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Review of Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia

It is fitting that Homage to Caledonia, Daniel Gray’s book on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, begins with the funeral of Steve Fullarton, the last remaining Scot to have fought with the International Brigades in Spain. This book acts as a testament, not just for the more than 550 men and women from Scotland who risked their lives in Spain, but also for those who stayed behind in Scotland and campaigned for the beleagured Spanish Republic. Gray’s deep sympathy with his subject is manifest, yet this is a serious, scholarly work.

The book’s first section on the volunteers draws strongly on Ian MacDougall’s excellent 1986 study, Voices from the Spanish Civil War. As Gray explains, the reasons that lay behind the determination of so many Scots to go to Spain are not hard to find. He paints a clear picture of the dire poverty of many working class Scots and the ensuing atmosphere of strikes and protests that led many to join the Communist Party. It is a political journey that took in hunger marches, anti-Blackshirt demonstrations and the long – and often one-way- trip to Spain.

Gray’s descriptions of the horrifying battles of Jarama and Brunete in 1937, though brief, effectively capture the lack of preparation and the awful shock that the volunteers faced in Spain. Further chapters examine the daily grind in Spain and the brutal experiences of those held in Franco’s prisoner-of-war camps. The work of medical services in Spain is not overlooked, with one chapter describing the role of the ‘misguided’ Scottish Ambulance unit. Gray describes how four volunteers left the unit in disgust, following suspicions that its leader was using it as a cover to evacuate Nationalist sympathisers from Spain.

The book’s second section turns to ‘Scotland’s War’, the home front. Gray examines of the role of Scottish women, such as the Conservative MP Katherine Atholl, ‘the Red Duchess’, in raising funds and campaigning for the beleaguered Spanish Republic. He also outlines the huge importance of family politics, evidenced by the extraordinary Murray family, three of whom went to Spain whilst their five sisters stayed at home campaigning. As Gray says, ‘anti-fascism often ran in families, who supported each other in the shared belief that no death was in vain, no matter the personal pain a parent or sibling might feel.’ (p.52)

Whilst Gray’s work naturally focuses on the Scottish supporters of Republican Spain, he does not forget the Scottish ‘Friends of National Spain.’ Far-fetched stories in the right-wing press north of the border mirrored those in England: for example, Grays recounts how both the Catholic Herald and Glasgow Observer claimed that the Republican government had created a battalion of prostitutes to defend Madrid. Gray brings to life the various right-wing fanatics, such as Major-General Sir Walter Maxwell-Scott, Walter Scott’s great-great grandson, who alleged in March 1937 that 50 000 ‘workers of the world’ were fighting for the Republic.

Gray concludes the section with the tale of ‘Scotland’s other left’, the parties who, with the Communists, supported the Republic. The chapter’s main concern is the Independent Labour Party, whose four MPs were all Scots. Of the Scottish volunteers in Spain, perhaps as many as 100 were members of the ILP, who divided themselves between the Catalan POUM militia (in which George Orwell famously served) and the International Brigades. The sectarianism between the CP and ILP in Scotland mirrored that in Spain; as Gray says, ‘the politics of Catalonia had been imported by Caledonia.’ (p.145)

Gray’s final section is a collection of essays on individuals and themes of Scottish interest. The first two subjects, the ILP volunteer Bob Smillie and the Anarchist Ethel Macdonald, have both been covered in detail by Tom Buchanan and Chris Dolan respectively. The only note of real controversy here is that Gray repeats the accusation that Smillie was kicked to death by SIM agents during his interrogation. However, as Tom Buchanan has argued, the lack of conclusive evidence suggests that this case must remain not proven.

Gray’s chapter on the Aragon campaigns of 1937 and 1938 include a number of well-chosen vignettes, giving a powerful sense of the Scot’s experiences in Spain. Gray provides an extremely moving description of the terrible last days of the battalion in September 1938, in which nearly 200 volunteers were killed or wounded in just three days of desperate and bloody fighting.

The issue of dissent and discipline is now an important part of any study of the foreign volunteers in Spain. Obviously Russia, via the Communist Party, had a very powerful influence on the volunteers, particularly on their attitudes to the Barcelona May days and the POUM. However, Gray believes that ‘this should not … detract from the credibility of the 35 000 people from around the world who travelled to Spain of their own volition.’ (p.193)

Gray concludes his study with an examination of the legacy of the Scottish supporters of the Spanish Republic. As Gray argues passionately, the Spanish episode remains something to be proud of; ‘a glorious, if often tragic, chapter in Scotland’s unwritten history.’ (p.211)

This review first appeared in Family and Community History, 13:2, November 2010, pp.149-150.

