By Alexander Clifford

Pen & Sword Books. 251 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-52677-438-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m not sure how many books have been written about the International Brigades and their role in the Spanish Civil War. My own familiarity with them is limited to English-language publications, and I can’t claim to have read all those that have appeared in print. But I seem to have accumulated quite a few histories, memoirs, novels, and other items which relate to why people volunteered to go to Spain and what they did there.

And there have been films (documentary and fictional) and plays which have touched on the exploits of Brigaders both during and after the War. One of the examples that come to mind is Scorpio, a 1973 film, directed by Michael Winner and starring Burt Lancaster as a CIA operative who fought in Spain but is suspected of spying for the communists and has been marked for assassination. He flees and makes his way across Europe aided by the only people he can trust – ex-members of the International Brigades. And there is a play, Castles in Spain, by Edward Boyd, originally broadcast on the BBC in 1986, and which again involves veterans aiding each other in a tricky situation.

The point I’m making by mentioning these things is that a certain legendary, even romantic quality surrounds the men and women of the International Brigades. Over the years I met a few of them and freely admit to having felt humble in their presence. They seemed very ordinary, but I knew that they had done something remarkable by going to Spain and could feel proud of their actions. One of those I was introduced to bore the marks of his experiences all those years before. And I used to see the quiet old lady who lived around the corner from me slowly making her way to the local shops, and wonder how many people knew that she had been a nurse with the Brigades in Spain?

Alexander Clifford has written about Spain previously in his The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War (see my NRB review, February, 2020) and it did have material about the International Brigades. I was tempted to say that his new book focuses solely on the Brigades, but that would be misleading in some ways. They were part of the Republican army and it’s difficult to completely separate them from what other units did.

Likewise, it’s almost impossible to look at the activities of the Brigades without considering the politics of the Spanish Civil War. Clifford’s endeavour is to consider the military aspects of the Brigades’ achievements and failures, but as both were affected by political decisions regarding command, tactics, and supplies, the overall political situation inevitably keeps surfacing. The Brigades were a Communist Party invention and were largely controlled by members of the Party, whether in military or political terms. Not everyone who enlisted was a communist, though most were, but being a Party member certainly helped when it came to promotion. This was sometimes a drawback from the point of view of political awareness not necessarily leading to battlefield capability. Marxist theory was not a useful guide to commanding troops under fire.

When the war broke out in July 1936, the advantages in terms of military effectiveness were with the Nationalist generals led by Franco.  They had a basic force of around 30,000 members of the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops known as Regulares. They were the best-equipped and trained units in the Spanish Army and had experience fighting in colonial wars in the 1920s. The Foreign Legion, though modelled on the French Foreign Legion, was largely Spanish and allegedly recruited from the criminal classes and other social misfits. Both they and the Moroccans had reputations as hard fighters but were also known for their brutality.

As mentioned earlier, the Brigades were effectively formed under communist tutelage, even if the Left in general supported the idea of their creation. The plan was that they would help to boost the  Republican forces which, in the early days of the war, comprised some loyal units of the army and the para-military police, together with various militias often formed from union members and small political parties like the anarchists and POUM, a non-communist Marxist group. It was often referred to as Trotskyist by the communists when they wanted to disparage support for it. Membership of the Brigades has often been disputed when it comes to the numbers involved. It was sometimes suggested that as many as 45,000 volunteers came forward, but Alexander proposes a lower figure of approximately 32,000. They did not all arrive at the same time.

There were five main Brigades, numbered 11 to 15, and theoretically they were each formed around a language categorisation. The 11th Brigade was German-speaking, the 12th Italian, the 13th Eastern European including Polish, the14th French, the 15th English. The largest contingent came from France and Belgium (10,000), Poland (3,100), Germany and Austria (3,000), Italy (3000), USA and Canada (3,000), UK and Ireland (2,400), with smaller groups from a wide range of countries. It needs to be noted that the language demarcations were fluid, and units were often amalgamated in times of crisis. The figures quoted for nationalities are approximations. And, contrary to popular belief, Spaniards served in the International Brigades almost from the beginning of the war and not just towards its end when the input of non-Spanish volunteers had more or less dried up.

