Talk Radio's Home Schooling
On 12 June 2020 during Britain's Coronavirus lockdown, I was asked to contribute to Talk Radio's 'Home-Schooling' segment.
It’s widely known that within the American Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades that served in the Spanish Civil War there were a number of African Americans. Most famously the Texan military veteran and Communist, Oliver Law, became the first Black American to command white troops in battle; when he was tragically killed at Brunete in July 1937, he had risen to the rank of commander of the American volunteers. What is much less known is that there was a black British volunteer serving in the British Battalion. His name was Charlie Hutchison [his name usually appears, erroneously, as Hutchinson].
It’s perhaps not surprising that little known about Charlie for, apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives in Moscow, few details of his time in Spain remain and, sadly, no photographs. While it would be a stretch to discuss wider issues of race and prejudice within the International Brigades based on the record of one volunteer, his experiences do tell us much about the difficulties many Britons encountered when they wanted to go home. As one Scottish member of the battalion later explained, ‘while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out.’Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.
We know that Charles William R. Hutchinson was born in Witney, Oxfordshire, on 10 May 1918. His mother, whose maiden name was Harper, was presumably not in a position to raise him, for Hutchison tells of growing grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage in London. In the spring of 1936, Hutchinson, who had just turned 18 years of age, was living in Fulham and working as a lorry driver. He was also Branch Chair of the local Young Communist League and it seems clear, from remarks he made later, that he had become personally involved in the battle against Mosley’s Blackshirts. In the late summer of 1936 this led him, like nearly 2500 from Britain and Ireland, to volunteer to go to Spain and personally take the fight to Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. As he explained: ‘’I am half black. I grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.’ Charles Hutchison cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40. For Charlie, as for the numerous Jewish volunteers, fascism was a real and personal threat, beyond any theoretical abstraction.
He left Britain in either late November or early December 1936 and was recorded by Special Branch as having ‘left for Spain to serve as machine gunner with Govt. Forces.’National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7. At this time the British Battalion had not yet been formed, so once in Spain he joined the British and Irish dominated Number One Company of the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th International Brigade.He served in a section of Number One Company commanded by Joseph Kavanagh, a long-time member of the Communist Party from London. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 92. He was with the unit when it was sent to contain a Rebel breakthrough at Lopera, on the Cordóba front in southern Spain. There, outnumbered and at the mercy of the Rebels’ overwhelming air dominance, the British and Irish company was cut to pieces. Charlie Hutchison was wounded and a great number of his comrades – including Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, John Cornford – were killed.
Having recuperated from his wounds, Charlie was informed that he was going to be sent home due to his age, but he refused to leave. Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73. So, rather than being sent to join his compatriots in the British Battalion then fighting on the Jarama front, he was transferred away from the line, assigned to be an ambulance driver with the 5th Republican Army Corps. However, while Charlie seemingly wanted to remain in Spain, his mother (from whom it seems he was no longer estranged) was of a different mind and she wrote in April 1937, citing his young age and pleading that he be sent home. This seem to have rather changed Charles’ feelings about leaving, partly because he was becoming worried about his step-father, who had been hospitalised with serious gastric problems.
Over the next few months, Charlie made a number of appeals to his superiors, garnering much support, but little success. The following June, he wrote a worried note explaining that he hadn’t received a letter from his parents for ten months, leading him to assume that they must be facing dire circumstances. Yet, rather than asking to be permanently repatriated, Hutchinson asked only that he might be granted a temporary leave of absence to deal with his family problems. ‘I have been in Spain since Nov 25th 1936’, he pleaded, ‘When I came to Spain I was 18½ yrs and not on one occasion have I use[d] my age for an excuse.’ Furthermore, Charlie was himself now suffering from health problems, so was becoming increasingly desperate.RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.
Assessments by his superiors make it manifestly clear that the lack of progress was not as a result of any failure on Hutchinson’s part. Jim Ruskin, a Captain in Brigade Transmissions, recounted that both Hutchison’s political views and his work were ‘Good [and] for his age quite developed.’ ibid Likewise, Charlie’s senior officer in the Motorised Company of the 15th Army Corps, Harry Evans, described Hutchinson as ‘a hard and capable worker’. RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.
Finally, in August 1938, an order was given that Hutchison should be repatriated due to his young age and exemplary period of service. On the 27th of that month the Italian Communist, Luigi Longo, one of the most senior and powerful commanders of the International Brigades (known in Spain as ‘Gallo’), wrote to a Comrade Fusimaña, the Commissar of the XV Army Corps, on Hutchinson’s behalf:
Te ruego intervengas para que este Camarada obtenga un permiso de acuerdo con las ultimas disposiciones del Excmo. Senor Presidente del Consejo Ministros, Dr. NEGRIN.RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83.
