The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
Over the last few years, several announcements have mourned the passing of the last of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. First there was David Lomon, then Philip Tammer and most recently Stan Hilton, all of whom were hailed as ‘the last of the last’. In fact, none of them were. As a recent article by Carmelo García in The Times revealed, 99 year old veteran Geoffrey Servante is alive and well, living in a nursing home in the Forest of Dean.
Geoffrey’s Spanish adventure began in the summer of 1937. He was drinking in a Soho pub with his father, when he overheard a man claiming that it was no longer possible to join the International Brigades, as the Spanish border had been closed. ‘I bet I can join’, declared Geoffrey, impulsively. When the man insisted that there was ‘no chance’, Geoffrey refused to believe him, vowing ‘I’ll bet you a hundred quid I can do it’.
Geoffrey was hardly a typical volunteer for the International Brigades. He had been educated by Jesuits and had never joined a political party nor even a Trade Union: ‘I wasn’t politically inclined at all’, he confessed. However, he had served briefly in the Royal Marines and his earlier experience working on the Canadian–Pacific line helped him secure passage on a boat to Spain.
When they docked in Valencia, Geoffrey jumped ship and accosted a local, repeating the only Spanish phrase he knew: ‘¡Internacional Brigadas! ¡Internacional Brigadas!’ Surprisingly, it was enough to land him a rail ticket to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades. Interviewed there by a Political Commissar, Geoffrey admitted that he was only 18 years old, and was consequently refused admission into the British Battalion, which was then being slaughtered on the Brunete battlefield. Instead, he was posted to a much less hazardous unit, an artillery battery then in training in Almansa, some 70km east of Albacete.
The Anglo-American artillery unit, known as the John Brown Battery, was commanded by an Estonian born American called Arthur Timpson, who had been trained in artillery in Moscow. Alongside Geoffrey were four other English volunteers, all under the watchful eye of their Sergeant, David King, a Communist Branch Secretary and former Royal Marine from Skipton in Yorkshire. Initially posted to the Estremadura front in south-west Spain, the battery was transferred to Toledo in December 1937, where it remained for the duration of the war.
With ammunition extremely scarce, the men rarely did much more than take the occasional pot shot at the enemy lines. However, on one of the few occasions when they were called upon, the battery members had just taken the opportunity to polish off a barrel of local brandy. Geoffrey, who was by his own admission utterly ‘sozzled’, did his valiant best to aim the gun, but the shell missed its target by miles. For this, Geoffrey was punished with six extra guard duties; ‘it was a very lax discipline’, he laughed. Only later did he discover that he had inadvertently scored a direct hit on a fascist officer’s car, blowing him, his aide-de-camp and the car to pieces.
When the majority of the International Brigades were withdrawn and repatriated at the end of 1938, the battery members remained in place, seemingly forgotten. Only in early 1939 were they withdrawn to Valencia, then on to Barcelona. From there, a narrow gauge railway took them half-way to the frontier and they then had to walk the remaining 80km, harassed constantly by Nationalist aircraft. Safely across the French border, Geoffrey and his comrades enjoyed a huge breakfast, courtesy of the International Red Cross, before being repatriated via Paris and Dieppe.
Within a year, Geoffrey was back in uniform, having been called up into the British Army. He had a relatively good war, spending three years in Egypt with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After demobilisation, he worked for Marshalls, reconditioning military lorries, joining Vauxhall Motors in 1957, where he remained until he took early retirement twenty years later.
Only in 2009 did Geoffrey discover that the Spanish government had offered citizenship to surviving veterans of the International Brigades:
‘I heard on the radio that there were no more International Brigades left, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. There’s still me.’
When his daughter Honor contacted the Spanish embassy, Geoffrey was invited to London to sign the declaration entitling him to his Spanish passport. He still retains an interest in Spanish affairs; he is a strong supporter of Catalan independence and voted in the 2017 referendum. Geoffrey remains extremely proud to have fought for Spanish democracy and has no regrets. Well, perhaps one. When he returned from Spain and triumphantly called into the pub to collect his winnings, Geoffrey was saddened – and a little disappointed – to discover that his fellow gambler had passed away. So he never did get to see his £100.00.
Sadly, we have now reached the end of an era. With the death of 98 year old Stan Hilton, there are no longer any British veterans of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 alive to tell their tale. Stan may well have been the last member of the entire English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade. Jules Paivio, the last of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013 and the American, Delmer Berg, the final Lincoln, died earlier this year.
