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.
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.
Since the charity’s inception in 2001, the International Brigade Memorial Trust has organised an annual lecture in memory of Dr. Len Crome, a Blackburn GP who went to serve as a medic in Republican Spain in December 1936, and whose inspirational leadership led him to become Chief of Medical Services for the 35th Division of the Spanish Army during the civil war of 1936-1939.
The Len Crome memorial lectures have featured renowned scholars from around the world including, among many others, Peter Carroll, Helen Graham, Paul Preston and Angel Viñas. In 2010, the first nine lectures were released in a volume, edited by Jim Jump, and published by Lawrence and Wishart: Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. Two years ago, with London’s Imperial War Museum closed for renovation, the event moved to Manchester and took on a new format, with four speakers and a discussion, rather than one keynote speaker. Chaired by Professor Mary Vincent of the University of Sheffield, the first conference in 2013 looked at George Orwell and Spain, with last year’s examining the Spanish Civil War’s cultural and artistic legacy. This year, with Paul Preston back in the chair, the conference was centred on perhaps the most famous artwork of the twentieth Century, inspired by the Nationalists’ horrific destruction of a small Basque market town on 26 April 1937.
Over the course of the day, there were four lectures on the bombing of Guernica (Gernika) and its consequences. In the opening talk, the author of Telegram from Guernica and former BBC producer Nick Rankin, outlined the key role of Times journalist George Steer in bringing news of the destruction of the Basque town to Britain. Steer’s account of the bombing remains one of the most powerful and important pieces of reporting in English to have come out of the war. But, as Rankin explained, Steer went beyond the usual dispassionate role of a journalist, by wiring his report direct to the Labour M.P. Philip Noel Baker. This meant that news of the horrific destruction of Guernica could be raised in the House of Commons before it had even appeared on Britain’s streets. Steer, a determined supporter of the Basques during the civil war, was later honoured with a plaque in Bilbao and a statue in Guernica itself.
Gijs van Hensbergen, art historian and best-selling author, is a world expert on Gaudi and Picasso’s Guernica. His deconstruction of Picasso’s painting and his account of the artist’s life were fascinating and I suspect many of the audience will have been spurred to go on and read his book, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon. Gijs outlined how the iconic painting became a powerful weapon in the propaganda battle against Fascism.
Basque historian Xabier Irujo brought the event back to the actual bombing itself. In a forensic examination of the events of 26 April 1937, he demonstrated how the Germans – and Italians – systematically destroyed the town with high explosive and incendiary bombs, while planes circled around it machine-gunning any poor victims who attempted to escape. As he showed, the destruction and high number of casualties was no accident; a foretaste of the Nazi’s deliberately murderous approach to war.
The final talk was by Manual Moreno, who introduced a personal account of the consequences of the bombing. The son of one of the 4000 Basque children who were evacuated to Britain in June 1937, Manuel outlined the efforts made by the people of Britain on behalf of the Basque refugees and the Spanish Republic itself. Nearly eighty years have passed since the war, yet it was clear from Manuel’s emotional speech, that while he remains grateful to the British people for their efforts in support of the Spanish Republic, he continues to feel incensed with the British Government for their refusal to do likewise.
A video of the event will be released by the IBMT in the coming weeks.
For the second year running, the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s Len Crome memorial Lecture was held in the Manchester Conference Centre. While last year’s event was an examination of the role of George Orwell in the war and its historiography, this year focused on the involvement of artists and writers in the Spanish Civil War. As before, there were four speakers, expertly chaired by Professor Mary Vincent from the University of Sheffield. Sadly, there was one other echo from the previous year: Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics was unable to attend due to illness. Professor Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English language and literature fellow of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, very generously agreed to take his place.
The event began with Royal Holloway’s Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom discussing Republican arts initiatives between 1931 and 1939. Arguing that they were an essential part of the Republic’s humanitarian and democratic programme of reforms, he presented an astonishing statistic from 1937: that the Republican Ministry of Fine Arts had a larger budget than the Ministry of War. Even when qualified by the observation that the Republic had deposited their gold reserves in Moscow, it is pretty amazing. ‘No wonder they lost’, commented one wag.
Carl’s forensic presentation was followed by an illustrated lecture by Dr Carmen Herrero, Principal Lecturer on Spanish Culture and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University, outlining recent portrayals of the International Brigades in cinema. One of her examples was Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela! – as Carmen pointed out, it’s a great shame that is so hard to get hold of, for it’s a terrific film. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom was also raised – perhaps bravely- though it’s always interesting to hear how the much-admired director works. Whatever you think of the film, Ken Loach’s enthusiasm for allowing actors to ad-lib made the (long and convoluted) discussion over the issues of collectivisation in a small Spanish village extremely lifelike and convincing.
During the lunch-break, the organisers kindly allowed me time to launch the paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, due to be officially released on 1 April, 75 years to the day since the end of the Spanish Civil War. My thanks to all involved in the Manchester event for this.
The afternoon session opened with the writer and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska’s overview of the Gerda Taro’s contribution to the canon of photography of the civil war – both by taking photographs herself and by enabling her lover Robert Capa to do so. She explained how the identity of Robert Capa was a deliberate construction, a means by which the Hungarian Jewish migrant Andre Friedmann could overcome his background. Gerda Taro also changed her name (she was born Gerta Pohorylle), and the intelligent and multilingual Taro initially began by acting as Friedmann’s business manager. However, as the war progressed, and she moved from using a square-format Rolleiflex, to the 35mm Leica, her photographs became every bit as good as – and often indistinguishable from – those of Robert Capa.
