The last volunteer
In the Sky News studio talking about the former International Brigader, Geoffrey Servante, who died on 22 April 2019, aged 99. He was almost certainly the last surviving British veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Should you be looking for works on the war itself, you could do worse than take the advice of Professor Paul Preston, who has compiled a list of his top five, though modesty seems to have prevented him from including his own Concise History of the Spanish Civil War.
The following recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books. My list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.
If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.
Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.
The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way. The most recent work on the Welsh volunteers is Graham Davies’ You Are Legend, a comprehensive account containing a useful list of the men and women who went to Spain from Wales.
Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:
If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.
The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.
Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).
Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.
Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.
George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.
Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).
Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.
There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!
John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012
I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.
Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.
Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.
With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion. Seb Browne’s Medicine and Conflict looks interesting but at around £100.00 for the hardback, is probably out of reach of most readers.
For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading. Angela also contributed an introduction to the most recent publication, Firing a Shot for Freedom; the memoirs of Frida Stewart (2020).
I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed with entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.
The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.
There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.
Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book, even if not to everyone’s taste.C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It’s an entertaining and easy read, but has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.
I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing tells the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and well-paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.
Not centred on the volunteers as such (though one of the characters does end up joining the International Brigades) is Jessie Burton’s The Muse, focus of 2018 CityRead London. Split between Britain in the 1960s and Spain in the 1930s, it’s a well-crafted novel and definitely worth a read.
Barbara Lamplugh’s The Red Gene, published in 2019, tells the story of a young English nurse who volunteered for the Spanish Government’s medical services and fell for a Republican soldier. The story touches on the awful conditions during the civil war and the scandalous forced adoptions in Franco Spain. It was reviewed in the January 2020 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
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.
The following suggestions for further reading are from my Unlikely Warriors:
For British politics in the 1930s, see John Stephenson and Chris Cook’s Britain in the Depression and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties. Joe Jacobs’ memoir Out of the Ghetto is good for a view from the street.
There are many published accounts by British volunteers in the International Brigades; of those still in print, Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave and Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills are justifiably popular. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the Spanish born Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel are both important and highly readable. Many works focus on the national and ethnic groups within the ‘British’ volunteers, of which Hywell Francis’ reissued Miners Against Fascism and Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia are two notable recent additions.
Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a fascinating account of the foreign correspondents who witnessed the conflict. For the war itself, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War in its fully revised third edition is always useful, though Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War and Paul Preston’s Concise History offer more accessible introductions to the subject. Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain remains a shining example of the merits of oral history.
For the role of the former volunteers after the civil war and the continuing relevance of the conflict, see Tom Buchanan’s Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain.
In June 2011, the National Archives’ release of a list of 4000 names of those the British Security Services belived to be on their way to fight in Spain, created a bit of a stir. Tom Buchanan wrote a piece for The Guardian and I was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news.
It was a good story. However, the over-zealous spooks included reporters, war-tourists, visitors and holiday makers on the list, so historians agree that there’s no reason to discount the previous estimates just yet.
There has been a spate of books published recently on The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain, to use the title of Tom Buchanan’s latest (2007) work. In addition to the IBMT’s Antifascistas (2010) written to accompany the exhibition on the British and Irish volunteers, we have had Brian Shelmerdine’s British Representations of the Spanish Civil War (2006), Lewis Mates’ The Spanish Civil War and the British Left (2007), David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War (2008) and now Hugo García has added The Truth About Spain!: Mobilizing British Public Opinion, 1936-1939. This is not to forget Chris Hall’s Not Just Orwell, Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia, the two oral histories of British volunteers – Max Arthur’s The Real Band of Brothers and Peter Darman’s Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War – and two more general books that include much of interest to a British audience: Paul Preston’s study of the war correspondents, We Saw Spain Die, and Steve Hurst’s Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War. Clearly, as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of the war, the conflict still has a powerful resonance in Britain, despite rarely making an appearance in the classroom.
Hugo García has made an important contribution to this rather crowded field; it is a rich, detailed study, impeccably researched. The title, however, is somewhat of a misnomer for García’s aim, as he admits, is not to judge the veracity of Republican and Nationalist propaganda, but rather to attempt to present an objective, dispassionate analysis of the forms and effectiveness of their propaganda campaigns, how they functioned and impacted on British opinion.
The book comprises four main sections. The first is a history of ‘modern’ forms of propaganda and censorship, from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, focusing on the use of propaganda in the totalitarian countries and in Spain itself during the Second Republic.
Part two compares the differing approaches of the Nationalists and the Republicans and contains a wealth of detail on the development, manning and operation of both sides’ propaganda machines. As García shows, the view of foreign correspondents as spies and criminals by senior Nationalists, and their treatment by their rude and obstructive Press officer, Luis Bolín was often counter-productive. For example, the expulsion of The Times correspondent George Steer required him to move to the Republican zone, from where he later produced his devastating coverage of the bombing of Guernica.
García’s analysis of the Republicans’ approach – frequently drawing on Arturo Barea’s wonderful memoir, The Forging of a Rebel – recognises that the Republic’s initial problem was to overcome the chaos that followed the rising and which had shattered the state apparatus. As García describes, order was gradually re-established by the end of 1936, leading to increasingly sophisticated and professional dealings with the foreign press. In contrast to the repugnant Bolín, Republican faces such as Constancia de la Mora offered an efficient and charming front to the foreign correspondents, recognising their value, rather than treating them as irritants.
García then turns to the propaganda messages put out by both sides, particularly atrocities and foreign intervention. It was obviously vitally important for both sides to get across their version of events: the Rebels’ depiction of themselves as Nacionales with an anti-Communist crusade was countered by the Republicans’ portrayal of the war as ‘progress versus feudalism’, or the defence of democracy against international fascism. García argues that the techniques used by both sides were, in fact, very similar and that both sides knowingly and deliberately used falsehoods to sustain their portrayal of the conflict.
The final section discusses the impact of the propaganda on Britain. As he recognises, García faces the thorny problem of assessing exactly how the ‘messages’ put across by both sides were received in Britain; not easy to judge considering the unreliability of opinion polling, then still in its infancy. García claims that, in the main, there was a general indifference, ‘a plague on both your houses,’ as one contemporary newspaper put it. However, as he recognises, of those who took sides, many more sided with the Republicans than with the Rebels. And while the strongest support for both sides came from the political extremes in Britain, the Republicans had some success in extending their realm of support as the war progressed.
However, García believes that the reportage of the horrors of the Spanish war was most effective in convincing neutrals of the horror of war in general, rather than of one particular side, and thus consolidated support for non-intervention. In a depressing conclusion, he argues that even if the Republican propaganda had been more effective, it would probably still not have achieved enough to be able to save the Spanish Republic. Sadly, it is difficult to disagree with García’s view put forward at the very beginning of the book, that ‘this was, from very early in the war, a lost cause.’ Once Britain and France were determined to pursue a policy of non-intervention in the war, despite ample evidence of a huge German and Italian presence in Spain, the Spanish Republic was effectively doomed.
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.