Franco’s forces had a reasonable supply of arms and ammunition, and could soon rely on a regular flow of the same from Germany and Italy. The Republic, by contrast, lacked any kind of standard armaments in sufficient quantity to outfit the militia units that were essential for its survival in the early days of the conflict. Consequently, a wide range of rifles, revolvers, machine guns and artillery pieces needed varieties of ammunition to keep it functioning, The International Brigades were faced with the same problems once they began to go into action. They didn’t even have a regular uniform, and the photos interspersed among Alexander’s text display a bewildering array of jackets, hats and helmets, shoes and boots, and other apparel.

Some of the senior officers (often Russians or East Europeans, whatever else they claimed to be), were usually better dressed. An exception to the rag-tag-and-bobtail look of groups of the British volunteers was the strange George Nathan. He had served in the British Army in the First World War and gained promotion from the ranks to officer status. He later appeared in Ireland as an Auxiliary, a group which had as notorious a reputation as the Black and Tans, and then turned up in Spain. He was noted not only for his spick-and-span appearance with shiny black boots and a swagger stick, but also for his bravery. He was later killed in action.

It seems that Nathan was originally from a working-class background, despite his turn-out and clipped speech. And this brings us to the fact that eighty per cent of the volunteers were from the working-classes and had no pretensions to being otherwise. The great majority of them, those who survived the war and its aftermath, just returned to the routines of their previous lives, when they could, and left the writing of memoirs, novels and poems to others. An assumption was born that Spain was awash with poets, painters, novelists, and many more middle-class men and women putting their lives on the line for the Republic. It may have been true that authors and intellectuals flocked to Spain, but it was mostly to observe and not fight. We now remember Hemingway and Stephen Spender rather than Sam Wild (“a tough Mancunian”) and Bill Bailey (“the kid from Hoboken”).  I’m not questioning the sincerity of many of those who went to help in their various ways (though I suspect that some individuals may have been guilty of “war tourism” and a few of radical chic) , nor dismissing the sacrifices of those like Jason Gurney, a talented sculptor who lost an arm, and John Cornford, who lost his life. It’s just a fact that most of the dead and wounded, and those who survived, were from the mines and mills and docksides of their respective countries.

A Non-Intervention Agreement supposedly obliged all the signatories to stay out of the Spanish conflict, but was openly ignored by Germany, Italy, and Russia.  Germany sent planes and pilots to Franco, and the Italians provided thousands of troops, together with tanks, planes, and ships to blockade Republican ports. Russia eventually begin to deliver tanks, planes and their pilots, and supplies of rifles and ammunition, though they were sometimes old stock, The lack of up-to-date and reliable armaments  was a problem that the Republic never satisfactorily resolved, any more than it solved the chaotic position with regard to supplies generally. Clothes, food, medical equipment and medicines were frequently never there when needed.

Alexander’s military history provides detailed narratives of the various battles – Jarama, Brunete, Teruel, the Ebro are among the main ones – indicating which Brigade units were involved, and how they performed. I haven’t the space to analyse his accounts, but the overall picture is often one of brave men attempting to follow orders given from a distance and which ignored advice from those on the ground who pointed out the flaws in the plans. The Brigades were used as shock troops. They led the attacks that were launched on Nationalist defences, and were expected to offer the stoutest resistance when Franco’s forces, including the feared Foreign Legion and the Moors, approached the Republican lines. There were Spanish units with good fighting reputations, especially those commanded by Enrique Lister and Juan Modesto, but if the others were mostly comprised of badly-led and poorly-trained conscripts, they could easily break under pressure. Because of their ideological commitments the Brigaders were seen as more likely to stand and fight,

They did, most of the time, and considering how they were frequently not given enough efficient artillery back-up, and couldn’t rely on sufficient air support, it’s surprising that they functioned as well as they did. This doesn’t suggest that all was satisfactory with the Brigades. Discipline could be a problem and desertions were numerous enough to warrant harsh punishments as a means of dissuading those thinking of sneaking away. It was said that André Marty, the martinet commander of the Brigade base at Albacete, had around five hundred men shot for disciplinary infringements. And there were stories, sometimes disputed, that more than one deserter or malingerer had been quickly and quietly disposed of at the front.

