By Sarah Watling

Jonathan Cape. 372 pages. £22. ISBN 978-1-787-33240-9


Edited by Willy Maley

Luath Press. 189 pages. £12.99.  ISBN 978-1-80425-040-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns


The Spanish Civil War continues to arouse interest, and books and articles appear at regular intervals to remind us of how strongly people felt about the issues involved. And what an impact it made on those who, in one way or another, participated in it. From my reading of various memoirs, novels, poems, histories, and other documents over the years, no-one who spent any time in Spain between 1936 and 1939 came back without being deeply affected by what they had witnessed and experienced. Some were disillusioned, some appalled by the atrocities on both sides, some determined to carry on the fight against fascism in other ways. And there were, perhaps, some who simply wanted to forget about it and return to a calmer and more-contented way of life. Whether they ever managed to do that is a matter for conjecture.

When Franco and his associates brought the Army of Africa to the Spanish mainland in July, 1936, they had the advantage in terms of trained troops. The notorious Spanish Foreign Legion, with its record of fighting against tribesmen in Morocco, and the Moorish regiments, with their reputation for cruelty, provided the Nationalists, as they were called, with a solid core of motivated fighters. In addition, Franco could count on military support from the Falange (the Spanish Fascist party), and the Royalist Carlist groups. In due course they would be joined by thousands of Italian troops and pilots from the German Air Force. Both Mussolini and Hitler supplied weapons, ammunition, tanks and other equipment to Franco. There was, supposedly, a Non-Intervention Agreement which Germany and Italy had signed, along with America, Britain and France, but only the latter three countries observed it. President Roosevelt was said to have commented later that he thought it a great mistake that they had not supported the Loyalists, the legally-elected government in Republican Spain.

That government had to scramble to put together a force capable of facing up to what Franco had available. Some units of the Spanish Army had remained loyal, but their ranks were mostly filled with young conscripts with no battle experience. Some para-military police and the Assault Guards also stayed with the Loyalists. The anarchists, a strong presence in Spanish politics, were armed, as were other groups such as the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), an anti-Stalinist political party with links to the British Independent Labour Party. They were dismissed by the communists as Trotskyists, and their leader, Andreu Nin, was arrested and murdered by the pro-Stalinist secret police.

And acting under pressure the authorities distributed arms to the workers in general who often came together under their union banners.  There were also the five International Brigades, mostly comprising members of the Communist Party from a range of countries including Britain and Ireland. It’s difficult to arrive at an accurate figure for the total number of volunteers who served in the Brigades, but 35,000 might be near the mark. The British battalion probably had around 2,500 members, though they weren’t all there at the same time. It needs to be said that the soldiers supporting the government were always short of arms, ammunition, and equipment. Only Russia and Mexico were willing to provide guns to the government, and what they did deliver was often outdated and in poor condition. Along with supplies from Russia came political “advisers” with the result that the Communist Party, which had never been strong in Spain prior to 1936, began to exert an influence on politics in the Republic.

What the government could count on was interest from writers, intellectuals, and others from across Europe and America. People flocked to Spain, or at least to the part of it controlled by the Loyalists.  Many of them were journalists, sometimes sympathetic to the government, sometimes inclined to the view that, as reporters, they were not there to take sides. The rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany, not to mention stirrings of it in various countries including France and Britain, had alerted many people to its threat and the possibility of another world war. It is some of these visitors to Spain that Sarah Watling is concerned with. She’s selective, with attention largely focused on Martha Gellhorn, Josephine Herbst, Langston Hughes, Nancy Cunard, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and the lesser-known Nan Green, Salaria Kea and Gerda Taro, with supporting roles from Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Spender, Jessica Mitford, and a few others. Virginia Woolf is allotted a number of pages, though her political stance was largely non-committal. But her views are worth noting. They may have been typical of quite a few of her fellow-English men and women. And she was badly affected by the death of her nephew, Julian Bell, who was killed driving an ambulance for the Loyalists.

To a degree we have been here before, at least with regard to Gellhorn, Hemingway, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.  Amanda Vail’s Hotel Florida, published in 2014, spotlighted them, along with Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. The latter pair may not be familiar names to most British readers, but Barea’s trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel,  ought to be read for its account from the inside of the background to the conflict and its events. Sarah Watling mentions him only a couple of times, but that’s fair enough. Her book is largely devoted to non-Spanish activists in Spain.  

