Irish volunteers in the British Battalion
Obviously 30 minutes is not enough time to cover every aspect of the Irish involvement in the British Battalion during the Spanish Civil War. Instead, I will try and to give you a general overview, highlighting events and issues of particular importance during the volunteers’ time in Spain. In the main, the experiences of the Irish members of the unit were no different to those of their comrades from around the world. And, considering the obstacles it faced (of which more later) and despite the impression one might get from some hostile commentators on the International Brigades, the battalion operated surprisingly effectively. However, there were times when the volunteers’ ‘disciplined anti-fascist unity’ came under strain; this was particularly evident during the period following the creation of the battalion. I shall return to this in detail shortly.
While the reasons that lay behind the decision to go to Spain were probably as diverse as the volunteers themselves, they all shared a determination to ensure that fascism would not triumph. For these anti-fascists, the military rising in Spain represented the latest manifestation of a phenomenon they had witnessed sweep across Europe. As the Liverpool Trade Unionist – and former International Brigade Memorial Trust president – Jack Jones declared, ‘This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.’ It is important to remember that the volunteers saw this not simply as a civil war within Spain, but as one more episode in a European war against fascism, which many of them had already participated in at home. This was a struggle that went beyond national boundaries, a perspective lucidly expressed by the sculptor from London, Jason Gurney:
The Spanish Civil war seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and you went out to fight it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth…for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have a national boundary.
As you have already heard from other speakers, volunteers from Ireland saw the conflict in much the same way, as the Dublin volunteer Bob Doyle (portrayed on the introductory slide) explained:
The propaganda of the Catholic Church and the official press was 100 per cent in support of Franco’s military revolt. It was a tremendous campaign, preaching at Mass and the missions about the need to support Franco, a gallant Christian gentleman, defending the Catholic Church in Spain. We were very conscious that the Nazis had come to power in 1933 and that General O’Duffy was intending to follow in their footsteps…I thought there was a danger that Ireland would go fascist and that was one of the motivating factors in making up my mind to go to Spain. I didn’t know much about Spain, but I knew that every bullet I fired would be against the Dublin landlords and capitalists.
Consequently, a large group of Irish volunteers, approximately 80 in number, left Ireland on 11 December 1936, under the command of Frank Ryan, a prominent and long-standing member of the Irish Republican movement. The group left Dublin by boat and arrived in Spain on 14 December, where they joined the English-speaking company of the French 12th International Brigade. To the surprise of many, despite Ryan’s reputation, the International Brigade command did not chose him as the Irish group’s section leader. This honour fell, instead, to Chris ‘Kit’ Conway, another experienced IRA activist and fighter. The official reason given was that Ryan was deaf, and would therefore be a liability in combat. While this may be true, it is perhaps worth noting that, unlike Conway, Frank Ryan was not a member of the Communist Party.
In addition to Conway’s section, the company included a number of veterans from the fighting during November 1936, where they had played a vital role in defending Madrid against the advancing Nationalist army, led by General Franco and supported by the military might of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Led by a British army veteran, George Nathan, the English-speaking company was sent to fight on the Lopera front, near Cordoba in southern Spain.
Meanwhile, other new arrivals from Britain and Ireland were joined the 16th (British) Battalion of the 15th International Brigade, formed on 27 December 1936. The Battalion was based in the small village of Madrigueras, about 20 km north of the main International Brigades’ base at Albacete, roughly half-way between Valencia and Madrid.
While most of the volunteers in the battalion were from Britain, it also included volunteers from Ireland and others from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. So, despite its name, it was never really a British Battalion, which was, in fact, recognised at the time. Attempts were made to give it a more appropriate name and the name Saklatvala battalion was mooted, (after the Indian Communist MP for Battersea in London who had died from a heart attack in January 1936), but the name never caught on. It could actually have been even worse: Spaniards called it el batallon inglés, the English Battalion.
The military commander of the new battalion was a Scottish journalist and World War One veteran called Wilf McCartney, who had previously served 10 years in Parkhurst prison for spying for Russia. The battalion political commissar, in charge of the political development and welfare of the volunteers, was Dave Springhall, the secretary of the London district of the Communist Party.
The battalion itself was divided up into four companies, one machine-gun company plus three of infantry. Military training, such as it was, was put into practice. Fortunately, a number of the volunteers had some form of military training; there was ‘a good proportion of ex-servicemen’ and a number had served in the Territorial Army or some other form of military organization.
