On 16 January 2018, Sir John Kiszely (@JohnKiszely), the former Director General of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom and National President of the Royal British Legion, posted a photograph on twitter, showing a doctor tenderly caring for his patient. She looked to be a young woman, lying prone with her eyes closed, arms folded across her abdomen and with blood flowing from her nose and mouth. She appeared ominously still. The gentle doctor, Sir John recounted proudly, was his father, who was working for the Spanish Republican medical services during the civil war of 1936-39.
As is often the case when photographs of international volunteers are posted – particularly by family members – the image proved immediately popular, with numerous users expressing their gratitude for the father’s efforts on behalf of the Spanish Republic and remarking on the sensitive and powerful nature of the image. However, one sharp-eyed user (@barne065) stunned those taking part in the discussion, by suggesting that the young woman in the photo could be Gerda Taro, the famous photo-journalist, who was tragically killed during the Battle of Brunete in July 1936, aged only 26. Following a number of eager requests, John posted an image of the rear of the photo, on which had been written a brief pencilled note:
Frente Brunete Junio 37. (En Torrelodones) Mrs Frank Capa = of ‘Ce Soire’ of Paris. Killed at Brunete.
Possibly written later, the caption is incorrect in a number of details (the Battle of Brunete was in July, not June 1937 and Gerda Taro was the girlfriend of Robert Capa, rather than ‘Mrs Frank Capa’), but was nevertheless strongly supportive of the theory that the image was of Gerda Taro.
At this point, the discussion was picked up by the wider media. The journalist and author Giles Tremlett (@gilestremlett), who knows a good story when he sees one, quickly put together a piece for The Guardian. Having talked to historians and the author and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska (@janerogoyska), who is a published expert on Gerda Taro, Giles came to the conclusion that the photograph was genuine. There were clearly a number of unanswered questions and more research needed to be done, but it was Taro.
However, not everyone was convinced. A Spanish biographer of Taro, Fernando Olmeda, penned an article for the Spanish New Tribune listing his reasons to believe that (probably) the woman in the photo was not her. He pointed out the lack of signs of serious injury, inconsistent with someone who had been crushed by a tank, as Taro was known to have been. He also noted the obvious errors and inconsistencies within the text on the reverse and wondered not just who had written the text, but who had taken the photo? Was it an amateur, or was it, as the careful and elegant composition might suggest, a professional photographer? And if the latter, why did it not appear in the media at the time? After all, Gerda Taro was a major celebrity and her tragically premature death received widespread coverage. Olmeda concluded, not unreasonably, that with so much unclear or unknown, there was little possibility of a firm identification.
What Olmeda and other commentators may not have been aware of, is that the Hungarian Doctor, Janus (known as ‘Johnnie’ after the famous Hungarian Tarzan, Johnnie Weismuller) Kiszely was interviewed in 1992. The tape forms part of the Imperial War Museum’s Spanish Civil War Collection in London. According to the interview, the wounded young woman was rushed into the operating room at Torrelodones, to the west of Madrid, where Kiszely worked alongside British medics. He remembered her being ‘more or less dead when she came into my hands’. At that stage, he admitted, ‘I did not have a clue who she was … nor did the person who took the photograph.’ All Kiszely knew was that she was some kind of reporter. It was only later that he was informed of the identity of the mortally wounded young woman who he had just treated.
She was then taken away (if it were Taro, it would have been to the main 35 Division hospital at El Escorial, just under 20km away, where she later died), but Kizsely had no time to spend thinking about her. With more than 10 000 casualties passing through the hospital during the battle of Brunete, it was rare to have the time for anything but responding to the urgent needs of patients. Lacking the resources to treat everyone, Kiszely recounts how a number of French doctors went round at night, giving lethal injections to those who had been mortally wounded and had been left to die in the open air, ‘covered in flies and dust … not even cleaned up properly’.