[I ask you to intervene so that this Comrade obtains a permit in accordance with the last dispositions of the Hon. Mr. President of the Ministers Council, Dr. Negrín.]
Despite this, nothing seems to have happened, for on 2 September 1938, Charlie sent another personal appeal, complaining that ‘I was 18 when I came to Spain and I feel it is just to[o] bad if the I.B. can release a kid of 20 y[ea]rs after nearly two years of good service.’ RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.
His appeal was answered personally by Alonso ‘Lon’ Elliot, a former Cambridge University languages student, who worked under Luigi Longo in the Political Commissars’ headquarters in Madrid and in the Foreign Cadres Commission of the Spanish Communist Party in Barcelona. Elliott assured Charlie that he was taking a personal interest in his case and apologised that it still hadn’t been resolved. ‘For my part’, he wrote, ‘I will see that comrade Gallo is reminded of your case, and can assure you that everything that can be done from the Barcelona end will be done to help you. Best of luck, yours fraternally, AME.’ However, somewhat unhelpfully, he suggested that Charlie should raise the matter once again with his immediate superiors.Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchison, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.
After all these efforts on Hutchinson’s behalf, one might assume that he would have been repatriated with the other British volunteers, following their withdrawal from the front in September. However, when the survivors of the British Battalion crossed the border into France on 6 December 1938, the unfortunate Hutchinson was not among them. Only on 19 December, nearly two weeks later, was he finally released from service and repatriated.On 15 December 1938, Hutchison was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.
That a request to repatriate one British volunteer should thwart the efforts of several senior figures in the International Brigades rather flies in the face of the view that the Brigades were a highly-disciplined, strictly-hierarchical organisation, where commanders, such as Longo, held absolute power and could act with impunity. While that could certainly be the case on occasion, it is important to recognise the corrosive effect the war had on the Republicans’ political and military efficacy. As Paddy O’Daire, one of several Irish commanders of the British Battalion accurately observed, ‘all war’s a muddle.’ Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.
As yet, little evidence can be found of Hutchison’s later life. We do know that Charlie was one of a number of veterans to take part in Clive Branson’s ‘International Brigade Convoy’, a nationwide tour of 20 British veterans which raised over £5000 for the Spanish Republic (equivalent to over £300 000 today). MML SC/IBA/5/3/3 We also know that he was one of the first of the Spanish veterans to volunteer for service in the British Army in the Second World War. He served for a time in Iran, before being transferred to France in 1944, just after D-Day. Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7. And in early 1947, a Charles W. Hutchinson was married to a Patricia L. Holloway and the same individual reappears in the electoral register of 1958, living at 11 Argyll Mansions, Fulham, London. Records suggest that he later moved to Bournemouth, where he died in March 1993, aged 74. Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.
Charlie Hutchison occupies a unique position as the only mixed-race volunteer among the British volunteers in Spain, so it would be fitting if more details could be found about his life. However, there is one small detail that remains to tell: in 1985, while helping M.J. Hynes with his research for an undergraduate dissertation, Charlie Hutchinson (along with 65 other British International Brigaders) completed a questionnaire on his experiences as a volunteer in Spain. Whether the questionnaires themselves survived is unknown, but one snippet remains, allowing Charlie to have the last word on why he believed so many people from around the world joined him in choosing to risk their lives on behalf of the Spanish Republic:
The Brigaders came out of the working class; they came out of the battle of Cable Street, they came out of the struggles on the side turnings … they weren’t Communist, they weren’t Socialists, but they were anti-fascist. Charles Hutchison, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.
It is now eighty years since the failed military coup which marked the beginning of the civil war in Spain. During the bitter conflict some half a million Spaniards were killed, a sombre warning of the greater slaughter to follow. For while the civil war was at its heart a Spanish tragedy, the internationalism of the war conferred on it a lasting significance beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Crucial military support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany for Franco’s Nacionales was countered – to some degree – by that from Stalin’s Russia for the Republic. Meanwhile, the western democracies did their utmost to ‘keep out of it’, making ineffectual efforts to encourage other regimes to do the same. The ‘non-intervention agreement’ (as it was called) was therefore not akin to neutrality and decisively helped the Nacionales, later openly acknowledged by the Francoist minister Pedro de Sáinz Rodríguez. Britain may have been the main guilty party, but other western democracies also bear culpability for the Republic’s defeat, including the United States. As a new book by the award-winning author Adam Hochschild reminds us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to much the same conclusion in January 1939, admitting to a cabinet meeting that the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic had been a ‘grave mistake’.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is subtitled ‘Americans in the Spanish Civil War’, though the book is not, in fact, about the 2800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. Instead, his account is told through the experiences of a select number of individuals (not all of whom are American) within the cataclysmic war in Spain. And they are select, for Hochschild’s characters are all highly-educated, middle-class writers. The notion of a poets’ (or writers’) war is clearly still attractive to writers and publishers, which neither time, nor the undoubted presence of an overwhelming proportion of manual workers among the volunteers, seems to have dispelled.
