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Charlie Hutchinson: the only black Briton in the International Brigades

Form completed by Charlie Hutchinson in Spain, giving brief biographical details.
Form completed by Charlie Hutchinson in Spain, giving brief biographical details.

It’s widely known that within the American Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades that served in the Spanish Civil War there were a number of African Americans. Most famously the Texan military veteran and Communist, Oliver Law, became the first Black American to command white troops in battle; when he was tragically killed at Brunete in July 1937, he had risen to the rank of commander of the American volunteers. What is much less known is that there was a black British volunteer serving in the British Battalion. His name was Charlie Hutchinson.

It’s perhaps not surprising that little known about Charlie for, apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives in Moscow, few details of his time in Spain remain and, sadly, no photographs. While it would be a stretch to discuss wider issues of race and prejudice within the International Brigades based on the record of one volunteer, his experiences do tell us much about the difficulties many Britons encountered when they wanted to go home. As one Scottish member of the battalion later explained, ‘while you could volunteer in, you couldn’t volunteer out.’1)Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.

We know that Charles William R. Hutchinson was born in Witney, Oxfordshire, on 10 May 1918. His mother, whose maiden name was Harper, was presumably not in a position to raise him, for Hutchinson tells of growing grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage in London. In the spring of 1936, Hutchinson, who had just turned 18 years of age, was living in Fulham and working as a lorry driver. He was also Branch Chair of the local Young Communist League and it seems clear, from remarks he made later, that he had become personally involved in the battle against Mosley’s Blackshirts. In the late summer of 1936 this led him, like nearly 2500 from Britain and Ireland, to volunteer to go to Spain and personally take the fight to Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. As he explained: ‘’I am half black. I grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.’2)Charles Hutchinson cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40. For Charlie, as for the numerous Jewish volunteers, fascism was a real and personal threat, beyond any theoretical abstraction.

He left Britain in either late November or early December 1936 and was recorded by Special Branch as having ‘left for Spain to serve as machine gunner with Govt. Forces.’3)National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7. At this time the British Battalion had not yet been formed, so once in Spain he joined the British and Irish dominated Number One Company of the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th International Brigade.4)He served in a section of Number One Company commanded by Joseph Kavanagh, a long-time member of the Communist Party from London. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 92. He was with the unit when it was sent to contain a Rebel breakthrough at Lopera, on the Cordóba front in southern Spain. There, outnumbered and at the mercy of the Rebels’ overwhelming air dominance, the British and Irish company was cut to pieces. Charlie Hutchinson was wounded and a great number of his comrades – including Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, John Cornford – were killed.

Having recuperated from his wounds, Charlie was informed that he was going to be sent home due to his age, but he refused to leave.5)Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73. So, rather than being sent to join his compatriots in the British Battalion then fighting on the Jarama front, he was transferred away from the line, assigned to be an ambulance driver with the 5th Republican Army Corps. However, while Charlie seemingly wanted to remain in Spain, his mother (from whom it seems he was no longer estranged) was of a different mind and she wrote in April 1937, citing his young age and pleading that he be sent home. This seem to have rather changed Charles’ feelings about leaving, partly because he was becoming worried about his step-father, who had been hospitalised with serious gastric problems.

Letter from Gallo (Luigi Longo) to Comrade Fusimaña, Commissar of the XV Republican Corps
Letter from Gallo (Luigi Longo) to Comrade Fusimaña, Commissar of the XV Republican Corps

Over the next few months, Charlie made a number of appeals to his superiors, garnering much support, but little success. The following June, he wrote a worried note explaining that he hadn’t received a letter from his parents for ten months, leading him to assume that they must be facing dire circumstances. Yet, rather than asking to be permanently repatriated, Hutchinson asked only that he might be granted a temporary leave of absence to deal with his family problems. ‘I have been in Spain since Nov 25th 1936’, he pleaded, ‘When I came to Spain I was 18½ yrs and not on one occasion have I use[d] my age for an excuse.’ Furthermore, Charlie was himself now suffering from health problems, so was becoming increasingly desperate.6)RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.

Assessments by his superiors make it manifestly clear that the lack of progress was not as a result of any failure on Hutchinson’s part. Jim Ruskin, a Captain in Brigade Transmissions, recounted that both Hutchinson’s political views and his work were ‘Good [and] for his age quite developed.’7)ibid Likewise, Charlie’s senior officer in the Motorised Company of the 15th Army Corps, Harry Evans, described Hutchinson as ‘a hard and capable worker’.8)RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.

