On 10 June 2017 a memorial to volunteers for the Spanish Civil War from Oxfordshire was unveiled in St. Clement’s, Oxford. The road to this event had been incredibly long and tortuous, not least because many locals had opposed the erection of a monument to ‘a bunch of reds’. That the project had ever managed to be realised was down to the hard work, determination and bloody-mindedness of the members of the Oxford Memorial Organising Committee, not least the historian and journalist Chris Farman who sadly died last week, one of all too many victims of the Coronavirus pandemic.
With Valery Rose and Liz Woolley, Chris was the author of No Other Way, Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War. Sales of the book did much to help fund the erection of the Oxford memorial. It’s a great piece of local history, well written and extremely thoroughly researched, with a great introduction written by Chris. He was the perfect choice for the introduction, for he had previously written for The Guardian and the Illustrated London News and worked as an editor on a book on the British Empire, published by Time-Life Books. He also has written his own monograph: The General Strike, published in 1972.
I first met Chris in at a fundraising for the Oxford memorial. Like his fellow organisers, Colin Carritt and John Heywood, Chris put a huge amount of time and effort into this and subsequent events. His natural charm and enthusiasm did much to help make them a success and (as I know) he was adept at persuading other people to get involved. A regular and popular presence at IBMT events, Chris will be very sadly missed.
On 5 October 2019, as part of a weekend of activities to accompany the Annual General Meeting of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I gave a talk on the role of London and volunteers from the capital, in the Spanish Civil war. As part of the talk, I chose to bring to light, or return to the light, a first generation Irish resident, who was born and lived in north Kensington. Like most of the men and women who went to Spain, he wasn’t famous, so little, if anything has been written about him. That’s not wholly surprising, for it’s not always easy to write about a relatively unknown individuals, as information is not always easy to come by. Fortunately, there are a few documents held in the National Archives in Kew and in the RGASPI archives in Moscow. Most helpful of all, there is an interview in the Imperial War Museum in London. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a photograph.
Harold Bernard Collins was born on 26 June, 1912, the son of Irish parents. He grew up in north Kensington, then ‘a real working class area.’ After a typically short elementary education, Bernard left school at 15 to work in the family coach-building business. Inspired by his father’s Irish Republican politics (Michael Collins – no relation – once stayed at their home) and by a lively political scene based around the Portobello Road, at 16 he joined the Young Communist League.
While other people
might have joined the YCL for their regular dances, Bernard was spurred by their
political campaigning. He helped defend tenants being evicted and he marched
alongside the Hunger Marchers when they arrived in London in 1934, joining them
at a rally. And, like many others, he took part in – frequently violent – demonstrations
against Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were attempting to gain a
foothold in the Portobello Road. Collins was himself arrested at an antifascist
demonstration in Tooley Street, in Bermondsey in 1937, when the 8 stone Collins
was accused of assaulting a 6’ police officer.
Like most Party members, Bernard was an avid reader of the Daily Worker and it was through the paper that he came to learn of the civil war in Spain. He was not initially thinking of volunteering, but a fellow Party member who had recently returned from Spain assured Collins that he could be of use, despite his complete lack of military experience. Nevertheless, Collins remained undecided for almost a year, until the sight of a group of Blackshirt thugs beating up some children in London’s east end, purely because they were Jewish, convinced him that he had to do something.
Accompanied by his
friend, a local decorator called Wally Clasper, Collins approached his local Party
and made out that, like his mate who had served in the Royal Artillery, he had
military experience. His interviewer attempted to dissuade the pair, but realising
that they were determined, let them go. So, in early February 1938, having said
nothing to his parents, Collins set off with Wally for Spain, both dressed in their
best suits. Using money given to them by the Party, they followed the typical
route to Spain, via Folkestone, Dieppe, Paris and, finally, a long, exhausting
night-time slog over the Pyrenees.
After some basic
training in Figueras and Albacete, and a brief time in a training battalion at
the British base at Tarazona de la Mancha, Collins joined the British Battalion
itself at Teruel. Posted up high in the snow covered mountains, Walter and his
comrades were a sitting target for enemy artillery. Walter later described his
first experience of being under fire:
Strange to say I wasn’t nervous at all, because I don’t think I knew what fighting really was, anyway. I had no idea of people being killed, or anything like that. The shells from the fascists were falling about twenty or thirty yards away and it didn’t seem to worry me at all, even though everybody else would go down flat and dodge the shells coming. It didn’t happen to me and I don’t think it was because I was brave, or anything like that, I think it was that I really didn’t know what war was about.
Collins, he had arrived right at the end of the fighting at Teruel, in which as
many soldiers died from cold as combat. The Battalion was withdrawn from the
Teruel front towards the end of February and sent to the Aragon village of
Lecera, a hundred kilometres north of Teruel. There they remained until the
beginning of March 1938, living ‘in stone barns, huddled together against the
On 7 March, Franco
launched a colossal offensive against the Republican forces in Aragon. The Nationalists
outnumbered the defending Republicans by almost five to one and what began as a
series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the Republican lines
virtually collapsed. As the Republic struggled to
hold the onslaught, the British Battalion was rushed up by lorry to Belchite, which
had been captured by the American Battalion the previous autumn, but was
quickly overwhelmed as the Nationalists swept forward,. Motorised units punched
holes in the Republican lines, in a forerunner of the Blitzkrieg tactics which would be used with devastating effect
during the Second World War.
Over the next two
weeks Collins and his comrades were in constant retreat, bombarded with
anti-tank and anti-aircraft shells all the way. Only on reaching the town of Batea,
over 100km from their initial position, were they able to find brief sanctuary.
It was to be all too
On 30 March 1938,
Franco resumed his offensive and the remaining members of the battalion were
urgently sent back to the front. Early in the morning of 31 March, they advanced
cautiously past a small village called Calaceite, which was being violently
shelled by Nationalist artillery. As the volunteers rounded a sharp bend in the
road, they were confronted by a group of six tanks approaching them from the
trees alongside the road. Collins watched as Battalion
Commissar Walter Tapsell, assuming that the tanks were Republican, approached one
and banged on the side of it with his pistol.
As Tapsell attempted
to converse with the tank commander in Spanish, he responded by shouting out in
Italian, drawing his pistol and opening fire on Tapsell. The commissar was
killed instantly and Collins saw at least 50 other men hit, before he sought cover
alongside the road. As darkness fell, a group of about 30 members of Collins’
Company made for the safety of Calaceite village, only to discover that it had already
fallen to Italian troops. They opened fire with machine-guns and Collins saw
his friend Clasper hit and badly wounded and another Kensington volunteer,
Richard Moss, killed. Outnumbered and with little other option they surrendered
and were taken prisoner.
The prisoners were taken to a POW camp in a former monastery near Burgos, called San Pedro de Cardeña (on 8 April 1938). Built in 1711 on the site of the first Benedictine monastery in Spain, San Pedro was, the prisoners were later told, ‘the last resting place of El Cid’. As they were marched through the massive wooden gates, one prisoner, looking up, noticed that ‘ironically, the monumental work over the main doorway was that of a horseman, lance in hand, on a fiery charger, trampling down Moors.’
That night Collins
encountered the awful reality of conditions at San Pedro. Wrapped in a thin
blanket, he was forced to sleep on the floor, surrounded by rats. Keeping clean
was virtually impossible, for there was only one tap for the entire group of
600 international prisoners. There were so few toilets
that inmates often had to queue for hours. Not surprisingly, such filthy and
insanitary conditions proved a fertile breeding ground for fleas and lice. Diseases
such as scurvy, malaria and enteric fever were widespread, for medical
facilities were also extremely limited, with only five doctors divided between
the International prisoners. The inhospitable conditions were exacerbated by
the dire lack of decent food. The principal diet consisted of a thin soup of
warm water flavoured with olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs, accompanied by one
small bread roll per day.
But what really made the
prisoners’ lives utterly miserable was the brutal behaviour of the guards. Collins
himself saw prisoners being savagely beaten:
[The guards would] walk around with sticks, thick sticks, and they’d lash you at the slightest chance they had. If you didn’t answer them correctly, they’d slash you. They weren’t worried where they hit you, [they’d] hit you across the head or across the face …. They were really nasty.
As the days of
captivity turned into weeks and then months, Collins and the other inmates did
what they could to pass the time and break the monotony. They organised
lectures and discussions and played chess using pieces carved out of soap or
A number of British were
transferred out of the camp in a prisoner exchange in June, but Collins was not
one of them. He remained in San Pedro for another 7 months, desperately hoping
that another exchange would be arranged. Eventually, on 23 January 1939, almost
all of the remaining prisoners, including Collins, were transferred to Ondarreta
jail in San Sebastián.
And at the end of February 1938, the prisoners were finally released and marched across the international bridge into France and freedom. There Collins and his fellow veterans of the International Brigades were generously offered a huge dinner to celebrate their freedom. Unfortunately, having spent ten months on a starvation diet in a Francoist concentration camp, none of them were able to eat it.
 Interview with Harold Collins, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) 9481, reel 1.
 Sarah Collins, ‘Why did Britons fight in Spain’s Civil War?’ March 1984, p. 9 from Marx Memorial Library (MML) SC/EPH/10/7.
 Interview with Harold Collins,
IWMSA 9481, reel 2.
