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.
When I give lectures and talks about the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, I am often asked not just about the motivations of the volunteers themselves, but mine too. What led me to become interested in a foreign war fought so many years ago? Did any of my family fight in Spain, perhaps? The answer to the last question is simple: no. The answer to the first, however, is more complicated. Like many others in Britain, I suppose, it all began with George Orwell…
I was a big Orwell buff when I was at secondary school. I read most of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm obviously, but I also enjoyed his non-fiction, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London (I was probably the only schoolboy in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would not be true to say that, at that stage, I had become fascinated in the Spanish Civil War. My two strongest feelings on reading the book were probably confusion over the numerous acronyms in the two chapters on Spanish politics and disappointment that Orwell’s brave adventure in Spain ended with him fleeing Spain pursued by those who were, ostensibly, on the same side. That was about it, for some ten years.
While it may sound a little hyperbolic and pretentious to describe a book as life-changing, I have no doubt that, in this case at least, one undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I cannot now remember where the the copy of the book came from, whether it was a present or that I had picked it up on a whim, but I began to read Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite Hemingway’s use of archaic dialect (and other oft-cited weaknesses of the book), I was immediately taken with the story of the young American who had chosen to volunteer to fight in defence of the Republican government against a military uprising.
[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captivated me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he stoically prepares for the end he, and we, know is inevitable. When I finished reading the book I could think of little else for days and it still puts a lump in my throat, even to write about it. It is a terribly, terribly sad story, particularly when you are aware of the parallel in the real world. In Spain in September 1938, of course, it was actually the tearful foreign volunteers who were plucked from the arms of la niña bonita, as the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was known. The famous quote by Albert Camus from 1939 sums up the tragedy and why it is still so affecting for me – and many others:
‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’
As an undergraduate student during the early 1990s at Middlesex University (or Polytechnic, as it was then), I threw myself into studying the Spanish Civil War, taught by Clive Fleay, who had published an article in the Historical Journal on the British Labour Party’s response to the conflict. I spent most of my final year in the British newspaper library in Colindale, perusing copies of The Times¸ the News Chronicle and The Morning Post as research for an undergraduate dissertation on the coverage of the war in the British Press.
A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying for an M.A. at the Institute of Historical Research, as I began to put together an annotated list of the 2500 or so volunteers who left Britain and Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. This was later expanded to become the foundation for my Ph.D. thesis, when I was lucky enough to be accepted to study under one of the world experts on twentieth century Spain, Professor Paul Preston, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the L.S.E. was – and still is – a central hub for scholars from around the world interested in contemporary Spanish history. As a research student there, between 1997 and 2001, I listened to papers from many distinguished historians, including Helen Graham, Enrique Moradiellos, Gabriel Jackson and many, many others. Milton Wolf, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln battalion in Spain, came to give a talk and a number of British veterans of the International Brigades were regularly in the audience, including the former Daily Worker and Morning Star reporter, Sam Lesser (then using his nom-de-guerre from Spain, Sam Russell), Bill Alexander (Milton Wolf’s opposite number in the British Battalion) and David Marshall, one of the early volunteers and the only surviving member from the iconic photograph of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936.
With the death of Bill Alexander in 2000, my relationship to the Spanish Civil War dramatically changed, when I became involved in attempting to establish a new charitable trust, intended to unite two existing organisations, the International Brigade Association and the Friends of the International Brigade.
Over a course of meetings, expertly and diplomatically chaired by Paul, the International Brigade Memorial Trust eventually came into existence. Alongside Paul and Ken Livingstone as patrons, there were three veterans of the Spanish Civil War on the committee: David Marshall and Sam Russell/Lesser were joined by the Liverpool Trade Unionist Jack Jones. A number of family members such as Marlene Sidaway (David Marshall’s partner) and Peter Crome, son of Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the Republican 35th Division medical services joined the committee; as did a recently graduated doctoral student of the LSE: one Richard Baxell. The organisation published its first newsletter in February 2002 and a website and Facebook page followed.