Who do you think you are?

Contributor on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ documentary on family history of Hollywood actress (Lost, Waking Ned, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Others) Fionnuala Flanagan, produced by Mint/RTE and broadcast in 2009.

The sections on Fionnuala’s International Brigader father, Terry Flanagan, were filmed on location in Madrid, Albacete and Madrigueras.

Fionnula Flanagan

‘Actress Fionnula Flanagan may live in Hollywood, but her heart is at home in Ireland. Her mother was born in a workhouse… but not for obvious reasons. Her father, from a large inner city family, grew up in a turbulent era, and eventually took his Republican & socialist principles across Europe to the Spanish Civil War. For the first time, Fionnula has a chance to understand her dad’s many battles, wounds and victories. But it’s back home in Dublin, while trying to grapple with the family circumstances that inspired her father, that Fionnula discovers a harsh truth about her grandmother: a woman who was the rock of the family.’

Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War

This book brings together leading British and Spanish historians in an examination of key aspects and themes of the Spanish Civil War. Contributors discuss the politics of memory; recent revisionist historiography; biographies of international volunteers; the experience of nursing in Catalonia; the baptism of fire of Jarama; Britain’s blocking of aid to the Republic; Soviet intervention in the conflict; and the crimes of Franco, both during and after the war.

Review from Amazon

‘Useful compilation of the last 9 years of annual lectures of the IBMT – bringing us up to date with current thinking in the Spanish Civil War as republican memory is revisited. Useful for A Level GSCE, but more so for under/post graduate work.’

Review by Peter Carroll in The Volunteer

Looking Back at the Spanish Civil Waris a collection of the first 10 Len Crome annual lectures sponsored by the IBMT. These include Paul Preston’s tribute to the man for whom the series is dedicated, “‘No Soldier’: The Courage and Comradeship of Dr Len Crome,” describing one of the many medical personnel who gave generously to the Spanish cause and later served in World War II. As expected, the British side receives considerable treatment—essays by Richard Baxell and Angela Jackson, and Enrique Moradiellos’s “Albion’s Perfidy” about the pro-Franco response of the British government. But running through most of these essays is a strong international thread: Helen Graham’s “The Return of Republican Memory”; Ángel Vias’s “September 1936: Stalin’s Decision to Support the Spanish Republic”; Julián Casanova’s “History and Memory …

This historical work is good—have no doubt about it—and reflects the growing interest around the world in matters related to the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. Partly the result of new archival discoveries, partly because of the passing of the generation that lived and fought the war, the new scholarship has effectively shifted the historical narrative closer to its original, pre-Cold War position.

Most recent writing emphasizes that the war in Spain had long, indigenous roots; stresses selfish national interests in Britain, France and the United States for the failure to prevent fascist expansion; and treats the IB volunteers as heroic anti-fascists (rather than dupes of Stalin). On these grounds, the Spanish Civil War was a fight between an elected democracy and a fascist-military rebellion rather than a war between fascism and communism (the Cold War version). Instead of seeing the Spanish war as a precursor or “dress rehearsal” for a world war, it appears as it once was seen by its contemporaries, the first battlefield of World War II.’

Keith Howard ‘Andy’ Andrews, 15 February 1907 to 7 May 2008

Life-long campaigner and Trade Union activist, Keith Howard ‘Andy’ Andrews, has died aged 101. In 1936, Andy was one of the first of around 2500 from Britain and Ireland to volunteer to join the Spanish Republican army in its struggle against the forces of General Franco and his German and Italian backers.

Andy was born in Kilburn, north-west London, in February 1907. At the age of 16 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1924 was posted to Quetta, in British India. In 1926 Andy was posted to Shanghai, to help protect British interests, prior to the April 1927 massacres of Chinese communists and trades unionists by Chaing-Kai Sheck’s right-wing Nationalist troops.

Andy became a member of the Independent Labour Party and then, in 1931, the Communist Party. During a Mosley rally at the Albert Hall in March 1936, Andy was thrown down several flights of stairs and beaten up in full view of the police who, he recounted, stood by smiling. In August of the same year, Andy travelled to Spain in a British ambulance donated by the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. He stayed in Spain as a front-line hospital worker for over 18 months, attached to both British and other International Brigade units. Andy served at field hospitals at some of the toughest battles in the civil war; on more than one occasion hospitals Andy was working in were attacked by German or Italian airplanes or shell-fire. Following Franco’s successful assault in Aragon in the Spring of 1938, which cleaved the Republic in two, Andy returned home to Britain.

