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Review of Alexander Clifford’s Fighting for Spain and The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War

Few people will look back on 2020 with much fondness, but the year did at least provide some solace for those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War. Giles Tremlett’s comprehensive account of the International Brigades was published in November, followed shortly afterwards by Emmet O’Connor and Barry McLoughlin’s study of the Irish volunteers. Pipping them both to the finishing line though, were two studies of the Republican Army by Alexander Clifford. Both are essentially military histories; the first, The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War is a study of the army as a whole, while the second, Fighting for Spain, centres on the International Brigades. Time will tell, but I imagine most readers will plump for one or the other, rather than both, for there is inevitably some degree of overlap. Nonetheless, they are different books, both in terms of content and approach.

The People’s Army analyses the role of the Republican army during three offensives in 1937: the battle of Brunete in July, the attack on Belchite during the Aragon offensive of the autumn and the attack on the remote provincial capital of Teruel in the winter. For Clifford, the crucial exchange was at Brunete when, he suggests, ‘the war stood at a crossroads’. Clifford’s summary of what went wrong at during the battle chimes with other studies, blaming ‘inadequate training, a poorly executed plan and a lack of tactical nous and timing from commanders.’ As a telling example of the shortcomings of the military commanders, the author recounts how the Republican General, Valentine Gonzalez, known as El Campesino, was passed a map of the Brunete battlefield: ‘Without looking at it, El Campesino spread it out on the table, face down, to serve as a tablecloth.’ Clifford’s assessment of the subsequent fighting in Aragon and Teruel is just as critical. Both saw a disastrous loss of troops, materiél and morale which Franco was able to capitalise on in the spring of 1938, fatally cleaving the Republic in two.

While The People’s Army limits itself to one year of the war, Fighting for Spain follows a more established format, tracing the experiences of the foreign volunteers through the course of the conflict. It begins with a familiar overview of the composition of the Brigades and what lay behind the volunteers’ decisions to go to Spain, before turning to an evaluation of their performance as soldiers. Clifford pushes back against some recent criticisms, reiterating that the 11 and 15 International Brigades in particular (together with General Lister’s famed Communist troops) were not only the finest units in the Republican Army but, at their best, equal to any of Franco’s troops. Yes, the Internationals suffered horrendous casualties, but this was not because they were ineffective or because they were sacrificed as ‘cannon fodder’, but because they were used as ’shock troops’, thrown into the heart of battle.

Nonetheless, Clifford is surely right to state that ‘The Republican People’s Army will not go down in the annals of history as one of the world’s great fighting forces.’ As Peter Carroll has observed, raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force.’ Yet the Republicans managed to fight on for nearly three years, even though many observers had written off their chances during the first few months of the war. Why did the Republic manage to hold on, when so much was against it? Franco’s conservative tactics and obsession with the capture and control of territory certainly played a part, but also, Clifford argues, because the Republican Army was actually a better fighting force than some historians might believe. As he says, despite all the obstacles it faced, ‘the Republic developed from being defended by peasants armed with swords and shotguns to having a regular fighting force capable of launching bold combined-arms offensives using modern military hardware and infiltration tactics.’

His insightful assessment of the Republic’s military capacity is likely to be of interest not just to military historians. His analysis of the shortcomings of the brigadas mixtas, on which the Republican army was based, is particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s unfair to point that these are essentially popular military history books, not academic studies. Though the author makes some use of memoir material (in English) and makes reference to the RGASPI files cited in Ronald Radosh’s controversial Spain Betrayed, he nonetheless relies primarily on secondary sources. The drawback with this approach is, of course, that any errors or oversights in previous works can slip through unchallenged. In this instance Clifford greatly overstates the number of Internationals shot for desertion. He also repeats the longstanding – and unfounded – assertion that the French Communist and Commander of the International Brigades, André Marty, was personally responsible for the execution of five hundred volunteers. Fortunately, he does avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls, such as parroting the cold-war denunciation of Republican Spain as a Soviet puppet state. As he states, ‘it is self-evident that the volunteers’ fight in Spain was an attempt to preserve Republican democracy rather than establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ While both books have their particular pros and cons, I suspect that it is Fighting for Spain that would appeal more to members of ALBA. While not as comprehensive as Giles Tremlett’s recent work, or as US centred as the accounts by Peter Carroll or Adam Hochschild, Clifford manages to clearly and succinctly summarise the role of the International Brigades in Spain. In this, he is aided by numerous photos and maps and highlight boxes with details of key individuals and weaponry. But if it’s a more general background you’re after, then The People’s Army might be your preference. Perhaps the publishers, Pen and Sword, can eliminate this dilemma: would it not make sense to bundle the two books together?

