My review of the edited collection of US International Brigader Carl Geiser’s letters appears in the 2016 issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, pp. 18-19. If you have academic or personal access to the journal please follow the previous link. For those who do not, there is free access to the review for the first 50 viewers. The first paragraph of the review follows…
Between 1936 and 1939, 35 000 men and women from around the world volunteered to leave their homes, families and friends, in order to join the International Brigades, fighting for the government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Of those, some 2800 came from the United States. The issue of volunteering to fight in foreign wars obviously has contemporary resonance, with reports suggesting that thousands of young western men are currently fighting with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Yet, while elements in the media have been quick to draw comparisons, the motivations of those who joined the International Brigades—and the volunteers themselves—bear no resemblance to the young Muslim Jihadists.
Initially, as people arrived, the atmosphere seemed a little muted, with people’s minds – and many of the conversations – seemingly dominated by the tumultuous political events of the previous week. Several of the speakers would later allude to the referendum on membership of the European Union and what, for many of those present, was a feeling of lingering sadness. The overhead presence of a police helicopter monitoring the latest demonstration in support of Britain’s continued membership of the E.U. acted as a constant reminder.
However, the ceremony itself was a good tonic. This year saw perhaps the most balanced combination of speakers and performers. Compered, as usual, by IBMT Secretary Jim Jump, the afternoon’s events opened with two uplifting songs from long-standing favourites, folk duo Na Mara.
Almudena Cros, President of AABI (the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades) followed, delivering a typically passionate and heartfelt speech, referring to the internationalism of the volunteers in the 1930s and beseeching the current residents of the UK to echo their internationalism and not withdraw from Europe.
After the singing of ‘There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama‘, the laying of wreaths in front of the memorial and a dignified minute’s silence, it was the turn of Spanish rapper Perro Lobo. I confess to wondering how a performer rapping in Spanish might go down with the (not exactly teenage) IBMT crowd, but I needn’t have worried. His performance was more poetry than rap; the powerful lyrics were delivered with anger, but there was real eloquence there too.
More music followed from Neil Gore, who is presently involved in putting on a performance about Clem Beckett, the motorcycle speedway star of the ’30s who was killed on the first day of the battle of Jarama in February 1937. I particularly enjoyed Neil’s accompanied version of Si mi queires escribir.
The penultimate speaker was Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History at the London School of Economics, author of numerous books on the Spanish Civil War and Twentieth Century Spanish history [see video above]. He explained why the Spanish Civil War and its memory continue to matter. Paul concluded with a poignant excerpt from a virtually unknown American novelist, Josephine Herbst, on her – and many others’ – inability to adjust to life following the end of the Spanish tragedy.
The last of the speakers was the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaffe, IBMT patron and former General Secretary of UNISON and President of the National Pensioners’ Convention. In his characteristically drole and entertaining manner, Rodney launched a call to arms, or rather a call to join. As he pointed out, supporting the IBMT’s valuable work – erecting memorials, holding commemorations, helping to educate people about the sacrifice of the volunteers for the Spanish Republic – only works out at a few pence per day. Money well spent!
The final act was a reading of two poems by another IBMT patron, the actress Maxine Peake. The first was ‘The Dead Have No Regrets’ by Aileen Palmer, an Australian nurse who volunteered for Spain. The second is familiar to most IBMT members: Cecil Day Lewis’s, ‘The Volunteer’. It’s an emotional piece, as the catch in Maxine’s voice during her reading showed. As a professional she may have been disappointed at becoming overwhelmed, but I don’t think she should be. Sometimes it’s good to see what lies beneath the greasepaint.