Being a member of the committee and meeting numerous veterans and the families obviously changed the nature of my relationship, making it more personal. This presents obvious challenges to objectivity. However, the value of the help, support and contacts that membership of the committee the IBMT itself, have been incalculable. I have no doubt that my recent oral history of the volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, would have been very much poorer without it.
Richard Baxell, October 2013.
In July 1938 the Spanish Republican Army confounded many around the world – not least those in Franco’s Spain – who considered it a spent force, by launching a huge and ambitious attack back across the River Ebro. Fighting alongside the Spanish soldiers of the 80 000 strong Republican Army of the Ebro were a number of English-speaking volunteers, within the 15 International Brigade. Drawn mainly from Britain, the USA and Canada, the brigade also included volunteers from Ireland, Australia and from a number of other countries around the world.
Fighting in the full, glaring heat of the Spanish summer, lacking food and water and severely outgunned and outnumbered, the members of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade fought in a number of vicious battles between July and September 1938. On Hill 481 near Gandesa, on Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols and Hill 356 in the Sierra Caballs, the British were bombed, shelled and attacked remorselessly by Franco’s forces and his German and Italian allies. On 23 September 1938 on the battalion’s final action on the road just north of the village of Corbera d’Ebre, the last remaining members of the battalion were virtually overrun.
At 1 a.m. the following morning the order finally arrived withdrawing the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan later described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.”
In September 2013 a group of friends and families of the International Brigades returned to Catalonia to remember the sacrifices made all those years ago. The trip was organised by Duncan Longstaff, a trustee of the International Brigades Memorial Trust assisted by Almudena Cros, Severiano Montero and Vicente González of AABI, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades. While IBMT members from the UK made up the majority of the group, there were also participants from Ireland, the United States, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Besides visiting battle sites of particular significance to the English-speaking 15 International Brigade, the trip to Catalonia also included the unveiling of two memorials to the volunteers and the laying of flowers and a wreath at the site of the British Battalion’s final action in Spain.
The first memorial to be unveiled was a new plaque dedicated to the British members of the medical services who worked in the former cave hospital in La Bisbal de Falset during the summer of 1938. Here, British members of the Republican medical services struggled in almost impossible conditions to treat those wounded in the bitter fighting. During the Ebro offensive everything had to be carried across pontoon bridges by lorry, or ferried across in boats during the night, so the facilities were necessarily limited. Serious casualties had to be taken back across the river to the improvised cave hospital set up by Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the medical services for the Republican 35 Division, in Falset. British doctors and nurses, such as Len Saxton and Patience Darton, worked around the clock, with the desperate shortages of materials forcing them to improvise and develop innovative treatments. Allied soldiers fighting in the Second World War would benefit greatly from lessons learned in Spain in areas such as casualty management, blood transfusions and the treatment of fractures.
The second unveiling was of a new memorial dedicated to those killed in the final last action of the British Battalion in Spain. The plaque is situated in the old village of Corbera d’Ebre, which remains virtually in the condition it was at the end of the civil war. In amongst the ruins lies the village’s former church, now converted into a dramatic space for gatherings, exhibitions and commemorations. At the time of the ceremony held on 24 September 2013, the former church was hosting a strikingly poignant art installation comprised of suspended roof tiles, caught as if at the moment of an explosion. Behind the artwork, further within the building, lay the IBMT Antifascistas exhibition, shown for the first time in Spain. The exhibition will remain in the church until November 2013.
After a ceremony held within the church came the final event of the day and, for many, of the trip itself, with the laying of flowers and wreath at the position of the battalion’s final stand, some 4 kilometres north of Corbera.
There are more photographs of the 2013 visit to the Ebro here. There is also a great slideshow of Jim Jump’s photographs of the event in Corbera on Andrew Wiard’s website. More information about the Corbera monument itself and the dedication ceremony can be found on the IBMT’s blog.
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are © Richard Baxell 2013.
