On 28 October 1938, the emotional departure from Spain of the foreign volunteers was marked by a huge farewell parade in Barcelona. The remnants of the International Brigades, a few thousand in all, led by military bands, set off nine abreast from the bull ring at the end of Diagonal, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The 15th International Brigade, the last to be established, brought up the rear.
At the end of the parade, a huge rally was held at which important Republican figures, including President Manuel Azaña and Prime Minister Juan Negrín, expressed their thanks to the Internationals. The volunteers’ sacrifices had earned the eternal gratitude of the Spanish Republicans, eloquently expressed by Dolores Ibárruri (the legendary orator from Asturias, known as La Pasionaria) at a huge farewell parade held in Barcelona on 28 October 1938. ‘We shall not forget you,’ she had assured them, promising that, one day, they would be welcomed back to a free, democratic Spain:
“Those of you who have no country will find one, those of you deprived of friendship will find friends and all of you will find the love, affection and gratitude of the whole of the Spanish People.”
A month and a half later, on 7 December 1938, the surviving members of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade arrived back on British soil, having endured a very rough crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven. They hardly received a heroes’ welcome; instead they were met with an interrogation by customs and Foreign Office officials, as representatives of the British security services looked on. Put on a train to London, the exhausted soldiers, many of them heavily bandaged and a number on crutches, disembarked to find a very different welcome at Victoria Station. A vast crowd of family members, friends and supporters had assembled to welcome them home. Among the waving Union Jacks were flags bearing the names of British trade unions and left-wing political organisations. Others bore one simple phrase: ‘¡No pasarán!’
The evening began with Maxine Peake’s passionate rendition of La Pasionaria’s farewell speech to the International Brigades, followed by performances by poet Francesca Beard and singer Maddy Carty, both of whom had been commissioned to produce work specifically for this event.
I followed a typically ardent delivery from Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the RMT. Not an easy task. Fortunately, I was able to begin by showing film of the British volunteers returing from Spain in 1938, which the BFI had generously digitised especially for the event (a low resolution version of the film can be found online). The film is without a soundtrack, but on IBMT Secretary Jim Jump’s suggestion, the Philosophy Football team added an entirely appropriate score: the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’, which was composed in honour of the volunteers who died in Spain. The combination of the film and music was absolutely electrifying. When it was first performed in April 1939, the music was accompanied by the words of poet Randall Swingler and I felt it was entirely appropriate to precede my talk by reading them:
You who stand at your doors, wiping hands on aprons,
You who lean at the corner saying ‘We have done our best’,
You who shrug your shoulders and you who smile
To conceal your life’s despair and its evil taste,
To you we speak, you numberless Englishmen,
To remind you of the greatness still among you
Created by these men who go from your towns
To fight for peace, for liberty, and for you.
They were men who hated death and loved life,
Who were afraid, and fought against their fear.
Men who wish’d to create and not to destroy,
But knew the time must come to destroy the destroyer.
For they have restored your power and pride,
Your life is yours, for which they died.
My (occasionally bleak) account on the experiences of the British fighting fascism between 1932 and 1945 in Britain, Spain and Europe followed, leading in to a brief discussion with writers Paul Mason and Daniel Trilling, Stop the War campaigner Salma Yaqoob and Olga Abasolo from Spain’s Los Indignados movement.
After the interval, comedian Mark Steel‘s set took well-aimed and often very funny pot-shots at Margaret Thatcher, north Londoners and Chelsea supporters (amongst others), all neatly linked by a diatribe on the difficulty of adapting to change. Socialist R’n’B band Thee Faction and a DJ set from PanditG completed what was, by all accounts, a very successful and highly enjoyable night.
When I give lectures and talks 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 so many 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…
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 schoolboy in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would not be true to say 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.
[Spoiler alert!] But it was the dramatic, heart-breaking ending which really captivated me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he 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 during the early 1990s 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.
A year later found me teaching at Middlesex and at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London) and studying for an M.A. 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 Ph.D. 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 and Political Science.
Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the L.S.E. was – and still 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.
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, 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.
