Republic and thousands of young Britons joined the International
Brigades to defend it. What drove them to leave homes, jobs and
families, risking their lives? And what did they find when they returned?
It Was, they believed, a war of democracy against fascism, of the working man against vested interests, of the secular and modern against the ancient domination of the Church. Above all, it was a test of whether people, wherever they might be, were ready to stand up - in the words of one Spanish writer - for light against darkness.
A miner's daughter from south Wales, a Jewish teenager from the East End of London, a young civil servant from Middlesbrough - the veterans interviewed here are just some of those who heard the call. Between 2,000 and 3,000 British people left their homes and jobs to join the International Brigades, and of those more than 500 lost their lives. From a distance of 60 years - it was in July 1936 that the Spanish army rose up against the Republic - such commitment to a foreign cause is at the limit of our comprehension. It seems romantic and a little foolish, like Byron in Greece, perhaps, and certainly not of this century. We may have felt outrage at events in Bosnia, and despair at the British Government's ineffectiveness, but very few in this country felt impelled to travel there and sign up. Perhaps it is harder for us, familiar as we are with live battlefield coverage from dozens of conflicts the world over, to see a war in idealistic terms or to imagine we would make a difference. Whether this means we are wiser or merely more muddled is hard to say, but today we are certainly more likely to enlist in those armies of aid workers who minister to orphans and refugees.
Spain in the 1930s was an unlikely stage for a drama that could stir passions in the kitchens of Stepney or Swansea. It was a country that had slumbered for a century and then woken up as a basket-case. Undeveloped and confused, it stumbled feebly from democratic experiment to dictatorship, and then back. The world did not pay much attention.
The war began because the army, over-large and over-powerful, revolted against an elected government which the generals believed was slipping into the embrace of socialists, Communists, anarchists and church-burners. It became a war, rather than a coup, because to widespread surprise half the country balked at army rule. Madrid, the North and the East stood out for the Republic against Franco and his coalition of monarchists, conservatives, defenders of the Church, aristocrats, professionals and outright fascists.
As the fighting began, Britain and France decided that they would stay on the sidelines and attempted to persuade the other European powers to do likewise. Germany and Italy, however, threw themselves enthusiastically behind Franco, providing between them more than 90,000 trained soldiers. Although the Soviet Union armed the Republicans, the contest was never an even one, and many on the British Left felt that non-intervention was another way of condemning the Republic to death. They cared about this conflict in Spain because they could see darkness closing in. This was 1936. In Italy and Germany, the dictators ruled. Austria had fallen to Hitler, and he had taken back control of the Rhineland. Mussolini was getting away with his conquest of Ethiopia. Spain, it seemed, was to be the next to fall to fascism. Perhaps France, where the Right was powerful, would follow.
And to people of the Left, Spain, for all its banana-republic obscurity, had some emotional pull: governments since 1931 had seen off the King, challenged the Church and dabbled in reform; the trade unions were now very strong; and there was a social and cultural effervescence about the place. It was the home of Picasso, Dali and Lorca, as well as of Marxist and anarchist movements that seemed on the brink of putting their ideas into action. If the British Government would do nothing for these people, then young people could at least sign up for the war on their own account.
The first step was usually to get to Paris - using their own money or sometimes funds collected by a union or party branch. From there the International Brigades organisation would take them south by train or boat. When the Spanish border was closed, as it often was, they would cross the Pyrenees on foot. Once in Spain, they were packed off to camps such as Madrigueras, in Albacete near Valencia, to be formed into units and given basic training. The quality of this training was as mixed as the raw material, but the atmosphere, so cosmopolitan, so ideologically charged, could be intoxicating. Then, ready or not, the new recruits were whisked off by train or lorry and thrown into the thick of the fighting.
In military terms, it was a conflict halfway between the world wars - here a stalemate of trenches, there a fluid, open battle with tanks, aircraft and burning villages. Combat casualties were high in the Brigades, and the extremes of temperature - between the snowy highlands in winter and the parched lowlands in summer - also took a heavy toll. From the beginning, Franco had the advantage, and the Republican side, a rainbow of groups who were as suspicious of one another as they were of their enemy, tended to fragment under pressure. The influence of Moscow, underpinned by its generous supplies of artillery, tanks and planes, steadily increased. Idealism came under strain.
