In addition to being a historian, I am the Chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, a charity which keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who volunteered to fight fascism – and those who supported them – during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
The trust, made up of family members, friends, supporters and historians, organises events around the country, including the forthcoming national commemoration on 1 July in Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank. We provide assistance to those researching the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War and promote the preservation of archives. Through our magazine, our eNewsletter, website and social media feeds, we keep our members and the wider public informed about developments concerning the memory and legacy of the International Brigades.
And, of course, we ensure that the more than 100 memorials to the volunteers located around the British Isles are maintained in good order. Where we can, we help new ones to be erected, such as this wonderful new monument. But all of this takes time and, more importantly, money. Please support us. If you are not yet a member, join. If you are a member, give generously. It really is money well spent.
For members of the Trust, the enduring significance of the International Brigades’ fight is not open to doubt. The recent, tragic events in Manchester and London are just the latest examples of the intolerance, bigotry and hatred – which we all know as fascism – that the International Brigades were determined to confront. The words of General Emilio Mola, the organiser of the Spanish military coup, could just as easily have come from those attacking democracy and pluralism today: ‘It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.’
It was this kind of murderous ideology that spurred the 35 000 men and women from more than 52 countries from around the world to leave their homes, families and friends and volunteer to join the fight in Spain. The International Brigades fought in all the major battles in the civil war, from the last-ditch defence of Madrid in the autumn and winter of 1936-37, to the final, desperate Republican offensive across the River Ebro, in July 1938. Of 2500 to leave from the British Isles, more than 500 of them never returned.
The shattered remnants of the Brigades were withdrawn from the front in September 1938 and the following month in Barcelona, a huge farewell parade was held in their honour, famous for the speech by La Pasionaria, in which she invited the departing volunteers to return to Spain, ‘when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory’. It would be a long wait.
The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War is that despite the volunteers’ sacrifice, they – and the Republican Army in which they fought – were unable to defeat Franco and his German and Italian allies in Spain. Just as the volunteers had feared and prophesised, this led the way to six years of world war and the death of 60 million people.
It also led to more than thirty years of dictatorship in Spain. Only with the death of Franco in November 1975 could a democratic Spain emerge, which did not forget the gratitude conveyed by La Pasionaria so many years earlier. Efforts to express this by awarding Spanish nationality to the veterans of the International Brigades took some time to materialise, but in 2009, at a poignant ceremony in London, seven surviving British and Irish veterans were presented with Spanish passports. Anyone fortunate enough to be present that day will never forget the sight of the 94 year old Sam Lesser delivering an emotional thank you speech in fluent Castilian. The Spanish Ambassador to Britain, Carles Casajuana, responded graciously, assuring the handful of elderly survivors that:
Your efforts were not in vain. Your ideals are part of the foundations of our democracy in Spain today.
The volunteers were, to some extent, a paradoxical group of men and women: both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. They were right to feel pride and we are right to feel pride in them. I would like to leave you today with the words of the popular London volunteer, Fred Thomas, who expressed his feelings with characteristic eloquence:
There were no medals to be won in Spain. But I believe that no man, not even that band of brothers who fought upon St. Crispin’s Day, nor that later Few of 1940, justly honoured though they may be, was ever prouder of his part than we who were of the International Brigade.
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)
A new updated edition of Antifascistas has been published in Spain, under the title, Help Spain! It features an introduction by Angel Viñas and considerable new material, including numerous images and a chapter on the awful experiences of British and Irish prisoners of war incarcerated in Franco Spain.
The book is available direct from the publishers, Pamiela, for €20, plus packing & postage.
When the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, many saw the conflict not as a remote war in a far-away country, but as the latest battlefield in an ongoing struggle between fascism and democracy. As the western powers sat on their hands, thousands became consumed with a burning need to act, to do something, in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republic. Famously, some 35 000 of them went as far as volunteering to fight in the International Brigades. Others, however, turned their efforts towards trying to help alleviate the suffering of those caught in the turmoil, either by collecting money for medical supplies or, in the case of more than 200 men and women from Britain and Ireland, by going to Spain to join the Republican medical services. One of these was a young Quaker from Northallerton in Yorkshire, called Alec Wainman. Lacking medical knowledge, but able to speak both Russian and Italian, Wainman volunteered to drive an ambulance in Spain, bluffing the recruiters that he was a qualified driver, fluent in Spanish…
Set on a minimalist stage with a cast of two, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a surprisingly successful account of the International Speedway star from Oldham, Clem Beckett, during the economically and politically turbulent 1920s and ’30s. The play’s central story – and its climax – recounts his time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War alongside the writer, Christopher St. John Sprigg (more familiar under his nom de plume of Christopher Caudwell) with whom Beckett struck up a powerful friendship.
David Heywood makes a convincing Beckett and Neil Gore shows off his versatility by playing a number of parts from Sir Oswald Mosley to Christopher Caudwell. The play has some nice touches which (on the occasion that I was there) went down well, including a clever representation of the ‘wall of death’ with a puppet and a lusty sing-a-long to Euan McColl’s Manchester Rambler. There were many opportunities for audience participation (should you be in such a mind); such was the atmosphere, I even noticed a professor of history joining in. No mean feat.
