«In November 1996, several hundred elderly men and women, including a number from Britain, gathered in a ceremony near the Spanish capital of Madrid ...»
The British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade1
In November 1996, several hundred elderly men and women, including a number from
Britain, gathered in a ceremony near the Spanish capital of Madrid to pay homage to their
friends and comrades, who had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.
These were the surviving members of the International Brigades, the volunteers from
around the world who had rushed to fight for the Spanish Republic against its enemies
from both inside, and outside, Spain. Amongst them were ex-volunteers from Britain and Ireland, who had been involved in many of the major battles in the civil war, from the defence of Madrid in the winter of 1936, to the last desperate Republican assault across the River Ebro in July 1938. British casualties in Spain were high, with as many as one quarter killed and over half of the nearly 2500 volunteers sustaining some kind of injury.2 The last brigaders were withdrawn at the end of 1938 and returned to Britain after the farewell parade in Barcelona, famous for the passionate speech of Dolores Ibarruri, the Communist deputy from the Asturias, ‘La Pasionaria’.
The popular view of the British volunteers as intellectuals and poets is a misconception.
In fact, the background of the volunteers was overwhelmingly urban and working-class.
Most were employed in manual occupations, where ‘[a] high rate of trade-union membership was not untypical’.3 The average age of the volunteers was just over 29 years, with the overwhelming majority between the ages of 21 and 35. As many as a fifth were Jewish and perhaps three quarters were members of the Communist Party.4 The motivation for leaving Britain and Ireland to volunteer for the Spanish Republic was straightforward; all were united in a determination to halt the spread of fascism across Europe. Bill Alexander, in what might be seen as the ‘official’ history of the battalion,
stresses this pointedly:
The dynamic force which drove volunteers from Britain to Spain and welded them into an effective fighting unit was a deep hatred of fascism…The British volunteers went to Spain because they understood that fascism must be checked before it brought wider repression and war.5 To the British volunteers, Franco was backed by the fascist powers of Italy and Germany and was therefore clearly a fascist, by association at least. Thus, the volunteers saw this not as a civil war within Spain, but as one more episode in the European war against fascist aggression, ‘a world war in embryo’, in the words of the English liberal newspaper, the News Chronicle. To many of the British volunteers this was the latest episode in an international struggle many of them had already participated in at home, fighting the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The views expressed by Sam Wild, leader of the British Battalion in the latter part of 1938, are
Well, to me it was elementary. Here was fascism spreading all over the world, the rape of Abyssinia, the rise of fascism in Germany and the persecution of the Jews there, and the rise of the Blackshirts in Britain with their anti-Semitism, and especially their anti-Irishism. I felt that somebody had to do something to try and
As another British volunteer argued, they were volunteering to help defend, ‘a duly and properly elected government, it wasn’t even a socialist government, more like a Labour one’, from the foreign aggression of international fascism. To the British who volunteered for the war in Spain, and indeed to many foreign observers, the conflict was not seen as a domestic civil war. Walter Gregory, who arrived in Spain in December 1936, is typical when he states that, ‘although the war was fought exclusively on Spanish soil, I never saw it as a domestic conflict’. Time and time again the statement, ‘We went to Spain so that we could defeat Hitler’, is repeated in interviews with volunteers.7 A loathing for the western powers’ determination to ‘keep out of it’ and ‘the treacherous non-intervention pact’ which ensured that the rebels were better armed, was another constant refrain amongst the British volunteers. Roderick MacFarquar, who served as an ambulance driver and first-aider in Spain pointed out that, ‘the so-called Non-intervention agreement organised by Chamberlain and Eden throttled the Republic’.8 Many of the volunteers shared a history of political activism, from demonstrations against the Blackshirts, to hunger marches organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. As one of the many Welsh Communist volunteers, explained, ‘It was a continuing process. Here we were in Mrythyr Tydfil in a continuing struggle night and day. The Hunger March over, we left for the Spanish war. It was a fulfilment and a most natural step to take’.9 For most, the procedure for volunteering was very similar. Contacts would be made with the local Communist Party branch, which would send the volunteers to the party offices in London. Here they would be interviewed to assess their suitability, in military and political terms. Obtaining recruits with sufficient military experience was not easy; less than half declared any military experience.10 However, volunteers who possessed suitable political credentials, such as membership of a trade union or appropriate political organisation, usually found that their political commitment was regarded as an acceptable alternative.
Once accepted, volunteers were instructed to purchase weekend return rail-tickets from Victoria Railway Station to Paris, which did not require a passport. The banning of volunteers by the British government in early 1937 meant that the process had to be carried out covertly, though official efforts to thwart recruitment made little impact for, as one of the British volunteers stated, they were confident that, ‘this was only intimidation. They had no legal right to do anything about it’. As S.P. Mackenzie has shown, the British authorities recognised that there were major legal problems in applying the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act to volunteering for the Spanish war.11 From Paris they travelled to Spain either by train (until February 1937), or (thereafter) were smuggled in groups over the Pyrenees, before travelling on to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers would be processed and divided up by nationality.
Volunteers began to drift into Spain from Britain from the outset of the civil war though, until the creation of the British (16th) Battalion of the 15th International Brigade just after Christmas 1936, there was no single group of British volunteers. Instead, volunteers joined the various militia units, or were attached to battalions of French or German volunteers. But as volunteers arrived in greater numbers the Spanish Government began, in October 1936, to take steps to formalize integration of the extranjeros into the Spanish Republican Army. By the end of October 1936, there were over 2 000 volunteers from overseas in Spain and on 25 October the first of the International Brigades was formed (the 11th) which went into battle in Madrid on 9 November.