I was pleased to see that Watling devotes a fair amount of space to Josephine Herbst. She’s rather disparagingly dismissed in Vail’s book as “decidedly unglamorous”, with her “gentle frumpishness and harsh Midwestern vowels” annoying the decidedly glamorous Martha Gellhorn. Watling gives us a better picture of Herbst, an older woman, a dedicated left-winger (she had covered revolutionary activity in Cuba and strikes in the USA), who had gone to Spain with no proper press credentials and little money but determined to report on what she saw. She doesn’t appear to have cared all that much for the company of many of those people who frequented the Hotel Florida, preferring to visit the soldiers of the International Brigades in the front lines or talk to the villagers trying to go about their lives in difficult times. Watling suggests that there may have been a reluctance to publish her pieces from Spain because “she wrote more positively about anarchist policies than Communist ones”. Many years after Spain Herbst produced a moving memoir of her time there – The Starched Blue Sky of Spain -  and said “Nothing so vital, either in my personal life or in the life of the world, has ever come again”. It’s worth noting that doctors, soldiers, and others who came across her in Spain always spoke well of her in later years.

Books have been written about Nancy Cunard, Jessica Mitford, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and they themselves produced writings at the time, or later, which spoke of their experiences in Spain. I’m not dismissing their accounts, nor the contributions they may have made towards supporting the Republican war effort. But within the framework of Watling’s book it could be that she has performed a more-valuable service by drawing attention to the lesser-known names of Nan Green, Salaria Kea, and Gerda Taro.

Nan Green and her husband, George, were members of the Communist Party in London and were present at the Battle of Cable Street when thousands of people turned out to stop Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists from marching through the East End of London. When the war in Spain started George, a musician, decided to volunteer as an ambulance driver. His experiences at the battle front soon convinced him that he needed to play a more active role and he joined the International Brigades. He was killed in 1938 on the last day that the British Battalion was in action before the Brigades were withdrawn.

Nan had initially stayed at home, looking after their children, but when a wealthy supporter offered to pay boarding school fees for her son and daughter she joined Spanish Medical Aid and became an assistance secretary “which in practice meant handling everything that wasn’t driving ambulances or tending to patients”. Just as the front-line troops lacked supplies of guns and ammunition, so the hospitals and other medical facilities were short of proper operating equipment, anaesthetics, and other supplies. She did manage to meet up with her husband before he was sent back to his unit, but only learnt of his death some months after she returned to England. She worked re-settling Spanish refugees, with veterans of the International Brigades, and for anti-Franco organisations.

Salaria Kea is an intriguing figure, She was African-American and worked as a nurse at a hospital in Harlem. In 1937 she volunteered for a medical unit going to Spain. This suggests that she must have had some radical sympathies and Watling says that she was involved in de-segregating the staff dining room at the hospital, and that she was a member of a group of “progressive nurses” and attended lectures and discussion groups. She would have been aware of what was happening in Spain and why the Republican government needed supporting. While she was there she met and married “a reticent white Irishman named John Patrick O’Reilly, who had joined the Republican forces early in the war”. They lived together in America, and both served in the armed services during World War Two. Watling refers to a 1980 interview, when they must have been quite elderly, and says that they were worried about the local activities of the Ku Klux Klan. An inter-racial marriage such as theirs would obviously invite hostile attention.    They had additionally been monitored and questioned by the FBI due to their past involvements in Spain.

The name of Robert Capa is well-known, but that of Gerda Taro may be less so. She was a fellow-photographer and Capa’s companion, and it’s more than possible that some of the images credited to him were actually by her. The confusion inherent in taking photographs and getting the negatives developed in wartime conditions could easily lead to confusion and incorrect accreditation. The confusion also extended to Taro’s nationality. She was often described as Hungarian (Capa was a citizen of Hungary) but was actually a German Jew. She was sadly killed during the Republican retreat from Brunete when the car she had jumped aboard collided with a tank. Watling sums her up: “She was the first female photographer to be killed in action……First female photographer to get so close to combat; one of the pioneering photographers who changed forever how war was reported; an early opponent of fascism”. It’s mentioned that Hemingway appears to have taken a dislike to Taro, which might be a mark in her favour. There’s an anecdote about Nancy Cunard and John Banting in Madrid on a cold day when the city was deep in a fuel shortage and finding Hemingway “in a warm room, holding court”. It’s possible to like some of what the writer did, but be doubtful about the man.

