Spain repays its debt of blood and honour

Paul Routledge on a tribute to the Britons who fought against Franco

Paul Routledge
Sunday 04 February 1996 00:02 GMT

There's a valley in Spain called Jarama

It's a place that we all know so well

It is there that we gave of our manhood

And so many of our brave comrades fell.

THUS goes the anthem sung at reunions by the dwindling ranks of the British members of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It was composed by a young Glaswegian, Alex McDade, in the trenches during the bloody battle of Jarama on the outskirts of Madrid, and commemorates the 400 men who were killed, wounded or captured in four days.

Even by the standards of modern warfare, the International Brigade suffered terrible losses. Of the 2,400 who cobbled together the pounds 5 8s (pounds 5.40) fare to go out to Spain from Britain and fight for the socialist government against General Franco's insurgent Fascist army, 546 never returned. They fell in battle, were shot out of hand after being taken prisoner, or died in atrocious conditions in prison camps. McDade himself was killed in "the furnace of Brunete" a few weeks later.

In the 60th year since the civil war broke out, the Spanish government is remembering their sacrifice. The survivors are being offered Spanish citizenship, fulfilling the promise made by prime minister Juan Negrin in 1938. The gesture has deeply touched the 82 brigade veterans still alive in Britain, all now in their eighties. More than 60 have completed the forms for citizenship, and will receive a Spanish passport.

The decision was taken by a unanimous vote of the Spanish parliament, including the right-wing Conservative Party. Bill Alexander, the 85-year- old secretary of the International Brigade Association, a battalion commander wounded in the battle of Teruel, feels the step is "part of the healing process" that the Spanish have gone through since the death of General Franco.

Don Alberto Aza, the Spanish ambassador in London, today tells BBC TV's South of Westminster that the granting of citizenship is "the best tribute a state or country can give to a foreigner. It is a historic debt. We have to pay tribute to people who were moved by the feeling to defend democracy."

He concedes that "a very long time" has passed since the promise was made, but adds: "It's a short time for history. Don't overlook the fact that Spain was dominated politically by those who won the war." The country had to establish democracy before dealing with "the ashes of the tragedy that was the civil war".

In all, 42,000 international brigadistas of many nations volunteered, of whom 20,000 were killed, reported missing or were totally disabled. Theyshared a common purpose, to fight Fascism, but that was about all they had in common. They were poets, mathematicians, teachers, shopworkers, printers, miners, and unemployed. The youngest were in their teens. Men in their fifties lied about their age to volunteer.

Sometimes with very little training, with inadequate arms and facing overwhelming odds, they behaved with extraordinary courage. Ralph Fox, the writer, died while reconnoitring in no-man's land in the assault on Lopera. John Cornford, the poet and Communist organiser among Cambridge undergraduates, died trying to reach his body, the day after his 21st birthday. In the battle of Jarama, where the British Battalion was trapped on what became known as Suicide Hill, Christopher Caudwell, the Marxist intellectual, died alongside Clem Beckett, the world-famous speedway rider.

Their heroism is commemorated in memorials all over Britain, 56 in all, and the survivors are holding an event at each one this year. The Imperial War Museum is mounting a special exhibition. And there will be another book to add to the growing library on the subject.

But for the men (and a few women: they went too, as nurses), a Spanish passport will be the final recognition. Walter Gregory, a Nottinghamshire shopworker, now 83, fought in three battles and was wounded three times. He took a bullet through the neck in the last offensive on the Ebro ("It wasn't much," he says with alarming sang-froid, "but by Jove it could have been serious") and was taken prisoner. "This is splendid news. It was something the Republic promised while the war was still on. My feet weren't on the ground for a day or two."

Lou Kenton, a London printworker, was the only volunteer to go to Spain on his motorcycle. He drove an ambulance (donated by the print union Slade) and acted as a dispatch rider to the front.

"We couldn't do anything but go. It was the front line against Fascism. I have never met anyone who regretted going. Never."

It was not all uplifting comradeship. The historian Hugh Thomas has claimed that many of the British volunteers "desired some outlet through which to purge some private grief or maladjustment", a charge strongly rebutted by Alexander. There were sharp political divisions on the republican side, amply documented in Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and in the recent Ken Loach film, Land and Freedom, and these were mirrored in the brigade.

The Communists were jealous of their leading role. And there was, and still is, argument over whether it was right for the flower of the "progressive movement" in the Thirties to be cut down on Spanish battlefields.

Alexander responds: "It is true that 526 volunteers were killed, among them the finest of working people, many of whom, at an early age, had already shown high ability in the labour movement and the intellectual world. In addition, many returned disabled and lived the rest of their lives in pain and discomfort, unable to fulfil their potential.

"However, would the movement for Spain, with its wide, catalytic effect on the anti-Fascist struggle, have arisen without the focus of the volunteers actually there, taking part in the struggle? Could the British people have remained spectators on the sidelines, only applauding the anti-Fascist struggle in Germany, Italy and Spain from the outside? On the contrary, the sacrifices and losses of the British volunteers were suffered precisely in that wider struggle for democracy and peace and against fascism and war."

Indeed, "would Fascism have been defeated without the Spanish people's fight?"

In late 1938, the republican government decided to repatriate all the brigadistas, in the fond hope that "world opinion" could compel the withdrawal of German and Italian military units.

Barcelona's main street, the Diagonal, was crowded for the last march- past. Addressing the volunteers, the legendary civil war heroine La Pasionara said: "You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. We shall not forget you ... Come back!"

And they will, this time as citizens of a democratic Spain.

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