This review originally appeared in August 2021 in The Volunteer.

Review of Paul Preston’s A People Betrayed

In March 2006 Spanish police raided a number of homes and offices belonging to Jesus Gil, the mayor of Marbella and to Juan Antonio Roca, head of town planning. The police seized cash amounting to some 2.4 billion euros, much of it casually stuffed into bin-liners, plus staggering quantities of valuables: ‘boxes of jewellery, several luxury cars, 245 valuable paintings including one by Miró hanging in a bathroom, a helicopter, a pavilion full of hunting trophies in the form of stuffed elephants, zebras, giraffes and leopards and a stable of more than a hundred thoroughbred horses.’ On this occasion the culprits went to jail, but it is just one of many examples of the astounding levels of corruption to have dogged Spain for centuries, laid out starkly in Paul Preston’s new history of the country, A People Betrayed.

Preston is, of course, the world’s foremost authority on contemporary Spanish history and this study – running to 565 pages with a further 134 of references – draws on some fifty years of research. Fortunately, his elegant and engaging narrative style make it eminently readable, enjoyable even, despite the subject matter. While the book follows a traditional chronological structure, it concentrates on a number of themes; as the author explains, ‘it is the central thesis of this book that the violence, corruption and incompetence of the political class have betrayed the population.’ Spain is hardly unique in this, of course, and Preston is quick to discount the popular caricatures and stereotypes of Spain and its people, the so called ‘black legend’. Nevertheless, it is striking how brazen the venality and sleaze appear to be. As Preston argues, public service in Spain has always been a route to private profit for some, and it should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that many people view it as an unsurprising, normal part of politics.

A People Betrayed begins in 1874, with the demise of Spain’s first republic and the foundations of the nineteenth century electoral stitch-up known as the turno pacifico, when ‘politics became an exclusive minuet danced by a small privileged majority.’ Subsequent chapters discuss Spain’s loss of empire in 1898, the ’tragic week’ of 1909 and the country’s missed opportunities during the first world war. All are typically thorough, though it the chapters on Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship from 1923 to 1930 which many will find particularly interesting. Preston recounts how, ushered in on the spirit of ‘regenerationism’ that pledged to make Spain great again, Primo’s regime instead sank to outrageous levels of incompetence and corruption. Monopolies were given to friends and cronies in banking, petroleum, telecommunications, even rodent eradication. Meanwhile four million pesetas were ‘donated’ by the populace to pay for the dictator’s family home.

As the descriptions of the dictator’s outrageous corruption and excesses are laid out, it gradually dawns that perhaps twentieth century Spain is not the only issue on the author’s mind. History often tells us as much about the present as the past, as the arguments currently raging over statues and memorialisation amply demonstrate. The author’s descriptions of Primo de Rivera’s boastful, thin-skinned demeanour and his pathetic yarns of macho womanising are strongly reminiscent of a more recent vainglorious blowhard. This parallel is made explicit when Preston notes how the dictator’s tendency to put out triumphalist announcements resonates in Trumps’ midnight twitter tirades. Perhaps Primo’s swift fall from power – with the country in chaos, blaming those around him for his personal and political failings – will find another contemporary echo.

