In August 1936 Harry Pollitt arranged for Tom Wintringham to go to Spain to represent the CPGB during the Civil War. While in Barcelona he developed the idea of a volunteer international legion to fight on the side of the Republican Army. He wrote: "You have to treat the building of an army as a political problem, a question of propaganda, of ideas soaking in."
On 10th September 1936 Wintringham wrote to Harry Pollitt that he had arranged for Nat Cohen, a Jewish clothing worker from Stepney, to establish "a Tom Mann centuria which will include 10 or 12 English and can accommodate as many likely lads as you can send out... I believe that full political value can only be got from it (and that's a lot) if its English contingent becomes stronger. 50 is not too many."
Maurice Thorez, the French Communist Party leader, also had the idea of an international force of volunteers to fight for the Republic. Joseph Stalin agreed and in September 1936 the Comintern began organising the formation of International Brigades. An internatinal recruiting centre was set up in Paris and a training base at Albacete in Spain.
Wilfred Macartney, one of the few volunteers who had military experience, he was appointed the first commander of the British Battalion in December 1936. According to Jason Gurney: "it soon became evident that he (Macartney) had very little idea of the duties of a Battalion Commander." Peter Kerrigan added: "He was not terribly popular in the battalion but I think he was respected for his ability. He was a capable military officer. He had a rather arrogant style."
The British Battalion also had a political commissar. The first person to hold this post was Dave Springhill. He was replaced in February 1937 by George Aitken. Later this position was held by Harry Dobson and Wally Tapsell.
It was decided by Harry Pollitt, the leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain that Wilfred Macartney should be recalled to London and that he should be replaced by party member, Tom Wintringham. On 6th February, 1937, Peter Kerrigan went to see McCartney. Kerrigan later recalled what happened during this meeting: "I visited him in his room before he went back to have a talk with him about the situation with the battalion and so on. It was the intention that he would come back. This was about mid-January but he had a big, heavy revolver and I had a rather small Belgian revolver, and he said: Look Peter, how about you giving me your revolver. I am going through France I don't want to lump this thing about. I said all right. He asked to show me how to operate it. I took the revolver in my hand but I can't say for sure whether or not I touched the safety catch, or whether it was off or not, or whether I touched the trigger, but suddenly there was a shot and I had hit him in the arm with a bullet from the small Belgian revolver. We rushed him to hospital, got him an anti-tetanus injection and he was patched up and off he went."
Tom Winteringham now became the commander of the British Battalion. British Battalion of the International Brigade. The commissar for English-speaking volunteers in the battalion, Peter Kerrigan, wrote to Wintringham about the standard of the soldiers under their control: "Some lads have no desire to serve in the army. All recruits must understand they are expected to serve. Tell them; this is a war and many will be killed. This should be put brutally, with a close examination of their hatred of fascism. A much greater discipline is needed. Recruits must be told there is no guarantee of mail and the allowance is only three pesetas a day." Wintringham agreed with Kerrigan and sent a message to Harry Pollitt: "About ten percent of the men are drunks and flunkers. I can't understand why you've sent out such useless material. We call them Harry's anarchists."
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February.
General José Miaja sent three International Brigades including the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. On 12th February, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. Tom Winteringham, the British commander, was forced to order a retreat back to the next ridge. The Nationalist then advanced up Suicide Hill and were then routed by Republican machine-gun fire.
On the right flank, the Nationalists forced the Dimitrov Battalion to retreat. This enabled the Nationalists to virtually surround the British Battalion. Coming under heavy fire the British, now only 160 out of the original 600, had to establish defensive positions along a sunken road. During the afternoon Jason Gurney had been ordered by Wintringham to reconnoitre to the south of the sunken road: "I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery."
On 13th February, 1937, Tom Winteringham was hit in the thigh while trying to organise a bayonet charge. Jock Cunningham replaced him as commander.On 8th May, 1937, Cunningham reported to Harry Pollitt: "I am pleased to say that everything is showing marked improvements, discipline is tightening up." Walter Greenhalgh later claimed that Cunningham "was a very good inspiration within a small unit like a battalion, but when they put him in charge of larger units it didn't work out." Fred Copeman was more complimentary describing "Jock Cunningham was the best". Cunningham was himself hospitalised on 15th March and the command went to Copeman.
On 6th July 1937, the Popular Front government launched a major offensive in an attempt to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo sent the International Brigades to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves. Fighting in hot summer weather, the Internationals suffered heavy losses. Three hundred were captured and they were later found dead with their legs cut off. All told, the Republic lost 25,000 men and the Nationalists 17,000. George Nathan, Oliver Law, Harry Dobson and Julian Bell were amongst those killed during the battle.
After the fighting at Brunete, Jock Cunningham, George Aitken, Wally Tapsell and Fred Copeman were called back to England to have a meeting with Harry Pollitt. Tapsell was highly critical of Aitken and Cunningham. He claimed that "Aitken's temperament has made him distrusted and disliked by the vast majority of the british battalion who regard him as being personally ambitious and unmindful of the interests of the battalion and the men." He added that Cunningham "fluctuates violently between hysterical bursts of passion and is openly accused by Aitken of lazing about the Brigade headquarters doing nothing."
According to Richard Baxell, the author of the British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) "they (Cunningham, Aitken, Tapsell, Copeman) were all hauled over the coals by Harry Pollitt for the internal divisions which had been causing great unrest at both battalion and brigade level since Brunete." As a result of these discussions Cunningham and Aitkin were kept back in London whereas Tapsell and Copeman were returned to the front-line.
