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.
Sadly, we have now reached the end of an era. With the death of 98 year old Stan Hilton, there are no longer any British veterans of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 alive to tell their tale. Stan may well have been the last member of the entire English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade. Jules Paivio, the last of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013 and the American, Delmer Berg, the final Lincoln, died earlier this year.
Over the course of the civil war more than 6000 international volunteers (1000 Canadians, 2500 British & Irish and 2800 Americans), served in the Fifteenth International Brigade, part of a 35 000 strong band of brothers – and sisters – from some 53 countries around the world. These anti-fascists volunteered to join the battle because, as one American from Mississippi put it simply, ‘I saw in the invaders of Spain the same people I’ve been fighting all my life.’ They believed that Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries; arguing that fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe and conversely a victory for Franco would be, by extension, a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for Franco’s Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
While the International Brigades were only a small part of the Spanish Republican army, their arrival on the Madrid front eighty years ago this November was hugely significant. The international volunteers raised the morale of the defenders of the Spanish capital, whilst providing invaluable instruction in the use of weaponry such as machine-guns. However, the involvement of the International Brigades in the fighting around Madrid between November 1936 and the spring of 1937 was probably their high-water mark. As the war dragged on, their influence gradually waned. Outnumbered and outgunned, lacking crucial air cover, and consistently thrown into the heart of the fire, the foreign volunteers were, in the words of one senior Scottish volunteer, ‘cut to pieces’. Around a fifth of the 35 000 international volunteers were killed in Spain and the vast majority were wounded at some stage. As American historian Peter Carroll explained, raw courage and belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the volunteers’ cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
When nineteen year old Stan Hilton jumped ship in Alicante and volunteered to join the fight, he was convinced that ‘it was the right thing to do’. By this time, November 1937, the British Battalion had been fighting in Spain for almost a year. They had been having a very tough time of it: during the bloodbath at Jarama in February and in the ferocious heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete the British had been virtually annihilated. While some success had been seen on the Aragon front in the autumn, the target of the Republican offensive, Saragossa, had stubbornly remained in Rebel hands. With the battalion in reserve, Stan was sent for military training at the British Battalion’s headquarters in the village of Madrigueras, just to the north of the main International Brigades headquarters at Albacete. His period of training (such as it was) completed, Stan joined the battalion in early 1938, as the British volunteers fought as part of the Republican force desperately trying to hold on to the remote capital of Teruel. Conditions were horrendous: in freezing temperatures that sank to twenty below zero at night, more men died at Teruel from the cold than were killed in battle. For Stan, brought up on notions of ‘sunny Spain’, it was a brutal introduction to the realities of warfare: ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he later recalled.
Things were about to get much worse. Boosted by reinforcements, Franco’s forces recaptured Teruel before pressing home their advantage by launching a colossal offensive in the spring against the Republican forces in Aragon. Thirteen divisions, including Italians and the German Condor Legion, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean. Much better armed and supplied, Franco’s forces outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. Franco’s soldiers successfully reached the Mediterranean in mid-April 1938, splitting the Republic’s territory in two.
With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up having to undertake a dangerous swim across the fast-flowing River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse). Half-drowned, starving and exhausted, Stan decided that he had had enough of the Spanish war and headed for the Mediterranean coast. In March 1938, with the permission of the British ship’s captain, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, in 1956 he took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. There he remained, mainly working as a tiler in the building trade, living a quiet life, his presence unknown to the UK’s International Brigade Memorial Trust. That is, until he was tracked down in an old people’s home in Yarrawonga, Australia, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. A couple of years ago Stan was transferred from there to a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, in order to be closer to his family. It was there, on 21 October 2016, that Stan Hilton, tiler, merchant seaman and International Brigader finally died, aged 98. He was the last of the last, el último de la última.
This article originally appeared in The Spain Report on 28 October 2016.
dc]T[/dc]o commemorate 80 years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the Easter Rising in Ireland, the fifteenth Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust was held in Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre. To mark this special event, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, very generously agreed to both open the meeting and address the audience.
