The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
On 12 November, 2020 I joined Giles for an online discussion and virtual launch of Giles Tremlett‘s new study of the International Brigades, hosted by the IBMT and Marx Memorial Library. You can listen to the discussion here.
My review of the book appears in the latest edition of The Spectator. I thought it an engaging read and a well-researched, comprehensive work of scholarship. Based on a mass of primary research, especially the RGASPI material in Moscow, he’s written a very even-handed, ‘warts and all’ account. And his conclusion is, I think a fair one:
‘There was nothing perfect about the brigaders and attempts to paint them as 20th century saints only serve to highlight their failings. These were (mostly) men at war. They killed and were killed. Some fought bravely, others did not. Some were noble and brave in their actions, others were cruel, cowardly or callous. Some fought for an ideal, others for adventure. And, for some, those ideals would take them on a journey of oppression that placed them closer, in their behaviour and blind defence of Stalinist communism, to the fascists whom they declared as their enemies than to the democratic Republic that they defended. All fought, however, against the most destructive and evil force unleashed by 20th century Europe’s violent politics and history. As Bernard Knox – by then a distinguished Classics professor at Yale – pointed out, there could be nothing ‘premature’ about anti-fascism.’
Giles Tremlett, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War. London: Bloomsbury, 2020, p. 528.
In early August 2020 I joined Alex Clifford, author of Fighting for Spain, a new military history of the International Brigades, to talk about their role in the Spanish Civil War.
In a long-ranging discussion lasting almost two hours(!), we discussed the formation of the Brigades, to why and how so many volunteers flocked to Spain, the battles they fought, and the people who served in them. Why did these men (and some women) became History’s Most Unlikely Warriors?
The podcast was released on 7 September and can be found here.
Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.
The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.
If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.
Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.
The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.
Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:
If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.
The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.
Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).
Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.
Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.
George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.
Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).
Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.
There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!
John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012
I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.
Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.
Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.
With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion. Seb Browne’s Medicine and Conflict looks interesting but at around £100.00 for the hardback, is probably out of reach of most readers.
For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading. Angela also contributed an introduction to the most recent publication, Firing a Shot for Freedom; the memoirs of Frida Stewart (2020).
I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.
The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.
There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.
Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.
I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.
Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.
Barbara Lamplugh’s The Red Gene, published in 2019, tells the story of a young English nurse who volunteered for the Spanish Government’s medical services and fell for a Republican soldier. The story touches on the awful conditions during the civil war and the scandalous forced adoptions in Franco Spain. It was reviewed in the January 2020 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
On 5 October 2019, as part of a weekend of activities to accompany the Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I gave a talk on the role of London and volunteers from the capital, in the Spanish Civil war. As part of the talk, I chose to bring to light, or return to the light, a first generation Irish resident, who was born and lived in north Kensington. Like most of the men and women who went to Spain, he wasn’t famous, so little, if anything has been written about him. That’s not wholly surprising, for it’s not always easy to write about a relatively unknown individuals, as information is not always easy to come by. Fortunately, there are a few documents held in the National Archives in Kew and in the RGASPI archives in Moscow. Most helpful of all, there is an interview in the Imperial War Museum in London. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a photograph.
Harold Bernard Collins was born on 26 June, 1912, the son of Irish parents. He grew up in north Kensington, then ‘a real working class area.’ After a typically short elementary education, Bernard left school at 15 to work in the family coach-building business. Inspired by his father’s Irish Republican politics (Michael Collins – no relation – once stayed at their home) and by a lively political scene based around the Portobello Road, at 16 he joined the Young Communist League.
While other people might have joined the YCL for their regular dances, Bernard was spurred by their political campaigning. He helped defend tenants being evicted and he marched alongside the Hunger Marchers when they arrived in London in 1934, joining them at a rally. And, like many others, he took part in – frequently violent – demonstrations against Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were attempting to gain a foothold in the Portobello Road. Collins was himself arrested at an antifascist demonstration in Tooley Street, in Bermondsey in 1937, when the 8 stone Collins was accused of assaulting a 6’ police officer.
