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.
On 31 May 2018 I joined the biographer and filmmaker, Jane Rogoyska, for a presentation at L.S.E.'s Cañada Blanch Centre, chaired by Professor Paul Preston. We were outlining our thoughts on the image that had recently appeared on social media: did it really show the celebrated photojournalist, Gerda Taro, on her death bed?
I was very happy to take part in a short six minute film produced by the Gill Parker Consultancy. The film was commissioned by the L.S.E. to showcase the expertise of LSE academics; in this instance Professor of Contemporary Spanish History, Paul Preston. In addition to myself, the film included interviews with former Basque child, Herminio Martínez; Professor of Spanish History, Helen Graham; and Spanish writer and journalist, Lala Isla.
BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra
On 9 August 2017, I introduced a number of readings relating to the International Brigades, movingly delivered by actors Christopher Ecclestone and Yolanda Vazquez and by Margot Heinemann’s daughter, Jane Bernal.
For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties involved in establishing the precise background and origins of the volunteers for Spain from Britain & Ireland and how the various national groups in the International Brigades got along while fighting in Spain. The talk will be on the IBMT's Youtube channel and a precis appears in issue 45 of the IBMT magazine (2/2017).
Contributor on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ documentary on family history of Hollywood actress (Lost, Waking Ned, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Others) Fionnuala Flanagan, produced by Mint/RTE and broadcast in 2009.
The sections on Fionnuala’s International Brigader father, Terry Flanagan, were filmed on location in Madrid, Albacete and Madrigueras.
‘Actress Fionnula Flanagan may live in Hollywood, but her heart is at home in Ireland. Her mother was born in a workhouse… but not for obvious reasons. Her father, from a large inner city family, grew up in a turbulent era, and eventually took his Republican & socialist principles across Europe to the Spanish Civil War. For the first time, Fionnula has a chance to understand her dad’s many battles, wounds and victories. But it’s back home in Dublin, while trying to grapple with the family circumstances that inspired her father, that Fionnula discovers a harsh truth about her grandmother: a woman who was the rock of the family.’
This book brings together leading British and Spanish historians in an examination of key aspects and themes of the Spanish Civil War. Contributors discuss the politics of memory; recent revisionist historiography; biographies of international volunteers; the experience of nursing in Catalonia; the baptism of fire of Jarama; Britain’s blocking of aid to the Republic; Soviet intervention in the conflict; and the crimes of Franco, both during and after the war.
Review from Amazon
‘Useful compilation of the last 9 years of annual lectures of the IBMT – bringing us up to date with current thinking in the Spanish Civil War as republican memory is revisited. Useful for A Level GSCE, but more so for under/post graduate work.’
Review by Peter Carroll in The Volunteer
‘Looking Back at the Spanish Civil Waris a collection of the first 10 Len Crome annual lectures sponsored by the IBMT. These include Paul Preston’s tribute to the man for whom the series is dedicated, “‘No Soldier’: The Courage and Comradeship of Dr Len Crome,” describing one of the many medical personnel who gave generously to the Spanish cause and later served in World War II. As expected, the British side receives considerable treatment—essays by Richard Baxell and Angela Jackson, and Enrique Moradiellos’s “Albion’s Perfidy” about the pro-Franco response of the British government. But running through most of these essays is a strong international thread: Helen Graham’s “The Return of Republican Memory”; Ángel Vias’s “September 1936: Stalin’s Decision to Support the Spanish Republic”; Julián Casanova’s “History and Memory …
This historical work is good—have no doubt about it—and reflects the growing interest around the world in matters related to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. Partly the result of new archival discoveries, partly because of the passing of the generation that lived and fought the war, the new scholarship has effectively shifted the historical narrative closer to its original, pre-Cold War position.
