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Studying and writing the Spanish Civil War

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

George Orwell’s <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>, first published in 1938
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938

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.

Ernest Hemingway’s <i>For Whom The Bell Tolls</i>, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, a novel set within the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

[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.

Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus
Middlesex University’s Trent Park Campus

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.

Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics
Paul Preston, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish History and Director of the Cañada Blanch Centre at the London School of Economics

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.

Present at a preliminary meeting in 2000 to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell
Present at a preliminary meeting in 2000 to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. L to R: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson. Photograph by Richard Baxell

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.

Richard Baxell, October 2013.

Unlikely Warriors at Glasgow’s 2013 Aye Write Book Festival

In conversation with Chris Dolan
In conversation with Chris Dolan

I was very pleased to be invited to participate in this year’s Aye Write book festival in Glasgow, in conversation with the immensely likeable Chris Dolan, author of a biography of the Scottish anarchist Ethel MacDonald. Obviously an old hand at this type of event, Chris skilfully asked some leading questions about Unlikely Warriors, before handing me over to a what proved to be a very well-informed audience.

One of the most interesting discussions was provoked by a member of the audience asking whether it is was now time to stop romanticising the civil war and the involvement of the International Brigades. Now it’s certainly true that the involvement of some 35 000 volunteers in the defence of the Spanish Republic has long been seen as the left’s ‘last great cause’ and there has sometimes been a tendency to play up the glory and play down the horror. The authors of some early studies of the British in Spain have not unreasonably been described as ‘keepers of the story by which they wanted the battalion to be remembered’.

Personally, I have always agreed with Orwell’s assessment that ‘war is bloody’ and have come across little in my study of the British in Spain over the last twenty years to counter this view. The volunteers went into battle often with the most perfunctory training, weakened by a persistent lack of sleep and debilitating stomach complaints. They soon discovered that their lack of weapons could not simply be remedied by courage alone; on several occasions during their time in Spain, the battalion was effectively annihilated. As a review of Unlikely Warriors in the London Review of Books noted, ‘the story has a tragic monotony. Every page of Baxell’s book has some reference to how depressing, dispiriting or tedious something was.’ Hardly surprisingly, a culture of heavy drinking developed among the volunteers in Spain and there were all too frequent instances of insubordination and desertion.

This does not sound very romantic or glorious. But it should not be forgotten that, despite the conditions – not least the constant risk of a violent death – the British Battalion fought on in Spain for twenty months. As Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues in his review of Unlikely Warriors, it is about ‘capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’ The story of the British involvement in the Spanish Civil War may not always be romantic. But if it isn’t heroic, I really don’t know what is.

Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012
Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012
An Anarchist’s Story, Birlinn, 2009
An Anarchist’s Story, Birlinn, 2009

Stan Hilton, an unlikely warrior

When ninety-four year old David Lomon died just before Christmas 2012, he was almost certainly the last of the volunteers from the Spanish Civil War still to be alive in Britain. While his former comrade from London, Geoffrey Servante, was known to be alive a few years ago living in the Forest of Dean, no word has been heard for some time, so it seems all too probable that he too is, sadly, no longer with us.

Former British volunteer Stan Hilton
Former British volunteer Stan Hilton

There is, though, still one British veteran who is still very much alive and well. However he no longer lives in Britain, but in Australia. In Yarrawonga, to be precise, just over 200km north of Melbourne, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. It’s a long way from his birthplace of Newhaven (looking at the map, it’s a long way from anywhere).

Not much is known about ninety-five year old Stan Hilton, and much of what we do know is a little vague. In order to find out more, he was tracked down by the film maker David Leach, who wrote and produced the 2001 documentary, Voices from a Mountain. The film includes interviews with a number of British volunteers: John Dunlop, Sol Frankel, Jack Jones, George Wheeler and Alun Williams. It also has an unforgettable score, a beautiful reworking of the famous song from the civil war, Ay Carmela. I’m pleased to say that the documentary can still be watched on Youtube.

