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.
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 Charles Hutchison cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40.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,’ having allegedly stolen money from a church to pay for his passage to Spain. 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.
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.
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal. The event was a Radio 3 Proms extra, presented by Clemency Burton-Hill and produced by Karen Holden.
LINE-UP OF EXTRACTS
You Who Stand at Your Doors – Randolph Swingler (CE)
George Orwell – On what the International Brigades were fighting for (CE)
Why Go to Spain? – Explanation by London volunteer, Jason Gurney (CE)
Dance of Death – W.H. Auden (CE)
The Volunteer – Cecil Day-Lewis (CE)
Excited to arrive in Spain – Nottingham volunteer Walter Gregory (CE)
General Emilio Mola – On the Rebels’ deliberate use of terror (CE)
No Pasarán – Speech by Dolores Ibárruri (YV)
Poem (Heart of the heartless world) – John Cornford to Margot Heinemann (JB)
Farewell to the International Brigades – Passage from Dolores Ibárruri’s famous speech in October 1938 (YV)
George Orwell – On the horror of war (CE)
Set in the heart of London’s commercial art gallery district, Mayoral’s ‘Art Revolutionaries’ is a homage to the Spanish Republic’s Pavilion in the famous Paris Exposition of 1937. The Spanish contribution deliberately and consciously expressed both the modernity of the Republic and the life and death struggle in which it was embroiled. The centrepiece, of course, was Picasso’s powerful depiction of the bombing of Guernica, prominently displayed at one end of a spacious, open auditorium.
This lovingly-curated exhibition goes to great lengths to recreate the impression of the original pavilion. On the first floor works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and Julio González, many sourced from private collections, sit within a scale model of the original auditorium. Downstairs, interposed among detailed replicas of the original furniture, vivid Republican posters accompany a short film of the original 1937 exhibition, while helpful panels and displays of rich archival material recount the political and artistic context.
The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and Barcelona and when its time in London ends on 10 February 2017, there are no plans for it to go elsewhere. That, I think, is a shame. This (Mayoral’s wonderful catalogue aside) is the nearest most of us will get to experiencing the original Paris exposition. Based solely on what is on display here, it must surely have been a sight worth seeing.
This post first appeared in the March issue of The Volunteer.
On the face of it, Biggles creator Captain W.E. Johns seems a most unlikely supporter of the Spanish government in the civil war. However, much like Winston Churchill, who detailed his move from pro-Rebel to pro-Republic in Step by Step¸ Johns gradually came to see Franco’s victory as a potential threat to the British Empire. He didn’t seem to see things that way in May 1937, though, when he wrote an obituary for Christopher St. John Sprigg, who had been killed fighting (under the nom de guerre Christopher Caudwell) with the British Battalion of the International Brigades during the Battle of Jarama in February. Johns knew and admired Sprigg, many of whose stories he had published in the journal Popular Flying under his nom de plume, Arthur Cave. Johns considered them ‘some of the best short air stories that have been written.’
In the obituary, which also appeared in Popular Flying, Johns recounted how ‘Sprigg had gone to fight on the side which may, or may not, be right … Heavens above, what waste!’ His view is representative of many in Britain at the time, particularly in the government and media, who saw, or at least depicted, the war as one between two repugnant political ideologies. ‘We English’, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, famously declared, ‘hate fascism, but we loathe bolshevism as much. So, if there is somewhere where fascists and bolsheviks can kill each other off, so much the better.’ Unfortunately, some commentators still see the war in the same way.
Johns actually wrote about the Spanish Civil War, plunging Biggles and his redoubtable chums Ginger and Algy into the murky world of espionage in the Republican zone. The plot of Biggles in Spain suggests that Johns was fully aware of the widespread spying carried out behind the lines and was surprisingly accepting of the Republicans’ measures in order to counter it. Johns is also, through the words of his eponymous hero, disapproving of the Rebels, criticising the bombing of British shipping and expressing his disgust at the Rebels’ bombing of defenceless civilians. When the three pilots manage to swim to shore following the sinking of their ship, they encounter Barcelona experiencing a night-time bombing raid: ‘”Dirty work”, said Biggles coldly.’
The story is, of course, as far-fetched as you would imagine (or hope), featuring spies, treachery and other skulduggery. One of the more interesting episodes has one of Biggles’ sidekicks fighting with the International Brigades during the Battle of the Ebro, where he encounters a volunteer from London:
Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.
