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Book launch at the London Welsh Centre

L to R: IBMT patron and former UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, Richard Baxell and Hywel Francis M.P.

On Monday 17 September 2012, the London Welsh Centre hosted an event to launch the 2012 edition of Hywel Francis’ study of the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Miners Against Fascism and my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors.

Chaired by the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaff, it was a great event, well organised, well-attended and well-received. Many thanks to Lynne Walsh and the London Welsh Centre. It was great to spend the evening chatting to Hywel Francis over a glass (ahem) of wine, for he knew many of the Welsh volunteers personally.

Sadly the evening was overshadowed by the sad news of the death of former International Brigader Lou Kenton. ‘He was’, said Jim Jump, the Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, ‘a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, a lifelong trade union activist, a fighter for progressive causes and a gifted graphic artist.’

IBMT annual commemoration in London

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

George Wheeler, 21 March 1914 to 11 February 2006

George & Bike

George Wheeler one of the last survivors of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil war has died, aged 91.

Born in Battersea in 1914, the son of a committed socialist, he left school at 14 before taking an apprenticeship and working as a joiner in Brentford for a company that made spare parts for Royal Navy ships.

Following the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936, his father, a Labour councillor, became an active member of the local Aid Spain Committee. Inspired by a speech given by Aneurin Bevan at a rally in Trafalgar Square in early 1938, George decided to volunteer for the Republican forces.  Assisted by the Communist Party, he departed for Spain in May 1938, accompanied by, among others, the trade unionist Jack Jones.

Within three months, he and his comrades in the British Battalion were thrown into the dramatic republican Ebro offensive which astonished those who had written off the Spanish loyalists. However, Franco’s superior forces – supplied with huge amounts of materiel by Hitler and Mussolini, despite an international agreement not to intervene in the conflict – soon reversed the Republican gains. After seeing many of his comrades killed or wounded, George was finally captured by Franco’s forces on 23 September 1938.

He was fortunate not to be summarily executed and was imprisoned in the notorious PoW camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. Kept in appalling conditions, many prisoners died from a combination of disease, malnutrition and the frequent vicious beatings. Finally released in April 1939, George returned to London, work and marriage to Winifred, who died ten years ago, before continuing his anti-fascist fight in the Second World War.

George Wheeler
George Wheeler in 2006, with copies of his Spanish Civil War memoir, To Make the People Smile Again

Although he was in a reserved occupation, he became such a thorn in the side of the management at the factory where he spoke out against the waste of raw materials, that he was released to join the army. George became an army instructor and was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train local troops. Promoted to Regimental  Sergeant-Major, he was due to travel with his troops to Burma, but he caught malaria and was unable to travel.

Surviving the Second World War, he resumed his work as a carpenter and became an active trade unionist. After his wife’s death, George renewed his interest in the International Brigades and, to his obvious delight, his graphic account of his Spanish experiences, To Make the People Smile Again, was published in 2003.

Lawrence George Wheeler, carpenter: born Mitcham, Surrey 21 March 1914; married 1940 Winifred McDougal (died 1993); died Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.

The obituary above originally appeared in the Morning Star. An interview with George (with a portrait by Eamonn McCabe) appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Last of the Brigade’ in 2000 and International Brigade Memorial Trust Secretary, Jim Jump, also wrote an obituary for George, which appeared in The Independent on 17 February 2006

David Marshall, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005

David Marshall

David Marshall, poet, and one of the last surviving of the British volunteers to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, has died, aged 90.

David was born on 27 March 1916, in Middlesbrough, the eldest of three sons of Methodist parents. Brought up mainly by his Mother, he gained a scholarship for High School, where he developed a lifelong love of literature and poetry. When he left school in 1934, with few jobs available for school leavers, David reluctantly sat the civil service entrance examination and began work in the Ministry of Labour. It was not work that David enjoyed, opening his eyes to the misery of life ‘on the dole’. However, unlike many of his peers, it was not to politics that David turned, but to books. He later admitted to have been, ‘utterly ignorant of the world…wrapped in my bookishness.’ The world of those who would later be his comrades in Spain – demonstrations, hunger marches, battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts – made little impact on him.

However, in July 1936, after 18 months working in the Labour Exchange, he read that a revolt had broken out in Spain. This changed everything:

One day I brought The Times…I remember reading a paragraph saying, “There is no doubt that if the Spanish Republican government wins the war, a socialist state will be set up”. Really that was the trigger. I thought, Christ, here’s a way out.

David quickly obtained a passport by forging a letter from his Father, told his sweetheart ‘some cock-and-bull story’, and bought a one-way rail ticket to London and on to Port Bou, in France. However, on reaching the Spanish border, David’s political naïveté was his undoing, when he was refused entry for not possessing any political or Trade Union credentials. However, a mysterious Italian appeared and got him across the border. David then volunteered to join the Catalonian anti-fascist militia and was put on a train to Barcelona.