Late in 1938, Stalin, his mind turning towards a pact with Hitler, began to lose interest in Spain. The doomed Republican leadership decided to send its foreign soldiers home in a (fruitless) gesture intended to shame Franco into doing the same. Within months the war was over, and the baleful Generalissimo began a reign that lasted, almost incredibly, until 1975.
The last of the returning British contingent was welcomed at Victoria Station by Clement Attlee, the Labour leader. Then they were forgotten. Why this should have happened when they had done something so remarkable is an interesting question. The country, of course, was by then preparing for war against Hitler - another round in the contest with fascism, yes, but also and more pressingly a battle for hearth and home. There were other reasons to forget: Stalin and all he stood for had tainted the Brigades, as he did so much associated with the Left. Defeat, too, left a sour taste. And there was undoubtedly guilt among the many in Britain who had spoken of going out to fight, but who never did.
If you had fought in Spain, it seemed that there was no glory to trade on, no chips to cash in at home, no special pension or allowance or medals. Like everyone else in the country, the veterans were soon caught up in the world war, and like everyone else they had to adapt to peace afterwards. Few of them rose to positions of prominence, even in organisations of the Left; their Spanish experience quickly became remote, and their lives were much like their neighbours'.
Spain, for its part, slipped into a long and sullen isolation that lasted until the tourist invasion and the old man's death. Only this year has the Madrid government felt able to honour a promise made when the International Brigades were sent home in 1938, by giving Spanish citizenship to any vete- ran who applied. There are 80-odd left in Britain, and most of them have snapped it up.
DAVID MARSHALL: born 1916, Middlesbrough; retired civil servant
One day, by pure chance, I bought The Times. There was a paragraph inside which said there was no doubt that if the Spanish Republicans won this war they would set up a socialist government. And that was the trigger which blew me out to Spain.
I bought a spare pair of specs and a copy of Brave New World. I drew my salary at the labour exchange where I was working and I told my parents I was going to stay with my sweetheart in Whitley Bay. I got the midnight bus to London from Durham and then I got a train ticket to Port Bou on the Franco-Spanish border. If you were under 21 you had to get your parents' permission to travel abroad, so I had to forge my father's signature and say he was delighted I was going abroad.
In Barcelona it was a very intoxicating time. There was damage done in the fighting - some churches had been burnt - but with youngsters linking arm-in-arm, 12 and 14 abreast, going down the streets singing, it was a terrific time. We soon met up with others and we formed the first British battalion of the war. We wanted to go and defend Madrid; that was the great call. Yes, we had ideals, but they were ideals founded on practical hopes. We weren't airy-fairy. To harden ourselves we went to the city morgue - a group of us youngsters. There must have been about 400 corpses there, all numbered and beginning to look greasily sooty as skin does after some days of death.
We finally went to a hill south of Madrid called Hill of the Angels. It was quite steep, with a great building on top of it, and we were to attack this. We were laid out in the open and this sniper got on to me - well, he was a fairly good shot and he put one or two bullets round me, and he finally got me in the foot. I finished up in hospital, and then, as I wouldn't be able to march, I was given safe conduct to England. Sometimes people were wounded a second time and still went back; I've always felt somehow that I wasn't up to their standard, but that's a personal thing.
After the war, when I went back to my job, I often thought, "What the hell have I done? What am I doing returning to the civil service? What the devil am I doing sitting at this desk?" I expected my life to have changed.
I've often felt, with bitterness, that after the Civil War we were never fully recog-nised. It was different for the veterans from the war against Germany. Men should not fight for liberty before it is the fashion.
MICHAEL ECONOMIDES: born 1910, Nicosia, Cyprus; restaurant owner
I left for Spain on 5 December 1936. I reconciled myself with the idea of getting killed. They were years of great depression, big unemployment, which for me, as a foreigner, was even more difficult. If there was to be any hope, Hitler and Mussolini must be stopped.
I was in the first battle that the British battalion fought, and the last. I was wounded in both. At one point, my job was to welcome new volunteers. One day somebody came to me and said, "I'm a pacifist. I cannot take up arms." I said, "What have you come here for? We're fighting a bloody war with rifles, machine-guns and tanks." I sent him away but he returned later: "Please don't send me back. I could drive an ambulance or work in first aid." Well, I let him through. Months afterwards,at the Battle of the Ebro, I was hit in the arm and lungs and was bleeding profusely; he came and bandaged me. Perhaps he saved my life.