You may never have heard of the Hoo Peninsula. I imagine many people living outside the south-east of England haven’t. You might, however, have come across it under the name ‘Boris Island’, which some media wit came up with following a proposal by the former London Mayor that the area would be an ideal site for a new London airport. To the relief of many, not least many of local residents, Boris Johnson’s controversial plan was never realised, condemned in an Airport Commission report for being too costly, environmentally problematic and hugely disruptive for local businesses and communities. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism – and no small amount of ridicule- Johnson remains keen on the project. Whether, assuming that he replaces David Cameron as Prime Minister, he will work to reinstate the plan, is anyone’s guess. It is just one of all too many ‘known unknowns’ that could follow last week’s Brexit.
Whatever happens, the Hoo Peninsula is likely to continue to face issues of development. Lying on the new fast train line from Ashford International to London, the local station at Strood is only 30 minutes from St. Pancras. Since the completion of the new line, locals have noticed steep rises in house prices. Developers circle, eager to make a killing provide urgently-needed affordable new properties. The latest area identified for development is an old military site at Lodge Hill, just north of Chattenden which has been designated by Medway Council as a ‘brown site’ so, on the face of it, a perfect place for new houses. However, many locals and conservationists believe that the intrinsic value and unique importance of the area has been seriously underestimated. Last year’s designation of the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s environmental protection agency, might suggest that they have a point. The presence of a unique unspoilt habitat, in particular one of the country’s most important populations of Nightingales which, so proponents of the scheme claim, could be safely moved twenty kilometres away to new grasslands in Shoeburyness, Essex, has met with strong opposition from environmental campaigners and the issue has been picked up by the national media.
So, on 16 July 2016, I took part in a site visit to Lodge Hill, organised by the charity, People Need Nature. I was just one of a large group, including photographers, journalists, writers, poets, conceptual and sound artists, ecologists and entomologists. Led by ecologist, environmentalist and serial blogger Miles King, the purpose of the visit was not to come down on either side of the debate (though most of the participants were probably sympathetic to the conservationists’ arguments), but to record and catalogue what remains.
We quickly discovered that entrance to the site is normally forbidden. This, of course, added a little frisson of excitement. So too did the health-and-safety briefing given by the gatekeeper on our arrival, warning of the numerous types of unexploded ordnance we could encounter and suggesting mildly that we probably shouldn’t stray too far from the path. There’s nothing like the potential of one’s imminent demise to heighten the senses.
Suitably alarmed, we spent a long day wandering around the site, carefully (watching where we placed our feet and) surveying the astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, a consequence of years of isolation. It’s an ecologists’, environmentalists’ and conservationists’ heaven. At one point the glorious singing of the famous Nightingales could be heard, to the delight of all.
From the perspective of a historian, the area is particularly fascinating. The Peninsula and its environs has long been important strategically, overlooking the both River Thames, route to England’s most important city, and the River Medway, home of the Royal Navy since the time of Henry VIII. Castles, towers, hill-top beacons, gun-emplacements, river barriers and a plethora of defensive fortifications are scattered liberally, maintaining guard over the rivers and the Peninsula itself. In the late Nineteenth Century, Hoo was chosen by the Navy as the site for a number of huge depots of munitions and explosives. One of those facilities was Lodge Hill.
Just as the military and naval history of Britain is written across the Peninsula itself, Lodge Hill is a microcosm of Hoo. Disused military buildings and former munitions storage facilities litter the site, including the remains of one of the country’s first Anti-aircraft batteries (scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to be of national importance) and First World War trenches constructed by the Royal Military Engineers, which were at the centre of military technology experiments in trench design and warfare. While many remains date from the First and Second World Wars, there are also sobering reminders of more recent conflicts: rows of terraced houses set-dressed to help train British soldiers in urban warfare. One was clearly designed to represent a street in Northern Ireland, the second a (rather less accurate) depiction of somewhere the middle-East, Basra perhaps. The attention to detail was astonishing, right down to pro-IRA murals on the end of the terrace and posters extolling the virtues of Osama Bin Laden.