However, there was a sizeable number who had not. It was later claimed ‘that in five weeks or so they had produced some very fair infantry,’ but in truth, five weeks of basic training was ‘absurdly short’. Undoubtedly, many of the problems with training were a result of the well-documented limitations of quantity and quality of Republican arms and ammunition, a result of the British and French governments’ policy of non-intervention. This prevented the legal Republic from buying arms, while turning a blind eye to the huge amount of arms and men flooding in to Franco from Germany & Italy.
However, a number of brand new Russian rifles did soon arrive, but as many volunteers were only allowed to practice with five bullets, the value of the training must be regarded as questionable at best. One volunteer’s summary of the situation in early 1937 was biting: ‘Many people writing on the International Brigades have described them as well-armed, highly disciplined and well-trained units. This we of the British Battalion were not.’
Despite the problems, by early 1937 there were 450 volunteers training at Madrigueras, a number approaching battalion strength. Unfortunately, however, the fledgling battalion suffered a major setback in the middle of the month, when a number of Irish members, apparently unhappy with British officers’ tendency not to make any distinction between British and Irish volunteers, discovered that two senior British figures in Spain – the commander of Number One Company currently serving at Lopera, George Nathan, and the Battalion commander, Wilf Macartney – were suspected to have played a role in British covert activities in Ireland. Both were alleged to have served in the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries in the 1920s; worse still, Nathan was rumoured to have been involved in a hit squad that murdered two prominent members of Sinn Fein in May 1921: George Clancy, the former Lord Mayor of Limerick and George O’Callaghan, the ex-mayor. Nathan’s rather chequered past gave rise to suspicions that he could be a Franco spy.
Nathan was not a member of the Communist Party and was directed, probably by André Marty, the French commander of the International Brigades in Spain, to explain himself to Frank Ryan and his Irish comrades. According to the Irish volunteer, Jim Prendergast, Nathan was in effect, put on trial for his life. Nathan vehemently denied that he was a spy, but admitted that he had indeed been an intelligence officer in the Auxiliaries in County Limerick. However, Nathan claimed that he was acting under orders whilst in Ireland and argued that, as a Jew, he was now a staunch anti-fascist, and that all the volunteers in Spain were now all on the same side.
According to Joe Monks, the meeting responded to the spirit of his speech and applauded him. It is probable that Nathan’s explanation was accepted because of widespread admiration of the military skills and courage that he demonstrated during the disastrous Lopera action. 8 of the 50 Irish volunteers had been killed and only the actions of Nathan, who coolly organized a retreat under fire, prevented further losses.
However, resentment continued to smoulder and was reignited by a tactless report in the British Communist paper, the Daily Worker in early January. The article recounted the actions at Lopera, but made no mention of the Irish volunteers, instead describing them all as British. A number of Irish training at Madrigueras were furious, and it became clear that an attempt needed to be made to resolve the simmering discontent.
A meeting was called on the 12th January by, it appears, Dave Springhall, the battalion commissar, which was attended by approximately 45 Irish members of the battalion. During a stormy session, a number demanded that the group leave the British dominated battalion, whilst others, who wished to remain, vigorously argued ‘that distinctions must be made between anti-fascist working-class comrades from Britain and British imperialism.’ At the end of the meeting, the Irish group voted by a ratio of two to one (26-11) to leave and join the Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion at nearby Villanueva de la Jara.
Many of the details surrounding the split are unclear, though Frank Ryan always argued that it was provoked by the British battalion and Communist Party leadership, who were determined to wreck any chance of forming a specific Irish unit, a ‘Connolly Column.’ It is certainly highly unlikely that the communists who controlled the British battalion in Spain would have been amenable to the creation of a unit under the command of Irish republicans. It is surely revealing that despite his IRA experience and the dire shortage of officers in the Republican army, Frank Ryan was never given a field command.
In, I think, the best analysis of the split, Emmet O’Connor argues that the significance of ‘chronic suspicion of Irish republicanism in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain,’ should not be underestimated. He also suggests that, André Marty, famously paranoid, was suspicious of volunteers from Catholic Ireland as potential fifth-columnists and deliberately kept them divided.
An immediate casualty of the fall-out was the Dubliner Terry Flanagan, who was acting commander of the Irish group in Madrigueras at the time. He seems to have been made a scape-goat for much of the conflict and was charged with sabotage and imprisoned. Only the personal intervention of Frank Ryan secured his release.
The incorporation of the survivors of the English-speaking Company from Lopera (who returned on 24 January), together with new arrivals meant that numbers in the battalion reached approximately six hundred by the beginning of February. The battalion was now considered to be of sufficient strength of and readiness for front-line action despite, firstly, the loss of the Irish group and, secondly, the widely respected commander of Number One Company, Jock Cunningham, who was taken ill in early February. This was a major setback, for the veteran of the battle for Madrid ‘was the best soldier of the lot,’ in Tom Wintringham’s opinion. However Cunningham’s place was taken by another popular and experienced fighter, the leader of the Irish at Lopera, ‘Kit’ Conway.