The author of Homage to Caledonia (2008) has pointed out: "At its conclusion, Pollitt told Aitken, Cunningham and Bert Williams (a political commissar with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion) to remain in Britain, while Fred Copeman (commander of the British Battalion) and Tapsell were to return to Spain. Fred Copeman later commented: "His (Pollitt) proposal was that we return to Spain and everybody else remained where they were. Jock just broke down. I have never seen anything like it. I tried to help him out but it was no good." Jock Cunningham was so angry he immediately resigned from the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The British Battalion were responsible for capturing Purburell Hill at Quinto (August 1937). They also suffered high casualties defending Teruel in 1938 and Ebro (July/August 1938). It is estimated that of the 2,000 soldiers in the British Battalion, 500 were killed and 1,200 were seriously wounded.
Men from Britain who fought with the Republican Army included George Orwell, Christopher Caudwell, Jack Jones, Tom Winteringham, Harry Dobson, Fred Copeman, George Aitken, William Ball, Clem Beckett, William Briskey, Christopher Caudwell, John Cornford, John Dunlop, Bob Edwards, Josh Francis, Tom Murray, Joe Garber, Lou Kenton, Bill Alexander, David Marshall, Alfred Sherman, Ralph Fox, Harry Fry, Jason Gurney, Jack Jones, John Bosco Jones, Peter Kerrigan, Bernard Knox, Wilfred Macartney, George Nathan, Bert Overton, Esmond Romilly, Sam Russell, Hugh Slater, Bob Smillie, Dave Springhill, Wally Tapsell, Tom Wintringham and Sam Wild.
On 25th September 1938, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced for diplomatic reasons that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. However, General Francisco Franco failed to reciprocate and German and Italian forces remained to continue the struggle.
Before leaving for home Sam Wild, commander of the British Battalion, was quoted as saying: "The British Battalion is prepared to carry on the work begun here to see to it that our 500 comrades who sleep for ever beneath Spanish soil shall serve as an example to the entire British people in the struggle against fascism."
By chance one day I bought the Times and in it there was a one-inch paragraph that said there was no doubt that if the republican government won, there would be some sort of socialist state set up in Spain. Although I wasn't political, I had enough reading to realise there was a chance of a different way of life.
At the end of that month, I got my pay and bought a second pair of specs. By the end of the next month, I had enough money to get me there. I discovered that if you were under 21, you needed your parents' permission, so I forged my father's signature.
The Communist party headquarters at King Street made all arrangements. This was on 26th November, 1936. A party of us took the normal boat train to France, arrived in Paris in the evening, and left later the same night for Perpignan, a town in the south-west comer of France. It is interesting to note that Shapayev, now known as Tito, was in charge of this place at that time. The following day we arrived at this small town, which had become the focal point of all those wishing to serve the Republican Government. I found myself one of some three hundred volunteers from Britain.
In the late evening of the third day we travelled in lorries over the Pyrenees, and early the next morning reached Figueras, the rallying point for all volunteers, just inside the Spanish border. When we arrived there were already five or six hundred people there - a moving population - people coming and going every day. We stayed a day ourselves.
At Figueras I was elected to take charge of the British contingent, now some four hundred strong. The plan was to go through Barcelona to Albacete, General Franco's home town, which had become the headquarters of the International Brigade. It was a journey of some two hundred and fifty miles. No sign of fighting was seen on the roads. The Spanish villages, with their small clusters of single-storey buildings around the church, looked peaceful in comparison to the news which at that time was going out to the world from Spain.
We the volunteer crew of that Spanish Medical Aid Unit, were far from being an homogenous group; none of us had ever worked together beforehand; we lacked a common culture and in fact were a very mixed lot. As this diversity leaps into my mind's eye it still strikes me as an asset. In our very different ways we each had our own unique contribution. I wish I could write about them all.
Nurse Bird must have been about forty years old in 1936. She had been in an ambulance unit in the Great War when she must have been a pretty blond kid. Naturally, she wanted to use her previous experience, and it was she who went up to the Front with the stand-by ambulance. She gave to us all an example of quiet courage. I still think of her as exemplary and picture her, a bit weather beaten without make-up but somehow young, leaning against the Bedford's radiator, sharing a fag with one of our two Cockney drivers - both Charlies. At first we found her tough-guy stance touchingly engaging; it grew more pronounced when she acquired a pair of breeches and spoke with her cigarette in her mouth. Then she got a pistol in her belt which I had to ask her to return to its donor (the Geneva Convention etc said "no") but in the end we realised that her 1914-18 nostalgia had deeper roots. Her hair shortened into a butch cut and she moved into a sheltering recess in the dormitory with Lisl, a German volunter nurse from Barcelona. Harry Forster was a magnificent improviser; he doubled as steriliser, electrician, plumber and quarter-master. He had a genius for brewing-up tea at the right moment. He kept our two Charlies from creating too much hell; they were a couple of lorry drivers who had come out mostly for a lark. They were interested in girls, but picking up female company in Grañen needed another technique than theirs. They resented attempts to discipline them but their hearts were certainly in the right place and they never let us down when the Front was active.Thora Silverthorne, our Operating Theatre Chief Nurse, had been born into a large mining family in Abertillery. She was about my age. In the 1920s her father had been an early recruit to the Communist Party and had been active in that now vanished culture of the Welsh valleys. He had had a fine singing voice; his interests went much wider then politics. Thora had been bright at school and had been selected by her father's Union Lodge to be sent to Moscow with a scholarship to the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. She decided for herself that she wanted to be a nurse so she went instead to the Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford. She had been steeped in three cultures: native Welsh Radical practice and thought, modern Medicine and, thirdly, that general awareness with its self-confident boldness, its refusal of unthinking convention, that in those days was the main result of residence in Oxford or Cambridge. She could just as well have ended up gracing a Master's Lodge as behind the Secretary General's desk of a major Trade Union. She