In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
The Strange Death of Gerda Taro
On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.
When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.
Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.
From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.
Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.
After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.
Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.
For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.
In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’
Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.
David Marshall, poet, and one of the last surviving of the British volunteers to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, has died, aged 90.
David was born on 27 March 1916, in Middlesbrough, the eldest of three sons of Methodist parents. Brought up mainly by his Mother, he gained a scholarship for High School, where he developed a lifelong love of literature and poetry. When he left school in 1934, with few jobs available for school leavers, David reluctantly sat the civil service entrance examination and began work in the Ministry of Labour. It was not work that David enjoyed, opening his eyes to the misery of life ‘on the dole’. However, unlike many of his peers, it was not to politics that David turned, but to books. He later admitted to have been, ‘utterly ignorant of the world…wrapped in my bookishness.’ The world of those who would later be his comrades in Spain – demonstrations, hunger marches, battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts – made little impact on him.
However, in July 1936, after 18 months working in the Labour Exchange, he read that a revolt had broken out in Spain. This changed everything:
One day I brought The Times…I remember reading a paragraph saying, “There is no doubt that if the Spanish Republican government wins the war, a socialist state will be set up”. Really that was the trigger. I thought, Christ, here’s a way out.
David quickly obtained a passport by forging a letter from his Father, told his sweetheart ‘some cock-and-bull story’, and bought a one-way rail ticket to London and on to Port Bou, in France. However, on reaching the Spanish border, David’s political naïveté was his undoing, when he was refused entry for not possessing any political or Trade Union credentials. However, a mysterious Italian appeared and got him across the border. David then volunteered to join the Catalonian anti-fascist militia and was put on a train to Barcelona.
This was to be an immensely influential time for David, for Barcelona ‘was seething with enthusiasm [and] colour’. As Orwell famously recounted, ‘the working class were in the saddle’; Trade Union and political banners were everywhere. Under the leadership of Nat Cohen- a battle-hardened volunteer from London- Marshall and his handful of comrades (including Georgie Tioli, a mysterious Italian, and Tom Wintringham, another poet and later a commander of the British Battalion in Spain) were formed them into the Tom Mann Centuria. The oft-produced photograph of the group has developed an almost iconic status.
After a few weeks in Barcelona they were moved to Albacete, the International Brigade base, and, at the end of October 1936, officially attached to the mainly German Thaelmann Battalion as part of the XII International Brigade. Here they were given uniforms and what David described as ‘bloody awful’ equipment. Most of the volunteers hadn’t even fired their rifles when they went into action on 11 November 1936, at Cerro de los Angeles, near Madrid. Less than 24 hours later, David’s Spanish episode was abruptly terminated when he was shot in the leg. Extremely shaken and with his morale severely knocked, he returned to England in December 1936, to hear that most of his friends had been killed in a vicious battle at Boadilla on the western outskirts of Madrid, memorably described in his comrade (and Winston Churchill’s nephew) Esmond Romilly’s book of the same name.
On his return to Middlesbrough, he joined the Young Communist League and returned to his old employment in the Ministry of Labour. In January 1939 he married his sweetheart, Joyce, with whom he later had a daughter and son.
David continued to work for the return of democracy in Spain and attended a reunion of volunteers in 1938, though he felt a reluctance to stand alongside his comrades, feeling that his all too brief time in Spain and ensuing return to Britain made him somehow unworthy. David always downplayed his role in Spain and possessed a strong sense of guilt that he had survived, when many others hadn’t. Nevertheless, with other veterans, he joined the International Brigade Association (IBA), formed in the Spring of 1939, for which he would later become Treasurer. As part of his support for the Republic, David also wrote a poem, ‘Retrospect’, which was included in an anthology edited by Stephen Spender & John Lehmann, Poems for Spain, (1939).
When the Second World War broke out he, like many other ex-brigaders, was at first barred from entry into the armed forces. However, following pressure from his superior at the Labour Exchange (who insisted that he volunteer), on 4 February 1940 he joined the Army Pay Corps. He was interviewed about his background in Spain by a Captain, who said that he knew that David ‘was Communistic or fascist’. However, David received no discrimination over his time in ‘Red’ Spain though, even as a corporal, he was never placed on guard duty when abroad.