Like most Party members, Bernard was an avid reader of the Daily Worker and it was through the paper that he came to learn of the civil war in Spain. He was not initially thinking of volunteering, but a fellow Party member who had recently returned from Spain assured Collins that he could be of use, despite his complete lack of military experience. Nevertheless, Collins remained undecided for almost a year, until the sight of a group of Blackshirt thugs beating up some children in London’s east end, purely because they were Jewish, convinced him that he had to do something.
Accompanied by his friend, a local decorator called Wally Clasper, Collins approached his local Party and made out that, like his mate who had served in the Royal Artillery, he had military experience. His interviewer attempted to dissuade the pair, but realising that they were determined, let them go. So, in early February 1938, having said nothing to his parents, Collins set off with Wally for Spain, both dressed in their best suits. Using money given to them by the Party, they followed the typical route to Spain, via Folkestone, Dieppe, Paris and, finally, a long, exhausting night-time slog over the Pyrenees.
After some basic training in Figueras and Albacete, and a brief time in a training battalion at the British base at Tarazona de la Mancha, Collins joined the British Battalion itself at Teruel. Posted up high in the snow covered mountains, Walter and his comrades were a sitting target for enemy artillery. Walter later described his first experience of being under fire:
Strange to say I wasn’t nervous at all, because I don’t think I knew what fighting really was, anyway. I had no idea of people being killed, or anything like that. The shells from the fascists were falling about twenty or thirty yards away and it didn’t seem to worry me at all, even though everybody else would go down flat and dodge the shells coming. It didn’t happen to me and I don’t think it was because I was brave, or anything like that, I think it was that I really didn’t know what war was about.
Fortunately for Collins, he had arrived right at the end of the fighting at Teruel, in which as many soldiers died from cold as combat. The Battalion was withdrawn from the Teruel front towards the end of February and sent to the Aragon village of Lecera, a hundred kilometres north of Teruel. There they remained until the beginning of March 1938, living ‘in stone barns, huddled together against the bitter cold’.
On 7 March, Franco launched a colossal offensive against the Republican forces in Aragon. The Nationalists outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one and what began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. As the Republic struggled to hold the onslaught, the British Battalion was rushed up by lorry to Belchite, which had been captured by the American Battalion the previous autumn, but was quickly overwhelmed as the Nationalists swept forward,. Motorised units punched holes in the Republican lines, in a forerunner of the Blitzkrieg tactics which would be used with devastating effect during the Second World War.
Over the next two weeks Collins and his comrades were in constant retreat, bombarded with anti-tank and anti-aircraft shells all the way. Only on reaching the town of Batea, over 100km from their initial position, were they able to find brief sanctuary. It was to be all too brief.
On 30 March 1938, Franco resumed his offensive and the remaining members of the battalion were urgently sent back to the front. Early in the morning of 31 March, they advanced cautiously past a small village called Calaceite, which was being violently shelled by Nationalist artillery. As the volunteers rounded a sharp bend in the road, they were confronted by a group of six tanks approaching them from the trees alongside the road. Collins watched as Battalion Commissar Walter Tapsell, assuming that the tanks were Republican, approached one and banged on the side of it with his pistol.
As Tapsell attempted to converse with the tank commander in Spanish, he responded by shouting out in Italian, drawing his pistol and opening fire on Tapsell. The commissar was killed instantly and Collins saw at least 50 other men hit, before he sought cover alongside the road. As darkness fell, a group of about 30 members of Collins’ Company made for the safety of Calaceite village, only to discover that it had already fallen to Italian troops. They opened fire with machine-guns and Collins saw his friend Clasper hit and badly wounded and another Kensington volunteer, Richard Moss, killed. Outnumbered and with little other option they surrendered and were taken prisoner.
The prisoners were taken to a POW camp in a former monastery near Burgos, called San Pedro de Cardeña (on 8 April 1938). Built in 1711 on the site of the first Benedictine monastery in Spain, San Pedro was, the prisoners were later told, ‘the last resting place of El Cid’. As they were marched through the massive wooden gates, one prisoner, looking up, noticed that ‘ironically, the monumental work over the main doorway was that of a horseman, lance in hand, on a fiery charger, trampling down Moors.’