During the Second World War Andy served in the Royal Artillery, and was part of the British Forces evacuated under fire from Dunkirk in 1940. After the war and demobilisation Andy moved to Somerset and became an active member of the Taunton Peace Group, the South West TUC and local trade union councils. In 1955 he established a branch of COHSE at Taunton hospital, and was Branch secretary and Taunton Trades Council delegate until he retired at the age of 65 in 1972.

In 2006, aged 99, he rejoined the Communist Party, joined the Taunton Peace Group and thereafter was seen regularly on the streets of Taunton handing out leaflets protesting against the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles. The following year Andy delivered a passionate speech at the Glastonbury festival, attacking the British National Party.

Prominent figures in the British Labour and peace movements came together in Taunton in February this year to pay tribute to Andy on his 101st birthday. Messages from veteran former Labour MP Tony Benn and Kate Hudson, chair of CND were read out, and many speakers from the local trade union and peace movement came forward to add their good wishes.

Andy Andrews died on 7 May 2008, following a short illness.

Bob Peters, 17 November 1914 to 15 January 2007

Bob Peters, the last of the surviving Welsh volunteers from the International Brigades which fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936 to 1939, has died, aged 92.

Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1914, Peters was the youngest of nine children. Brought up by his mother and sister, Peters left school at 14, just as the world was sinking into the great depression. After two desperate years scrimping by as an errand boy and a milkman, in 1931 Peters chose to leave Wales for a new life Canada, his passage paid for by the Salvation Army, who also found him work as a farm-hand in Ontario.

When the Spanish Generals, backed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, launched their military prononciamiento in July 1936, Peters was working on the Great Lakes as a deckhand. Appalled that the western democracies were refusing to help the legal Spanish Government, Peters decided to take personal action to help the Republic. Like 35 000 others from more than fifty counties all over the world, he elected to join the International Brigades.

Though not a Communist, Peters contacted the Communist Party in Canada who, as in other countries, were organising recruitment for the brigades. After demonstrating sufficient anti-fascist political commitment to be accepted- political conviction was usually regarded as an acceptable substitute for military experience- Peters was sent on to New York, where he boarded the SS Washington for Le Havre in France.

From France he undertook the exhausting trek across the Pyrenees into Northern Spain, where he joined other international volunteers at the northern muster point at Figueras, before being transferred by train to the International Brigade base at Albacete. Peters was offered the choice of joining up with the American or British volunteers, as a discrete Canadian unit- the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion- was not formed until five months later.

Electing to join his compatriots in the ‘British’ Battalion, Peters was given a typically brief and ineffective period of training, before arriving on the front line on 5 July 1937. Here Peters quickly found himself part of the desperately ambitious Republican offensive at Brunete to the west of Madrid which, vainly, aimed to break the Nationalist stranglehold on the Spanish capital and, at the same time, draw Franco’s attention away from the beleaguered Republican forces in Northern Spain.

After only two days, Peters’ time at the front was abruptly ended when he was hit by a bullet in the back whilst he tried to offer encouragement to a terrified comrade. The bullet lodged in Peters’ back, dangerously close to his spine and ensured his permanent withdrawal from front-line service. However, following a period of convalescence in the Republican hospital at Benicasim, Peters was soon back in the brigades, risking his life as a despatch rider. Probably jolted by the dreadful Spanish roads, the bullet in Peters’ back gradually worked its way free from alongside his spine and, as an x-ray taken in November 1937 showed, worked itself up into his right arm. The bullet was successfully extracted and Peters kept the x-ray of the bullet- of Italian origin- as a memento of his time in Spain.

Despite several dangerous encounters with air-raids and the constant dangers imposed by the terrible roads, Peters continued serving as a despatch rider until the International Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in October 1938. Although he received a heroes welcome on his return to Wales, like many others Peters was sad to have left Spain, feeling that his job there was uncompleted. For the rest of his life Peters remained angry and bitter at the duplicitous actions of the British and French governments which had abandoned the Spanish Government to its fate.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 Peters, like many other ex-brigaders, saw the war as a continuation of the fight that he had participated in Spain. In 1940 Peters joined up and, following his training at Ballymena in Northern Ireland, he was transferred first to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and later to the London Irish Rifles, serving as a despatch rider and lorry driver in Egypt, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia. Peters returned to civilian life in 1946, and took up residence in Bexley, Kent, where he met his future wife, Frances. Thereafter, Peters worked as a forklift driver in nearby Belvedere until his retirement in 1979.