Despite the widespread surprise at the photograph turning up so long after the event, it has in fact, appeared before, as a number of twitter users (@RevistaFv and @alexis_nogeur) have pointed out. The image (or a slightly less tightly cropped version), can be found in a chapter by the famous Catalan surgeon Moisès Brioggi, within a study of the Republican medical services, Sanidad de las Brigadas Internacionales. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add any further details, nor does it reveal the identity of the photographer. Sir John cannot add much to the story either, for the photo is the only image he possesses of his father in Spain. It didn’t arrive into his hands until after his father’s death, when it was passed to him at an International Brigade Association commemoration event.
In situations such as this, with so much unknown, it’s very difficult to categorically identify the woman in the photograph. Equally, however, it’s not possible to say that it definitely isn’t Gerda Taro. All that can reasonably be stated is that, based on the currently available evidence (Johnnie Kiszely’s plausible account, the text on the reverse of the photo and the similarity in appearance of the young woman to Gerda Taro) it is more likely to be her, than not.
If you are looking for information on one of the 2500 or so British and Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, it’s well worth considering tackling the RGASPI Archives, held in Moscow. In an amazing piece of good fortune for researchers, all the personnel files (or those that exist, at least) now seem to have been placed online. The majority of the documents are in English, though quite a few are in Spanish and a smaller number in French and German. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the website itself is all in Russian. However, if you know how to use the web, it’s not that difficult to negotiate. (And if you use Google Chrome, you can download the Google translate extension and convert the Cyrillic to English with a click.)
First, go to the home page of the 545/6 series here. You should be presented with something like this:
As you can see from the image, the files are in numerical order, with up to 50 listed on each page. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will notice that you are looking at page number 1 of 33. The first of the British personnel files is on page number 3: file number 100, covering surnames from Aa to Ai (though the numerous lists contained in files 87-99 might also be worth looking at). Clicking the name of a file will take you to a summary, as shown in the screenshot below.
N.B. Top tip: if you intend to look at a number of different files, don’t left click on the file number from the index page. Instead, right click the link and select ‘Open Link in New Tab’ or ‘Open Link in New Window’. That way you keep open your original index page, rather than being returned to the first page each time. I found that this saved me a lot of time and hassle.
From the file summary page, click on the link halfway down the page marked ‘”Cyrillic text” 84’, which will take you to the first of five pages. From there it’s really just a process of browsing through until you find the individual you’re looking for. While some volunteers have extremely large, detailed files, others consist of little more than a mention. In general, the later they arrived in Spain and the longer they were there, the more detail there will be. Not so good if you’re looking for one of the many volunteers killed at Jarama in February 1937, unfortunately.
Copying files is a slow and laborious process I’m afraid as, as far as I can see, it has to be done one image at a time. If you find a better way, do please let me know!
p.s. If you want to explore further, the index page containing links to all six fonds (collections of files) can be found here and archivists in the Tamiment Library in New York have put together an extremely useful guide to all the RGASPI files, which can be found here.
p.p.s. For those looking for other nationalities in the predominantly English-speaking 15 International Brigade: Australian & New Zealander files begin at 545/6/67, Irish at 545/6/439, Canadians at 545/6/534 and Americans at 545/6/845 (though the first personnel file, Aa-Ai, is not until 545/6/855)
Precise figures for the numbers of British and Irish volunteers killed in the various battles in the Spanish Civil War are hard to come by. Record-keeping was not always as accurate as historians might wish for (there was, after all, a war on), leading to a number of errors in lists that have appeared over the years.
Many include the names of volunteers who, it later transpired, had actually survived the war. For example, a young miner from Swansea called Dillwyn Ledbury was long thought to have been killed during the Republican Ebro offensive of July 1938. In fact, he was repatriated via France that December and lived long enough to be interviewed on 2 July 1970 by Hywell Francis for his book on the Welsh volunteers. Likewise, the Leeds volunteer Henry Carass was believed to have died during the Jarama bloodbath of February 1937 but, as his son (who was born in 1941) confirms, Carass survived to continue his fight against fascism during the Second World War. At the same time, a number of people who died in Spain were not included in the various ‘Rolls of Honour’ which appeared in books and pamphlets dedicated to the British & Irish volunteers. For example, the London carpenter William Featherstone, who died in Vich Hospital in November 1938, is one of twelve known to have been killed in Spain who, for many years, was not listed.