Finally, in August 1938, an order was given that Hutchinson should be repatriated due to his young age and exemplary period of service. On the 27th of that month the Italian Communist, Luigi Longo, one of the most senior and powerful commanders of the International Brigades (known in Spain as ‘Gallo’), wrote to a Comrade Fusimaña, the Commissar of the XV Army Corps, on Hutchinson’s behalf:

Te ruego intervengas para que este Camarada obtenga un permiso de acuerdo con las ultimas disposiciones del Excmo. Senor Presidente del Consejo Ministros, Dr. NEGRIN.9)RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83.
[I ask you to intervene so that this Comrade obtains a permit in accordance with the last dispositions of the Hon. Mr. President of the Ministers Council, Dr. Negrín.]

Despite this, nothing seems to have happened, for on 2 September 1938, Charlie sent another personal appeal, complaining that ‘I was 18 when I came to Spain and I feel it is just to[o] bad if the I.B. can release a kid of 20 y[ea]rs after nearly two years of good service.’10)RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.

His appeal was answered personally by Alonso ‘Lon’ Elliot, a former Cambridge University languages student, who worked under Luigi Longo in the Political Commissars’ headquarters in Madrid and in the Foreign Cadres Commission of the Spanish Communist Party in Barcelona. Elliott assured Charlie that he was taking a personal interest in his case and apologised that it still hadn’t been resolved. ‘For my part’, he wrote, ‘I will see that comrade Gallo is reminded of your case, and can assure you that everything that can be done from the Barcelona end will be done to help you. Best of luck, yours fraternally, AME.’ However, somewhat unhelpfully, he suggested that Charlie should raise the matter once again with his immediate superiors.11)Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchinson, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.

After all these efforts on Hutchinson’s behalf, one might assume that he would have been repatriated with the other British volunteers, following their withdrawal from the front in September. However, when the survivors of the British Battalion crossed the border into France on 6 December 1938, the unfortunate Hutchinson was not among them. Only on 19 December, nearly two weeks later, was he finally released from service and repatriated.12)On 15 December 1938, Hutchinson was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.

That a request to repatriate one British volunteer should thwart the efforts of several senior figures in the International Brigades rather flies in the face of the view that the Brigades were a highly-disciplined, strictly-hierarchical organisation, where commanders, such as Longo, held absolute power and could act with impunity. While that could certainly be the case on occasion, it is important to recognise the corrosive effect the war had on the Republicans’ political and military efficacy. As Paddy O’Daire, one of several Irish commanders of the British Battalion accurately observed, ‘all war’s a muddle.’13)Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.

As yet, little evidence can be found of Hutchinson’s later life. We do know that Charlie was one of the first of the Spanish veterans to volunteer for service in the British Army in the Second World War. He served for a time in Iran, before being transferred to France in 1944, just after D-Day.14)Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7. And in early 1947, a Charles W. Hutchinson was married to a Patricia L. Holloway and the same individual reappears in the electoral register of 1958, living at 11 Argyll Mansions, Fulham, London. Records suggest that he later moved to Bournemouth, where he died in March 1993, aged 74.15)Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.

Charlie Hutchinson occupies a unique position as the only mixed-race volunteer among the British volunteers in Spain, so it would be fitting if more details could be found about his life. However, there is one small detail that remains to tell: in 1985, while helping M.J. Hynes with his research for an undergraduate dissertation, Charlie Hutchinson (along with 65 other British International Brigaders) completed a questionnaire on his experiences as a volunteer in Spain. Whether the questionnaires themselves survived is unknown, but one snippet remains, allowing Charlie to have the last word on why he believed so many people from around the world joined him in choosing to risk their lives on behalf of the Spanish Republic:

The Brigaders came out of the working class; they came out of the battle of Cable Street, they came out of the struggles on the side turnings … they weren’t Communist, they weren’t Socialists, but they were anti-fascist.16)Charles Hutchinson, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.

References   [ + ]

1. Interview with John Tunnah, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive no. 840, reel 1.
2. Charles Hutchinson cited in M.J. Hynes, ‘The British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade’, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Manchester, 1985, p. 40.
3. National Archives KV 5/112, p. 7.
4. He served in a section of Number One Company commanded by Joseph Kavanagh, a long-time member of the Communist Party from London. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 92.
5. Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty, p. 73.
6. RGASPI 545/6/150, pp. 93-4.
7. ibid
8. RGASPI, 545/6/150, p. 90.
9. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 83.
10. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 95.
11. Alonzo Elliott to Charles Hutchinson, 10 September 1938. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 85.
12. On 15 December 1938, Hutchinson was at Ripoll, in northern Spain, still awaiting repatriation. RGASPI 545/6/150, p. 78.
13. Interview with Harry Fraser, Manchester History Archive, tape 241, reel 1, side 2.
14. Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1945, p. 7.
15. Many thanks to John Halstead for the details gleaned from census and registry files.
16. Charles Hutchinson, cited in Hynes, pp. 25-6.