This was to be an immensely influential time for David, for Barcelona ‘was seething with enthusiasm [and] colour’. As Orwell famously recounted, ‘the working class were in the saddle’; Trade Union and political banners were everywhere. Under the leadership of Nat Cohen- a battle-hardened volunteer from London- Marshall and his handful of comrades (including Georgie Tioli, a mysterious Italian, and Tom Wintringham, another poet and later a commander of the British Battalion in Spain) were formed them into the Tom Mann Centuria. The oft-produced photograph of the group has developed an almost iconic status.

The Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, September 1936. David Marshall is standing on the far right.
The Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, September 1936. David Marshall is standing on the far right.

After a few weeks in Barcelona they were moved to Albacete, the International Brigade base, and, at the end of October 1936, officially attached to the mainly German Thaelmann Battalion as part of the XII International Brigade. Here they were given uniforms and what David described as ‘bloody awful’ equipment. Most of the volunteers hadn’t even fired their rifles when they went into action on 11 November 1936, at Cerro de los Angeles, near Madrid. Less than 24 hours later, David’s Spanish episode was abruptly terminated when he was shot in the leg. Extremely shaken and with his morale severely knocked, he returned to England in December 1936, to hear that most of his friends had been killed in a vicious battle at Boadilla on the western outskirts of Madrid, memorably described in his comrade (and Winston Churchill’s nephew) Esmond Romilly’s book of the same name.

On his return to Middlesbrough, he joined the Young Communist League and returned to his old employment in the Ministry of Labour. In January 1939 he married his sweetheart, Joyce, with whom he later had a daughter and son.

David continued to work for the return of democracy in Spain and attended a reunion of volunteers in 1938, though he felt a reluctance to stand alongside his comrades, feeling that his all too brief time in Spain and ensuing return to Britain made him somehow unworthy. David always downplayed his role in Spain and possessed a strong sense of guilt that he had survived, when many others hadn’t. Nevertheless, with other veterans, he joined the International Brigade Association (IBA), formed in the Spring of 1939, for which he would later become Treasurer. As part of his support for the Republic, David also wrote a poem, ‘Retrospect’, which was included in an anthology edited by Stephen Spender & John Lehmann, Poems for Spain, (1939).

When the Second World War broke out he, like many other ex-brigaders, was at first barred from entry into the armed forces. However, following pressure from his superior at the Labour Exchange (who insisted that he volunteer), on 4 February 1940 he joined the Army Pay Corps. He was interviewed about his background in Spain by a Captain, who said that he knew that David ‘was Communistic or fascist’. However, David received no discrimination over his time in ‘Red’ Spain though, even as a corporal, he was never placed on guard duty when abroad.

An attempt to volunteer as a glider pilot failed when the optician twigged that the short-sighted David had memorised the eye-chart beforehand, and David transferred instead to the Army Engineers. He took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and also witnessed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, altogether serving six years in the army. Demobilised in April 1947, he returned, once again, to his old job in the Ministry of Labour, where he remained until 1961, when he moved to London and began work as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop. Between 1963 and 1973 he had a small studio, building scenery for theatres and exhibitions.

In 1975 his wife, Joyce, died of cancer after a long illness and David bought and lovingly re?furbished a 90ft. sailing barge, ‘Jock’ where he lived, hosting exhibitions and dinners. His impromptu – and extremely lively – parties are still famous to this day. In 1982 David sold ‘Jock’ and bought an 85ft. long Dutch Barge, ‘Zwerver’, on which he lived until 1992, when he moved in with his long-time partner, the actress Marlene Sidaway.

Following the death of Bill Alexander, the secretary of the IBA in 2000, David was at the forefront in pressing for the admission of family members and friends, leading to the establishment of a new charitable organisation, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), for which he continued to donate considerable time and money. In November of the same year, the ‘articulate, poetry-loving 84 year old’ was amongst a number of Spanish veterans photographed and interviewed for a special piece in The Guardian.

David continued to write poetry throughout his life and eventually, a collection, The Tilting Planet, was published early in 2005. When, at the launch of the book of his poems a number of them were read by a number of well-known actors and actresses out to a packed audience, even David- always fiercely determined to downplay his own importance- could not disguise his pleasure and pride. This was to be David’s last public appearance.

The International Brigades and Spain’s struggle for democracy remained David’s abiding passions and his work on the committees of the IBA and later the IBMT were an important part of this, where David’s cantankerous charm reflected a singular impatience for protocol. But it was in his poetry, that David Marshall’s true, sensitive nature was revealed:

I sing of my comrades
That once did sing
In that great choir at Albacete
Before the battle.
Rank after rank
Of the young battalions
Singing the Internationale
They came from every corner of the earth
So many men from distant lands
Each with his private history
Of Spain’s Republic.

Along slow roads to Spain – at last a star
For desperate men, sensing the gathering storm
And we that fought to warn a watching world
Were called false prophets by appeasers
Yet we fought for the poor of the world.

Our lullabies were soldiers’ songs
Dead in the mud of the trenches
Sung by sad women to the sons of the fallen.
And remembered in Remembrance Day long past
After the thudding drum and shriek of bugles
I listened to the slow lament
For brothers, sons and lovers lost.
It is the sadness in the singing,
The undertones of woe,
The deep vein of grief
That throbs throughout my generation.

David Marshall, International Brigader and poet, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005.