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The International Brigades: beyond the myth

Their story remains one of courage, solidarity and genuine internationalism.

Michael Crowley

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Few people in Britain today are familiar with the Spanish Civil War. It is beyond the horizon now, subsumed by the enormity of the Second World War. The figure of General Franco might still populate the roster of 20th-century dictators, but the names of the battles, the nature of the atrocities, escape most people. There are, however, two chapters from the 1936-39 conflict that still attract attention. One is the bombing of Guernica in April 1937; the other is the story of the International Brigades (IB), the thousands of volunteers that made their way to Spain to fight for the beleaguered Republic against Franco’s Nationalists.

Internationally between 32,000 and 35,000 men from 53 different countries served in the ranks of the IB, a Soviet initiative to recruit and organise foreign fighters. Another 5,000 served outside the IB, mostly with the anarchist militias organised by the anarchist-led trade union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), or, as in the case of George Orwell, the socialist militias organised by the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (POUM), a political party branded Trotskyist by the Communist Party of Spain. From Britain, 2,550 men went to fight, and several women served as medical staff. Of the 2550, 540 were killed, the majority of the rest were wounded, many more than once.

Sam Wild was working as a boilerman at the Paramount cinema, Manchester, when he left for Spain in December 1936.

‘I felt strongly against fascism. What I’d heard about it in Abyssinia. Saw what Hitler was doing in Germany to the Jews and Communists, the Japanese in the Far East. I came to the conclusion that fascism was about to conquer the world and it was about time somebody started to do something about it.’ (1)

Sam was wounded on four occasions and eventually became commander of the British Battalion. He was awarded the Medal of Valour by the Republican government, the equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and promoted to the rank of major.

Benny Goldman worked as an upholsterer in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. He left for Spain in January 1937. He gave his reasons as follows:

‘Oswald Mosely was organising demonstrations in the major cities. You had leading socialites following the fascist movement and supporting it… Yes, we went on anti-fascist demonstrations but I felt at the time it was inadequate. What we were doing had no real meaning and the centre of the struggle was in Spain. That was the acid test.’ (2)

Although there were notable writers and other intellectuals present, the vast majority of British volunteers were working-class men with an average age of 29. Most had left jobs to go to fight, and just over half were members of the Communist Party (CPGB); barely any spoke a word of Spanish. Although volunteers had already begun to make their way to Spain after Franco’s rising in July 1936, the Communist International (Comintern) initiative from September onwards facilitated much larger numbers. In Manchester, people went to the CPGB district office for an initial interval and, if accepted, were then given the rail fare to London to report to the national offices. If accepted there, they were given a weekend ticket to Paris. Bernard McKenna, a 21-year-old clerk in a textile mill, described the party offices in Paris as ‘like a labour exchange’. In common with working people in Britain at the time Benny Goldman had no passport.

‘I went along to see Mick Jenkins at Communist Party headquarters [Manchester]. I understood this was the only route possible. He sent me home for a week to give it careful consideration. I came back and said I was of the same opinion. I didn’t tell my parents and I didn’t tell my friends. I went to Spain and two weeks later wrote a letter home.’ (3)

The party preferred that volunteers were at least 21, unmarried and have had some military training. Benny Goldman was only 18 and had lied about his age. By the time his father complained to the local Communist Party branch, he was already in the IB under the command of Sam Wild: ‘Sam gave me the biggest [bollocking] I’ve ever had and he said to me, “You’ve got a lot of trouble from your hometown, your parents are giving us hell and you’ve got to get back home.”‘ (4)

News reporters, including Ernest Hemingway (far right) mingling with members of the International Brigade, circa 1937
News reporters, including Ernest Hemingway (far right) mingling with members of the International Brigade, circa 1937

Benny didn’t return home until the IB was withdrawn, but the party had to be mindful who they let into the ranks. Accusations were made in a hostile press that they had recruited the homeless from the Embankment, cajoled the impressionable and the unemployed. There is little evidence of this. There is, though, anecdotal evidence of potential volunteers being turned away. Bernard McKenna, for instance, was initially rejected.

‘I saw Mick Jenkins and got refused because I had no military knowledge; as things got tighter, I got the okay to go. Some people from North Manchester Challenge Club went who were under 21 and were sent back. Monty Rosenfield was one – at least three or four. When numbers dropped off the British CP wanted to keep a standing and they relaxed their own rules.’ (5)

Suspicious of their motives, the IB wasn’t keen on taking well-heeled adventurers and writers. It was felt they could prove bad soldiers. George Orwell was interviewed by the CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt and told it would be best if he made his own arrangements. Orwell’s politics though, even at that stage, were not to the liking of the Communist Party.

Yet, while they could, like Orwell, prove troublesome, the Communists also knew that writers gave their cause welcome publicity. The young poet John Cornford and the more established Marxist theorist Christopher Caudwell were both recruited, and killed in action. Arthur Koestler, meanwhile, worked as an English-language journalist while spying for the Comintern. He was captured by Franco’s forces and sentenced to death before being exchanged for a high-profile Nationalist prisoner. French novelist Andre Malraux served in the Republican air force, American novelist Ernest Hemingway reported for the North American Newspaper Agency, and Laurie Lee, the author of Cider with Rosie served with the IB, if only for a few months.