Our relations with the villagers were excellent. When I was in La Mancha, I remember taking lorries of British troops to help gather the grapes in the vineyards. We used to trade with the farm owner, an anarchist - our Lucky Strikes for his wine. He had two sons - Lenin and Bakunin.
JACK SHAW: born 1917, Stepney, London; retired cab driver
All Dad wanted us to do was to be good Yiddisher boys and always turn a cheek, but we never would. We used to wait for Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in Whitechapel and give them a bloody good hiding. I was arrested at the Battle of Cable Street and got three months' hard labour.
I wanted to go to Spain but the Communist Party wouldn't let me. I was 18, and had just come out of prison. But I got a job on a boat going to Alicante, jumped ship and made my way to Albacete, which was the International Brigade base. Errol Flynn was at the base and bought us drinks. Now I read he was a spy. I was sent to Madrigueras, where we did six weeks' training and then went to Jarama - a hell of a battle. We fought Franco's troops, Germans, Italians... I was brought home by the Communist Party when there was a stink in the press about too many youngsters getting slaughtered.
I believe there were 10,000 Jews in the International Brigades. There's a memorial to them. But Franco wasn't anti-semitic: a Jewish millionaire from Sweden backed him.
The war stays with me. I used to get into arguments with other cab drivers: they believed we killed nuns and priests in the war.
THORA CRAIG: born 1910, Abertillery, Gwent; retired nurse
My father was a miner and a founder member of the British Communist Party. I was in the Young Communist League. When the Spanish war broke out and they were appealing for help, I volunteered to go to Spain as a nurse with the first medical unit. Our organisation was put at the service of the International Brigade Association and gathered together sympathetic nurses and doctors. My family were completely behind me, although a number of nurses had difficulties with their parents. The newspapers said we were leaving for Madrid on the train - the streets were packed all around Victoria with people who wanted to cheer us and see us off, and we were just a little group with funny hats on. It was marvellous. We went to Paris and were received as if we were going to win the war. In Barcelona, we were feted and cheered. It was the first demonstration that their war was being seen and supported.
Then we went up to the Front. I had done lots of operations before, but there it was quite different. We dealt with seriously injured people who'd never had experience of war. We were under fire. We had a red cross on the roof, but we were warned: "Take it down - it's the first thing they'll aim for." We worked under great difficulties.
When the army moved, we had to pack everything up, our instruments, tables, and travel through the night to form another small hospital. It was a very hard life, but we were all young: when you're young, you can go without sleep. We were all such close comrades. I've never lived in another community where everybody was everybody's friend. One of my friends was called Michael Livesay. He was about 22. He used to come and share his parcels from home with us; I knew him very well. He came in injured - we knew he wouldn't live. I was just holding his hand and talking. He died in my arms. I don't think I could bear that sort of thing now. Once we treated 700 people over five days.
It was terribly important to be there, a bit of history, and helping. It was the most important part of my life. I didn't think I was coming back, but we were sent home after a year. We then started the Association of Nurses, getting nurses into trade unions.
ROBERT JAMES PETERS: born 1914, Penarth, South Glamorgan; retired plasterer
We spent several weeks training in Madrigueras: route marches, marching songs, grenade-throwing, lectures. Our only equipment came out of the First World War and the Boer war. Oh, it was bedlam! So many people from each country. By the time any message arrived, having been passed from man to man, it bore no resemblance to the original. Some blokes were there for a bit of adventure, but they were soon weeded out.
We went up to Sierra de Guadarrama for the Battle of Brunete. Casualties were heavy, and the heat and dust were unbearable. What angered me most was that the fascists had box after box - some of which we captured - of brand-new British army socks, complete with Union Jack stamped on the containers. I soon whipped off my own old socks and replaced them with the new ones - courtesy of Franco and his British backers.
I got a bullet in my back: it lodged against my spine. Eventually I was considered fit enough to return to my unit, the bullet still inside me, and served as a dispatch rider. Through the bouncing about, the bullet travelled up my shoulder and down my right arm. It was successfully removed in an operation.
If I ever did anything useful in my life, this is the one thing I have done. Afterwards, I went home to Penarth. There was no work, so I thought, I'll spruce up and join the Army. The recruiting officer pulled out a Government document: "On no account is a member of the International Brigade allowed to join the British Army." A few months later, war broke out and I got my call-up papers. I had no option then.
The Spanish war was a completely different thing: we volunteered, we went there for a purpose. When we got back, well, you felt very lost. It was peacetime, but every time a plane went over I leapt under the table. You get like that after you've been in those conditions. Back home, I made some speeches to try and get milk for the children in Spain. My mother was very proud of me. My elder brother was proud too. He used to boast: "My brother's in the International Brigade."