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 recent oral history of the volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, would have been very much poorer without it.
In July 1938 the Spanish Republican Army confounded many around the world – not least those in Franco’s Spain – who considered it a spent force, by launching a huge and ambitious attack back across the River Ebro. Fighting alongside the Spanish soldiers of the 80 000 strong Republican Army of the Ebro were a number of English-speaking volunteers, within the 15 International Brigade. Drawn mainly from Britain, the USA and Canada, the brigade also included volunteers from Ireland, Australia and from a number of other countries around the world.
Fighting in the full, glaring heat of the Spanish summer, lacking food and water and severely outgunned and outnumbered, the members of the British Battalion of the 15 International Brigade fought in a number of vicious battles between July and September 1938. On Hill 481 near Gandesa, on Hill 666 in the Sierra Pandols and Hill 356 in the Sierra Caballs, the British were bombed, shelled and attacked remorselessly by Franco’s forces and his German and Italian allies. On 23 September 1938 on the battalion’s final action on the road just north of the village of Corbera d’Ebre, the last remaining members of the battalion were virtually overrun.
At 1 a.m. the following morning the order finally arrived withdrawing the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades from the line. In its final forty-eight hours’ fighting, some two hundred members of the British Battalion were killed, wounded or missing. It was a tragic and heart-breaking end to their time in Spain, though, in many ways, a fitting final act. Despite their unquestionable bravery, the men in the British Battalion were simply outnumbered and outgunned. Raw courage and a belief in the essential ‘rightness’ of their cause ‘could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force’.
The tough Scottish political commissar Peter Kerrigan later described his shock at this terrible outcome of the last action:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Coy. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion.”
In September 2013 a group of friends and families of the International Brigades returned to Catalonia to remember the sacrifices made all those years ago. The trip was organised by Duncan Longstaff, a trustee of the International Brigades Memorial Trust assisted by Almudena Cros, Severiano Montero and Vicente González of AABI, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades. While IBMT members from the UK made up the majority of the group, there were also participants from Ireland, the United States, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico.
Besides visiting battle sites of particular significance to the English-speaking 15 International Brigade, the trip to Catalonia also included the unveiling of two memorials to the volunteers and the laying of flowers and a wreath at the site of the British Battalion’s final action in Spain.
The first memorial to be unveiled was a new plaque dedicated to the British members of the medical services who worked in the former cave hospital in La Bisbal de Falset during the summer of 1938. Here, British members of the Republican medical services struggled in almost impossible conditions to treat those wounded in the bitter fighting. During the Ebro offensive everything had to be carried across pontoon bridges by lorry, or ferried across in boats during the night, so the facilities were necessarily limited. Serious casualties had to be taken back across the river to the improvised cave hospital set up by Dr. Len Crome, the commander of the medical services for the Republican 35 Division, in Falset. British doctors and nurses, such as Len Saxton and Patience Darton, worked around the clock, with the desperate shortages of materials forcing them to improvise and develop innovative treatments. Allied soldiers fighting in the Second World War would benefit greatly from lessons learned in Spain in areas such as casualty management, blood transfusions and the treatment of fractures.
The second unveiling was of a new memorial dedicated to those killed in the final last action of the British Battalion in Spain. The plaque is situated in the old village of Corbera d’Ebre, which remains virtually in the condition it was at the end of the civil war. In amongst the ruins lies the village’s former church, now converted into a dramatic space for gatherings, exhibitions and commemorations. At the time of the ceremony held on 24 September 2013, the former church was hosting a strikingly poignant art installation comprised of suspended roof tiles, caught as if at the moment of an explosion. Behind the artwork, further within the building, lay the IBMT Antifascistas exhibition, shown for the first time in Spain. The exhibition will remain in the church until November 2013.
After a ceremony held within the church came the final event of the day and, for many, of the trip itself, with the laying of flowers and wreath at the position of the battalion’s final stand, some 4 kilometres north of Corbera.
