comparing British Islamic jihadists fighting in Syria with the men and women who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The overwhelming majority of volunteers in Spain were there because they had watched with growing alarm the rise of fascism across Europe in general and in Britain in particular. For these anti-fascists, determined to do what they could to halt the fascist tide, Spain was just the latest battlefield in the wider war against fascism. As George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, explained in a letter home to his family:
“Mother dear, we’re not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I’ve seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.”
Interestingly, Shaun’s second question did tease out one similarity. As I explained, when the veterans of the Spanish war returned to Britain in December 1938, they faced grave suspicion from many within the British government and security services. Though the government recognised that there was little chance of successfully prosecuting volunteers for Spain under the archaic Foreign Enlistment Act, this should not be seen as a general sympathy for their cause within the British establishment. On the contrary, many veterans found their attempts to volunteer for the armed forces in the Second World War blocked and others described experiencing discrimination in their workplaces for many years after. Whether any of the 400 or so British Muslims fighting in Syria will ever return to Britain is not clear. However, it is probably safe to say that, if they do, the British security services will view them with every bit as much suspicion. In 1938 the veterans were described as having been ‘imbued with revolutionary sentiments’; in 2013 they will have been ‘radicalised’. The language may be different but, in this aspect at least, the experiences of the two utterly different groups of volunteers may be very much the same.