Sitting on a grass verge in Madrid’s University City is a simple concrete monument, decorated with a red three-pointed star and the inscription:
Sois las historia, sois la leyenda
sois el ejemplo heroica de la solidaridad
y de la universalidad de la democracia
The memorial commemorates the creation seventy-five years earlier of the International Brigades, the volunteers from around the world who came to the help of the democratic Spanish Republican government, following the military coup launched by Franco and his friends in July 1936. The inscription bears the words of Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, the Communist deputy for the Asturias, part of a passionate, eloquent speech expressing Spain’s eternal gratitude as she bid farewell to the surviving members of the Brigades, six months before the Republic finally fell in March 1939.
The memorial’s location, in Madrid’s University City, was the site of bitter fighting in November and December 1936, when Franco’s forces were at the gates of the Spanish capital. The Rebel Generals met with defiant resistance by the population of Madrid who, with the help of the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades, beat back the elite forces of Franco’s army. But at considerable cost- many antifascist volunteers from Germany, Italy, Poland, France and elsewhere around the world – Britain included- were killed in the frantic fighting.
The project to place the memorial was the initiative of AABI, the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, the Madrid-based International Brigades friendship group. Designed by teachers and students at the university’s faculty of fine arts, the memorial received the backing of the university authorities and seven embassies provided financial assistance: Argentina, Canada, Cyprus, Norway, Russia, Serbia and Slovenia. A number of other countries were officially represented at the unveiling, including China, France, Ireland, Sweden and Venezuela – along with Spain itself. Britain’s International Brigade Memorial Trust donated €500 towards the cost of the memorial, in memory of the 2500 volunteers who left for Spain from Britain, of whom 527 never returned.
Present at the unveiling on 22 October 2011 was the last surviving UK based veteran of the brigades, ninety-four year old Londoner David Lomon, who gave a stirring, impromptu speech:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism. We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. Salud!
But even before the monument’s inauguration, the project met with resistance. An unsuccessful legal bid to stop the monument being unveiled was launched by an individual linked to the Falangists, which the rector of Madrid’s university, José Carrillo Menéndez, described as ‘reminiscent of the Franco regime’. And within days of its unveiling, it was daubed with red paint and asesinos sprayed across it. And now a case brought by the lawyer Miguel García has succeeded where political protest failed.’ On 3 June 2013 the Tribunal Superior de Justicia, decided that the memorial should be removed on the grounds that it had been erected by the university without planning permission, even though the university insisted that it had applied for permission, but did not receive a reply from the city council.
Supporters of the monument are rallying to its defence. They point out that, although the ruling was made on technical grounds, the original complaint was lodged by a lawyer with known far-right connections. They also point out that Franco’s victory arch still stands at the entrance to the University City and that other much larger memorials – such as that to the victims of the 2004 train bombings – were erected without the required permits.
An online petition has been launched by the AABI on Change.org and there has been huge interest on social media sites and articles have appeared in the British press, by The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett and others. Now, Islington Labour M.P. Jeremy Corbyn has signed an early-day motion in the House of Commons calling for ‘the Government to make representations to the Spanish government to ensure that the memorial remains in place, so that future generations may be reminded of some of the more important moments in their history.’
Whether, in the present political climate, the protests will make any difference remains to be seen. And it’s not just in Spain: a memorial plaque in Nottingham was taken down by Conservative Council leader and plans to reinstate it were bizarrely described by Councillor Kay Cutts as likely to be offensive to the family of murdered soldier Lee Rigby. Across Europe antifascist fighters have been attacked, while fascist collaborators have been politically rehabilitated. Official commemorations are held for Baltic volunteer units of the Waffen-SS and other pro-Nazi groups. As a blogpost in Left Futures argued:
This rewriting of history across Europe – smearing antifascists and rehabilitating nazi collaborators – must be combatted. It absolves the far right and gives them respectability – at a time when austerity has prompted fascists to step up their agressive actions as was seen this week with the brutal murder of left wing activist Clément Méric by fascist thugs in Paris and violent EDL attacks on Mosques, giving them electoral gains as was seen with Marine Le Pen in France, the Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.
Please sign the online petition to save the International Brigades memorial in Madrid’s University City.
