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.
The following suggestions for further reading are from my Unlikely Warriors:
For British politics in the 1930s, see John Stephenson and Chris Cook’s Britain in the Depression and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties. Joe Jacobs’ memoir Out of the Ghetto is good for a view from the street.
There are many published accounts by British volunteers in the International Brigades; of those still in print, Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave and Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills are justifiably popular. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the Spanish born Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel are both important and highly readable. Many works focus on the national and ethnic groups within the ‘British’ volunteers, of which Hywell Francis’ reissued Miners Against Fascism and Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia are two notable recent additions.
Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a fascinating account of the foreign correspondents who witnessed the conflict. For the war itself, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War in its fully revised third edition is always useful, though Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War and Paul Preston’s Concise History offer more accessible introductions to the subject. Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain remains a shining example of the merits of oral history.
For the role of the former volunteers after the civil war and the continuing relevance of the conflict, see Tom Buchanan’s Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain.
Described as ‘a rich and unflinching oral history’, Unlikely Warriors is a comprehensive account of the Britons who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
The book tells the story of the the ordinary British men and women who were forced to make an extraordinary choice. Drawing upon numerous memoirs, amny of them unpublished and interviews and documents held in archives in Britain, Spain, America and Russia, this book tells the story of the fight against fascism in Britain and Europe from 1932 to 1945.
Published by Aurum Press, a hardback edition is available from all good bookshops at £25.00 or less.
The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:
When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.
The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.
The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.
Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.
Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’
Antifascistas is to be translated into Spanish and published by Piedra de Rayo. The new Spanish edition will include a bibliography listing many of the works now available in Spanish on the British volunteers. It is planned to launch the new edition on 15 February 2013 at CAUM in Madrid, to coincide with the Jarama march weekend.
Proving to be a popular read, the book was co-written by Richard Baxell with Angela Jackson and Jim Jump, based on the IBMT’s successful exhibition of the same name. The English edition is still available from the IBMT at a very reasonable £10.00.
Reviews from Amazon:
‘Clearly a labour of love, this book is packed with information, photographs, posters and artefacts, and details of the battles they fought. It’s a must, even if you’ve already read Preston et. al.’
‘Not much to say when something is so perfectly realised. Does what it says on the cover and then some. Not for the faint at heart (especially the photo on page 36) but a stunning memorial to a period in European history that should not, cannot be forgotten.’
This book brings together leading British and Spanish historians in an examination of key aspects and themes of the Spanish Civil War. Contributors discuss the politics of memory; recent revisionist historiography; biographies of international volunteers; the experience of nursing in Catalonia; the baptism of fire of Jarama; Britain’s blocking of aid to the Republic; Soviet intervention in the conflict; and the crimes of Franco, both during and after the war.
Review from Amazon
‘Useful compilation of the last 9 years of annual lectures of the IBMT – bringing us up to date with current thinking in the Spanish Civil War as republican memory is revisited. Useful for A Level GSCE, but more so for under/post graduate work.’
Review by Peter Carroll in The Volunteer
‘Looking Back at the Spanish Civil Waris a collection of the first 10 Len Crome annual lectures sponsored by the IBMT. These include Paul Preston’s tribute to the man for whom the series is dedicated, “‘No Soldier’: The Courage and Comradeship of Dr Len Crome,” describing one of the many medical personnel who gave generously to the Spanish cause and later served in World War II. As expected, the British side receives considerable treatment—essays by Richard Baxell and Angela Jackson, and Enrique Moradiellos’s “Albion’s Perfidy” about the pro-Franco response of the British government. But running through most of these essays is a strong international thread: Helen Graham’s “The Return of Republican Memory”; Ángel Vias’s “September 1936: Stalin’s Decision to Support the Spanish Republic”; Julián Casanova’s “History and Memory …
This historical work is good—have no doubt about it—and reflects the growing interest around the world in matters related to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. Partly the result of new archival discoveries, partly because of the passing of the generation that lived and fought the war, the new scholarship has effectively shifted the historical narrative closer to its original, pre-Cold War position.
Most recent writing emphasizes that the war in Spain had long, indigenous roots; stresses selfish national interests in Britain, France and the United States for the failure to prevent fascist expansion; and treats the IB volunteers as heroic anti-fascists (rather than dupes of Stalin). On these grounds, the Spanish Civil War was a fight between an elected democracy and a fascist-military rebellion rather than a war between fascism and communism (the Cold War version). Instead of seeing the Spanish war as a precursor or “dress rehearsal” for a world war, it appears as it once was seen by its contemporaries, the first battlefield of World War II.’