Talk Radio's Home Schooling
On 12 June 2020 during Britain's Coronavirus lockdown, I was asked to contribute to Talk Radio's 'Home-Schooling' segment.
Described as ‘a rich and unflinching oral history’, Unlikely Warriors is a comprehensive account of the Britons who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
The book tells the story of the the ordinary British men and women who were forced to make an extraordinary choice. Drawing upon numerous memoirs, amny of them unpublished and interviews and documents held in archives in Britain, Spain, America and Russia, this book tells the story of the fight against fascism in Britain and Europe from 1932 to 1945.
Published by Aurum Press, a hardback edition is available from all good bookshops at £25.00 or less.
Due to space limitations, the book will be published with an abridged bibliography. There is a full bibliography for Unlikely Warriors here.
My review of Elizabeth Roberts’ new book appeared in the Journal of Contemporary History, October 2012, vol. 47:4, pp. 889-891.
The ‘methodologically challenging’ study by Elizabeth Roberts is a comparative study of the experiences of three groups of ‘soldiers of conscience,’ British men and women who risked, and often lost, their lives fighting in ‘a far-away country,’ during the Greek War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War and the Russo-Finnish War.
The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:
When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.
The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.
The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.
Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.
Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’
Antifascistas is to be translated into Spanish and published by Piedra de Rayo. The new Spanish edition will include a bibliography listing many of the works now available in Spanish on the British volunteers. It is planned to launch the new edition on 15 February 2013 at CAUM in Madrid, to coincide with the Jarama march weekend.
Proving to be a popular read, the book was co-written by Richard Baxell with Angela Jackson and Jim Jump, based on the IBMT’s successful exhibition of the same name. The English edition is still available from the IBMT at a very reasonable £10.00.
‘Clearly a labour of love, this book is packed with information, photographs, posters and artefacts, and details of the battles they fought. It’s a must, even if you’ve already read Preston et. al.’
‘Not much to say when something is so perfectly realised. Does what it says on the cover and then some. Not for the faint at heart (especially the photo on page 36) but a stunning memorial to a period in European history that should not, cannot be forgotten.’
On 7 July 2012, the IBMT held their annual commemoration to the British and Irish volunteers volunteers at the national monument in Jubilee Gardens, London. Many who attended thought it to be one of the best ever annaul meeting. The presentation by Almudena Cross of a Spanish Republican flag to the British veteran of the International Brigades, David Lomon, was very well received, as did the appearances by performance poet Francesca Beard and the musical acts Na-Mara, Ewan McLennan and Paco Marín.
The above video of the event was put together by Marshall Mateer for the IBMT
On 14 May 2012, Richard joined local historian Danny Payne and Clarion cyclist and IBMT treasurer, Charles Jepson, in Liverpool to talk to the ASLEF annual conference. Danny and Charles talked about the role and legacy of British trade-unionists in the Spanish Civil War, before Richard drew on his forthcoming book, Unlikely Warriors, to deliver a lecture on the reasons behind the Manchester volunteers’ motivations and experiences in Spain during the spring of 1937.
Many thanks to General Secretary Mick Whelan and organiser Colin Smith for a great event, and to all who attended for their kind words and generous donation to the IBMT.
On Saturday 28 April, Richard joined Professor Paul Preston and Professor Helen Graham for Guernica 75. Organised by Mercedes Camino of Lancaster University, the event was a discussion of the International Brigades, Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.
Speaking to a full house, Richard drew upon his forthcoming book, Unlikely Warriors, to talk about Manchester volunteers and their roads to Spain while Paul and Helen followed with lectures using material from their critically acclaimed new books, The Spanish Holocaust and The War and Its Shadow.