would never have been a success as an apparatchik. It was of course inevitable that I should fall in love with Thora; all-in-all we behaved responsibly. We were only a few kilometres from an active war front. Our daily work told us that bullets kill, when there are plenty around it alters the perspectives of emotional life. We both worked extremely hard, without leisure for any sweet dalliance. Thora. was outstandingly competent. Her social ease and her care for her neighbour put her above fault. She had a clear bright eye with a wonderful freshness of attention, plus a quality of instinctive understanding of other peoples feelings, which made her social relationships successful. All this encased in Celtic good-looks made me a very privileged man. In a corresponding measure, our quite unconcealed relationship provoked more sympathy than criticism. The fact that the Unit had been successfully implanted, that it served a real function, and had not been the subject of political, medical or military catastrophe, was due to the quality of the collective work of the twenty or thirty, mostly young, people concerned. This had to be orchestrated by the Administrator. He was criticised, but no one else showed any ambition to replace him. Such toleration owed much to the fact that I had understood early in my life that orders will not be followed unless the person who gives them is capable of carrying them out himself. I therefore took an active part in all the fatigues and jobs incidental to setting up and running the hospital. Another factor was the very sense of commitment which had provoked our staff to volunteer in the first place. The inspiration behind this had varied sources; there were some quiet Quakers; there were some sons and daughters from the solid old democratic working class that, in those days, gave weight to the Trade Union and Cooperative movements. There were also the communists, numerically not a major element, some of whom were inspirational and here I think of Aileen Palmer. Aileen was the child of Nettie (Janet Higgens) and Vance Palmer of the Melbourne Independant Theatre which put them both into the Australian literary pantheon. She had an acute sense of duty and put her whole being into her work. She had no special skills, but she would turn her hand to anything, using any spare moment to act as secretary and record keeper. In action, she kept the register of admissions and of discharges - whether these latter were by evacuation to the rear or by exitus lethalis, by death.
Aileen therefore became the custodian of the effectuos de los muertes those pathetic little bundles of treasured objects that were all that remained of the material and emotional existence of a once living lively man. When there was any trace of his origins, Aileen wrote a letter to his family but mostly there was a name without an address, a cigarette lighter and some photos all wrapped in a handkerchief or in a pouch together with a knife. The thought of these poor treasures, piled on the shelf behind Aileen's desk, still tugs at my heart as does the knife lying on my desk that she gave me from that sad and modest store. From this same source we also re-equipped those discharged casualties who would otherwise have left our hospital with nothing they could call their own. Aileen was indeed of the stuff of the Saints - but there was nothing transcendental in her make-up; she was a marxist but not a party fanatic. Preaching did not interest her, action did. Had Aileen been born a few hundred years earlier, she would been a Franciscan or a Carmelite. Coming to Spain in 1936 had enabled her vocation to flourish and her devotion to be expressed in the "apostolate of works", as her predecessors would have called it. She was so convinced that she was ugly that she punished her femininity by neglecting her appearance; Thora would tease and chivvy her into taking minimum care of herself and of her looks. Aileen, whose only indulgence was in continuous cigarette smoking, showed a very sweet protectiveness towards Thora and myself. She loved seeing Thora happy and this made her tolerant about us.
We the members of the British working class in the British Battalion of the International Brigade now fighting in Spain in defence of democracy, protest against statements appearing in certain British papers to the effect that there is little or no interference in the civil war in Spain by foreign Fascist Powers.
We have seen with our own eyes frightful slaughter of men, women, and children in Spain. We have witnessed the destruction of many of its towns and villages. We have seen whole areas which have been devastated. And we know beyond a shadow of doubt that these frightful deeds have been done mainly by German and Italian nationals, using German and Italian aeroplanes, tanks, bombs, shells, and guns.
We ourselves have been in action repeatedly against thousands of German and Italian troops, and have lost many splendid and heroic comrades in these battles.
We protest against this disgraceful and unjustifiable invasion of Spain by Fascist Germany and Italy; an invasion in our opinion only made possible by the pro-Franco policy of the Baldwin Government in Britain. We believe that all lovers of freedom and democracy in Britain should now unite in a sustained effort to put an end to this invasion of Spain and to force the Baldwin Government to give to the people of Spain and their legal Government the right to buy arms in Britain to defend their freedom and democracy against Fascist barbarianism. We therefore call upon the General Council of the T.U.C. and the National Executive Committee of the Labour party to organise a great united campaign in Britain for the achievement of the above objects.
We denounce the attempts being made in Britain by the Fascist elements to make people believe that we British and other volunteers fighting on behalf of Spanish democracy are no different from the scores of thousands of conscript troops sent into Spain by Hitler and Mussolini. There can be no comparison between free volunteers and these conscript armies of Germany and Italy in Spain.
Finally, we desire it to be known in Britain that we came here of our own free will after full consideration of all that this step involved. We came to Spain not for money, but solely to assist the heroic Spanish people to defend their country's freedom and democracy. We were not gulled into coming to Spain by promises of big money. We never even asked for money when we volunteered. We are perfectly satisfied with our treatment by the Spanish Government; and we still are proud to be fighting for the cause of freedom in Spain. Any statements to the contrary are foul lies.
Around 2,400 volunteered from the British Isles and the then British Empire. There can be no exact figure because the Conservative Government, in its support for the Nonintervention Agreement, threatened to use the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1875 which they declared made volunteering illegal. Keeping records and lists of names was dangerous and difficult. However, no-passport weekend trips to Paris provided a way round for all who left these shores en route for Spain. In France active support from French people opened the paths over the Pyrenees.