Review of Sebastiaan Faber’s Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War

When General Franco died in November 1975, he was convinced that his regime would continue after him, that ‘everything is tied down and well tied down’ (todo está atado y bien atado). Yet within three years, Spain had – surprisingly peacefully – been transformed into a democracy. This transition, however, demanded a huge sacrifice from the victims of Francoism, asking them to set aside their grievances and sign up to el pacto del olvido, the pact of forgetting. Fearful of sliding back into dictatorship, Spaniards kept the pact, though two generations later the consensus has essentially broken down. Grandchildren of the victims, far removed from the years of civil war and dictatorship, are proving to be less restrained than their parents and are demanding answers. For them, difficult and painful memories, like the thousands of unmarked graves by Spanish roadsides, are something to be unearthed, not forgotten.

Unsurprisingly, efforts to establish the truth behind the murder and persecution of thousands of victims has encountered considerable resistance from certain quarters in Spain. Consequently, battles over very different historical interpretations, the so-called ‘memory wars’, are currently being heatedly fought out within Spanish culture and society. It is onto this battlefield that Sebastiaan Faber, co-editor of ALBA’s excellent magazine, The Volunteer, and author of Anglo-American Hispanists of the Spanish Civil War has bravely ventured.

Laid out in five main sections, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War is an attempt to find answers to three key questions: How have fiction and photography shaped memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the civil war, the dictatorship and the transition and, finally, how have media producers and academics engaged with the process of ensuring that Spain progresses as a unified functioning democracy?

Sebastiaan begins an erudite, wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion with a re-examination of the work and impact of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim), and the great Catalan photographer Agustí Centells. He amply demonstrates how the meaning of an image changed dramatically during the war, depending on its use and its context within a photographic montage. However, the author is no doubt correct when he argues that fascinating though they are, the images are unlikely to actually change historians’ view of the civil war.

The second section of the book tackles the central theme of historical memory and the conflicting narratives that exist in Spain, the argument between the value of recovering historical memory and the dangers of reopening of old wounds. As the author states, witnesses to the past, including historians, can also be witnesses in a trial of Francoism. Books such as Paul Preston’s Spanish Holocaust certainly provide ample evidence for the prosecution.

Alongside Helen Graham, Angel Viñas, Gabriel Jackson, and Pablo Sánchez León, Paul Preston appears in the third section, an examination of how current historians are interpreting, or ‘reframing’ the past. As you’d expect from this stellar collection of voices, there’s much of interest here. Angel Viñas is in typically bombastic form and I enjoyed Helen Graham’s optimistic assertion that history ‘is the ultimate antidote to any kind of over-simplification.’ While all historians choose the stories they want to write about, that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing so fairly and – relatively – objectively.

After a discussion of the contribution of three Spanish intellectuals, the book’s final section examines the role of fiction. It concludes with a look at some of the work of Javier Cercas, who has been widely translated into English. Cercas offers good advice, noting that ‘the first thing to do when reading a novel is to distrust the narrator.’ The same could be said of history itself, of course, where the eminent E.H. Carr famously advised students to ‘study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’

This book should prove to be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of (the history of) Spain and provides ample evidence that artists and writers are not neutral bystanders in these contemporary ‘memory wars’. It also asks intelligent questions of historians and academics: What is their role in all of this? Should they just comment from afar? Or should they positively engage? Sebastiaan Faber’s involvement with the Contratiempo collective and the open-access Universidad del Barrio in Madrid show his views clearly enough and will, I suspect, chime with many members of the IBMT. As the author states, ‘fields like history and politics are not just too important to leave to the experts; they are fields that should be of interest to everyone because they are everyone’s concern.’

This review first appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 2:2018, pp. 19-20.

Stan Hilton – the last of the last?

Former British volunteer Stan Hilton in 2012, helpfully engaging in a bit of marketing
Former British volunteer Stan Hilton in 2012, helpfully engaging in a bit of marketing

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.

Flowers laid for Stan Hilton at a commemoration in his birthplace, Newhaven, on 29 October 2016
Flowers laid for Stan Hilton at a commemoration in his birthplace, Newhaven, on 29 October 2016

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.