What a waste, in other words. Clearly, Johns could be referring to Sprigg here and he returns to his theme when describing a Scottish volunteer pilot who has abandoned his home for ‘the cause of freedom and justice – a cause for which millions of men since the beginning of time have laid down their lives, usually in vain.’
[Spoiler alert] In the end, of course, the plucky pilots survive their Spanish episode, with no more than a few bumps and scratches and a life-long dislike of the ‘reek of garlic’. And it is, after all, only a brief episode in which Biggles has only done what ‘any Britisher would do.’ As Johns’ final paragraph reveals, what really counts is not some meaningless squabble between those unfortunate enough to have been born the wrong side of the English channel, but that, like the adventures of Biggles himself, ‘the old Empire goes on’.
No visitor to Barcelona football club’s iconic stadium, the Camp Nou, can fail to notice the slogan splashed in huge letters across the back of the seats: mès que un club. If one aim is to goad supporters of their arch-rivals, Real Madrid, it certainly seems to work. As Sid Lowe explains in his highly entertaining and exhaustive account of the rivalry between Spain’s two dominant football teams, the irritated Madrid fans have responded by inventing their own version. ‘Barcelona’; they chant, is más que un puticlub (more than a brothel).
At one level, Fear and Loathing in La Liga is a celebration of two highly successful football clubs who, while they may inspire mutual fear and loathing, also draw plaudits and admiration from around the world. They have also attracted some of the world’s most talented footballers, many of whom crop up in this book. There is Barcelona’s powerful forward of the 1950s, the Hungarian László Kubala, whose father optimistically bought him a violin as a child, only for the youngster to use it as a goal post. And the Argentine star, Alfredo Di Stéfano (who some still feel was a better player than either Pele or Maradona), who Madrid infamously stole from under the noses of Barcelona. The detailed account of Johan Cruyff’s time at Barcelona clearly outlines how much the current team of Messi, Chavi, Iniesta et al owe to Cruyff and the inspirational Dutch ‘total football’ of the 1970s.
However, Fear and Loathing is mès que un libre about football for, in addition to being The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent, Sid Lowe holds a PhD in modern Spanish history. He combines his areas of expertise effectively to demonstrate how the history of the two rival clubs is inextricably bound up with Spanish history itself. Just as there are fierce battles over the past and historical memory, so many of these arguments have become expressed through the tribal loyalties of football; ‘war minus the shooting’, as Orwell famously described it. However, it is, perhaps, no great surprise that much of the story of the rivalry between the two teams is about perception, rather than reality. Most football fans, ‘the twelfth man on the terraces’, are not neutral, dispassionate observers and – like everyone else- often choose to believe what they want to believe.
For example, the book outlines how supporters of rival teams within Spain – and around the world – often scorn Real Madrid as ‘Franco’s team’. For Catalans especially, Real represents the image of traditional, Castillian, centralised power, while Barcelona is portrayed as a beacon of democracy, the symbol of the separatist movement which Franco (and by extension, Madrid) brutally suppressed. Now it is certainly true that Franco’s regime was extremely partisan towards Real; the infamous match of 1943, which ended 11-0 to Madrid, is but one example of the regime’s meddling. And Santiago Bernebeu, the father of the modern club was quite evidently pro-Franco, having and volunteered to fight for the Nationalists during the civil war. However, as the author makes clear, things are not always as simple as some would like to make out; this simplistic binary division inevitably means that inconvenient truths are ignored.
In many ways this book is an exercise in myth busting; perhaps a response to some of the more trenchant (if not bizarre) opinions the author must have come across in newspapers’ online comments, or via some of his 140 000 followers on Twitter. So, for example, he points out that Rafael Sánchez Guerra, the president of Real Madrid from 1935 to 1936, was actually put on trial by the Franco regime, accused of being ‘a Red’. And while one of the current directors at Barcelona is allegedly a member of the right-wing fundación Francisco Franco, the parents of Real’s former manager, Vincente del Bosque (now in charge of the Spanish national team), were imprisoned by Franco’s regime. To return to football, the author argues that ‘[Real] Madrid did not become the best because they were the regime’s team; they were the regime’s team because they became the best.’ And it’s not as though Barcelona fans have a monopoly on feeling aggrieved: Madrid’s defeat in the 1960 European cup final still rankles, amidst rumours of bribes and dodgy English referees.