IBMT readers will no doubt be on familiar ground when the author turns to the second Spanish republic, the military coup and civil war. However, there is plenty of new material here and, as ever, it’s elegantly done, explaining clearly how the fledgling democratic government faced myriad problems and bitter foes, all at a time of global economic meltdown. Returning to the theme of corruption, Preston reveals how the unscrupulous Mallorcan multi-millionaire Juan March, ‘the sultan of Spain’, utterly perverted the 1933 elections. The ensuing government was so notoriously corrupt that a roulette-fixing scandal directly involving the P.M. Alejandro Lerroux provided the Spanish language with a new term for the black market: el estraperlo.

As the author states, it’s obvious that the Republican army was militarily outclassed during the civil war; hardly surprising, given the colossal assistance provided by Mussolini and Hitler. However, Preston reiterates the view of many brigaders (and many others) that the British and French policy of non-intervention played a significant part in the Republicans’ defeat. As Preston argues, ‘More than the losses on the battlefield, the greatest defeat was Munich.’

While corruption, blunders and war profiteering were hardly unknown within the Republican camp, Preston remains sympathetic to the government’s plight, particularly to the efforts of ‘the brilliant’ Juan Negrín (whatever can it be that the author finds to admire in the larger-than-life, liberal, gourmet, university professor?). However, it will come as a surprise to no one that within Franco’s zone, hatred, incompetence and profit ruled. As Franco himself admitted in 1942: ‘our crusade is the only struggle in which the rich who took part in the war emerged richer.’ Once again Juan March’s money played its part, funding not just Captain Bebb’s infamous Dragon Rapide, but as much as ten per cent of the cost of the Nacionales’ war effort. Naturally, March was amply rewarded during Franco’s ‘kleptocratic state’ which followed. This state sanctioned corruption was, Preston argues, utterly deliberate. Franco ‘turned a blind eye to venality’, because it gave him leverage and kept people loyal. Meanwhile the dictator, who clearly drew no distinction between himself and the country, built up a huge personal fortune, including property, cash, and multiple investments. His family all gorged from the same trough and the avarice of his wife, Doña Carmen, was legendary; Preston recounts how Madrid jewellers shut up shop in panic when they saw her coming.  

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this tale. Preston maintains that, despite the return to democracy in 1977, ‘Forty years of brainwashing guaranteed that Francoist attitudes would survive for decades.’ Incompetence and scandal also persisted: ‘Spain was bedevilled by a level of corruption that involved virtually every institution in the country.’ To this day, political and financial scandals feature regularly in the Spanish media, embroiling politicians of all colours and even the royal family. Sadly the author doesn’t seem optimistic that this will end any time soon; he titles the final chapter, ‘the triumph of corruption and incompetence.’

The observant among you will notice that the book’s cover bears an image taken by the acclaimed Hungarian photographer, Andre Friedmann, better known as Robert Capa. It shows a long line of defeated Spanish Republican soldiers being marched off, not to freedom, nor even safety, but to be incarcerated in grim internment – dare I say concentration – camps in the south of France. Surrounded by barbed wire on three sides and the sea on the other, lacking basic food and shelter, thousands of the Spanish refugees perished. A People Betrayed indeed.

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2020, pp. 18-19.

Giles Tremlett’s The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War.

On 12 November, 2020 I joined Giles for an online discussion and virtual launch of Giles Tremlett‘s new study of the International Brigades, hosted by the IBMT and Marx Memorial Library. You can listen to the discussion here.

My review of the book appears in the latest edition of The Spectator. I thought it an engaging read and a well-researched, comprehensive work of scholarship. Based on a mass of primary research, especially the RGASPI material in Moscow, he’s written a very even-handed, ‘warts and all’ account. And his conclusion is, I think a fair one:

‘There was nothing perfect about the brigaders and attempts to paint them as 20th century saints only serve to highlight their failings. These were (mostly) men at war. They killed and were killed. Some fought bravely, others did not. Some were noble and brave in their actions, others were cruel, cowardly or callous. Some fought for an ideal, others for adventure. And, for some, those ideals would take them on a journey of oppression that placed them closer, in their behaviour and blind defence of Stalinist communism, to the fascists whom they declared as their enemies than to the democratic Republic that they defended. All fought, however, against the most destructive and evil force unleashed by 20th century Europe’s violent politics and history. As Bernard Knox – by then a distinguished Classics professor at Yale – pointed out, there could be nothing ‘premature’ about anti-fascism.’

Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War. London: Bloomsbury, 2020, p. 528.

History Most Podcast

In early August 2020 I joined Alex Clifford, author of Fighting for Spain, a new military history of the International Brigades, to talk about their role in the Spanish Civil War.

In a long-ranging discussion lasting almost two hours(!), we discussed the formation of the Brigades, to why and how so many volunteers flocked to Spain, the battles they fought, and the people who served in them. Why did these men (and some women) became History’s Most Unlikely Warriors?

The podcast was released on 7 September and can be found here.

Chris Farman 1937-2020

On 10 June 2017 a memorial to volunteers for the Spanish Civil War from Oxfordshire was unveiled in St. Clement’s, Oxford. The road to this event had been incredibly long and tortuous, not least because many locals had opposed the erection of a monument to ‘a bunch of reds’. That the project had ever managed to be realised was down to the hard work, determination and bloody-mindedness of the members of the Oxford Memorial Organising Committee, not least the historian and journalist Chris Farman who sadly died last week, one of all too many victims of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Farman, with fellow author Valery Rose

With Valery Rose and Liz Woolley, Chris was the author of No Other Way, Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War. Sales of the book did much to help fund the erection of the Oxford memorial. It’s a great piece of local history, well written and extremely thoroughly researched, with a great introduction written by Chris. He was the perfect choice for the introduction, for he had previously written for The Guardian and the Illustrated London News and worked as an editor on a book on the British Empire, published by Time-Life Books. He also has written his own monograph: The General Strike, published in 1972.

I first met Chris in at a fundraising for the Oxford memorial. Like his fellow organisers, Colin Carritt and John Heywood, Chris put a huge amount of time and effort into this and subsequent events. His natural charm and enthusiasm did much to help make them a success and (as I know) he was adept at persuading other people to get involved. A regular and popular presence at IBMT events, Chris will be very sadly missed.

There are full obituaries for Chris Farman on the IBMT’s website and in the Banbury Guardian.

What to read?

books
An overloaded shelf of books on Britain and the Spanish Civil War

Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.

The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.

If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Britain and Spain

Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.

Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010
Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.

Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.

Regional Studies

The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.

The Basque Refugee Children

Adrian Bell's account of the Basque children in Britain
The story of the arrival in Britain of 3000 Basque children in June 1937 has now received the attention it deserves. Adrian Bell’s Only for Three Months is the standard account and is very good. To this have recently been added two moving collections of memoirs (in both English & Spanish) edited by Natalia Benjamin: Memorias and Recuerdos. Hywel Davis’s Fleeing Franco focuses on the niños in Wales.

The British volunteers

Histories of the British Battalion

Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:

If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.

Paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, published by Aurum in 2014
James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.

The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.

Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).

Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.

Volunteers’ memoirs

Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.

Fred Thomas To Tilt at Windmills, Michigan University Press, 1996
The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.

George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.

Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).

Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.

There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!

Biographies

John Wainwright's The Last to Fall
There are way too many to list, many of which only have one chapter on Spain, so here are one or two of my favourites:

John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012

I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.

Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.

The ILP & Anarchist Volunteers

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.

George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938
Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.

Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.

The medical services

With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion. Seb Browne’s Medicine and Conflict looks interesting but at around £100.00 for the hardback, is probably out of reach of most readers.

For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading. Angela also contributed an introduction to the most recent publication, Firing a Shot for Freedom; the memoirs of Frida Stewart (2020).

Nationalist volunteers

I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.

The British Media & Public Opinion

IB edition of Henry Buckley's long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War
This has been a hot topic in recent years. The republication of Henry Buckley’s memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is something to cheer. The Daily Telegraph reporter’s account is, I think, one of the very best first-hand accounts of the war written in English (alongside Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Arturo Barea’s Forging of a Rebel).

