Within Britain, popular knowledge of the Spanish civil war usually centres on the internationalisation of the conflict; the support of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy for General Franco and the involvement of the volunteers of the International Brigades in support of the Spanish Republic. However, it should be remembered that foreigners only ever made up a small proportion of those fighting in Spain; most were Spaniards and a huge number were conscripts. Therefore the publication of Reluctant Warriors, James Matthews’ examination of the experiences of these ordinary Spaniards drafted into the armies of both sides, is to be thoroughly welcomed.
In July 1938 the Spanish Republican Army confounded many around the world – not least those in Franco’s Spain – who considered it a spent force, by launching a huge and ambitious attack back across the River Ebro. Fighting alongside the Spanish soldiers of the 80 000 strong Republican Army of the Ebro were a number of English-speaking volunteers, within the 15 International Brigade. Drawn mainly from Britain, the USA and Canada, the brigade also included volunteers from Ireland, Australia and from a number of other countries around the world.
Fighting in the full, glaring heat of the Spanish summer, lacking food and water and severely outgunned and outnumbered, the members of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade fought in a number of vicious battles between July and September 1938. On Hill 481 near Gandesa, on Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols and Hill 356 in the Sierra Caballs, the British were bombed, shelled and attacked remorselessly by Franco’s forces and his German and Italian allies. On 23 September 1938 on the battalion’s final action on the road just north of the village of Corbera d’Ebre, the last remaining members of the battalion were virtually overrun.
At 1 a.m. the following morning the order finally arrived withdrawing the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan later described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.”
In September 2013 a group of friends and families of the International Brigades returned to Catalonia to remember the sacrifices made all those years ago. The trip was organised by Duncan Longstaff, a trustee of the International Brigades Memorial Trust assisted by Almudena Cros, Severiano Montero and Vicente González of AABI, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades. While IBMT members from the UK made up the majority of the group, there were also participants from Ireland, the United States, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Besides visiting battle sites of particular significance to the English-speaking 15 International Brigade, the trip to Catalonia also included the unveiling of two memorials to the volunteers and the laying of flowers and a wreath at the site of the British Battalion’s final action in Spain.
The first memorial to be unveiled was a new plaque dedicated to the British members of the medical services who worked in the former cave hospital in La Bisbal de Falset during the summer of 1938. Here, British members of the Republican medical services struggled in almost impossible conditions to treat those wounded in the bitter fighting. During the Ebro offensive everything had to be carried across pontoon bridges by lorry, or ferried across in boats during the night, so the facilities were necessarily limited. Serious casualties had to be taken back across the river to the improvised cave hospital set up by Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the medical services for the Republican 35 Division, in Falset. British doctors and nurses, such as Len Saxton and Patience Darton, worked around the clock, with the desperate shortages of materials forcing them to improvise and develop innovative treatments. Allied soldiers fighting in the Second World War would benefit greatly from lessons learned in Spain in areas such as casualty management, blood transfusions and the treatment of fractures.
The second unveiling was of a new memorial dedicated to those killed in the final last action of the British Battalion in Spain. The plaque is situated in the old village of Corbera d’Ebre, which remains virtually in the condition it was at the end of the civil war. In amongst the ruins lies the village’s former church, now converted into a dramatic space for gatherings, exhibitions and commemorations. At the time of the ceremony held on 24 September 2013, the former church was hosting a strikingly poignant art installation comprised of suspended roof tiles, caught as if at the moment of an explosion. Behind the artwork, further within the building, lay the IBMT Antifascistas exhibition, shown for the first time in Spain. The exhibition will remain in the church until November 2013.
After a ceremony held within the church came the final event of the day and, for many, of the trip itself, with the laying of flowers and wreath at the position of the battalion’s final stand, some 4 kilometres north of Corbera.