The British volunteers came from all walks of life, all parts of the British Isles and the then British Empire. The great majority were from the industrial areas, especially those of heavy industry They were accustomed to the discipline associated with working in factories and pits. They learnt from the organization, democracy and solidarity of trade unionism.
Intellectuals, academics, writers and poets were an important force in the early groups of volunteers. They had the means to get to Spain and were accustomed to travelling, whereas very few workers had left British shores. They went because of their growing alienation from a society that had failed miserably to meet the needs of so many people and because of their deep repugnance at the burning of books in Nazi Germany, the persecution of individuals, the glorification of war and the whole philosophy of fascism.
The International Brigades and the British volunteers were, numerically, only a small part of the Republican forces, but nearly all had accepted the need for organization and order in civilian life. Many already knew how to lead in the trade unions, demonstrations and people's organizations, the need to set an example and lead from the front if necessary They were united in their aims and prepared to fight for them. The International Brigades provided a shock force while the Republic trained and organized an army from an assemblage of individuals. The Spanish people knew they were not fighting alone.
We are all fairly happy out here - that is as happy as men who hate war and who are doing an unpleasant but necessary job can be.
Most of our fighting has been against German and Italian trained troops with superior arms to ourselves, but we possessed something they did not, and with all their bombing of women and children and using of dum-dum and explosive bullets against us they cannot pass or break our morale.
One day we were in Madrid, and were a little surprised to see all the people going about their work quite ordinarily. Some old men were hard at work building barricades at strategical points. That day British workers met Spanish workers, and although we did not understand each other's language, we both sides understood the comradeship and the brotherhood of man. The city was ours for the asking, but we came to give and not to take.
To read the newspapers in England, one gets the mental picture of uniformed soldiers, the rattle of machine gun fire, the hum of aeroplanes and the crash of bombs. Such is a very incomplete picture. The real picture is seen more in the drab scenes, in the less inspiring and less terrifying aspects. To see twenty or thirty little children in a small peaceful railway station, fatherless and motherless, awaiting transportation to a centre where they can be better cared for, is to get a picture of misery. To see middle aged and old women with their worldly belongings tied within the four corners of a blanket, seeking refuge from a town or village that has been bombed, is to get a picture of the havoc and desolation. To see long queues of women and children outside the shops patiently waiting to get perhaps a half a bar of soap or a bit of butter, is to get a picture of the privation and suffering entailed.
Yet, even this is not complete, because despite this, and as a result of it, you see the quiet courage and determination of the people as a whole. It is a common sight to see the peasant farmer working in the olive grove, or the plough field within the range of rifle or machine gun fire; to see gangs of men right behind the lines who are tirelessly working to build new roads, etc.; to see men and women who remain in villages under Fascist artillery fire in order to care for the wounded. Everywhere you see a people who by courage, self sacrifice and ceaseless labour, are welded together by the common aim of maintaining their freedom and liberty from Fascist barbarism.
Havoc and ruin caused by Franco and the combined Fascist powers, but over and above it, the unconquerable loyalty and devotion of the Spanish people to the cause of democracy. This is crystallized vividly in the events in Spain today. There is a section who would promote disloyalty and disunity, but they are substantially uninfluential and futile. The vast support for the new Government is proof of this. This section will be crushed, not merely in the forma] sense by the Government, but by the invincible loyalty of the whole people.
It is when you see all this that you realise what the war is, and what it is all about. It is here that you can feel the terrible menace to France and the people of Britain if the Fascists are not crushed at this point. It is here that you really feel that the people of all countries have an obligation in rendering the maximum of assistance to the Spanish people. It is here that you really feel that the International Brigade is a necessary part of that assistance. It is here that you realise that a battle is in progress not merely to defend a people from a savage aggressor, but to destroy something that, if allowed to advance, will eventually crush the people of all democratic countries.
In other words your own senses compel you to realise that for the anti-Fascist everywhere this is a fight of self preservation. More so, it is a fight of self preservation for all those in democratic countries who would continue the small rights and liberties they are at present afforded. For those who would have the greater freedom and life under Socialism it is certainly their battleground and testing place. Because if defeat is recorded in this partial fight, then the prospects of victory for the whole is indeed pushed further into the background of abandoned hopes.
This I suppose has all been said or written before, but here it is symbolised in the most commonplace event and in the most ordinary place. It is for that reason that it becomes outstanding in one's consciousness and has to be repeated.
From it all emerges one thing at least, and that is that the International Brigade, and the British Battalion as part of it, is not some noble and gallant band of crusaders come to succour an helpless people from an injustice, it is just the logical expression of the conscious urge of democratic peoples for self preservation. No one will deny but that the Brigade has had a tremendous and inspiring effect upon the morale and fighting capacity of the Spanish people. Yet no one would claim that it was done out of pity, or as a chivalrous gesture of an advanced democratic peoples. The Brigades is the historic answer of the democratic peoples of the world to protect their democracy, and the urgency of the need for that protection would warrant an even greater response. The people who have organised and built the Brigade are those who have clearly seen the need, and who strive to direct the progress of history to the advantage of the common people.
The people of Britain should be proud of the British Battalion. It is their weapon of self preservation. Those who donate their pennies and pounds, those who give their gifts of food, those who have given their sons, brothers and husbands, to build and maintain the Battalion, are the real defenders of democracy and progress. Their sacrifice and devotion is only surpassed by that of the men who make up the Battalion and by those who have already spilled their blood.
