Walter (Wally) Tapsell was born in London. As a young man he joined the Young Communist League and spent time at the International Lenin School in Moscow. On his return to England he became a member of Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Tapsell joined the International Brigades that fought on the side of the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. As a senior figure in the CPGB he became an influential figure in Spain.
George Aitken later admitted that desertion during battle was a major problem for the International Brigades. As the author of British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War (2007) points out: "Aitken cajoled them to return to the line but, as he freely admits, on occasions he forced some volunteers back to the front under threat of his pistol. However, Aitken never actually used it; like most of the other senior figures in the battalion, he was vehemently opposed to the shooting of deserters." Some senior officers, such as Wally Tapsell, disagreed with this strategy.
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, Wally Tapsell, George Aitken and Fred Copeman were called back to England. Tapsell was highly critical of Aitken, the commander of the British Battalion. 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."
It would seem that Harry Pollitt accepted this criticism of Aitken as he was kept back in London whereas Tapsell returned to the front-line and on 6th November 1937, he was appointed as political commissar of the British Battalion. As 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."
According to Walter Gregory, Tapsell was "the greatest of all those who served as political commissars in Spain." The author of Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War argued that he epitomized the slogan of the commissars, "I was first to advance and the last to retreat." However, there were others who were highly critical of Tapsell. Walter Greenhalgh, for example, later recalled: "The people who were there in Spain representing the communist leadership in my view made a hash of things. Tapsell definitely made a hash of things. I know for a fact that he caused a tremendous amount of despair among those who survived the Battle of Brunete.... After the battle we were exhausted. A lot of the men were new and just arrived and there was Tapsell telling them that the reason for the whole of this is because the military command was useless; that they weren't revolutionary enough and what we must do is demand that there should be full cooperation between all ranks so that there was full discussion of all tactics, rather than having orders given to you from above, and so on."
Tapsell caused considerable political controversy when he criticised Colonel Janos Galicz, the commander of 15th Brigade. He reported that "only stupidity or a deliberate disregard for life would keep men in such an exposed position (on Mosquito Ridge). Galicz isn't fit to command a troop of Brownies, let alone a People's Army." Galicz responded by demanding that Tapsell be shot for insubordination. However, Tapsell was protected by Fred Copeman, the commander of the battalion.
On 30th March 1938, the Nationalist Army launched an offensive in Aragón, south of the Ebro River. The British Battalion was forced to retreat towards Cherta. The following day Italian tanks attacked the Republican forces at Calaceite. Tapsell thought they were from the Communist Fifth Regiment and as he approached them he was gunned down. William Rust later recalled: "Tappy (Tapsell) was marching at the head of the Battalion when the surprise attack came. "He had that grim, determined look on his face which couldn't help but inspire us all', remarked one British comrade, recalling the scene. He challenged the tank commander, but was shot down with a bullet through his shoulder. A Spanish lieutenant rushed to his aid, and drove off the Fascists, thus giving Tappy time to crawl out of the line of fire; but he was never seen again."
According to Fred Copeman, the author of Reason in Revolt, Wally Tapsell and Robert Merriman did not die in battle. Instead, he thought they were liquidated by agents of Joseph Stalin because, as senior officers, they "found out something... they had their teeth in something which was rotten and they weren't bloody well letting go."
(1) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)
Three weeks before his death Christopher Caudwell asked his CPGB branch "to raise money" so that, among other things, he and his comrades could receive "Left books and periodicals, however few." In the spring of 1937 Wally Tapsell, the able, tough cockney commissar, who was one of the four battalion commissars educated at the Lenin School, asked Harry Pollitt to send the Battalion 100 copies of the monthly selection." A few weeks later George Aitken, the brigade commissar, wrote to Pollitt, requesting him to "be sure and get Left Book to send all publications." Gollancz's brilliant creation made it possible for both middle-class and proletarian "thinkers" to find a common intellectual ground in Spain as well as Great Britain.
(2) Walter Greenhalgh, Heroic Voices of the Spanish Civil War (2009)
The people who were there in Spain representing the communist leadership in my view made a hash of things. Tapsell definitely made a hash of things. I know for a fact that he caused a tremendous amount of despair among those who survived the Battle of Brunete. I was present at the meeting and I told George Aitken lots of these lads had arrived after the main part of the battle was over and so we suffered a defeat.
In fact we hadn't achieved our objective, we had to fall back and things had been bad, but it wasn't any different from anything that had ever happened before. We always got so far but we never had that little extra which enabled us to make anything out of it, because we didn't have the weapons and so on. Their [fascists'] aeroplanes used to come over and just stand out of range, our anti-aircraft would fire at them perhaps for an hour and then we would run out of shells. So then planes would come, they would bomb and they would strafe. It was nobody's fault that we weren't an organized army, we couldn't possibly be and therefore we were bound to have defeats.
After the battle we were exhausted. A lot of the men were new and just arrived and there was Tapsell telling them that the reason for the whole of this is because the military command was useless; that they weren't revolutionary enough and what we must do is demand that there should be full cooperation between all ranks so that there was full discussion of all tactics, rather than having orders given to you from above, and so on. And that if we had this revolutionary strategy running right through all the forces in the army then these defeats would not occur. I went to George Aitken and said the way things are going on, every lad in the battalion will go home because he was telling them that their officers were useless and that they are being driven to the slaughter like cattle. So Tapsell was arrested and of course the next thing there was a political struggle, because Tapsell was representing the Communist Party.
At base we had Peter Kerrigan, who was a similar thing to Tapsell, and it would have been too politically dangerous for Tapsell to have been put on a proper charge for disaffecting the troops, although there was a 30 percent desertion after his speech and the morale in the unit went right down to zero. What happened was that Tapsell and George Aitken went back to England.
After that I was with the battalion and was then an old timer. I was one of the few remaining from the first English company. Aitken lost his battle in England so Tapsell came back and I was asked to make a speech of welcome, to welcome Tapsell back into the battalion. Of course, I couldn't, and at the same time not only could I not do that but I couldn't say why because then I would be just as bad as Tapsell. So for the first time in my life I went out and got drunk. I just sat in a cafe and drank a bottle of rum (I have never touched rum since). So I avoided that. It could be that Tapsell was a different person later on, because instead of being an observer he became a company commander in the battalion and was killed on the Ebro front.
(3) William Rust, Britons in Spain (1939)
Tappy (Tapsell) was marching at the head of the Battalion when the surprise attack came. "He had that grim, determined look on his face which couldn't help but inspire us all', remarked one British comrade, recalling the scene. He challenged the tank commander, but was shot down with a bullet through his shoulder. A Spanish lieutenant rushed to his aid, and drove off the Fascists, thus giving Tappy time to crawl out of the line of fire; but he was never seen again."