BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
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.
Published by Clapton Press on 23 November 2023, Forged in Spain is a collection of ten biographies recounting the lives of a number of extraordinary men and women who left their families and friends to risk their lives in the Spanish Civil War. The majority of those to feature were members of the International Brigades, the battalions of foreign volunteers raised by the Communist International (known as the Comintern) to fight for the Republic. However, also included are a number of individuals who served in other roles, such as journalists, political functionaries, relief workers and medics. While the biographies centre on the experiences gained during the war in Spain, they all include an account of the subjects’ early lives and backgrounds, to help explain their political development and their choice to become involved in the war. Likewise, the consequences of their participation in the civil war are explored in detail: how they faced up to the defeat of the Spanish Republic and consequent forty years of Franco dictatorship, their involvement (or not) in the Second World War and their attitudes towards the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
‘As the Spanish Civil War fades from living memory, Richard Baxell has rescued from obscurity some of the brave men and women who left the safety of their homes in Britain to risk all in the fight against fascism, using newly released archival material to bring their stories vividly to life.’Billy Bragg.
‘These enthralling biographies give a picture of the passions of the age … Baxell’s research is meticulous … Forged in Spain is a serious and moving book that may inspire readers to fight the rise of a new fascism today.’Michael Eaude, TLS.
‘Excellent research based on the latest files from a range of sources, well put together, with some sound judgements and reassessments.’Stephen Dorril, author of MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service.
‘Baxell does not avoid controversy and discusses rumours and humanity frailty. You do not get heroes in his book but what you do get is remarkable individuals, none of whom are perfect, described and researched in Baxell’s usual extensive manner.’Chris Hall, author of In Spain with Orwell.
‘This is a book that should be of great interest to many readers … the involvement of the volunteers in Spain is usually passed over as a footnote in British history. It is to be hoped that Forged in Spain will help rectify this situation.’Charlie Nurse, ¡No Pasarán!
‘Baxell’s compelling biographical sketches shine a light on a select group of those who survived and whose lives were shaped by their experience in Spain.’Jim Jump, author of Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War
‘Ten fascinating biographies of extraordinary men and women … this book will obviously be of great interest to both specialists and general readers … thoroughly researched, absorbing to read.’Brian Rubin, The Orwell Society
The Forgotten Warrior: Malcolm Dunbar
The Niños’ Second Mother: Leah Manning
The Cambridge Rebel: Peter Kemp
Their Man in Havana: Sam Lesser (aka Sam Russell)
A Family Goes to War: The Haldanes (Charlotte, JBS & Ronnie Burghes)
Out of Orwell’s Shadow: Stafford Cottman
The Truculent Scotsman: Peter Kerrigan
The Red Musician: Alexander Foote
The Painter of Words: Clive Branson
The Brilliant Surgeon: Alex Tudor Hart
Since the charity’s inception in 2001, the International Brigade Memorial Trust has organised an annual lecture in memory of Dr. Len Crome, a Blackburn GP who went to serve as a medic in Republican Spain in December 1936, and whose inspirational leadership led him to become Chief of Medical Services for the 35th Division of the Spanish Army during the civil war of 1936-1939.
The Len Crome memorial lectures have featured renowned scholars from around the world including, among many others, Peter Carroll, Helen Graham, Paul Preston and Angel Viñas. In 2010, the first nine lectures were released in a volume, edited by Jim Jump, and published by Lawrence and Wishart: Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. Two years ago, with London’s Imperial War Museum closed for renovation, the event moved to Manchester and took on a new format, with four speakers and a discussion, rather than one keynote speaker. Chaired by Professor Mary Vincent of the University of Sheffield, the first conference in 2013 looked at George Orwell and Spain, with last year’s examining the Spanish Civil War’s cultural and artistic legacy. This year, with Paul Preston back in the chair, the conference was centred on perhaps the most famous artwork of the twentieth Century, inspired by the Nationalists’ horrific destruction of a small Basque market town on 26 April 1937.
Over the course of the day, there were four lectures on the bombing of Guernica (Gernika) and its consequences. In the opening talk, the author of Telegram from Guernica and former BBC producer Nick Rankin, outlined the key role of Times journalist George Steer in bringing news of the destruction of the Basque town to Britain. Steer’s account of the bombing remains one of the most powerful and important pieces of reporting in English to have come out of the war. But, as Rankin explained, Steer went beyond the usual dispassionate role of a journalist, by wiring his report direct to the Labour M.P. Philip Noel Baker. This meant that news of the horrific destruction of Guernica could be raised in the House of Commons before it had even appeared on Britain’s streets. Steer, a determined supporter of the Basques during the civil war, was later honoured with a plaque in Bilbao and a statue in Guernica itself.