That night Collins encountered the awful reality of conditions at San Pedro. Wrapped in a thin blanket, he was forced to sleep on the floor, surrounded by rats. Keeping clean was virtually impossible, for there was only one tap for the entire group of 600 international prisoners. There were so few toilets that inmates often had to queue for hours. Not surprisingly, such filthy and insanitary conditions proved a fertile breeding ground for fleas and lice. Diseases such as scurvy, malaria and enteric fever were widespread, for medical facilities were also extremely limited, with only five doctors divided between the International prisoners. The inhospitable conditions were exacerbated by the dire lack of decent food. The principal diet consisted of a thin soup of warm water flavoured with olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs, accompanied by one small bread roll per day.
But what really made the prisoners’ lives utterly miserable was the brutal behaviour of the guards. Collins himself saw prisoners being savagely beaten:
[The guards would] walk around with sticks, thick sticks, and they’d lash you at the slightest chance they had. If you didn’t answer them correctly, they’d slash you. They weren’t worried where they hit you, [they’d] hit you across the head or across the face …. They were really nasty.
As the days of captivity turned into weeks and then months, Collins and the other inmates did what they could to pass the time and break the monotony. They organised lectures and discussions and played chess using pieces carved out of soap or stale bread.
A number of British were transferred out of the camp in a prisoner exchange in June, but Collins was not one of them. He remained in San Pedro for another 7 months, desperately hoping that another exchange would be arranged. Eventually, on 23 January 1939, almost all of the remaining prisoners, including Collins, were transferred to Ondarreta jail in San Sebastián.
And at the end of February 1938, the prisoners were finally released and marched across the international bridge into France and freedom. There Collins and his fellow veterans of the International Brigades were generously offered a huge dinner to celebrate their freedom. Unfortunately, having spent ten months on a starvation diet in a Francoist concentration camp, none of them were able to eat it.
 Interview with Harold Collins, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) 9481, reel 1.
 Sarah Collins, ‘Why did Britons fight in Spain’s Civil War?’ March 1984, p. 9 from Marx Memorial Library (MML) SC/EPH/10/7.
 Interview with Harold Collins, IWMSA 9481, reel 2.
 Edwin Greening, From Aberdare to Albacete, p. 71.
 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for LIberty, pp. 169–70.
 Report by George Fletcher, 5 May 1938, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) 545/3/497, p. 30.
 Bob Doyle, Brigadista, p. 71; Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave, p. 143.
 Report of Franco Prisoners, MML SC/IBA/5/3/1/20, p. 8; George Wheeler, To Make the People Smile Again, p. 134.
 Cyril Kent, ‘I Was in a Franco Prison’, Challenge, 5 January 1939, pp. 10–11.
 Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, pp. 102–3.
Wisely steering clear of the Francis-Stradling arguments, Davies opts for a more conventional account, concentrating on the personal experiences of the 200 or so Welsh volunteers in the war itself. Beginning with an overview of the background in Spain, the author then turns to 1930s Wales, before looking at the creation of the International Brigades, the motivations of the Welsh for joining and a chronological account of the war.
The inspiring story of Potato Jones and his fellow mariners is included, as is an account of the selfless role Welsh men and women played within the Republican medical services in Spain and accommodating and supporting Basque refugees at home. The author has included a number of photographs of Welsh volunteers that I haven’t seen before, together with some helpful photographs of his own, presumably taken on trips to Spain. Perhaps most useful of all, Davies has gone further than previous researchers, by including brief biographies of 149 Welsh survivors of the war. His definition on who to include in his list, incidentally, is eminently sensible: those who were born in Wales ‘or had strong Welsh connections’.