According to what he told David, Stan was nineteen when he jumped from his ship, the S.S. Pilson in Alicante in November 1937, after hitting an officer who’d been pushing him around. While the former ship’s steward apparently recalled little of his time in Spain, he did remember assaulting another officer he had taken a dislike to. He also described how, contrary to his and many other volunteer’s perceptions, Spain was by no means always sunny. In fact, ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold,’ he recalled.

We know from documents held in London and Moscow that, following a period of training with the British Battalion, Stan became caught up in the chaotic Republican retreats which resulted from Franco’s colossal offensive in the spring of 1938. With the Republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up swimming across the River Ebro to evade being captured (or worse) by Franco’s soldiers, before deciding that he had had enough of the Spanish war. In March 1938, with the British captain’s permission, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.

Stan Hilton reacquainting himself with Spain
Stan Hilton reacquainting himself with Spain

During the Second World War Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. And there he remained.

Stanley Gordon Hilton is now ninety-five years of age. He is also, as David Leach will testify, still alert, fit and healthy. They say that the struggle keeps you young and it certainly seems to be the case with Stan. Which struggles, however are not entirely clear. As David Leach explained, although English-born, Stan has always possessed a traditional Australian attitude towards authority:

‘I liked mucking about,’ Stan recalled over a glass of red wine at home in Yarrawonga. ‘I didn’t like being ordered around.’

Unlikely Warriors: ‘well researched and luminously written’, ‘a model of good writing’

Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012
Unlikely Warriors, Aurum Press, 2012

In addition to being shortlisted for the 2013 Political Book Awards’ political history book of the year, Unlikely Warriors has received a number of good reviews:

‘Well researched and luminously written, Baxell’s book shows us what these volunteers were like – their grand heroism and their petty hatreds, the miseries they endured, the awfulness of war.’
Francis Beckett in The Tablet
Read Francis Beckett’s review here.

‘Baxell draws painstaking miniatures of the uncontroversial heroism of doomed men. It’s beyond history; it’s myth.’
Gideon Lewis-Kraus praises the book’s ‘careful scholarship’ in the London Review of Books.
Read Gideon Lewis Kraus’s review here

‘Richard Baxell’s magnificent Unlikely Warriors is surely set to become the definitive account of the British in the Civil War’s International Brigades. A brilliant piece of military history at its best, capturing the extraordinary courage of untrained volunteers travelling to a foreign land to join the fight for land and freedom, while never failing to describe the grim reality of the loss of life and eventual defeat.’
Mark Perrman in thesubsntive.com.
Read Mark Perryman’s review here

‘Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors is a culminating and I believe definitive accomplishment … A remarkably well balanced and fair minded account … This is a colorful, heroic, tragic and deeply troubling tale.  War is a horror that can serve a good cause. Baxell provides a full account of mostly working class people who voluntarily went to war for a good cause that they believed in.  Based on an extraordinary range of material, it is a splendid thing to have this full and satisfying account.
Peter Stansky, author (with William Abrahams) of Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War,  in ALBA’s newsletter The Volunteer.
Read Peter Stansky’s review here

‘The high quality of the research, and the writing and the fascinating, beautiful and dreadful human story they relate, make Unlikely Warriors essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War.’
Lewis Mates, author of The Spanish Civil War and the British Left, in the International Brigade Memorial Trust’s newsletter.
Read Lewis Mates’ review here.

‘Not just another book about the British volunteers who served in Spain … over 500 pages in length and with 16 pages of photographs, some of which have never previously appeared in print, taking several years in the writing, [Unlikely Warriors] is a superb piece of work.’
Cliff Kirkpatrick describes Unlikely Warriors as ‘a model of good writing’ in España, the journal of the Spanish Study Circle.
Read Cliff Kirkpatrick’s review here.

‘Most interesting, because previously least known, are Richard Baxell’s detailed descriptions of the backgrounds of the individual volunteers, drawn from unpublished diaries and oral histories, and the reception they received on their return home.’
Journalist and biographer Caroline Moorehead writes in the Literary Review.
Read Caroline Moorehead’s review here.

Unlikely Warriors is available from all good bookshops both online and on the high street.

Further reading…

The following suggestions for further reading are from my Unlikely Warriors:

For British politics in the 1930s, see John Stephenson and Chris Cook’s Britain in the Depression and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties. Joe Jacobs’ memoir Out of the Ghetto is good for a view from the street.