After even a short time wandering around the site, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that much of Lodge Hill should be considered for conservation. With the property developer, Land Securities, abandoning their plan to build 5000 houses on the site, perhaps this is a good moment to take stock and evaluate seriously its potentially unique value, both as a testament to the nation’s past and its all too rapidly diminishing natural environment. The fate of the development now lies in the hands of central government. Unfortunately for the residents and environment of the Hoo Peninsula (not to mention everyone else), who that will be and what they will do is presently anything but clear.
Between 1991 and 1994, I was lucky enough to study at the beautiful Trent Park campus of Middlesex University (nee Polytechnic). A former teacher training college, the campus was set within a large country park dating back to the Fourteenth Century in which, if you were very quiet, you might occasionally spot shy, Muntjac deer. In the middle of the park, next to the outdoor swimming pool(!) was the glorious main building, Trent Park House. Originally an uninspired Victorian edifice, in 1923 it was rebuilt into a magnificent country house, and it is now a grade II listed mansion. I was fully aware – and still am – that it was a fantastic place in which to study.
Fortunately, I found the teaching as inspirational as the setting. Despite lacking the research profile of Oxbridge and the other Russell group institutions, Middlesex’s history department benefited from a team of dedicated, enthusiastic lecturers who were able to engage their students and instil a life-long love of their subject. Soon after graduation, I returned to the university to teach history myself and continued to do so there for a number of years.
Sadly, Middlesex University no longer has a history department nor, in fact, teaches many of the humanities subjects enjoyed by myself and my cohort. Presumably, the management felt that such subjects were not ‘cost-effective’, or sufficiently focused on employability. To anyone involved in the UK’s higher education sector, of course, it’s a familiar tale. However, the story gets worse, for in 2012 the university sold the beautiful Trent Park site and it now faces the imminent threat of development.
Fortunately, voices are being raised in protest, helped by the site’s unique and important history, something I was not aware of when I studied there. It’s now emerged that during the Second World War the building had been requisitioned by M.I.6 and, from May 1942 onwards, it housed captured senior German officers. Unknown to the prisoners, the rooms in which they idled away their time, chatting discreetly to their fellow former officers, were all wired up with hidden microphones. Crucial information about Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets and the German atomic bomb programme was unwittingly revealed to British intelligence officers. Like the nationally treasured Bletchley Park, the institution’s contribution to the Allied war effort is incalculable.
A Save Trent Park campaign has been set up to help the fight to preserve this vital piece of Britain’s history and heritage. They are pressing for the creation of a museum in the former mansion house, rather than allowing it to be carved up into luxury flats. Please visit their page to find out more. You can also sign a Change.org petition to support the campaign. Please do so!
Shortly after Unlikely Warriors was published in 2012, my publishers, Aurum Press, passed me a letter they had received from a reader wishing to contact me. He claimed to have some interesting information – and papers – relating to one of the British volunteers mentioned in my book. When I heard about the nature of the documents and the identity of the volunteer, my interest was piqued, to put it mildly.
The name of the volunteer was Ronald Malcolm Lorraine Dunbar. As anyone who has read my book (or, in fact, any book on the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War) will know, Malcolm Dunbar was the senior British ranking infantry officer in Spain. A middle-class, Cambridge-educated, homosexual aesthete, he could hardly have been a less typical volunteer. Yet, like a number of other intellectuals, in Spain he discovered a hitherto undiscovered talent for military life. Ranking only soldado (private) at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Chief of Staff of the entire 15th International Brigade at the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938. Unfortunately, the shy, taciturn Dunbar never gave any interviews on his time in Spain and information on him has always been fairly scarce, despite his high rank and illustrious record.
Not much is known about his life after Spain, either. During the Second World War Dunbar served in the British Army, but never rose above the rank of Sergeant, adding fuel to claims that veterans of the Spanish war were being discriminated against. He later worked in the Labour Research Department until, in July 1963, having apparently removed all identification from his clothing, he walked into the sea at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. A clear case of suicide on the face of it, yet intriguingly, as Vincent Brome pointed out in Legions of Babel, his (now out of print) history of the International Brigades, the coroner declared an open verdict at the inquest, rather than declaring his death to have been suicide. This, and Dunbar’s alleged relationship with the Cambridge spy, Kim Philby, have led to persistent rumours of official cover-ups and Secret Service skulduggery.