Finally, on 8 February 1937, the Battalion prepared to leave Madrigueras for the front, which lay to the south-east of Madrid. Following the failure of his earlier attempts on the west of Spain’s capital, General Franco had prepared a new offensive to the south, aiming to cut the vital road that linked Madrid with Valencia, the seat of the Republican Government.
The 600 odd members of the battalion made their way north by lorry to Chinchón, about 25 km from Madrid and 15 km south-east of the site of the rebel advance. Recent arrivals were given some hurried last-minute preparation. Early in the morning of the 12th February, the volunteers were moved up to the eastern edge of the heights and began climbing upwards to the plateau overlooking the Jarama River.
They advanced over a ridge then began to descend into the valley of the Jarama River, which lay in front of them. When they found themselves coming under enemy fire, they quickly pulled back to the top of the ridge and took up defensive positions on what would later become known as ‘Suicide Hill’.
The battalion was then subjected to a terrifying three hour machine-gun and artillery barrage, before they were attacked by ‘at least three battalions’ of highly experienced Moroccan infantry, Franco’s crack troops, who were in their element advancing across the open terrain of the Jarama Valley. Under the ferocious Nationalist attack, the Franco-Belge Battalion further to the north of the British Battalion was forced to pull back, which brought the three infantry companies under lethal enfilading machine-gun fire, which swept across them from their right. They tried desperately to hold their ground, but were cut to pieces.
As the day progressed, the rapidly mounting casualties put them in an increasingly untenable position. The survivors were left with little option but to retreat from Suicide Hill back to the battalion headquarters on the plateau, dragging their wounded comrades with them. But, as one volunteer remembered sadly, ‘There weren’t many to go back.’ As the last remaining dispirited members of the battalion withdrew, Moroccan soldiers rushed forward over the ridge in order to occupy the positions relinquished by the retreating volunteers. However, at this point, the battalion experienced perhaps their only moment of good fortune that day. After a terribly frustrating day spent without ammunition for the machine-guns, the correct calibre bullets had, at last, arrived. Quickly, the guns were brought into operation and used with devastating effect on the Moroccan soldiers who, for once, were caught out in the open and totally unawares. The Moroccan troops either quickly dropped down out of sight and waited for the cover of darkness or, where they could, retreated out of range. This brought to an end the first day of the battle of Jarama.
Like other Republican units, the Battalion had endured seven hours of extremely heavy losses: ‘Out of the 400 men in the [three] rifle companies, only 125 were left. Altogether less than half the battalion remained.’ Amongst those killed that day was the Irish company commander Kit Conway.
The following two days were no less terrifying, as Nationalist forces pressed forwards. The Battalion soon found itself surrounded on three sides and with the Machine-Gun Company’s flank totally unprotected rebel forces quickly took advantage of the situation and surrounded them. As many as 30 members of the Company, including its commander and his assistant, were captured.
A desperate charge by 40 men in a forlorn attempt to retake the trenches recently occupied by the Machine-Gun Company ended in disaster when the Nationalists soldiers simply mowed them down with their own machine-guns. Only six of the 40 men made it back to their positions.
The third day of the battle, on the 14 February, brought a new assault on the battalion’s lines by a fresh Nationalist brigade, now supported by tanks. Under severe crossfire and without any specialised equipment to combat the tanks, Jock Cunningham, who had temporarily taken charge of the battalion, had little choice but to withdraw his men away from the sunken road. Frank Ryan later described their plight:
Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.
With the battalion’s machine-guns crushed underneath the Nationalist tanks, the weakened line finally broke and the volunteers retreated in small groups back down the slope towards the Chinchón road. But here they were stopped by Colonel ‘Gal’, the commander of the 15th International Brigade, who explained to them that they were the only troops between the rebels and the Valencia Road. Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, 140 volunteers turned around and marched back to try to recapture their lost positions.
Under no illusions about the situation they were walking into, led by Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham, the volunteers marched back, singing the Internationale to bolster their spirits, picking up stragglers on the way. The Nationalist forces, fooled into believing that fresh reinforcements had been brought up to the front, retreated back to their earlier positions. As the historian Hugh Thomas admitted, ‘It was a brave performance.’ The volunteers held the line at a critical moment for the Republic.
During the night of 14 to 15 February, Spanish units were brought up, and the gap in the line was finally plugged. Both sides dug defensive fortifications and a stalemate ensued, which neither side was able to overcome. The positions remained virtually static for the rest of the war.