Over the course of the civil war more than 6000 international volunteers (1000 Canadians, 2500 British & Irish and 2800 Americans), served in the Fifteenth International Brigade, part of a 35 000 strong band of brothers – and sisters – from some 53 countries around the world. These anti-fascists volunteered to join the battle because, as one American from Mississippi put it simply, ‘I saw in the invaders of Spain the same people I’ve been fighting all my life.’ They believed that Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries; arguing that fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe and conversely a victory for Franco would be, by extension, a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for Franco’s Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
While the International Brigades were only a small part of the Spanish Republican army, their arrival on the Madrid front eighty years ago this November was hugely significant. The international volunteers raised the morale of the defenders of the Spanish capital, whilst providing invaluable instruction in the use of weaponry such as machine-guns. However, the involvement of the International Brigades in the fighting around Madrid between November 1936 and the spring of 1937 was probably their high-water mark. As the war dragged on, their influence gradually waned. Outnumbered and outgunned, lacking crucial air cover, and consistently thrown into the heart of the fire, the foreign volunteers were, in the words of one senior Scottish volunteer, ‘cut to pieces’. Around a fifth of the 35 000 international volunteers were killed in Spain and the vast majority were wounded at some stage. As American historian Peter Carroll explained, raw courage and belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the volunteers’ cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
When nineteen year old Stan Hilton jumped ship in Alicante and volunteered to join the fight, he was convinced that ‘it was the right thing to do’. By this time, November 1937, the British Battalion had been fighting in Spain for almost a year. They had been having a very tough time of it: during the bloodbath at Jarama in February and in the ferocious heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete the British had been virtually annihilated. While some success had been seen on the Aragon front in the autumn, the target of the Republican offensive, Saragossa, had stubbornly remained in Rebel hands. With the battalion in reserve, Stan was sent for military training at the British Battalion’s headquarters in the village of Madrigueras, just to the north of the main International Brigades headquarters at Albacete. His period of training (such as it was) completed, Stan joined the battalion in early 1938, as the British volunteers fought as part of the Republican force desperately trying to hold on to the remote capital of Teruel. Conditions were horrendous: in freezing temperatures that sank to twenty below zero at night, more men died at Teruel from the cold than were killed in battle. For Stan, brought up on notions of ‘sunny Spain’, it was a brutal introduction to the realities of warfare: ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he later recalled.
Things were about to get much worse. Boosted by reinforcements, Franco’s forces recaptured Teruel before pressing home their advantage by launching a colossal offensive in the spring against the Republican forces in Aragon. Thirteen divisions, including Italians and the German Condor Legion, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean. Much better armed and supplied, Franco’s forces outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. Franco’s soldiers successfully reached the Mediterranean in mid-April 1938, splitting the Republic’s territory in two.
With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up having to undertake a dangerous swim across the fast-flowing River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse). Half-drowned, starving and exhausted, Stan decided that he had had enough of the Spanish war and headed for the Mediterranean coast. In March 1938, with the permission of the British ship’s captain, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, in 1956 he took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. There he remained, mainly working as a tiler in the building trade, living a quiet life, his presence unknown to the UK’s International Brigade Memorial Trust. That is, until he was tracked down in an old people’s home in Yarrawonga, Australia, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. A couple of years ago Stan was transferred from there to a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, in order to be closer to his family. It was there, on 21 October 2016, that Stan Hilton, tiler, merchant seaman and International Brigader finally died, aged 98. He was the last of the last, el último de la última.
This article originally appeared in The Spain Report on 28 October 2016.
Contributor on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ documentary on family history of Hollywood actress (Lost, Waking Ned, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Others) Fionnuala Flanagan, produced by Mint/RTE and broadcast in 2009.
The sections on Fionnuala’s International Brigader father, Terry Flanagan, were filmed on location in Madrid, Albacete and Madrigueras.
‘Actress Fionnula Flanagan may live in Hollywood, but her heart is at home in Ireland. Her mother was born in a workhouse… but not for obvious reasons. Her father, from a large inner city family, grew up in a turbulent era, and eventually took his Republican & socialist principles across Europe to the Spanish Civil War. For the first time, Fionnula has a chance to understand her dad’s many battles, wounds and victories. But it’s back home in Dublin, while trying to grapple with the family circumstances that inspired her father, that Fionnula discovers a harsh truth about her grandmother: a woman who was the rock of the family.’
Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.
When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.
Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.
From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.
Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.
After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.
Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.
For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.
In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’
Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.