Edited by Joshua Newmark

Published by the International Brigades Memorial Trust in conjunction with the Clapton Press. 215 pages. £17. ISBN 978-1-913693-24-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Books about the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War seem to be published on an almost-regular basis. What is it that, over eighty years since the end of the conflict, continues to appeal to readers? The War generally can be seen in the wider context of the 1930s, with economic malaise, mass unemployment and social discontent, the influence of Communism and the rise of Fascism, with events in Germany and Italy, combining to create a turbulent and often violent political atmosphere. But the International Brigades appear to exert a specific fascination. Why was it that around 35,000 men and women, many of them destined to die or be wounded, chose to volunteer to participate in a war that, in most cases, didn’t directly affect them? Political commitment was a key factor for many of them, with a belief that Fascism could be stopped in its tracks if enough support was given to the Spanish Republicans in their opposition to the Nationalist forces led by General Franco.

The sad fact is that the support that was needed never came in sufficient quantities to enable the Loyalists to combat the better-armed and, some would say, better-led Nationalist forces. A Non-Intervention Pact, signed by countries including Britain, France, and the United States, meant that it was always a struggle for the Republican government to obtain supplies of weapons and ammunition. Russia was the only major country willing to provide tanks, aircraft, and other equipment, though at a price. Germany and Italy, while paying lip service to the Pact, poured men and materials into Spain to help Franco. Should anyone doubt the amount of assistance received by the Nationalists they should look at Christopher Othen’s Franco’s International Brigades : Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War (Hurst, 2013). Othen says that “Fascist Italy sent 80,000 troops”, and “78,000 Moroccans joined Franco’s army”, while “8,000 Portuguese crossed the border to enlist in the Spanish Foreign Legion”. There were also 35,000 Germans involved in the “aircraft, ship and tank units” provided by Hitler.

The nature and extent of the price paid for Russian support is a matter of debate even now, but this isn’t the place to go into the involved political arguments that were so much a part of the Spanish conflict. These did affect the Brigades, which were organised by the Communist International and recruited mainly from Party members, so some reference to them may be inevitable, but it isn’t the purpose of the book under review to highlight political matters.

Having said that, it’s important to note that it doesn’t shy away from certain contentious issues, for example the activities of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista – Workers Party of Marxist Unification). That organisation and its militia have generally been looked on as having been unjustly suppressed by the Communist-influenced Republican government. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia probably persuaded many people to take that view. And Ken Loach’s film, Land and Freedom, offered a positive view of the POUM. But John Dunlop’s “Little resemblance to history – or my own experience” (Dunlop fought with the International Brigades) in Remembering Spain is dismissive of the film and the picture it presented of the war. There is also an interview with Paul Preston, noted historian of the Spanish Civil War, and someone sympathetic to the Republican side of the argument, in which he refers to spending “an amazing three hours with a young Spaniard who is doing research on the Fifth column of Franco supporters in the Republican zone, and the information he has on links between the POUM and the Fifth Column is just hair-raising”.

I don’t want to write a negative account because Remembering Spain doesn’t claim to be a general history, nor does it pretend to take an objective view of the war and its outcome. It is mainly a compilation of material by and about actual participants, or those who knew them, and others who now chronicle the histories of individuals who, for one reason or another, were in Spain. There is, for example, “A Nurse’s note from the Aragón front” by Margaret Powell, described as “the last British nurse to leave Spain”. And an article by Angela Jackson about Madge Addy, a nurse from the Chorlton-cum-Hardy area of Manchester who later worked underground in Nazi-occupied France. I’m reminded of an old lady named Mary Slater I used to see going to the local shops when I lived in Preston. She had been a nurse with the Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.

There were around 2,500 volunteers from the British Isles, and Richard Baxell’s “Were the ‘Britons’ British?” looks at where they came from.  Referring to the “British battalion” of the Fifteenth International Brigade is somewhat misleading in that, as Baxell points out, there were different nationalities involved: “a large number of those who gave UK addresses when they joined the International Brigades were actually not from Britain”.  He mentions Greek Cypriots who enlisted in London. And there was always a problem when Irish volunteers were designated as British. The confusion was inevitable, given the circumstances, and from the beginning men were often shuffled around to form units and Spaniards transferred in to bring them up to strength. But it’s accurate enough to say that the majority of those in the British battalion were from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, just as the majority of them were from working-class backgrounds. 

The sub-title might give the impression that only the International Brigades are dealt with, and it’s true that they occupy the centre-ground. They were, after all, the ones doing the fighting and taking the brunt of the losses in terms of those killed, wounded, and captured. There is a bleak account of what it was like to linger in a prison camp established by the Nationalists : “Always hungry, unable to concentrate, to exercise, lying on louse and flea-ridden mattresses all day waiting for a ladle full of beans and two rotten sardines. Clothed only in pants, shirts and slippers in a cell with damp and windy climate; no wonder 10 of our comrades died and most of the others were sick all the time”. It’s quoted in a piece by Jerry Harris about his father, Sydney, who was born in Leeds and taken to the United States when he was five. Though technically not an American citizen when he volunteered he served with the American Lincoln Battalion in Spain.

However, alongside the memoirs by one-time Brigaders there are many other contributions dealing with such matters as the plight of Basque children who were evacuated from Spain to Britain, where some of them settled permanently, and the activities of merchant seamen who risked imprisonment for refusing to man a ship bound for a Nationalist port with a cargo of nitrates. It could, they claimed, be used in the manufacture of explosives likely to kill women and children.

In addition, some pieces reflect on the way that the arts responded to events in Spain. Simon Breden’s “Forgotten plays about the civil war” resurrects a number of theatrical productions, the most famous of them being Jack Lindsay’s On Guard for Spain! which, Breden says, has tended to be remembered more as a poem than a play. But it was “conceived as a piece of theatre, a ‘mass declamation’, to be performed by a chorus of voices”. An article by Christine Lindey, “Artists for Spain”, is particularly useful from the point of view of the information it provides about painters and others who were committed to the cause of the Spanish Republic.

It’s interesting to look at what happened to the volunteers who survived and returned to Britain. I’m not sure if the term was used in this country, but Americans going home from Spain were labelled “premature anti-fascists” and often found jobs difficult to obtain, and were kept under surveillance by the FBI. Even if the same label wasn’t applied in the United Kingdom the same prejudices existed and some ex-International Brigaders found themselves blacklisted. And when war was declared in 1939 they were looked on with suspicion when they tried to join the armed forces. It might have been thought that their experiences would be seen as an asset, but they were politically suspect. It does seem that exclusion from service was patchy to the extent that quite a few veterans carried on the fight against Fascism by successfully enlisting in the army, navy, or air force. A short memoir by Cyril Sexton about his involvement in the battle of Brunete has the following note attached to it: “Cyril Sexton was a gardener who became a machine-gunner with the British Battalion. He was wounded twice, at Jarama, and at the Ebro, but survived and was also a veteran of the Second World War”.

Remembering Spain is a valuable addition to the library of books about the Spanish Civil War. Its contents offer a wide range of commentary, reminiscences, and related items which together point to the continuing interest in what happened in Spain between 1936 and 1939.