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Have we under-estimated the number of volunteers?

In June 2011, the National Archives’ release of a list of 4000 names of those the British Security Services belived to be on their way to fight in Spain, created a bit of a stir. Tom Buchanan wrote a piece for The Guardian and I was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news.

It was a good story. However, the over-zealous spooks included reporters, war-tourists, visitors and holiday makers on the list, so historians agree that there’s no reason to discount the previous estimates just yet.

David Marshall, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005

David Marshall, poet, and one of the last surviving of the British volunteers to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, has died, aged 90.

David was born on 27 March 1916, in Middlesbrough, the eldest of three sons of Methodist parents. Brought up mainly by his Mother, he gained a scholarship for High School, where he developed a lifelong love of literature and poetry. When he left school in 1934, with few jobs available for school leavers, David reluctantly sat the civil service entrance examination and began work in the Ministry of Labour. It was not work that David enjoyed, opening his eyes to the misery of life ‘on the dole’. However, unlike many of his peers, it was not to politics that David turned, but to books. He later admitted to have been, ‘utterly ignorant of the world…wrapped in my bookishness.’ The world of those who would later be his comrades in Spain – demonstrations, hunger marches, battles with Mosley’s Blackshirts – made little impact on him.

However, in July 1936, after 18 months working in the Labour Exchange, he read that a revolt had broken out in Spain. This changed everything:

One day I brought The Times…I remember reading a paragraph saying, “There is no doubt that if the Spanish Republican government wins the war, a socialist state will be set up”. Really that was the trigger. I thought, Christ, here’s a way out.

David quickly obtained a passport by forging a letter from his Father, told his sweetheart ‘some cock-and-bull story’, and bought a one-way rail ticket to London and on to Port Bou, in France. However, on reaching the Spanish border, David’s political naïveté was his undoing, when he was refused entry for not possessing any political or Trade Union credentials. However, a mysterious Italian appeared and got him across the border. David then volunteered to join the Catalonian anti-fascist militia and was put on a train to Barcelona.

This was to be an immensely influential time for David, for Barcelona ‘was seething with enthusiasm [and] colour’. As Orwell famously recounted, ‘the working class were in the saddle’; Trade Union and political banners were everywhere. Under the leadership of Nat Cohen- a battle-hardened volunteer from London- Marshall and his handful of comrades (including Georgie Tioli, a mysterious Italian, and Tom Wintringham, another poet and later a commander of the British Battalion in Spain) were formed them into the Tom Mann Centuria. The oft-produced photograph of the group has developed an almost iconic status.

The Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, September 1936. David Marshall is standing on the far right.
The Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, September 1936. David Marshall is standing on the far right.

After a few weeks in Barcelona they were moved to Albacete, the International Brigade base, and, at the end of October 1936, officially attached to the mainly German Thaelmann Battalion as part of the XII International Brigade. Here they were given uniforms and what David described as ‘bloody awful’ equipment. Most of the volunteers hadn’t even fired their rifles when they went into action on 11 November 1936, at Cerro de los Angeles, near Madrid. Less than 24 hours later, David’s Spanish episode was abruptly terminated when he was shot in the leg. Extremely shaken and with his morale severely knocked, he returned to England in December 1936, to hear that most of his friends had been killed in a vicious battle at Boadilla on the western outskirts of Madrid, memorably described in his comrade (and Winston Churchill’s nephew) Esmond Romilly’s book of the same name.

On his return to Middlesbrough, he joined the Young Communist League and returned to his old employment in the Ministry of Labour. In January 1939 he married his sweetheart, Joyce, with whom he later had a daughter and son.

David continued to work for the return of democracy in Spain and attended a reunion of volunteers in 1938, though he felt a reluctance to stand alongside his comrades, feeling that his all too brief time in Spain and ensuing return to Britain made him somehow unworthy. David always downplayed his role in Spain and possessed a strong sense of guilt that he had survived, when many others hadn’t. Nevertheless, with other veterans, he joined the International Brigade Association (IBA), formed in the Spring of 1939, for which he would later become Treasurer. As part of his support for the Republic, David also wrote a poem, ‘Retrospect’, which was included in an anthology edited by Stephen Spender & John Lehmann, Poems for Spain, (1939).

When the Second World War broke out he, like many other ex-brigaders, was at first barred from entry into the armed forces. However, following pressure from his superior at the Labour Exchange (who insisted that he volunteer), on 4 February 1940 he joined the Army Pay Corps. He was interviewed about his background in Spain by a Captain, who said that he knew that David ‘was Communistic or fascist’. However, David received no discrimination over his time in ‘Red’ Spain though, even as a corporal, he was never placed on guard duty when abroad.

An attempt to volunteer as a glider pilot failed when the optician twigged that the short-sighted David had memorised the eye-chart beforehand, and David transferred instead to the Army Engineers. He took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and also witnessed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp, altogether serving six years in the army. Demobilised in April 1947, he returned, once again, to his old job in the Ministry of Labour, where he remained until 1961, when he moved to London and began work as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop. Between 1963 and 1973 he had a small studio, building scenery for theatres and exhibitions.

In 1975 his wife, Joyce, died of cancer after a long illness and David bought and lovingly re?furbished a 90ft. sailing barge, ‘Jock’ where he lived, hosting exhibitions and dinners. His impromptu – and extremely lively – parties are still famous to this day. In 1982 David sold ‘Jock’ and bought an 85ft. long Dutch Barge, ‘Zwerver’, on which he lived until 1992, when he moved in with his long-time partner, the actress Marlene Sidaway.

Following the death of Bill Alexander, the secretary of the IBA in 2000, David was at the forefront in pressing for the admission of family members and friends, leading to the establishment of a new charitable organisation, the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT), for which he continued to donate considerable time and money. In November of the same year, the ‘articulate, poetry-loving 84 year old’ was amongst a number of Spanish veterans photographed and interviewed for a special piece in The Guardian.

David continued to write poetry throughout his life and eventually, a collection, The Tilting Planet, was published early in 2005. When, at the launch of the book of his poems a number of them were read by a number of well-known actors and actresses out to a packed audience, even David- always fiercely determined to downplay his own importance- could not disguise his pleasure and pride. This was to be David’s last public appearance.

The International Brigades and Spain’s struggle for democracy remained David’s abiding passions and his work on the committees of the IBA and later the IBMT were an important part of this, where David’s cantankerous charm reflected a singular impatience for protocol. But it was in his poetry, that David Marshall’s true, sensitive nature was revealed:

I sing of my comrades
That once did sing
In that great choir at Albacete
Before the battle.
Rank after rank
Of the young battalions
Singing the Internationale
They came from every corner of the earth
So many men from distant lands
Each with his private history
Of Spain’s Republic.

Along slow roads to Spain – at last a star
For desperate men, sensing the gathering storm
And we that fought to warn a watching world
Were called false prophets by appeasers
Yet we fought for the poor of the world.

Our lullabies were soldiers’ songs
Dead in the mud of the trenches
Sung by sad women to the sons of the fallen.
And remembered in Remembrance Day long past
After the thudding drum and shriek of bugles
I listened to the slow lament
For brothers, sons and lovers lost.
It is the sadness in the singing,
The undertones of woe,
The deep vein of grief
That throbs throughout my generation.

David Marshall, International Brigader and poet, 27 March 1916 to 19 October 2005.