A comrade from Bedlinog who has just gone home will call on you soon. He was reported killed on three occasions, so if you get any reports don't believe them until you hear from one of my pals. If I do get knocked out don't grieve for me. I shall have been true to my belief. Than that no man can do more. If I come through life will be a hundred times more valuable to me than it was before. Also it will be a hundred times more useful to my fellows. Industrial news from England cheers us considerably. The Busmen's strike cheered us considerably and news of the struggle upon which the miners are about to embark gives rise to feelings I cannot describe. Everything seems to be in time towards a new phase in the history of the working class. Yesterday we heard that a few Italian provinces had revolted against the sending of men to Spain. That is magnificent. In Germany too, the working class movement is stronger in the sense of determination, than it has ever been. When the movement comes Herr Hitler and Co are booked for hell.
I have met some men who have just come from Germany and they knew. All over the world the workers are ready, everything depends on the struggle here. Therefore we have got to and we will win. Even now the situation is as militant, I imagine, as it was at the end of the war. But now we have the lessons of the last seventeen years behind us, and the lessons are many and good. That goes for the world generally. A general strike of the miners and one or two other key industries and the 'National government' goes to the wall.
Did I tell you in my last letter that we go to church twice a day? We eat there. Last summer the chief priest fired on the people with a machine gun and killed thirty. That's the sort of atrocity you never hear of in England. The church was built in 1520 and this is the first time its been put to decent use.
The role of the commissar of course is an extremely interesting one and a valuable aspect of a popular army. You see, in the days of Cromwell and the Roundheads, they had what was similar to commissars, but they weren't called commissars - they were really religious to some extent. But it's noteworthy that the commissar in the Spanish army had a dual role. He had an equal military status with the commander of the unit to which we was attached as commissar. But he never interfered with the commander unless he felt that something required to be corrected. All the time I was a commissar Jack Nalty, an Irishman, was our company commander, and a very capable man he was. Unfortunately, he was killed in the last stages of the War. Jack Nalty and I of course ran this organization of the Company and only on one occasion did I exercise my authority as a commissar against him. He was dead beat and we were marching along a road with the machine guns and I was becoming more and more conscious of the feeling that we were going in the wrong direction. I said to him, "Well now, don't you think you should halt the Company and let us think about it?" Oh, he wasn't in favour. He says, "We're all right." "Well," I says, "I'm afraid that I've got to exercise my authority as commissar," and I halted the Company. A runner from the British Battalion, whose commissar was Bob Cooney, had been sent down in fact to see where we were. And right enough, if we'd gone round another corner we'd have been bang into a group of Fascists with machine guns. That was the only occasion on which I exercised my authority to supersede the function of the commander of the company. But it illustrates the high responsibility which rested on the shoulders of the commissar.
The commissar was the master of all trades, as it were. Our job was to look after the welfare of the personnel, their clothing, their recreation, their food, the distribution of food, and the general military efficiency. The military efficiency of course was the primary consideration over-shadowing everything else, and we had the job of dealing with any people who were browned off or who had been there maybe for a long time and had come back into the company from the front, from the earlier actions before the rest of us were there at all. And some of them of course were exhausted, mentally and physically exhausted and we had to get them back to a normal state by whatever form of special treatment that was desirable.
One of the jobs of the commissar when people were killed was to take their personal effects off their bodies and send them home to their people. Also our job was to bury the dead. And as a matter of fact, up on these sierras or mountains, Sierra Pandols, you could scarcely get enough earth to cover them. It was a most difficult job finding ways and means of covering the dead bodies.
Then another job that the commissar had to do was to create a wall newspaper. And we had wall newspapers with all kinds of press cuttings and contributions from various people who were writing up little stories and so on, and writing up reminiscences and their observations and so on. And the wall newspaper was always a popular rendezvous for people to meet and discuss things.
Eleven men in all commanded the British Battalion in actual battle: Wilfred McCartney (writer, who had to return before any fighting), Tom Wintringham (journalist), Jock Cunningham (labourer), Fred Copeman (ex-navy), Joe Hinks (army reservist), Peter Daly (labourer), Paddy O'Daire (labourer), Harold Fry (shoe repairer), Bill Alexander (industrial chemist), Sam Wild (labourer), and George Fletcher (newspaper canvasser). All except Wintringham had the opportunity of showing their abilities in action before being given leadership. All of them had been involved in working-class, anti-fascist activities at home, and had been influenced by Communist ideas and activity, although only Wintringham had held responsible positions in the Communist Party itself. In Spain their beliefs were reinforced by struggle and experience. The majority had been manual workers, having left school at fourteen - the usual lot of most in those days, no matter how intelligent or able. Only McCartney, Wintringham and Alexander had been to university; all had experienced the difficulties and frustration of finding work in a period of heavy unemployment. Their anti-fascism was anchored in hatred of the class and social system in Britain.
The focal point for the mobilization of the International Brigades was in Paris; understandably so, because underground activities against Fascism had been concentrated there for some years. I led a group of volunteers to the headquarters there, proceeding with the greatest caution because of the laws against recruitment in foreign armies and the non-intervention policies of both Britain and France. From London onwards it was a clandestine operation until we arrived on Spanish soil.
While in Paris we were housed in workers' homes in one of the poorest quarters of the city. But it wasn't long before we were on our way, by train, to a town near the Pyrenees. From there we travelled by coach to a rambling old farmhouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees. After a rough country meal in a barn we met our guide who led us through the mountain passes into Spain.
In the light of the morning we could see Spanish territory. After five hours or so, stumbling down the mountainside (I found it almost as hard going down as climbing up), we came to an outpost and from there were taken by truck to a fortress at Figueras. This was a reception centre for the volunteers. The atmosphere of old Spain was very apparent in the ancient castle. For the first day or so we felt exhausted after the long climb. The food was pretty awful. We ate it because we were hungry but without relish.