So much has happened since then, but it was such a dramatic experience. Many times it's been difficult to believe it actually happened.
MAX COLLINS: born 1912, Stepney, London; retired laboratory technician
I thought I might as well risk my life for something I believed in, so I came up to King Street, to the Communist Party office. The man asked me if I'd had any previous military experience, and I said no. He said: "Well, what the bloody hell have you come here for? Do you think it's going to be a bloody holiday?" He told me to leave my name, address and occupation. I was a motor mechanic, so when, weeks later, they were forming an ambulance unit to go to Spain, I got a telegram. On 28 December 1936, with a mate, I picked up the ambulance from a medical suppliers in Gray's Inn Road. We crossed over to Dieppe, drove through the night and got to Barcelona. My experiences to some extent justified the reports in the Daily Worker about the welcome given to the International Volunteers by the Spanish people. Everywhere we travelled, "Salud! Salud!" A tremendous feeling...
I operated as an ambulance driver for a while, then I became mechanic to the unit. At Brunete I'd run out of spare parts and so I was idle, but the ambulance drivers were busy. So I said let me take the ambulance for a couple of trips. I got down to the first aid post, loaded in the wounded and hadn't gone far when four Italian planes came over the brow of the bill. Something hit me in the head ... I took the helmet off ... blood and everything, the ambulance was on its side.
I had to come back to England, but I went back to Spain in 1938. I did a survey of all the ambulances to see what was needed. I thumbed a lift back to England, got the spare parts together and went back to Spain.
I met so many wonderful people I would never have had the opportunity to meet in ordinary civilian life. I met Pandit Nehru; and Ernest Hemingway, who bought me a drink in Madrid. Despite all the hardships and difficulties, I wouldn't have missed it.
TED SMITH: born 1914, Hampstead, London; retired electrician
All my family were Communists. When people were beginning to go to Spain, I wanted to go, but my brother-in-law, a printer, he went, and my family said: "Don't go yet. Hang on for a bit." Well, he was killed, so my family said, "You can go now." So I made my way - but I married first, as I thought, if I got captured she could claim my body. I eventually went out with a pack weighing about 20kg full of food and cigarettes for people.
I met a number of comrades in Paris and a bunch of Americans, boys virtually, stowaways who'd come to join the International Brigade. I always remember the ticket collector saying "Bonne chance", as we got on the train to go south. When we got there we started to climb into the Pyrenees. They were city boys, not mountain folk, and one of them collapsed. We had to carry him, which was a bit annoying, because when he got to the other side he decided he didn't want to go.
In Spain, I joined the transmissions unit. We had to run telephone wires out to each unit, which was all right as long as there wasn't an attack on - otherwise, shells would break your lines and you had to go out to repair them.
What we say is that we weren't defeated, because subsequently we carried on the war and fascism was defeated. It was in some ways a waste of life for what we call good militant people in this country, but nevertheless it rallied the world against fascism.
BILL ALEXANDER: born 1910, Ringwood, Hampshire; retired industrial chemist
The physical conditions were intolerable; in summer, the temperature was over 100 degrees. I remember one day, parched, no water, finding a dry river-bed, scraping a hole and putting down a handkerchief over the sand and sucking up water. The shits was almost universal. Then there was one of the coldest winters. Central Spain is bloody cold, so cold that you had to take your rifle bolt out and put it under your armpit to keep it warm. When food got to you, it was frozen solid.
But there were good moments, too. After the battle of Brunete we had an idyllic fortnight near Madrid: we took over an old mill, and you could swim in the river. We had concerts, we sang.
Then we were brought down to Teruel, where Franco had a very powerful force. It was grim; we had to make a partial retreat. We were then moved up to a place where we were supposed to cut off Franco's force. We never succeeded, and I got a bullet through my shoulder and out of the middle of my back. I was taken to hospital and things went wrong, so they sent me back to England. I regret that we didn't win, but it is a period of my life I am proud of. I was standing up at what could have been and was a turning point in the history of ordinary people.
As Assistant Secretary of the International Brigades Association, I'm using my retirement to tell people about the war, and to point out the big lesson of Spain which was that if you see fascism or racism, you've got to begin to struggle. And although you may not win every battle, if you don't start fighting, you can never win.Reuse content