A full updated list appears on the International Brigades Memorial Trust website. It was complied by myself and the IBMT’s researcher and archivist, Jim Carmody, with the assistance of historians and family members too numerous to mention. Below is an appendix to the list, which breaks it down, battle by battle. It is clear from the figures that Jarama, the first action of the British Battalion in Spain, justly earned its reputation as a bloodbath and baptism of fire. Likewise, both the battle of Brunete in July 1937 and the Republican Ebro Offensive a year later also proved terribly costly. However, the retreat through Aragon during the spring of 1938 also stands out as a time when the volunteers faced some of the toughest odds. As at Jarama, the British were desperately fighting to contain a colossal Rebel onslaught. But this time, outnumbered and outgunned, the Republican forces were unable to hold the line, as Francoist forces broke through reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republican zone into two. It was a blow from which the Republic would, I think, never really recover.
British & Irish casualties in Spain, by battle.
Madrid (Casa de Campo etc.)
Boadilla del Monte
Aragon offensive (Caspe, Belchite & Quinto)
Fuentes de Ebro
The retreat through Aragon
Ebro offensive (Hills 481 & 666 and battalion’s last stand)
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).
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.
In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader
James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.
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.
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.
Obviously 30 minutes is not enough time to cover every aspect of the Irish involvement in the British Battalion during the Spanish Civil War. Instead, I will try and to give you a general overview, highlighting events and issues of particular importance during the volunteers’ time in Spain. In the main, the experiences of the Irish members of the unit were no different to those of their comrades from around the world. And, considering the obstacles it faced (of which more later) and despite the impression one might get from some hostile commentators on the International Brigades, the battalion operated surprisingly effectively. However, there were times when the volunteers’ ‘disciplined anti-fascist unity’ came under strain; this was particularly evident during the period following the creation of the battalion. I shall return to this in detail shortly.
While the reasons that lay behind the decision to go to Spain were probably as diverse as the volunteers themselves, they all shared a determination to ensure that fascism would not triumph. For these anti-fascists, the military rising in Spain represented the latest manifestation of a phenomenon they had witnessed sweep across Europe. As the Liverpool Trade Unionist – and former International Brigade Memorial Trust president – Jack Jones declared, ‘This was Fascist progression. It was real and it had to be stopped.’ It is important to remember that the volunteers saw this not simply as a civil war within Spain, but as one more episode in a European war against fascism, which many of them had already participated in at home. This was a struggle that went beyond national boundaries, a perspective lucidly expressed by the sculptor from London, Jason Gurney:
The Spanish Civil war seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and you went out to fight it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth…for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have a national boundary.
As you have already heard from other speakers, volunteers from Ireland saw the conflict in much the same way, as the Dublin volunteer Bob Doyle (portrayed on the introductory slide) explained:
The propaganda of the Catholic Church and the official press was 100 per cent in support of Franco’s military revolt. It was a tremendous campaign, preaching at Mass and the missions about the need to support Franco, a gallant Christian gentleman, defending the Catholic Church in Spain. We were very conscious that the Nazis had come to power in 1933 and that General O’Duffy was intending to follow in their footsteps…I thought there was a danger that Ireland would go fascist and that was one of the motivating factors in making up my mind to go to Spain. I didn’t know much about Spain, but I knew that every bullet I fired would be against the Dublin landlords and capitalists.
Consequently, a large group of Irish volunteers, approximately 80 in number, left Ireland on 11 December 1936, under the command of Frank Ryan, a prominent and long-standing member of the Irish Republican movement. The group left Dublin by boat and arrived in Spain on 14 December, where they joined the English-speaking company of the French 12th International Brigade. To the surprise of many, despite Ryan’s reputation, the International Brigade command did not chose him as the Irish group’s section leader. This honour fell, instead, to Chris ‘Kit’ Conway, another experienced IRA activist and fighter. The official reason given was that Ryan was deaf, and would therefore be a liability in combat. While this may be true, it is perhaps worth noting that, unlike Conway, Frank Ryan was not a member of the Communist Party.