The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.

There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.

The British volunteers in fiction

Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.

Lydia Syson's A World Between Us
C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s  an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.

I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).

John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.

Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.

Barbara Lamplugh’s The Red Gene, published in 2019, tells the story of a young English nurse who volunteered for the Spanish Government’s medical services and fell for a Republican soldier. The story touches on the awful conditions during the civil war and the scandalous forced adoptions in Franco Spain. It was reviewed in the January 2020 edition of the IBMT newsletter.

Review of Jason Webster’s Violencia

The cover of Jason Webster's Violencia

Based in his farmhouse in Andalusia, Jason Webster has spent much of the last fifteen years writing with great affection about Spain, its people, culture and history. Many readers will already know Duende, his account of years obsessing over flamenco, or Guerra, an examination of the enduring legacy of the civil war and Franco dictatorship. His latest publication, Violencia, is a bold attempt to write the history of Spain in less than 400 pages. This has earned one or two disdainful remarks on social media, unfairly, for this book is aimed at the everyday reader, rather than specialist academics. It’s very engagingly written and should be read as an – occasionally irreverent – introduction to Spanish history.

The author’s fondness for his adopted country is made abundantly clear by a detailed description of its influence around the world. ‘Without Spain,’ he points out, ‘emblematic aspects of “Western” civilisation as diverse as rational thought, modern surgery and the American cowboy would all be missing.’ Likewise, he highlights the powerful impact of centuries of Arab rule over Spain. The ‘Moors’, he argues, were not (and are not) ‘the other’, but a vital part of Spanish history and culture.  

However, as the book’s title would suggest, it is not just a celebration of Spain’s past greatness. The main tenet of the book is an argument that Spain has a long and unfortunate tradition of turning to violence as a means of solving political crises. Spanish history, Webster argues, has been an enduring struggle between two sides, personified by the two faces of Santiago, the patron saint of Spain: on the one hand Matamoros, the violent Moor-slayer, and on the other the peaceful Sage. This ‘dark side’ of Santiago has been turned against many different forms of enemy, for Spain has always needed an ‘other’ to unite a disparate country against. Sometimes that enemy has lain overseas, but on other occasions it has existed within the ‘indivisible’ Spain itself. The expulsion of the Jews, the Reconquista, the Carlist wars of the nineteenth century and the civil war itself thus all become symbols of this struggle.

At the end of the book, the author considers whether this thesis might be applied to contemporary Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was, of course, built on violence and though the transition appeared to signify that Spain was at last turning away from violence, many would argue that the transition is still not over. As Paul Preston and others have pointed out, there was never a denazification (or de-Francoisation) in Spain. Many on the Right still resent any perceived challenge to their inalienable right to rule. The government’s heavy-handed response to the Catalan referendum of October 2017 and the draconian sentencing of the separatist leaders up to 15 years for their crimes – originally portrayed as rebellion – could be seen as further evidence of the trend.

The author is certainly right to state that Spain currently faces many challenges. Yet another election beckons, in which concerns about Catalan nationalism and immigration are likely to see support for the neo-Francoist Vox spread well beyond its Andalusian cradle. The recent disinterring of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen was not supported by a third of the population (according to a recent poll in El Mundo) and has infuriated the family and supporters. In these circumstances, the author wonders if Felipe VI might be the last King of Spain. Does the country’s future lies with democracy or authoritarianism? Could Spain return to the violence of the past? Personally, despite the recent angry protests in Catalonia, I think that’s unlikely. Franco is long dead and Spain has been a democracy for more than 40 years. In many ways, the importance of disinterring Franco’s remains was symbolic, more than anything else. However, it’s hard to disagree with the author when he concludes that ‘pretending that the ghosts from the past don’t exist, only makes them stronger in the long run.’

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán!, 1-2020, p. 19.