Sitting on a grass verge in Madrid’s University City is a simple concrete monument, decorated with a red three-pointed star and the inscription:
Sois las historia, sois la leyenda
sois el ejemplo heroica de la solidaridad
y de la universalidad de la democracia
The memorial commemorates the creation seventy-five years earlier of the International Brigades, the volunteers from around the world who came to the help of the democratic Spanish Republican government, following the military coup launched by Franco and his friends in July 1936. The inscription bears the words of Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, the Communist deputy for the Asturias, part of a passionate, eloquent speech expressing Spain’s eternal gratitude as she bid farewell to the surviving members of the Brigades, six months before the Republic finally fell in March 1939.
The memorial’s location, in Madrid’s University City, was the site of bitter fighting in November and December 1936, when Franco’s forces were at the gates of the Spanish capital. The Rebel Generals met with defiant resistance by the population of Madrid who, with the help of the foreign volunteers of the International Brigades, beat back the elite forces of Franco’s army. But at considerable cost- many antifascist volunteers from Germany, Italy, Poland, France and elsewhere around the world – Britain included- were killed in the frantic fighting.
The project to place the memorial was the initiative of AABI, the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, the Madrid-based International Brigades friendship group. Designed by teachers and students at the university’s faculty of fine arts, the memorial received the backing of the university authorities and seven embassies provided financial assistance: Argentina, Canada, Cyprus, Norway, Russia, Serbia and Slovenia. A number of other countries were officially represented at the unveiling, including China, France, Ireland, Sweden and Venezuela – along with Spain itself. Britain’s International Brigade Memorial Trust donated €500 towards the cost of the memorial, in memory of the 2500 volunteers who left for Spain from Britain, of whom 527 never returned.
Present at the unveiling on 22 October 2011 was the last surviving UK based veteran of the brigades, ninety-four year old Londoner David Lomon, who gave a stirring, impromptu speech:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism. We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. Salud!
But even before the monument’s inauguration, the project met with resistance. An unsuccessful legal bid to stop the monument being unveiled was launched by an individual linked to the Falangists, which the rector of Madrid’s university, José Carrillo Menéndez, described as ‘reminiscent of the Franco regime’. And within days of its unveiling, it was daubed with red paint and asesinos sprayed across it. And now a case brought by the lawyer Miguel García has succeeded where political protest failed.’ On 3 June 2013 the Tribunal Superior de Justicia, decided that the memorial should be removed on the grounds that it had been erected by the university without planning permission, even though the university insisted that it had applied for permission, but did not receive a reply from the city council.
Supporters of the monument are rallying to its defence. They point out that, although the ruling was made on technical grounds, the original complaint was lodged by a lawyer with known far-right connections. They also point out that Franco’s victory arch still stands at the entrance to the University City and that other much larger memorials – such as that to the victims of the 2004 train bombings – were erected without the required permits.
An online petition has been launched by the AABI on Change.org and there has been huge interest on social media sites and articles have appeared in the British press, by The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett and others. Now, Islington Labour M.P. Jeremy Corbyn has signed an early-day motion in the House of Commons calling for ‘the Government to make representations to the Spanish government to ensure that the memorial remains in place, so that future generations may be reminded of some of the more important moments in their history.’
Whether, in the present political climate, the protests will make any difference remains to be seen. And it’s not just in Spain: a memorial plaque in Nottingham was taken down by Conservative Council leader and plans to reinstate it were bizarrely described by Councillor Kay Cutts as likely to be offensive to the family of murdered soldier Lee Rigby. Across Europe antifascist fighters have been attacked, while fascist collaborators have been politically rehabilitated. Official commemorations are held for Baltic volunteer units of the Waffen-SS and other pro-Nazi groups. As a blogpost in Left Futures argued:
This rewriting of history across Europe – smearing antifascists and rehabilitating nazi collaborators – must be combatted. It absolves the far right and gives them respectability – at a time when austerity has prompted fascists to step up their agressive actions as was seen this week with the brutal murder of left wing activist Clément Méric by fascist thugs in Paris and violent EDL attacks on Mosques, giving them electoral gains as was seen with Marine Le Pen in France, the Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.