Most recent writing emphasizes that the war in Spain had long, indigenous roots; stresses selfish national interests in Britain, France and the United States for the failure to prevent fascist expansion; and treats the IB volunteers as heroic anti-fascists (rather than dupes of Stalin). On these grounds, the Spanish Civil War was a fight between an elected democracy and a fascist-military rebellion rather than a war between fascism and communism (the Cold War version). Instead of seeing the Spanish war as a precursor or “dress rehearsal” for a world war, it appears as it once was seen by its contemporaries, the first battlefield of World War II.’
While the origins of Spain’s civil war of 1936-1939 lay within Spain itself, the course of the war and its outcome certainly did not. The support for the military rebels by Germany and Italy, and Britain and France’s refusal to assist what was a democratically elected government, effectively doomed the Spanish Republic, despite Russian support and the 35,000 men and women from around the world who volunteered to serve with the International Brigades. The role of these international volunteers in the Spanish conflict has ensured that the subject has long had resonance around the world, and been the subject of numerous studies. Initially, following the end of the civil war, many works on the International Brigades were written by veterans of the Spanish war or their ardent supporters, ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted … to be remembered’. To these determined supporters of the Spanish Republic, its heroic struggle against a barbarous invasion by Italy and Germany, and the assistance of supporters of democracy from around the world in the International Brigades, became something to be looked back on with pride, the Left’s ‘last great cause’.
Not surprisingly, many have always seen things rather differently and these rather hagiographic works have come under sustained attack for their overly uncritical portrayal of the involvement of foreigners in Spain. In studies mainly, though not uniquely, emanating from the United States, the control and authority exercised by the Communist Party, the Comintern and Stalin in Spain has been doggedly portrayed as much more significant than an attempt simply to provide the Spanish Republicans with military support. To many, Stalin’s role in the creation and the control of the Brigades was as much political as military, a microcosm of the Communist International’s real goal in Spain, that is, to bring it under Communist (and thus Russian) control. An archetypal example is R. Dan Richardson’s Comintern Army, in which Richardson argues strongly that the Brigades ‘were a significant political, ideological and propaganda instrument which could be – and was – used by the Comintern for its own purposes, not only inside Spain but on the larger world stage’.
In the autumn of 1991 an event occurred which was to transform the understanding of the role of the International Brigades in Spain. The opening of the archives in the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Recent Historical Documents in Moscow opened up a colossal amount of material to scholars, which had been virtually untouched for fifty years. Initially boxed up and shipped to the Soviet Union just shortly before the end of the civil war, the archive contained thousands of highly controversial files relating to the operation of the Brigades and military and political assessments of the units and individuals within them. The involvement of the International Brigades came under new and detailed scrutiny from researchers, many of whom remained deeply suspicious of Stalin’s role in Spain.
Herbert Romerstein’s Heroic Victims: Stalin’s Foreign Legion in the Spanish Civil War (1994) and, more recently, Spain Betrayed: the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (2001), edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary M. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, are typical. Both books made extensive use of the Moscow material to argue that the Comintern (or Stalin or the Communist Party, rarely differentiating between the three) exercised an iron hold over the Brigades, using them as a tool to further Soviet interests and ruthlessly suppressing any deviation from the official Party line. These commentators argue (somewhat anachronistically) that Stalin supported the Republic, not so much because he wished to prevent Spain becoming another fascist state, but in order to establish a ‘People’s Democracy’, along the line of the later eastern European states.
However, works taking a less hostile view of the role of the Brigades have also made good use of the Moscow material, such as Rémi Skoutelsky’s detailed 1998 study of the French contingent which preceded his 2005 work on the International Brigades in general, Novedad en el frente. Works on the predominantly English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade have also flourished, with Peter Carroll’s 1994 study of the American volunteers, Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, blazing the trail. My own British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2004) followed James Hopkins’s rather less sympathetic book on the same subject, Into the Heart of the Fire: the British in the Spanish Civil War (1994).