For many years Peters lost contact with his comrades from the International Brigades but, in 1985, following the publication of the former Battalion Commander Bill Alexander’s book on the British volunteers, Peters got back in touch. He returned to Spain for the 1996 Homanaje, a huge reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of the war. It was an emotional, memorable event, and reunited Peters with his comrades from around the world. Thereafter Peters kept up his contacts with his British comrades in the International Brigade Association and regularly attended the annual commemoration in London, held every July alongside the monument on the South Bank.

In 2005 Peters’ story of his Spanish experiences was written by Greg Lewis published under the title, A Bullet Saved my Life. The title was apposite, for there is little doubt that his removal from front-line service saved his life. Like other units of the International Brigades, the British battalion suffered horrendous casualties in Spain. Out of around 2300 volunteers to travel to Spain from Britain, over 500 were killed and most suffered some kind of injury. For Peters, the Spanish episode was always seen as the most important period in his life. As he recounted to Lewis shortly before his death, following a brave struggle against cancer: ‘I’ve never regretted it. I’m very proud of having been in Spain…Things were really tough, especially for others more than me, but I’ve never regretted going over there.’

Robert James Peters, born Penarth, 17 November 1914; married 1940 Frances Wisdom (died 1990; three sons, and one son deceased); died London 15 January 2007.

George Wheeler, 21 March 1914 to 11 February 2006

George Wheeler one of the last survivors of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil war has died, aged 91.

Born in Battersea in 1914, the son of a committed socialist, he left school at 14 before taking an apprenticeship and working as a joiner in Brentford for a company that made spare parts for Royal Navy ships.

Following the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936, his father, a Labour councillor, became an active member of the local Aid Spain Committee. Inspired by a speech given by Aneurin Bevan at a rally in Trafalgar Square in early 1938, George decided to volunteer for the Republican forces.  Assisted by the Communist Party, he departed for Spain in May 1938, accompanied by, among others, the trade unionist Jack Jones.

Within three months, he and his comrades in the British Battalion were thrown into the dramatic republican Ebro offensive which astonished those who had written off the Spanish loyalists. However, Franco’s superior forces – supplied with huge amounts of materiel by Hitler and Mussolini, despite an international agreement not to intervene in the conflict – soon reversed the Republican gains. After seeing many of his comrades killed or wounded, George was finally captured by Franco’s forces on 23 September 1938.

He was fortunate not to be summarily executed and was imprisoned in the notorious PoW camp at San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos. Kept in appalling conditions, many prisoners died from a combination of disease, malnutrition and the frequent vicious beatings. Finally released in April 1939, George returned to London, work and marriage to Winifred, who died ten years ago, before continuing his anti-fascist fight in the Second World War.

George Wheeler in 2006, with copies of his Spanish Civil War memoir, <i>To Make the People Smile Again</i>
George Wheeler in 2006, with copies of his Spanish Civil War memoir, To Make the People Smile Again

Although he was in a reserved occupation, he became such a thorn in the side of the management at the factory where he spoke out against the waste of raw materials, that he was released to join the army. George became an army instructor and was posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to train local troops. Promoted to Regimental  Sergeant-Major, he was due to travel with his troops to Burma, but he caught malaria and was unable to travel.

Surviving the Second World War, he resumed his work as a carpenter and became an active trade unionist. After his wife’s death, George renewed his interest in the International Brigades and, to his obvious delight, his graphic account of his Spanish experiences, To Make the People Smile Again, was published in 2003.

Lawrence George Wheeler, carpenter: born Mitcham, Surrey 21 March 1914; married 1940 Winifred McDougal (died 1993); died Croydon, Surrey 11 February 2006.

The obituary above originally appeared in the Morning Star. An interview with George (with a portrait by Eamonn McCabe) appeared in The Guardian‘s ‘Last of the Brigade’ in 2000 and International Brigade Memorial Trust Secretary, Jim Jump, also wrote an obituary for George, which appeared in The Independent on 17 February 2006

Review of James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire

James Hopkins’ new work follows three earlier books on the role and experiences of British volunteers in Spain, all of which, as Hopkins argues, have been determined to portray the British Battalion, and the Communist Party, in a positive light. The ex-Daily Worker journalist Bill Rust and the ex-volunteers Frank Ryan and Bill Alexander are thus “keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered”. Hopkins attempts to redress some of the oversights and biases of these earlier accounts of the British volunteers, a task considerably eased by the opening up of the large archive in Moscow, on which his work draws heavily.