 Edwin Greening, From Aberdare to Albacete, p. 71.
 Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for LIberty, pp. 169–70.
 Report by George Fletcher, 5 May 1938, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) 545/3/497, p. 30.
 Bob Doyle, Brigadista, p. 71; Walter Gregory, The Shallow Grave, p. 143.
 Report of Franco Prisoners, MML SC/IBA/5/3/1/20, p. 8; George Wheeler, To Make the People Smile Again, p. 134.
 Cyril Kent, ‘I Was in a Franco Prison’, Challenge, 5 January 1939, pp. 10–11.
 Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, pp. 102–3.
Over the last few years, several announcements have mourned the passing of the last of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. First there was David Lomon, then Philip Tammer and most recently Stan Hilton, all of whom were hailed as ‘the last of the last’. In fact, none of them were. As a recent article by Carmelo García in The Times revealed, 99 year old veteran Geoffrey Servante is alive and well, living in a nursing home in the Forest of Dean.
Geoffrey’s Spanish adventure began in the summer of 1937. He was drinking in a Soho pub with his father, when he overheard a man claiming that it was no longer possible to join the International Brigades, as the Spanish border had been closed. ‘I bet I can join’, declared Geoffrey, impulsively. When the man insisted that there was ‘no chance’, Geoffrey refused to believe him, vowing ‘I’ll bet you a hundred quid I can do it’.
Geoffrey was hardly a typical volunteer for the International Brigades. He had been educated by Jesuits and had never joined a political party nor even a Trade Union: ‘I wasn’t politically inclined at all’, he confessed. However, he had served briefly in the Royal Marines and his earlier experience working on the Canadian–Pacific line helped him secure passage on a boat to Spain.
When they docked in Valencia, Geoffrey jumped ship and accosted a local, repeating the only Spanish phrase he knew: ‘¡Internacional Brigadas! ¡Internacional Brigadas!’ Surprisingly, it was enough to land him a rail ticket to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades. Interviewed there by a Political Commissar, Geoffrey admitted that he was only 18 years old, and was consequently refused admission into the British Battalion, which was then being slaughtered on the Brunete battlefield. Instead, he was posted to a much less hazardous unit, an artillery battery then in training in Almansa, some 70km east of Albacete.
The Anglo-American artillery unit, known as the John Brown Battery, was commanded by an Estonian born American called Arthur Timpson, who had been trained in artillery in Moscow. Alongside Geoffrey were four other English volunteers, all under the watchful eye of their Sergeant, David King, a Communist Branch Secretary and former Royal Marine from Skipton in Yorkshire. Initially posted to the Estremadura front in south-west Spain, the battery was transferred to Toledo in December 1937, where it remained for the duration of the war.
With ammunition extremely scarce, the men rarely did much more than take the occasional pot shot at the enemy lines. However, on one of the few occasions when they were called upon, the battery members had just taken the opportunity to polish off a barrel of local brandy. Geoffrey, who was by his own admission utterly ‘sozzled’, did his valiant best to aim the gun, but the shell missed its target by miles. For this, Geoffrey was punished with six extra guard duties; ‘it was a very lax discipline’, he laughed. Only later did he discover that he had inadvertently scored a direct hit on a fascist officer’s car, blowing him, his aide-de-camp and the car to pieces.
When the majority of the International Brigades were withdrawn and repatriated at the end of 1938, the battery members remained in place, seemingly forgotten. Only in early 1939 were they withdrawn to Valencia, then on to Barcelona. From there, a narrow gauge railway took them half-way to the frontier and they then had to walk the remaining 80km, harassed constantly by Nationalist aircraft. Safely across the French border, Geoffrey and his comrades enjoyed a huge breakfast, courtesy of the International Red Cross, before being repatriated via Paris and Dieppe.
Within a year, Geoffrey was back in uniform, having been called up into the British Army. He had a relatively good war, spending three years in Egypt with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After demobilisation, he worked for Marshalls, reconditioning military lorries, joining Vauxhall Motors in 1957, where he remained until he took early retirement twenty years later.
‘I heard on the radio that there were no more International Brigades left, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. There’s still me.’
When his daughter Honor contacted the Spanish embassy, Geoffrey was invited to London to sign the declaration entitling him to his Spanish passport. He still retains an interest in Spanish affairs; he is a strong supporter of Catalan independence and voted in the 2017 referendum. Geoffrey remains extremely proud to have fought for Spanish democracy and has no regrets. Well, perhaps one. When he returned from Spain and triumphantly called into the pub to collect his winnings, Geoffrey was saddened – and a little disappointed – to discover that his fellow gambler had passed away. So he never did get to see his £100.00.
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 Battlesof 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.
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.
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.
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.]