The nature of the Brigades, their reason for existence, and why people volunteered to join them, all need to be taken into account when considering why discipline could break down, and people deserted or refused to obey orders. The Brigaders were not professional soldiers, apart from a few officers. Some of the British and European Brigaders had experienced wartime conditions during the Great War. Very few of the Americans had. But, generally speaking, most of the Brigaders had not signed on for a specific period and, as volunteers, many of them thought that they should not be held to staying in Spain indefinitely. Added to which, the ramshackle conduct of the war by the Republican government was not going to make them think that it could lead to a victorious outcome. Their ideological commitment may have helped them put up with unfavourable conditions, but even devotion to a cause can have its limits if the cause seems increasingly hopeless.      

The performance of the various Brigades could vary according to the conditions at the particular location where they were in action. As referred to earlier, they often didn’t get the artillery or air support necessary to bring a situation to a definite conclusion. The last major Republican offensive took place in the summer of 1938 when its forces made a successful crossing of the Ebro and initially appeared to be breaking through the Nationalist lines. But the advances eventually slowed and halted as supplies failed to reach the front lines. In addition, Franco was able to bring in fresh troops, something the Republican government was unable to do. Its resources in men and materials were exhausted. When the Nationalists started to counter-attack the Republican defences cracked and there was a rush to retreat back across the Ebro.

It was clear by this time (Autumn, 1938) that the writing was on the wall and the Republic was doomed. Internal divisions were evident in the government, the Russians had more or less withdrawn from Spain, and behind the scenes approaches were being made to Franco with a view to bringing the war to an end. As a gesture towards a withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country it was announced that the International Brigades were to be disbanded. It has been suggested that their effectiveness as a fighting force had, in any case, virtually collapsed. With high levels of death, injury, sickness, desertions, and other factors, the battalions of the Brigades had been depleted. There were far more Spanish soldiers than foreigners in their ranks. Clifford gives some figures. The Lincoln-Washington Battalion of the 15th International Brigade had 200 Americans to 500 Spaniards, and about two-thirds of the British Battalion were Spanish.

The Brigades had a final parade in Barcelona on the 28th October, 1938, and left Spain in December of that year and in January, 1939. It would not be true to say that they all went home. Some did, but German, Austrian, Italian, and other volunteers who came from countries that were now right-wing dictatorships mostly went into internment in France. Even when some men could openly return to their countries of origin they were viewed with suspicion by the authorities. American volunteers, for example, were still being hounded by the FBI well into the 1950s. Alvah Bessie, who wrote a book called Men in Battle about his experiences in the International Brigades, later became a screenwriter and went to prison as one of the Hollywood Ten. James Yates, a black volunteer who I had the honour of meeting in Paris thirty or so years ago, wrote in his memoir, Mississippi to Madrid, that he “was harassed by the FBI and rejected for every job for which I applied”.

Clifford in his conclusion says: “Historians are right to point out that the International Brigades suffered from poor leadership, mismanagement, overtly oppressive and bureaucratic command structures, haphazard communication and coordination with other units, high levels of demoralisation and desertion, poor tactics and shoddy equipment”. But he points out that “all these issues were systemic flaws in the People’s Army more widely”. And it’s true to say that although Brigaders usually received better training than most Spanish recruits, and when it was available they were allocated the best equipment, they were still poorly equipped for warfare. They were not Gods, and could not be expected to bring about miracles.

Their performances in action were variable, and Clifford considers the 11th and 15th Brigades as the most efficient in the circumstances, and the 14th the worst as the war progressed.  The 11th and 15th could experience the same demoralisation in defeat that others did, but usually recovered more quickly. And, as for their overall effect, Clifford probably gets it right when he says: “Despite it all, they fought and died for Spain and on the whole fought remarkably well. This is how the International Brigades should be remembered – as ideologically committed soldiers who made up for their lack of training and equipment with heroism and a readiness to sacrifice”.

Fighting for Spain should be read by those wanting a balanced picture of the International Brigades. Alexander Clifford doesn’t attempt to make heroes out of people who were imperfect in many ways and yet often behaved heroically. He paints them as ordinary men who rose above the ordinary by participating in a war they could easily have ignored but chose not to. His book is a fitting tribute to their courage. It is well-illustrated with maps and photographs, and has a useful bibliography.