In addition to Conway’s section, the company included a number of veterans from the fighting during November 1936, where they had played a vital role in defending Madrid against the advancing Nationalist army, led by General Franco and supported by the military might of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Led by a British army veteran, George Nathan, the English-speaking company was sent to fight on the Lopera front, near Cordoba in southern Spain.
Meanwhile, other new arrivals from Britain and Ireland were joined the 16th (British) Battalion of the 15th International Brigade, formed on 27 December 1936. The Battalion was based in the small village of Madrigueras, about 20 km north of the main International Brigades’ base at Albacete, roughly half-way between Valencia and Madrid.
While most of the volunteers in the battalion were from Britain, it also included volunteers from Ireland and others from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. So, despite its name, it was never really a British Battalion, which was, in fact, recognised at the time. Attempts were made to give it a more appropriate name and the name Saklatvala battalion was mooted, (after the Indian Communist MP for Battersea in London who had died from a heart attack in January 1936), but the name never caught on. It could actually have been even worse: Spaniards called it el batallon inglés, the English Battalion.
The military commander of the new battalion was a Scottish journalist and World War One veteran called Wilf McCartney, who had previously served 10 years in Parkhurst prison for spying for Russia. The battalion political commissar, in charge of the political development and welfare of the volunteers, was Dave Springhall, the secretary of the London district of the Communist Party.
The battalion itself was divided up into four companies, one machine-gun company plus three of infantry. Military training, such as it was, was put into practice. Fortunately, a number of the volunteers had some form of military training; there was ‘a good proportion of ex-servicemen’ and a number had served in the Territorial Army or some other form of military organization.
However, there was a sizeable number who had not. It was later claimed ‘that in five weeks or so they had produced some very fair infantry,’ but in truth, five weeks of basic training was ‘absurdly short’. Undoubtedly, many of the problems with training were a result of the well-documented limitations of quantity and quality of Republican arms and ammunition, a result of the British and French governments’ policy of non-intervention. This prevented the legal Republic from buying arms, while turning a blind eye to the huge amount of arms and men flooding in to Franco from Germany & Italy.
However, a number of brand new Russian rifles did soon arrive, but as many volunteers were only allowed to practice with five bullets, the value of the training must be regarded as questionable at best. One volunteer’s summary of the situation in early 1937 was biting: ‘Many people writing on the International Brigades have described them as well-armed, highly disciplined and well-trained units. This we of the British Battalion were not.’
Despite the problems, by early 1937 there were 450 volunteers training at Madrigueras, a number approaching battalion strength. Unfortunately, however, the fledgling battalion suffered a major setback in the middle of the month, when a number of Irish members, apparently unhappy with British officers’ tendency not to make any distinction between British and Irish volunteers, discovered that two senior British figures in Spain – the commander of Number One Company currently serving at Lopera, George Nathan, and the Battalion commander, Wilf Macartney – were suspected to have played a role in British covert activities in Ireland. Both were alleged to have served in the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries in the 1920s; worse still, Nathan was rumoured to have been involved in a hit squad that murdered two prominent members of Sinn Fein in May 1921: George Clancy, the former Lord Mayor of Limerick and George O’Callaghan, the ex-mayor. Nathan’s rather chequered past gave rise to suspicions that he could be a Franco spy.
Nathan was not a member of the Communist Party and was directed, probably by André Marty, the French commander of the International Brigades in Spain, to explain himself to Frank Ryan and his Irish comrades. According to the Irish volunteer, Jim Prendergast, Nathan was in effect, put on trial for his life. Nathan vehemently denied that he was a spy, but admitted that he had indeed been an intelligence officer in the Auxiliaries in County Limerick. However, Nathan claimed that he was acting under orders whilst in Ireland and argued that, as a Jew, he was now a staunch anti-fascist, and that all the volunteers in Spain were now all on the same side.
According to Joe Monks, the meeting responded to the spirit of his speech and applauded him. It is probable that Nathan’s explanation was accepted because of widespread admiration of the military skills and courage that he demonstrated during the disastrous Lopera action. 8 of the 50 Irish volunteers had been killed and only the actions of Nathan, who coolly organized a retreat under fire, prevented further losses.
