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.
Having read quite a lot about the Spanish Civil War over the years, I tend to approach novels set during the turbulent period of 1930s Spain with a fair degree of trepidation. While fiction is not constrained by the rules of historical non-fiction, it still grates when authors make lazy, factual errors. Fortunately, Jessie Burton has obviously researched thoroughly; not many novels would include Henry Buckley’s wonderful memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, in the bibliography.
The Muse opens in 1960s London, where we meet the young, Caribbean immigrant Odelle Bastien. Fed up with her tedious job in a London shoe store, she manages to land herself a job in an obscure London art gallery, along with a posh boyfriend who seems to have little to show for himself, apart from ownership of a mysterious, strikingly beautiful painting.
The book then shifts to Spain in early 1936 and the affluent, British ex-pat family of frustrated teenager Olive Schloss. She’s been offered a place to study art at Slade in London, but her bipolar mother and out-of-touch father take neither Olive, nor her painting seriously. We also meet Isaac and Teresa, siblings from the nearby Andalusian village who, through their desperation for work, open our eyes to the appalling inequalities and class-hatreds of pre-civil war Spain.
As the book progresses and the narrative switches backwards and forwards with increasing rapidity, we begin to understand that the two stories are indelibly linked. Burton manages to inject a real sense of foreboding, which builds steadily as the plot develops and the pace quickens. It’s an extremely well-crafted novel, with strong, three-dimensional characters and a convincing portrayal of the two very different worlds in which they reside. It’s also very knowing, touching on themes such as racism in 1960s London and the long-standing lack of recognition of female artists.
The Muse is a powerful follow-up to the author’s debut, The Miniaturist, which sold over a million copies and was made into a BBC TV series. If you’re on the lookout for an intelligent, literary pager-turner, this might well be it.
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.
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.
Set in the heart of London’s commercial art gallery district, Mayoral’s ‘Art Revolutionaries’ is a homage to the Spanish Republic’s Pavilion in the famous Paris Exposition of 1937. The Spanish contribution deliberately and consciously expressed both the modernity of the Republic and the life and death struggle in which it was embroiled. The centrepiece, of course, was Picasso’s powerful depiction of the bombing of Guernica, prominently displayed at one end of a spacious, open auditorium.
This lovingly-curated exhibition goes to great lengths to recreate the impression of the original pavilion. On the first floor works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder and Julio González, many sourced from private collections, sit within a scale model of the original auditorium. Downstairs, interposed among detailed replicas of the original furniture, vivid Republican posters accompany a short film of the original 1937 exhibition, while helpful panels and displays of rich archival material recount the political and artistic context.
The exhibition has already been shown in Paris and Barcelona and when its time in London ends on 10 February 2017, there are no plans for it to go elsewhere. That, I think, is a shame. This (Mayoral’s wonderful catalogue aside) is the nearest most of us will get to experiencing the original Paris exposition. Based solely on what is on display here, it must surely have been a sight worth seeing.
This post first appeared in the March issue of The Volunteer.
Another year; another highly successful International Brigade Memorial Trust commemoration at London’s Jubilee Gardens.
Initially, as people arrived, the atmosphere seemed a little muted, with people’s minds – and many of the conversations – seemingly dominated by the tumultuous political events of the previous week. Several of the speakers would later allude to the referendum on membership of the European Union and what, for many of those present, was a feeling of lingering sadness. The overhead presence of a police helicopter monitoring the latest demonstration in support of Britain’s continued membership of the E.U. acted as a constant reminder.
However, the ceremony itself was a good tonic. This year saw perhaps the most balanced combination of speakers and performers. Compered, as usual, by IBMT Secretary Jim Jump, the afternoon’s events opened with two uplifting songs from long-standing favourites, folk duo Na Mara.
Almudena Cros, President of AABI (the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades) followed, delivering a typically passionate and heartfelt speech, referring to the internationalism of the volunteers in the 1930s and beseeching the current residents of the UK to echo their internationalism and not withdraw from Europe.
