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.
When Paul Preston was promoting Spanish Holocaust, his exhaustive account of the appalling atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (and after), he pointedly stressed his debt to historians involved in local research. While he was referring to work conducted within Spain, the remark is true also of the UK, where detailed regional studies of areas such as Reading, Manchester and Tyneside have played an important part in helping piece together a wider picture of Britain’s role in the conflict. This latest addition to the literature, No Other Way (the title, of course, taken from C. Day Lewis’s famous 1938 poem, ‘The Volunteer’), unearths Oxford’s role, examining the efforts of both ‘town and gown’ in support of the Spanish Republic, efforts that apparently united the two different worlds in a manner never seen before, or since.
This new study of Oxfordshire is to be welcomed, not least the account of the role of the university itself. Sam Lesser, veteran of the International Brigades and former IBMT Chair, once confessed to me his concern that an understandable tendency to debunk what Bill Alexander once described as the ‘vague notion that everyone in the brigades was a poet or writer’ could lead to the role of artists, writers and other intellectuals being downplayed, or even overlooked. I suspect that this book (together with other recent publications and exhibitions) would have gone some way towards assuaging his worries.
No Other Way begins with a prologue by Oxford Professor Tom Buchanan and an introduction by Chris Farman, which helpfully sets out the wider context. This leads onto what, for me, was the most interesting and central part of the book, Valery Rose and Liz Wooley’s account of the personal involvement of the people of the university and its town. In addition to the Oxfordshire men and women who volunteered to go to Spain, the book shows how residents were actively involved in campaigns on behalf of the Spanish Republic and in the creation and support for local colonies of Basque children. The authors illustrate the influence of European political refugees in the university and the key role played by the semi-autonomous Ruskin College, site of this years’ IBMT AGM. And though the section rightly concentrates on the support for the Spanish Republic, the authors do not shy away from unpalatable truths, pointing out that, just as elsewhere, there were a number in Oxford praying for a Franco victory.
The second major section of the book is a collection of biographies of the 31 Oxford volunteers. This is a considerable achievement, managing to pull together material from myriad sources. Like the previous sections, and the subsequent methodological discussion by Jenny Swanson, it amply demonstrates the attention to detail and academic expertise of the authors. Which leads to my one minor quibble: why no footnotes? A strange omission, in the circumstances. That criticism aside, I found No Other Way to be clearly and engagingly written and it showcases what can be achieved with careful and thorough research. The book provides a useful template for other local studies; the hosts of the 2015 AGM in Aberdeen have a tough act to follow.
This review appeared in the January 2015 edition of the IBMT newsletter.