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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
A new updated edition of Antifascistas has been published in Spain, under the title, Help Spain! It features an introduction by Angel Viñas and considerable new material, including numerous images and a chapter on the awful experiences of British and Irish prisoners of war incarcerated in Franco Spain.
The book is available direct from the publishers, Pamiela, for €20, plus packing & postage.
It’s now eighty years since the gifted young student, John Cornford, was killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In commemoration, Carcanet have released a new edition of Cornford’s Collected Writings under its original 1976 title: Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound. The new edition features a digitally recoloured front cover and afterwords by myself and Jane Bernal, the daughter of Cornford’s girlfriend and fellow student activist, Margot Heinemann.
The collection includes Cornford’s poems written at school, university and in Spain and letters to his mother and to Margot, leading up to the time he was killed fighting in Lopera, in the south of Spain, the day after his twenty-first birthday.
In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades was, at last, able to come under detailed scrutiny from researchers.
Since the opening of the archives, a number of books have used the material in studies of the national groups within the International Brigades. The process began with Peter Carroll’s ground-breaking study of the American volunteers, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, published in 1998. As the material was only opened up to overseas scholars immediately prior to publication, the author did not have time to research extensively in the archives. However, he did manage to look at a number of documents and Odyssey remains the set text on the American volunteers.
The following list – arranged alphabetically by country – is of the most recent studies of the various national groups within the International Brigades. Those in bold (published after 1998) make use of the Moscow archives:
Argentina: Lucas González et al. Voluntarios de Argentina en la Guerra Civil Española. 2008.
America: Peter Carroll. Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. 1998.
Australia: Amira Inglis: Australians in the Spanish Civil War. 1987.
Canada: Michael Petrou. Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. 2008.
China: Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Tsou. Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España 1936-1939. 2013.
Cyprus: Paul Philippou Strongos. Spanish Thermopylæ: Cypriot Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
France: Rémy Skoutelsky. L’espoir guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires français en Espagne républicaine. Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936-1939. 2000.
Great Britain: Richard Baxell. Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. 2012.
Ireland: Robert Stradling. Crusades in Conflict: The Irish and The Spanish Civil War. 1999.
New Zealand: Mark Derby ed. Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
Scotland: Daniel Gray. Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War. 2008.
Wales: Robert Stradling. Wales and the Spanish Civil War: The Dragon’s Dearest Cause? 2004.
The event began with Royal Holloway’s Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom discussing Republican arts initiatives between 1931 and 1939. Arguing that they were an essential part of the Republic’s humanitarian and democratic programme of reforms, he presented an astonishing statistic from 1937: that the Republican Ministry of Fine Arts had a larger budget than the Ministry of War. Even when qualified by the observation that the Republic had deposited their gold reserves in Moscow, it is pretty amazing. ‘No wonder they lost’, commented one wag.
Carl’s forensic presentation was followed by an illustrated lecture by Dr Carmen Herrero, Principal Lecturer on Spanish Culture and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, outlining recent portrayals of the International Brigades in cinema. One of her examples was Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela!– as Carmen pointed out, it’s a great shame that is so hard to get hold of, for it’s a terrific film. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom was also raised – perhaps bravely- though it’s always interesting to hear how the much-admired director works. Whatever you think of the film, Ken Loach’s enthusiasm for allowing actors to ad-lib made the (long and convoluted) discussion over the issues of collectivisation in a small Spanish village extremely lifelike and convincing.
During the lunch-break, the organisers kindly allowed me time to launch the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, due to be officially released on 1 April, 75 years to the day since the end of the Spanish Civil War. My thanks to all involved in the Manchester event for this.
The afternoon session opened with the writer and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska’s overview of the Gerda Taro’s contribution to the canon of photography of the civil war – both by taking photographs herself and by enabling her lover Robert Capa to do so. She explained how the identity of Robert Capa was a deliberate construction, a means by which the Hungarian Jewish migrant Andre Friedmann could overcome his background. Gerda Taro also changed her name (she was born Gerta Pohorylle), and the intelligent and multilingual Taro initially began by acting as Friedmann’s business manager. However, as the war progressed, and she moved from using a square-format Rolleiflex, to the 35mm Leica, her photographs became every bit as good as – and often indistinguishable from – those of Robert Capa.
The afternoon finished with a lecture on the ‘aestheticising of tragedy’ by Valentine Cunningham. Initially a bewildering barrage of names of the (mainly) English poets and artists who (mainly) supported the Spanish Republic, he moved on to a soaring and erudite discussion of the, perhaps understandably, elegiac nature of much of the writing. There was so much in the lecture to discuss, that I felt it would have been churlish to point out that there were in fact 35 000, not 60 000, volunteers for the International Brigades and though the English writer and poet Laurie Lee was undoubtedly one of them, to cite his A Moment of War as a reliable account is unwise, to put it mildly.
My thanks go out to the IBMT in general and the Manchester organisers in particular. The event was, I think, a great success.
