Eighty years ago this month, on 28th October, 1938, the volunteers of the ‘British Battalion’ joined the other volunteer Battalions of the International Brigades (IB) in Spain and held a poignant farewell parade, which included the transfer of their flags and weapons over to the main army of the Republic.
The Spanish Republic’s premier, Juan Negrin, had reluctantly decided to repatriate all the foreign volunteers in the remaining territory still under his control, in the hope that the League of Nations would be able to persuade the opposing nationalists to do the same (his gamble failed).
The IB had been formed to help defend the leftwing Spanish Republic against the nationalist and fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. General Franco, along with a number of other rightwing Spanish army generals, had – in July, 1936 – launched an illegal uprising against the leftwing Popular Front coalition government, which had won a narrow election victory in Spain earlier that year. Franco’s nationalist ‘rebels’ (backed by substantial aid from Mussolini and Hitler) plunged the country into a brutal and bloody civil war, which lasted until March, 1939, when Franco was finally able to parade his troops through Madrid and declare victory. It was the beginning of a dictatorship that would last until Franco’s death in 1975.
It has been estimated by historians that some 35,000 volunteers, mainly drawn from Europe, the United States and Canada, volunteered to serve in the IB during the Spanish Civil War. This month will see a number of commemorative events held in Spain to celebrate the IB and their contribution to the defence of the Republic, and the efforts of the British IB volunteers will feature as part of this.
But who were the British volunteers? Although there have been memoirs and plenty of eyewitness accounts from Britons who served in the IB, together with various detailed studies from historians over the years, reliable and precise information on the British volunteers and their backgrounds has proved more problematic for scholars and surprisingly difficult to find.
However, declassified MI5 (Security Service) files have been helpful in recent years. The files, which became available at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, in 2011, contain the names of 4,000 British and Irish IB volunteers, although this figure appears to have included sympathisers as well as combatants.
Experts and historians of the Spanish Civil War, such as Christopher Farman and Antony Beevor, have calculated that a more likely figure is around 2,500. Interestingly, additional research work by historians, using the MI5 files and a number of other important sources (including from Spain), has also thrown further valuable light on the social background and nature of the British IB volunteers. The vast majority of volunteers in the British IB Battalion were from the working-classes, who were joined by a smaller number of middle-class intellectuals. Most of the men came from either London or the heavily industrialised areas of Britain, and many of the men were aged in their 20s.
A very large percentage were motivated by strong anti-fascist idealism and a conviction that, if Spain was not defended from fascism, then the rest of democratic Europe would succumb, and the ‘virus’ of rightwing authoritarianism would inevitably spread across the globe.
This is illustrated well from my own research with the case of local volunteer Mr. C.E. Palmer, a 29-year old from Thames Ditton, who had joined the IB in March, 1937. Palmer served for months of fighting round Madrid and returned home wounded when the volunteers were withdrawn. Speaking to the Surrey Comet in January, 1939, Palmer said he had held ‘tremendous admiration’ for members of the IB, which was made up of 57 nationalities and, he said, ‘Almost to a man, they were idealists…’.
Unsurprisingly, well over half of the British volunteers were members of the British Communist Party (CPGB), which had been founded in this country in 1920. By the late 1930s, the CPGB were pursuing a new ‘moderate’ line, which sought to build broader progressive alliances and popular ‘Fronts’. To this end, the CPGB presented the Spanish Civil War as part of a wider conflict between democracy and fascism, and this message clearly appealed to some of the younger members of the party, who were prepared to say goodbye to their families and loved ones to take the plunge.
After volunteers had been vetted at the CPGB’s headquarters in King Street, near Covent Garden in central London, the recruits then had to make a long journey by train, sea and bus to actually get into Spain, and this became even more difficult when, in January, 1937 (as part of their ‘non-intervention’ policy stance towards Spain) the British government made it an offence for Britons to fight on either side in the Spanish War. Moreover, when the French government also began to apply their own ‘non-intervention’ stance more rigorously, many of the British volunteers had to be smuggled across the border from France into Spain, often through rough mountain areas, which could be exhausting and highly dangerous.
Historians have also found that many of the British IB volunteers had very little or no direct military experience. When they finally arrived in Spain, they were often given very little time for proper military training before they were rushed off to the front-lines and put directly into battle. Furthermore, when facing the enemy, the IB volunteers were regularly dogged by severe shortages of weapons and ammunition (although Stalin’s Russia did eventually begin to supply arms to the Republican side, much of this military equipment could not match the modern weaponry supplied to Franco by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, countries which saw the Spanish arena as a useful ‘testing ground’ for their new armaments). The situation was also made worse by some poor military decision-making by the leaders of the Republic.
In fact, in the near two years of fighting that was undertaken by the British Battalion of the IB, the best estimates are that about 500 men were killed and 1,200 wounded. When the British volunteers finally left Spain, most of them officially leaving on 6th December, 1938, there were only about 305 still alive.
It would be a mistake to think that all the British volunteers were Communists. A number of men held other leftwing loyalties (most famously George Orwell), and some of the volunteers became fed up with the rigid and unquestioning allegiance to Moscow displayed by some of the men in the British Battalion. Significantly, there were also a sprinkling of Liberals and Conservatives in the Battalion.
In my own research, for example, I came across a fascinating letter published in the local Richmond Herald from May, 1937, written by a volunteer while he was temporarily at home on leave from Madrid. Calling himself a ‘Conservative Democrat’, the East Sheen resident said he was both a Conservative and a member of the IB, and he told readers: ‘The war is solely a struggle between Democracy and Fascism, and the overwhelming majority of the people supporting the Government are Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives and Catholics, who are not connected with any political party’. A ‘generous estimate’, he observed, ‘of the proportion of the Government Forces who are Socialists, Communists and Anarchists would be 25 per cent’.
Some of the men who were repatriated from Spain to Britain in 1938 had become very disillusioned by what they had seen and experienced in the conflict, particularly in relation to the orthodox Communist line and the political factionalism and infighting within the IB. On the other hand, others (whether Communist or not) strongly retained their anti-fascist idealism and remained keen to offer their services in defence of liberal democracy in the future. When Britain declared war against Germany in September, 1939, a number of former IB volunteers were eager to join the British Forces, but found that their applications to do so were blocked by His Majesty’s Government (usually on advice from MI5) due to ‘security’ concerns, with British officials still very wary of employing anybody who had shown sympathy for Communism.
This situation had been made even more complex by the fact that, in August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet agreement had been announced to an astonished world, and Stalin’s forces had been allowed by the Nazis in September to occupy half of Poland.
A number of members of the CPGB itself, having previously fought fascism in Spain, now found it very difficult to remain loyal to the latest propaganda line coming out of Moscow and left the party in disgust. However, as the war evolved, and especially after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, the party changed its line yet again, and ‘Uncle Stalin’ was now portrayed as a full anti-fascist and as a completely reliable partner in the Allied sttruggle.
Moreover, the British Government appears to have relaxed its rules on recruitment to the armed services, and a number of former IB Britons, provided they passed strict vetting procedures, were allowed to join up and serve their country in the World War against fascism.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History Dept. at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)