For this year’s Len Crome lecture a number of historians were brought together to discuss George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937. This is the first of four lectures, which features a lecture and discussion of George Orwell and the British Battalion in Spain.
Over the last ten years, the hugely successful annual Len Crome lecture series has seen a number of academics from Britain, Spain and America deliver keynote lectures on their particular areas of expertise, at the Imperial War Museum in London. A collection of the first ten lectures was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 2010 as Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War. However, the closure of the Imperial Museum in 2013 for refurbishment forced a re-think.
The decision was helped by this year being a major George Orwell anniversary, marked by a number of programmes on BBC radio 4, including a radio dramatisation of Orwell’s famous account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. Consequently, it was decided to bring together a number of historians to discuss Orwell’s account of his time in Spain and, in particular, the significance of the infamous events in Barcelona during May 1937.
The event was held in the Manchester Conference Centre, on 2 March 2013. Chaired expertly by Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern Europen History at the University of Sheffield, the four speakers and their papers were:
Richard Baxell: George Orwell and the British Battalion
Paul Preston*: George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War
Tom Buchanan: Homage to Catalonia; its reception and impact
Chris Hall: Not Just Orwell; the Independent Labour Party Volunteers
*Sadly Paul Preston was unwell, but he very kindly allowed his paper to be read out by a proxy (IBMT Secretary, Jim Jump).
For those who missed what was a very successful and popular event, the four lectures will be placed online and a short video of some of the highlights will be available on Youtube. In the meantime, Marshall Mateer has put some material on the IBMT’s Flickr site and Lydia Syson, author of A World Between Us, has written an account of the day on her blog.
Helen Graham’s latest monograph, The War and its Shadow, is not an introductory text to the Spanish Civil War, nor is it an easy read. While only 150 pages long, the text’s richness and complexity, the scope and ambition, the intelligence and sheer breadth of knowledge contained within make it both thought-provoking and challenging. Important and timely too. One of the major issues currently facing the International Brigade Memorial Trust is how to explain to a contemporary audience the significance of a war which was fought in Spain over seventy years ago. This book provides detailed evidence of the enduring relevance of the Spanish Civil War and the thirty-five years of malevolent and vengeful dictatorship which followed.
In structure, the book comprises a number of essays, implicitly divided into three main sections. In the first, the author discusses the legacy of the First World War, which saw the mortal wounding of many European ancien regimes but not, as yet, their destruction. During what was essentially becoming a European civil war, nationalist movements fought to reassert what they believed to be their natural right to rule. The second section examines the notion of the volunteers (originally raised in her inaugural professorial lecture) for the Spanish Republic as ‘border-crossers’. For Helen Graham, many of the International Brigaders were, to use her rather elegant expression, ‘the stormy petrels of social change’, members of a vanguard fighting for ‘cosmopolitan cultural modernity’. The third, final section of the book is a passionate essay on contemporary Spain, the enduring legacy of Francoism and the current battles to control historical memory.
The book provides a trenchant demolition of some of the more enduring myths of the Franco dictatorship. As the author points out, the Spanish Civil War was the first battle of a war ‘waged predominantly on civilians’ and there is no shortage of evidence that murder and rape were used deliberately as a weapon to break down resistance. As the leader of the military rebels, General Emilio Mola declared, they were determined to eliminate ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do.’ This included not just members of the ‘left’ and members of some imaginary ‘judeo-masonic conspiracy’, but any representatives of progress and modernity: teachers, trade unionists, homosexuals and ‘modern women’ too, as the accounts in chapter three of the viciousness visited on the Barayón family make only too clear.
Like Paul Preston’s acclaimed Spanish Holocaust, Helen Graham’s The War and its Shadow reiterates that Franco’s dictatorship was not ‘softer’ than those of Hitler and Stalin, remarking pointedly on a persisting lack of awareness of the vast number of ‘extra and quasi-judicial’ killings enacted by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1975. The chapter on Franco’s prisons is particularly harrowing. ‘All Spain is a prison’ wrote Marcos Ana, as Franco’s regime set about ‘teaching the defeated the meaning of their defeat’. As evidence of the truly repugnant nature of Franco’s Spain, the author reminds us that even Heinrich Himmler was shocked by the extent of judicial murder when he visited Spain in October 1940 (though admitting that his main concern may have been the wastage of potential slave labour). The book explains how the victimisation continued within the prisons, with ‘the rape/sexual assault of women prisoners was systematically perpetrated with impunity by the servants of the Franco regime’, and children removed from what were considered to be ‘unfit’ mothers.