The article appears in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, Volume 91, Issue 1-2, 2014.
Ever since the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, myths and misconceptions have surrounded the International Brigades, the volunteers from around the world who came to the defence of the Spanish Republic. Their creation, composition, and role in the war itself have all been hotly debated, with critics arguing that the International Brigades were primarily a ‘Comintern Army’, a tool of Soviet expansionism, in which any form of dissent was ruthlessly eliminated. Therefore, the discipline problems and consequent heavy-handed responses from the I.B. leadership are often seen as politically rather than militarily driven, despite the manifestly demoralizing nature of the war. Yet while a small number of volunteers were undoubtedly brutally treated, there was a much greater tolerance in the Brigades—certainly within the English-speaking battalions—than has often been suggested.
‘When a Nationalist military uprising was launched in Spain in July 1936, the Spanish Republic’s desperate pleas for assistance from the leaders of Britain and France fell on deaf ears. Appalled at the prospect of another European democracy succumbing to fascism, volunteers from across the Continent and beyond flocked to Spain’s aid, many to join the International Brigades.
More than 2,500 of these men and women came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, and contrary to popular myth theirs was not an army of adventurers, poets and public school idealists. Overwhelmingly they hailed from modest working class backgrounds, leaving behind their livelihoods and their families to fight in a brutal civil war on foreign soil. Some 500 of them never returned home.
In this inspiring and moving oral history, Richard Baxell weaves together a diverse array of testimony to tell the remarkable story of the Britons who took up arms against General Franco. Drawing on his own extensive interviews with survivors, research in archives across Britain, Spain and Russia, as well as first-hand accounts by writers both famous and unknown, Unlikely Warriors presents a startling new interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and follows a band of ordinary men and women who made an extraordinary choice.’
‘The definitive work on the British volunteers … superbly written and deeply moving.’ (Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Holocaust)
‘Painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men.’ (Gideon-Lewis-Kraus in the London Review of Books)
‘A marvellously accessible history of the British volunteers who joined the struggle against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Fascinating.’ (Victoria Hislop, author of TheReturn)
‘A remarkable accomplishment … a must-read for anyone interested in Spain and its recent history.’ (Caroline Angus Baker, author of the ‘Secrets of Spain’ series of novels)
‘A well researched, largely balanced, highly readable and accessible narrative of what remains a compelling story.’ (Lewis Mates in Contemporary British History)
‘Benefiting from an impressive range of research, this is an extraordinary story of heroism, tragedy and sacrifice.’ (History of War)
‘An oral history of remarkable power.’ (Good Book Guide)
‘Well researched and luminously written.’ (Francis Beckett in The Tablet)
‘A colourful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale.’ (Peter Stansky in The Volunteer)
‘Authoritative.’ (Military History Monthly)
‘Beautifully written … a totally absorbing read about incredible people whose like we will probably never see again.’(Morning Star)
In addition to being shortlisted for the 2013 Political Book Awards’ political history book of the year, Unlikely Warriors has received a number of good reviews:
‘Well researched and luminously written, Baxell’s book shows us what these volunteers were like – their grand heroism and their petty hatreds, the miseries they endured, the awfulness of war.’
Francis Beckett in The Tablet Read Francis Beckett’s review here.
‘Baxell draws painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men. It’s beyond history; it’s myth.’
Gideon Lewis-Kraus praises the book’s ‘careful scholarship’ in the London Review of Books. Read Gideon Lewis Kraus’s review here
‘Richard Baxell’s magnificent Unlikely Warriors is surely set to become the definitive account of the British in the Civil War’s International Brigades. A brilliant piece of military history at its best, capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’
Mark Perrman in thesubsntive.com. Read Mark Perryman’s review here
‘Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment … A remarkably well balanced and fair minded account … This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale. War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in. Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account.
Peter Stansky, author (with William Abrahams) of Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, in ALBA’s newsletter The Volunteer. Read Peter Stansky’s review here
‘The high quality of the research, and the writing and the fascinating, beautiful and dreadful human story they relate, make Unlikely Warriors essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War.’
Lewis Mates, author of The Spanish Civil War and the British Left, in the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s newsletter. Read Lewis Mates’ review here.
‘Not just another book about the British volunteers who served in Spain … over 500 pages in length and with 16 pages of photographs, some of which have never previously appeared in print, taking several years in the writing, [Unlikely Warriors] is a superb piece of work.’
Cliff Kirkpatrick describes Unlikely Warriors as ‘a model of good writing’ in España, the journal of the Spanish Study Circle. Read Cliff Kirkpatrick’s review here.
‘Most interesting, because previously least known, are Richard Baxell’s detailed descriptions of the backgrounds of the individual volunteers, drawn from unpublished diaries and oral histories, and the reception they received on their return home.’
Journalist and biographer Caroline Moorehead writes in the Literary Review. Read Caroline Moorehead’s review here.
Unlikely Warriors is available from all good bookshops both online and on the high street.