In the centre of Paris, three kilometres north-east of the Louvre and just east of the Canal Saint-Martin, lies an apparently nondescript intersection of six streets, the Place du Colonel Fabien. Named in honour of the ‘militant Communist and member of the French Resistance’ killed in 1944, the junction’s only feature of note (metro station aside) is a large curved glass building, built during the 1960s, judging by the fairly brutal architectural style. This is the modern headquarters of the Partie Communiste Francais which played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when it acted as the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades.
Between October 1936 and the summer of 1938, some 35 000 men and women from around the world made the journey to Spain to join the Brigades, with as many as 2500 of them coming from Britain and Ireland. Initially, volunteers made their way to Spain independently (though this required money and, crucially, a passport), however following the decision by the Communist International (the Comintern) in October 1936 to organise international volunteers, the role of the national Communist Parties – in particular the PCF – became crucial both in the recruitment of volunteers and getting them to Spain.
The process of volunteering was straightforward, though had to be carried out in secret. Those in Britain wishing to go to Spain would make contact with their local Communist Party who, assuming they were seen as politically trustworthy (Trade Unionists, members of the Party or other left-wing political organisation), would forward them to the Party’s head office in London’s King Street. Here, further checks would be made on their political and military background, and applicants would be given stern warnings that they may well not return. Those accepted and wishing to continue would then travel onward in small groups, trying (usually fairly unsuccessfully) to maintain a low profile, making their way by train to a port (usually Newhaven or Dover), then by ferry to France and on to Paris.
Here, in the PCF offices in Place du Combat, the volunteers underwent further checks and were given a medical examination. The British representative in Paris was the French-speaking Charlotte Haldane, (known by the pseudonym ‘Rita’), wife of the renowned scientist and ardent Republican supporter J.B.S. Haldane and mother of a volunteer in the British Battalion. Her job was to partly process the incoming volunteers, but she was also instructed to confiscate volunteers’ excess money in order to, as she put it, ‘avert the danger that any of the volunteers should get drunk, start brawls or become involved in them, or be lured into the neighbouring brothels.’ Instead, each volunteer was provided with ten francs daily pocket money (food and lodging were provided for free).
From Paris the volunteers would travel south and over the border into Spain by train, until volunteering was made illegal in January 1937, after which the usual route was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees at night, which involved an exhausting and hazardous climb of some twelve hours.
Those that actually made it to the border were then taken the short distance to Figueras by lorry and put on a train to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers were divided up by nationality and language. British volunteers were sent to their base at the nearby village of Madrigueras where they were given rudimentary military training, before they joined their comrades on the front-line.
Few would escape unscathed.