Admittedly, the author has chosen his stellar cast shrewdly, including the two most famous writers of the civil war (in English at least), Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. While Hochschild seems to have little new to say about the latter, his account of Hemingway’s participation in a guerrilla raid behind enemy lines, which clearly inspired Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls, may come as a revelation to some readers. Jordan’s real-life counterpart, the Professor of Economics and Abraham Lincoln Battalion commander, Robert Hale Merriman, also features, as does society debutante and reporter Virginia Cowles and journalist and International Brigader, Louis Fischer.
Accounts of the war’s impact on the characters’ personal relationships are a recurring theme; Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn obviously, but also Bob Merriman and his wife Marion, POUM supporters Lois and Charles Orr and the cross-Atlantic war romance between American nurse Toby Jensky and English sculptor and International Brigader, Jason ‘Pat’ Gurney, who had suffered a nervous break-down after the appalling carnage of the Jarama battle of 12-14 February 1937.
Gurney’s account of the war, like Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, has been frequently cited and retold and it’s difficult to find much within Hochschild’s account that is strikingly original. Certainly the author’s debt to earlier studies, particularly those of Paul Preston and Peter Carroll (which he generously acknowledges) is clear. So, why then, should this new book be of interest? Principally, it is because of the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. Spain in our Hearts is a rewarding and enjoyable read, for the elegant prose is littered with some of the most telling anecdotes from the literature.
It is also a pretty fair and balanced account. The author is fortunately too sophisticated to fall for the simplistic, binary notion of a war between two equally repugnant totalitarian philosophies, in which ‘Spain’ is merely a passive bystander. Nor does he make the mistake of seeing Republican Spain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, though not denying that the supplies of military materiel and the organisation of the International Brigades gave Stalin great influence. This ‘devil’s pact’ was really the only option left to the Republic, once the western democracies had refused to come to their aid.
Hochschild will, no doubt, come into some criticism for justifying what has become seen as ‘the Communist line’ regarding the argument over ‘war or revolution first’ that Orwell discusses in detail in Homage to Catalonia. Yet it is often forgotten that, after the war, Orwell himself came to the reluctant conclusion that the military necessities of the war should take precedence, though he nevertheless remained furious about the Communist Party’s use of the argument as a smokescreen for the suppression of other parties of the left. Like Orwell, Hochschild clearly has great sympathy for the POUMistas and Anarchists, yet he is not dewy-eyed, dryly observing that ‘the ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs” however splendid in theory, proved hard to enforce, especially when many workers felt that what they needed was more time off.’ (p. 146)
Balanced, of course, is not the same as neutral and Hochschild’s Republican sympathies are plain to see. Perhaps the clearest example is his illuminating account of the role of Torkild Rieber, the pro-Nazi C.E.O. of the American oil company, Texaco, in supplying millions of gallons of oil to Franco on credit. To this can be added the 12 000 trucks received by Franco from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford. As Hochschild points out, the admission by the Under-Secretary of the Spanish foreign ministry that Franco could not have won the war without U.S. trucks and U.S. oil credits reveals just how significant this contribution really was to the Nationalists’ cause.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Heart is much more than just another account of Orwell and Hemingway in Spain. It offers the reader a window into the personal, emotionally searing experiences of those who decided to make the Spanish cause their own. As Albert Camus, from whom the book’s title is drawn, wrote just after the end of the war, ‘it was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten’. Hochschild’s beautifully crafted book explains why, for them, the Spanish drama was and remained a personal tragedy.
Having spent the last two summers exploring civil war battle sites in Aragon, this year saw the return of four historians, two from Ireland (Emmet O’Connor and Barry McGloughlin) and two from England (John Halstead and myself), to explore some of the sites around Madrid. Our trip was given added poignancy by the knowledge that Emmet’s father fought with the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Having arrived in Spain in December 1936, Peter O’Connor fought in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and at Brunete five months later, where he was wounded. Following pressure from Irish Republican leader Frank Ryan, O’Connor was repatriated shortly afterwards ‘for political reasons … with an excellent record’ (International Brigade Archive Box 39, file A/29).
Our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Brunete, though, sadly, not much evidence remains. You can get a good sense of the overall layout from a viewpoint just south of Valdemorillo, but both the village of Villanueva de la Cañada (where Falangist defenders held out, crucially delaying the Republican advance) and the ultimate objective of the 15 International Brigade, Mosquito Ridge, have been built up and developed.
