I was very pleased to be invited to participate in this year’s Aye Write book festival in Glasgow, in conversation with the immensely likeable Chris Dolan, author of a biography of the Scottish anarchist Ethel MacDonald. Obviously an old hand at this type of event, Chris skilfully asked some leading questions about Unlikely Warriors, before handing me over to a what proved to be a very well-informed audience.
One of the most interesting discussions was provoked by a member of the audience asking whether it is was now time to stop romanticising the civil war and the involvement of the International Brigades. Now it’s certainly true that the involvement of some 35 000 volunteers in the defence of the Spanish Republic has long been seen as the left’s ‘last great cause’ and there has sometimes been a tendency to play up the glory and play down the horror. The authors of some early studies of the British in Spain have not unreasonably been described as ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered’.
Personally, I have always agreed with Orwell’s assessment that ‘war is bloody’ and have come across little in my study of the British in Spain over the last twenty years to counter this view. The volunteers went into battle often with the most perfunctory training, weakened by a persistent lack of sleep and debilitating stomach complaints. They soon discovered that their lack of weapons could not simply be remedied by courage alone; on several occasions during their time in Spain, the battalion was effectively annihilated. As a review of Unlikely Warriors in the London Review of Books noted, ‘the story has a tragic monotony. Every page of Baxell’s book has some reference to how depressing, dispiriting or tedious something was.’ Hardly surprisingly, a culture of heavy drinking developed among the volunteers in Spain and there were all too frequent instances of insubordination and desertion.
This does not sound very romantic or glorious. But it should not be forgotten that, despite the conditions – not least the constant risk of a violent death – the British Battalion fought on in Spain for twenty months. As Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues in his review of Unlikely Warriors, it is about ‘capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’ The story of the British involvement in the Spanish Civil War may not always be romantic. But if it isn’t heroic, I really don’t know what is.