If the antics at the Hotel Florida can sometimes be irritating – Arturo Barea spoke favourably about Josephine Herbst and George Seldes but said that, on the whole, “the foreign writers and journalists revolved in a circle of their own and an atmosphere of their own” – it is different when the action moves to the front lines of the fighting against the Fascists. Our Fathers Fought Franco tells the stories of four Scottish volunteers who were jointly captured when their machine gun post was overrun by Moorish troops. James Maley, Donald Renton, Geordie Watters, and Archibald Campbell McAskill Williams all luckily survived captivity and returned to Britain. They were all members of the Communist Party, but their individual stories are different.

James Maley was born in 1908 in Glasgow and grew up in what was described as “an unruly and unlawful neighbourhood”. When he was still a young boy he witnessed the scenes in George Square in January, 1919, when police attacked a large crowd of striking workers. Those were the days of “Red Clydeside” with left-wing agitators like Jimmy Maxton, Willie Gallacher, Davey Kirkwood, and Manny Shinwell active in and around Glasgow.

Maley emigrated to the USA in January,1930, but returned to Scotland in September, 1931. He joined the Communist Party in February, 1932, “quickly becoming an active member”. As his son, Willy, says of his father and others like him: “they were a distinctive generation: self-taught, autodidacts, working-class activists and agitators with no or few formal qualifications, but very well read”. Maley joined the Territorials to “get some army experience”, something which proved useful when he was in Spain. As for his reasons for going there he later said, “Well you see, there was no good of me speaking of the menace of fascism and all this sort of thing, and not going to fight about it myself”.  Thrown into action not long after arriving in Spain he was captured in February, 1937 at the battle of Jarama. Several months of harsh imprisonment followed and he was eventually freed in a prisoner exchange in May, 1937. He served in the British Army during the Second World War and remained a member of the Communist Party.

Donald Renton, likewise taken prisoner at Jarama and later freed in a prisoner exchange, was born in 1912. He joined the Communist Party in 1929, and worked with Wal Hannington in the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM). In Spain he was a political commissar with the International Brigades, and as his daughter Jennie says, “he was lucky that his captors did not realise this” or he would have been immediately shot. Renton remained with the Communist Party, becoming at one point a full-time organiser for it in Scotland, but left in 1956 following the Russian invasion of Hungary. He became a Labour Party councillor in Glasgow. Jennie Renton’s account says she was surprised when she discovered that her father had written for Tribune, but he’s mentioned in Tribune 40: The First Forty Years of a Socialist Newspaper edited by Douglas Hill (Quartet Books, 1977). And one of his columns, “Starvation was not News until we Made it News”, is quoted in full.

Geordie Watters was born in 1904 in Prestonpans, and was politically active from the age of seventeen. He joined the Communist Party in the early 1920s, helped distribute copies of Workers Weekly (later the Daily Worker), and remained a party member all his life. A miner, he was active during the 1926 General Strike and was blacklisted because of his union involvements. Like James Maley he joined the Territorial Army to gain experience of handling weapons and other aspects of military life.  He went to Spain in December, 1936, and was taken prisoner the following February. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Artillery. He had difficulties finding employment in the mines after the War but did eventually get a job. He was active in the National Union of Miners (NUM) until his retirement.

Finally, Archibald Campbell McAskill Williams and with him some interesting questions. He was born 1904 in Southsea to Scottish parents. The family moved to Scotland when he was ten, his father having obtained a job in the Royal Navy dockyard at Invergordon. When he was nineteen he emigrated to Canada and worked as a bank clerk in a small town near Toronto. He seemed to be a reliable worker and a fairly ordinary young man in terms of his interests. But there was a fire at the bank. Williams rescued a colleague who had been overcome by fumes and carried him outside, then returned to pick up money which the man had dropped. He handed it safely and again went back into the bank and found a five hundred dollar bill which he hid. Later, he drew attention to himself by indulging in a spending spree and planning to move to California. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Williams went “on the road” after his release from prison, and worked at a variety of jobs in Canada and the United States, But by the early 1930s the effects of the Depression were forcing increasing numbers of young men to wander around, looking for employment. “Work camps” were set up and the unemployed forced to move to them. They had to work long hours road building for a pittance. Living conditions were bad and the food poor. When a protest meeting turned into a riot at one camp in 1933 Williams, who had seemed to be one of the leaders, was hunted down and put on trial. Evidence of his earlier conviction, and the fact that he should have been deported after serving his sentence, were used by the prosecution to demonstrate that he was an illegal alien. He spent two more years in prison and was deported to England.