Aside from the inevitable small errors in a work of this scope (for example, Davies mistakenly claims that the Thaelmann, Garibaldi and Dombrowski battalions were part of the 15th International Brigade at Jarama) there’s no doubting that You Are Legend is a very a comprehensive account. This is not to say that all will agree with some of the author’s conclusions, of course, and there are certainly some areas in which I would take issue; for example, I think he overstates the power of the Russian Intelligence Services – and consequently the Soviet Union – in the recruitment and day to day control of the brigades. He also has a tendency to quote some of the propaganda from IB memorial leaflets rather uncritically; I very much doubt that when Billy Davies was killed at Villanueva de Cañada in July 1937 ‘his clenched fist shot up in salute as his body fell, riddled with machine-gun bullets’. To the author’s credit, however, he generally avoids over-eulogising, recognising that ‘not every volunteer for such a stressful and horrific theatre of war will be a hero.’ As has been said before, these were mostly ordinary men and women who chose to do something extraordinary.
How much the experience of Welsh volunteers differed from those from other parts of Britain, particularly from mining communities in Durham or Fife, is difficult to say. Certainly, as Davies acknowledges, ‘the Welsh did not develop as strong a national identity as the Irish.’ However, perhaps this is to miss the point. While the experiences of the Welsh volunteers may not have been ‘exceptional’, their contribution both individually and collectively is beyond doubt and Graham Davies should be applauded for helping make sure their efforts will not quickly be forgotten.
The review first appeared in the IBMT’s No Pasarán, 1-2019, pp. 20-21.
It’s widely known that within the American Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades that served in the Spanish Civil War there were a number of African Americans. Most famously the Texan military veteran and Communist, Oliver Law, became the first Black American to command white troops in battle; when he was tragically killed at Brunete in July 1937, he had risen to the rank of commander of the American volunteers. What is much less known is that there was a black British volunteer serving in the British Battalion. His name was Charlie Hutchison [his name usually appears, erroneously, as Hutchinson].
It’s perhaps not surprising that little known about Charlie for, apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives in Moscow, few details of his time in Spain remain and, sadly, no photographs. While it would be a stretch to discuss wider issues of race and prejudice within the International Brigades based on the record of one volunteer, his experiences do tell us much about the difficulties many Britons encountered when they wanted to go home. As one Scottish member of the battalion later explained, ‘while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out.’Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.
We know that Charles William R. Hutchinson was born in Witney, Oxfordshire, on 10 May 1918. His mother, whose maiden name was Harper, was presumably not in a position to raise him, for Hutchison tells of growing grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage in London. In the spring of 1936, Hutchinson, who had just turned 18 years of age, was living in Fulham and working as a lorry driver. He was also Branch Chair of the local Young Communist League and it seems clear, from remarks he made later, that he had become personally involved in the battle against Mosley’s Blackshirts. In the late summer of 1936 this led him, like nearly 2500 from Britain and Ireland, to volunteer to go to Spain and personally take the fight to Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. As he explained: ‘’I am half black. I grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.’ Charles Hutchison cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40. For Charlie, as for the numerous Jewish volunteers, fascism was a real and personal threat, beyond any theoretical abstraction.
He left Britain in either late November or early December 1936 and was recorded by Special Branch as having ‘left for Spain to serve as machine gunner with Govt. Forces,’ having allegedly stolen money from a church to pay for his passage to Spain. National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7. At this time the British Battalion had not yet been formed, so once in Spain he joined the British and Irish dominated Number One Company of the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th International Brigade.He served in a section of Number One Company commanded by Joseph Kavanagh, a long-time member of the Communist Party from London. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 92. He was with the unit when it was sent to contain a Rebel breakthrough at Lopera, on the Cordóba front in southern Spain. There, outnumbered and at the mercy of the Rebels’ overwhelming air dominance, the British and Irish company was cut to pieces. Charlie Hutchison was wounded and a great number of his comrades – including Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, John Cornford – were killed.
Having recuperated from his wounds, Charlie was informed that he was going to be sent home due to his age, but he refused to leave. Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73. So, rather than being sent to join his compatriots in the British Battalion then fighting on the Jarama front, he was transferred away from the line, assigned to be an ambulance driver with the 5th Republican Army Corps. However, while Charlie seemingly wanted to remain in Spain, his mother (from whom it seems he was no longer estranged) was of a different mind and she wrote in April 1937, citing his young age and pleading that he be sent home. This seem to have rather changed Charles’ feelings about leaving, partly because he was becoming worried about his step-father, who had been hospitalised with serious gastric problems.
Over the next few months, Charlie made a number of appeals to his superiors, garnering much support, but little success. The following June, he wrote a worried note explaining that he hadn’t received a letter from his parents for ten months, leading him to assume that they must be facing dire circumstances. Yet, rather than asking to be permanently repatriated, Hutchinson asked only that he might be granted a temporary leave of absence to deal with his family problems. ‘I have been in Spain since Nov 25th 1936’, he pleaded, ‘When I came to Spain I was 18½ yrs and not on one occasion have I use[d] my age for an excuse.’ Furthermore, Charlie was himself now suffering from health problems, so was becoming increasingly desperate.RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.
Assessments by his superiors make it manifestly clear that the lack of progress was not as a result of any failure on Hutchinson’s part. Jim Ruskin, a Captain in Brigade Transmissions, recounted that both Hutchison’s political views and his work were ‘Good [and] for his age quite developed.’ ibid Likewise, Charlie’s senior officer in the Motorised Company of the 15th Army Corps, Harry Evans, described Hutchinson as ‘a hard and capable worker’. RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.
Finally, in August 1938, an order was given that Hutchison should be repatriated due to his young age and exemplary period of service. On the 27th of that month the Italian Communist, Luigi Longo, one of the most senior and powerful commanders of the International Brigades (known in Spain as ‘Gallo’), wrote to a Comrade Fusimaña, the Commissar of the XV Army Corps, on Hutchinson’s behalf:
Te ruego intervengas para que este Camarada obtenga un permiso de acuerdo con las ultimas disposiciones del Excmo. Senor Presidente del Consejo Ministros, Dr. NEGRIN.RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83.
[I ask you to intervene so that this Comrade obtains a permit in accordance with the last dispositions of the Hon. Mr. President of the Ministers Council, Dr. Negrín.]
Despite this, nothing seems to have happened, for on 2 September 1938, Charlie sent another personal appeal, complaining that ‘I was 18 when I came to Spain and I feel it is just to[o] bad if the I.B. can release a kid of 20 y[ea]rs after nearly two years of good service.’ RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.
His appeal was answered personally by Alonso ‘Lon’ Elliot, a former Cambridge University languages student, who worked under Luigi Longo in the Political Commissars’ headquarters in Madrid and in the Foreign Cadres Commission of the Spanish Communist Party in Barcelona. Elliott assured Charlie that he was taking a personal interest in his case and apologised that it still hadn’t been resolved. ‘For my part’, he wrote, ‘I will see that comrade Gallo is reminded of your case, and can assure you that everything that can be done from the Barcelona end will be done to help you. Best of luck, yours fraternally, AME.’ However, somewhat unhelpfully, he suggested that Charlie should raise the matter once again with his immediate superiors.Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchison, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.
After all these efforts on Hutchinson’s behalf, one might assume that he would have been repatriated with the other British volunteers, following their withdrawal from the front in September. However, when the survivors of the British Battalion crossed the border into France on 6 December 1938, the unfortunate Hutchinson was not among them. Only on 19 December, nearly two weeks later, was he finally released from service and repatriated.On 15 December 1938, Hutchison was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.
That a request to repatriate one British volunteer should thwart the efforts of several senior figures in the International Brigades rather flies in the face of the view that the Brigades were a highly-disciplined, strictly-hierarchical organisation, where commanders, such as Longo, held absolute power and could act with impunity. While that could certainly be the case on occasion, it is important to recognise the corrosive effect the war had on the Republicans’ political and military efficacy. As Paddy O’Daire, one of several Irish commanders of the British Battalion accurately observed, ‘all war’s a muddle.’ Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.
As yet, little evidence can be found of Hutchison’s later life. We do know that Charlie was one of a number of veterans to take part in Clive Branson’s ‘International Brigade Convoy’, a nationwide tour of 20 British veterans which raised over £5000 for the Spanish Republic (equivalent to over £300 000 today). MML SC/IBA/5/3/3 We also know that he was one of the first of the Spanish veterans to volunteer for service in the British Army in the Second World War. He served for a time in Iran, before being transferred to France in 1944, just after D-Day. Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7. And in early 1947, a Charles W. Hutchinson was married to a Patricia L. Holloway and the same individual reappears in the electoral register of 1958, living at 11 Argyll Mansions, Fulham, London. Records suggest that he later moved to Bournemouth, where he died in March 1993, aged 74. Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.
Charlie Hutchison occupies a unique position as the only mixed-race volunteer among the British volunteers in Spain, so it would be fitting if more details could be found about his life. However, there is one small detail that remains to tell: in 1985, while helping M.J. Hynes with his research for an undergraduate dissertation, Charlie Hutchinson (along with 65 other British International Brigaders) completed a questionnaire on his experiences as a volunteer in Spain. Whether the questionnaires themselves survived is unknown, but one snippet remains, allowing Charlie to have the last word on why he believed so many people from around the world joined him in choosing to risk their lives on behalf of the Spanish Republic:
The Brigaders came out of the working class; they came out of the battle of Cable Street, they came out of the struggles on the side turnings … they weren’t Communist, they weren’t Socialists, but they were anti-fascist. Charles Hutchison, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.
Over the last few years, several announcements have mourned the passing of the last of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. First there was David Lomon, then Philip Tammer and most recently Stan Hilton, all of whom were hailed as ‘the last of the last’. In fact, none of them were. As a recent article by Carmelo García in The Times revealed, 99 year old veteran Geoffrey Servante is alive and well, living in a nursing home in the Forest of Dean.
Geoffrey’s Spanish adventure began in the summer of 1937. He was drinking in a Soho pub with his father, when he overheard a man claiming that it was no longer possible to join the International Brigades, as the Spanish border had been closed. ‘I bet I can join’, declared Geoffrey, impulsively. When the man insisted that there was ‘no chance’, Geoffrey refused to believe him, vowing ‘I’ll bet you a hundred quid I can do it’.
Geoffrey was hardly a typical volunteer for the International Brigades. He had been educated by Jesuits and had never joined a political party nor even a Trade Union: ‘I wasn’t politically inclined at all’, he confessed. However, he had served briefly in the Royal Marines and his earlier experience working on the Canadian–Pacific line helped him secure passage on a boat to Spain.
When they docked in Valencia, Geoffrey jumped ship and accosted a local, repeating the only Spanish phrase he knew: ‘¡Internacional Brigadas! ¡Internacional Brigadas!’ Surprisingly, it was enough to land him a rail ticket to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades. Interviewed there by a Political Commissar, Geoffrey admitted that he was only 18 years old, and was consequently refused admission into the British Battalion, which was then being slaughtered on the Brunete battlefield. Instead, he was posted to a much less hazardous unit, an artillery battery then in training in Almansa, some 70km east of Albacete.
The Anglo-American artillery unit, known as the John Brown Battery, was commanded by an Estonian born American called Arthur Timpson, who had been trained in artillery in Moscow. Alongside Geoffrey were four other English volunteers, all under the watchful eye of their Sergeant, David King, a Communist Branch Secretary and former Royal Marine from Skipton in Yorkshire. Initially posted to the Estremadura front in south-west Spain, the battery was transferred to Toledo in December 1937, where it remained for the duration of the war.
With ammunition extremely scarce, the men rarely did much more than take the occasional pot shot at the enemy lines. However, on one of the few occasions when they were called upon, the battery members had just taken the opportunity to polish off a barrel of local brandy. Geoffrey, who was by his own admission utterly ‘sozzled’, did his valiant best to aim the gun, but the shell missed its target by miles. For this, Geoffrey was punished with six extra guard duties; ‘it was a very lax discipline’, he laughed. Only later did he discover that he had inadvertently scored a direct hit on a fascist officer’s car, blowing him, his aide-de-camp and the car to pieces.