Celebrated as a great victory over the fascist army, the battle of Jarama was, like the earlier battles for Madrid in November and December 1936, really only successful in that it stemmed the rebels’ advance on the capital. And at great cost: the Republicans lost somewhere in the region of 10 000 soldiers, to the Nationalists 6 000. Of the 600 who had gone into battle with the British Battalion on 12 February, a conservative estimate would suggest that 136 were killed, a similar number wounded, with at least 50 deserting the front line, leaving less than half the battalion remaining. In total nineteen Irish were killed fighting with the British Battalion at Jarama, including Kit Conway and the Protestant Reverend Robert M Hilliard, known as ‘the boxing parson of Kilarney’. As the Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan later stated, ‘This battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’
Yet the battalion, bolstered with new recruits, managed to regroup and fight on in defence of the Spanish Republic for nearly 18 months.
In the full heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete in July 1937, where despite gaining territory, Franco’s superior numbers and complete air domination soon stemmed and pushed back the Republican advance. Events were repeated in Aragon during the autumn of 1937. The capture of Quinto in September bode well, though it was marred by the death of the popular Irish commander of the battalion, Peter Daly from Wexford. His place was taken by his fellow countryman, Paddy O’Daire. And in during Christmas 1937, in one of the worst Spanish winters for years, Republican supporters around the world viewed the capture of the remote provincial capital of Teruel as ‘the turn of the tide’.
That it may have been, but not in the manner they expected. Franco’s forces soon retook Teruel and Franco was able to use the success as a springboard for a colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. Back in Aragon, the battalion was at the forefront of a desperate – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to prevent Franco’s forces reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republic in two. In what became essentially a headlong retreat, Italian troops captured over 100 members of the battalion – including both Bob Doyle and Frank Ryan – in what was probably one of the battalion’s lowest points during the civil war in Spain.
Yet, somehow, the battalion and the Spanish Republic itself, managed to regroup and return to the battle. In the summer of 1938, the Republican army launched a huge offensive back across the River Ebro. The International Brigades were involved in the crucial battles around the Aragon town of Gandesa in July and August and in the mountains of the Sierra Caballs and Pandols in September.
It was during this time that one of the less savoury episodes occurred, involving British and Irish volunteers in Spain. During an attack on a hill strategically overlooking Gandesa, members of the battalion reported coming under machine-gun fire from their own side. As the Scottish volunteer, John Dunlop, recalled:
I was just at the edge of a small hill. Right above my head, just inches above my head, there was a long burst of machine gun fire but it was coming in the wrong direction. It wasn’t coming from in front of me, it was coming from behind me and it was just hitting the top of this ridge, just above my head. I looked back and I could see this gun, one of our own machine-guns, actually firing. It appeared to be firing on us, so that more or less ended our attack.
An investigation into the incident concluded that they had been fired on by a volunteer from Tipperary, called Maurice Ryan, who was alleged to have been ‘flaying drunk’. Ryan was charged with firing on his own comrades, and Divisional headquarters gave orders for him to be executed by members of the British Battalion. At the beginning of August 1938, Maurice Ryan was taken for a walk in the woods by battalion commander Sam Wild and his adjutant George Fletcher, and shot in the back of the head.
The final action of the battalion in Spain came on 23 September 1938, when the 337 remaining members of the unit moved up to the front for one last time. The day began with Franco’s forces subjecting them to a five-hour artillery barrage, before they were ‘attacked and attacked, again and again with his artillery, tanks, aircraft and infantry.’ No. 1. Company bore the brunt, remaining stubbornly in their positions until their trenches were overrun. Many volunteers were killed or captured in the brutal hand-to-hand fighting, including a number who had been in Spain ever since the battles of Madrid during the winter of 1936.
Eventually the order was given to retreat and at 1 a.m. on 24 September 1938 the 15th International Brigade were withdrawn from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the battalion had been killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.
On 28 October 1938 the surviving volunteers of the 15 International Brigades took their place in a huge farewell parade in Barcelona, renowned for the speech of ‘La Pasionaria’ in which she thanked them and promised: ‘We will not forget you’ she said, ‘and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.’
But six months later, the beleaguered Spanish Republic finally collapsed and, with it, the hopes of the supporters of democratic Spain from around the world. It caused the French writer Albert Camus to write an embittered comment on the lessons on the Spanish Civil War and the sacrifice of the International Brigades:
‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’ ‘It is this which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’
And why, of course, many people around the world continue to do so.
This lecture was given on 13 September 2014, as part of a weekend of events in Limerick organised by the Limerick International Brigade Memorial Trust.