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British & Irish killed in Spain

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.

Where killed Number
Madrid (Casa de Campo etc.) 5
Boadilla del Monte 9
Lopera 13
Las Rozas 8
Jarama 152
Brunete offensive 73
Aragon offensive (Caspe, Belchite & Quinto) 6
Fuentes de Ebro 6
Teruel 24
The retreat through Aragon 121
Ebro offensive (Hills 481 & 666 and battalion’s last stand) 84
Other actions (Aragon, Chimorra etc.) 11
Died as a POW (various locations) 10
Other (non-battle casualties) 18
Total 540

Testament of Hoo

The Lodge Hill site’s military heritage. ©Ordnance Survey.
The Lodge Hill site’s military heritage. ©Ordnance Survey.

You may never have heard of the Hoo Peninsula. I imagine many people living outside the south-east of England haven’t. You might, however, have come across it under the name ‘Boris Island’, which some media wit came up with following a proposal by the former London Mayor that the area would be an ideal site for a new London airport. To the relief of many, not least many of local residents, Boris Johnson’s controversial plan was never realised, condemned in an Airport Commission report for being too costly, environmentally problematic and hugely disruptive for local businesses and communities. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism – and no small amount of ridicule- Johnson remains keen on the project. Whether, assuming that he replaces David Cameron as Prime Minister, he will work to reinstate the plan, is anyone’s guess. It is just one of all too many ‘known unknowns’ that could follow last week’s Brexit.

Whatever happens, the Hoo Peninsula is likely to continue to face issues of development. Lying on the new fast train line from Ashford International to London, the local station at Strood is only 30 minutes from St. Pancras. Since the completion of the new line, locals have noticed steep rises in house prices. Developers circle, eager to make a killing provide urgently-needed affordable new properties. The latest area identified for development is an old military site at Lodge Hill, just north of Chattenden which has been designated by Medway Council as a ‘brown site’ so, on the face of it, a perfect place for new houses. However, many locals and conservationists believe that the intrinsic value and unique importance of the area has been seriously underestimated. Last year’s designation of the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England, the government’s environmental protection agency, might suggest that they have a point. The presence of a unique unspoilt habitat, in particular one of the country’s most important populations of Nightingales which, so proponents of the scheme claim, could be safely moved twenty kilometres away to new grasslands in Shoeburyness, Essex, has met with strong opposition from environmental campaigners and the issue has been picked up by the national media.

One of many signs forbidding entry to the Lodge Hill site.
One of many signs forbidding entry to the Lodge Hill site.

So, on 16 July 2016, I took part in a site visit to Lodge Hill, organised by the charity, People Need Nature. I was just one of a large group, including photographers, journalists, writers, poets, conceptual and sound artists, ecologists and entomologists. Led by ecologist, environmentalist and serial blogger Miles King, the purpose of the visit was not to come down on either side of the debate (though most of the participants were probably sympathetic to the conservationists’ arguments), but to record and catalogue what remains.

Assessing the biodiversity of Lodge Hill. Photograph ©Catherine Shoard
Assessing the biodiversity of Lodge Hill. Photograph ©Catherine Shoard

We quickly discovered that entrance to the site is normally forbidden. This, of course, added a little frisson of excitement. So too did the health-and-safety briefing given by the gatekeeper on our arrival, warning of the numerous types of unexploded ordnance we could encounter and suggesting mildly that we probably shouldn’t stray too far from the path. There’s nothing like the potential of one’s imminent demise to heighten the senses.

Suitably alarmed, we spent a long day wandering around the site, carefully (watching where we placed our feet and) surveying the astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, a consequence of years of isolation. It’s an ecologists’, environmentalists’ and conservationists’ heaven. At one point the glorious singing of the famous Nightingales could be heard, to the delight of all.

Poster bearing image of Osama Bin Laden.
Poster bearing image of Osama Bin Laden.