However, resentment continued to smoulder and was reignited by a tactless report in the British Communist paper, the Daily Worker in early January. The article recounted the actions at Lopera, but made no mention of the Irish volunteers, instead describing them all as British. A number of Irish training at Madrigueras were furious, and it became clear that an attempt needed to be made to resolve the simmering discontent.
A meeting was called on the 12th January by, it appears, Dave Springhall, the battalion commissar, which was attended by approximately 45 Irish members of the battalion. During a stormy session, a number demanded that the group leave the British dominated battalion, whilst others, who wished to remain, vigorously argued ‘that distinctions must be made between anti-fascist working-class comrades from Britain and British imperialism.’ At the end of the meeting, the Irish group voted by a ratio of two to one (26-11) to leave and join the Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion at nearby Villanueva de la Jara.
Many of the details surrounding the split are unclear, though Frank Ryan always argued that it was provoked by the British battalion and Communist Party leadership, who were determined to wreck any chance of forming a specific Irish unit, a ‘Connolly Column.’ It is certainly highly unlikely that the communists who controlled the British battalion in Spain would have been amenable to the creation of a unit under the command of Irish republicans. It is surely revealing that despite his IRA experience and the dire shortage of officers in the Republican army, Frank Ryan was never given a field command.
In, I think, the best analysis of the split, Emmet O’Connor argues that the significance of ‘chronic suspicion of Irish republicanism in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain,’ should not be underestimated. He also suggests that, André Marty, famously paranoid, was suspicious of volunteers from Catholic Ireland as potential fifth-columnists and deliberately kept them divided.
An immediate casualty of the fall-out was the Dubliner Terry Flanagan, who was acting commander of the Irish group in Madrigueras at the time. He seems to have been made a scape-goat for much of the conflict and was charged with sabotage and imprisoned. Only the personal intervention of Frank Ryan secured his release.
The incorporation of the survivors of the English-speaking Company from Lopera (who returned on 24 January), together with new arrivals meant that numbers in the battalion reached approximately six hundred by the beginning of February. The battalion was now considered to be of sufficient strength of and readiness for front-line action despite, firstly, the loss of the Irish group and, secondly, the widely respected commander of Number One Company, Jock Cunningham, who was taken ill in early February. This was a major setback, for the veteran of the battle for Madrid ‘was the best soldier of the lot,’ in Tom Wintringham’s opinion. However Cunningham’s place was taken by another popular and experienced fighter, the leader of the Irish at Lopera, ‘Kit’ Conway.
Finally, on 8 February 1937, the Battalion prepared to leave Madrigueras for the front, which lay to the south-east of Madrid. Following the failure of his earlier attempts on the west of Spain’s capital, General Franco had prepared a new offensive to the south, aiming to cut the vital road that linked Madrid with Valencia, the seat of the Republican Government.
The 600 odd members of the battalion made their way north by lorry to Chinchón, about 25 km from Madrid and 15 km south-east of the site of the rebel advance. Recent arrivals were given some hurried last-minute preparation. Early in the morning of the 12th February, the volunteers were moved up to the eastern edge of the heights and began climbing upwards to the plateau overlooking the Jarama River.
They advanced over a ridge then began to descend into the valley of the Jarama River, which lay in front of them. When they found themselves coming under enemy fire, they quickly pulled back to the top of the ridge and took up defensive positions on what would later become known as ‘Suicide Hill’.
The battalion was then subjected to a terrifying three hour machine-gun and artillery barrage, before they were attacked by ‘at least three battalions’ of highly experienced Moroccan infantry, Franco’s crack troops, who were in their element advancing across the open terrain of the Jarama Valley. Under the ferocious Nationalist attack, the Franco-Belge Battalion further to the north of the British Battalion was forced to pull back, which brought the three infantry companies under lethal enfilading machine-gun fire, which swept across them from their right. They tried desperately to hold their ground, but were cut to pieces.