This article originally appeared in The Spain Report on 28 October 2016.

Review of Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga

No visitor to Barcelona football club’s iconic stadium, the Camp Nou, can fail to notice the slogan splashed in huge letters across the back of the seats: mès que un club. If one aim is to goad supporters of their arch-rivals, Real Madrid, it certainly seems to work. As Sid Lowe explains in his highly entertaining and exhaustive account of the rivalry between Spain’s two dominant football teams, the irritated Madrid fans have responded by inventing their own version. ‘Barcelona’; they chant, is más que un puticlub (more than a brothel).

At one level, Fear and Loathing in La Liga is a celebration of two highly successful football clubs who, while they may inspire mutual fear and loathing, also draw plaudits and admiration from around the world. They have also attracted some of the world’s most talented footballers, many of whom crop up in this book. There is Barcelona’s powerful forward of the 1950s, the Hungarian László Kubala, whose father optimistically bought him a violin as a child, only for the youngster to use it as a goal post. And the Argentine star, Alfredo Di Stéfano (who some still feel was a better player than either Pele or Maradona), who Madrid infamously stole from under the noses of Barcelona. The detailed account of Johan Cruyff’s time at Barcelona clearly outlines how much the current team of Messi, Chavi, Iniesta et al owe to Cruyff and the inspirational Dutch ‘total football’ of the 1970s.

However, Fear and Loathing is mès que un libre about football for, in addition to being The Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent, Sid Lowe holds a PhD in modern Spanish history. He combines his areas of expertise effectively to demonstrate how the history of the two rival clubs is inextricably bound up with Spanish history itself. Just as there are fierce battles over the past and historical memory, so many of these arguments have become expressed through the tribal loyalties of football; ‘war minus the shooting’, as Orwell famously described it. However, it is, perhaps, no great surprise that much of the story of the rivalry between the two teams is about perception, rather than reality. Most football fans, ‘the twelfth man on the terraces’, are not neutral, dispassionate observers and – like everyone else- often choose to believe what they want to believe.

For example, the book outlines how supporters of rival teams within Spain – and around the world – often scorn Real Madrid as ‘Franco’s team’. For Catalans especially, Real represents the image of traditional, Castillian, centralised power, while Barcelona is portrayed as a beacon of democracy, the symbol of the separatist movement which Franco (and by extension, Madrid) brutally suppressed. Now it is certainly true that Franco’s regime was extremely partisan towards Real; the infamous match of 1943, which ended 11-0 to Madrid, is but one example of the regime’s meddling. And Santiago Bernebeu, the father of the modern club was quite evidently pro-Franco, having and volunteered to fight for the Nationalists during the civil war. However, as the author makes clear, things are not always as simple as some would like to make out; this simplistic binary division inevitably means that inconvenient truths are ignored.

In many ways this book is an exercise in myth busting; perhaps a response to some of the more trenchant (if not bizarre) opinions the author must have come across in newspapers’ online comments, or via some of his 140 000 followers on Twitter. So, for example, he points out that Rafael Sánchez Guerra, the president of Real Madrid from 1935 to 1936, was actually put on trial by the Franco regime, accused of being ‘a Red’. And while one of the current directors at Barcelona is allegedly a member of the right-wing fundación Francisco Franco, the parents of Real’s former manager, Vincente del Bosque (now in charge of the Spanish national team), were imprisoned by Franco’s regime. To return to football, the author argues that ‘[Real] Madrid did not become the best because they were the regime’s team; they were the regime’s team because they became the best.’ And it’s not as though Barcelona fans have a monopoly on feeling aggrieved: Madrid’s defeat in the 1960 European cup final still rankles, amidst rumours of bribes and dodgy English referees.

The book’s skilful interweaving of football, history and politics makes for an enjoyable and interesting read. Perhaps members of the IBMT who are not followers of the beautiful game may wonder why two books relating to football have been reviewed in recent newsletters. However, if Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly’s infamous quote that ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death … I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, does not convince, then perhaps an anecdote from the book concerning the supremely talented Danish footballer, Brian Laudrup, may do so. In 1994, Laudrup led Barcelona to an astonishing 5-0 victory over Real Madrid; the following year, he played in another el clásico, but this time around, the Dane led Real, in their turn, to a 5-0 victory. According to Laudrup, when he eventually decided to leave la liga, a relieved King Juan Carlos confessed to him, ‘That’s good … now I can go back to being the only King of Spain.’