The new RGASPI website

RGASPI have recently updated their website, so this new post explains how to access the records of the British and Irish volunteers (the old blogpost can still be found here). As before, though the documents themselves are in the languages of the various national groups (English, Spanish, French, German etc.), the website itself is in Cyrillic. Unless you read Russian, I’d recommend accessing the site using Google Chrome, which can automatically translate webpages. The main page for accessing the six sections of the RGASPI files can be found here.

N.B. For those of you returning to this blogpost, I have made each image an active link, so you can go directly to the respective page.

The main RGASPI homepage, Russian view
The main RGASPI homepage, English view

As you can see there are six ‘children’ (main sub-sections of the site), accessed by clicking on the link ‘go to the next level’, which will take you to the next page.

The individual files of volunteers are held in Inventory 6. Lists, personal files of soldiers and commanders of inter-brigades. Follow the link, then click on ‘Go to the next level’ on the following page and you will be presented with the first page of cases (there are 1618 in total).

The first of page of the 1618 files in RGASPI fond 6

The files are divided up by nationality, then alphabetically. The first of ‘English’ files is number 100 (Aa-Ai) and the last is 218 (Y-Z).

Other national groups in the Fifteenth International Brigade include: Australians & New Zealanders beginning from file 67, Irish from 439, Canadians from 534 and Americans from 845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 855).

If you want to explore further, the archivists in the Tamiment Library in New York have put together an extremely useful guide to all the RGASPI files, which can be found here.

I hope you find this guide useful. Please let me know if you have any suggestions, criticisms etc.

Review of Jessie Burton’s The Muse

Having read quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War over the years, I tend to approach novels set during the turbulent period of 1930s Spain with a fair degree of trepidation. While fiction is not constrained by the rules of historical non-fiction, it still grates when authors make lazy, factual errors. Fortunately, Jessie Burton has obviously researched thoroughly; not many novels would include Henry Buckley’s wonderful memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, in the bibliography.

The Muse opens in 1960s London, where we meet the young, Caribbean immigrant Odelle Bastien. Fed up with her tedious job in a London shoe store, she manages to land herself a job in an obscure London art gallery, along with a posh boyfriend who seems to have little to show for himself, apart from ownership of a mysterious, strikingly beautiful painting.

The book then shifts to Spain in early 1936 and the affluent, British ex-pat family of frustrated teenager Olive Schloss. She’s been offered a place to study art at Slade in London, but her bipolar mother and out-of-touch father take neither Olive, nor her painting seriously. We also meet Isaac and Teresa, siblings from the nearby Andalusian village who, through their desperation for work, open our eyes to the appalling inequalities and class-hatreds of pre-civil war Spain.

As the book progresses and the narrative switches backwards and forwards with increasing rapidity, we begin to understand that the two stories are indelibly linked. Burton manages to inject a real sense of foreboding, which builds steadily as the plot develops and the pace quickens. It’s an extremely well-crafted novel, with strong, three-dimensional characters and a convincing portrayal of the two very different worlds in which they reside. It’s also very knowing, touching on themes such as racism in 1960s London and the long-standing lack of recognition of female artists.

The Muse ­is a powerful follow-up to the author’s debut, The Miniaturist, which sold over a million copies and was made into a BBC TV series. If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent, literary pager-turner, this might well be it.

Remembering Harold Bernard Collins

On 5 October 2019, as part of a weekend of activities to accompany the Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I gave a talk on the role of London and volunteers from the capital, in the Spanish Civil war. As part of the talk, I chose to bring to light, or return to the light, a first generation Irish resident, who was born and lived in north Kensington. Like most of the men and women who went to Spain, he wasn’t famous, so little, if anything has been written about him. That’s not wholly surprising, for it’s not always easy to write about a relatively unknown individuals, as information is not always easy to come by. Fortunately, there are a few documents held in the National Archives in Kew and in the RGASPI archives in Moscow. Most helpful of all, there is an interview in the Imperial War Museum in London. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a photograph.