It’s often difficult for historians at these events, particularly if (as is often the case) they are asked how accurate the production is. Often the answer is ‘not very’ though, of course, it should be remembered that the the constraints placed on fiction are rather less demanding than those placed on historical studies. It would be most unwise to take Shakespeare’s plays, John Ford’s westerns or George MacDonald Fraser’s historical novels too literally. To their credit, Townsend Productions‘ writer/actor Neil Gore and director Louise Townsend have clearly worked very hard to tell Beckett’s story as honestly and accurately as possible. I certainly think that the play does a remarkable job in explaining why so many men and women from Britain and Ireland (not to mention another 50 countries from around the globe) chose to leave their homes, families and friends to fight in a foreign civil war.
My only small criticism is that I felt the play was a little unkind to Caudwell/Sprigg. His character was something of a caricature, a bumbling upper-class twit, with the voice of John le Mesurier, yet little of the knowing, ironic humour. In ‘Dare Devil’ Sprigg rather seems to have ended up in the International Brigades, influenced by the strength of character of Beckett, whereas my impression is that ‘Spriggie’ volunteered to fight in much the same way as the other 2500 British and Irish volunteers. Likewise, in the final scene [spoiler alert], Sprigg is nowhere to be seen as Beckett, his French machine-gun having typically jammed, meets his end on the Jarama battlefield. Yet accounts from other member of the battalion fighting that day in February 1937 suggest that Beckett and Caudwell fell side by side, as inseparable in death as they had become in life. To be fair, a cast of two – one of whom needs to be operating the lighting – does rather limit one’s options.
But don’t let this small gripe put you off. Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a powerful, atmospheric production and you have the additional satisfaction of knowing that, by going, you are supporting the work of the IBMT, who helped fund it. The play is on tour around the country at the moment, with dates available up to March 2017. Catch it while you can.
Sadly, we have now reached the end of an era. With the death of 98 year old Stan Hilton, there are no longer any British veterans of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 alive to tell their tale. Stan may well have been the last member of the entire English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade. Jules Paivio, the last of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013 and the American, Delmer Berg, the final Lincoln, died earlier this year.
Over the course of the civil war more than 6000 international volunteers (1000 Canadians, 2500 British & Irish and 2800 Americans), served in the Fifteenth International Brigade, part of a 35 000 strong band of brothers – and sisters – from some 53 countries around the world. These anti-fascists volunteered to join the battle because, as one American from Mississippi put it simply, ‘I saw in the invaders of Spain the same people I’ve been fighting all my life.’ They believed that Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries; arguing that fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe and conversely a victory for Franco would be, by extension, a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for Franco’s Rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
While the International Brigades were only a small part of the Spanish Republican army, their arrival on the Madrid front eighty years ago this November was hugely significant. The international volunteers raised the morale of the defenders of the Spanish capital, whilst providing invaluable instruction in the use of weaponry such as machine-guns. However, the involvement of the International Brigades in the fighting around Madrid between November 1936 and the spring of 1937 was probably their high-water mark. As the war dragged on, their influence gradually waned. Outnumbered and outgunned, lacking crucial air cover, and consistently thrown into the heart of the fire, the foreign volunteers were, in the words of one senior Scottish volunteer, ‘cut to pieces’. Around a fifth of the 35 000 international volunteers were killed in Spain and the vast majority were wounded at some stage. As American historian Peter Carroll explained, raw courage and belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of the volunteers’ cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
When nineteen year old Stan Hilton jumped ship in Alicante and volunteered to join the fight, he was convinced that ‘it was the right thing to do’. By this time, November 1937, the British Battalion had been fighting in Spain for almost a year. They had been having a very tough time of it: during the bloodbath at Jarama in February and in the ferocious heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete the British had been virtually annihilated. While some success had been seen on the Aragon front in the autumn, the target of the Republican offensive, Saragossa, had stubbornly remained in Rebel hands. With the battalion in reserve, Stan was sent for military training at the British Battalion’s headquarters in the village of Madrigueras, just to the north of the main International Brigades headquarters at Albacete. His period of training (such as it was) completed, Stan joined the battalion in early 1938, as the British volunteers fought as part of the Republican force desperately trying to hold on to the remote capital of Teruel. Conditions were horrendous: in freezing temperatures that sank to twenty below zero at night, more men died at Teruel from the cold than were killed in battle. For Stan, brought up on notions of ‘sunny Spain’, it was a brutal introduction to the realities of warfare: ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he later recalled.
Things were about to get much worse. Boosted by reinforcements, Franco’s forces recaptured Teruel before pressing home their advantage by launching a colossal offensive in the spring against the Republican forces in Aragon. Thirteen divisions, including Italians and the German Condor Legion, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean. Much better armed and supplied, Franco’s forces outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines virtually collapsed. Franco’s soldiers successfully reached the Mediterranean in mid-April 1938, splitting the Republic’s territory in two.