After the singing of ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama‘, the laying of wreaths in front of the memorial and a dignified minute’s silence, it was the turn of Spanish rapper Perro Lobo. I confess to wondering how a performer rapping in Spanish might go down with the (not exactly teenage) IBMT crowd, but I needn’t have worried. His performance was more poetry than rap; the powerful lyrics were delivered with anger, but there was real eloquence there too.
More music followed from Neil Gore, who is presently involved in putting on a performance about Clem Beckett, the motorcycle speedway star of the ’30s who was killed on the first day of the battle of Jarama in February 1937. I particularly enjoyed Neil’s accompanied version of Si mi queires escribir.
The penultimate speaker was Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics, author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War and Twentieth Century Spanish history [see video above]. He explained why the Spanish Civil War and its memory continue to matter. Paul concluded with a poignant excerpt from a virtually unknown American novelist, Josephine Herbst, on her – and many others’ – inability to adjust to life following the end of the Spanish tragedy.
The last of the speakers was the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaffe, IBMT patron and former General Secretary of UNISON and President of the National Pensioners’ Convention. In his characteristically drole and entertaining manner, Rodney launched a call to arms, or rather a call to join. As he pointed out, supporting the IBMT’s valuable work – erecting memorials, holding commemorations, helping to educate people about the sacrifice of the volunteers for the Spanish Republic – only works out at a few pence per day. Money well spent!
The final act was a reading of two poems by another IBMT patron, the actress Maxine Peake. The first was ‘The Dead Have No Regrets’ by Aileen Palmer, an Australian nurse who volunteered for Spain. The second is familiar to most IBMT members: Cecil Day Lewis’s, ‘The Volunteer’. It’s an emotional piece, as the catch in Maxine’s voice during her reading showed. As a professional she may have been disappointed at becoming overwhelmed, but I don’t think she should be. Sometimes it’s good to see what lies beneath the greasepaint.
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 28 October 1938, the emotional departure from Spain of the foreign volunteers was marked by a huge farewell parade in Barcelona. The remnants of the International Brigades, a few thousand in all, led by military bands, set off nine abreast from the bull ring at the end of Diagonal, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The 15th International Brigade, the last to be established, brought up the rear.
At the end of the parade, a huge rally was held at which important Republican figures, including President Manuel Azaña and Prime Minister Juan Negrín, expressed their thanks to the Internationals. The volunteers’ sacrifices had earned the eternal gratitude of the Spanish Republicans, eloquently expressed by Dolores Ibárruri (the legendary orator from Asturias, known as La Pasionaria) at a huge farewell parade held in Barcelona on 28 October 1938. ‘We shall not forget you,’ she had assured them, promising that, one day, they would be welcomed back to a free, democratic Spain:
“Those of you who have no country will find one, those of you deprived of friendship will find friends and all of you will find the love, affection and gratitude of the whole of the Spanish People.”
A month and a half later, on 7 December 1938, the surviving members of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade arrived back on British soil, having endured a very rough crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven. They hardly received a heroes’ welcome; instead they were met with an interrogation by customs and Foreign Office officials, as representatives of the British security services looked on. Put on a train to London, the exhausted soldiers, many of them heavily bandaged and a number on crutches, disembarked to find a very different welcome at Victoria Station. A vast crowd of family members, friends and supporters had assembled to welcome them home. Among the waving Union Jacks were flags bearing the names of British trade unions and left-wing political organisations. Others bore one simple phrase: ‘¡No pasarán!’
To commemorate this homecoming, ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, Philosophy Football, in association with the IBMT and Thompsons Solicitors, organised a gala evening at the Rich Mix arts centre in London on 7 December 2013.
The evening began with Maxine Peake’s passionate rendition of La Pasionaria’s farewell speech to the International Brigades, followed by performances by poet Francesca Beard and singer Maddy Carty, both of whom had been commissioned to produce work specifically for this event.
