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Studying and writing the Spanish Civil War

When I give lectures 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 seventy-five 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 student in second year French who knew what a plongeur was). Homage to Catalonia I read too, but it would probably not be accurate to state 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 captured me. The image of the distraught María being physically dragged away from her lover, Robert, as he grimly and 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 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 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 PhD 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.

Paul’s Cañada Blanch Centre at the LSE was – and 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 Preston, 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 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 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 more recent study, Unlikely Warriors, would have been a very much poorer book without it.

Richard Baxell, October 2013.

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