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Paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors

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The paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors was published by Aurum Press on 1 April 2014. It is available from all good bookshops and online sellers.

‘When a Nationalist military uprising was launched in Spain in July 1936, the Spanish Republic’s desperate pleas for assistance from the leaders of Britain and France fell on deaf ears. Appalled at the prospect of another European democracy succumbing to fascism, volunteers from across the Continent and beyond flocked to Spain’s aid, many to join the International Brigades.

More than 2,500 of these men and women came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, and contrary to popular myth theirs was not an army of adventurers, poets and public school idealists. Overwhelmingly they hailed from modest working class backgrounds, leaving behind their livelihoods and their families to fight in a brutal civil war on foreign soil. Some 500 of them never returned home.

In this inspiring and moving oral history, Richard Baxell weaves together a diverse array of testimony to tell the remarkable story of the Britons who took up arms against General Franco. Drawing on his own extensive interviews with survivors, research in archives across Britain, Spain and Russia, as well as first-hand accounts by writers both famous and unknown, Unlikely Warriors presents a startling new interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and follows a band of ordinary men and women who made an extraordinary choice.’

‘The definitive work on the British volunteers … superbly written and deeply moving.’ (Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Holocaust)

‘Painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men.’ (Gideon-Lewis-Kraus in the London Review of Books)

‘A marvellously accessible history of the British volunteers who joined the struggle against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  Fascinating.’ (Victoria Hislop, author of The Return) 

‘A remarkable accomplishment … a must-read for anyone interested in Spain and its recent history.’ (Caroline Angus Baker, author of the ‘Secrets of Spain’ series of novels)

A well researched, largely balanced, highly readable and accessible narrative of what remains a compelling story.’ (Lewis Mates in Contemporary British History)

‘Benefiting from an impressive range of research, this is an extraordinary story of heroism, tragedy and sacrifice.’ (History of War)

‘An oral history of remarkable power.’ (Good Book Guide)

‘Well researched and luminously written.’ (Francis Beckett in The Tablet)

‘A colourful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale.’ (Peter Stansky in The Volunteer)

‘Authoritative.’ (Military History Monthly)

‘Beautifully written … a totally absorbing read about incredible people whose like we will probably never see again.’ (Morning Star)

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Jack Jones centenary, 5 October 2013

The following lecture was delived at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, as part of an event to commemorate the centenary of Jack Jones’ birth.

Jack Jones and the Spanish Civil War

Seventy-five years ago, a young trade unionist and Labour councillor from Liverpool took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. The young man was, of course, Jack Jones. To some contemporary audiences, this can seem an astonishing thing to do, yet for those who volunteered to fight at the time, it was often a simple and straight-forward decision. The issue was put starkly by the English poet, Stephen Spender, for whom the war in Spain was ‘an absolute choice between good and evil.’ The 1930s, wrote a volunteer from Wembley (John Bassett), were ‘a time of hope, when a man with a rifle had some power to divert the tide of human affairs.’

The reasons that lay behind the decision of some 2500 men and women from Britain and Ireland to go to Spain had more to do with events outside the country than within. While the vast majority of the volunteers from Britain knew little of Spanish politics, they certainly had personal experience of the powerful forces engulfing Europe in the 1930s, which had encouraged many to shift politically to the left. First had come the Great Depression, the catastrophic economic crisis that followed the stock market crash of 1929 and put over two million Britons out of work by 1930.

Hunger marchers

Alongside the economic turmoil came a political storm, one that had been growing since the end of the First World War and now swept across Europe. The birth of Mussolini’s fascist state in 1922 was followed by the establishment of other European dictatorships, most significantly in Germany following Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship in 1933. By the mid-1930s, essentially constitutional states such as France were themselves seemingly under threat. And, of course, fascism was not just a continental phenomenon. In Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (known as the Blackshirts) which had been founded in October 1932, appeared to present a similar threat to democracy. Mosley’ Blackshirt thugs were involved in vicious attacks on opponents, in particular in Jewish neighbourhoods such as Cheetham in Manchester and London’s east-end.

