Conor Cheyne looks back at a dark period of the Twentieth Century and finds a lesson of internationalism, solidarity, and hope.
1936 was a year that will always be notorious in memory. The year the Fascist states flexed their muscle and showed the rest of the world the strength that they had. It was also the year that one of the most influential wars in modern history took place and what has become one of the most important, world changing civil wars in recent history.
At the start of 1936, Germany and Italy had fascist leaders who had cemented their power within Europe not only by fear, but by winning over the hearts of many of their people. This fascism spread throughout the world, with rallies being held in support of fascism in the UK, the USA (Madison Square Gardens – See picture below) amongst others. This period was on the backdrop of one of the worst financial crises the world had ever seen and one that tore apart countries following the turmoil that ensued after World War One. It was these two factors which lead to the growth of support for fascism in Germany, Italy…and Spain. Curiously, despite the increasing power of fascist dictators, it was in this year, on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, that comradeship, solidarity and principles reached their peak. In these dark times, a small but bright light shone that still today is remembered and will not be forgotten – The 30,000 Comrades from 53 countries who made the long trip to Spain to fight for democracy and for their fellow man against Franco.
Comrades from all around the world saw the threat of Fascism and the dangers it caused. When General Franco and his fellow Army Generals rebelled against the Socialist Spanish Government, these men and women could not sit back and let yet another nation fall under the rule of Fascists, particularly a nation with a democratically elected government.
The idea of International Brigades was proposed by the Soviet Union. Due to the Non-Intervention Pact which was currently in place, the Soviets did not wish to put their own soldiers into the war but they understood that the Republicans would need reinforcements from somewhere. The Italian and French Communist Parties were the first to set up Brigades although they were not the first too have foreign fighters participate in the war. POUM had members join their ranks at the very outbreak. It should also be noted that while it was an idea of the Soviet Union to start International Brigades, it has been much debate on whether or not that it was the Stalinists themselves who were responsible for the downfall of the republican side. This is due to the civil war inside a civil war in which the Stalinists were taking out rival groups within the republic such as POUM and Anarchist CNT. Much of this took place in Barcelona where Stalinist oppression was terrible and can be viewed from a first hand stance in George Orwells “Homage to Catalonia” although that is another article all together.
Communists who decided to join Brigades had their transport to Spain arranged by their Party, although many who were not Communists, or at least not a member of a party, had to complete the gruelling task themselves, via the Pyrenees Mountains or by boat. The sheer willingness of these comrades - who left jobs, families and livelihoods - knowing they may never return, cannot be underestimated. The affiliation they felt for their brothers and sisters in Spain and the comradeship which this invoked, is something that will always be reflected on with optimism, especially by those on the Left who will regard this as a benchmark of self sacrifice for your fellow man, a stand that hasn't been repeated in a similar way since, and may never again. This was summed up brilliantly by one Scot who fought, on the TV programme “The Scots Who Fought Franco”
“If I leave this earth tomorrow, will leave with the sense of knowing that I’ve done something on behalf of my class, on behalf of my kin”
There was an estimated 2,400 British volunteers that took up arms and marched to Spain in order to support The Republic, though despite counting for only 9% of the British Population, 20% of these volunteers were Scots. While many Scottish volunteers came from the poor, poverty stricken areas of the country, there were men from all walks of life who despised fascism who joined. Most of whom were communists, trade unionists and anarchists who not only seen the rise of fascism as a world problem, they seen that by fighting in Spain, they may inspire change back home. In Daniel Gray's “Homage to Caledonia”, one Glasgow Volunteer had written to his son back home and said:
“Whenever I see thousands of Spanish children streaming along the road away from the Fascists, my thoughts revert back home, and I can see you, and your brothers in the same circumstances if we don't smash the Fascist monsters here”.
Though to fully appreciate Scottish involvement, you need to look back and understand what was happening in Scotland, Glasgow in particular, during this period. From the 1910's until the mid 1930's, there were massive strides forward within the Labour movement across Britain, but Glasgow became the forefront of this in what became known as “Red Clydeside”. This began with the working class opposition to the First World War but soon became a radical movement for social change at a time when Communism and Socialism were both becoming popular around Europe. The culmination of which – in Scotland - was The Battle of George Square in 1919 and the election of 6 Red Clydesiders as MPs.
With the fight for social justice losing momentum and no signs of their demands being met, some became disheartened. But, there were others who wouldn't let that stop them and when the call came from Spain, it was seen as a chance to re-ignite the fires in Scotland. The great depression and the growth of Mosleys British Fascists had men ready to join the fight for freedom before it had even begun.