Following his death, Malcolm Dunbar’s papers, including a number of photographs, were saved by a close friend, the ballet dancer, Thérèse Langfield, whose partner contacted me. In June 2016, I finally fulfilled his wishes, when I handed over the mass of material to the Bishopsgate Institute in London, where they will be available to all. It’s a fantastic collection and I recommend it to anyone interested in the British in Spain.
Malcolm Dunbar is the subject of one of a number of biographies I am writing for a forthcoming book. Watch this space for updates.
Since the end of the cold war and the consequent opening up of the Moscow archives, fresh light has been shone on the relationship between the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and Spain during the country’s civil war. Increasingly, this has allowed a rather more nuanced, ‘warts and all’ analysis. Nicholas Deakin’s Radiant Illusion? (reviewed in issue 41 of the IBMT newsletter) is a good example of this rather more thoughtful, balanced approach; so too is this latest study by Lisa Kirschenbaum.
Though the book’s title refers to international communism, it focuses mainly on Party members in the Soviet Union, Spain and the U.S. This may limit its appeal to a British audience, which would be a shame, because many of the issues the book discusses transcend nationality such as, for example, the accounts of Communists ‘who reported, then and later, they in Spain they lived their ideals more intensely, passionately, and fully than they had anywhere else.’ (p. 10) Likewise, discussions of the now well-known problems the International Brigade command faced – leave and repatriation, the distrust of other nationalities, resentment of Spanish officers, a lack of effective communications – could relate to any of the national units.
While the author does touch upon some of the more over-arching themes of the role of the Communist Party in Spain – including a refreshing scepticism towards the old trope that the Spanish Republic was controlled by Stalin – it is the individual lives of Communists which are of main concern here. The author’s detailed discussion of notions of ‘Communist identity’ examines volunteers’ attitudes towards a wide range of issues: the impact on families back home; bravery and cowardice in battle; drinking; sex and notions of masculinity, femininity and sexuality. The author is not afraid to tackle controversial issues, arguing that ‘despite the fact that gay men served in the International Brigades, homosexuality remained for many communists presumptively fascist.’ (p. 174.)
The final section of the book turns to the period after the war in Spain, recounting the persecution of Communist Party members in both the US and the USSR. It is a deeply dispiriting story and many readers will be shocked and appalled by the levels of paranoia, distrust and persecution directed towards Spanish civil war veterans on both sides of the iron curtain: ‘labelled subversives and spies by authorities on both sides, they were harassed, tried, convicted and, in the Soviet bloc, tortured and sometimes executed.’ (p. 236)
Yet, while Stalin’s brutal and murderous regime caused many Party members and civil war veterans around the world to reject Soviet Communism, the author argues that very few of them came to abandon the cause of Spanish democracy, or anti-fascism. This is, I think, an important point to make. After all, just because the description of Republican Spain’s struggle as ‘the cause of all advanced and progressive humanity’ originated with Josef Stalin, it does not make it any less true.
This review first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the IBMT newsletter.
While the story of the International Brigades’ involvement in the defence of Madrid in 1936-1937 is well known, their involvement in bitter fighting in southern Spain during the winter of 1936 and the spring of 1937 is less well documented.
Determined efforts to correct this oversight were made during two days of events in April 2016, when the sacrifices of the International Brigades on behalf of the Spanish Republic were remembered in several Andalucian villages, just east of Cordóba. The homanajes – well-attended and supported by local politicians – saw the unveiling of several new plaques commemorating the Spanish Republic’s fight against fascism.
