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Jarama, Brunete and the Valley of the Fallen

Irish Labour historian Emmet O’Connor at the monument to those killed fighting for the Spanish Republic during the Battle of Jarama, February 1937
Irish Labour historian Emmet O’Connor at the monument to those killed fighting for the Spanish Republic during the Battle of Jarama, February 1937

Having spent the last two summers exploring civil war battle sites in Aragon, this year saw the return of four historians, two from Ireland (Emmet O’Connor and Barry McGloughlin) and two from England (John Halstead and myself), to explore some of the sites around Madrid. Our trip was given added poignancy by the knowledge that Emmet’s father fought with the American Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Having arrived in Spain in December 1936, Peter O’Connor fought in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 and at Brunete five months later, where he was wounded. Following pressure from Irish Republican leader Frank Ryan, O’Connor was repatriated shortly afterwards ‘for political reasons … with an excellent record’ (International Brigade Archive Box 39, file A/29).

The memorial to Kit Conway, killed at the Battle of Jarama on 12 February 1937
The memorial to Kit Conway, killed at the Battle of Jarama on 12 February 1937

Our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Brunete, though, sadly, not much evidence remains. You can get a good sense of the overall layout from a viewpoint just south of Valdemorillo, but both the village of Villanueva de la Cañada (where Falangist defenders held out, crucially delaying the Republican advance) and the ultimate objective of the 15 International Brigade, Mosquito Ridge, have been built up and developed.

Fortunately, the Jarama battlefield remains much as it was nearly 80 years ago. It’s easy to find, lying just off the M302, three kilometres west of Morata de Tajuña and is marked by the large monument to the battle (see image above). The sunken road, mentioned in many accounts of the battle, is roughly 500 metres further west of the monument and runs south-west off the M302 (though it’s not sunken any more). This leads you right to the site itself and the memorial to the Irish volunteer, Kit Conway, who commanded the British Battalion’s Number One Company and was killed on the first day of the battle. Walk through the olive groves and scrub, rich with the pungent smell of wild thyme, and you will see the positions that the British Battalion attempted to defend on 12 February 1937. The Knoll, Conical Hill and ‘Suicide Hill’ on which the ill-prepared and poorly-armed volunteers were cut to pieces can all be made out clearly. Sobering.

Map of the British Battalion’s positions on the first day of the Battle of Jarama
Map of the British Battalion’s positions on the first day of the Battle of Jarama
Franco’s memorial to the Nationalist dead, Valle de los Caidos
Franco’s memorial to the Nationalist dead, Valle de los Caidos

Our third visit was not to a battle site, nor to a memorial to the International Brigades; in fact, quite the opposite. Surprisingly none of us had ever previously visited Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s monument to the Nationalist dead. Set underneath a 150 metre high cross, the memorial houses one of the world’s largest basilicas, dug out of solid rock, in which rest the tombs of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Spanish Fascist party. The monument bears all the hallmarks of fascists architecture: it’s huge, overbearing, pompous and dripping with pseudo-religious imagery and rhetoric. Thousands of Republican prisoners died during its construction and, to this day, debates rage over its future. Should it be pulled down, as was the case with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, or should it be kept as a reminder of the brutal and murderous excesses of Franco’s regime? On balance I favour the latter, despite the monument’s undeniable grandiose ugliness.

The last stop was Calle de Toledo, which runs south from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Today, the attractive, narrow little street is lined with cafés and bars full of tourists enjoying a cooling drink or sampling tapas as people bustle past, fending off hawkers. However, in November 1936, it looked rather different, becoming the scene for one of  the most famous photographs of the civil war. The banner hung across it by defiant Madrileños proclaimed that ‘Madrid will be the tomb of fascism!’ ¡No Pasarán! they declared, ‘They Shall Not Pass!’

Calle de Toledo, 1936
Calle de Toledo, 1936
Calle de Toledo, 2016
Calle de Toledo, 2016

The banner spoke true, of course, for Madrid was never conquered militarily, only being occupied following the Republic’s collapse, which brought the war to its sorry conclusion. From Franco’s first assault on the Spanish capital in November 1936 to the end of the civil war in March 1939, the Madrileños, supported by volunteers from around the world, held out. The fascists did not pass.

p.s. Despite having visited the Madrid battle sites before, I found David Matthieson’s book, Frontline Madrid, invaluable. It gives precise locations of places of interest, along with detailed, comprehensible directions on how to find them. Recommended.

From Stockholm to Spain and Somalia

Stockholm’s La Mano
Stockholm’s La Mano

Overlooking the beautiful Swedish capital Stockholm sits a four metre high sculpture of an open hand, raised beseechingly to the sky. Entitled La Mano, this is the city’s memorial to the volunteers from Sweden who volunteered to fight for the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. As a historian who writes about the involvement of foreign volunteers in Spain (and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust), I make an effort to visit the civil war memorials found in many of the cities around the world and I recently paid the Stockholm memorial a visit.

As I stopped to photograph the statue, a young couple with a small child approached. Politely checking to make sure they weren’t getting in my way, they paused to pay their respects and placed a small token next to the flowers, condolence cards and Spanish Republican colours lying at the foot of the statue. Intrigued, I asked them about their connection to a war, so far both temporally and spatially from Sweden in 2015. I thought, perhaps, they might be relatives of one of the Swedes commemorated by the statute. No, they explained in typically faultless English, they were there to remember a friend who had died only recently and not in Spain.

Their friend, I discovered, was Abdirahim Hassan, who was born in Somalia, but grew up in the Swedish capital. In his early twenties, he joined Vänsterpartiet (the Young Left) and became involved in demonstrations and protests in the suburb of Husby, which lies to the north-west of the city and has the lowest income per capita of any district of Stockholm. Abdirahim remained in contact with his birth country of Somalia, to which he seemingly felt a personal commitment.

Abdirahim Hassan
Abdirahim Hassan

In the summer of 2013 Abdirahim and other members of Vänsterpartiet travelled to Mogadishu in a mission to express their solidarity with the suffering populace of Somalia. While driving through Mogadishu, their car was attacked, probably by kidnappers from Al Shabaab. During a violent struggle, Abdirahim Hassan was shot trying to protect Stockholm’s opposition deputy mayor, Ann-Margarethe Livh. She was badly wounded in the chest but, thanks to Abdirahim’s bravery and sacrifice, she survived.

For the young Swedish couple I encountered in Stockholm, La Mano has become a personal memorial to their young friend. They believe that Abdirahim’s motives for joining Vänsterpartiet and travelling to Somalia were the same as those that, nearly eighty years earlier, had inspired men and women from Sweden – and around the world – to leave their homes and families and fight to save the Spanish Republic. The volunteers were from different times and different continents perhaps, but the actions of Abdirahim and the International Brigaders were nevertheless an expression of one and the same thing. They called it solidarity.

Abdirahim Hassan, political activist, 1989-2013.

La Place du Combat

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.

The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris
The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris

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.

Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades
Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades

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).

The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien
The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien

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.