The book’s skilful interweaving of football, history and politics makes for an enjoyable and interesting read. Perhaps members of the IBMT who are not followers of the beautiful game may wonder why two books relating to football have been reviewed in recent newsletters. However, if Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly’s infamous quote that ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, does not convince, then perhaps an anecdote from the book concerning the supremely talented Danish footballer, Brian Laudrup, may do so. In 1994, Laudrup led Barcelona to an astonishing 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; the following year, he played in another el clásico, but this time around, the Dane led Real, in their turn, to a 5-0 victory. According to Laudrup, when he eventually decided to leave la liga, a relieved King Juan Carlos confessed to him, ‘That’s good … now I can go back to being the only King of Spain.’
This is one of the first photographs taken of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Kneeling in front in white trousers, is Tom Wintringham, who commanded the British Battalion in their first action in Spain, at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
Members of the British Machine-Gun Company, captured at Jarama in February 1937 and paraded in front of the cameras of Movietone News under the watchful eye of their Civil Guard captors. The prisoners were eventually released and repatriated in May 1937.
The British Anti-Tank Battery was an eilte unit formed in June 1937 and armed with state-of-the-art Russian guns. Hugh Slater, in the centre of the photo, replaced Malcolm Dunbar as their commander in August 1937.
Thanks to Joan Brown, Jim Carmody, Dan Payne and others for their help in identifying everyone. If you know the name of any of the unknown volunteers, please get in touch.
Discussion with John Simpson on George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Broadcast on 10 August 2012 as part of Radio Four’s series, ‘War of Words’, in which John Simpson tells the stories of the correspondents who reported on the Spanish Civil War.
The entire series of five episodes is currently available on BBC iPlayer: War of Words
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.’
David Marshall, poet, and one of the last surviving of the British volunteers to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, has died, aged 90.
David was born on 27 March 1916, in Middlesbrough, the eldest of three sons of Methodist parents. Brought up mainly by his Mother, he gained a scholarship for High School, where he developed a lifelong love of literature and poetry. When he left school in 1934, with few jobs available for school leavers, David reluctantly sat the civil service entrance examination and began work in the Ministry of Labour. It was not work that David enjoyed, opening his eyes to the misery of life ‘on the dole’. However, unlike many of his peers, it was not to politics that David turned, but to books. He later admitted to have been, ‘utterly ignorant of the world…wrapped in my bookishness.’ The world of those who would later be his comrades in Spain – demonstrations, hunger marches, battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts – made little impact on him.
However, in July 1936, after 18 months working in the Labour Exchange, he read that a revolt had broken out in Spain. This changed everything:
One day I brought The Times…I remember reading a paragraph saying, “There is no doubt that if the Spanish Republican government wins the war, a socialist state will be set up”. Really that was the trigger. I thought, Christ, here’s a way out.
David quickly obtained a passport by forging a letter from his Father, told his sweetheart ‘some cock-and-bull story’, and bought a one-way rail ticket to London and on to Port Bou, in France. However, on reaching the Spanish border, David’s political naïveté was his undoing, when he was refused entry for not possessing any political or Trade Union credentials. However, a mysterious Italian appeared and got him across the border. David then volunteered to join the Catalonian anti-fascist militia and was put on a train to Barcelona.
This was to be an immensely influential time for David, for Barcelona ‘was seething with enthusiasm [and] colour’. As Orwell famously recounted, ‘the working class were in the saddle’; Trade Union and political banners were everywhere. Under the leadership of Nat Cohen- a battle-hardened volunteer from London- Marshall and his handful of comrades (including Georgie Tioli, a mysterious Italian, and Tom Wintringham, another poet and later a commander of the British Battalion in Spain) were formed them into the Tom Mann Centuria. The oft-produced photograph of the group has developed an almost iconic status.
After a few weeks in Barcelona they were moved to Albacete, the International Brigade base, and, at the end of October 1936, officially attached to the mainly German Thaelmann Battalion as part of the XII International Brigade. Here they were given uniforms and what David described as ‘bloody awful’ equipment. Most of the volunteers hadn’t even fired their rifles when they went into action on 11 November 1936, at Cerro de los Angeles, near Madrid. Less than 24 hours later, David’s Spanish episode was abruptly terminated when he was shot in the leg. Extremely shaken and with his morale severely knocked, he returned to England in December 1936, to hear that most of his friends had been killed in a vicious battle at Boadilla on the western outskirts of Madrid, memorably described in his comrade (and Winston Churchill’s nephew) Esmond Romilly’s book of the same name.