Friday 8 April saw events held in three separate villages: La Granjuela, Belalcázar and Valsequillo. In front of friends and family members from Spain, Britain, France, Ireland and the United States, the mayors of the villages unveiled memorials and expressed their gratitude for the volunteers’ efforts and sacrifices all those years ago. At the final event in Valsequillo, local dignitaries were joined by Rosa Aguilar, Andalucia’s Minister for Culture, who spoke movingly on the importance of the recuperation of historical memory. As the local media reported, attempts by a local fascist to interrupt the event by blasting Franco’s anthem, Caro al Sol, out of an open window were rather drowned out by the music, singing and laughter of the numerous Republican supporters.
Saturday’s events began with a commemoration in front of the railway station at Andújar, where Internationals – many of them veterans of the fighting in Madrid – had disembarked in December 1936, following their posting to the southern front. From here the volunteers advanced to the front, near the village of Lopera, scene of the subsequent commemoration. Here, a local historian described – in eloquent and moving detail – the terrible events of the battle of Lopera on 28 December 1936. Outgunned and unprotected from aerial bombardment, Republican attempts to assault the high ground held by experienced Franco’s Moroccan soldiers were doomed to failure. During the vicious fighting many, many volunteers lost their lives, including the popular and respected Marxist scholar, Ralph Fox, and the Cambridge intellectual, poet and political activist, John Cornford.
In the village of Lopera itself a memorial to Fox and Cornford has been erected. Here relatives gathered to remember them, hearing accounts of volunteers’ reasons for joining the fight for democracy in Spain, together with a moving recital of one of John Cornford’s poems by the daughter of an Irish volunteer.
The final event of the two-day homanaje was the unveiling of a plaque in the centre of Lopera. The village’s mayor earned widespread applause for her declaration that the commemoration marked only the beginning of a series of events to commemorate the democratic government’s fight against Franco and his allies, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. It looks likely that these will include an international conference in November 2106 to mark the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the International Brigades. Watch this space.
My thanks to all of those involved in organising the two day’s events, particularly AABI’s Almudena Cros and Seve Montero and the IBMT’s Pauline Fraser. It was, I think (and by all accounts), a resounding success.
It’s now eighty years since the gifted young student, John Cornford, was killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In commemoration, Carcanet have released a new edition of Cornford’s Collected Writings under its original 1976 title: Understand the Weapon, Understand the Wound. The new edition features a digitally recoloured front cover and afterwords by myself and Jane Bernal, the daughter of Cornford’s girlfriend and fellow student activist, Margot Heinemann.
The collection includes Cornford’s poems written at school, university and in Spain and letters to his mother and to Margot, leading up to the time he was killed fighting in Lopera, in the south of Spain, the day after his twenty-first birthday.
This edited volume is based upon a series of public lectures and seminars at Gresham College London delivered during 2013 and 2014. It features an introduction and two central essays by professional historians (Roderick Floud, Kevin Morgan and Nicholas Deakin) and a number of biographies, most by family members – the so-called ‘red nappy babies’ – with brief additions by Denis Healey, Peter Hennessy and Juliet Gardiner.
The book’s central premise is to critically re-examine the reasons that lay behind middle-class men and women joining the Communist Party during the 1930s. One obvious answer, of course, might be that following the Party’s abandonment of its disastrous class-against-class policy, they were no longer discouraged from doing so. Kevin Morgan’s essay, however, provides a rather more detailed analysis of, what Juliet Gardiner describes as, ‘a perfect political storm’. Clearly, the rise of fascism was crucial, but Deakin argues that there were as many different reasons for joining the Party as there were members: some practical, some philosophical. And, of course, Spain played a vital part, becoming ‘the “good cause” of the decade and one on which communists could campaign – and recruit – without inhibition, alongside other progressives.’ (p. 63.)