The Battle of Jarama in February 1937, the first action of the British Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, provided a brutal wake-up call for both the volunteers themselves and the British Communist Party, which had recruited them. During three days of bitter and sustained fighting, the six hundred poorly-trained, ill-equipped ‘city-bred young men’ were attacked by an overwhelming force, comprising the cream of Franco’s professional army, backed up by German armour. That the British Battalion managed to hold the line – just – was a feat of both stubborn defiance and astonishing bravery. But the cost was substantial. After the three days of fighting of 12-14 February, less than half the Battalion remained; Suicide Hill was not named in vain. As the Scottish Political Commissar, Peter Kerrigan, later stated, ‘this battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’
Ben Hughes new study places the battle of Jarama at the centre of the story of the British and Irish in Spain. Drawing on the numerous memoirs, both published and held in archives around the world, They Shall Not Pass! successfully weaves the volunteers’ accounts together, contextualising them within a clear narrative. This is a satisfyingly well-written account which tells the, often horrifying, story with both verve and understanding.
Divided into three parts, the book’s scope actually extends beyond Jarama, though the main focus of the book is, of course, the battle itself. Part one begins with a chapter to set the scene, before two chapters briefly sketch out the volunteers’ journeys to Spain and the hurried and limited attempts to transform the volunteers’ political will into military skill. Hughes then returns to the Jarama Valley, concluding his first section at lunchtime on 12 February 1937, with the battalion under attack, but dug in, still determined that that the fascists will not pass.
In the second and crucial section of the book, Hughes reveals how the naïve optimism of the novice volunteer soldiers was violently shattered by the terrifying onslaught of Franco’s elite troops of the Army of Africa. Ten graphic chapters provide ‘a micro history’ of the battle, almost forensic in the attention to detail. Hughes has clearly spent considerable time on his primary research here and the work certainly pays off. The events are recounted from, in Hughes words, ‘a worm’s eye point of view,’ which provides the reader with an understanding of how shocking the experiences of the Jarama battle – and the war in Spain for that matter – really were for the volunteers.
The third and final part of the book provides an account of the experiences of the British and Irish volunteers from the battle of Brunete of July 1937, through to their return to Britain at the end of 1938. Unfortunately, this section is somewhat of a disappointment, perhaps because the previous sections have set such a high standard. Increasingly reliant on secondary sources, it offers nothing like the level of detail of the earlier chapters and is correspondingly less original and informative.
Interest picks up again in the epilogue, which brings the account up to the present day, revealing what happened to the veterans of Jarama during the Second World War and thereafter. For example, the later lives of the three commanders of the battalion at Jarama, Tom Wintringham, Jock Cunningham and Fred Copeman, certainly make interesting reading.
The book also benefits from two useful appendices, including directions to help locate the actual site of the February battle, which I’m sure a number of IBMT members will find beneficial. There is a thorough index and copious footnotes, both of which should prove valuable for students and researchers. All the maps are very clear and other good touches are the brief biographies of the dramatis personae and the numerous photographs, including a number of colour pictures of Jarama features such as the sunken road and ‘the knoll’ in the present day.
There are, of course, a few areas where the reader may disagree with Hughes’ approach or conclusions – I think that he overestimates the casualty rates at Jarama, for example – and there are a number of oversights and little errors, inevitable in a book of this scope and probably only apparent or of interest to the specialist. Most, though, do not detract from what, I think, is one of the best recent additions to the collection of studies on the brave group of British and Irish volunteers, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
In June 2011, the National Archives’ release of a list of 4000 names of those the British Security Services belived to be on their way to fight in Spain, created a bit of a stir. Tom Buchanan wrote a piece for The Guardian and I was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news.
It was a good story. However, the over-zealous spooks included reporters, war-tourists, visitors and holiday makers on the list, so historians agree that there’s no reason to discount the previous estimates just yet.
On 4 March 2011, Richard joined Paul Preston, Victoria Hislop and others at a fundraising event for Karl Lewkowicz and Judith Johnson’s Goodbye Barcelona, a musical set in the Spanish Civil War.
In 1936, as fascism sweeps across Europe, one country reaches out in its hour of need… and tens of thousands of ordinary people make an extraordinary decision to help. More than 42,000 travel to Spain from all over the world, risking their lives for the freedom of others.
GOODBYE BARCELONA marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and is inspired by first hand accounts of International Brigaders.
‘A triumphant work of tender love, not to be missed’ Morning Star