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?
In addition to being a historian, I am the Chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a charity which keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who volunteered to fight fascism – and those who supported them – during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
The trust, made up of family members, friends, supporters and historians, organises events around the country, including the forthcoming national commemoration on 1 July in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank. We provide assistance to those researching the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War and promote the preservation of archives. Through our magazine, our eNewsletter, website and social media feeds, we keep our members and the wider public informed about developments concerning the memory and legacy of the International Brigades.
And, of course, we ensure that the more than 100 memorials to the volunteers located around the British Isles are maintained in good order. Where we can, we help new ones to be erected, such as this wonderful new monument. But all of this takes time and, more importantly, money. Please support us. If you are not yet a member, join. If you are a member, give generously. It really is money well spent.
For members of the Trust, the enduring significance of the International Brigades’ fight is not open to doubt. The recent, tragic events in Manchester and London are just the latest examples of the intolerance, bigotry and hatred – which we all know as fascism – that the International Brigades were determined to confront. The words of General Emilio Mola, the organiser of the Spanish military coup, could just as easily have come from those attacking democracy and pluralism today: ‘It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.’
It was this kind of murderous ideology that spurred the 35 000 men and women from more than 52 countries from around the world to leave their homes, families and friends and volunteer to join the fight in Spain. The International Brigades fought in all the major battles in the civil war, from the last-ditch defence of Madrid in the autumn and winter of 1936-37, to the final, desperate Republican offensive across the River Ebro, in July 1938. Of 2500 to leave from the British Isles, more than 500 of them never returned.
The shattered remnants of the Brigades were withdrawn from the front in September 1938 and the following month in Barcelona, a huge farewell parade was held in their honour, famous for the speech by La Pasionaria, in which she invited the departing volunteers to return to Spain, ‘when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory’. It would be a long wait.
The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that despite the volunteers’ sacrifice, they – and the Republican Army in which they fought – were unable to defeat Franco and his German and Italian allies in Spain. Just as the volunteers had feared and prophesised, this led the way to six years of world war and the death of 60 million people.
It also led to more than thirty years of dictatorship in Spain. Only with the death of Franco in November 1975 could a democratic Spain emerge, which did not forget the gratitude conveyed by La Pasionaria so many years earlier. Efforts to express this by awarding Spanish nationality to the veterans of the International Brigades took some time to materialise, but in 2009, at a poignant ceremony in London, seven surviving British and Irish veterans were presented with Spanish passports. Anyone fortunate enough to be present that day will never forget the sight of the 94 year old Sam Lesser delivering an emotional thank you speech in fluent Castilian. The Spanish Ambassador to Britain, Carles Casajuana, responded graciously, assuring the handful of elderly survivors that:
Your efforts were not in vain. Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today.
The volunteers were, to some extent, a paradoxical group of men and women: both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. They were right to feel pride and we are right to feel pride in them. I would like to leave you today with the words of the popular London volunteer, Fred Thomas, who expressed his feelings with characteristic eloquence:
There were no medals to be won in Spain. But I believe that no man, not even that band of brothers who fought upon St. Crispin’s Day, nor that later Few of 1940, justly honoured though they may be, was ever prouder of his part than we who were of the International Brigade.
Set in the heart of London’s commercial art gallery district, Mayoral’s ‘Art Revolutionaries’ is a homage to the Spanish Republic’s Pavilion in the famous Paris Exposition of 1937. The Spanish contribution deliberately and consciously expressed both the modernity of the Republic and the life and death struggle in which it was embroiled. The centrepiece, of course, was Picasso’s powerful depiction of the bombing of Guernica, prominently displayed at one end of a spacious, open auditorium.
This lovingly-curated exhibition goes to great lengths to recreate the impression of the original pavilion. On the first floor works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and Julio González, many sourced from private collections, sit within a scale model of the original auditorium. Downstairs, interposed among detailed replicas of the original furniture, vivid Republican posters accompany a short film of the original 1937 exhibition, while helpful panels and displays of rich archival material recount the political and artistic context.
The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and Barcelona and when its time in London ends on 10 February 2017, there are no plans for it to go elsewhere. That, I think, is a shame. This (Mayoral’s wonderful catalogue aside) is the nearest most of us will get to experiencing the original Paris exposition. Based solely on what is on display here, it must surely have been a sight worth seeing.
Set on a minimalist stage with a cast of two, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a surprisingly successful account of the International Speedway star from Oldham, Clem Beckett, during the economically and politically turbulent 1920s and ’30s. The play’s central story – and its climax – recounts his time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War alongside the writer, Christopher St. John Sprigg (more familiar under his nom de plume of Christopher Caudwell) with whom Beckett struck up a powerful friendship.
David Heywood makes a convincing Beckett and Neil Gore shows off his versatility by playing a number of parts from Sir Oswald Mosley to Christopher Caudwell. The play has some nice touches which (on the occasion that I was there) went down well, including a clever representation of the ‘wall of death’ with a puppet and a lusty sing-a-long to Euan McColl’s Manchester Rambler. There were many opportunities for audience participation (should you be in such a mind); such was the atmosphere, I even noticed a professor of history joining in. No mean feat.