With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up having to undertake a dangerous swim across the fast-flowing River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse). Half-drowned, starving and exhausted, Stan decided that he had had enough of the Spanish war and headed for the Mediterranean coast. In March 1938, with the permission of the British ship’s captain, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, in 1956 he took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. There he remained, mainly working as a tiler in the building trade, living a quiet life, his presence unknown to the UK’s International Brigade Memorial Trust. That is, until he was tracked down in an old people’s home in Yarrawonga, Australia, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. A couple of years ago Stan was transferred from there to a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, in order to be closer to his family. It was there, on 21 October 2016, that Stan Hilton, tiler, merchant seaman and International Brigader finally died, aged 98. He was the last of the last, el último de la última.
He gave what was, in many ways, a remarkable speech. Erudite, informative and wide-ranging, the topic was clearly dear to the President’s heart and his talk appeared to have been many years in the writing. It resisted clichés and over-simplifications, acknowledging that the war in Spain cannot be reduced to a binary struggle between good and evil, as the poet Stephen Spender once claimed. It was not, argued President Higgins, simply between Catholicism and Communism nor, for that matter, was it a straightforward struggle between democracy and fascism.
The speech was consistently generous in tone as well as content, and its conclusion generously praised the work of the Trust today, while honouring the efforts of the volunteers fighting for democratic Spain all those years ago:
Ba cheart dúinn, mar náisiún, a bheith an-bhródúil as na fir is na mná cróga Éireannach a chuaigh leis an Bhriogáid Idirnáisiúnta sa bhliain 1936. Is mian liom sibh a mholadh as an obair atá ar siúl agaibh le cuimhne agus le luachanna na ndaoine a throid ar mhachaire catha na Spáinne, ar son na saoirse i ngach áit, a choinneáil beo.
[As a nation we can be very proud of the brave Irish men and women who joined the International Brigade in 1936. May I commend you, therefore, for the work you do in keeping alive the memory and the values of all those who bravely fought for ‘freedom everywhere’ on the battlefields of Spain almost eighty years ago.]
On the face of it, Biggles creator Captain W.E. Johns seems a most unlikely supporter of the Spanish government in the civil war. However, much like Winston Churchill, who detailed his move from pro-Rebel to pro-Republic in Step by Step¸ Johns gradually came to see Franco’s victory as a potential threat to the British Empire. He didn’t seem to see things that way in May 1937, however, when he wrote an obituary for Christopher St. John Sprigg, who had been killed fighting (under the nom de guerre Christopher Caudwell) with the British Battalion of the International Brigades during the Battle of Jarama in February. Johns knew and admired Sprigg, many of whose stories he had published in the journal Popular Flying under Sprigg’s nom de plume, Arthur Cave. Johns considered them ‘some of the best short air stories that have been written.’
In the obituary, which also appeared in Popular Flying, Johns recounted how ‘Sprigg had gone to fight on the side which may, or may not, be right … Heavens above, what waste!’ His view is representative of many in Britain at the time, particularly in the government and media, who saw, or at least depicted, the war as one between two repugnant political ideologies. ‘We English’, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, famously declared, ‘hate fascism, but we loathe bolshevism as much. So, if there is somewhere where fascists and bolsheviks can kill each other off, so much the better.’ Unfortunately, some commentators still see the war in the same way.
Johns actually wrote about the Spanish Civil War, plunging Biggles and his redoubtable chums Ginger and Algy into the murky world of espionage in the Republican zone. The plot of Biggles in Spain suggests that Johns was fully aware of the widespread spying carried out behind the lines and was surprisingly accepting of the Republicans’ measures in order to counter it. Johns is also, through the words of his eponymous hero, disapproving of the Rebels, criticising the bombing of British shipping and expressing his disgust at the Rebels’ bombing of defenceless civilians. When the three pilots manage to swim to shore following the sinking of their ship, they encounter Barcelona experiencing a night-time bombing raid: ‘”Dirty work”, said Biggles coldly.’
The story is, of course, as far-fetched as you would imagine (or hope), featuring spies, treachery and other skulduggery. One of the more interesting episodes has one of Biggles’ sidekicks fighting with the International Brigades during the Battle of the Ebro, where he encounters a volunteer from London:
Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.
What a waste, in other words. Clearly, Johns could be referring to Sprigg here and he returns to his theme when describing a Scottish volunteer pilot who has abandoned his home for ‘the cause of freedom and justice – a cause for which millions of men since the beginning of time have laid down their lives, usually in vain.’
[Spoiler alert] In the end, of course, the plucky pilots survive their Spanish episode, with no more than a few bumps and scratches and a life-long dislike of the ‘reek of garlic’. And it is, after all, only a brief episode in which Biggles has only done what ‘any Britisher would do.’ As Johns’ final paragraph reveals, what really counts is not some meaningless squabble between those unfortunate enough to have been born the wrong side of the English channel, but that, like the adventures of Biggles himself, ‘the old Empire goes on’.