Fortunately, the Jarama battlefield remains much as it was nearly 80 years ago. It’s easy to find, lying just off the M302, three kilometres west of Morata de Tajuña and is marked by the large monument to the battle (see image above). The sunken road, mentioned in many accounts of the battle, is roughly 500 metres further west of the monument and runs south-west off the M302 (though it’s not sunken any more). This leads you right to the site itself and the memorial to the Irish volunteer, Kit Conway, who commanded the British Battalion’s Number One Company and was killed on the first day of the battle. Walk through the olive groves and scrub, rich with the pungent smell of wild thyme, and you will see the positions that the British Battalion attempted to defend on 12 February 1937. The Knoll, Conical Hill and ‘Suicide Hill’ on which the ill-prepared and poorly-armed volunteers were cut to pieces can all be made out clearly. Sobering.
Our third visit was not to a battle site, nor to a memorial to the International Brigades; in fact, quite the opposite. Surprisingly none of us had ever previously visited Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s monument to the Nationalist dead. Set underneath a 150 metre high cross, the memorial houses one of the world’s largest basilicas, dug out of solid rock, in which rest the tombs of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish Fascist party. The monument bears all the hallmarks of fascists architecture: it’s huge, overbearing, pompous and dripping with pseudo-religious imagery and rhetoric. Thousands of Republican prisoners died during its construction and, to this day, debates rage over its future. Should it be pulled down, as was the case with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, or should it be kept as a reminder of the brutal and murderous excesses of Franco’s regime? On balance I favour the latter, despite the monument’s undeniable grandiose ugliness.
The last stop was Calle de Toledo, which runs south from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Today, the attractive, narrow little street is lined with cafés and bars full of tourists enjoying a cooling drink or sampling tapas as people bustle past, fending off hawkers. However, in November 1936, it looked rather different, becoming the scene for one of the most famous photographs of the civil war. The banner hung across it by defiant Madrileños proclaimed that ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism!’ ¡No Pasarán! they declared, ‘They Shall Not Pass!’
The banner spoke true, of course, for Madrid was never conquered militarily, only being occupied following the Republic’s collapse, which brought the war to its sorry conclusion. From Franco’s first assault on the Spanish capital in November 1936 to the end of the civil war in March 1939, the Madrileños, supported by volunteers from around the world, held out. The fascists did not pass.
p.s. Despite having visited the Madrid battle sites before, I found David Matthieson’s book, Frontline Madrid, invaluable. It gives precise locations of places of interest, along with detailed, comprehensible directions on how to find them. Recommended.
My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
Since the end of the cold war and the consequent opening up of the Moscow archives, fresh light has been shone on the relationship between the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and Spain during the country’s civil war. Increasingly, this has allowed a rather more nuanced, ‘warts and all’ analysis. Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion? (reviewed in issue 41 of the IBMT newsletter) is a good example of this rather more thoughtful, balanced approach; so too is this latest study by Lisa Kirschenbaum.
Though the book’s title refers to international communism, it focuses mainly on Party members in the Soviet Union, Spain and the U.S. This may limit its appeal to a British audience, which would be a shame, because many of the issues the book discusses transcend nationality such as, for example, the accounts of Communists ‘who reported, then and later, they in Spain they lived their ideals more intensely, passionately, and fully than they had anywhere else.’ (p. 10) Likewise, discussions of the now well-known problems the International Brigade command faced – leave and repatriation, the distrust of other nationalities, resentment of Spanish officers, a lack of effective communications – could relate to any of the national units.
While the author does touch upon some of the more over-arching themes of the role of the Communist Party in Spain – including a refreshing scepticism towards the old trope that the Spanish Republic was controlled by Stalin – it is the individual lives of Communists which are of main concern here. The author’s detailed discussion of notions of ‘Communist identity’ examines volunteers’ attitudes towards a wide range of issues: the impact on families back home; bravery and cowardice in battle; drinking; sex and notions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. The author is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, arguing that ‘despite the fact that gay men served in the International Brigades, homosexuality remained for many communists presumptively fascist.’ (p. 174.)
The final section of the book turns to the period after the war in Spain, recounting the persecution of Communist Party members in both the US and the USSR. It is a deeply dispiriting story and many readers will be shocked and appalled by the levels of paranoia, distrust and persecution directed towards Spanish civil war veterans on both sides of the iron curtain: ‘labelled subversives and spies by authorities on both sides, they were harassed, tried, convicted and, in the Soviet bloc, tortured and sometimes executed.’ (p. 236)
Yet, while Stalin’s brutal and murderous regime caused many Party members and civil war veterans around the world to reject Soviet Communism, the author argues that very few of them came to abandon the cause of Spanish democracy, or anti-fascism. This is, I think, an important point to make. After all, just because the description of Republican Spain’s struggle as ‘the cause of all advanced and progressive humanity’ originated with Josef Stalin, it does not make it any less true.
This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
The letters are from a number of American volunteers, though most were written by Carl Geiser, a young Jewish volunteer from Ohio who became a political commissar during his time in Spain. As the letters demonstrate very clearly, Geiser was a volunteer who never lost his belief in the cause.