Postscipt: Matthew Kerry, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, has just written an interesting bloigpost on the removal of the monument. More here >
For this year’s Len Crome lecture a number of historians were brought together to discuss George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937. This is the first of four lectures, which features a lecture and discussion of George Orwell and the British Battalion in 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.
I was very pleased to be invited to participate in this year’s Aye Write book festival in Glasgow, in conversation with the immensely likeable Chris Dolan, author of a biography of the Scottish anarchist Ethel MacDonald. Obviously an old hand at this type of event, Chris skilfully asked some leading questions about Unlikely Warriors, before handing me over to a what proved to be a very well-informed audience.
One of the most interesting discussions was provoked by a member of the audience asking whether it is was now time to stop romanticising the civil war and the involvement of the International Brigades. Now it’s certainly true that the involvement of some 35 000 volunteers in the defence of the Spanish Republic has long been seen as the left’s ‘last great cause’ and there has sometimes been a tendency to play up the glory and play down the horror. The authors of some early studies of the British in Spain have not unreasonably been described as ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered’.
Personally, I have always agreed with Orwell’s assessment that ‘war is bloody’ and have come across little in my study of the British in Spain over the last twenty years to counter this view. The volunteers went into battle often with the most perfunctory training, weakened by a persistent lack of sleep and debilitating stomach complaints. They soon discovered that their lack of weapons could not simply be remedied by courage alone; on several occasions during their time in Spain, the battalion was effectively annihilated. As a review of Unlikely Warriors in the London Review of Books noted, ‘the story has a tragic monotony. Every page of Baxell’s book has some reference to how depressing, dispiriting or tedious something was.’ Hardly surprisingly, a culture of heavy drinking developed among the volunteers in Spain and there were all too frequent instances of insubordination and desertion.
This does not sound very romantic or glorious. But it should not be forgotten that, despite the conditions – not least the constant risk of a violent death – the British Battalion fought on in Spain for twenty months. As Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues in his review of Unlikely Warriors, it is about ‘capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’ The story of the British involvement in the Spanish Civil War may not always be romantic. But if it isn’t heroic, I really don’t know what is.
Over the last ten years, the hugely successful annual Len Crome lecture series has seen a number of academics from Britain, Spain and America deliver keynote lectures on their particular areas of expertise, at the Imperial War Museum in London. A collection of the first ten lectures was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 2010 as Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. However, the closure of the Imperial Museum in 2013 for refurbishment forced a re-think.
The decision was helped by this year being a major George Orwell anniversary, marked by a number of programmes on BBC radio 4, including a radio dramatisation of Orwell’s famous account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. Consequently, it was decided to bring together a number of historians to discuss Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and, in particular, the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937.
The event was held in the Manchester Conference Centre, on 2 March 2013. Chaired expertly by Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern Europen History at the University of Sheffield, the four speakers and their papers were:
Richard Baxell: George Orwell and the British Battalion
Paul Preston*: George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Tom Buchanan: Homage to Catalonia; its reception and impact
Chris Hall: Not Just Orwell; the Independent Labour Party Volunteers
*Sadly Paul Preston was unwell, but he very kindly allowed his paper to be read out by a proxy (IBMT Secretary, Jim Jump).
For those who missed what was a very successful and popular event, the four lectures will be placed online and a short video of some of the highlights will be available on Youtube. In the meantime, Marshall Mateer has put some material on the IBMT’s Flickr site and Lydia Syson, author of A World Between Us, has written an account of the day on her blog.
When ninety-four year old David Lomon died just before Christmas 2012, he was almost certainly the last of the volunteers from the Spanish Civil War still to be alive in Britain. While his former comrade from London, Geoffrey Servante, was known to be alive a few years ago living in the Forest of Dean, no word has been heard for some time, so it seems all too probable that he too is, sadly, no longer with us.
There is, though, still one British veteran who is still very much alive and well. However he no longer lives in Britain, but in Australia. In Yarrawonga, to be precise, just over 200km north of Melbourne, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. It’s a long way from his birthplace of Newhaven (looking at the map, it’s a long way from anywhere).