The book concludes with a rather depressing, though no doubt accurate, assessment of the situation in contemporary Spain, which finds the conservative Partido Popular in power during a time of severe financial crisis. Attempts to recuperate historical memory are becoming increasing difficult, as court cases are launched against those – however prominent – involved in investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. As the author explains, while there have been many positive changes in Spain since the death of Franco, ‘many of its most damaging effects endure within the constitutional polity.’ Clearly much of Spain remains in shadow and the task of dismantling the Francoist structure has some way to go.
This review originally appeared in the IBMT newsletter 34, January 2013, pp. 24-5.
For anyone connected with the British volunteers who fought in the International Brigades during Spain’s civil war, 2013 has great and heavy significance. It seems almost certain that this is the first year since the start of the war itself that there are no British veterans around to explain the relevance of the events in Spain all those years ago. Over the years, I have got to know a number of former volunteers: some like Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and David Marshall were members of the committee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust; others such as Bill Alexander, Bob Doyle, Fred Thomas and George Wheeler I got to know having interviewed them. However, it was not until February 2011 that I first met former British volunteer David Lomon. Having returned from Spain in 1938, he had lost touch with his former comrades in the International Brigades. Only when he came across an article in the April 2009 issue of the magazine of SAGA, the organisation aimed at the over 50s, was David prompted to get back in touch. The article, by the historian Max Arthur on the Britons who fought against Franco, reported that only eight veterans of the Spanish war were still alive; David of course knew otherwise. He contacted SAGA in order to put the matter right and his letter was spotted by a member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, who informed the committee. I arranged to meet David at his house in Bourne End, in Buckinghamshire in order to interview him about his time in Spain.
Clichéd though it may sound, when I turned up at his home and David answered the door, I sincerely believed that I was talking to his son. Only when he introduced himself did I realise that the smartly-dressed, polite and welcoming man was a ninety-two year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The interview was a similar surprise; despite apologising for being unable to remember precise details, David talked lucidly for two hours on his experiences in Spain and afterward. It was a fascinating story and the interview formed the basis of a short piece in the May 2011 issue of the IBMT newsletter. It also provided me with great new material for my then forthcoming book Unlikely Warriors and, above all, it enabled me to get to know a thoroughly likeable and decent man who had lived a long and fascinating life.
Born David Solomon in Manchester on 22 November 1918, David was the youngest of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Poland. David was schooled in Manchester, but the early death of his father when David was only fifteen brought his education to an abrupt halt, dashing any dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, his mother decided to move the family to Hackney, in London’s east-end, to be nearer her relatives. There David soon became caught up in the growing resistance against Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were virtually besieging the area and terrorising its Jewish population. Galvanised by his participation in anti-fascist demonstrations, including the huge and infamous confrontation around Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, the young Jewish clothing cutter took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen. In order to establish sufficient political credentials, he joined the Young Communist League and in December 1937 volunteered to join the International Brigades. ‘After the Mosley East-End business’, David explained to me, ‘I wanted to go to Spain, so I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people, who I could use to get over to Spain … I wanted to do something, I wanted to fight fascism.’
Prudently changing his surname from Solomon to Lomon in order to avoid being singled out if captured, David travelled to Paris using the familiar route of the British volunteers: a weekend ticket, which did not require a passport. From there he travelled south by coach to the Spanish border and underwent an exhausting and dangerous trek over the Pyrenees at night. United with his comrades from Britain, he joined the Clement Attlee Company of the British Battalion as a machine-gunner and infantryman. Amongst the volunteers, David was unusual in having studied Spanish and Spanish politics at school, so was given a political appointment. He was lucky enough to meet both the British Labour leader, Clement Attlee, and the American singer Paul Robeson who performed for the members of the battalion and shook all their hands. After minimal training, David was rushed up to the front in the spring of 1938 and joined the desperate Republican efforts to repulse a colossal Francoist offensive. Thirteen divisions, 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 outnumbering the defending Republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the government lines virtually collapsed. David was one of more than one hundred members of the battalion to be captured by Italian soldiers at Calaceite in eastern Aragon on 31 March 1938.