I followed a typically ardent delivery from Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the RMT. Not an easy task. Fortunately, I was able to begin by showing film of the British volunteers returing from Spain in 1938, which the BFI had generously digitised especially for the event (a low resolution version of the film can be found online). The film is without a soundtrack, but on IBMT Secretary Jim Jump’s suggestion, the Philosophy Football team added an entirely appropriate score: the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’, which was composed in honour of the volunteers who died in Spain. The combination of the film and music was absolutely electrifying. When it was first performed in April 1939, the music was accompanied by the words of poet Randall Swingler and I felt it was entirely appropriate to precede my talk by reading them:
You who stand at your doors, wiping hands on aprons,
You who lean at the corner saying ‘We have done our best’,
You who shrug your shoulders and you who smile
To conceal your life’s despair and its evil taste,
To you we speak, you numberless Englishmen,
To remind you of the greatness still among you
Created by these men who go from your towns
To fight for peace, for liberty, and for you.
They were men who hated death and loved life,
Who were afraid, and fought against their fear.
Men who wish’d to create and not to destroy,
But knew the time must come to destroy the destroyer.
For they have restored your power and pride,
Your life is yours, for which they died.
My (occasionally bleak) account on the experiences of the British fighting fascism between 1932 and 1945 in Britain, Spain and Europe followed, leading in to a brief discussion with writers Paul Mason and Daniel Trilling, Stop the War campaigner Salma Yaqoob and Olga Abasolo from Spain’s Los Indignados movement.
After the interval, comedian Mark Steel‘s set took well-aimed and often very funny pot-shots at Margaret Thatcher, north Londoners and Chelsea supporters (amongst others), all neatly linked by a diatribe on the difficulty of adapting to change. Socialist R’n’B band Thee Faction and a DJ set from PanditG completed what was, by all accounts, a very successful and highly enjoyable night.
When I give lectures and talks about the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, I am often asked not just about the motivations of the volunteers themselves, but mine too. What led me to become interested in a foreign war fought so many years ago? Did any of my family fight in Spain, perhaps? The answer to the last question is simple: no. The answer to the first, however, is more complicated. Like many others in Britain, I suppose, it all began with George Orwell…
I was a big Orwell buff when I was at secondary school. I read most of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm obviously, but I also enjoyed his non-fiction, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London (I was probably the only schoolboy in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would not be true to say that, at that stage, I had become fascinated in the Spanish Civil War. My two strongest feelings on reading the book were probably confusion over the numerous acronyms in the two chapters on Spanish politics and disappointment that Orwell’s brave adventure in Spain ended with him fleeing Spain pursued by those who were, ostensibly, on the same side. That was about it, for some ten years.
While it may sound a little hyperbolic and pretentious to describe a book as life-changing, I have no doubt that, in this case at least, one undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I cannot now remember where the the copy of the book came from, whether it was a present or that I had picked it up on a whim, but I began to read Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite Hemingway’s use of archaic dialect (and other oft-cited weaknesses of the book), I was immediately taken with the story of the young American who had chosen to volunteer to fight in defence of the Republican government against a military uprising.
[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captivated me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he stoically prepares for the end he, and we, know is inevitable. When I finished reading the book I could think of little else for days and it still puts a lump in my throat, even to write about it. It is a terribly, terribly sad story, particularly when you are aware of the parallel in the real world. In Spain in September 1938, of course, it was actually the tearful foreign volunteers who were plucked from the arms of la niña bonita, as the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was known. The famous quote by Albert Camus from 1939 sums up the tragedy and why it is still so affecting for me – and many others:
‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’
As an undergraduate student during the early 1990s at Middlesex University (or Polytechnic, as it was then), I threw myself into studying the Spanish Civil War, taught by Clive Fleay, who had published an article in the Historical Journal on the British Labour Party’s response to the conflict. I spent most of my final year in the British newspaper library in Colindale, perusing copies of The Times¸ the News Chronicle and The Morning Post as research for an undergraduate dissertation on the coverage of the war in the British Press.