Not much is known about ninety-five year old Stan Hilton, and much of what we do know is a little vague. In order to find out more, he was tracked down by the film maker David Leach, who wrote and produced the 2001 documentary, Voices from a Mountain. The film includes interviews with a number of British volunteers: John Dunlop, Sol Frankel, Jack Jones, George Wheeler and Alun Williams. It also has an unforgettable score, a beautiful reworking of the famous song from the civil war, Ay Carmela. I’m pleased to say that the documentary can still be watched on Youtube.
According to what he told David, Stan was nineteen when he jumped from his ship, the S.S. Pilson in Alicante in November 1937, after hitting an officer who’d been pushing him around. While the former ship’s steward apparently recalled little of his time in Spain, he did remember assaulting another officer he had taken a dislike to. He also described how, contrary to his and many other volunteer’s perceptions, Spain was by no means always sunny. In fact, ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he recalled.
We know from documents held in London and Moscow that, following a period of training with the British Battalion, Stan became caught up in the chaotic Republican retreats which resulted from Franco’s colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up swimming across the River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse) by Franco’s soldiers, before deciding that he had had enough of the Spanish war. In March 1938, with the British captain’s permission, 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, took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. And there he remained.
Stanley Gordon Hilton is now ninety-five years of age. He is also, as David Leach will testify, still alert, fit and healthy. They say that the struggle keeps you young and it certainly seems to be the case with Stan. Which struggles, however are not entirely clear. As David Leach explained, although English-born, Stan has always possessed a traditional Australian attitude towards authority:
‘I liked mucking about,’ Stan recalled over a glass of red wine at home in Yarrawonga. ‘I didn’t like being ordered around.’
In addition to being shortlisted for the 2013 Political Book Awards’ political history book of the year, Unlikely Warriors has received a number of good reviews:
‘Well researched and luminously written, Baxell’s book shows us what these volunteers were like – their grand heroism and their petty hatreds, the miseries they endured, the awfulness of war.’
Francis Beckett in The Tablet
Read Francis Beckett’s review here.
‘Baxell draws painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men. It’s beyond history; it’s myth.’
Gideon Lewis-Kraus praises the book’s ‘careful scholarship’ in the London Review of Books.
Read Gideon Lewis Kraus’s review here
‘Richard Baxell’s magnificent Unlikely Warriors is surely set to become the definitive account of the British in the Civil War’s International Brigades. A brilliant piece of military history at its best, capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’
Mark Perrman in thesubsntive.com.
Read Mark Perryman’s review here
‘Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment … A remarkably well balanced and fair minded account … This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale. War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in. Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account.
Peter Stansky, author (with William Abrahams) of Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War, in ALBA’s newsletter The Volunteer.
Read Peter Stansky’s review here
‘The high quality of the research, and the writing and the fascinating, beautiful and dreadful human story they relate, make Unlikely Warriors essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War.’
Lewis Mates, author of The Spanish Civil War and the British Left, in the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s newsletter.
Read Lewis Mates’ review here.
‘Not just another book about the British volunteers who served in Spain … over 500 pages in length and with 16 pages of photographs, some of which have never previously appeared in print, taking several years in the writing, [Unlikely Warriors] is a superb piece of work.’
Cliff Kirkpatrick describes Unlikely Warriors as ‘a model of good writing’ in España, the journal of the Spanish Study Circle.
Read Cliff Kirkpatrick’s review here.
‘Most interesting, because previously least known, are Richard Baxell’s detailed descriptions of the backgrounds of the individual volunteers, drawn from unpublished diaries and oral histories, and the reception they received on their return home.’
Journalist and biographer Caroline Moorehead writes in the Literary Review.
Read Caroline Moorehead’s review here.
Unlikely Warriors is available from all good bookshops both online and on the high street.
The following is an extended version of the obituary that appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Other Lives’ on 8 January 2013.