Moving ahead a little, his next adventure, apart from trying to find work, was to volunteer to go to Spain where he arrived in December, 1936. He had some knowledge of firearms, having worked as a trapper in Canada, and was posted to a machine gun company. He hadn’t been with it very long when he was captured. There is in the book a copy of his interrogation by an English-speaking Nationalist officer, with Williams dodging any attempt to admit being in Spain for any other reason than looking for work with a mixture of supposed faulty memory and contrived evasiveness. When he was older Williams never spoke about his time in Spain to his children.

On his return from Spain he became the Communist Party’s literature agent for Hampshire and Dorset and ran its bookshop in Portsmouth. His activities were monitored by MI5, but surprisingly he was offered the job of Labour Manager at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Euxton, near Chorley in Lancashire. I was amused when I read this as my mother worked there during the war years, and it caused me to wonder whether or not she ever encountered Williams? Lisa Croft, in the story of her grandfather’s experiences remarks that “other comrades that had fought in Spain were similarly employed” on condition that they gave up their Communist Party membership.  Was this a deliberate policy on the part of the government? Was there an assumption that the workers might be inclined to trust managers with their backgrounds?   

I’ve spent a little time outlining the activities of the four men in Our Fathers Fought Franco because it seems to me that too often their experiences went unrecorded. They didn’t write books, and didn’t always even talk a great deal about what they had done. What is noticeable, though, is that they mostly carried on with their work with the Communist Party, the Labour Party, and the unions.   Sitting around feeling sorry for themselves was not something they were ever likely to do. Nor did they regret their decisions to go to Spain. I was reminded of an old lady I sometimes saw going to the shops in Preston where I once lived. It was only much later that I found out that Mary Slater had been in Russia in the 1920s and met Stalin and Trotsky, had served as a nurse with the International Brigades from 1936 to 1938, and had worked in a London hospital at the time of the Blitz. I doubt that anyone ever wrote a book about her, though I do recall that someone sent me a short piece from the local evening paper after she died. When I read about people like these, and how they felt about their commitment, I’m put in mind of something that Martha Gellhorn wrote: “If you have no part in the world, no matter how diseased the world is, you are dead. It is not enough to earn your living, do no actual harm to anyone, tell no lies…..It is not enough”.

Tomorrow Perhaps the Future and Our Fathers Fought Franco seem to me two welcome books about the Spanish Civil War. Each in its own way manages to add something to an area of study already bulging with so many books, articles, and other material that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it unless one is a specialist. For the average reader it’s necessary to pick one’s way carefully through the available material. I would recommend both of the books under review. Sarah Watling offers a good account of how and why writers and intellectuals thought it essential to spend time in Spain and offer support to the Republican government. Not all of them were necessarily there for the right reasons and a kind of “war tourism” might have come into play. Hemingway did do some useful work, but often appeared to feel that he had a privileged position that set him apart from other people. And I can recall listening to an old communist and hearing the contempt in his voice when he talked about Spender’s decision to go to Spain.

 The writers in Our Fathers Fought Franco are not in any doubt that their fathers did the right thing by volunteering. But hindsight does enable them to understand, for example, that both sides could be guilty of what might now be called “crimes against humanity”. The Nationalist treatment of prisoners broke all the rules, with prisoners casually shot, torture widely practised, and various forms of mental and physical abuse used on a daily basis. Jenny Renton for her part refers to a book called The ‘Red Terror’ and the Spanish Civil War: Revolutionary Violence in Madrid   by the historian Julius Ruiz which states that around 50,000 executions were carried out by Republican supporters against those they suspected of pro-Franco sympathies. 8,000 of these were in Madrid.  I’ve no way of knowing if these figures are correct. Killings did occur in Republican areas and were often blamed on anarchist excesses, but they can’t all be put in that category. People in the government must have been aware of what was happening. Ruiz’s book was published by Cambridge University Press and his facts were presumably rigorously checked before it went into print.

 It’s obvious that both books focus on individual accounts of the war. Grand strategy and factional  political fights, so much a key factor in the Republican ranks, are not dealt with in detail. But if anyone wants to delve further, Sarah Watling’s book has substantial notes and a nine page bibliography, The list of “Further Reading” in Our Fathers Fought Franco runs to ten pages. Between the two there are enough books to keep an interested reader occupied for quite some time.