A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying for an M.A. at the Institute of Historical Research, as I began to put together an annotated list of the 2500 or so volunteers who left Britain and Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. This was later expanded to become the foundation for my Ph.D. thesis, when I was lucky enough to be accepted to study under one of the world experts on twentieth century Spain, Professor Paul Preston, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the L.S.E. was – and still is – a central hub for scholars from around the world interested in contemporary Spanish history. As a research student there, between 1997 and 2001, I listened to papers from many distinguished historians, including Helen Graham, Enrique Moradiellos, Gabriel Jackson and many, many others. Milton Wolf, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln battalion in Spain, came to give a talk and a number of British veterans of the International Brigades were regularly in the audience, including the former Daily Worker and Morning Star reporter, Sam Lesser (then using his nom-de-guerre from Spain, Sam Russell), Bill Alexander (Milton Wolf’s opposite number in the British Battalion) and David Marshall, one of the early volunteers and the only surviving member from the iconic photograph of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936.
With the death of Bill Alexander in 2000, my relationship to the Spanish Civil War dramatically changed, when I became involved in attempting to establish a new charitable trust, intended to unite two existing organisations, the International Brigade Association and the Friends of the International Brigade.
Over a course of meetings, expertly and diplomatically chaired by Paul, the International Brigade Memorial Trust eventually came into existence. Alongside Paul and Ken Livingstone as patrons, there were three veterans of the Spanish Civil War on the committee: David Marshall and Sam Russell/Lesser were joined by the Liverpool Trade Unionist Jack Jones. A number of family members such as Marlene Sidaway (David Marshall’s partner) and Peter Crome, son of Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the Republican 35th Division medical services joined the committee; as did a recently graduated doctoral student of the LSE: one Richard Baxell. The organisation published its first newsletter in February 2002 and a website and Facebook page followed.
Being a member of the committee and meeting numerous veterans and the families obviously changed the nature of my relationship, making it more personal. This presents obvious challenges to objectivity. However, the value of the help, support and contacts that membership of the committee the IBMT itself, have been incalculable. I have no doubt that my recent oral history of the volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, would have been very much poorer without it.
Richard Baxell, October 2013.
The following is an extended version of the obituary that appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Other Lives’ on 8 January 2013.
For anyone connected with the British volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during Spain’s civil war, 2013 has great and heavy significance. It seems almost certain that this is the first year since the start of the war itself that there are no British veterans around to explain the relevance of the events in Spain all those years ago. Over the years, I have got to know a number of former volunteers: some like Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and David Marshall were members of the committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; others such as Bill Alexander, Bob Doyle, Fred Thomas and George Wheeler I got to know having interviewed them. However, it was not until February 2011 that I first met former British volunteer David Lomon. Having returned from Spain in 1938, he had lost touch with his former comrades in the International Brigades. Only when he came across an article in the April 2009 issue of the magazine of SAGA, the organisation aimed at the over 50s, was David prompted to get back in touch. The article, by the historian Max Arthur on the Britons who fought against Franco, reported that only eight veterans of the Spanish war were still alive; David of course knew otherwise. He contacted SAGA in order to put the matter right and his letter was spotted by a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who informed the committee. I arranged to meet David at his house in Bourne End, in Buckinghamshire in order to interview him about his time in Spain.
Clichéd though it may sound, when I turned up at his home and David answered the door, I sincerely believed that I was talking to his son. Only when he introduced himself did I realise that the smartly-dressed, polite and welcoming man was a ninety-two year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The interview was a similar surprise; despite apologising for being unable to remember precise details, David talked lucidly for two hours on his experiences in Spain and afterward. It was a fascinating story and the interview formed the basis of a short piece in the May 2011 issue of the IBMT newsletter. It also provided me with great new material for my then forthcoming book Unlikely Warriors and, above all, it enabled me to get to know a thoroughly likeable and decent man who had lived a long and fascinating life.