For anyone connected with the British volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during Spain’s civil war, 2013 has great and heavy significance. It seems almost certain that this is the first year since the start of the war itself that there are no British veterans around to explain the relevance of the events in Spain all those years ago. Over the years, I have got to know a number of former volunteers: some like Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and David Marshall were members of the committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; others such as Bill Alexander, Bob Doyle, Fred Thomas and George Wheeler I got to know having interviewed them. However, it was not until February 2011 that I first met former British volunteer David Lomon. Having returned from Spain in 1938, he had lost touch with his former comrades in the International Brigades. Only when he came across an article in the April 2009 issue of the magazine of SAGA, the organisation aimed at the over 50s, was David prompted to get back in touch. The article, by the historian Max Arthur on the Britons who fought against Franco, reported that only eight veterans of the Spanish war were still alive; David of course knew otherwise. He contacted SAGA in order to put the matter right and his letter was spotted by a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who informed the committee. I arranged to meet David at his house in Bourne End, in Buckinghamshire in order to interview him about his time in Spain.
Clichéd though it may sound, when I turned up at his home and David answered the door, I sincerely believed that I was talking to his son. Only when he introduced himself did I realise that the smartly-dressed, polite and welcoming man was a ninety-two year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The interview was a similar surprise; despite apologising for being unable to remember precise details, David talked lucidly for two hours on his experiences in Spain and afterward. It was a fascinating story and the interview formed the basis of a short piece in the May 2011 issue of the IBMT newsletter. It also provided me with great new material for my then forthcoming book Unlikely Warriors and, above all, it enabled me to get to know a thoroughly likeable and decent man who had lived a long and fascinating life.
Born David Solomon in Manchester on 22 November 1918, David was the youngest of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. David was schooled in Manchester, but the early death of his father when David was only fifteen brought his education to an abrupt halt, dashing any dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, his mother decided to move the family to Hackney, in London’s east-end, to be nearer her relatives. There David soon became caught up in the growing resistance against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were virtually besieging the area and terrorising its Jewish population. Galvanised by his participation in anti-fascist demonstrations, including the huge and infamous confrontation around Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, the young Jewish clothing cutter took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. In order to establish sufficient political credentials, he joined the Young Communist League and in December 1937 volunteered to join the International Brigades. ‘After the Mosley East-End business’, David explained to me, ‘I wanted to go to Spain, so I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people, who I could use to get over to Spain … I wanted to do something, I wanted to fight fascism.’
Prudently changing his surname from Solomon to Lomon in order to avoid being singled out if captured, David travelled to Paris using the familiar route of the British volunteers: a weekend ticket, which did not require a passport. From there he travelled south by coach to the Spanish border and underwent an exhausting and dangerous trek over the Pyrenees at night. United with his comrades from Britain, he joined the Clement Attlee Company of the British Battalion as a machine-gunner and infantryman. Amongst the volunteers, David was unusual in having studied Spanish and Spanish politics at school, so was given a political appointment. He was lucky enough to meet both the British Labour leader, Clement Attlee, and the American singer Paul Robeson who performed for the members of the battalion and shook all their hands. After minimal training, David was rushed up to the front in the spring of 1938 and joined the desperate Republican efforts to repulse a colossal Francoist offensive. Thirteen divisions, 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 outnumbering the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the government lines virtually collapsed. David was one of more than one hundred members of the battalion to be captured by Italian soldiers at Calaceite in eastern Aragon on 31 March 1938.
Driven off by truck, he and the other prisoners were incarcerated in the Francoist concentration camp in the old decaying monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos in northern Spain. As many former inmates attest, the conditions in the camp were overcrowded, insanitary and extremely cruel: ‘We never dreamt that guards could be so brutal to other human beings,’ remarked one of David’s fellow prisoners. In June David was transferred to an Italian run camp at Palencia, where the inmates sung a version of the song that had been popular since the first battle of the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937, sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a prison in Spain called Palencia
’Tis a place we know all too well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And spent months of misery and hell.
Surrounded one day by Italians
Who with guns bought by Chamberlain’s gold
Blown to hell by artillery and avion
That’s how our brave comrades were sold.