The publication of Michael Petrou’s Renegades now completes a set of works on the English-speaking battalions in the Fifteenth Brigade drawing substantially on the Moscow material. It is also the fourth study to be published on the Canadian volunteers, following Victor Hoar’s The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, William Beeching’s Canadian Volunteers, Spain 1936-1939 and Mark Zuehlke’s Gallant Cause. Of the three, Hoar’s 1969 book has probably been the standard reference work for the Canadians, even though it was published before the release of the Moscow archive.
Like recent studies of other nationalities in the Brigades, Petrou makes use of the Moscow material to provide a detailed statistical analysis of the volunteers’ socio-economic and political backgrounds. Much of the picture of the Canadians that emerges is very similar to that of the British and Americans. The Canadian volunteers were overwhelmingly working-class and approximately three-quarters were Communist Party members. However, they were slightly older than their American and British comrades, with over half aged over thirty. And in a marked difference with the British in particular, a large proportion were unemployed and many were transient workers, often of no fixed abode. As Petrou states, ‘few Canadian volunteers lived in the same place for long’ and he argues convincingly that the transient nature of the Canadians impacted strongly on their motivations for volunteering to fight in Spain. Furthermore, the majority of the Canadian volunteers were not born in Canada, with more than three-quarters hailing from central European countries such as Ukraine, Hungary, Finland and Poland. Clearly, for these immigrants
“A blow against fascism in Spain would be a blow against the Nazis in Germany, the Poles in ‘West Ukraine’, or the ‘Whites’ in Finland… In Spain, the immigrant volunteers saw the roots and the reflections of their own injustices, and a way to reverse them.” (Petrou, Renegades, pp. 37-8.)
Interestingly, this created a choice (and tension) for the ‘immigrant army’ when in Spain: about half chose to fight in units comprising volunteers of their original nationalities, rather than in the designated Canadian George Washington and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalions.
It may seem surprising that Petrou only devotes fifty or so pages to the central story, the events in Spain itself. This has earned him criticism from the author of an earlier work on the Canadians, but Petrou’s aim was perhaps to concentrate on new material and issues, rather than retreading old ground. This is no easy task of course, with four books in the last ten years on the Fifteenth International Brigade. Since Canadians were part of the same military unit and as some Canadians were actually fighting within the American Lincoln Battalion, their story is inevitably very similar.
Like all the Internationals, the Canadians suffered terrible losses in Spain. According to Petrou’s figures, of the 1,700 Canadians who fought in Spain about 400 were killed. The Canadians were ill-prepared and equipped when they first arrived at the Jarama front in February 1937 and more than 100 volunteers were killed or wounded on their first taste of combat. The situation did not improve greatly throughout the war, with the International Brigades thrown into battle where it was fiercest. Whilst members of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion may have received three months training (the longest period for any International Brigade unit), they still suffered from the same shortages that all Republicans endured. With other members of the Fifteenth International Brigade, the Canadians were decimated at the battle of Brunete in July 1937. When they were eventually withdrawn in October 1938, only thirty-five Canadians were left standing.
The third part of Petrou’s book addresses a subject of much contention amongst scholars: discipline in the International Brigades (or, as he entitles it, crime and punishment) and the role of the Communist Party. There is no doubt that a harsh regime existed in the Brigades and critics of Soviet intervention in Spain portray this rigid discipline not as a reaction to the war, but as an extension of Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union. As R. Dan Richardson argues, ‘The mentality of political suspicion, hatred, terror and murder that was then running its grotesque and bloody course in the Soviet Union and that cast its spell throughout the Comintern spilled over into Spain and the International Brigades’. Likewise, James Hopkins claims that ‘Stalin had every intention of achieving effective dictatorship in Spain but behind an anti-fascist façade’.
The assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of volunteers held in the Moscow files have been widely used to support this view. And Petrou also makes considerable use of this material, which certainly makes uneasy reading. Senior figures in the Brigade make frequent accusations of a lack of discipline, of drunkenness and of desertion. Portrayals of volunteers as ‘excellent at the front, but politically undeveloped’ recur. However, as the American historian Cary Nelson has pointed out, the – often highly derogatory – comments were written for Party officials back home, and remarks should be seen in context. The volunteers had at best, limited military experience, and were thrown into a brutal and desperate war where the likelihood of death or serious injury was undeniable. It is perhaps not surprising that a number of individuals failed to measure up to the Party’s strict criteria, and reacted to the stresses of war by drinking excessively or deserting.
Canadians in Spain received various punishments for crimes committed there. One hundred and seventeen Canadian deserters are listed in the Moscow files. Desertion was undoubtedly a major problem in the Brigades and contributed to some commentators’ perceived disaffection with the leadership and the conditions in Spain.However, desertions were not usually a reaction to the political organization of the battalion, but to the high casualty rates, the lack of leave and the small chance of repatriation. As Petrou states, ‘many of the deserters did not want to quit the war so much as they needed a break’. Many deserters later returned to the front lines, though a number did aim to return home, particularly those who had been under the impression that they would be repatriated after six months service. In a sense, the repatriation problem was irreconcilable, for there was a clear contradiction between the Brigaders as ‘volunteers’ and as members of the Republican army. As one British volunteer later remarked, ‘My sisters just wanted to come to bring me back. And I had to tell them in a letter that while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out’.
Yet it would be naïve to deny that some Canadian volunteers (just as in other units) expressed dissatisfaction with the influence of the Party in the brigades. As Petrou states, ‘The men knew that those who led them were too often given leading positions because of their party connections rather than military skill and experience’. And it is certainly true that the domination of the Brigades by Communists, both in numerical terms and in the command structure, determined that political dissenters, particularly those perceived as ‘Trotskyists’ (a catch-all term for leftists who did not subscribe to the Communist viewpoint), were treated with suspicion. Within military units political and military conformism were regarded as a necessity to win a war in which they were fighting a desperate fight to the death. Not surprisingly, paranoia about potential fifth-columnists was widespread. Thus, as a Canadian agent in the communist-dominated (and Soviet NKVD influenced) Republican secret police, the Servicio de Investigación Militar, admitted, the SIM had ‘an agent in every company and an informant in every platoon’. There is no doubt that Soviet influence within the Brigades provided the USSR with invaluable resources for espionage, including passports and recruits. Allegedly Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, travelled to Mexico using the passport of a Canadian Brigader.
Petrou shows that some Canadian volunteers clearly resented the hierarchical structure of the brigades, and that a small number were singled out and labelled as ‘Trotskyists’. However, these individuals were by no means always punished. As the political assessments make clear, political weakness did not necessarily correlate with military weakness, and even the most rigid political commissars sometimes recognized this. Unfortunately, the Brigade leadership demanded both, and occasionally over-reacted. In June 1938 the Brigade leadership warned of a ‘violent campaign’ by English-speaking volunteers against the Brigade leadership in general and André Marty (French commander of the International Brigades) in particular. In fact, as Petrou rightly points out, this was just an exaggerated and insensitive reaction to gripes following the retreats during the spring of 1938, when a huge offensive by Francoist forces split the Republic in two. In general, Petrou acknowledges, ‘letters home and to their commissars and commanding officers suggest they were much more concerned with missing mail, food and cigarettes than with politics’. As one Canadian volunteer succinctly pointed out, ‘Well, shit, we were in the trenches most of the time’.
Other disputes involving Canadian volunteers and their superiors can be seen to have been as much cultural as political. There was a great deal of intolerance between the various national contingents in the Fifteenth International Brigade. Arguments between the Irish volunteers and the British in January 1937 are well documented, as is the rivalry between the American and British volunteers. This was exacerbated by the overwhelmingly American leadership of the Brigade who, according to a report by an (American) Political Commissar, ‘demonstrated a feeling of superiority… towards the Canadian, Latin American, Spanish and Negro comrades’. The Canadians clearly resented the American influence. One Canadian volunteer complained about the Brigade being run by ‘a clique of American Jews’; and many other disparaging remarks were made about the Americans, whom some Canadians felt to be rather less hardy than themselves. As one Canadian acidly observed, ‘I think most of them would starve to death in a grocery store’.