For some the first lessons about the use of a rifle were given before we moved off to the base. I at least could dismantle and assemble a rifle bolt and knew something about firing and the care of a weapon. But my first shock came when I was told of the shortage of weapons and the fact that the rifles (let alone other weapons) were in many cases antiquated and inaccurate.
Training at the base was quick, elementary but effective. For me life was hectic, meeting good companions and experiencing a genuine international atmosphere. There were no conscripts or paid mercenaries. I got to know a German Jew who had escaped the clutches of Hitler's hordes and was then a captain in the XII Brigade. He had hopes of going on ultimately to Palestine and striving for a free state of Israel. He was not only a good soldier but a brave one too. That was also true of a smart young Mexican whom I met. He had been an officer in the Mexican Army and was a member of the National Revolutionary Party of his country.
Around Easter, 1937, I paid a visit to Spain to see the lads of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Going up the hillside towards the trenches with Fred Copeman, we could occasionally hear the dull boom of a trench mortar, but more often the eerie whistle of a rifle bullet overhead. Always I felt inclined to get my head down in my shoulders. "I don't like that sound," I said by way of an apology.
"It's all right, Willie, as long as you can hear them,"
I was told. "It's the ones you can't hear that do the damage."
We got into the trenches and I passed along chatting to the boys in the line. From the British we passed into the Spanish trenches and gave the lads there the peoples' front salute. Then, after visiting the American section, we came back to our own lads. All of them came outside and formed a semicircle, and there, with as my background the graves of the boys who had fallen, I made a short speech. It was good to speak under such circumstances, but it was the hardest task I have ever undertaken. When I finished we sang the Internationale with a spirit that all the murderous savagery of fascism can never kill.
The following morning I went into the breakfast room of the Hotel in Madrid to see Herbert Gline, an American working in the Madrid radio station, about a broadcast to America from the Lincoln Battalion. When I got in who should be sitting there but Ellen Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone and the Duchess of Atholl. We had a very friendly chat, and I was fortunate in getting their company part of the way home. But whether in Madrid while the shells were falling or in face of the many difficulties that were inseparable from travelling in a country racked with invasion and war, those three women gave an example of courage and endurance that was beyond all praise.
Did you know that Comrade Ball of Reading (son of the chemist Dad was friendly with) was killed on this front.! He'd behaved very well: the commandant praised him highly. Said he was due for promotion for his splendid behaviour. Please give my very sincere sympathy to Comrade Ball's father; tell him his son died with many other fine fellows but not in vain. The English comrades did much towards keeping our front: they set a splendid example and greatly raised the morale of the other battalions.
We have become accustomed to air raids although they still worry me a great deal: I dread them. The planes were over last night, dropped bombs but did no damage. Considering the number of raids surprisingly little damage is done. The swine deliberately attempt to bomb hospitals - it's inhuman. The other day, an English nurse who works in a village some distance from here came along to stay the night with us for a change. She was very shocked. She'd had a nasty experience the day before. She was sitting talking to a comrade when a bomb was dropped quite near them. She was thrown off her chair and her companion was killed. Then she saw a bunch of kiddies killed by another bomb. Its really awful but I can assure you its absolutely true - the nurse told me all about it. Poor dear, she was badly shaken up.
This war is just bloody but if possible has made me even more violently anti-fascist. Their methods, even for war, are horrible. I can imagine by this time Shon is almost on the point of coming out. Please don't let him: I just couldn't stand the strain of knowing he was in danger too. God, I'd love to see you and talk to you. I miss you more and more. Do try to write more frequently. I don't know when I'll get home.
I regret having to write this, but Tom Howell was killed a few days ago (at 2.30 p.m., August 25 to be exact). We were together in an advanced position with the boys on some mountains called Sierra de Pandols, which overlook the town of Gandesa. I was in our company observation post, which was situated only 5 yards from where Tom was posted.
Every night Tom and I would have a little chat about home and other things, and that morning I had given him an Aberdare Leader the one in which Pen Davies' pilgrimage to the Aberdare Cemetery was reported, and he was very happy to receive it.
From early morning things had been very quiet on our sector. Then suddenly the enemy sent over some trench mortars; one of the shells made a direct hit on a machine gun post, nearly killing three men, a Spaniard and two Englishmen. I shouted to Tommy "All right there Tom?" and he shouted back, "O.K. Edwin."
Then this trench mortar landed near us. I called out again and receiving no answer, crawled to Tom's post, where I found him very badly wounded about the neck, chest and head. He was already unconscious and was passing away. I ran for the first aid man and we were there in two minutes, but Tom was, from the moment he was hit, beyond human aid and all we could do was raise him up a little and in two or three minutes, with his head resting on my knee, Tom passed away without regaining consciousness.
You can imagine how I felt because Tom and I had been very close to one another here. But I could do nothing.
That night Alun Williams of Rhondda, son of Huw Menai, and Lance Rogers of Merthyr, one of Tom's pals, carried his corpse to the little valley below, where he was to rest forever.
And there on that great mountain range, in a little grove of almond trees, we laid Tom Howell to rest. I said a few words of farewell but Tom is not alone there, all around him lie the graves of many Spanish and English boys.
Tom always made me promise to write you if anything like this happened. You will have already heard about Tom a week or two before you receive this letter.
His thoughts were to the last and always of his mother and the people at home. He lived and died a good fellow. If fifty years pass I shall not forget.
The international brigades are leaving Spain and the men of the British Battalion are expected to reach London this month. They will be welcomed home by many; many others who have regretted their 'interference' in a foreign war, or distrust the politics for which they fought, may feel a reluctant pride that English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish have left behind them so great a name in Spain. Their reputation is that of a battalion impossible to shift until in danger of encirclement. Against frontal or flank attack, tanks or planes, it seemed able to hold its ground until the Spanish summer freezes. This reputation was won in spite of many difficulties.