From the perspective of a historian, the area is particularly fascinating. The Peninsula and its environs has long been important strategically, overlooking the both River Thames, route to England’s most important city, and the River Medway, home of the Royal Navy since the time of Henry VIII. Castles, towers, hill-top beacons, gun-emplacements, river barriers and a plethora of defensive fortifications are scattered liberally, maintaining guard over the rivers and the Peninsula itself. In the late Nineteenth Century, Hoo was chosen by the Navy as the site for a number of huge depots of munitions and explosives. One of those facilities was Lodge Hill.

Just as the military and naval history of Britain is written across the Peninsula itself, Lodge Hill is a microcosm of Hoo. Disused military buildings and former munitions storage facilities litter the site, including the remains of one of the country’s first Anti-aircraft batteries (scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to be of national importance) and First World War trenches constructed by the Royal Military Engineers, which were at the centre of military technology experiments in trench design and warfare. While many remains date from the First and Second World Wars, there are also sobering reminders of more recent conflicts: rows of terraced houses set-dressed to help train British soldiers in urban warfare. One was clearly designed to represent a street in Northern Ireland, the second a (rather less accurate) depiction of somewhere the middle-East, Basra perhaps. The attention to detail was astonishing, right down to pro-IRA murals on the end of the terrace and posters extolling the virtues of Osama Bin Laden.

After even a short time wandering around the site, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that much of Lodge Hill should be considered for conservation. With the property developer, Land Securities, abandoning their plan to build 5000 houses on the site, perhaps this is a good moment to take stock and evaluate seriously its potentially unique value, both as a testament to the nation’s past and its all too rapidly diminishing natural environment. The fate of the development now lies in the hands of central government. Unfortunately for the residents and environment of the Hoo Peninsula (not to mention everyone else), who that will be and what they will do is presently anything but clear.

The re-imaginers. L to R: <a href="http://peopleneednature.org.uk/who-are-we/">Norman Crighton</a> (back row), <a href="http://www.marionshoard.co.uk/">Marion Shoard</a>, <a href="https://palebluedot1.wordpress.com/about/">Jane King</a> (back row), <a href="www.northkentmarshes.org.uk">Gill Moore</a>, <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/profile/catherineshoard">Catherine Shoard</a>, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/profile/davidcox">David Cox</a>, <a href="http://peopleneednature.org.uk/who-are-we/">Keith Datchler</a> (back row), <a href="https://julianhoffman.wordpress.com/">Julian Hoffman</a>, <a href="https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/about/">Miles King</a>, <a href="http://www.richardbaxell.info/about/">Richard Baxell</a>, <a href="https://texlahoma.bandcamp.com/">Matthew Shaw</a>. Photo ©<a href="http://www.stevenfalk.co.uk/">Steven Falk</a>
The re-imaginers. L to R: Norman Crighton (back row), Marion Shoard, Jane King (back row), Gill Moore, Catherine Shoard, David Cox, Keith Datchler (back row), Julian Hoffman, Miles King, Richard Baxell, Matthew Shaw. Photo ©Steven Falk

Save Trent Park!

The magnificent grade II listed Trent Park House
The magnificent grade II listed Trent Park House

Between 1991 and 1994, I was lucky enough to study at the beautiful Trent Park campus of Middlesex University (nee Polytechnic). A former teacher training college, the campus was set within a large country park dating back to the Fourteenth Century in which, if you were very quiet, you might occasionally spot shy, Muntjac deer. In the middle of the park, next to the outdoor swimming pool(!) was the glorious main building, Trent Park House. Originally an uninspired Victorian edifice, in 1923 it was rebuilt into a magnificent country house, and it is now a grade II listed mansion. I was fully aware – and still am – that it was a fantastic place in which to study.

Fortunately, I found the teaching as inspirational as the setting. Despite lacking the research profile of Oxbridge and the other Russell group institutions, Middlesex’s history department benefited from a team of dedicated, enthusiastic lecturers who were able to engage their students and instil a life-long love of their subject. Soon after graduation, I returned to the university to teach history myself and continued to do so there for a number of years.