Born David Solomon in Manchester on 22 November 1918, David was the youngest of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. David was schooled in Manchester, but the early death of his father when David was only fifteen brought his education to an abrupt halt, dashing any dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, his mother decided to move the family to Hackney, in London’s east-end, to be nearer her relatives. There David soon became caught up in the growing resistance against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were virtually besieging the area and terrorising its Jewish population. Galvanised by his participation in anti-fascist demonstrations, including the huge and infamous confrontation around Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, the young Jewish clothing cutter took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. In order to establish sufficient political credentials, he joined the Young Communist League and in December 1937 volunteered to join the International Brigades. ‘After the Mosley East-End business’, David explained to me, ‘I wanted to go to Spain, so I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people, who I could use to get over to Spain … I wanted to do something, I wanted to fight fascism.’
Prudently changing his surname from Solomon to Lomon in order to avoid being singled out if captured, David travelled to Paris using the familiar route of the British volunteers: a weekend ticket, which did not require a passport. From there he travelled south by coach to the Spanish border and underwent an exhausting and dangerous trek over the Pyrenees at night. United with his comrades from Britain, he joined the Clement Attlee Company of the British Battalion as a machine-gunner and infantryman. Amongst the volunteers, David was unusual in having studied Spanish and Spanish politics at school, so was given a political appointment. He was lucky enough to meet both the British Labour leader, Clement Attlee, and the American singer Paul Robeson who performed for the members of the battalion and shook all their hands. After minimal training, David was rushed up to the front in the spring of 1938 and joined the desperate Republican efforts to repulse a colossal Francoist offensive. Thirteen divisions, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean outnumbering the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the government lines virtually collapsed. David was one of more than one hundred members of the battalion to be captured by Italian soldiers at Calaceite in eastern Aragon on 31 March 1938.
Driven off by truck, he and the other prisoners were incarcerated in the Francoist concentration camp in the old decaying monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos in northern Spain. As many former inmates attest, the conditions in the camp were overcrowded, insanitary and extremely cruel: ‘We never dreamt that guards could be so brutal to other human beings,’ remarked one of David’s fellow prisoners. In June David was transferred to an Italian run camp at Palencia, where the inmates sung a version of the song that had been popular since the first battle of the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937, sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a prison in Spain called Palencia
’Tis a place we know all too well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And spent months of misery and hell.
Surrounded one day by Italians
Who with guns bought by Chamberlain’s gold
Blown to hell by artillery and avion
That’s how our brave comrades were sold.
At Palencia David became good friends with Clive Branson, a talented artist from Battersea in London. Branson made a number of highly accomplished sketches of prisoners at San Pedro and Palencia, including David and a young volunteer and Communist Party member called Alfred Sherman who, much later in his life, would found the Thatcherite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Though Clive Branson was killed in Burma during the Second World War, the drawings remain and I was fortunate enough to be at the Marx Memorial Library last year, when David took his very first glimpse of the sketch since it had been drawn in Palencia all those years ago.
David was released in October 1938 and repatriated. Back home he returned to his former work as a clothing cutter and studied as a designer. He also married Millie Levine, who he had known from his time in the YCL. She would later follow him when he decided to leave the Young Communist League for the Labour Party, appalled at Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939: ‘I was pleased I didn’t join the Communist Party because, being Jewish, well, that Stalin should link up with [Hitler] was unbelievable’, he told me.