So, when on 17 July 1936, a military uprising was launched in Spain in order to overthrow the democratically elected government, Spain appeared to be the latest country about to succumb. However, while the rising scored some initial successes, it failed to capture significant parts of Spain, including the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao. Here opponents of the rising took to the streets, erected barricades and confronted the insurgents under the rallying cry ¡No pasarán! (They shall not pass).

Madrid, 1936: ¡No pasarán!

Faced with determined opposition, the generals saw that their rebellion was in real danger of being defeated. With their best soldiers, Franco’s elite Army of Africa, trapped in Morocco, the Rebel officers turned to fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for assistance. After some hesitation, both Hitler and Mussolini sent help, providing vital aircraft to ferry Franco’s troops across the Strait of Gibraltar onto the peninsula, where they were able to head rapidly north, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake.

Desperate pleas for assistance from the Spanish Republican government, initially regarded with sympathy by France, met with firm opposition from Stanley Baldwin’s national government in Britain. Determined to avoid a wider European conflagration, and maintaining that appeasement of Germany and Italy was the best means of preventing it, the European democracies chose not to come to the Republic’s aid. Instead a ‘non-intervention agreement’ was created, to which Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the USSR all signed up – in writing at least.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the agreement strongly favoured the Rebels, who continued to receive covert assistance from Germany and Italy. Indeed, for many supporters of the Spanish government, the non-intervention pact was the real villain of the story, and George Orwell later argued that the fate of the Republic ‘was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin – at any rate not in Spain’.

So for Jack and other supporters of the Spanish Republic the war was never seen as a domestic conflict. The view is often expressed in interviews with brigaders, that ‘Although the war was fought exclusively on Spanish soil, I never saw it as a domestic conflict.’ To the volunteers, Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries, a perspective lucidly expressed by the sculptor, Jason Gurney from London, who arrived in Spain in December 1936:

“The Spanish Civil war seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and you went out to fight it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth…for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have a national boundary.” (Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain, p.36.)

Therefore fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe: conversely a victory for Franco was seen, by extension, as a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for the Spanish Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided anti-fascists with convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.

Around the world supporters of the Spanish Republic held meetings and demonstrations, collected food, money and medical supplies. However, some felt that sending help and money was not enough. Spain needed arms, as one young Spaniard argued: ‘We Spaniards are greatly thankful for your charity and your lint and your ointments which you send us to repair Don Quixote’s wounds; but we would be much more thankful if you were to outfit him with a new lance and an up-to-date shield.’

Some anti-fascists agreed and took the decision to volunteer to go to Spain, determined to seize this opportunity to halt the spread of authoritarian right-wing regimes across Europe. As Jack explained:

“The awful realisation that black fascism was on the march right across Europe created a strong desire to act. The march had started with Mussolini and had gained terrible momentum with Hitler and was being carried forward by Franco. For most young people there was a feeling of frustration, but some determined to do anything that seemed possible, even if it meant death, to try to stop the spread of fascism…This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.” (Introduction by Jack Jones in Judith Cook, Apprentices of Freedom, pp.vii-ix.)

The first volunteers consisted mainly of German and Italian anti-fascists, plus some British, French and Polish left-wingers. Sprinkled among the Spanish defenders at the rate of one to four, the brigaders both boosted their morale and trained them in the use of weapons such as machine-guns. The arrival of a well-disciplined group of soldiers provided an important psychological boost to the Republican forces. To many observers’ surprise, the defenders of Madrid managed to halt the advance of General Franco’s forces at the gates of the Spanish capital.

Yet when Jack first approached the Aid Spain Office in Liverpool’s Haymarket in order to offer his services to the Spanish Republic, he was turned down, despite having experience in the Territorial Army. Instead, he was told that he would be of more use staying in Britain and working on behalf of the Spanish Republic, including helping to recruit volunteers for the International Brigades.

However, after several requests, in early 1938 Jack’s efforts to volunteer were finally rewarded and permission was granted for him to go. However, it was not easy to get to Spain, for volunteering for the Spanish war had been made illegal in Britain, so the journey had to be undertaken in secret. Jack’s organisational experience meant that he was sufficiently trusted to be put in charge of a group of British volunteers. They followed the by now well-trodden route: from London by train and boat to the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades in Paris and then on by train once again to Perpignan in southern France.

Jack Jones' route to Spain in March 1938

With the border between France and Spain closed, volunteers were forced to undertake an exhausting nine hour climb over the Pyrenees to get into Spain – carried out at night to avoid the patrols set up to catch them. Jack’s group arrived in Spain in March 1938. Upon his arrival he was given some brief training in the fort at Figueras in northern Catalonia, before being allowed to carry on to Barcelona to deliver a letter he was carrying from Ernest Bevin to representatives of the socialist trade union, the UGT. After delivering the letter, Jack briefly joined a UGT unit fighting on Aragon front [near Lerida], an experience he later described in his autobiography, Union Man:

“My character was hardened by many experiences at that time but one incident stands out vividly in my memory. ‘Yo lucho para Libertad! (‘I fight for liberty’) shouted the old Spaniard, digging in alongside me. The ground was hard and stony and with the aid of a trenching tool it was possible to dig only a shallow strip and use what natural cover was available. Laying his trenching tool on the ground, he picked up his rifle to fire at the opposing force. We faced a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire and shells came flying over at the same time. I looked at the unlikely soldier by my side and marvelled at his courage. He had a gnarled bronze face, a heavy body, and was wearing the cap and overalls of a working man. He was afraid of nothing. It turned out that he was an anarchist, but he typified for me the resolve of so many Spaniards who hated the idea of a Fascist take-over. [But] in his courage he was reckless, a recklessness which did for him, for he was killed within minutes of his picking up his rifle and firing a few shots.” (Jack Jones, Union Man, 2008, p. 68.)

Despite choosing to wear a black leather jacket – he later admitted it was not exactly the most effective form of camouflage – Jack survived a period of service with the Spanish UGT unit, before rejoining his compatriots. Jack Jones from Liverpool became volunteer number 1788 of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade.

Probably due more to his political, than military experience, he was appointed as political commissar to the No. 1 Major Atlee Company. Jack described his role as ‘a combination of welfare advisor and political advisor’; but he would have been unusual if he had not been informed that he should both keep watch over – and a watch on – the men in his company.  Based primarily on the model of the Soviet Red Army, the political commissars operated as a parallel command structure to the military and were responsible for both morale and discipline within the Communist-dominated International Brigades.

Jack Jones in Spain in 1938 (standing to the left in beret and leather jacket)

In many ways it was not an auspicious time to join the International Brigades. The appalling number of casualties in the battles of Jarama and Brunete around Madrid the previous year, meant that those who arrived in 1938 could have no illusions of the danger they faced. Furthermore, the massive offensive in Aragon launched by Franco at the end of February 1938 had ended with his soldiers dancing triumphantly in the Mediterranean at Viñaroz, splitting the Republican zone in two.

During the chaotic retreats at least 100 members of the British Battalion were killed and many more wounded. A similar number were captured and imprisoned in prisoner of war camps. The following photograph was taken of the defiant British survivors responding to a story in a pro-Franco British newspaper which had triumphantly announced the annihilation of the International Brigades.

Yet, when Jack joined the battalion in the summer of 1938, he found the men in training at Fontanella, a pretty valley surrounded by rugged hills and mountains near the Catalonian village of Marsa.  The volunteers christened it ‘Chabola Valley’ after the small rough shelters they constructed under the hazelnut bushes that proliferated in the barrancos, the small dried up river gullies.

The volunteers were kept busy with ‘training, marching or rifle practice’ and ‘the procedures for crossing rivers’, while at night  one of the volunteers who was a particularly strong swimmer (Lewis Clive) swam clandestinely across the Ebro to reconnoitre the Nationalist positions. Benefiting from regular food and sleep, and safe from the daily risk of death, some came to see this as one of their most pleasant periods in Spain, as one Scottish member of the battalion described: ‘In this happy existence, which was really enjoyable, we were out in the fresh air and we were sleeping under the open sky. The weather was fairly good and we were getting plenty of exercise and plenty of food.’