At Palencia David became good friends with Clive Branson, a talented artist from Battersea in London. Branson made a number of highly accomplished sketches of prisoners at San Pedro and Palencia, including David and a young volunteer and Communist Party member called Alfred Sherman who, much later in his life, would found the Thatcherite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Though Clive Branson was killed in Burma during the Second World War, the drawings remain and I was fortunate enough to be at the Marx Memorial Library last year, when David took his very first glimpse of the sketch since it had been drawn in Palencia all those years ago.
David was released in October 1938 and repatriated. Back home he returned to his former work as a clothing cutter and studied as a designer. He also married Millie Levine, who he had known from his time in the YCL. She would later follow him when he decided to leave the Young Communist League for the Labour Party, appalled at Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939: ‘I was pleased I didn’t join the Communist Party because, being Jewish, well, that Stalin should link up with [Hitler] was unbelievable’, he told me.
With one child already and another on the way, David was not able to return to war until 1941. Seeing the two wars as part and parcel of the same conflict, he volunteered to join the navy. ‘I had to join up. I had to do something,’ he explained to me. He joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was rejected as a pilot as he could only breathe through one nostril, following an unsuccessful operation. Instead he joined general service and was selected to join an Officer Training Course in Scotland. It was not to last long. He was soon dismissed by an ‘aggressive’ superior, after David refused to box with an opponent who was much weaker than himself, ‘a nervous, gentle sort of lad,’ as he described him. David used to box with the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and, all too typically, opposed what he felt would not be a fair fight. He was returned to general service as a navigator’s yeoman on a minesweeper, sweeping the English channel before D Day and through the landings themselves. He was then sent to the far east around Burma and the Malaya Strait and Rangoon where his fleet was subjected to a terrifying attack by Japanese Kamikazi planes, in which they lost two of their ships.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, David was demobbed and returned to London, to resume his life and work. Introduced to a Mr. Lawson, the head of a large retail company in Glasgow, David was asked to become a partner in a new wholesale group he was setting up in London’s west-end. David would remain at the group, Barnett Lawson Trimmings, until he retired as Managing Director, thirty-five years later.
‘Wrapped up in family life’, as he put it and having left the YCL for the Labour Party on his return from Spain, David made no contact with his fellow veterans of Spain in the International Brigade Association. It was only when he saw the SAGA article in 2010 that David felt prompted to make contact. Having received a warm welcome from the members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he generously donated his time and energy in travelling around Britain and Spain delivering eloquent speeches on the importance of the war in Spain. In October 2011, David was one of a handful of surviving veterans to return to Madrid for a reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation on the International Brigades. David’s speech, given at the inauguration of a new memorial to the International Brigades in the Spanish capital’s University City, is worthy of repeating:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism.
We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. ¡Salud!
When the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition was shown in Eastbourne in April 2012, David was there to lend his support and encountered a young Spaniard from Burgos in northern Spain: ‘Gracias de mi corazón’ (‘my heartfelt thanks’) he declared. David was also present at the annual commemoration of the IBMT at London’s south bank in July 2012, where he laid a wreath and was presented with a flag by Almudena Cros of the Spanish Asociación des Amigos de Brigadas Internacionales. David was as charming as as ever and I suspect Almudena gave him her heart as well as the flag. He was, as his obituary in the Daily Mail portrayed him, ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. I will always treasure the Christmas card he sent me this year, in which he jokingly thanked me ‘for keeping this old dinosaur going’. As I told his son Irving, aside from the respect I had for David for his actions in the past, I had got to really like him for the way he was in the present: open, generous and genuinely modest.
Right to the end, David remained proud of the efforts made by him and his fellow international volunteers on behalf of the Spanish government during the civil war. The award of Spanish citizenship to David in May 2011 was an honour that he richly deserved and I know it gave him great pleasure and pride.
David’s wife Millie died in 1997, but he will be sorely missed by his three children, Stanley, Yvonne and Irving, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and by all of those who remain eternally grateful of the efforts made by him in Spain and around the world to help defeat the evils of fascism and Nazism.
David Lomon, the last of the UK-based unlikely warriors, 22 November 1918 to 21 December 2012.