An attempt to volunteer as a glider pilot failed when the optician twigged that the short-sighted David had memorised the eye-chart beforehand, and David transferred instead to the Army Engineers. He took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and also witnessed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, altogether serving six years in the army. Demobilised in April 1947, he returned, once again, to his old job in the Ministry of Labour, where he remained until 1961, when he moved to London and began work as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop. Between 1963 and 1973 he had a small studio, building scenery for theatres and exhibitions.
In 1975 his wife, Joyce, died of cancer after a long illness and David bought and lovingly re?furbished a 90ft. sailing barge, ‘Jock’ where he lived, hosting exhibitions and dinners. His impromptu – and extremely lively – parties are still famous to this day. In 1982 David sold ‘Jock’ and bought an 85ft. long Dutch Barge, ‘Zwerver’, on which he lived until 1992, when he moved in with his long-time partner, the actress Marlene Sidaway.
Following the death of Bill Alexander, the secretary of the IBA in 2000, David was at the forefront in pressing for the admission of family members and friends, leading to the establishment of a new charitable organisation, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), for which he continued to donate considerable time and money. In November of the same year, the ‘articulate, poetry-loving 84 year old’ was amongst a number of Spanish veterans photographed and interviewed for a special piece in The Guardian.
David continued to write poetry throughout his life and eventually, a collection, The Tilting Planet, was published early in 2005. When, at the launch of the book of his poems a number of them were read by a number of well-known actors and actresses out to a packed audience, even David- always fiercely determined to downplay his own importance- could not disguise his pleasure and pride. This was to be David’s last public appearance.
The International Brigades and Spain’s struggle for democracy remained David’s abiding passions and his work on the committees of the IBA and later the IBMT were an important part of this, where David’s cantankerous charm reflected a singular impatience for protocol. But it was in his poetry, that David Marshall’s true, sensitive nature was revealed:
I sing of my comrades That once did sing In that great choir at Albacete Before the battle. Rank after rank Of the young battalions Singing the Internationale They came from every corner of the earth So many men from distant lands Each with his private history Of Spain’s Republic.
Along slow roads to Spain – at last a star For desperate men, sensing the gathering storm And we that fought to warn a watching world Were called false prophets by appeasers Yet we fought for the poor of the world.
Our lullabies were soldiers’ songs Dead in the mud of the trenches Sung by sad women to the sons of the fallen. And remembered in Remembrance Day long past After the thudding drum and shriek of bugles I listened to the slow lament For brothers, sons and lovers lost. It is the sadness in the singing, The undertones of woe, The deep vein of grief That throbs throughout my generation.
David Marshall, International Brigader and poet, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005.
Len Crome was Chief Medical Officer in the 35th division of the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War; and a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Military Corps during the Second World War- earning the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.
He was born Lazar Krom in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1909, but in 1926 he departed for Scotland, where his father had business interests, to study medicine at Edinburgh University When, in July 1936, four years after he graduated, civil war broke out in Spain, Crome viewed the rising as an attempt to instil another Fascist dictatorship in Europe. Though not a member of the Communist Party, Crome, like many others with leftist sympathies, on hearing that volunteers were leaving Britain to join the republican forces, decided to join them.
He wrote offering his services to Harry Pollitt, who suggested that he contact Sir Daniel Stevenson, a rich Scottish mine-owner, who was organising a Scottish Ambulance Unit. Despite reservations about Stevenson (Crome was taken aback to discover Stevenson was the proud owner of a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler), he joined the ambulance unit and arrived in Spain in December 1936. However, he did not remain with it for long; in March 1937, amidst rumours of members of the unit’s involvement in abetting the escape of rebel sympathisers from Madrid, Crome and three others left to join the International Brigades.