It’s often difficult for historians at these events, particularly if (as is often the case) they are asked how accurate the production is. Often the answer is ‘not very’ though, of course, it should be remembered that the the constraints placed on fiction are rather less demanding than those placed on historical studies. It would be most unwise to take Shakespeare’s plays, John Ford’s westerns or George MacDonald Fraser’s historical novels too literally. To their credit, Townsend Productions‘ writer/actor Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend have clearly worked very hard to tell Beckett’s story as honestly and accurately as possible. I certainly think that the play does a remarkable job in explaining why so many men and women from Britain and Ireland (not to mention another 50 countries from around the globe) chose to leave their homes, families and friends to fight in a foreign civil war.
My only small criticism is that I felt the play was a little unkind to Caudwell/Sprigg. His character was something of a caricature, a bumbling upper-class twit, with the voice of John le Mesurier, yet little of the knowing, ironic humour. In ‘Dare Devil’ Sprigg rather seems to have ended up in the International Brigades, influenced by the strength of character of Beckett, whereas my impression is that ‘Spriggie’ volunteered to fight in much the same way as the other 2500 British and Irish volunteers. Likewise, in the final scene [spoiler alert], Sprigg is nowhere to be seen as Beckett, his French machine-gun having typically jammed, meets his end on the Jarama battlefield. Yet accounts from other member of the battalion fighting that day in February 1937 suggest that Beckett and Caudwell fell side by side, as inseparable in death as they had become in life. To be fair, a cast of two – one of whom needs to be operating the lighting – does rather limit one’s options.
But don’t let this small gripe put you off. Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a powerful, atmospheric production and you have the additional satisfaction of knowing that, by going, you are supporting the work of the IBMT, who helped fund it. The play is on tour around the country at the moment, with dates available up to March 2017. Catch it while you can.
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.]
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.
While the story of the International Brigades’ involvement in the defence of Madrid in 1936-1937 is well known, their involvement in bitter fighting in southern Spain during the winter of 1936 and the spring of 1937 is less well documented.
Determined efforts to correct this oversight were made during two days of events in April 2016, when the sacrifices of the International Brigades on behalf of the Spanish Republic were remembered in several Andalucian villages, just east of Cordóba. The homanajes – well-attended and supported by local politicians – saw the unveiling of several new plaques commemorating the Spanish Republic’s fight against fascism.
Friday 8 April saw events held in three separate villages: La Granjuela, Belalcázar and Valsequillo. In front of friends and family members from Spain, Britain, France, Ireland and the United States, the mayors of the villages unveiled memorials and expressed their gratitude for the volunteers’ efforts and sacrifices all those years ago. At the final event in Valsequillo, local dignitaries were joined by Rosa Aguilar, Andalucia’s Minister for Culture, who spoke movingly on the importance of the recuperation of historical memory. As the local media reported, attempts by a local fascist to interrupt the event by blasting Franco’s anthem, Caro al Sol, out of an open window were rather drowned out by the music, singing and laughter of the numerous Republican supporters.
Saturday’s events began with a commemoration in front of the railway station at Andújar, where Internationals – many of them veterans of the fighting in Madrid – had disembarked in December 1936, following their posting to the southern front. From here the volunteers advanced to the front, near the village of Lopera, scene of the subsequent commemoration. Here, a local historian described – in eloquent and moving detail – the terrible events of the battle of Lopera on 28 December 1936. Outgunned and unprotected from aerial bombardment, Republican attempts to assault the high ground held by experienced Franco’s Moroccan soldiers were doomed to failure. During the vicious fighting many, many volunteers lost their lives, including the popular and respected Marxist scholar, Ralph Fox, and the Cambridge intellectual, poet and political activist, John Cornford.
In the village of Lopera itself a memorial to Fox and Cornford has been erected. Here relatives gathered to remember them, hearing accounts of volunteers’ reasons for joining the fight for democracy in Spain, together with a moving recital of one of John Cornford’s poems by the daughter of an Irish volunteer.
The final event of the two-day homanaje was the unveiling of a plaque in the centre of Lopera. The village’s mayor earned widespread applause for her declaration that the commemoration marked only the beginning of a series of events to commemorate the democratic government’s fight against Franco and his allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. It looks likely that these will include an international conference in November 2106 to mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the International Brigades. Watch this space.
My thanks to all of those involved in organising the two day’s events, particularly AABI’s Almudena Cros and Seve Montero and the IBMT’s Pauline Fraser. It was, I think (and by all accounts), a resounding success.
This year’s Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust was held in the Granite City: Aberdeen. As ever, the AGM itself was only a small part of a wider weekend of events, which included the dedication of memorials to two former Scottish members of the International Brigades: Bob Cooney and John Londragan.
During the AGM there were elections for the first time in the IBMT’s history. With room for only eleven of the twelve candidates standing for the central committee, Education Officer Richard Thorpe unfortunately missed out. With Charles Jepson stepping down as Treasurer (and standing instead for Chair), long-standing IBMT member Manuel Moreno stepped up to replace him. I replaced Dolores Long as Chair, having defeated Charles Jepson by 3 votes to 22.
I have been attending the IBMT‘s annual in commemoration in London for over ten years now and, in my opinion, this year’s event was the best yet. Fears that the death of the last UK veteran would lead to an inevitable decline in the charities fortune have certainly proved to be ill-founded. Attendance this year was higher than ever.
Clearly the weather played a part and there’s no denying that Owen Jones is a big draw. And not to forget a plug from the consistently supportive Robert Elms. But there was more to it than that. This year’s line-up was not just strong, it was well-balanced: a few, well-delivered speeches, some atmospheric music and the recital of an extremely moving poem.
Speaking and performing at this year’s event in Jubilee Gardens were: