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.
Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.
In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader
James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.
James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.
Overlooking the beautiful Swedish capital Stockholm sits a four metre high sculpture of an open hand, raised beseechingly to the sky. Entitled La Mano, this is the city’s memorial to the volunteers from Sweden who volunteered to fight for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. As a historian who writes about the involvement of foreign volunteers in Spain (and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust), I make an effort to visit the civil war memorials found in many of the cities around the world and I recently paid the Stockholm memorial a visit.
As I stopped to photograph the statue, a young couple with a small child approached. Politely checking to make sure they weren’t getting in my way, they paused to pay their respects and placed a small token next to the flowers, condolence cards and Spanish Republican colours lying at the foot of the statue. Intrigued, I asked them about their connection to a war, so far both temporally and spatially from Sweden in 2015. I thought, perhaps, they might be relatives of one of the Swedes commemorated by the statute. No, they explained in typically faultless English, they were there to remember a friend who had died only recently and not in Spain.
Their friend, I discovered, was Abdirahim Hassan, who was born in Somalia, but grew up in the Swedish capital. In his early twenties, he joined Vänsterpartiet (the Young Left) and became involved in demonstrations and protests in the suburb of Husby, which lies to the north-west of the city and has the lowest income per capita of any district of Stockholm. Abdirahim remained in contact with his birth country of Somalia, to which he seemingly felt a personal commitment.
In the summer of 2013 Abdirahim and other members of Vänsterpartiet travelled to Mogadishu in a mission to express their solidarity with the suffering populace of Somalia. While driving through Mogadishu, their car was attacked, probably by kidnappers from Al Shabaab. During a violent struggle, Abdirahim Hassan was shot trying to protect Stockholm’s opposition deputy mayor, Ann-Margarethe Livh. She was badly wounded in the chest but, thanks to Abdirahim’s bravery and sacrifice, she survived.
For the young Swedish couple I encountered in Stockholm, La Mano has become a personal memorial to their young friend. They believe that Abdirahim’s motives for joining Vänsterpartiet and travelling to Somalia were the same as those that, nearly eighty years earlier, had inspired men and women from Sweden – and around the world – to leave their homes and families and fight to save the Spanish Republic. The volunteers were from different times and different continents perhaps, but the actions of Abdirahim and the International Brigaders were nevertheless an expression of one and the same thing. They called it solidarity.
I have been attending the IBMT‘s annual in commemoration in London for over ten years now and, in my opinion, this year’s event was the best yet. Fears that the death of the last UK veteran would lead to an inevitable decline in the charities fortune have certainly proved to be ill-founded. Attendance this year was higher than ever.
Clearly the weather played a part and there’s no denying that Owen Jones is a big draw. And not to forget a plug from the consistently supportive Robert Elms. But there was more to it than that. This year’s line-up was not just strong, it was well-balanced: a few, well-delivered speeches, some atmospheric music and the recital of an extremely moving poem.
Speaking and performing at this year’s event in Jubilee Gardens were:
And performing afterwards in the Camel and Artichoke were:
It was great to see so many familiar faces; it was also great to see so many new faces. Congratulations to all involved. Roll on 2016!
On 4th June I joined Edward Ayers and Colin Carritt at St. Giles’ College to talk about the involvement of men and women from Oxfordshire in the Spanish Civil War. The event was held as part of a campaign to erect a new memorial in Bonn Square, a prestigious site in the city centre.
As Colin and Edward explained, they both had relatives who volunteered for Spain. Colin’s father, Noel Carritt fought and was wounded at the battle of Jarama in February 1937, before joining the medical services at Huete hospital. His uncle, Tony, served as an ambulance driver. He was badly injured during the Brunete offensive of July 1937 and later died of his wounds in hospital.
Ed’s great uncle, George Leeson, fought alongside Noel Carritt at Jarama and was taken prisoner on 13 February 1937. He spend three months in a Francoist prisoner-of-war camp, before being released and repatriated back to Britain.
In the Q&A following the talks the audience, primarily undergraduates, demonstrated a wide knowledge not just of the civil war, but of the situation in contemporary Spain. Speaking personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did the event itself.
There is a review of the symposium by Connal Parr on the IBMT’s blog.
On Saturday 14 February 2015, I travelled down to England’s south coast to talk about two British artists who fought in the Spanish Civil War: Felicia Browne and Clive Branson. Both artists were featured in a wonderful exhibition, ‘Conscience and Conflict’, at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery.
As reviews in newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Guardian make abundantly clear, this is a very special exhibition. Intelligently and knowledgeably curated, it features an array of stunning artistic work, set alongside posters, artefacts and contemporary film, to give a powerful sense of the depth and power of the British artistic movement in support of the Spanish Republic.
For those unfortunate enough to have missed the exhibition at Chichester (it closed the day after my talk), it will be appearing at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, from 7 March to 7 June, 2015.
In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades was, at last, able to come under detailed scrutiny from researchers.
Since the opening of the archives, a number of books have used the material in studies of the national groups within the International Brigades. The process began with Peter Carroll’s ground-breaking study of the American volunteers, published in 1998. As the material was only opened up to overseas scholars immediately prior to publication, the author did not have time to research extensively in the archives. However, he did manage to look at a number of documents and his book remains the set text on the Americans.
The following list – arranged alphabetically by country – is of the most recent studies of the various national groups within the International Brigades.
Argentina: Lucas González et al. Voluntarios de Argentina en la Guerra Civil Española. 2008.
America: Peter Carroll. Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. 1998. (Adam Hochschild’s excellent Spain in our Hearts is more recent, but is not specifically about the Lincolns)
Australia: Amira Inglis: Australians in the Spanish Civil War. 1987.
Canada: Michael Petrou. Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. 2008.
China: Hwei-Ru Tsou and Len Tsou. Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España 1936-1939. 2013.
Cyprus: Paul Philippou Strongos. Spanish Thermopylæ: Cypriot Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
France: Rémy Skoutelsky. L’espoir guidait leurs pas. Les volontaires français en Espagne républicaine. Les volontaires français dans les Brigades internationales, 1936-1939. 2000.
Germany: Josie McLellan. Antifascism and Memory in East Germany. 2004.
Great Britain: Richard Baxell. Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle against Fascism. 2012.
Ireland: Robert Stradling. Crusades in Conflict: The Irish and The Spanish Civil War. 1999.
New Zealand: Mark Derby ed. Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War. 2009.
Scotland: Fraser Raeburn. Scots and the Spanish Civil War. 2020.
Wales: Graham Davies. You Are Legend: the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 2018.
When Paul Preston was promoting Spanish Holocaust, his exhaustive account of the appalling atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (and after), he pointedly stressed his debt to historians involved in local research. While he was referring to work conducted within Spain, the remark is true also of the UK, where detailed regional studies of areas such as Reading, Manchester and Tyneside have played an important part in helping piece together a wider picture of Britain’s role in the conflict. This latest addition to the literature, No Other Way (the title, of course, taken from C. Day Lewis’s famous 1938 poem, ‘The Volunteer’), unearths Oxford’s role, examining the efforts of both ‘town and gown’ in support of the Spanish Republic, efforts that apparently united the two different worlds in a manner never seen before, or since.
This new study of Oxfordshire is to be welcomed, not least the account of the role of the university itself. Sam Lesser, veteran of the International Brigades and former IBMT Chair, once confessed to me his concern that an understandable tendency to debunk what Bill Alexander once described as the ‘vague notion that everyone in the brigades was a poet or writer’ could lead to the role of artists, writers and other intellectuals being downplayed, or even overlooked. I suspect that this book (together with other recent publications and exhibitions) would have gone some way towards assuaging his worries.
No Other Way begins with a prologue by Oxford Professor Tom Buchanan and an introduction by Chris Farman, which helpfully sets out the wider context. This leads onto what, for me, was the most interesting and central part of the book, Valery Rose and Liz Wooley’s account of the personal involvement of the people of the university and its town. In addition to the Oxfordshire men and women who volunteered to go to Spain, the book shows how residents were actively involved in campaigns on behalf of the Spanish Republic and in the creation and support for local colonies of Basque children. The authors illustrate the influence of European political refugees in the university and the key role played by the semi-autonomous Ruskin College, site of this years’ IBMT AGM. And though the section rightly concentrates on the support for the Spanish Republic, the authors do not shy away from unpalatable truths, pointing out that, just as elsewhere, there were a number in Oxford praying for a Franco victory.
The second major section of the book is a collection of biographies of the 31 Oxford volunteers. This is a considerable achievement, managing to pull together material from myriad sources. Like the previous sections, and the subsequent methodological discussion by Jenny Swanson, it amply demonstrates the attention to detail and academic expertise of the authors. Which leads to my one minor quibble: why no footnotes? A strange omission, in the circumstances. That criticism aside, I found No Other Way to be clearly and engagingly written and it showcases what can be achieved with careful and thorough research. The book provides a useful template for other local studies; the hosts of the 2015 AGM in Aberdeen have a tough act to follow.
This review appeared in the January 2015 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
The letters are from a number of American volunteers, though most were written by Carl Geiser, a young Jewish volunteer from Ohio who became a political commissar during his time in Spain. As the letters demonstrate very clearly, Geiser was a volunteer who never lost his belief in the cause.
Recent reports of British nationals leaving these shores for a foreign civil conflict carry echoes of the past. Richard Baxell (Unlikely Warriors) and Peter Day (Franco’s Friends) discuss what drove Britons to join the war in Spain – both those who fought against Franco and the members of the establishment who secretly supported him.
The discussion, entitled ‘The Spanish Civil War: Divided Britain’, was held on Wednesday 8 Oct in Cheltenham Town Hall. A number of interesting questions arose from members of a large audience which had collected, despite wind and driving rain. I’m very grateful to all who braved the weather to attend. Here are a number of the questions, together with brief summaries of our responses:
What was the attitude in Britain to the volunteers?
While there was much popular support for the volunteers, particularly those in the International Brigades, official responses tended to range from disapproval to outright hostility. It’s perhaps not surprising that parts of the British government (particularly the Foreign Office and the Admiralty) were opposed, however even the leaders of the British Labour movement and Trade Unions initially supported the policy of non-intervention in the war.
Which countries did the volunteers come from?
The 35 000 or so volunteers came from as many as 53 countries around the world. The largest groups came from France and Italy, but volunteers came from as far away as India, South America and New Zealand.
What was Stalin’s role in the civil war?
In contrast to some commentators, who argue that Stalin’s involvement in the infamous suppression of the POUM was a major cause of the Republic’s downfall, I would argue that the huge amount of military materiel – including the International Brigades- supplied by the Soviet Union was the main reason the Republic was able to survive as long as it did. Of course, it must be remembered that Stalin supported the Spanish Republic for his own reasons, certainly non out of ‘international solidarity.’
Are there any similarities between the wars in Spain then and Syria and Iraq today?
As far as I am concerned, there is none between the volunteers for the International Brigades who volunteered to fight in Spain and the fundamentalist Islamic Jihadists now waging war in Syria and Iraq. It’s true that the hostile response of the British Government to the volunteers – especially those who want to return to the UK – is an interesting parallel, but I don’t think it should be overplayed.
And, finally, the shortest question I’ve ever been asked … ‘Anarchism?’
Upon further interrogation, it conspired that the questioner was interested in the internecine struggles among the left during the civil war. Anarchist anti-centralist beliefs meant that they and the Republicans were always likely to be uneasy bedfellows. The political amnesty before the elections of February 1936 and the military coup of July essentially forced them into each others arms. While I feel that the argument expounded by, amongst others, the Communists, that the revolution would have to wait until the war was won, made obvious sense (as, in fact did Orwell), it is certainly the case that it was used as a smokescreen to justify the brutal crushing of the Anarchists and the POUM.