David Marshall

International Brigade veteran moved to poetry by his experiences
Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Marshall was one of the small band of British volunteers who took up arms to defend Madrid during the early days of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. In the suburbs and villages to the west of the Spanish capital they helped fight off General Francisco Franco's Army of Africa, which had been airlifted from Morocco by Hitler's Luftwaffe. Franco was denied the quick victory which he had confidently expected and Madrid, along with the Spanish Republic, held out for another two and a half years.

Arriving in Barcelona early in September 1936, less than two months after Franco's putsch against Spain's elected government, Marshall first enlisted with the anti-Fascist militia in Catalonia. He soon met up with the handful of Britons in the city and together they formed the Tom Mann Centuria - named after the dockers' union leader. Among the 13 others was Tom Wintringham who, like Marshall, would go on to write many fine poems about the war in Spain.

On hearing of the creation of the International Brigades, Marshall and the others travelled south to Albacete, where the foreign volunteers were being organised into fighting units. The British Battalion had not yet been formed, so Marshall was assigned, along with a dozen more volunteers from Britain and Ireland, to the mainly German Thaelmann Battalion.

With him at the time was Winston Churchill's nephew Esmond Romilly. In his 1937 account of the fighting around Madrid, Boadilla, Romilly describes Marshall as "a boy of twenty-three" (in fact he was only 20) who had brought copies of Keats, Swinburne and Shelley with him to Spain.

The English-speaking section of the Thaelmann Battalion was deployed to the front west of Madrid and ordered to attack a rebel-held strongpoint at Cerro de los Angeles. There, on 12 November 1936, Marshall received a bullet wound in the leg and was taken to hospital in Albacete.

He recovered well enough to return to England in January 1937, where he continued to campaign in support of the Spanish Republic and against the British government's shameful policy of non-intervention, which effectively gave Hitler and Mussolini carte blanche to strangle Spanish democracy and install a Fascist dictatorship in its place.

Back in his native Middlesbrough, Marshall described his feelings in the poem "Retrospect". It was published in the 1939 Poems for Spain anthology edited by Stephen Spender, which included verse by his fellow International Brigader Tom Wintringham, alongside works by Spender himself, W.H. Auden, C. Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice. Marshall's poem began:

Go back -
Six feet of snow on the Aragon front;
While here
Kids slide in the roadways
Steadied feet thudding in the gutters:
Ice blurs
The red orange blue of neon lights -
The harlot shops invite.
But there
The café lights blink and blacken
Ribs tighten, skin grows ware . . .

Before going to Spain, Marshall had worked as a dole office clerk on Teesside where, he would later explain, he witnessed enough deprivation to convince him that a better world was possible. In the 1930s, the Spanish Republic, with its modest programme of social reform, was a beacon of hope in Europe's encroaching darkness. The defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939 was not the end of Marshall's anti-Fascist war: he participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944 and the liberation of Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

After resuming his civil service career, he moved to London in 1961, working as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood and later buying and refurbishing a Thames barge. Moored mostly at St Katharine's Dock, the Jock provided him with an income from hosting corporate entertainment and other social functions. Several reunions of International Brigade veterans were held on board during the 1970s and 1980s - as well as his own parties, renowned for their spontaneous revelry.

His partner of the past 15 years was the actress Marlene Sidaway, who only last month organised the launch in London of an anthology of his verse, The Tilting Planet, with the actors Nigel Bowden, Michael Elwyn, Alison Steadman and Mark Straker reading out some of the poems. It was a memorable and moving event - as well as Marshall's last public outing.

Spain and the Spanish war which cost the lives of so many of his comrades remained Marshall's abiding passion. He was a founder member and trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, which keeps alive the memory and spirit of the 2,500 volunteers from the British Isles who went to Spain as soldiers or medics to help the Spanish Republic - of whom over 500 were killed. Fewer than 25 of that remarkable cohort of men and women are still alive today.

In July, Marshall, holding the banner of the Thaelmann Battalion's English-speaking contingent, plus half a dozen more veterans, attended the annual commemoration at the International Brigade memorial in Jubilee Gardens, London. His final request, just before his death, was to return to Spain. Now, only his ashes will fulfil that wish, made in one of his last poems:

I wish I were back in the trenches round Madrid
Along with the chicos, among the strangeness of tongues:
Strong in my body, testing it thus and thus,
Half wondering that my flesh can bear these things.

Jim Jump

Comments