The 11th International Brigade included several British volunteers within the mainly French Commune de Paris Battalion. Several of the British had previous military experience and were generally fairly scathing about the military ‘set-up’ of the International Brigades. What little ammunition was available was, according to one, ‘bad’ and ‘quite dangerous’, bullets were loose in the casing, so every clip of cartridges had to be checked individually. There were few weapons available and drill was conducted in whichever style the nationality of the instructor determined, which caused considerable misunderstandings and confusion. One of the British later stated that, ‘One thing is certain: the training we were given at Albacete, the Brigade base, was a farce.’12 Nevertheless, on 9 November, the British volunteers in the 11th Brigade found themselves defending a ridge in the Casa de Campo, to the west of the capital, against an assault of the rebel forces. Their desperate defence forced the rebels to abandon their direct attack through the Casa de Campo, though at great cost. Over 100 from the French battalion were killed, including several of the English-speaking contingent. Several days later, the survivors in the English group advanced into the University City, which had been occupied by Spanish Moroccan soldiers. They attacked the rebel communication lines, and moved into the Philosophy and Letters building, where they fought alongside some of Durruti’s anarchists and a number of Asturian miners. The battalion defended the building successfully for a week, with the bookish intellectuals John Cornford, John Sommerfield and Bernard Knox forced into using books as barricades against rebel small arms fire. By 23 November, General Mola’s rebel forces controlled two thirds of the area of University City, yet it had become clear to the Nationalists that the Republican forces were now well established and organised and that the direct frontal attack on Madrid had failed. Consequently, the rebel generals reluctantly called off their attack.
Meanwhile, another group of British had also been fighting in Madrid, as part of the 12th International Brigade. This group in the German Thaelmann Battalion numbered more than a dozen, and was involved in a number of small skirmishes to the south of Madrid, including a badly planned, ill executed and disastrous attack on Cerro de los Angeles, a hill to the south of Madrid. As David Marshall described, the military preparations for the attack were hopeless and the volunteers’ level of military proficiency was appalling: ‘We hadn’t even fired the rifles before we went into action.’13 Two weeks before Christmas, the Thaelmann Battalion was transferred to the village of Boadilla del Monte, west of the capital, which had come under a very heavy rebel artillery barrage. Whilst advancing towards the rebel forces the English section became separated from their Spanish comrades and came under intense machine-gun fire from a ridge, which only moments before had been occupied by the Spanish Republican soldiers.
As they tried desperately to retreat they were caught in a murderous crossfire. Only 17 of approximately 40 managed to retreat successfully. With most of the contingent dead, this saw the end of the involvement of a British group in the Thaelmann Battalion.
However, by the end of 1936, volunteers were arriving from Britain in such numbers that the creation of a British battalion, rather than attaching small groups to a German or French unit, was becoming a realistic possibility. The first step came in December with the creation of an English speaking company, as part of the 14th International Brigade commanded by General ‘Walter’ (the nom de guerre of Karol-Waclaw Swierczewski).
The 145 strong British contingent was sent to the Córdoba front in southern Spain on Christmas Eve 1936, where they were involved in an attempt to capture the town of Lopera. Many recruits had not handled a weapon before their arrival at Lopera, when they were presented with Austrian Steyr rifles, constructed at the turn of the century. On 28 December, the poorly armed and trained British company advanced up the hill towards the town, to find it heavily defended by rebel forces. Faced with a superior enemy force the British had little alternative than to retreat, during which heavy casualties were inflicted. Without the experience of their commander, George Nathan, who managed to organise the withdrawal under a heavy rebel artillery barrage, the number of casualties would probably have been much higher.
Senior figures at the International Brigade base were appalled at the catastrophe, and efforts were made to discover why the battalion had been so disorganised and ineffective.
André Marty, commander of the International Brigades at Albacete, and Peter Kerrigan, political commissar for all English speaking volunteers at Albacete, launched an investigation, which resulted in the execution of Major Delasalle, the French commander of the Battalion, for cowardice and treason. Whilst it is possible that Delasalle had connections with French military intelligence, it is unlikely that he was a rebel spy. More probable is that Delasalle was made the scapegoat for the Lopera disaster.
In mid-January, the survivors of Number One Company was re-united with the other English speaking volunteers at Albacete and, within a fortnight, numbers had climbed back to 450, enough for them to refer to themselves finally as the ‘English speaking Battalion’. The battalion was sent to Madrigueras, a small village about 20 miles from Albacete, which would become the British volunteers’ base. Bill Rust wryly described the village as, ‘not very lively…like all Spanish villages it also had a church - a very big one; and a school - a very small one’.14 Whilst at Madrigueras, during January 1937, divisions arose between the Irish and English volunteers, leading to the Irish volunteers’ controversial decision to leave the British Battalion and fight instead with the Americans in the Lincoln Battalion. This decision clearly rankled with many of the British, and it was remarked pointedly, ‘that distinctions must be made between anti-fascist working-class comrades from Britain and British imperialism’. However, establishing this distinction was not helped by the widely held belief that two senior British officers in the battalion had played a part in British Army covert activities in Ireland.
That divisions arose between the English and Irish is not surprising. James Hopkins has suggested that, ‘most, if not all, of the Irish volunteers were members of the Irish Republican Army’.15 Not surprisingly, many of the ex-IRA activists and supporters found fighting alongside their old adversaries extremely difficult, no matter the international rhetoric of the political commissars. Likewise, many of the English seemed to find it difficult to overcome an ignorant and stereotypical view of the Irish as wastrels and drunkards. Despite this, the surviving Irish volunteers later returned to fight with the British Battalion after the Battle of Brunete.