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.
It is now eighty years since the failed military coup which marked the beginning of the civil war in Spain. During the bitter conflict some half a million Spaniards were killed, a sombre warning of the greater slaughter to follow. For while the civil war was at its heart a Spanish tragedy, the internationalism of the war conferred on it a lasting significance beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Crucial military support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany for Franco’s Nacionales was countered – to some degree – by that from Stalin’s Russia for the Republic. Meanwhile, the western democracies did their utmost to ‘keep out of it’, making ineffectual efforts to encourage other regimes to do the same. The ‘non-intervention agreement’ (as it was called) was therefore not akin to neutrality and decisively helped the Nacionales, later openly acknowledged by the Francoist minister Pedro de Sáinz Rodríguez. Britain may have been the main guilty party, but other western democracies also bear culpability for the Republic’s defeat, including the United States. As a new book by the award-winning author Adam Hochschild reminds us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to much the same conclusion in January 1939, admitting to a cabinet meeting that the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic had been a ‘grave mistake’.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is subtitled ‘Americans in the Spanish Civil War’, though the book is not, in fact, about the 2800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. Instead, his account is told through the experiences of a select number of individuals (not all of whom are American) within the cataclysmic war in Spain. And they are select, for Hochschild’s characters are all highly-educated, middle-class writers. The notion of a poets’ (or writers’) war is clearly still attractive to writers and publishers, which neither time, nor the undoubted presence of an overwhelming proportion of manual workers among the volunteers, seems to have dispelled.
Admittedly, the author has chosen his stellar cast shrewdly, including the two most famous writers of the civil war (in English at least), Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. While Hochschild seems to have little new to say about the latter, his account of Hemingway’s participation in a guerrilla raid behind enemy lines, which clearly inspired Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls, may come as a revelation to some readers. Jordan’s real-life counterpart, the Professor of Economics and Abraham Lincoln Battalion commander, Robert Hale Merriman, also features, as does society debutante and reporter Virginia Cowles and journalist and International Brigader, Louis Fischer.
Accounts of the war’s impact on the characters’ personal relationships are a recurring theme; Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn obviously, but also Bob Merriman and his wife Marion, POUM supporters Lois and Charles Orr and the cross-Atlantic war romance between American nurse Toby Jensky and English sculptor and International Brigader, Jason ‘Pat’ Gurney, who had suffered a nervous break-down after the appalling carnage of the Jarama battle of 12-14 February 1937.
Gurney’s account of the war, like Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, has been frequently cited and retold and it’s difficult to find much within Hochschild’s account that is strikingly original. Certainly the author’s debt to earlier studies, particularly those of Paul Preston and Peter Carroll (which he generously acknowledges) is clear. So, why then, should this new book be of interest? Principally, it is because of the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. Spain in our Hearts is a rewarding and enjoyable read, for the elegant prose is littered with some of the most telling anecdotes from the literature.
It is also a pretty fair and balanced account. The author is fortunately too sophisticated to fall for the simplistic, binary notion of a war between two equally repugnant totalitarian philosophies, in which ‘Spain’ is merely a passive bystander. Nor does he make the mistake of seeing Republican Spain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, though not denying that the supplies of military materiel and the organisation of the International Brigades gave Stalin great influence. This ‘devil’s pact’ was really the only option left to the Republic, once the western democracies had refused to come to their aid.
Hochschild will, no doubt, come into some criticism for justifying what has become seen as ‘the Communist line’ regarding the argument over ‘war or revolution first’ that Orwell discusses in detail in Homage to Catalonia. Yet it is often forgotten that, after the war, Orwell himself came to the reluctant conclusion that the military necessities of the war should take precedence, though he nevertheless remained furious about the Communist Party’s use of the argument as a smokescreen for the suppression of other parties of the left. Like Orwell, Hochschild clearly has great sympathy for the POUMistas and Anarchists, yet he is not dewy-eyed, dryly observing that ‘the ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs” however splendid in theory, proved hard to enforce, especially when many workers felt that what they needed was more time off.’ (p. 146)
Balanced, of course, is not the same as neutral and Hochschild’s Republican sympathies are plain to see. Perhaps the clearest example is his illuminating account of the role of Torkild Rieber, the pro-Nazi C.E.O. of the American oil company, Texaco, in supplying millions of gallons of oil to Franco on credit. To this can be added the 12 000 trucks received by Franco from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford. As Hochschild points out, the admission by the Under-Secretary of the Spanish foreign ministry that Franco could not have won the war without U.S. trucks and U.S. oil credits reveals just how significant this contribution really was to the Nationalists’ cause.
Hochschild’s Spain in our Heart is much more than just another account of Orwell and Hemingway in Spain. It offers the reader a window into the personal, emotionally searing experiences of those who decided to make the Spanish cause their own. As Albert Camus, from whom the book’s title is drawn, wrote just after the end of the war, ‘it was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten’. Hochschild’s beautifully crafted book explains why, for them, the Spanish drama was and remained a personal tragedy.
My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
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.
