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Hugh Thomas and The Spanish Civil War

Hugh Thomas, in 2003.
Hugh Thomas, in 2003.

Many years ago now, I was a young(ish) undergraduate history student, excited at the prospect of taking a course in the Spanish Civil War. At the time, like many in Britain, my knowledge of one of the twentieth century’s most seismic events was based primarily, if not solely, on two works; one a memoir by a British novelist; the other, a novel by an American journalist and writer. Yet neither Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia nor Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, important though they may be, can in any way be seen as histories of the conflict. Consequently, like many students before me and since, I immersed myself in the encyclopaedic study, The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas.

Born on 21 October 1931, Hugh Thomas was the son of a British colonial officer and nephew of Sir Shenton Thomas, the governor of Singapore, who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Hugh attended Sherborne School before going on to study history at Cambridge. He worked for a time at the Foreign Office, before leaving, so he said, over the Suez crisis. That same year he published his first novel, The World’s Game, which led to him being invited to submit a proposal for a history of the civil war in Spain.

Third revised edition of Hugh Thomas’s <i>The Spanish Civil War</i>
Third revised edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War

Published in 1961, to coincide with the 25 year anniversary of its outbreak, The Spanish Civil War was generally well received by critics. Smuggled into Spain during the Franco dictatorship, it became a clandestine best-seller. Eminently readable and packed full of entertaining anecdotes, the book has become seen as the history of the civil war. It has now run to four editions and sold more than a million copies across the world. The book still appears on undergraduate reading lists today and I know that I am not the only historian of the civil war to consult it regularly. However, it is by no means faultless; there are many errors of fact and judgement and Thomas has rightly been accused of occasionally valuing narrative style above factual accuracy. Fortunately, revisions have gradually been made during later editions, such as the removal of the following offensive description of the International Brigaders: ‘Many of the British volunteers appear to have been persons who desired some outlet through which to purge some private grief or maladjustment.’

A year after the book’s publication, Hugh Thomas’s success allowed him to marry the glamorous Honorable Vanessa Jebb, daughter of Lord Gladwyn Jebb. A talented and popular lecturer, four years later, in 1966, Thomas was made Professor of History at the University of Reading. When he took a sabbatical in 1974 to concentrate on his writing, his research assistant, a promising young historian called Paul Preston, took over his teaching duties. Hugh Thomas’s 1700 page history of Cuba was published in 1971 followed, eight years later, by An Unfinished History of the World.

Meanwhile, the 1970s saw a shift in Hugh Thomas’s political allegiances. After an attempt to secure a Labour seat in North Kensington was stymied by Militant Tendency, he abandoned the Labour Party for the Conservatives’ free-market economics. Having replaced Keith Joseph as Chairman of her think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, Thomas became a favoured confidante of Margaret Thatcher and was a frequent guest at Downing Street and Chequers. In 1981 he was rewarded for his support when he was ennobled as Lord Thomas of Swynnerton.

A prodigious work ethic enabled him to continue his remarkable output of works on Spanish and Latin-American history. His substantial history of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico was published in 1993 and was followed by what many would argue was his crowning achievement, a trilogy about the Spanish Empire, consisting of Rivers of Gold (2003); The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V (2010) and World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II (2014).

Increasingly disillusioned by the Tories’ increasing Euro-scepticism, Lord Thomas crossed the floor of the House of Lords on 17 November 1997 to join the Liberal-Democrat benches. A committed Europhile, he maintained his opposition to the Brexit shambles right to the end. After suffering a stroke, Hugh Thomas died on 7 May 2017, leaving behind several unfinished projects, including an autobiography. He is survived by his wife Vanessa and their three children, Inigo, Isambard and Isabella.

An edited version of this post first appeared in issue 45 (3/2017) of the IBMT Magazine.

Review of Adam Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts

It is now eighty years since the failed military coup which marked the beginning of the civil war in Spain. During the bitter conflict some half a million Spaniards were killed, a sombre warning of the greater slaughter to follow. For while the civil war was at its heart a Spanish tragedy, the internationalism of the war conferred on it a lasting significance beyond the Iberian Peninsula. Crucial military support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany for Franco’s Nacionales was countered – to some degree – by that from Stalin’s Russia for the Republic. Meanwhile, the western democracies did their utmost to ‘keep out of it’, making ineffectual efforts to encourage other regimes to do the same. The ‘non-intervention agreement’ (as it was called) was therefore not akin to neutrality and decisively helped the Nacionales, later acknowledged by the Francoist minister Pedro de Sáinz Rodríguez. Britain may have been the main guilty party, but other western democracies also bear culpability for the Republic’s defeat, including the United States. As a new book by the award-winning author Adam Hochschild reminds us, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to much the same conclusion in January 1939, admitting to a cabinet meeting that the embargo on arms for the Spanish Republic had been a ‘grave mistake’.