In briefest outline these difficulties included recruitment in secret, lack of trained officers, the wide gap between British military practice and that of most Continental countries, and the even wider gap between British standards and habits and those of the Continent in matters of food and cooking.
The men in the line got better food than was elsewhere available in Government Spain. Even so, they had usually to fight on bread, beans, olive oil, and goat or mule. Mild forms of dysentery were endemic; recovery of the wounded, often surprisingly rapid, was sometimes hampered by a lack of suitable food and an English aversion to olive oil. It was not good to see a lad from Yorkshire, with five bullets through him, trying to tackle Spanish sausages. These, as we met them, were either romantic and dangerous with bitter red herbs or classically enduring, able to resist, unchanged knives, teeth, and the ferments of digestion.
I doubt if even the lack of trained officers was a more serious handicap than that connected with food and cigarettes, but it was serious enough. Not one of those who commanded the battalion in action had been an officer 'in a real army'. Wilfred Macartney, author and critic and our first commandant, who was accidentally wounded before we went into the line, had been an officer in the war and was therefore able to give much to our training. He was followed by myself, journalist, Jock Cunningham, coalminer, and Fred Copeman, steelworker. I do not know what had been the employment of Peter Daly, the battalion's next commander, in peaceful Ireland. Nothing neat and tidy, I am certain, remembering a tear in his breeches wider even than his smile. Harry Fry had recently left the Scots Guards, his term of service ended. Sam Wilde has been a sailor.
There were one or two other commanders of the battalion for short periods; casualties were particularly heavy among officers. Of those named above, Daly and Fry are dead, and the other five share over a dozen wounds.
We had to make do without the military experience at the disposal of most other nationalities in the brigade. Cunningham and Fry had been infantry corporals. I had endured plenty of O.T.C. as well as two years in the ranks in France. Daly was trained by the Irish Republican Army, as was Kit Conway, who led our Irish contingent with the first company. Copeman and Wilde had the Navy's training behind them.
"Thank God we've got a Navy," used to be our wry comment in France twenty years ago on our efforts to make an amateur army work. Under Copeman and Wilde the British Battalion did not necessarily use the same phrase (discipline is discipline) but may well have felt the same emotion. The fleet, it seems, lives up to its tradition. It turns out men who can make "a Navy-shape job" of any job, anywhere in the world. These two sailors commanded the battalion for half of its twenty-one months in Spain. Their theoretical knowledge of war may have had some gaps, but their practical 'savvy' made them dangerous opponents even for the 'volunteer' regular officers from Italy opposed to them.
The battalion's first company was in action by the end of 1936. Ralph Fox, novelist and historian, and John Comford, the young Cambridge poet, were among those killed while the other three companies were getting their one to six weeks' training, in mid-February, 1937, the full battalion, exactly 500 strong, butted into a Fascist offensive.
This was a full-scale drive to cut the last road into Madrid. At 'Suicide Hill', within distant rifle range of the Jarama River, the battalion found itself facing three times its numbers, with a gap of three miles in our line to the left of it, and a gap of 1,000 yards on its right. None of our machine-guns was less than twenty years old, and two of the three types jammed continually. The hill was held until near nightfall with rifles only; then we retreated - six hundred yards. This effort cost the battalion nearly half of its strength in casualties. But it was a necessary effort; for the timidly orthodox, clockwork strategist from the Reichswehr opposed to us did not think it right to move forces between our hill and the river until we were driven back, and therefore did not find the three-mile gap on our left until it was no longer a gap - Lister's division had filled it.
In subsequent days of bitter fighting the battalion gave ground only to regain all but 200 yards of it. Franco's offensive was stopped, and the Madrid-Valencia road remained open.
Followed ninety days in trenches without relief, and then the Brunete fighting, when the village of Villanueva de la Canada was carried. Copeman leading, by a night attack made in close formation as if an enemy ship was being boarded. Next month's attacks in Aragon cost the battalion two of its commanders.
The capture of Teruel by the Government forces in December, 1937, was almost the only great action in which the 'English' could have taken part but were not called upon to do so. At the beginning of this year they were fighting in deep snow in the vain effort to hold Teruel. In the retreat of seventy miles that followed, from Alto Aragon to the coast, they were twice almost surrounded and got away by legs and luck. Twice they stood, at Caspe and Gandesa, to hold up for some days the drive to the sea; and near Gandesa they were ambushed by Italian tanks and Moorish cavalry. They lost a hundred captured, but fought so stiffly that the raiders withdrew.
In the recent Ebro battle they were among the first to cross the river and for sixty days resisted Franco's counter-attacks so successfully that he could not retake a sixth of the ground they had won.
Rather more than 2,000 men went out. The known dead are 432: with the missing the figure must be nearly a quarter of those who fought. Four-fifths of the remainder - over 1,200 - have been wounded, and of these nearly 500 have been invalided home. Care for the wounded and maintenance for the men now returning, until they can fit in to civilian life again, will need some thousands of pounds. But it will surely be difficult even for those taught to think of the brigades as 'international gunmen' to resist the impulse to pay tribute to the courage and endurance of these men of our speech and our blood.
Jock Cunningham was a bit of a problem. He didn't get on with Harry Pollitt (British Communist Party leader). Harry Pollitt worshipped Fred Copeman, he was the boy for Harry. I could not do anything wrong as far as Harry was concerned, and when I took over the battalion he came out and said, "Fred, this is the most wonderful thing from a party point of view". I said, "I can't think why it should be because I am not in the bloody party". I hadn't joined the party. I had always worked with them but I didn't hold a party card, but Harry thought I was the bee's knees and he was quite happy about that. I have a feeling that Harry was so anxious to build me up for the future that the danger he saw was Jock Cunningham, who was already more important than I was. He was a good lad and I accepted that. I thought Jock was the best. Anyway the end product was Harry said that the only people who had expressed a point of view as to what was happening to the battalion at that moment had been Fred Copeman and Wally Tapsell. His proposal was that we return to Spain and everybody else remained where they were. Jock just broke down. I have never seen anything like it. I tried to help him out but it was no good. I said, "Jock, it will be all right".