With one child already and another on the way, David was not able to return to war until 1941. Seeing the two wars as part and parcel of the same conflict, he volunteered to join the navy. ‘I had to join up. I had to do something,’ he explained to me. He joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was rejected as a pilot as he could only breathe through one nostril, following an unsuccessful operation. Instead he joined general service and was selected to join an Officer Training Course in Scotland. It was not to last long. He was soon dismissed by an ‘aggressive’ superior, after David refused to box with an opponent who was much weaker than himself, ‘a nervous, gentle sort of lad,’ as he described him. David used to box with the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and, all too typically, opposed what he felt would not be a fair fight. He was returned to general service as a navigator’s yeoman on a minesweeper, sweeping the English channel before D Day and through the landings themselves. He was then sent to the far east around Burma and the Malaya Strait and Rangoon where his fleet was subjected to a terrifying attack by Japanese Kamikazi planes, in which they lost two of their ships.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, David was demobbed and returned to London, to resume his life and work. Introduced to a Mr. Lawson, the head of a large retail company in Glasgow, David was asked to become a partner in a new wholesale group he was setting up in London’s west-end. David would remain at the group, Barnett Lawson Trimmings, until he retired as Managing Director, thirty-five years later.
‘Wrapped up in family life’, as he put it and having left the YCL for the Labour Party on his return from Spain, David made no contact with his fellow veterans of Spain in the International Brigade Association. It was only when he saw the SAGA article in 2010 that David felt prompted to make contact. Having received a warm welcome from the members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he generously donated his time and energy in travelling around Britain and Spain delivering eloquent speeches on the importance of the war in Spain. In October 2011, David was one of a handful of surviving veterans to return to Madrid for a reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation on the International Brigades. David’s speech, given at the inauguration of a new memorial to the International Brigades in the Spanish capital’s University City, is worthy of repeating:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism.
We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. ¡Salud!
When the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition was shown in Eastbourne in April 2012, David was there to lend his support and encountered a young Spaniard from Burgos in northern Spain: ‘Gracias de mi corazón’ (‘my heartfelt thanks’) he declared. David was also present at the annual commemoration of the IBMT at London’s south bank in July 2012, where he laid a wreath and was presented with a flag by Almudena Cros of the Spanish Asociación des Amigos de Brigadas Internacionales. David was as charming as as ever and I suspect Almudena gave him her heart as well as the flag. He was, as his obituary in the Daily Mail portrayed him, ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. I will always treasure the Christmas card he sent me this year, in which he jokingly thanked me ‘for keeping this old dinosaur going’. As I told his son Irving, aside from the respect I had for David for his actions in the past, I had got to really like him for the way he was in the present: open, generous and genuinely modest.
Right to the end, David remained proud of the efforts made by him and his fellow international volunteers on behalf of the Spanish government during the civil war. The award of Spanish citizenship to David in May 2011 was an honour that he richly deserved and I know it gave him great pleasure and pride.
David’s wife Millie died in 1997, but he will be sorely missed by his three children, Stanley, Yvonne and Irving, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and by all of those who remain eternally grateful of the efforts made by him in Spain and around the world to help defeat the evils of fascism and Nazism.
David Lomon, the last of the UK-based unlikely warriors, 22 November 1918 to 21 December 2012.
The generous support for the International Brigade Memorial Trust from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen continues. After a very successful event at ASLEF’s national conference in Liverpool last May, I was invited back by the District Council Number One to give a talk at their December meeting, in the Marx Memorial Library in London.
My talk outlined the experiences of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and why the conflict continues to be relevant. Not surprisingly, the continuing legacy of the war featured strongly in a detailed and wide-ranging Q&A which followed the talk. Topics raised included the role of the Spanish monarchy in the 1930s, the ‘civil war within the civil war’, the British government’s policy of appeasement, fascism in contemporary Spain and how to ensure that the war and the contribution of the volunteers from around the world does not get forgotten. The discussions continued over beer and a curry in nearby Exmouth Market.
Many thanks to all for the generous donation to the IBMT, to Steve Richardson for his invitation to talk at the meeting, to John Callow for providing the venue and to Perry Calvert for chairing and acting as my impromptu agent. I’m glad to say that I returned home with considerably fewer copies of Unlikely Warriors than I had arrived with. Happy Christmas reading to all!