While many of the essays are critical in the strict academic sense, there is the sense that, twenty-five years after the end of the cold war and freed from its intellectual baggage, studies of the CPGB in the 1930s are free to adopt a more nuanced view. Yes, there is recognition that many recruits had to suspend their critical faculties in order to swallow the Party’s unquestioning support for the USSR, their philosophical about-turns and ideas of ‘revolutionary expediency’ and ‘democratic centralism’. However, at the same time there is an acknowledgement that most people became communists because they wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the Party was the best means of achieving this. As Elizabeth Dolan puts it, writing about her parents, Mary Macintosh and Richard Clark:
It is my contention that this youthful enthusiasm for Communism, with its at that time inevitable support for the Soviet Union, far from being an illusion, or misguided or naïve, in fact helped to produce well-balanced, thoughtful citizens whose subsequent lifestyle, attitudes and values were a direct development, not a contradiction. (p. 149)
What is missing from the book is a discussion of the Cambridge spies. It’s true that plenty has been written about them already, but it does rather lead to an unfortunate feeling that there is something important that everyone is carefully avoiding. Apart from Denis Healey, that is, who cannot resist drawing a comparison between the Oxford Communists (of whom he was one) who ‘never wanted to do anything particularly for the Russians’, with those from Cambridge who ‘all spied for the Russians’. Clearly sectarianism can be just as rife in academia as it is in politics.
It has become a tired cliché that necessity is the mother of invention, but it is nevertheless true that the demands of warfare have spurred the advance of technologies; some of them fortunately designed to preserve lives rather than cut them short. The war in Spain was no exception, with the pioneering work in the treatment of fractures and front-line surgery by the Catalan surgeons Josep Trueta and Moisès Broggi offering one pointed example. Developments in blood transfusion, the subject of Linda Palfreeman’s latest study, is another. As the author points out, ‘the Spanish Civil war marked a new era in battlefield blood transfusion.’
Though written in an academic style, the book is accessible to a non-specialised reader. It begins with a useful overview of developments from ancient times to the present, covering the use of direct arm-to arm transfusions established in the nineteenth century, Karl Landsteiner’s vital (and Nobel prize-winning) discovery of blood-groups in 1900, and subsequent improvements in storage. And for anyone with an interest in haematology, there is plenty of detail on the actual processes of transfusion: overcoming the limitations of direct arm-to-arm transfusion, mixing donations to minimise rejection and the use of sodium citrate to prevent coagulation.
The book focuses on the contribution of a number of key players involved in the developments of transfusion in Spain, including a brief chapter on the Nationalist efforts, led by Carlos Elósegui Sarasola. Interestingly, many Nationalists appear to have been singularly unenthusiastic about the use of stored blood, preferring traditional direct transfusions.
Amongst those working on the Republican side, the ground-breaking work of the Canadian Doctor, Norman Bethune, obviously features strongly. Described as an ‘explosive and unpredictable virtuoso’, Bethune does not seem to have been the easiest person to work with. However, as he has already been the subject of a previous volume in the Cañada Blanch/Sussex series, this study spends less time on the personal politics that underpinned his downfall, instead concentrating on his undeniable contribution to the Republican blood service and the mechanics of transfusions.
British readers will be pleased to find a chapter on Reginald Saxton, whose transfusions helped save the lives of numerous British and Irish casualties at Jarama and Brunete in 1937. Intriguingly, Saxton experimented with the use of cadaverous blood during the battle of Teruel in the winter of 1937-8. However his work was apparently brought to a halt by a Spanish law which prohibited any experimentation on corpses within twenty-four hours of death.
The author is clearly an admirer of Frederick Duran Jordà, for two chapters are devoted to the influential Catalan surgeon. However, a little explicit bias does not do the book any harm. Certainly Duran and his work were admirable and, as the author convincingly argues, political malice and the professional envy of colleagues has prevented his ground-breaking work from receiving the fame it should have. In fact, the author chooses to conclude the book with Duran’s exile to Britain in 1939 following the Republic’s defeat. Unwilling or unable to the take up of the lessons learned during the Spanish war, the British Government initially refused Duran permission to practice as a doctor and he could only find work as a laboratory technician. It was only in 1941 that he was at last able to take up a job as a pathologist. As the relatives of brigaders will know, it is an all too familiar tale.