Sadly, Middlesex University no longer has a history department nor, in fact, teaches many of the humanities subjects enjoyed by myself and my cohort. Presumably, the management felt that such subjects were not ‘cost-effective’, or sufficiently focused on employability. To anyone involved in the UK’s higher education sector, of course, it’s a familiar tale. However, the story gets worse, for in 2012 the university sold the beautiful Trent Park site and it now faces the imminent threat of development.

Fortunately, voices are being raised in protest, helped by the site’s unique and important history, something I was not aware of when I studied there. It’s now emerged that during the Second World War the building had been requisitioned by M.I.6 and, from May 1942 onwards, it housed captured senior German officers. Unknown to the prisoners, the rooms in which they idled away their time, chatting discreetly to their fellow former officers, were all wired up with hidden microphones. Crucial information about Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets and the German atomic bomb programme was unwittingly revealed to British intelligence officers. Like the nationally treasured Bletchley Park, the institution’s contribution to the Allied war effort is incalculable.

A Save Trent Park campaign has been set up to help the fight to preserve this vital piece of Britain’s history and heritage. They are pressing for the creation of a museum in the former mansion house, rather than allowing it to be carved up into luxury flats. Please visit their page to find out more. You can also sign a Change.org petition to support the campaign. Please do so!

The Malcolm Dunbar papers

Shortly after Unlikely Warriors was published in 2012, my publishers, Aurum Press, passed me a letter they had received from a reader wishing to contact me. He claimed to have some interesting information – and papers – relating to one of the British volunteers mentioned in my book. When I heard about the nature of the documents and the identity of the volunteer, my interest was piqued, to put it mildly.

Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Major Malcolm Dunbar of the 15th International Brigade. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

The name of the volunteer was Ronald Malcolm Lorraine Dunbar. As anyone who has read my book (or, in fact, any book on the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War) will know, Malcolm Dunbar was the senior British ranking infantry officer in Spain. A middle-class, Cambridge-educated, homosexual aesthete, he could hardly have been a less typical volunteer. Yet, like a number of other intellectuals, in Spain he discovered a hitherto undiscovered talent for military life. Ranking only soldado (private) at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Chief of Staff of the entire 15th International Brigade at the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938. Unfortunately, the shy, taciturn Dunbar never gave any interviews on his time in Spain and information on him has always been fairly scarce, despite his high rank and illustrious record.

Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust
Testimonial of Dunbar’s distinguished record in Spain. Image © International Brigade Memorial Trust

Not much is known about his life after Spain, either. During the Second World War Dunbar served in the British Army, but never rose above the rank of Sergeant, adding fuel to claims that veterans of the Spanish war were being discriminated against. He later worked in the Labour Research Department until, in July 1963, having apparently removed all identification from his clothing, he walked into the sea at Milford-on-Sea, near Bournemouth. A clear case of suicide on the face of it, yet intriguingly, as Vincent Brome pointed out in Legions of Babel, his (now out of print) history of the International Brigades, the coroner declared an open verdict at the inquest, rather than declaring his death to have been suicide. This, and Dunbar’s alleged relationship with the Cambridge spy, Kim Philby, have led to persistent rumours of official cover-ups and Secret Service skulduggery.

Following his death, Malcolm Dunbar’s papers, including a number of photographs, were saved by a close friend, the ballet dancer, Thérèse Langfield, whose partner contacted me. In June 2016, I finally fulfilled his wishes, when I handed over the mass of material to the Bishopsgate Institute in London, where they will be available to all. It’s a fantastic collection and I recommend it to anyone interested in the British in Spain.

Malcolm Dunbar is the subject of one of a number of biographies I am writing for a forthcoming book. Watch this space for updates.