On 8 July the battalion was visited by a travelling van fitted out with hot showers. Many volunteers also took the opportunity to lose themselves in a book. Their ranks included a number of voracious readers and they had amassed a huge library of English books; these were stored at a nearby hacienda, where they managed to rig up electric lighting and could read long into the night. ‘It was a strange, argumentative army of thinkers,’ remembered one young Briton. Jack described his time at Chavola Valley to the historian Max Arthur:

“Life wasn’t easy, but a good spirit prevailed in the ranks. Food was short; our main meals consisted of beans, lentils and chickpeas, sometimes beans with dried fish in a stew, or beans with mule meat or old goat, stewed and topped off with rough – very rough – red wine. Some of the lads visited an old chap in a nearby village who, allegedly, made stew from mice, but nobody would admit to having tasted it. Needless to say, there were no cats or dogs around!” (Interview with Jack Jones in Max Arthur, The Real Band of Brothers, p. 137.)

Towards the end of July 1938, the period of training finally came to an end. Now promoted to Commissar of Number Four Company, Jack and his comrades in the International Brigades were to be part of a huge – and ambitious – Republican offensive back across the River Ebro.

The British Battalion advance during the Ebro offensive of July 1938

During the nights of 23 and 24 July 1938, the British Battalion marched nearly thirty kilometres to their crossing point over the river near Ascó. Early the following morning, the British followed the Canadian battalion over the river, most of them taken over in small rowing boats, while others crossed on pontoon bridges rapidly erected during the morning by Republican engineers.

Republican pontoon bridge across the River Ebro

Initially, the Republican soldiers found the Nationalists unprepared and they were able to advance rapidly. By the afternoon of 25 July, Jack and the other British volunteers were within two kilometres of the village of Corbera, that lay between them and their principal target, the small town of Gandesa, the key to the Ebro offensive.

However, within two hours of the first troops crossing, Nationalist aeroplanes had begun attacking the temporary bridges over the river. A lack of supplies, especially food and water, were becoming problematic as the battalion’s supply line became dangerously over-extended. Nevertheless, in increasingly difficult conditions, the battalion pressed on towards Gandesa. As Spanish forces battered the town itself, the British Battalion was ordered to capture a hill, just over a kilometre to the east, nicknamed ‘The Pimple’ by the British. The Pimple (Hill 481) overlooked Gandesa, and though not the highest hill in the vicinity, its capture was vital if the attack on the town was to stand any chance of success. Unfortunately, Franco had by now brought up reinforcements and the attacking Republican forces met with extremely fierce resistance, particularly aircraft and artillery fire. The volunteers in the battalion faced what one described as ‘a withering, murderous reply of shells, rifle and machine gun fire’ from the resolute defenders on Hill 481 and from Nationalist positions on the surrounding heights and on top of high buildings within Gandesa itself. Between 27 July and 3 August, in searing heat, the battalion launched increasingly desperate assaults on the hill, but all were repulsed, as Jack sadly recalled, ‘at great cost’.

Even for men hardened to the brutal realities of warfare, the number of casualties sustained on Hill 481 was deeply shocking. Many of them were popular, long-standing members of the battalion, who had fought in Spain since the very creation of the battalion eighteen months earlier. One of many casualties of the first day’s fighting on the hill was Jack himself, as he describes:

“Once more I had clambered up the hill with my comrades, taking cover where we could and firing at the enemy wherever he appeared. The bullets of the snipers whizzed over, grenades and shells were striking the ground, throwing up earth and dust and showering us with shrapnel. Suddenly my shoulder and right arm went numb. Blood gushed from my shoulder and I couldn’t lift my rifle. I could do nothing but lie where I was. Near me a comrade had been killed and I could hear the cries of others, complaining of their wounds. While I was lying there, to make things worse, a spray of shrapnel hit my right arm. The stretcher bearers were doing their best but could hardly keep up with the number of casualties. As night fell I made my own way, crawling to the bottom of the hill. I was taken with other wounded men down the line to an emergency field hospital at Mora del Ebro where I was given an anti-tetanus injection. The place was like an abbatoir; there was blood and the smell of blood everywhere.” (Jack Jones, Union Man, 1986, pp. 75–6.)