Harold Bernard Collins was born on 26 June, 1912, the son of Irish parents. He grew up in north Kensington, then ‘a real working class area.’[1] After a typically short elementary education, Bernard left school at 15 to work in the family coach-building business. Inspired by his father’s Irish Republican politics (Michael Collins – no relation – once stayed at their home) and by a lively political scene based around the Portobello Road, at 16 he joined the Young Communist League.

Documents listing Harold Collins as a member of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, held in the National Archives in Kew and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History in Moscow.

While other people might have joined the YCL for their regular dances, Bernard was spurred by their political campaigning. He helped defend tenants being evicted and he marched alongside the Hunger Marchers when they arrived in London in 1934, joining them at a rally. And, like many others, he took part in – frequently violent – demonstrations against Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were attempting to gain a foothold in the Portobello Road. Collins was himself arrested at an antifascist demonstration in Tooley Street, in Bermondsey in 1937, when the 8 stone Collins was accused of assaulting a 6’ police officer.[2]

Like most Party members, Bernard was an avid reader of the Daily Worker and it was through the paper that he came to learn of the civil war in Spain. He was not initially thinking of volunteering, but a fellow Party member who had recently returned from Spain assured Collins that he could be of use, despite his complete lack of military experience. Nevertheless, Collins remained undecided for almost a year, until the sight of a group of Blackshirt thugs beating up some children in London’s east end, purely because they were Jewish, convinced him that he had to do something.

Accompanied by his friend, a local decorator called Wally Clasper, Collins approached his local Party and made out that, like his mate who had served in the Royal Artillery, he had military experience. His interviewer attempted to dissuade the pair, but realising that they were determined, let them go. So, in early February 1938, having said nothing to his parents, Collins set off with Wally for Spain, both dressed in their best suits. Using money given to them by the Party, they followed the typical route to Spain, via Folkestone, Dieppe, Paris and, finally, a long, exhausting night-time slog over the Pyrenees.

Map ©Jeremy Scott

After some basic training in Figueras and Albacete, and a brief time in a training battalion at the British base at Tarazona de la Mancha, Collins joined the British Battalion itself at Teruel. Posted up high in the snow covered mountains, Walter and his comrades were a sitting target for enemy artillery. Walter later described his first experience of being under fire:

Strange to say I wasn’t nervous at all, because I don’t think I knew what fighting really was, anyway. I had no idea of people being killed, or anything like that. The shells from the fascists were falling about twenty or thirty yards away and it didn’t seem to worry me at all, even though everybody else would go down flat and dodge the shells coming. It didn’t happen to me and I don’t think it was because I was brave, or anything like that, I think it was that I really didn’t know what war was about.[3]

Fortunately for Collins, he had arrived right at the end of the fighting at Teruel, in which as many soldiers died from cold as combat. The Battalion was withdrawn from the Teruel front towards the end of February and sent to the Aragon village of Lecera, a hundred kilometres north of Teruel. There they remained until the beginning of March 1938, living ‘in stone barns, huddled together against the bitter cold’.[4]

On 7 March, Franco launched a colossal offensive against the Republican forces in Aragon. The Nationalists outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one and what began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed.[5] As the Republic struggled to hold the onslaught, the British Battalion was rushed up by lorry to Belchite, which had been captured by the American Battalion the previous autumn, but was quickly overwhelmed as the Nationalists swept forward,. Motorised units punched holes in the Republican lines, in a forerunner of the Blitzkrieg tactics which would be used with devastating effect during the Second World War.

Over the next two weeks Collins and his comrades were in constant retreat, bombarded with anti-tank and anti-aircraft shells all the way. Only on reaching the town of Batea, over 100km from their initial position, were they able to find brief sanctuary. It was to be all too brief.

Map ©Jeremy Scott

On 30 March 1938, Franco resumed his offensive and the remaining members of the battalion were urgently sent back to the front. Early in the morning of 31 March, they advanced cautiously past a small village called Calaceite, which was being violently shelled by Nationalist artillery. As the volunteers rounded a sharp bend in the road, they were confronted by a group of six tanks approaching them from the trees alongside the road.[6] Collins watched as Battalion Commissar Walter Tapsell, assuming that the tanks were Republican, approached one and banged on the side of it with his pistol.