As the day progressed, the rapidly mounting casualties put them in an increasingly untenable position. The survivors were left with little option but to retreat from Suicide Hill back to the battalion headquarters on the plateau, dragging their wounded comrades with them. But, as one volunteer remembered sadly, ‘There weren’t many to go back.’ As the last remaining dispirited members of the battalion withdrew, Moroccan soldiers rushed forward over the ridge in order to occupy the positions relinquished by the retreating volunteers. However, at this point, the battalion experienced perhaps their only moment of good fortune that day. After a terribly frustrating day spent without ammunition for the machine-guns, the correct calibre bullets had, at last, arrived. Quickly, the guns were brought into operation and used with devastating effect on the Moroccan soldiers who, for once, were caught out in the open and totally unawares. The Moroccan troops either quickly dropped down out of sight and waited for the cover of darkness or, where they could, retreated out of range. This brought to an end the first day of the battle of Jarama.
Like other Republican units, the Battalion had endured seven hours of extremely heavy losses: ‘Out of the 400 men in the [three] rifle companies, only 125 were left. Altogether less than half the battalion remained.’ Amongst those killed that day was the Irish company commander Kit Conway.
The following two days were no less terrifying, as Nationalist forces pressed forwards. The Battalion soon found itself surrounded on three sides and with the Machine-Gun Company’s flank totally unprotected rebel forces quickly took advantage of the situation and surrounded them. As many as 30 members of the Company, including its commander and his assistant, were captured.
A desperate charge by 40 men in a forlorn attempt to retake the trenches recently occupied by the Machine-Gun Company ended in disaster when the Nationalists soldiers simply mowed them down with their own machine-guns. Only six of the 40 men made it back to their positions.
The third day of the battle, on the 14 February, brought a new assault on the battalion’s lines by a fresh Nationalist brigade, now supported by tanks. Under severe crossfire and without any specialised equipment to combat the tanks, Jock Cunningham, who had temporarily taken charge of the battalion, had little choice but to withdraw his men away from the sunken road. Frank Ryan later described their plight:
Dispirited by heavy casualties, by defeat, by lack of food, worn out by three days of gruelling fighting, our men appeared to have reached the end of their resistance.
Some were still straggling down the slopes from what had been, up to an hour ago, the front line. And now, there was no line, nothing between the Madrid road and the Fascists but disorganised groups of weary, war-wrecked men. After three days of terrific struggle, the superior numbers, the superior armaments of the Fascists had routed them. All, as they came back, had similar stories to tell: of comrades dead, of conditions that were more than flesh and blood could stand, of weariness they found hard to resist.
With the battalion’s machine-guns crushed underneath the Nationalist tanks, the weakened line finally broke and the volunteers retreated in small groups back down the slope towards the Chinchón road. But here they were stopped by Colonel ‘Gal’, the commander of the 15th International Brigade, who explained to them that they were the only troops between the rebels and the Valencia Road. Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, 140 volunteers turned around and marched back to try to recapture their lost positions.
Under no illusions about the situation they were walking into, led by Frank Ryan and Jock Cunningham, the volunteers marched back, singing the Internationale to bolster their spirits, picking up stragglers on the way. The Nationalist forces, fooled into believing that fresh reinforcements had been brought up to the front, retreated back to their earlier positions. As the historian Hugh Thomas admitted, ‘It was a brave performance.’ The volunteers held the line at a critical moment for the Republic.
During the night of 14 to 15 February, Spanish units were brought up, and the gap in the line was finally plugged. Both sides dug defensive fortifications and a stalemate ensued, which neither side was able to overcome. The positions remained virtually static for the rest of the war.
Celebrated as a great victory over the fascist army, the battle of Jarama was, like the earlier battles for Madrid in November and December 1936, really only successful in that it stemmed the rebels’ advance on the capital. And at great cost: the Republicans lost somewhere in the region of 10 000 soldiers, to the Nationalists 6 000. Of the 600 who had gone into battle with the British Battalion on 12 February, a conservative estimate would suggest that 136 were killed, a similar number wounded, with at least 50 deserting the front line, leaving less than half the battalion remaining. In total nineteen Irish were killed fighting with the British Battalion at Jarama, including Kit Conway and the Protestant Reverend Robert M Hilliard, known as ‘the boxing parson of Kilarney’. As the Brigade Commissar Peter Kerrigan later stated, ‘This battle has been reported on many occasions. Suffice it to say that it was the bloodiest of all the battles that the British Battalion was involved in, in Spain. There was none as deadly.’