It is probably the case, as Petrou states, that ‘the natural irreverence of the Canadian volunteers put them at odds with their commanders’. One Canadian volunteer, when asked by a political commissar whether he liked his morning coffee, replied, ‘It depends… If I’m politically developed, comrade commandante, the coffee is very good. But if I am not politically developed, it tastes like horse piss’. Another, in the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion, ‘asked what was the most outstanding thing he had noticed since leaving North America, described a recent bowel movement’. That some volunteers were able to respond thus flippantly and insubordinately suggests, perhaps, that dissent and insubordination in the Brigades were rather better tolerated than some critics would admit.
This is not to deny that discipline was not, on occasion, extremely brutal. It is beyond any doubt that several Canadians were executed in Spain. As Petrou says, ‘it is a fact that “problem volunteers” were occasionally taken on a midnight walk and shot in the back of the head’, and he cites four Canadians shot in the spring of 1938, in the desperate aftermath of the retreats. Nevertheless executions were rare in the Fifteenth Brigade, even though execution for acts of desertion or rape would have been the norm in most armies of that time. And the International Brigades were run on Soviet military lines, with a much more brutal tradition towards offenders.
Most minor misdemeanours were treated within the battalion by demotions, or deductions of pay or time in the guardhouse, though some unfortunate volunteers ended up in the Republican prison at Castelldefels, or the ‘re-education’ Camp Lukacs, where prisoners were often badly treated, ill-fed and held without trial. Other miscreants could be transferred to disciplinary units, usually referred to as engineers’, fortification, or labour battalions. In Petrou’s view, these were ‘a convenient means to get rid of problem volunteers’, as the chance of survival in these units was slim. However, it should be remembered that their chances would hardly have been better fighting in the Brigades themselves. It is important to keep the punishments in perspective. A number of volunteers did suffer harsh and sometimes unfair punishment, but Petrou is right to point out that ‘how International Brigade leadership reacted to desertions and other offences varied greatly’. Only 150 Canadians in total were in fact punished in Spain which, considering the pressures placed on untrained volunteers with a seemingly ingrained mistrust of authority, is perhaps not that surprising.
Just as it is a mistake to portray the volunteers simplistically as ‘heroic victims’, as Petrou recognizes, it would also be wrong to see the volunteers as Stalin’s foot soldiers in a ‘Comintern Army’. The Brigades were, first and foremost, a reaction by anti-fascists around the world to what they saw as another country being swallowed up by a fascist tide sweeping across Europe. This response, it is important to remember, began before the involvement of the Comintern in the formal creation of the International Brigades. As Petrou notes,
“Built on a communist foundation, but with wider leftist and even mainstream support, the brigades were a tangible and stirring symbol of support for an anti-fascist cause that was not explicitly linked to the Soviet Union.” (Petrou, Renegades, p. xvii.)
This is not to downplay the role of the Communist Party in the Brigades. As Petrou has demonstrated with the Canadians, the Communist Party both organized and paid for almost all the volunteers to travel to Spain. But how else would the Canadian volunteers have managed to get there? Likewise, it is important to remember that, ‘though most were members of the Communist Party of Canada, they were not ordered to fight by the party. They made a choice’. Volunteers were not ‘the dupes of Moscow’, they were mostly determined anti-fascists who chose to join the Communist Party, rather than Party members told to go and fight. Petrou cites the example of ‘Constant [who] was not a communist when he volunteered to join the International Brigades in early 1937, but he clearly identified himself as and anti-fascist. Most Canadians in Spain saw themselves in the same way’. As with the British, many Canadians were not Party members when they volunteered for Spain; others joined the party shortly before leaving, or in Spain itself. While in Spain most volunteers referred to themselves as anti-fascists, whatever their particular affiliation. In fact, volunteers were instructed to label themselves as such in order to prevent them being singled out if captured. This also served Communist Party interests in that it was used to validate the claim that the Brigades were an example of Popular Frontism in action, a coming together of anti-fascists from around the world and across the political system to defend Spanish democracy. Undoubtedly, national parties downplayed the number of party members amongst volunteers to boost the image of a popular front against fascism.