Len Crome became, Assistant Chief Medical Officer for the 35th Republican Division, of which the British Battalion was also part, until in August 1937 he replaced “Dr Dubois”, the Chief Medical Officer (Mieczyslaw Domanski, a Pole), who had been killed by a sniper: Displaying exceptional courage, Crome, with “General Walter”, the divisional Commander (another Pole Karol Swierczewski), personally retrieved Dubois’s body from no man’s land.
In his new role, Crome demonstrated great competence and imagination: by placing mobile hospitals as near the front as possible- necessarily increasing the risk to Crome and his comrades from enemy fire- trauma to the patients was dramatically reduced. As Jim Fyrth’s history of the British medical unit in Spain, The Signal was Spain: the Spanish Aid Movement in Britain 1936-39 (1986), acknowledges,
Wounded men in Crome’s command were getting better treatment than they would have been given at the time in famous London teaching hospitals.
When the International Brigades were withdrawn at the end of 1938, Crome returned to London, where he resumed his work as a GP and taught first aid to ARP workers. He also joined the Communist Party, impressed by what he had seen of the efforts organising the resistance against Franco in Spain. He continued to look after brigaders: with the help of Jack Brent, the Secretary International Brigade Association, he successfully, lobbied the US Ambassador to expedite the release of brigaders from camps in Vichy France.
In 1941 Crome was drafted into the British army as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to North Africa. Whilst helping many survivors of the International Brigades who had escaped there, Crome wrote an article in The Lancet complaining that medical lessons learned in Spain were not being fully utilised by the RAMC.
In the battles around Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943-44 Crome won the Military Cross for showing extraordinary bravery by carrying on working despite heavy enemy fire. His citation reads:
During the battle for the crossing of the River Gari, shortly after the bridge ‘AMAZON’ was established, on 13 May 1944, this officer established an A.D.S. [Advanced Dressing Station] on the west side of the river, having worked there himself from the time the bridge was established, until he decided it was safe to bring his section across. The section location was subjected to very heavy intermittent mortar fire for the next 48 hours, during which time an infantry A.D.S. nearby was forced to withdraw. Capt. Crome, by his courage and example, was instrumental in keeping the medical chain of evacuation open as established, and his conduct is worthy of the highest praise.
Two months later Crome was presented to King George VI during his visit to Italy. The King apologised to Crome for not being able to receive him in Buckingham Palace and invited him to “drop in next time you are in London”.
After the war Crome returned to Britain and trained as a pathologist at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Paddington (working under Alexander Fleming), and as a neuropathologist at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1956 he joined the Fountain Hospital in Tooting as pathologist before moving to the Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton as an expert in paediatric neuropathology.
Crome retired from the NHS at 65, though he carried on with locum work before accepting a post at the Wilhelmina Geisthuis Hospital in Amsterdam. Here he added Dutch to his impressive repertoire of languages, which included Russian, Latvian, Polish, German, English, Spanish and French.
Crone’s last position was at the Institute of Laryngology, specialising in the neuropathology of mental retardation. With J. Stern, he was the author in 1967 of the textbook The Pathology of Mental Retardation, which went into a second edition in 1972. After finally retiring at 75, he wrote Unbroken: resistance and survival in the concentration camps (1988), the story of his brother Jonny Hüttner’s resistance and survival through nine years of imprisonment in Nazi camps.
During the 1990s Crome continued to look after the interests of the International Brigaders as the Chairman of the International Brigade Association and was also the Vice-Chair of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR from 1969 to 1976, before becoming National Vice-President.
Len Crome said that he was proud of having been in the International Brigades but, a self-effacing man, he resisted what he considered to be the glorification of the brigades in general and his role in particular. However, others do not doubt his worth. As Sam Lesser, one of his fellow International Brigaders, remarked,
War is a bloody business, and Len saw more bloodiness than most. But all who were treated by Len Crome and his team knew that everything that could be done for them would be.
Lazar Krom (Leonard Crome), medical practitioner born Dvinsk, Latvia 14 April 1909; MC 1944; married 1940 Helen Hüttner (died 1995; one son, one adopted son); died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 5 May 2001.
This obituary of Dr Len Crome originally appeared in the Independent (review section) 11 May 2001, p. 6.