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.
In the centre of Paris, three kilometres north-east of the Louvre and just east of the Canal Saint-Martin, lies an apparently nondescript intersection of six streets, the Place du Colonel Fabien. Named in honour of the ‘militant Communist and member of the French Resistance’ killed in 1944, the junction’s only feature of note (metro station aside) is a large curved glass building, built during the 1960s, judging by the fairly brutal architectural style. This is the modern headquarters of the Partie Communiste Francais which played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when it acted as the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades.
Between October 1936 and the summer of 1938, some 35 000 men and women from around the world made the journey to Spain to join the Brigades, with as many as 2500 of them coming from Britain and Ireland. Initially, volunteers made their way to Spain independently (though this required money and, crucially, a passport), however following the decision by the Communist International (the Comintern) in October 1936 to organise international volunteers, the role of the national Communist Parties – in particular the PCF – became crucial both in the recruitment of volunteers and getting them to Spain.
The process of volunteering was straightforward, though had to be carried out in secret. Those in Britain wishing to go to Spain would make contact with their local Communist Party who, assuming they were seen as politically trustworthy (Trade Unionists, members of the Party or other left-wing political organisation), would forward them to the Party’s head office in London’s King Street. Here, further checks would be made on their political and military background, and applicants would be given stern warnings that they may well not return. Those accepted and wishing to continue would then travel onward in small groups, trying (usually fairly unsuccessfully) to maintain a low profile, making their way by train to a port (usually Newhaven or Dover), then by ferry to France and on to Paris.
Here, in the PCF offices in Place du Combat, the volunteers underwent further checks and were given a medical examination. The British representative in Paris was the French-speaking Charlotte Haldane, (known by the pseudonym ‘Rita’), wife of the renowned scientist and ardent Republican supporter J.B.S. Haldane and mother of a volunteer in the British Battalion. Her job was to partly process the incoming volunteers, but she was also instructed to confiscate volunteers’ excess money in order to, as she put it, ‘avert the danger that any of the volunteers should get drunk, start brawls or become involved in them, or be lured into the neighbouring brothels.’ Instead, each volunteer was provided with ten francs daily pocket money (food and lodging were provided for free).
From Paris the volunteers would travel south and over the border into Spain by train, until volunteering was made illegal in January 1937, after which the usual route was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees at night, which involved an exhausting and hazardous climb of some twelve hours.
Those that actually made it to the border were then taken the short distance to Figueras by lorry and put on a train to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers were divided up by nationality and language. British volunteers were sent to their base at the nearby village of Madrigueras where they were given rudimentary military training, before they joined their comrades on the front-line.
Few would escape unscathed.
To commemorate seventy-five years since the end of the Spanish Civil War – and to publicise the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors – I was invited by Robert Elms to join him on his lunchtime show on BBC London 94.9. Robert owns a house in Spain, speaks the language and has long been a supporter of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Even so, he proved to be an extremely well-informed interviewer. As one commemtator put it to me admiringly,
I’ve just listened to the whole interview and thought how skilfully you were given the opportunity by a sympathetic interviewer to put the story across and present the International Brigaders in the favourable light they deserve.
Sadly, as I stated in the programme, there are no longer any of the British volunteers left in Britain to tell the story for themselves, so it was good to be given the opportunity to talk about them. Thanks, Robert.
Click the media player above to listen to the interview, recorded on 7 April 2014.