For this year's Len Crome event, I discussed the difficulties invoved in establing 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).
President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, addresses the IBMT
With Manus O'Riordan and Sabina Coyne as Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins addresses the International Brigade Memorial Trust's Annual General Meeting in Dublin, 15 October 2016
BBC documentary with Richard Harrington
In April 2016 I was interviewed by the actor, Richard Harrington, who played Captain Andrew Blamey in the BBC's 2015 remake of Poldark. We were chatting about the experiences of his Grandfather, who served in the International Brigades, for a documentary shown on BBC Wales in May 2017.
71° Festa della liberazione
On 24 April 2016, I participated in a panel discussion, following the London premiere screening of Daniel Burkholz's ‘No Pasarán’. The event was jointly organised by the IBMT and ANPI Londra, the London branch of the Italian anti-fascist partisan memorial association.
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.
Radio 4's The Long View
In July 2014 I joined presenter Jonathan Freedland (and others) in Radio Four's The Long View, which discussed our attitudes towards young people from Britain who volunteer to fight in foreign wars.
On 24 November 2013, I participated in a discussion for Radio Four’s The World This Weekend. The interviewer, Shaun Ley, wanted to know why 2500 men and women from Britain would volunteer for a war in Spain and - in the context of Syria - how the survivors were viewed on their return.
Many years ago now, I was a young(ish) undergraduate history student, excited at the prospect of taking a course in the Spanish Civil War. At the time, like many in Britain, my knowledge of one of the twentieth century’s most seismic events was based primarily, if not solely, on two works; one a memoir by a British novelist; the other, a novel by an American journalist and writer. Yet neither Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia nor Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, important though they may be, can in any way be seen as histories of the conflict. Consequently, like many students before me and since, I immersed myself in the encyclopaedic study, The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas.
Born on 21 October 1931, Hugh Thomas was the son of a British colonial officer and nephew of Sir Shenton Thomas, the governor of Singapore, who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Hugh attended Sherborne School before going on to study history at Cambridge. He worked for a time at the Foreign Office, before leaving, so he said, over the Suez crisis. That same year he published his first novel, The World’s Game, which led to him being invited to submit a proposal for a history of the civil war in Spain.
Published in 1961, to coincide with the 25 year anniversary of its outbreak, The Spanish Civil War was generally well received by critics. Smuggled into Spain during the Franco dictatorship, it became a clandestine best-seller. Eminently readable and packed full of entertaining anecdotes, the book has become seen as the history of the civil war. It has now run to four editions and sold more than a million copies across the world. The book still appears on undergraduate reading lists today and I know that I am not the only historian of the civil war to consult it regularly. However, it is by no means faultless; there are many errors of fact and judgement and Thomas has rightly been accused of occasionally valuing narrative style above factual accuracy. Fortunately, revisions have gradually been made during later editions, such as the removal of the following offensive description of the International Brigaders: ‘Many of the British volunteers appear to have been persons who desired some outlet through which to purge some private grief or maladjustment.’
A year after the book’s publication, Hugh Thomas’s success allowed him to marry the glamorous Honorable Vanessa Jebb, daughter of Lord Gladwyn Jebb. A talented and popular lecturer, four years later, in 1966, Thomas was made Professor of History at the University of Reading. When he took a sabbatical in 1974 to concentrate on his writing, his research assistant, a promising young historian called Paul Preston, took over his teaching duties. Hugh Thomas’s 1700 page history of Cuba was published in 1971 followed, eight years later, by An Unfinished History of the World.
Meanwhile, the 1970s saw a shift in Hugh Thomas’s political allegiances. After an attempt to secure a Labour seat in North Kensington was stymied by Militant Tendency, he abandoned the Labour Party for the Conservatives’ free-market economics. Having replaced Keith Joseph as Chairman of her think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, Thomas became a favoured confidante of Margaret Thatcher and was a frequent guest at Downing Street and Chequers. In 1981 he was rewarded for his support when he was ennobled as Lord Thomas of Swynnerton.
Increasingly disillusioned by the Tories’ increasing Euro-scepticism, Lord Thomas crossed the floor of the House of Lords on 17 November 1997 to join the Liberal-Democrat benches. A committed Europhile, he maintained his opposition to the Brexit shambles right to the end. After suffering a stroke, Hugh Thomas died on 7 May 2017, leaving behind several unfinished projects, including an autobiography. He is survived by his wife Vanessa and their three children, Inigo, Isambard and Isabella.
An edited version of this post first appeared in issue 45 (3/2017) of the IBMT Magazine.
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. Recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books.
The following 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.
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 Basque Refugee Children
The story of the arrival in Britain of 3000 Basque children in June 1937 has now received the attention it deserves. Adrian Bell’s Only for Three Months is the standard account and is very good. To this have recently been added two moving collections of memoirs (in both English & Spanish) edited by Natalia Benjamin: Memorias and Recuerdos. Hywel Davis’s Fleeing Franco focuses on the niños in Wales.
The British volunteers
Histories of the British Battalion
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!
There are way too many to list, many of which only have one chapter on Spain, so here are one or two of my favourites:
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.
The ILP & Anarchist Volunteers
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.
The medical services
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.
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.
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 full of entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.
The British Media & Public Opinion
This has been a hot topic in recent years. The republication of Henry Buckley’s memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is something to cheer. The Daily Telegraph reporter’s account is, I think, one of the very best first-hand accounts of the war written in English (alongside Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Arturo Barea’s Forging of a Rebel).
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.
The British volunteers in fiction
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.
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 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 is the latest novel published in Britain to reference the Spanish Civil War. It centres on 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 paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.