Gijs van Hensbergen, art historian and best-selling author, is a world expert on Gaudi and Picasso’s Guernica. His deconstruction of Picasso’s painting and his account of the artist’s life were fascinating and I suspect many of the audience will have been spurred to go on and read his book, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. Gijs outlined how the iconic painting became a powerful weapon in the propaganda battle against Fascism.
Basque historian Xabier Irujo brought the event back to the actual bombing itself. In a forensic examination of the events of 26 April 1937, he demonstrated how the Germans – and Italians – systematically destroyed the town with high explosive and incendiary bombs, while planes circled around it machine-gunning any poor victims who attempted to escape. As he showed, the destruction and high number of casualties was no accident; a foretaste of the Nazi’s deliberately murderous approach to war.
The final talk was by Manual Moreno, who introduced a personal account of the consequences of the bombing. The son of one of the 4000 Basque children who were evacuated to Britain in June 1937, Manuel outlined the efforts made by the people of Britain on behalf of the Basque refugees and the Spanish Republic itself. Nearly eighty years have passed since the war, yet it was clear from Manuel’s emotional speech, that while he remains grateful to the British people for their efforts in support of the Spanish Republic, he continues to feel incensed with the British Government for their refusal to do likewise.
A video of the event will be released by the IBMT in the coming weeks.
When Paul Preston was promoting Spanish Holocaust, his exhaustive account of the appalling atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (and after), he pointedly stressed his debt to historians involved in local research. While he was referring to work conducted within Spain, the remark is true also of the UK, where detailed regional studies of areas such as Reading, Manchester and Tyneside have played an important part in helping piece together a wider picture of Britain’s role in the conflict. This latest addition to the literature, No Other Way (the title, of course, taken from C. Day Lewis’s famous 1938 poem, ‘The Volunteer’), unearths Oxford’s role, examining the efforts of both ‘town and gown’ in support of the Spanish Republic, efforts that apparently united the two different worlds in a manner never seen before, or since.
This new study of Oxfordshire is to be welcomed, not least the account of the role of the university itself. Sam Lesser, veteran of the International Brigades and former IBMT Chair, once confessed to me his concern that an understandable tendency to debunk what Bill Alexander once described as the ‘vague notion that everyone in the brigades was a poet or writer’ could lead to the role of artists, writers and other intellectuals being downplayed, or even overlooked. I suspect that this book (together with other recent publications and exhibitions) would have gone some way towards assuaging his worries.
No Other Way begins with a prologue by Oxford Professor Tom Buchanan and an introduction by Chris Farman, which helpfully sets out the wider context. This leads onto what, for me, was the most interesting and central part of the book, Valery Rose and Liz Wooley’s account of the personal involvement of the people of the university and its town. In addition to the Oxfordshire men and women who volunteered to go to Spain, the book shows how residents were actively involved in campaigns on behalf of the Spanish Republic and in the creation and support for local colonies of Basque children. The authors illustrate the influence of European political refugees in the university and the key role played by the semi-autonomous Ruskin College, site of this years’ IBMT AGM. And though the section rightly concentrates on the support for the Spanish Republic, the authors do not shy away from unpalatable truths, pointing out that, just as elsewhere, there were a number in Oxford praying for a Franco victory.
The second major section of the book is a collection of biographies of the 31 Oxford volunteers. This is a considerable achievement, managing to pull together material from myriad sources. Like the previous sections, and the subsequent methodological discussion by Jenny Swanson, it amply demonstrates the attention to detail and academic expertise of the authors. Which leads to my one minor quibble: why no footnotes? A strange omission, in the circumstances. That criticism aside, I found No Other Way to be clearly and engagingly written and it showcases what can be achieved with careful and thorough research. The book provides a useful template for other local studies; the hosts of the 2015 AGM in Aberdeen have a tough act to follow.
This review appeared in the January 2015 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
The weekend of 20-21 October was a busy one.
On the Saturday I was privileged to give the annual lecture to the Basque Children of ’37 Association, often known as the niños, on the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Britain. In front of at least one of the original children, family members and other historians, I discussed the differing experiences in Britain during the Second World War of the children and the former British volunteers in the International Brigades. The highly knowledgeable audience ensured that there was a great discussion after the lecture. Thanks to Natalaia Benjamin for organising the event and Manuel Moreno for his exuberant chairing. A transcript of the talk is available via academia.edu.
The Sunday saw a trip to Hungerford’s book festival to publisize my latest book Unlikely Warriors. Also present at the event was David Boyd Haycock whose I am Spain, published this month, looks at the more intellectual volunteers for Spain: Orwell, Hemingway etc. It was a well attended event, with another fully engaged audience. Thanks to all who attended and the Hungerford bookshop for organising it.