It simply is not possible to talk of a homogenous mass of Communist volunteers. Though most volunteers accepted the ‘Moscow line’ during their time in Spain, they were not all blind adherents or ‘true believers’. As Petrou demonstrates, the Party did not exercise absolute control over the Canadian volunteers, just as (others have shown) they did not exercise absolute control of other battalions in the Fifteenth International Brigade. While in Spain the volunteers acknowledged what many commentators seem to ignore; that the Republic was involved in a fight to the death and that, as George Orwell himself recognized, ‘war is bloody’. The myth of the ‘last great cause’ has prevented many from accepting that the imprisonment of insubordinates and the callous treatment of deserters were not necessarily symptoms of the ‘Stalinization’ of Republican Spain, but should be seen as the desperate reaction of the Republican army in a bitter and, ultimately, fruitless struggle for its very survival.
Life-long campaigner and Trade Union activist, Keith Howard ‘Andy’ Andrews, has died aged 101. In 1936, Andy was one of the first of around 2500 from Britain and Ireland to volunteer to join the Spanish Republican army in its struggle against the forces of General Franco and his German and Italian backers.
Andy was born in Kilburn, north-west London, in February 1907. At the age of 16 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1924 was posted to Quetta, in British India. In 1926 Andy was posted to Shanghai, to help protect British interests, prior to the April 1927 massacres of Chinese communists and trades unionists by Chaing-Kai Sheck’s right-wing Nationalist troops.
Andy became a member of the Independent Labour Party and then, in 1931, the Communist Party. During a Mosley rally at the Albert Hall in March 1936, Andy was thrown down several flights of stairs and beaten up in full view of the police who, he recounted, stood by smiling. In August of the same year, Andy travelled to Spain in a British ambulance donated by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. He stayed in Spain as a front-line hospital worker for over 18 months, attached to both British and other International Brigade units. Andy served at field hospitals at some of the toughest battles in the civil war; on more than one occasion hospitals Andy was working in were attacked by German or Italian airplanes or shell-fire. Following Franco’s successful assault in Aragon in the Spring of 1938, which cleaved the Republic in two, Andy returned home to Britain.
During the Second World War Andy served in the Royal Artillery, and was part of the British Forces evacuated under fire from Dunkirk in 1940. After the war and demobilisation Andy moved to Somerset and became an active member of the Taunton Peace Group, the South West TUC and local trade union councils. In 1955 he established a branch of COHSE at Taunton hospital, and was Branch secretary and Taunton Trades Council delegate until he retired at the age of 65 in 1972.
In 2006, aged 99, he rejoined the Communist Party, joined the Taunton Peace Group and thereafter was seen regularly on the streets of Taunton handing out leaflets protesting against the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles. The following year Andy delivered a passionate speech at the Glastonbury festival, attacking the British National Party.
Prominent figures in the British Labour and peace movements came together in Taunton in February this year to pay tribute to Andy on his 101st birthday. Messages from veteran former Labour MP Tony Benn and Kate Hudson, chair of CND were read out, and many speakers from the local trade union and peace movement came forward to add their good wishes.
Andy Andrews died on 7 May 2008, following a short illness.
Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.
When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.
Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.
From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.
Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.
After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.
Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.
For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.
In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’
Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.
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.
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.
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.
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.