Hochschild’s Spain in our Hearts is subtitled ‘Americans in the Spanish Civil War’, though the book is not, in fact, about the 2800 American volunteers in the International Brigades. Instead, his account is told through the experiences of a select number of individuals (not all of whom are American) within the cataclysmic war in Spain. And they are select, for Hochschild’s characters are all highly-educated, middle-class writers. The notion of a poets’ (or writers’) war is clearly still attractive to writers and publishers, which neither time nor the undoubted presence of an overwhelming proportion of manual workers among the volunteers, seems to have dispelled.

Admittedly, the author has chosen his stellar cast shrewdly, including the two most famous writers of the civil war (in English at least), Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. While Hochschild seems to have little new to say about the latter, his account of Hemingway’s participation in a guerrilla raid behind enemy lines, which clearly inspired Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls, may come as a revelation to some readers. Jordan’s real-life counterpart, the Professor of Economics and Abraham Lincoln Battalion commander, Robert Hale Merriman, also features, as does society debutante and reporter Virginia Cowles and journalist and International Brigader, Louis Fischer.

Accounts of the war’s impact on the characters’ personal relationships are a recurring theme; Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn obviously, but also Bob Merriman and his wife Marion, POUM supporters Lois and Charles Orr and the cross-Atlantic war romance between American nurse Toby Jensky and English sculptor and International Brigader, Jason ‘Pat’ Gurney, who had suffered a nervous break-down after the appalling carnage of the Jarama battle of 12-14 February 1937.

Gurney’s account of the war, like Hemingway’s and Orwell’s, has been frequently cited and retold and it’s difficult to find much within Hochschild’s account that is strikingly original. Certainly the author’s debt to earlier studies, particularly those of Paul Preston and Peter Carroll (which he generously acknowledges) is clear. So, why then, should this new book be of interest? Principally, it is because of the sheer quality of the writing and story-telling. Spain in our Hearts is a rewarding and enjoyable read, for the elegant prose is littered with some of the most telling anecdotes from the literature.

It is also a pretty fair and balanced account. The author is fortunately too sophisticated to fall for the simplistic, binary notion of a war between two equally repugnant totalitarian philosophies, in which ‘Spain’ is merely a passive bystander. Nor does he make the mistake of seeing Republican Spain as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, though not denying that the supplies of military materiel and the organisation of the International Brigades gave Stalin great influence. This ‘devil’s pact’ was really the only option left to the Republic, once the western democracies had refused to come to their aid.

Hochschild will, no doubt, come into some criticism for justifying what has become seen as ‘the Communist line’ regarding the argument over ‘war or revolution first’ that Orwell discusses in detail in Homage to Catalonia. Yet it is often forgotten that, after the war, Orwell himself came to the reluctant conclusion that the military necessities of the war should take precedence, though he nevertheless remained furious about the Communist Party’s use of the argument as a smokescreen for the suppression of other parties of the left. Like Orwell, Hochschild clearly has great sympathy for the POUMistas and Anarchists, yet he is not dewy-eyed, dryly observing that ‘the ideal of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs” however splendid in theory, proved hard to enforce, especially when many workers felt that what they needed was more time off.’ (p. 146)

Balanced, of course, is not the same as neutral and Hochschild’s Republican sympathies are plain to see (and why not?). Perhaps the clearest example is his illuminating account of the role of Torkild Rieber, the pro-Nazi C.E.O. of the American oil company, Texaco, in supplying millions of gallons of oil to Franco on credit. To this can be added the 12 000 trucks received by Franco from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford. As Hochschild points out, the admission by the Under-Secretary of the Spanish foreign ministry that Franco could not have won the war without U.S. trucks and U.S. oil credits reveals just how significant this contribution really was to the Nationalists’ cause.