Hopkins divides his work into two main sections: the first examines the social, political and cultural climate of Britain in the 1930s in which the volunteers motivations can be set; the second assesses the experiences of the volunteers in Spain. Part one is itself divided into two sections: the first looking at middle-class ‘thinkers’, the second at ‘proletarian intellectuals’. The former is an area that has been well studied: how ‘writers took sides’ and the role of British middle class intellectuals such as Orwell and Spender has been written about in great detail. Hopkins argues that despite the influx of middle-class intellectuals into the Communist Party during the 1930s, they were to some extent seen as outsiders; that the alliance between working-class and middle-class communists was somewhat uneasy, at best.

Part two provides much more of fresh interest. Hopkins here presents a detailed examination of working-class intellectual culture in the 1930s, explaining the development and dissemination of left-wing political ideology that led to more than two thousand volunteering for a war in a country ‘of which they knew little’. Hopkins suggests it found three main forms. First, newspapers, in particular the Communist Daily Worker; second literature, not just Marx and Engels, but also the works of Robert Blatchford, Robert Tresswell and Jack London, and third, the oral tradition of street orators: many of the speakers, and many of their audience, ended up in Spain. Hopkins also cites other influences: the influence of religious non-conformism, the alternative ‘English historical tradition’ of Wat Tyler, Thomas Paine and the Chartist movement, the influence of the Lenin School (though only the elite such as Will Paynter and Bob Cooney were sent to Moscow) and, finally, a tradition of internationalism, which Hopkins traces back to the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign of 1917. To Hopkins, the crucial factor that differentiated the British working-class volunteers from their contemporaries was that they were ‘thinkers’, products of ‘an influential working class political culture’. Thus the much-derided view of the conflict as ‘the poets’ war’, has been represented by Hopkins instead as ‘the intellectuals’ war’.

How representative his view is of the battalion as a whole is not clear. Hopkins cites a number of volunteers, but they are only a small proportion of the volunteers. His examples all tend to be Communists, so this ‘plebeian intellectualism’ may be more typical of the Communist volunteers rather than the non-Communists who, by Hopkins’ own estimate, number at least half of the British volunteers. And, as he admits, “for the most part, the British volunteers were not Marxist revolutionaries. Rather, they were men of the left who saw themselves as “the standard-bearers of British Democracy in Spain.””

The second part of the book centres on a trenchant critique of the Communist Party’s role in Spain. Hopkins claims that the only route to promotion in the British Battalion was through the CP and it is the (by definition mainly communist) leadership, at battalion level and higher, that comes in for particular criticism. Hopkins supports Jason Gurney’s criticisms of the role of the political commissars, claiming their propaganda was misguided and they often ill-advisedly drifted into military, rather than political, affairs. He also accuses senior members of the British Battalion of complicity in the suppression of the POUM. Hopkins conclusion is that the leadership of the party, both at national and international level, cynically used the International Brigades to further the aims of the Communist Party, which were inextricably intertwined with the foreign policy of the USSR. Thus the accusation that appeared in the contemporary press that the volunteers were ‘dupes’ returns.

Having argued how he believes the leadership ‘sold out’ the rank and file, Hopkins goes on to claim that the party deliberately covered up the level of discontent by maintaining that deserters had been wounded, and that political ‘unreliables’ were at best imprisoned, and at worst deliberately sent into hazardous areas where there was a high likelihood of being killed. Hopkins completes his attack on the role of the Communist party by examining the ‘true believers’ in Spain, the advocates of ‘revolutionary expediency’. Hopkins believes that there was extensive NKVD and SIM (the Spanish military police) interference in the running of the battalion and that on several occasions, CP representatives of lowly rank appear to have held more influence than the battalion leaders. Here Hopkins’ summary is explicit in its criticism: “If the men on the battlefield sought to live their political ideals on the battlefields of Spain, they were betrayed by the party that made it possible for them to be there.

Few volunteers agree with Hopkins’ conclusions. As Fred Thomas, who fought with the Anti-Tank Battery (and who, sadly, died recently) has pointed out, Hopkins sometimes places too much reliance on volunteers’ testimonies, which as he himself would admit, are often somewhat subjective and impressionistic. For example, Hopkins readiness to accept Fred Copeman’s claim that he created an anti-tank battery composed of “good looking students” to keep the middle and working class Communists separated in a kind of apartheid, seems ill judged. Likewise, the reliability of the testimony of Bill Griffiths, on which Hopkins draws heavily, has also been questioned by ex-volunteers. However, despite these and other criticisms, the value of Hopkins’ work is without doubt. His extensive research, particularly his careful analysis of the Moscow files, ensures that this is a major work which adds substantially to the knowledge and understanding of the experiences of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

This review first appeared in The Journal of Contemporary Iberian History, 13:2, 2000, pp.125-127.