Yet the battalion, bolstered with new recruits, managed to regroup and fight on in defence of the Spanish Republic for nearly 18 months.
In the full heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete in July 1937, where despite gaining territory, Franco’s superior numbers and complete air domination soon stemmed and pushed back the Republican advance. Events were repeated in Aragon during the autumn of 1937. The capture of Quinto in September bode well, though it was marred by the death of the popular Irish commander of the battalion, Peter Daly from Wexford. His place was taken by his fellow countryman, Paddy O’Daire. And in during Christmas 1937, in one of the worst Spanish winters for years, Republican supporters around the world viewed the capture of the remote provincial capital of Teruel as ‘the turn of the tide’.
That it may have been, but not in the manner they expected. Franco’s forces soon retook Teruel and Franco was able to use the success as a springboard for a colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. Back in Aragon, the battalion was at the forefront of a desperate – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to prevent Franco’s forces reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republic in two. In what became essentially a headlong retreat, Italian troops captured over 100 members of the battalion – including both Bob Doyle and Frank Ryan – in what was probably one of the battalion’s lowest points during the civil war in Spain.
Yet, somehow, the battalion and the Spanish Republic itself, managed to regroup and return to the battle. In the summer of 1938, the Republican army launched a huge offensive back across the River Ebro. The International Brigades were involved in the crucial battles around the Aragon town of Gandesa in July and August and in the mountains of the Sierra Caballs and Pandols in September.
It was during this time that one of the less savoury episodes occurred, involving British and Irish volunteers in Spain. During an attack on a hill strategically overlooking Gandesa, members of the battalion reported coming under machine-gun fire from their own side. As the Scottish volunteer, John Dunlop, recalled:
I was just at the edge of a small hill. Right above my head, just inches above my head, there was a long burst of machine gun fire but it was coming in the wrong direction. It wasn’t coming from in front of me, it was coming from behind me and it was just hitting the top of this ridge, just above my head. I looked back and I could see this gun, one of our own machine-guns, actually firing. It appeared to be firing on us, so that more or less ended our attack.
An investigation into the incident concluded that they had been fired on by a volunteer from Tipperary, called Maurice Ryan, who was alleged to have been ‘flaying drunk’. Ryan was charged with firing on his own comrades, and Divisional headquarters gave orders for him to be executed by members of the British Battalion. At the beginning of August 1938, Maurice Ryan was taken for a walk in the woods by battalion commander Sam Wild and his adjutant George Fletcher, and shot in the back of the head.
The final action of the battalion in Spain came on 23 September 1938, when the 337 remaining members of the unit moved up to the front for one last time. The day began with Franco’s forces subjecting them to a five-hour artillery barrage, before they were ‘attacked and attacked, again and again with his artillery, tanks, aircraft and infantry.’ No. 1. Company bore the brunt, remaining stubbornly in their positions until their trenches were overrun. Many volunteers were killed or captured in the brutal hand-to-hand fighting, including a number who had been in Spain ever since the battles of Madrid during the winter of 1936.
Eventually the order was given to retreat and at 1 a.m. on 24 September 1938 the 15th International Brigade were withdrawn from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the battalion had been 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 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.
On 28 October 1938 the surviving volunteers of the 15 International Brigades took their place in a huge farewell parade in Barcelona, renowned for the speech of ‘La Pasionaria’ in which she thanked them and promised: ‘We will not forget you’ she said, ‘and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland.’
But six months later, the beleaguered Spanish Republic finally collapsed and, with it, the hopes of the supporters of democratic Spain from around the world. It caused the French writer Albert Camus to write an embittered comment on the lessons on the Spanish Civil War and the sacrifice of the International Brigades:
‘It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’ ‘It is this which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’
And why, of course, many people around the world continue to do so.