When the majority of the International Brigades were withdrawn and repatriated at the end of 1938, the battery members remained in place, seemingly forgotten. Only in early 1939 were they withdrawn to Valencia, then on to Barcelona. From there, a narrow gauge railway took them half-way to the frontier and they then had to walk the remaining 80km, harassed constantly by Nationalist aircraft. Safely across the French border, Geoffrey and his comrades enjoyed a huge breakfast, courtesy of the International Red Cross, before being repatriated via Paris and Dieppe.
Within a year, Geoffrey was back in uniform, having been called up into the British Army. He had a relatively good war, spending three years in Egypt with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After demobilisation, he worked for Marshalls, reconditioning military lorries, joining Vauxhall Motors in 1957, where he remained until he took early retirement twenty years later.
Only in 2009 did Geoffrey discover that the Spanish government had offered citizenship to surviving veterans of the International Brigades:
‘I heard on the radio that there were no more International Brigades left, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. There’s still me.’
When his daughter Honor contacted the Spanish embassy, Geoffrey was invited to London to sign the declaration entitling him to his Spanish passport. He still retains an interest in Spanish affairs; he is a strong supporter of Catalan independence and voted in the 2017 referendum. Geoffrey remains extremely proud to have fought for Spanish democracy and has no regrets. Well, perhaps one. When he returned from Spain and triumphantly called into the pub to collect his winnings, Geoffrey was saddened – and a little disappointed – to discover that his fellow gambler had passed away. So he never did get to see his £100.00.
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal. The event was a Radio 3 Proms extra, presented by Clemency Burton-Hill and produced by Karen Holden.
LINE-UP OF EXTRACTS
You Who Stand at Your Doors – Randolph Swingler (CE)
George Orwell – On what the International Brigades were fighting for (CE)
Why Go to Spain? – Explanation by London volunteer, Jason Gurney (CE)
Dance of Death – W.H. Auden (CE)
The Volunteer – Cecil Day-Lewis (CE)
Excited to arrive in Spain – Nottingham volunteer Walter Gregory (CE)
General Emilio Mola – On the Rebels’ deliberate use of terror (CE)
No Pasarán – Speech by Dolores Ibárruri (YV)
Poem (Heart of the heartless world) – John Cornford to Margot Heinemann (JB)
Farewell to the International Brigades – Passage from Dolores Ibárruri’s famous speech in October 1938 (YV)
George Orwell – On the horror of war (CE)
In addition to being a historian, I am the Chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a charity which keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who volunteered to fight fascism – and those who supported them – during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
The trust, made up of family members, friends, supporters and historians, organises events around the country, including the forthcoming national commemoration on 1 July in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank. We provide assistance to those researching the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War and promote the preservation of archives. Through our magazine, our eNewsletter, website and social media feeds, we keep our members and the wider public informed about developments concerning the memory and legacy of the International Brigades.
And, of course, we ensure that the more than 100 memorials to the volunteers located around the British Isles are maintained in good order. Where we can, we help new ones to be erected, such as this wonderful new monument. But all of this takes time and, more importantly, money. Please support us. If you are not yet a member, join. If you are a member, give generously. It really is money well spent.
For members of the Trust, the enduring significance of the International Brigades’ fight is not open to doubt. The recent, tragic events in Manchester and London are just the latest examples of the intolerance, bigotry and hatred – which we all know as fascism – that the International Brigades were determined to confront. The words of General Emilio Mola, the organiser of the Spanish military coup, could just as easily have come from those attacking democracy and pluralism today: ‘It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.’
It was this kind of murderous ideology that spurred the 35 000 men and women from more than 52 countries from around the world to leave their homes, families and friends and volunteer to join the fight in Spain. The International Brigades fought in all the major battles in the civil war, from the last-ditch defence of Madrid in the autumn and winter of 1936-37, to the final, desperate Republican offensive across the River Ebro, in July 1938. Of 2500 to leave from the British Isles, more than 500 of them never returned.