The afternoon finished with a lecture on the ‘aestheticising of tragedy’ by Valentine Cunningham. Initially a bewildering barrage of names of the (mainly) English poets and artists who (mainly) supported the Spanish Republic, he moved on to a soaring and erudite discussion of the, perhaps understandably, elegiac nature of much of the writing. There was so much in the lecture to discuss, that I felt it would have been churlish to point out that there were in fact 35 000, not 60 000, volunteers for the International Brigades and though the English writer and poet Laurie Lee was undoubtedly one of them, to cite his A Moment of War as a reliable account is unwise, to put it mildly.
My thanks go out to the IBMT in general and the Manchester organisers in particular. The event was, I think, a great success.
In July 1938 the Spanish Republican Army confounded many around the world – not least those in Franco’s Spain – who considered it a spent force, by launching a huge and ambitious attack back across the River Ebro. Fighting alongside the Spanish soldiers of the 80 000 strong Republican Army of the Ebro were a number of English-speaking volunteers, within the 15 International Brigade. Drawn mainly from Britain, the USA and Canada, the brigade also included volunteers from Ireland, Australia and from a number of other countries around the world.
Fighting in the full, glaring heat of the Spanish summer, lacking food and water and severely outgunned and outnumbered, the members of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade fought in a number of vicious battles between July and September 1938. On Hill 481 near Gandesa, on Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols and Hill 356 in the Sierra Caballs, the British were bombed, shelled and attacked remorselessly by Franco’s forces and his German and Italian allies. On 23 September 1938 on the battalion’s final action on the road just north of the village of Corbera d’Ebre, the last remaining members of the battalion were virtually overrun.
At 1 a.m. the following morning the order finally arrived withdrawing the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan later described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.”
In September 2013 a group of friends and families of the International Brigades returned to Catalonia to remember the sacrifices made all those years ago. The trip was organised by Duncan Longstaff, a trustee of the International Brigades Memorial Trust assisted by Almudena Cros, Severiano Montero and Vicente González of AABI, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades. While IBMT members from the UK made up the majority of the group, there were also participants from Ireland, the United States, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Besides visiting battle sites of particular significance to the English-speaking 15 International Brigade, the trip to Catalonia also included the unveiling of two memorials to the volunteers and the laying of flowers and a wreath at the site of the British Battalion’s final action in Spain.
The first memorial to be unveiled was a new plaque dedicated to the British members of the medical services who worked in the former cave hospital in La Bisbal de Falset during the summer of 1938. Here, British members of the Republican medical services struggled in almost impossible conditions to treat those wounded in the bitter fighting. During the Ebro offensive everything had to be carried across pontoon bridges by lorry, or ferried across in boats during the night, so the facilities were necessarily limited. Serious casualties had to be taken back across the river to the improvised cave hospital set up by Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the medical services for the Republican 35 Division, in Falset. British doctors and nurses, such as Len Saxton and Patience Darton, worked around the clock, with the desperate shortages of materials forcing them to improvise and develop innovative treatments. Allied soldiers fighting in the Second World War would benefit greatly from lessons learned in Spain in areas such as casualty management, blood transfusions and the treatment of fractures.
The second unveiling was of a new memorial dedicated to those killed in the final last action of the British Battalion in Spain. The plaque is situated in the old village of Corbera d’Ebre, which remains virtually in the condition it was at the end of the civil war. In amongst the ruins lies the village’s former church, now converted into a dramatic space for gatherings, exhibitions and commemorations. At the time of the ceremony held on 24 September 2013, the former church was hosting a strikingly poignant art installation comprised of suspended roof tiles, caught as if at the moment of an explosion. Behind the artwork, further within the building, lay the IBMT Antifascistas exhibition, shown for the first time in Spain. The exhibition will remain in the church until November 2013.
After a ceremony held within the church came the final event of the day and, for many, of the trip itself, with the laying of flowers and wreath at the position of the battalion’s final stand, some 4 kilometres north of Corbera.
There are more photographs of the 2013 visit to the Ebro here. There is also a great slideshow of Jim Jump’s photographs of the event in Corbera on Andrew Wiard’s website. More information about the Corbera monument itself and the dedication ceremony can be found on the IBMT’s blog.
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are © Richard Baxell 2013.
Over the last ten years, the hugely successful annual Len Crome lecture series has seen a number of academics from Britain, Spain and America deliver keynote lectures on their particular areas of expertise, at the Imperial War Museum in London. A collection of the first ten lectures was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 2010 as Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. However, the closure of the Imperial Museum in 2013 for refurbishment forced a re-think.
The decision was helped by this year being a major George Orwell anniversary, marked by a number of programmes on BBC radio 4, including a radio dramatisation of Orwell’s famous account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. Consequently, it was decided to bring together a number of historians to discuss Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and, in particular, the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937.
The event was held in the Manchester Conference Centre, on 2 March 2013. Chaired expertly by Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern Europen History at the University of Sheffield, the four speakers and their papers were:
Richard Baxell: George Orwell and the British Battalion
Paul Preston*: George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Tom Buchanan: Homage to Catalonia; its reception and impact
Chris Hall: Not Just Orwell; the Independent Labour Party Volunteers
*Sadly Paul Preston was unwell, but he very kindly allowed his paper to be read out by a proxy (IBMT Secretary, Jim Jump).
For those who missed what was a very successful and popular event, the four lectures will be placed online and a short video of some of the highlights will be available on Youtube. In the meantime, Marshall Mateer has put some material on the IBMT’s Flickr site and Lydia Syson, author of A World Between Us, has written an account of the day on her blog.