Nearly a thousand survivors of the British battalion of the International Brigade will shortly be returning to this country in accordance with the decision of the Spanish Government to evacuate all foreign volunteers of whatever category serving in the Republican Army. The story of the International Column, as it was then called, dates back to November, 1936, when the arrival of the first contingent of volunteers from all parts of the globe coincided with a stiffening of the defence of Madrid and the halt of Fascism at the very gates of the city. The British battalion was founded as a separate unit in the following February and underwent its baptism of fire in the valley of Jarama, when it took a prominent part in repelling the Fascist onslaught on the Madrid-Valencia road, thus preserving essential communications between Madrid and the rest of Republican Spain.
From that day, February 12, 1937, until the latest Ebro offensive the British battalion has blazed a path of glory. Many of this band of heroic Britons have fallen in the struggle for the freedom of Spain and for democracy the world over. They will never rise again, but the cause of liberty and justice which moved them to offer their services to the Spanish people will live for ever.
Those who have survived and who will be returning home shortly will come back with their heads held high. They have done something to redeem the honour of the British people, as a people that loves freedom and fair play. Many will be disabled, others wounded, and all will have a tale to tell of dangers braved and hardships undergone. Shell-fire and aerial bombardment were only a part of the tests which these men have faced. Beneath the burning Spanish sun, in the snow of Teruel, without food for days at a time in periods of heavy action, undergoing operations for the extraction of shrapnel often without anaesthetic, spending sleepless nights in digging trenches, dirty, lousy, weary, and hungry, these men have kept alive that fierce spirit of determination that democracy shall triumph over Fascism. They have known all the exigencies and perils of war plus extremes of privation and want, some of them due the policy of non-intervention which prevents the Spanish people from obtaining adequate food and medical supplies.
It is our duty to see that when they come home they shall have clothes, food, and other necessities to tide them over the period until they are able to obtain work. It is doubly our duty because these men, who have been steeled in the heat and fires of battle, have a leading role to play in the struggles that lie ahead of democracy in this country. We appeal, therefore, to your readers to help us immediately in collecting 3000 pairs of boots, overcoats, and suits. They can be sent direct to me, or if money is sent we can buy them at wholesale prices.
I have read with some surprise in a London paper that the International Brigades consisted of 'the lowest dregs of the unemployed' and of 'Marxist hordes that desecrated churches'. Desecrating churches has not been an English habit for 300 years. We had unemployed in our ranks whose courage and endurance proved what a waste it is to keep men of such quality eating their hearts out in idleness. But most of our volunteers gave up jobs to come to Spain.
Some of those who are buried in Spain would have enriched English literature if they had lived: Ralph Fox, as novelist: and four poets, John Comford, Julian Bell, Christopher St. John Sprigg, and Charles Donnelly from Ireland.
Our brigades have been called 'international gunmen'. Let me run through names that seem strangely at variance with this and other labels stuck on us by those who choose to write without knowing the men they are writing about.
Traill, a journalist from Bloomsbury, Chief of Staff of the 86th Brigade; Bee, our map-maker, an architect; David McKenzie, son of an admiral; Giles and Esmond Romilly, relatives of Winston Churchill; Malcolm Dunbar, son of Lady Dunbar, our last Chief of Staff of the Brigade; Hugh Slater, journalist, and very neat with his anti-tank guns; Clive Branson; Peter Whittaker; Ralph Bates, the novelist.
Clem Beckett gave up the princely salary of a star dirt-track rider for a few pesetas and a grave on the Jarama; Noel Carritt and his brother came from the quiet of Boar's Hill, Oxford; Miles Tomalin became less interested in psycho-analysis than in the fireside sing-songs that he accompanied on a recorder; 'Maro', the cartoonist, drew his last sketch for us the night before he was killed.
Lorimer Birch was a scientist from Cambridge; R. M. Hilliard was known as the 'Boxing Parson of Killamey'. Lewis Clive, a descendant of Clive of India, was a Labour borough councillor and an active worker in the Fabian Research Bureau. Bill Alexander, who commanded the battalion at Teruel, was from the 'Fabian Nursery'. Chris Thomycroft, Richard Kisch, who fought in Majorca when the war was a month old, and all those others whom I have mentioned were neither 'gunmen' nor 'dregs of the unemployed'.
One boy brought me a letter of introduction from a Liberal M.P. - which might be thought a queer thing to bring to the adjutant if you are joining a 'Red' battalion. Another, from County Cork, wore a crucifix. Frank Ryan, who was in Franco's prisons for some months and is now 'missing', is a Catholic Irish Republican.
Last in the roll-call and, I think, representative of all those who fought in Spain, I remember Will Paynter, of the South Wales Miners' Executive, and three men whose graves are in Spain who were my company commanders in the Battle of the Jarama in that battle our battalion helped to hold the last road into Madrid, a road open today. These three are William Briskey, a London busman, member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, a sergeant in the Great War; Harold Fry, from Edinburgh, at one time corporal in his Majesty's Brigade of Guards; and Kit Conway at one time of the Irish Republican Army.
They were known, by the man who commanded them and the men they commanded, to be the equals in courage and comradeship of those fighting men of the past whose names wake pride in the English, Scottish, and Irish peoples.