As Tapsell attempted to converse with the tank commander in Spanish, he responded by shouting out in Italian, drawing his pistol and opening fire on Tapsell. The commissar was killed instantly and Collins saw at least 50 other men hit, before he sought cover alongside the road. As darkness fell, a group of about 30 members of Collins’ Company made for the safety of Calaceite village, only to discover that it had already fallen to Italian troops. They opened fire with machine-guns and Collins saw his friend Clasper hit and badly wounded and another Kensington volunteer, Richard Moss, killed. Outnumbered and with little other option they surrendered and were taken prisoner.

The prisoners were taken to a POW camp in a former monastery near Burgos, called San Pedro de Cardeña (on 8 April 1938). Built in 1711 on the site of the first Benedictine monastery in Spain, San Pedro was, the prisoners were later told, ‘the last resting place of El Cid’.[7] As they were marched through the massive wooden gates, one prisoner, looking up, noticed that ‘ironically, the monumental work over the main doorway was that of a horseman, lance in hand, on a fiery charger, trampling down Moors.’[8]

Contemporary photos of the former prisoner-of-war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. Photos ©Richard Baxell

That night Collins encountered the awful reality of conditions at San Pedro. Wrapped in a thin blanket, he was forced to sleep on the floor, surrounded by rats. Keeping clean was virtually impossible, for there was only one tap for the entire group of 600 international prisoners.[9] There were so few toilets that inmates often had to queue for hours. Not surprisingly, such filthy and insanitary conditions proved a fertile breeding ground for fleas and lice. Diseases such as scurvy, malaria and enteric fever were widespread, for medical facilities were also extremely limited, with only five doctors divided between the International prisoners. The inhospitable conditions were exacerbated by the dire lack of decent food. The principal diet consisted of a thin soup of warm water flavoured with olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs, accompanied by one small bread roll per day.[10]

But what really made the prisoners’ lives utterly miserable was the brutal behaviour of the guards. Collins himself saw prisoners being savagely beaten:

 [The guards would] walk around with sticks, thick sticks, and they’d lash you at the slightest chance they had. If you didn’t answer them correctly, they’d slash you. They weren’t worried where they hit you, [they’d] hit you across the head or across the face …. They were really nasty.

As the days of captivity turned into weeks and then months, Collins and the other inmates did what they could to pass the time and break the monotony. They organised lectures and discussions and played chess using pieces carved out of soap or stale bread.

A number of British were transferred out of the camp in a prisoner exchange in June, but Collins was not one of them. He remained in San Pedro for another 7 months, desperately hoping that another exchange would be arranged. Eventually, on 23 January 1939, almost all of the remaining prisoners, including Collins, were transferred to Ondarreta jail in San Sebastián.

And at the end of February 1938, the prisoners were finally released and marched across the international bridge into France and freedom. There Collins and his fellow veterans of the International Brigades were generously offered a huge dinner to celebrate their freedom. Unfortunately, having spent ten months on a starvation diet in a Francoist concentration camp, none of them were able to eat it.


[1] Interview with Harold Collins, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) 9481, reel 1.

[2] Sarah Collins, ‘Why did Britons fight in Spain’s Civil War?’ March 1984, p. 9 from Marx Memorial Library (MML) SC/EPH/10/7.

[3] Interview with Harold Collins, IWMSA 9481, reel 2.

[4] Edwin Greening, From Aberdare to Albacete, p. 71.

[5] Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for LIberty, pp. 169–70.

[6] Report by George Fletcher, 5 May 1938, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) 545/3/497, p. 30.

[7] Bob Doyle, Brigadista, p. 71; Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave, p. 143.

[8] Report of Franco Prisoners, MML SC/IBA/5/3/1/20, p. 8; George Wheeler, To Make the People Smile Again, p. 134.

[9] Cyril Kent, ‘I Was in a Franco Prison’, Challenge, 5 January 1939, pp. 10–11.

[10] Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, pp. 102–3.