For this year’s Len Crome lecture a number of historians were brought together to discuss George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937. This is the first of four lectures, which features a lecture and discussion of George Orwell and the British Battalion in Spain.
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.
Discussion with John Simpson on George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Broadcast on 10 August 2012 as part of Radio Four’s series, ‘War of Words’, in which John Simpson tells the stories of the correspondents who reported on the Spanish Civil War.
The entire series of five episodes is currently available on BBC iPlayer: War of Words
It is fitting that Homage to Caledonia, Daniel Gray’s book on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, begins with the funeral of Steve Fullarton, the last remaining Scot to have fought with the International Brigades in Spain. This book acts as a testament, not just for the more than 550 men and women from Scotland who risked their lives in Spain, but also for those who stayed behind in Scotland and campaigned for the beleagured Spanish Republic. Gray’s deep sympathy with his subject is manifest, yet this is a serious, scholarly work.
The book’s first section on the volunteers draws strongly on Ian MacDougall’s excellent 1986 study, Voices from the Spanish Civil War. As Gray explains, the reasons that lay behind the determination of so many Scots to go to Spain are not hard to find. He paints a clear picture of the dire poverty of many working class Scots and the ensuing atmosphere of strikes and protests that led many to join the Communist Party. It is a political journey that took in hunger marches, anti-Blackshirt demonstrations and the long – and often one-way- trip to Spain.
Gray’s descriptions of the horrifying battles of Jarama and Brunete in 1937, though brief, effectively capture the lack of preparation and the awful shock that the volunteers faced in Spain. Further chapters examine the daily grind in Spain and the brutal experiences of those held in Franco’s prisoner-of-war camps. The work of medical services in Spain is not overlooked, with one chapter describing the role of the ‘misguided’ Scottish Ambulance unit. Gray describes how four volunteers left the unit in disgust, following suspicions that its leader was using it as a cover to evacuate Nationalist sympathisers from Spain.
The book’s second section turns to ‘Scotland’s War’, the home front. Gray examines of the role of Scottish women, such as the Conservative MP Katherine Atholl, ‘the Red Duchess’, in raising funds and campaigning for the beleaguered Spanish Republic. He also outlines the huge importance of family politics, evidenced by the extraordinary Murray family, three of whom went to Spain whilst their five sisters stayed at home campaigning. As Gray says, ‘anti-fascism often ran in families, who supported each other in the shared belief that no death was in vain, no matter the personal pain a parent or sibling might feel.’ (p.52)
Whilst Gray’s work naturally focuses on the Scottish supporters of Republican Spain, he does not forget the Scottish ‘Friends of National Spain.’ Far-fetched stories in the right-wing press north of the border mirrored those in England: for example, Grays recounts how both the Catholic Herald and Glasgow Observer claimed that the Republican government had created a battalion of prostitutes to defend Madrid. Gray brings to life the various right-wing fanatics, such as Major-General Sir Walter Maxwell-Scott, Walter Scott’s great-great grandson, who alleged in March 1937 that 50 000 ‘workers of the world’ were fighting for the Republic.
Gray concludes the section with the tale of ‘Scotland’s other left’, the parties who, with the Communists, supported the Republic. The chapter’s main concern is the Independent Labour Party, whose four MPs were all Scots. Of the Scottish volunteers in Spain, perhaps as many as 100 were members of the ILP, who divided themselves between the Catalan POUM militia (in which George Orwell famously served) and the International Brigades. The sectarianism between the CP and ILP in Scotland mirrored that in Spain; as Gray says, ‘the politics of Catalonia had been imported by Caledonia.’ (p.145)
Gray’s final section is a collection of essays on individuals and themes of Scottish interest. The first two subjects, the ILP volunteer Bob Smillie and the Anarchist Ethel Macdonald, have both been covered in detail by Tom Buchanan and Chris Dolan respectively. The only note of real controversy here is that Gray repeats the accusation that Smillie was kicked to death by SIM agents during his interrogation. However, as Tom Buchanan has argued, the lack of conclusive evidence suggests that this case must remain not proven.
Gray’s chapter on the Aragon campaigns of 1937 and 1938 include a number of well-chosen vignettes, giving a powerful sense of the Scot’s experiences in Spain. Gray provides an extremely moving description of the terrible last days of the battalion in September 1938, in which nearly 200 volunteers were killed or wounded in just three days of desperate and bloody fighting.
The issue of dissent and discipline is now an important part of any study of the foreign volunteers in Spain. Obviously Russia, via the Communist Party, had a very powerful influence on the volunteers, particularly on their attitudes to the Barcelona May days and the POUM. However, Gray believes that ‘this should not … detract from the credibility of the 35 000 people from around the world who travelled to Spain of their own volition.’ (p.193)
Gray concludes his study with an examination of the legacy of the Scottish supporters of the Spanish Republic. As Gray argues passionately, the Spanish episode remains something to be proud of; ‘a glorious, if often tragic, chapter in Scotland’s unwritten history.’ (p.211)
This review first appeared in Family and Community History, 13:2, November 2010, pp.149-150.