BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
Having spent the last two summers exploring civil war battle sites in Aragon, this year saw the return of four historians, two from Ireland (Emmet O’Connor and Barry McGloughlin) and two from England (John Halstead and myself), to explore some of the sites around Madrid. Our trip was given added poignancy by the knowledge that Emmet’s father fought with the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Having arrived in Spain in December 1936, Peter O’Connor fought in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and at Brunete five months later, where he was wounded. Following pressure from Irish Republican leader Frank Ryan, O’Connor was repatriated shortly afterwards ‘for political reasons … with an excellent record’ (International Brigade Archive Box 39, file A/29).
Our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Brunete, though, sadly, not much evidence remains. You can get a good sense of the overall layout from a viewpoint just south of Valdemorillo, but both the village of Villanueva de la Cañada (where Falangist defenders held out, crucially delaying the Republican advance) and the ultimate objective of the 15 International Brigade, Mosquito Ridge, have been built up and developed.
Fortunately, the Jarama battlefield remains much as it was nearly 80 years ago. It’s easy to find, lying just off the M302, three kilometres west of Morata de Tajuña and is marked by the large monument to the battle (see image above). The sunken road, mentioned in many accounts of the battle, is roughly 500 metres further west of the monument and runs south-west off the M302 (though it’s not sunken any more). This leads you right to the site itself and the memorial to the Irish volunteer, Kit Conway, who commanded the British Battalion’s Number One Company and was killed on the first day of the battle. Walk through the olive groves and scrub, rich with the pungent smell of wild thyme, and you will see the positions that the British Battalion attempted to defend on 12 February 1937. The Knoll, Conical Hill and ‘Suicide Hill’ on which the ill-prepared and poorly-armed volunteers were cut to pieces can all be made out clearly. Sobering.
Our third visit was not to a battle site, nor to a memorial to the International Brigades; in fact, quite the opposite. Surprisingly none of us had ever previously visited Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s monument to the Nationalist dead. Set underneath a 150 metre high cross, the memorial houses one of the world’s largest basilicas, dug out of solid rock, in which rest the tombs of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish Fascist party. The monument bears all the hallmarks of fascists architecture: it’s huge, overbearing, pompous and dripping with pseudo-religious imagery and rhetoric. Thousands of Republican prisoners died during its construction and, to this day, debates rage over its future. Should it be pulled down, as was the case with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, or should it be kept as a reminder of the brutal and murderous excesses of Franco’s regime? On balance I favour the latter, despite the monument’s undeniable grandiose ugliness.
The last stop was Calle de Toledo, which runs south from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Today, the attractive, narrow little street is lined with cafés and bars full of tourists enjoying a cooling drink or sampling tapas as people bustle past, fending off hawkers. However, in November 1936, it looked rather different, becoming the scene for one of the most famous photographs of the civil war. The banner hung across it by defiant Madrileños proclaimed that ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism!’ ¡No Pasarán! they declared, ‘They Shall Not Pass!’
The banner spoke true, of course, for Madrid was never conquered militarily, only being occupied following the Republic’s collapse, which brought the war to its sorry conclusion. From Franco’s first assault on the Spanish capital in November 1936 to the end of the civil war in March 1939, the Madrileños, supported by volunteers from around the world, held out. The fascists did not pass.
p.s. Despite having visited the Madrid battle sites before, I found David Matthieson’s book, Frontline Madrid, invaluable. It gives precise locations of places of interest, along with detailed, comprehensible directions on how to find them. Recommended.
My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
Another year; another highly successful International Brigade Memorial Trust commemoration at London’s Jubilee Gardens.
Initially, as people arrived, the atmosphere seemed a little muted, with people’s minds – and many of the conversations – seemingly dominated by the tumultuous political events of the previous week. Several of the speakers would later allude to the referendum on membership of the European Union and what, for many of those present, was a feeling of lingering sadness. The overhead presence of a police helicopter monitoring the latest demonstration in support of Britain’s continued membership of the E.U. acted as a constant reminder.
However, the ceremony itself was a good tonic. This year saw perhaps the most balanced combination of speakers and performers. Compered, as usual, by IBMT Secretary Jim Jump, the afternoon’s events opened with two uplifting songs from long-standing favourites, folk duo Na Mara.
Almudena Cros, President of AABI (the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades) followed, delivering a typically passionate and heartfelt speech, referring to the internationalism of the volunteers in the 1930s and beseeching the current residents of the UK to echo their internationalism and not withdraw from Europe.
After the singing of ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama‘, the laying of wreaths in front of the memorial and a dignified minute’s silence, it was the turn of Spanish rapper Perro Lobo. I confess to wondering how a performer rapping in Spanish might go down with the (not exactly teenage) IBMT crowd, but I needn’t have worried. His performance was more poetry than rap; the powerful lyrics were delivered with anger, but there was real eloquence there too.
More music followed from Neil Gore, who is presently involved in putting on a performance about Clem Beckett, the motorcycle speedway star of the ’30s who was killed on the first day of the battle of Jarama in February 1937. I particularly enjoyed Neil’s accompanied version of Si mi queires escribir.
The penultimate speaker was Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics, author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War and Twentieth Century Spanish history [see video above]. He explained why the Spanish Civil War and its memory continue to matter. Paul concluded with a poignant excerpt from a virtually unknown American novelist, Josephine Herbst, on her – and many others’ – inability to adjust to life following the end of the Spanish tragedy.
The last of the speakers was the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaffe, IBMT patron and former General Secretary of UNISON and President of the National Pensioners’ Convention. In his characteristically drole and entertaining manner, Rodney launched a call to arms, or rather a call to join. As he pointed out, supporting the IBMT’s valuable work – erecting memorials, holding commemorations, helping to educate people about the sacrifice of the volunteers for the Spanish Republic – only works out at a few pence per day. Money well spent!
The final act was a reading of two poems by another IBMT patron, the actress Maxine Peake. The first was ‘The Dead Have No Regrets’ by Aileen Palmer, an Australian nurse who volunteered for Spain. The second is familiar to most IBMT members: Cecil Day Lewis’s, ‘The Volunteer’. It’s an emotional piece, as the catch in Maxine’s voice during her reading showed. As a professional she may have been disappointed at becoming overwhelmed, but I don’t think she should be. Sometimes it’s good to see what lies beneath the greasepaint.