Hochschild’s Spain in our Heart is much more than just another account of Orwell and Hemingway in Spain. It offers the reader a window into the personal, emotionally searing, experiences of those who decided to make the Spanish cause their own. As Albert Camus, from whom the book’s title is drawn, wrote just after the end of the war, ‘it was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten’. Hochschild’s beautifully crafted book explains why, for them, the Spanish drama was and remained a personal tragedy.

An edited version of this review appeared in the December 2016 issue of The Volunteer and the January 2017 issue of the IBMT Magazine.

What to read?

An overloaded shelf of books on Britain and the Spanish Civil War
An overloaded shelf of books on Britain and the Spanish Civil War

Fairly frequently a post appears on a Spanish Civil War discussion group or a social networking site, asking for suggestions on reading. This post aims to do just that – though please note that it is limited only to works (in English) related to Britain and the Spanish Civil War. Recommendations are aimed at the casual reader, who does not necessarily have access to journal articles and rare and out of print books.

The following list is not exhaustive and is, of course, subjective. You may well feel that there are some books on the list that shouldn’t be in and others that I have missed. If so, let me know! If your wish is simply for a more extensive bibliography, you might be interested in the list of sources consulted when researching for my study of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors, which can be found here. I also included some suggestions for further reading, which can be found here.

If you’d like to hear the volunteers in their own words, you might like to take a look at the list of interviews held in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Britain and Spain

Tom Buchanan’s two studies, Britain and the Spanish Civil War and The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain are both thoroughly recommended. Jim Jump’s edited collection of the annual Len Crome Memorial lectures, Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War is also useful and available from the IBMT.

Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010
Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010

Peter Day’s recent Franco’s Friends is the most recent examination of the links between elements of the British establishment, particularly M.I.6, and Franco’s Nationalists during the civil war. It’s a good read, even if few will be surprised by ‘British establishment wanted Franco to win’ shock.

Lewis Mates’ incredibly detailed and thorough The Spanish Civil War and the British Left bears the mark of a Ph.D. thesis, but I don’t think it’s any the worse for that. Perhaps the only real drawback is the price, so it would be good to see it in paperback.

Regional Studies

The best of these are Daniel Gray’s work on Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Caledonia and Hywell Francis’s on Wales, Miners Against Fascism. Both are available as paperbacks. Robert Stradling’s Wales and the Spanish Civil War; The Dragon’s Dearest Cause is well-researched and interesting, though some may find that the author’s antipathy towards the over-glorification of the International Brigades sometimes gets in the way.

The Basque Refugee Children

Adrian Bell’s account of the Basque children in Britain
Adrian Bell’s account of the Basque children in Britain

The story of the arrival in Britain of 3000 Basque children in June 1937 has now received the attention it deserves. Adrian Bell’s Only for Three Months is the standard account and is very good. To this have recently been added two moving collections of memoirs (in both English & Spanish) edited by Natalia Benjamin: Memorias and Recuerdos. Hywel Davis’s Fleeing Franco focuses on the niños in Wales.

The British volunteers

Histories of the British Battalion

Many histories of the British volunteers in Spain (some excellent) are out of print. However, the following are all widely available:

If you are looking for a short introductory text, the IBMT’s Antifascistas is useful and very well-illustrated.

Paperback edition of <i>Unlikely Warriors</i>, published in 2014
Paperback edition of Unlikely Warriors, published in 2014

James Hopkins’ Into the Heart of the Fire is extremely thorough and well-researched. The first to draw substantially on the Moscow archives, it is sympathetic to the volunteers, though at the same time extremely critical of the battalion (and International Brigade) leadership, arguing that the volunteers were sacrificed not for the cause of the Spanish Republic, but for Stalin (I disagree). It’s available in both hardback and paperback.

The most recent additions to the genre are my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors and David Boyd-Haycock’s I am Spain. Both were reviewed in, amongst other places, the February 2013 issue of the London Review of Books and the January 2013 issue of the IBMT newsletter.

Ben Hughes’ They Shall Not Pass is a forensic examination of the British Battalion’s first action at Jarama, between 12-14 February 1937. There’s much of interest, though the author’s tendency to put words into the mouths of protagonists has not proved to be to everyone’s taste. Perhaps more interesting is Tom Wintringham’s first-hand account of the battle, English Captain (see below).

Elizabeth Roberts’ Freedom, Faction Fame and Blood, a comparative study of British volunteers in Greece, Spain and Finland is probably too academic (and expensive) for the casual reader.

Volunteers’ memoirs

Orwell aside, one of my personal favourites, and which is still in print, is the British anti-tank battery member Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills. It’s a wry, modest and extremely honest account. Unusually it is based on a detailed and extensive diary, so his account is fixed both in terms of time and space.

Fred Thomas <i>To Tilt at Windmills</i>, Michigan University Press, 1996
Fred Thomas To Tilt at Windmills, Michigan University Press, 1996

The commander of the British Battalion during the first few days of the Battle of Jarama was Tom Wintringham, whose personal account, English Captain, has just been republished and is definitely worth a look. Interestingly he fails to mention his extra-curricular activities with the American journalist Kitty Bowler, which would eventually lead to him leaving the Communist Party.

George Wheeler’s charming To Make the People Smile Again is a really good read and, like Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave, gives a graphic account of the appalling conditions in the Francoist prisoner-of war camp at San Pedro de Cardeña. Gregory’s memoir is now a standard text, for it covers his experiences during nearly two years of civil war from December 1936 onwards.

Many people enjoy Laurie Lee’s A Moment of War and it is certainly a beautifully written and engaging account. I certainly did, just as I liked the other parts of his ‘autobiographical’ trilogy, Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. However, the reliability of A Moment of War as a historical source is questionable, to put it mildly. For more on Laurie Lee, take a look at my chapter in Jim Jump’s edited volume of Len Crome lectures, or Valerie Grove’s excellent biography A Well-Loved Stranger (even if she is a bit soft on him, in both senses of the word).

Alun Menai Williams’ From the Rhonnda to the Ebro is a dramatic account of the terrible dangers facing a first-aider and stretcher-bearer in Spain. It is often forgotten that their job was more dangerous than a soldier’s. Nan Green’s A Chronicle of Small Beer provides insight into life behind the lines in Spain (she worked as an administrator with British medical units) and the potentially tragic experiences of volunteers’ families.

There are a number of collections of interviews, such as Max Arthur’s Fighters against Fascism: British Heroes of the Spanish Civil War (a reissue of his The Real Band of Brothers) though, sadly, Ian MacDougall’s wonderful collection of interviews with Scottish veterans, Voices from the Spanish Civil War, no longer appears to be in print. Shame. Come on publishers!

Biographies

John Wainwright’s biography of Ivor Hickman, <i>The Last to Fall</i>
John Wainwright’s biography of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall

There are way too many to list, many of which only have one chapter on Spain, so here are one or two of my favourites:

John Wainwright’s account of Ivor Hickman, The Last to Fall, in addition to being terribly poignant is also invaluable to historians, for it draws strongly on Hickman’s eloquent letters home. Also very good is the meticulous biography of Julian Bell and John Cornford, Journey to the Frontier, by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams. An updated version of the biography of Bell, by Peter Stansky, was released by Stanford University Press in 2012

I enjoyed Angela Jackson’s biography of the English nurse, Patience Darton, For Us it was Heaven, partly because the author knew her subject personally. It’s therefore very sympathetic, but I found this to be part of its charm. I have written a more detailed review that you can find here.

Steve Hurst’s recent Famous Faces of the Spanish Civil War is pretty much as it says on the cover, drawn from other secondary sources. Well-written, interesting and informative, but not really ground-breaking.

The ILP & Anarchist Volunteers

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia remains, by some margin, the most widely read book in English on the Spanish Civil War. It’s undoubtedly an important work, though as Orwell only spent six months in Catalonia, it is important to read a general history of the war alongside it. Paul Preston and Helen Graham have both written brief, though very good, introductions to the war, its causes and consequences.

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

Chris Hall’s (out of print) Not Just Orwell, has been updated and re-published as In Spain with Orwell. In addition to an account of the Independent Labour Party’s role, it provides useful biographical details of those serving in the unit.

Chris Dolan’s portrayal of the experiences in Spain of the Scottish Anarchist, Ethel MacDonald, An Anarchist’s Story is justifiably popular, but read it with care. There are a great number of factual errors in the text.

The medical services

With Jim Fyrth’s The Signal was Spain seemingly out of print, Linda Palfreeman’s Salud! and her most recent publication, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, are the only general histories of the British medical services. Both are useful and describe in detail the terrible conditions in which the Republican medical services were forced to operate. For those looking specifically for an account of the medical advances made during the war, Nicolas Coni’s Medicine and War is excellent. Linda Palfreeman’s Spain Bleeds (2015) focuses on the innovations in blood transfusion.

For a study of the British nurses, Angela Jackson’s British Women in the Spanish Civil War and her biography of Patience Darton are both required reading.

Nationalist volunteers

I found Robert Stradling’s biography of Frank Thomas, Brother against Brother extremely useful, but it seems to have been priced out of the market (it’s currently over £90.00 online). Judith Keen’s Fighting for Franco is better value, though most British readers will probably find Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades to be of greater interest. It’s packed full of entertaining anecdotes and bizarre characters.

The British Media & Public Opinion

IB Tauris edition of Henry Buckley’s long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War
IB Tauris edition of Henry Buckley’s long lost memoir of the Spanish Civil War

This has been a hot topic in recent years. The republication of Henry Buckley’s memoir, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic is something to cheer. The Daily Telegraph reporter’s account is, I think, one of the very best first-hand accounts of the war written in English (alongside Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Arturo Barea’s Forging of a Rebel).

The memoirs of two other correspondents have also been reissued and both are well worth reading: Geoffrey Cox’s Defence of Madrid and John Langdon-Davies’s Behind Spanish Barricades. Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a terrific overview of foreign correspondents in Spain, not just the Brits.

There are three new studies of British media portrayals of the conflict. Brian Shelmerdine’s British Media Representations of The Spanish Civil War, Hugo García’s The Truth About Spain and David Deacon’s British News Media and the Spanish Civil War are all well-researched and thorough, but none are particularly cheap. As with Lewis Mates’ book, it would be good to see them (particularly García’s) released as paperbacks.

The British volunteers in fiction

Unfortunately, my personal favourite, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, is about an American, rather than a British volunteer, so I can’t include it. Still, it’s always worth a plug, not least because it’s both widely known and a great book.

C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, published in 2006, is the tale of an English volunteer for the International Brigades, who is captured by Franco’s forces. It has suffered from mixed reviews, mostly for its slightly far-fetched plot and clunky dialogue. More far-fetched still, is W.E. Johns’ Biggles in Spain, on which I have written a separate post.

Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us
Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us

I very much enjoyed Lydia Syson’s A World Between Us, released in 2012. It’s marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ though it seemed pretty grown-up to me. recounting a triangular relationship between three volunteers played out in London and Spain, it’s very well written and plotted and the author clearly did her research. Recommended. (N.B. I should declare an interest, as I know the author and was consulted about the book. For balance, here’s a review of the book by the grand-daughter of an British International Brigader, from issue 33 of the IBMT’s newsletter).

John Simmons’ Spanish Crossing is the latest novel published in Britain to reference the Spanish Civil War. It centres on the story of Lorna, a young English woman who becomes involved in the plight of the Basque refugee children. The book is elegantly written and paced, though it contains a number of glaring factual errors and anomalies. I think it would benefit greatly from a fact check.

Studying and writing the Spanish Civil War

When I give lectures about the British volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, I am often asked not just about the motivations of the volunteers themselves, but mine too. What led me to become interested in a foreign war fought seventy-five years ago? Did any of my family fight in Spain, perhaps? The answer to the last question is simple:  no. The answer to the first, however, is more complicated.  Like many others in Britain, I suppose, it all began with George Orwell

George Orwell’s <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>, first published in 1938
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

I was a big Orwell buff when I was at secondary school. I read most of his novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm obviously, but I also enjoyed his non-fiction, particularly Down and Out in Paris and London (I was probably the only student in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would probably not be accurate to state that, at that stage, I had become fascinated in the Spanish Civil War. My two strongest feelings on reading the book were probably confusion over the numerous acronyms in the two chapters on Spanish politics and disappointment that Orwell’s brave adventure in Spain ended with him fleeing Spain pursued by those who were, ostensibly, on the same side. That was about it, for some ten years.

While it may sound a little hyperbolic and pretentious to describe a book as life-changing, I have no doubt that, in this case at least, one undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I cannot now remember where the the copy of the book came from, whether it was a present or that I had picked it up on a whim, but I began to read Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite Hemingway’s use of archaic dialect (and other oft-cited weaknesses of the book), I was immediately taken with the story of the young American who had chosen to volunteer to fight in defence of the Republican government against a military uprising.

Ernest Hemingway’s <i>For Whom The Bell Tolls</i>, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captured me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he grimly and stoically prepares for the end he, and we, know is inevitable. When I finished reading the book I could think of little else for days and it still puts a lump in my throat, even to write about it. It is a terribly, terribly sad story, particularly when you are aware of the parallel in the real world. In Spain in September 1938, of course, it was actually the tearful foreign volunteers who were plucked from the arms of la niña bonita, as the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was known.  The famous quote by Albert Camus from 1939 sums up the tragedy and why it is still so affecting for me – and many others:

‘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.’

As an undergraduate student at Middlesex University (or Polytechnic, as it was then), I threw myself into studying the Spanish Civil War, taught by Clive Fleay, who had published an article in the Historical Journal on the British Labour Party’s response to the conflict. I spent most of my final year in the British newspaper library in Colindale, perusing copies of The Times¸ the News Chronicle and The Morning Post as research for an undergraduate dissertation on the coverage of the war in the British press.

Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus
Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus

A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying at the Institute of Historical Research, as I began to put together an annotated list of the 2500 or so volunteers who left Britain and Ireland to fight for the Spanish Republic. This was later expanded to become the foundation for my PhD thesis, when I was lucky enough to be accepted to study under one of the world experts on twentieth century Spain, Professor Paul Preston, at the London School of Economics.

Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the LSE was – and is – a central hub for scholars from around the world interested in contemporary Spanish history. As a research student there, between 1997 and 2001, I listened to papers from many distinguished historians, including Helen Graham, Enrique Moradiellos, Gabriel Jackson and many, many others. Milton Wolf, the last commander of the American Abraham Lincoln battalion in Spain, came to give a talk and a number of British veterans of the International Brigades were regularly in the audience, including the former Daily Worker and Morning Star reporter, Sam Lesser (then using his nom-de-guerre from Spain, Sam Russell), Bill Alexander (Milton Wolf’s opposite number in the British Battalion) and David Marshall, one of the early volunteers and the only surviving member from the iconic photograph of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936.

Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics
Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics

With the death of Bill Alexander in 2000, my relationship to the Spanish Civil War dramatically changed, when I became involved in attempting to establish a new charitable trust, intended to unite two existing organisations, the International Brigade Association and the Friends of the International Brigade.

Over a course of meetings, expertly and diplomatically chaired by Paul Preston, the International Brigade Memorial Trust eventually came into existence. Alongside Paul and Ken Livingstone as patrons, there were three veterans of the Spanish Civil War on the committee: David Marshall and Sam Russell/Lesser were joined by the Liverpool Trade Unionist Jack Jones. A number of family members such as Marlene Sidaway (David Marshall’s partner) and Peter Crome, son of Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the Republican 35th Division medical services joined the committee; as did a recently graduated doctoral student of the LSE: one Richard Baxell.  The organisation published its first newsletter in February 2002 and a website and Facebook page followed.

Present at a preliminary meeting to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell
Present at a preliminary meeting to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell

Being a member of the committee and meeting numerous veterans and the families obviously changed the nature of my relationship, making it more personal. This presents obvious challenges to objectivity. However, the value of the help, support and contacts that membership of the committee the IBMT itself, have been incalculable.  I have no doubt that my more recent study, Unlikely Warriors, would have been a very much poorer book without it.

Richard Baxell, October 2013.

Blenheim Literary Festival

On Friday 14 September 2012 I joined Paul Preston and Lydia Syson, the author of the teen novel, A World Between Us, to discuss fact and fiction in the writings on the Spanish Civil War as part of the literary festival held in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.

Th panel was expertly chaired by cultural historian Christopher Cook, director of the BBC documentary, Return to the Battlefields, which followed a group of British International Brigade veterans as they returned to Spain – many for the first time – in 1985. He clearly knew what he was about and asked a number of interesting and searching questions.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently blotted my copybook by revealing the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls during an explantion of how I had first became interested in the subject. Apologies to anyone whose reading was spoiled! After the customary book-signing we discovered that sitting among the audience was the first four minute miler, Sir Roger Banister. He bought a copy of Lydia’s book, which was rather nice.

Thanks to all involved – particularly the well-informed and enthusiastic audience – for a successful and enjoyable event.

Christopher Cook
Christopher Cook
Paul Preston
Paul Preston
Lydia Syson
Lydia Syson