Driven off by truck, he and the other prisoners were incarcerated in the Francoist concentration camp in the old decaying monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, near Burgos in northern Spain. As many former inmates attest, the conditions in the camp were overcrowded, insanitary and extremely cruel: ‘We never dreamt that guards could be so brutal to other human beings,’ remarked one of David’s fellow prisoners. In June David was transferred to an Italian run camp at Palencia, where the inmates sung a version of the song that had been popular since the first battle of the British Battalion at Jarama in February 1937, sung to the tune of Red River Valley:
There’s a prison in Spain called Palencia
’Tis a place we know all too well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And spent months of misery and hell.
Surrounded one day by Italians
Who with guns bought by Chamberlain’s gold
Blown to hell by artillery and avion
That’s how our brave comrades were sold.
At Palencia David became good friends with Clive Branson, a talented artist from Battersea in London. Branson made a number of highly accomplished sketches of prisoners at San Pedro and Palencia, including David and a young volunteer and Communist Party member called Alfred Sherman who, much later in his life, would found the Thatcherite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Though Clive Branson was killed in Burma during the Second World War, the drawings remain and I was fortunate enough to be at the Marx Memorial Library last year, when David took his very first glimpse of the sketch since it had been drawn in Palencia all those years ago.
David was released in October 1938 and repatriated. Back home he returned to his former work as a clothing cutter and studied as a designer. He also married Millie Levine, who he had known from his time in the YCL. She would later follow him when he decided to leave the Young Communist League for the Labour Party, appalled at Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939: ‘I was pleased I didn’t join the Communist Party because, being Jewish, well, that Stalin should link up with [Hitler] was unbelievable’, he told me.
With one child already and another on the way, David was not able to return to war until 1941. Seeing the two wars as part and parcel of the same conflict, he volunteered to join the navy. ‘I had to join up. I had to do something,’ he explained to me. He joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was rejected as a pilot as he could only breathe through one nostril, following an unsuccessful operation. Instead he joined general service and was selected to join an Officer Training Course in Scotland. It was not to last long. He was soon dismissed by an ‘aggressive’ superior, after David refused to box with an opponent who was much weaker than himself, ‘a nervous, gentle sort of lad,’ as he described him. David used to box with the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and, all too typically, opposed what he felt would not be a fair fight. He was returned to general service as a navigator’s yeoman on a minesweeper, sweeping the English channel before D Day and through the landings themselves. He was then sent to the far east around Burma and the Malaya Strait and Rangoon where his fleet was subjected to a terrifying attack by Japanese Kamikazi planes, in which they lost two of their ships.
After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, David was demobbed and returned to London, to resume his life and work. Introduced to a Mr. Lawson, the head of a large retail company in Glasgow, David was asked to become a partner in a new wholesale group he was setting up in London’s west-end. David would remain at the group, Barnett Lawson Trimmings, until he retired as Managing Director, thirty-five years later.
‘Wrapped up in family life’, as he put it and having left the YCL for the Labour Party on his return from Spain, David made no contact with his fellow veterans of Spain in the International Brigade Association. It was only when he saw the SAGA article in 2010 that David felt prompted to make contact. Having received a warm welcome from the members of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he generously donated his time and energy in travelling around Britain and Spain delivering eloquent speeches on the importance of the war in Spain. In October 2011, David was one of a handful of surviving veterans to return to Madrid for a reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the formation on the International Brigades. David’s speech, given at the inauguration of a new memorial to the International Brigades in the Spanish capital’s University City, is worthy of repeating:
It is a great honour to be here today to join with you in memory of all the young men and women who came to Spain to join your fight against fascism.