Transferred from hospital to hospital, it soon became clear that Jack’s wounds were not going to recover easily and the decision was taken to send him home. Jack was finally repatriated on 14 September 1938, and he left Spain accompanied by his friend and former company commander, the Irishman, Paddy O’Daire. Back home he was reunited with his fiancée Evelyn, the widow of his friend, George Brown, who had been killed whilst serving as the British Battalion’s political commissar  at Brunete in July 1937. Jack & Evelyn married the following month, in October 1938.

Jack & Evelyn Jones, October 1938

His wounds healed, Jack returned, as he put it, to ‘the world of ships and cargoes and the human problems of the waterfront.’ But he continued to work for Spain and campaigned to bring an end to the western democracies’ policy of non-intervention. After the final defeat of the Republic in March 1939, Spanish seamen stranded in British seaports who did not want to return to Franco’s Spain sought – and secured – Jack’s help. His connections arranged their transportation to Argentina to begin new lives. He also kept in clandestine contact with the illegal trade union movement in Spain and provided help and legal assistance to those imprisoned by the Franco dictatorship. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Jack lent his support to the re-establishment of independent trade unions in Spain.

As Jack declared in the postscript to the 2008 edition of his autobiography, the cause of democracy in Spain and the contribution of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War remained important to him throughout his life. When Jack died in 2009, he was the President of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a position he had held since its inception in 2001.

The following 2 minute video clip is of Jack Jones talking about his time in Spain, from his participation in the battle on Hill 481 near Gandesa, to his rather sobering assessment of the legacy of the Spanish war. The interviews are from David Leach’s Voices from a Mountain, 2001.

James Larkin ‘Jack’ Jones, 29 March 1913 – 21 April 2009.

Studying and writing the Spanish Civil War

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

George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

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.

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

[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.

Middelsex University's Trent Park Campus

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.

Paul Preston, Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics

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.

Present at a preliminary meeting to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photo by Richard Baxell

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.

Return to the Ebro battlefields

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.

British officers at Hill 481 in July-August 1938

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.

Representatives of the IBMT with the past and present mayors of La Bisbal de Falset

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.

View looking into the church in Corbera d'Ebre. Note the installation in the foreground and the IBMT's exhibition behind. Photo © Jim Jump 2013.
The plaque at Corbera d'Ebre

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.

Memorial wreaths (alternative view)

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.

Threat to International Brigade memorial in Madrid’s University City

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.

madrid-ib-memorial

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.

madrid-ib-memorial-asesinos

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 written an interesting blogpost on the removal of the monument. More here >

2013 Len Crome Memorial Lecture

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.

Iconic photographs of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

The Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, September 1936

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

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.

Members of the British Anti-tank Battery relaxing at their base in Ambite
Members of the British Anti-Tank Battery relaxing at their base in Ambite in autumn 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.

Unlikely Warriors at Glasgow’s 2013 Aye Write Book Festival

In conversation with Chris Dolan
In conversation with Chris Dolan

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.

Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012
Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012

An Anarchist's Story
An Anarchist’s Story, Birlinn, 2009

2013 Len Crome lecture: Homage to Catalonia 75 years on

Crome_flyer

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).

Jim Jump delivering Paul Preston's paper on George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War © Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 3.0,  IBMT and Marshall Mateer
Jim Jump delivering Paul Preston’s paper on George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
© Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 3.0, IBMT and Marshall Mateer

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.

L to R: Chris Hall, Mary Vincent, Richard Baxell and Tom Buchanan © Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 3.0, IBMT and Marshall Mateer
L to R: Chris Hall, Mary Vincent, Richard Baxell and Tom Buchanan
© Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 3.0, IBMT and Marshall Mateer

Stan Hilton, an unlikely warrior

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.

Former British volunteer Stan Hilton

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.

Stan Hilton, reacquainting himself with Spain

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.’