There are many published accounts by British volunteers in the International Brigades; of those still in print, Walter Gregory’s The Shallow Grave and Fred Thomas’s To Tilt at Windmills are justifiably popular. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the Spanish born Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel are both important and highly readable. Many works focus on the national and ethnic groups within the ‘British’ volunteers, of which Hywell Francis’ reissued Miners Against Fascism and Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia are two notable recent additions.

Paul Preston’s We Saw Spain Die is a fascinating account of the foreign correspondents who witnessed the conflict. For the war itself, Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War in its fully revised third edition is always useful, though Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War and Paul Preston’s Concise History offer more accessible introductions to the subject. Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain remains a shining example of the merits of oral history.

For the role of the former volunteers after the civil war and the continuing relevance of the conflict, see Tom Buchanan’s Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain.

ASLEF meeting in London

The generous support for the International Brigade Memorial Trust from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen continues. After a very successful event at ASLEF’s national conference in Liverpool last May, I was invited back by the District Council Number One to give a talk at their December meeting, in the Marx Memorial Library in London.

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!

Basque Children of ’37 Association and Hungerford Book Festival

The weekend of 20-21 October was a busy one.

On the Saturday I was privileged to give the annual lecture to the Basque Children of ’37 Association, often known as the niños, on the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Britain. In front of at least one of the original children, family members and other historians, I discussed the differing experiences in Britain during the Second World War of the children and the former British volunteers in the International Brigades. The highly knowledgeable audience ensured that there was a great discussion after the lecture. Thanks to Natalaia Benjamin for organising the event and Manuel Moreno for his exuberant chairing. A transcript of the talk is available via academia.edu.

The Sunday saw a trip to Hungerford’s book festival to publisize my latest book Unlikely Warriors. Also present at the event was David Boyd Haycock whose I am Spain, published this month, looks at the more intellectual volunteers for Spain: Orwell, Hemingway etc. It was a well attended event, with another fully engaged audience. Thanks to all who attended and the Hungerford bookshop for organising it.

Book launch at the London Welsh Centre

L to R: IBMT patron and former UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, Richard Baxell and Hywel Francis M.P.
L to R: IBMT patron and former UNISON leader Rodney Bickerstaffe, Richard Baxell and Hywel Francis M.P.

On Monday 17 September 2012, the London Welsh Centre hosted an event to launch the 2012 edition of Hywel Francis’ study of the Welsh volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Miners Against Fascism and my oral history of the British in Spain, Unlikely Warriors.

Chaired by the irrepressible Rodney Bickerstaff, it was a great event, well organised, well-attended and well-received. Many thanks to Lynne Walsh and the London Welsh Centre. It was great to spend the evening chatting to Hywel Francis over a glass (ahem) of wine, for he knew many of the Welsh volunteers personally.

Sadly the evening was overshadowed by the sad news of the death of former International Brigader Lou Kenton. ‘He was’, said Jim Jump, the Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, ‘a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, a lifelong trade union activist, a fighter for progressive causes and a gifted graphic artist.’

Blenheim Literary Festival

On Friday 14 September 2012 I joined Paul Preston and Lydia Syson, the author of the teen novel, A World Between Us, to discuss fact and fiction in the writings on the Spanish Civil War as part of the literary festival held in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock.

Th panel was expertly chaired by cultural historian Christopher Cook, director of the BBC documentary, Return to the Battlefields, which followed a group of British International Brigade veterans as they returned to Spain – many for the first time – in 1985. He clearly knew what he was about and asked a number of interesting and searching questions.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently blotted my copybook by revealing the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls during an explantion of how I had first became interested in the subject. Apologies to anyone whose reading was spoiled! After the customary book-signing we discovered that sitting among the audience was the first four minute miler, Sir Roger Banister. He bought a copy of Lydia’s book, which was rather nice.

Thanks to all involved – particularly the well-informed and enthusiastic audience – for a successful and enjoyable event.

Christopher Cook
Christopher Cook
Paul Preston
Paul Preston
Lydia Syson
Lydia Syson