Relatively speaking, the IB were poorly armed and trained, and the Republican army as a whole was not as well equipped as Franco’s Nationalist forces. In August 1936 an international non-intervention agreement was signed, which resulted in a de facto economic embargo against the Republic. Consequently, it was prevented from buying arms on the open market, though in the early stages the Republicans were supplied with some Russian equipment via Mexico. In the same month, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany began to provide 80,000 and 19,000 troops respectively, replete with aircraft and tanks to assist the Nationalists. Hitler’s foreign secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop was to write in his memoirs: ‘It would have been better to call this the Intervention Committee, for the whole activity of its members consisted of explaining or concealing the participation of their countries in Spain.’ (6)

The Republic’s decision to arm the trade unions that created the militias, as well as the intervention of the IB, provided some respite for the Republican government. Franco’s rising had intended to be merely a transfer of power from the Spanish parliament – the Cortes – to the army, but it developed into civil war.

The IB was initially garrisoned in Madrigueras, north of Albacete. The British formed the major part of a battalion inside the XV Brigade. Alongside the British in the battalion were Irish, Cypriot, South African and Australian volunteers, numbering around 450 in total. In January 1937, several Irish volunteers left the British Battalion to join the American Lincoln Battalion when it was revealed that two British officers had served with the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence. But recruits continued to arrive, and by the time of the first major battle of the civil war, Jarama, battalion strength was between 500 and 600. Sam Wild was an armourer at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. ‘When I look back’, he recalled, ‘I’m surprised there were any survivors from the early days. The first guns we got were from Austria and bore the date 1888.’ (7)

Benny Goldman was one of the recruits who arrived in January 1937.

‘The first time I saw a rifle was in Madrigueras. We were shown how to put a clip in the rifle. The clip didn’t have bullets… We didn’t fire it because the ammunition was scarce… The first time I fired a rifle was at the Battle of Jarama. I fired it at someone to kill them.’ (8)

IB casualties at the Battle of Jarama were high. On a single day – 12 February 1937 – the British Battalion suffered 275 casualties out of 600. They were up against fierce Moorish troops, outnumbered and outgunned. It was due to losses at Jarama and elsewhere that the accusation developed that the Republican army used the IB as shock troops; soldiers that would lead the advance and expect to take higher than average casualties. But shock troops are classically elite, highly trained units, whereas the opposite was the case with the IB. The British Battalion members were to stay in their trenches until 17 June, by which time almost all of the officers had been killed or captured, and the battalion of 600 men reduced to around 400. Sam Wild was one of those wounded on 12 February. ‘You had to take the fighting in your stride’, he said. ‘We were put in a position on a hill confronted by Germans and Moors and suffered casualties. Two through my arm and two through my body. A lad led me out when he got a bullet in his leg. All four went through me.’ (9)

He was in hospital until 7 May, when he returned to the front. The IB did manage to slow the fascist advance at Jarama, but at a heavy cost. The casualty rate affected morale among volunteers and it led to some desertions. Many of the deserters returned after a few days, although one or two made it as far as Barcelona and went to the British consulate. Those that were caught were not shot, although it was discussed. Punishment usually involved digging latrines for the guardhouse. Apart from any moral considerations, shooting deserters from a volunteer force was not sensible when they needed more volunteers to join. Pay was just eight-to-10 pesetas a day, and, during the odd days of leave, which were scarce, one-to-two pesetas a day. It was an army fuelled by conviction not monetary gain.

Madge Addy arrived in Spain in 1937 and became the head nurse in an old monastery in Ucles Castile. Patients died from malnutrition and there was only one syringe at the hospital. Republican soldiers were brought in wounded having fought in their bare feet. Addy’s work was regularly reported in the sympathetic press, in particular her practice of conducting blood transfusions from herself to patients.

If few volunteers had expected never to return from Spain when they left Britain, it certainly occurred to many after the Battle of Jarama. Benny Goldman said that he was warned by a party official before he left Manchester. ‘You knew that the odds were that you would get killed or severely wounded. I was very politically minded. It was a charged climate, moving towards war.’ (10)

Ex-prisoners of war from the International Brigades arriving back in Britain, circa 1938.
Ex-prisoners of war from the International Brigades arriving back in Britain, circa 1938.

Indeed. Four months before Franco’s rising, German troops had marched into the Rhineland. In 1935, fascist Italy had invaded Abyssinia and there had been an attempted Nazi coup in Austria in February 1934. In France, Leon Blum’s Popular Front government, which had initially sold arms to the Republic at the outbreak of the war, closed its border with Spain to all commerce weeks later. American oil companies backed the Nationalists and General Motors supplied them with trucks. In Britain, there was a Conservative-dominated national government led by Stanley Baldwin. ‘We English hate fascism, but we loathe Bolshevism as much’, said Baldwin in 1936. ‘So, if there is somewhere where fascists and Bolsheviks can kill each other off, so much the better.’ (11)

Baldwin was educated at Harrow and then Cambridge. Many IB volunteers would have left school at 14, some before, yet they had a clearer understanding of the nature of fascism than Baldwin. And it was their endeavours that helped to drag the truth of it into the light: that no appeasement would be possible.