We must always remember those who gave their lives and also the suffering of the Spanish people.
The ideals of the international volunteers will never be forgotten.
Even though we lost the so-called civil war, the democratic powers realised that fascism must be stopped, or they too would suffer the same fate. The Second World War was a continuation of the war in Spain.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the International Brigades were formed to fight against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Even today ‘No pasarán’ lives on.
I would like to thank all those who have made this wonderful memorial. It will serve to remind the world of the future that a great price was paid to enable our ideals to live on. ¡Salud!
When the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition was shown in Eastbourne in April 2012, David was there to lend his support and encountered a young Spaniard from Burgos in northern Spain: ‘Gracias de mi corazón’ (‘my heartfelt thanks’) he declared. David was also present at the annual commemoration of the IBMT at London’s south bank in July 2012, where he laid a wreath and was presented with a flag by Almudena Cros of the Spanish Asociación des Amigos de Brigadas Internacionales. David was as charming as as ever and I suspect Almudena gave him her heart as well as the flag. He was, as his obituary in the Daily Mail portrayed him, ‘an old-fashioned gentleman’. I will always treasure the Christmas card he sent me this year, in which he jokingly thanked me ‘for keeping this old dinosaur going’. As I told his son Irving, aside from the respect I had for David for his actions in the past, I had got to really like him for the way he was in the present: open, generous and genuinely modest.
Right to the end, David remained proud of the efforts made by him and his fellow international volunteers on behalf of the Spanish government during the civil war. The award of Spanish citizenship to David in May 2011 was an honour that he richly deserved and I know it gave him great pleasure and pride.
David’s wife Millie died in 1997, but he will be sorely missed by his three children, Stanley, Yvonne and Irving, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and by all of those who remain eternally grateful of the efforts made by him in Spain and around the world to help defeat the evils of fascism and Nazism.
David Lomon, the last of the UK-based unlikely warriors, 22 November 1918 to 21 December 2012.
My talk outlined the experiences of British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and why the conflict continues to be relevant. Not surprisingly, the continuing legacy of the war featured strongly in a detailed and wide-ranging Q&A which followed the talk. Topics raised included the role of the Spanish monarchy in the 1930s, the ‘civil war within the civil war’, the British government’s policy of appeasement, fascism in contemporary Spain and how to ensure that the war and the contribution of the volunteers from around the world does not get forgotten. The discussions continued over beer and a curry in nearby Exmouth Market.
Many thanks to all for the generous donation to the IBMT, to Steve Richardson for his invitation to talk at the meeting, to John Callow for providing the venue and to Perry Calvert for chairing and acting as my impromptu agent. I’m glad to say that I returned home with considerably fewer copies of Unlikely Warriors than I had arrived with. Happy Christmas reading to all!
On the Thursday and Friday evenings of this week I attended two events, in two very different settings. The first was a tour of Aldgate and Whitechapel, an area famous for its robust response to Sir Oswald Mosley’s BUF Blackshirts in the 1930s, as part of a book launch for Lydia Syson’s teen novel. The second was a lecture and discussion I took part in, alongside Jim Jump of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and cambridge post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dacia Viejo Rose, held in St John’s College of the University of Cambridge. The two events were only an hour away from each other by train but, to paraphrase the title of Lydia’s book, there was – and is – a world between them. The link between the two areas was, of course, that they were both the home of a number of Britons who served with the Republican Government’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Lydia’s novel A World Between Us opens in London’s east end on 4 October 1936. It was then the home of Britain’s largest Jewish community and was virtually under attack by the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. On Sunday 4 October, a huge anti-fascist rally was organised, which prevented Mosley’s Blackshirt thugs from marching through the area. As Lydia recounts, the experience was formative for a number of men and wome who would confront Mosley on the streets of London and Franco in the trenches of Madrid.
Cambridge, in a very different manner, was just as formative, of course and more than thirty men and women who served in Spain had studied at the university. Probably the best known, John Cornford, was killed in Spain, the day before his twenty-first birthday. Many thanks to Cambridge University’s Communist and Hispanic Societies, who jointly organised the latter event.