The shattered remnants of the Brigades were withdrawn from the front in September 1938 and the following month in Barcelona, a huge farewell parade was held in their honour, famous for the speech by La Pasionaria, in which she invited the departing volunteers to return to Spain, ‘when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory’. It would be a long wait.
The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that despite the volunteers’ sacrifice, they – and the Republican Army in which they fought – were unable to defeat Franco and his German and Italian allies in Spain. Just as the volunteers had feared and prophesised, this led the way to six years of world war and the death of 60 million people.
It also led to more than thirty years of dictatorship in Spain. Only with the death of Franco in November 1975 could a democratic Spain emerge, which did not forget the gratitude conveyed by La Pasionaria so many years earlier. Efforts to express this by awarding Spanish nationality to the veterans of the International Brigades took some time to materialise, but in 2009, at a poignant ceremony in London, seven surviving British and Irish veterans were presented with Spanish passports. Anyone fortunate enough to be present that day will never forget the sight of the 94 year old Sam Lesser delivering an emotional thank you speech in fluent Castilian. The Spanish Ambassador to Britain, Carles Casajuana, responded graciously, assuring the handful of elderly survivors that:
Your efforts were not in vain. Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today.
The volunteers were, to some extent, a paradoxical group of men and women: both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. They were right to feel pride and we are right to feel pride in them. I would like to leave you today with the words of the popular London volunteer, Fred Thomas, who expressed his feelings with characteristic eloquence:
There were no medals to be won in Spain. But I believe that no man, not even that band of brothers who fought upon St. Crispin’s Day, nor that later Few of 1940, justly honoured though they may be, was ever prouder of his part than we who were of the International Brigade.
Please note that, as of early 2020, RGASPI have rearranged their website. I have put together a new blogpost that should help you locate the files you’re after.
If you are looking for information on one of the 2500 or so British and Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, it’s well worth considering tackling the RGASPI Archives, held in Moscow. In an amazing piece of good fortune for researchers, all the personnel files (or those that exist, at least) now seem to have been placed online. The majority of the documents are in English, though quite a few are in Spanish and a smaller number in French and German. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the website itself is all in Russian. However, if you know how to use the web, it’s not that difficult to negotiate. (And if you use Google Chrome, you can download the Google translate extension and convert the Cyrillic to English with a click.)
First, go to the home page of the 545/6 series here. You should be presented with something like this:
As you can see from the image, the files are in numerical order, with up to 50 listed on each page. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will notice that you are looking at page number 1 of 33. The first of the British personnel files is on page number 3: file number 100, covering surnames from Aa to Ai (though the numerous lists contained in files 87-99 might also be worth looking at). Clicking the name of a file will take you to a summary, as shown in the screenshot below.
N.B. Top tip: if you intend to look at a number of different files, don’t left click on the file number from the index page. Instead, right click the link and select ‘Open Link in New Tab’ or ‘Open Link in New Window’. That way you keep open your original index page, rather than being returned to the first page each time. I found that this saved me a lot of time and hassle.
From the file summary page, click on the link halfway down the page marked ‘”Cyrillic text” 84’, which will take you to the first of five pages. From there it’s really just a process of browsing through until you find the individual you’re looking for. While some volunteers have extremely large, detailed files, others consist of little more than a mention. In general, the later they arrived in Spain and the longer they were there, the more detail there will be. Not so good if you’re looking for one of the many volunteers killed at Jarama in February 1937, unfortunately.
Copying files is a slow and laborious process I’m afraid as, as far as I can see, it has to be done one image at a time. If you find a better way, do please let me know!
p.s. If you want to explore further, the index page containing links to all six fonds (collections of files) can be found here and archivists in the Tamiment Library in New York have put together an extremely useful guide to all the RGASPI files, which can be found here.
p.p.s. For those looking for other nationalities in the predominantly English-speaking 15 International Brigade: Australian & New Zealander files begin at 545/6/67, Irish at 545/6/439, Canadians at 545/6/534 and Americans at 545/6/845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 545/6/855)