James Maley, International Brigader

Scottish volunteer, James Maley, served in the British Battalion on the 15th International Brigade from December 1936 to May 1937. He was a member of the No.2 (Machine Gun) Company captured on 13 February 1937 during the infamous Battle of Jarama and imprisoned in the Francoist prisoner-of-war camp in Talavera de la Reina. During the Second World War he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, serving in Burma and India.

In the Youtube video above, James Maley discusses in detail his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Here is a link to a transcript of the interview (in MS Word format), generously provided by his son, Willy: James Maley International Brigader

James Maley appears in both my accounts of the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and there is also an interview with him in the Imperial War Museum. He received fulsome obituaries following his death in 2007, including this one in The Scotsman.

James Maley, 19 February, 1908 to 9 April, 2007.

History repeating?

Robert Capa’s famous photograph of international volunteers for the Republic, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939
Robert Capa’s famous photograph of international volunteers for the Republic, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

This short piece on the European elections of May 2014 was written for The Spain Report.

In my recent book, Unlikely Warriors, I described the devastation wreaked by a global financial crash, and the rise of fascism and right-wing movements across Europe. Sadly, it is an all too familiar picture. However, I was not discussing the events taking place today, but eighty years ago, during the turbulent years preceding the Second World War.

The drawing of easy historical parallels is tempting and, to be frank, is often the only time when the mainstream media is interested in the views of historians. As I have mentioned previously, the most recent example is the war in Syria, which continues to be analysed through the prism of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. However, the situation in Syria is very different from Spain, and the jihadists fighting against President Bashar Hafez alAssadare poles apart from the anti-fascist volunteers in the International Brigades. Likewise, despite some alarmist comments which have appeared on social media sites, the rise of the right in Europe in the twenty-first century is very different to that of the 1930s, however much both of them owe to a ruinous financial crash.

This is not to say that parallels cannot be made. For example, just as many volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War complained that mainstream politics appeared to offer little for working people, it is clear that many people across Europe currently feel themselves to have been politically and economically marginalised. Only two fifths of the electorate turned out to vote during the recent European elections and a large number of them probably used their vote mainly to vent their anger with the established parties. This apathy, of course, has benefited political movements of the far right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, Austria’s Freedom Party and the National Democratic Party in Germany.

How much should we be concerned about the rise of far-right movements within the European Union?
How much should we be concerned about the rise of far-right movements within the European Union?

In Spain, however, the collapse of the previously dominant parties – the conservative Partido Popular and the socialist PSOE – seems to have created space on the left. The strong showing of Podemos– an anti-austerity party founded only months ago – demonstrates that there can be alternatives to both the established parties and the anti-EU nationalists. They will probably now forge an alliance with similar parties, such as the Greek radical-left party Syriza, whose successful campaign was also based on opposition to the austerity programme.

The collapse of the centre and the consequent gains for parties of the right and left may superficially resemble the situation in the ‘hungry thirties’, but it hardly needs saying that, over the last eighty years, the social and political landscape of contemporary Europe has altered fundamentally. The existence of a political and economic union incorporating much of Europe is evidence enough. Not that the process has always been  smooth; the EU has always faced challenges, of which the frightening possibility of war in Ukraine is but the latest. However, the leaders of far-right European movements, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Ilias Kasidiaris in Greece – let alone the discredited Nick Griffin of the British National Party – simply do not present the same threat to European democracy that Hitler and Mussolini once did.

The fascist leaders of the 1930s dragged Europe into a world war in which over 60 million people died
The fascist leaders of the 1930s dragged Europe into a world war in which over 60 million people died

No matter the scapegoating and poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is currently being bandied about, the mainstream parties tend to spurn overt racism – in public at least. When the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, recently declared himself unwilling to live next door to a Romanian family, he was quick to recant. We should not be complacent, and racism must be countered robustly wherever it crops up, but we should also maintain a sense of perspective. This is not history repeating, even if the success of some of the right-wing parties in Europe may appear to be both a tragedy and a farce.

La Place du Combat

In the centre of Paris, three kilometres north-east of the Louvre and just east of the Canal Saint-Martin, lies an apparently nondescript intersection of six streets, the Place du Colonel Fabien. Named in honour of the ‘militant Communist and member of the French Resistance’ killed in 1944, the junction’s only feature of note (metro station aside) is a large curved glass building, built during the 1960s, judging by the fairly brutal architectural style.  This is the modern headquarters of the Partie Communiste Francais which played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when it acted as the main recruiting centre for the International Brigades.

The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris
The headquarters of the PCF, the French Communist Party, in Place de Colonel Fabien in Paris

Between October 1936 and the summer of 1938, some 35 000 men and women from around the world made the journey to Spain to join the Brigades, with as many as 2500 of them coming from Britain and Ireland. Initially, volunteers made their way to Spain independently (though this required money and, crucially, a passport), however following the decision by the Communist International (the Comintern) in October 1936 to organise international volunteers, the role of the national Communist Parties – in particular the PCF – became crucial both in the recruitment of volunteers and getting them to Spain.

Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades
Plaque at the entry to the French Communist headquarters in Paris, dedicated to the 35 000 volunteers for the International Brigades

The process of volunteering was straightforward, though had to be carried out in secret. Those in Britain wishing to go to Spain would make contact with their local Communist Party who, assuming they were seen as politically trustworthy (Trade Unionists, members of the Party or other left-wing political organisation), would forward them to the Party’s head office in London’s King Street. Here, further checks would be made on their political and military background, and applicants would be given stern warnings that they may well not return. Those accepted and wishing to continue would then travel onward in small groups, trying (usually fairly unsuccessfully) to maintain a low profile, making their way by train to a port (usually Newhaven or Dover), then by ferry to France and on to Paris.

Here, in the PCF offices in Place du Combat, the volunteers underwent further checks and were given a medical examination. The British representative in Paris was the French-speaking Charlotte Haldane, (known by the pseudonym ‘Rita’), wife of the renowned scientist and ardent Republican supporter J.B.S. Haldane and mother of a volunteer in the British Battalion. Her job was to partly process the incoming volunteers, but she was also instructed to confiscate volunteers’ excess money in order to, as she put it, ‘avert the danger that any of the volunteers should get drunk, start brawls or become involved in them, or be lured into the neighbouring brothels.’ Instead, each volunteer was provided with ten francs daily pocket money (food and lodging were provided for free).

The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien
The only remaining sign of La Place de Combat, now known as La Place de Colonel Fabien

From Paris the volunteers would travel south and over the border into Spain by train, until volunteering was made illegal in January 1937, after which the usual route was to be smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees at night, which involved an exhausting and hazardous climb of some twelve hours.

Those that actually made it to the border were then taken the short distance to Figueras by lorry and put on a train to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers were divided up by nationality and language. British volunteers were sent to their base at the nearby village of Madrigueras where they were given rudimentary military training, before they joined their comrades on the front-line.

Few would escape unscathed.

Philosophy Football’s ¡No Pasarán!

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.”

Returning International Brigaders given a rousing welcome at Victoria on 7 December 1938
Returning International Brigaders given a rousing welcome at Victoria on 7 December 1938

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!

To commemorate this homecoming, ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, Philosophy Football, in association with the IBMT and Thompsons Solicitors, organised a gala evening at the Rich Mix arts centre in London on 7 December 2013.

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.

Panel discussion chaired by Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman
Panel discussion chaired by Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman

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.

New edition of Tom Wintringham biography published

The second edition of The Last English Revolutionary by Hugh Purcell and Phyll Smith has just been published by Sussex Press. The new edition has been considerably updated. I was very pleased to be asked to write the book’s preface:

When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.

The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.

The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was – of the British Battalion.

The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’

Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences- of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.

Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society.’ (p.183) During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.

Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer.’ (P.237) Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P, which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.

Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’