On his return to Middlesbrough, he joined the Young Communist League and returned to his old employment in the Ministry of Labour. In January 1939 he married his sweetheart, Joyce, with whom he later had a daughter and son.
David continued to work for the return of democracy in Spain and attended a reunion of volunteers in 1938, though he felt a reluctance to stand alongside his comrades, feeling that his all too brief time in Spain and ensuing return to Britain made him somehow unworthy. David always downplayed his role in Spain and possessed a strong sense of guilt that he had survived, when many others hadn’t. Nevertheless, with other veterans, he joined the International Brigade Association (IBA), formed in the Spring of 1939, for which he would later become Treasurer. As part of his support for the Republic, David also wrote a poem, ‘Retrospect’, which was included in an anthology edited by Stephen Spender & John Lehmann, Poems for Spain, (1939).
When the Second World War broke out he, like many other ex-brigaders, was at first barred from entry into the armed forces. However, following pressure from his superior at the Labour Exchange (who insisted that he volunteer), on 4 February 1940 he joined the Army Pay Corps. He was interviewed about his background in Spain by a Captain, who said that he knew that David ‘was Communistic or fascist’. However, David received no discrimination over his time in ‘Red’ Spain though, even as a corporal, he was never placed on guard duty when abroad.
An attempt to volunteer as a glider pilot failed when the optician twigged that the short-sighted David had memorised the eye-chart beforehand, and David transferred instead to the Army Engineers. He took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and also witnessed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, altogether serving six years in the army. Demobilised in April 1947, he returned, once again, to his old job in the Ministry of Labour, where he remained until 1961, when he moved to London and began work as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop. Between 1963 and 1973 he had a small studio, building scenery for theatres and exhibitions.
In 1975 his wife, Joyce, died of cancer after a long illness and David bought and lovingly re?furbished a 90ft. sailing barge, ‘Jock’ where he lived, hosting exhibitions and dinners. His impromptu – and extremely lively – parties are still famous to this day. In 1982 David sold ‘Jock’ and bought an 85ft. long Dutch Barge, ‘Zwerver’, on which he lived until 1992, when he moved in with his long-time partner, the actress Marlene Sidaway.
Following the death of Bill Alexander, the secretary of the IBA in 2000, David was at the forefront in pressing for the admission of family members and friends, leading to the establishment of a new charitable organisation, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), for which he continued to donate considerable time and money. In November of the same year, the ‘articulate, poetry-loving 84 year old’ was amongst a number of Spanish veterans photographed and interviewed for a special piece in The Guardian.
David continued to write poetry throughout his life and eventually, a collection, The Tilting Planet, was published early in 2005. When, at the launch of the book of his poems a number of them were read by a number of well-known actors and actresses out to a packed audience, even David- always fiercely determined to downplay his own importance- could not disguise his pleasure and pride. This was to be David’s last public appearance.
The International Brigades and Spain’s struggle for democracy remained David’s abiding passions and his work on the committees of the IBA and later the IBMT were an important part of this, where David’s cantankerous charm reflected a singular impatience for protocol. But it was in his poetry, that David Marshall’s true, sensitive nature was revealed:
I sing of my comrades
That once did sing
In that great choir at Albacete
Before the battle.
Rank after rank
Of the young battalions
Singing the Internationale
They came from every corner of the earth
So many men from distant lands
Each with his private history
Of Spain’s Republic.
Along slow roads to Spain – at last a star
For desperate men, sensing the gathering storm
And we that fought to warn a watching world
Were called false prophets by appeasers
Yet we fought for the poor of the world.
Our lullabies were soldiers’ songs
Dead in the mud of the trenches
Sung by sad women to the sons of the fallen.
And remembered in Remembrance Day long past
After the thudding drum and shriek of bugles
I listened to the slow lament
For brothers, sons and lovers lost.
It is the sadness in the singing,
The undertones of woe,
The deep vein of grief
That throbs throughout my generation.
David Marshall, International Brigader and poet, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005.