The British Battalion was involved in four other major battles. Bernard McKenna first saw action at the Battle of Brunete. ‘I went into action on 5 July. Three hundred went in, 80 came out. The rest were wounded, captured or killed.’ Their final battle was the Battle of the Ebro in July 1938: a decisive Nationalist victory that split Republican territory in two and broke the back of the Republican army. Hundreds of IB volunteers ended the war in San Pedro concentration camp, at which the Gestapo was present. In Comrades and Commissars (2006), academic Cecil Eby describes San Pedro as being ‘like a preview of Dachau or Buchenwald’. Joe Norman, an unemployed engineer who went to Spain in December 1936, became a member of the camp committee, a Communist Party initiative to maintain morale and discipline. The committee was twice subject to what they believed was to be their execution by firing squad.

‘Twice at three in the morning they brought us out into the yard to face a firing squad. I thought, bloody hell, what a way to die; by a firing squad. They put us up against a wall, twice. Waiting for an officer to come and give the order.’ (12)

Each time, they were made to stand waiting for an hour for their execution. Prisoners died at San Pedro from disease, and from beatings and reportedly from bayonetting. ‘They saw many of our lads off without trial, without warning’, as Joe Norman put it. ‘We lost many of our lads stabbed with bayonets when they were going out to the toilet.’ (13)

The International Brigades were disbanded in October 1938, and repatriated as part of prisoner exchanges. The British government invoiced returning volunteers five pounds for the cost of the journey. Bernard McKenna and Benny Goldman kept their unpaid invoices to their dying days.

It should be said that the IB was mythologised from its inception. Franco claimed that they numbered 100,000, and the CPGB also distorted the numbers and military significance for propaganda purposes. But it is difficult to exaggerate their courage. The presence of intellectuals gave the brigades a certain cachet, with WH Auden writing of ‘poets going off like bombs’. But the largest regional group in the British Battalion were South Wales miners. They were unintentionally heroic individuals whose lives were otherwise commonplace, yet who, in their youth, threw themselves into the blast furnace of European history. That is why people name-drop IB volunteers to this day.

They were a rare breed, and many of those that returned from Spain then went on to fight Hitler, if the British armed forces would take them. Because of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the CPGB did not support the war effort until 1941, but veterans from Spain saw through the absurdity of the party line. Bernard McKenna joined the RAF as soon as war broke out. ‘I thought, sod the bloody party and its position.’ Benny Goldman joined a tank regiment on the second time of asking and Joe Norman signed up with the RAF Volunteer reserves. Madge Addy did not return with the International Brigades at the end of 1938, but remained as the only British nurse. She was imprisoned, and later released at the request of the British Embassy. During the Second World War, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive and sent to occupied France to take part in the Resistance.

When asked if he thought the sacrifice was worth it, Joe Norman was unequivocal: ‘We delayed the outcome of the Spanish Civil War for three years. If Hitler, the fascists had come [to Britain] instead of being stuck in Spain, we might be a subject nation today. That’s how I see it.’ (14)

The story of the IB is a story of internationalism. Of working people, from 53 nations, in this case, coming to the aid of a people fighting for democracy. This is not to be confused with supranationalism; the relinquishing of sovereignty to international institutions. The IB was in some respects a unique army. Testament to this is the story of Captain Oliver Law, a black American IB officer, who led the Abraham Lincoln Brigade into battle at Brunete in 1937. The US military wasn’t desegregated until 1948, but Law was killed at Brunete leading white IB soldiers into battle, the first black American to do so. His and many others’ sacrifice is a reminder that the struggle for democracy was hard won, and, on occasions, lost.

Michael Crowley is an author and dramatist. Visit his website here.

All pictures by: Getty.

(1) Interview with Sam Wild (TAPE/170) 28-Oct-74. Working Class Movement Library (WCML) Salford

(2) Interview with Benny Goldman (TAPE/032) WCML

(3) Interview with Benny Goldman WCML

(4) Quoted in Unlikely Warriors: The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism, by Richard Baxell, Aurum Press, p71

(5) Interview with Bernard McKenna (TAPE/200) WCML

(6) The Nuremberg Trial: A History of Nazi Germany as Revealed Through the Testimony at Nuremberg, by Joe Julius Heydecker, Johannes Leeb, Connecticut, 1975, p174

(7) Interview with Sam Wild, WCML

(8) Interview with Benny Goldman, WCML

(9) Interview with Sam Wild, WCML

(10) Interview with Benny Goldman, WCML

(11) Cited in ‘Myths of the International Brigades’, by Richard Baxell, in Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, (2014) p23

(12) Interview with Joe Norman, Imperial War Museum, 1977, reel four

(13) Interview with Joe Norman, IWM

(14) Interview with Joe Norman, Imperial War Museum

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