He gave what was, in many ways, a remarkable speech. Erudite, informative and wide-ranging, the topic was clearly dear to the President’s heart and his talk appeared to have been many years in the writing. It resisted clichés and over-simplifications, acknowledging that the war in Spain cannot be reduced to a binary struggle between good and evil, as the poet Stephen Spender once claimed. It was not, argued President Higgins, simply between Catholicism and Communism nor, for that matter, was it a straightforward struggle between democracy and fascism.
The speech was consistently generous in tone as well as content, and its conclusion generously praised the work of the Trust today, while honouring the efforts of the volunteers fighting for democratic Spain all those years ago:
Ba cheart dúinn, mar náisiún, a bheith an-bhródúil as na fir is na mná cróga Éireannach a chuaigh leis an Bhriogáid Idirnáisiúnta sa bhliain 1936. Is mian liom sibh a mholadh as an obair atá ar siúl agaibh le cuimhne agus le luachanna na ndaoine a throid ar mhachaire catha na Spáinne, ar son na saoirse i ngach áit, a choinneáil beo.
[As a nation we can be very proud of the brave Irish men and women who joined the International Brigade in 1936. May I commend you, therefore, for the work you do in keeping alive the memory and the values of all those who bravely fought for ‘freedom everywhere’ on the battlefields of Spain almost eighty years ago.]
The full text of the speech can be found on the President of Ireland’s website. I highly recommend it.
On the face of it, Biggles creator Captain W.E. Johns seems a most unlikely supporter of the Spanish government in the civil war. However, much like Winston Churchill, who detailed his move from pro-Rebel to pro-Republic in Step by Step¸ Johns gradually came to see Franco’s victory as a potential threat to the British Empire. He didn’t seem to see things that way in May 1937, though, when he wrote an obituary for Christopher St. John Sprigg, who had been killed fighting (under the nom de guerre Christopher Caudwell) with the British Battalion of the International Brigades during the Battle of Jarama in February. Johns knew and admired Sprigg, many of whose stories he had published in the journal Popular Flying under his nom de plume, Arthur Cave. Johns considered them ‘some of the best short air stories that have been written.’
In the obituary, which also appeared in Popular Flying, Johns recounted how ‘Sprigg had gone to fight on the side which may, or may not, be right … Heavens above, what waste!’ His view is representative of many in Britain at the time, particularly in the government and media, who saw, or at least depicted, the war as one between two repugnant political ideologies. ‘We English’, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, famously declared, ‘hate fascism, but we loathe bolshevism as much. So, if there is somewhere where fascists and bolsheviks can kill each other off, so much the better.’ Unfortunately, some commentators still see the war in the same way.
Johns actually wrote about the Spanish Civil War, plunging Biggles and his redoubtable chums Ginger and Algy into the murky world of espionage in the Republican zone. The plot of Biggles in Spain suggests that Johns was fully aware of the widespread spying carried out behind the lines and was surprisingly accepting of the Republicans’ measures in order to counter it. Johns is also, through the words of his eponymous hero, disapproving of the Rebels, criticising the bombing of British shipping and expressing his disgust at the Rebels’ bombing of defenceless civilians. When the three pilots manage to swim to shore following the sinking of their ship, they encounter Barcelona experiencing a night-time bombing raid: ‘”Dirty work”, said Biggles coldly.’
The story is, of course, as far-fetched as you would imagine (or hope), featuring spies, treachery and other skulduggery. One of the more interesting episodes has one of Biggles’ sidekicks fighting with the International Brigades during the Battle of the Ebro, where he encounters a volunteer from London:
Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.
What a waste, in other words. Clearly, Johns could be referring to Sprigg here and he returns to his theme when describing a Scottish volunteer pilot who has abandoned his home for ‘the cause of freedom and justice – a cause for which millions of men since the beginning of time have laid down their lives, usually in vain.’
[Spoiler alert] In the end, of course, the plucky pilots survive their Spanish episode, with no more than a few bumps and scratches and a life-long dislike of the ‘reek of garlic’. And it is, after all, only a brief episode in which Biggles has only done what ‘any Britisher would do.’ As Johns’ final paragraph reveals, what really counts is not some meaningless squabble between those unfortunate enough to have been born the wrong side of the English channel, but that, like the adventures of Biggles himself, ‘the old Empire goes on’.