The first Scots to join an International Brigade were those who were members of the Tom Mann Centuria which was created in August 1936 though who were later incorporated into the German Thalmann Battalion. This small group of British volunteers was made up of men who had already been in Spain prior to the War breaking out or left to join just after. Another group in a similar position were those who joined the Commune de Paris Battalion. In this group, Jock Cunningham, a miner from Coatbridge who went to Spain in November 1936 and would play a key role in the Battle of Jarama just a couple months later. December 1936 also saw the First Scots to die in the War, Henry Bonnar who died of his injuries in Colmenar de Oreja and Martin Messer who died in Boadilla.
December 1936 saw the first introduction of the British Battalion. The brigade started when little over 100 British volunteers set out for Spain and joined Company No.1 Marseillaise Battalion.. They fought in skirmishes in Cordoba during the early weeks of their deployment and around Madrid during the early weeks of 1937. The British Battalion then received reinforcements to boost their ranks after heavy loses at the Madrid Front. Vast majority of these new recruits were either British or Irish and so the name of the battalion stuck. With these new men, a further 3 companies were formed. The group were soon to be incorporated into the 15th International Brigade along with Abraham Lincoln Brigade which, together with the British Battalion, held the majority of Scots fighting in the war.
February seen Scottish fighters get their first taste of battle in what was one the bloodiest of the war. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade hadn't yet seen any fighting but was thrown straight into the deep end along with the British Battalion. After one day of fighting in Jarama, there were over 250 British asualties. With his battalion commander injured, Scottish Jock Cunningham took control of the British Brigade who had lost over half their strength after only the second day of the battle. On the third day, Frank Ryan, leader of the Connolly Column (Famous group of Irish volunteers who fought with the Abe Lincoln Brigade) then joined with Cunningham and 140 men, marched back to recapture positions left later in the day after a massive nationalist attack. Knowing that they were all that stood against the nationalist army possibly winning the battle, the two leaders took an astonishing risk with a very small force and managed to accomplish their target. Cunningham was injured shortly after making the rank of captain in August 1937 though is remembered as being one of the most influential Non-Spanish combatants to fight in the War.
“We set out from Glasgow, to the war torn Spain”
Scottish/Irish folk band, The Wakes sung “These Hands” which tells of a young Glasgow man going off to Spain and fighting in the Battle of Jarama.
After 5 months on the Jarama Front, The Fifteenth International Brigade was moved to the west of Madrid in order to protect what was seen as the weakest part of the line. After securing the two first objectives, the British Battalion moved onto their third and final which was capturing a small but well defended village. After a hard fought battle, the village was finally captured nearing midnight. The following day the troops were moved onto their primary objective. It was here that the battalion faced horrendous loses, as when the battle of Brunete was over, they had lost 299 men. It was on the first day, while trying to take the final village that Glasgow Born Alex McDade died. He was injured during the Battle of Jarama but continued to fight on, determined that the cause he was fighting for could not fail. McDade is not only remembered for his courage, but for the famous poem, “Valley of Jarama” which was later edited slightly and sung by Woodie Guthrie.
The rest of the war saw Scottish volunteers fight in Aragon, Teruel and during the Ebro offensive. During this time, men such as Ash Francis and Robert Cruikshank from Glasgow, Airlie Frank from Bellshill and Archibald Dewar from Aberdeen. Peter Kerrigan, a communist from Glasgow and Communist Party of Great Britain’s representative to the Comintern. During the Spanish Civil War he served as a commissar for English-speaking volunteers, he was present when the British Battalion were targets of a massive artillery strike during the Ebro Offensive in September 1938:
“I could give dozens of individual acts of heroism but what is the use. The list of citations which I enclose, tells in brief official terms of the acts of deathless glory which were played out against a background of the cutting to pieces of our very bravest. I saw what No. 1 Company. came through at Córdoba and I will never forget when I was told what our casualties were in those first 3 days at Jarama. But nothing can compare with the end of our battalion”
After the announcement on 21st September by the Spanish Prime Minister that all foreign fighters would be sent home, the International Brigades prepared to head back to their homes which they had left in order to fight for this country that they had no attachment to what so ever. 17th of October saw the International Brigades farewelled through the streets of Barcelona. Here, cheered by thousands including Spain President and Prime Minister, the volunteers waved goodbye, though not before a speech from Dolores Ibarruri or La Pasionaria in which she shouted:
“Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of that same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy… We will not forget you”
Here, if no where else, we can see for ourselves how cherished these volunteers were to the Spanish people. They understood that these men came to fight in order to keep Spain safe from fascism and help the Spanish people, a people most had no affiliation to at all. For many who fought Franco’s forces in Spain, it would not be the last time they would face such an enemy. Soon enough, the world would be plunged into chaos by the by the same powers and ideology that these courageous men volunteered to face in the towns, cities and fields of Spain.
Now, in 2013, the legacy of the International Brigades is kept alive and well. At memorials all around the world - such as the one in Glasgow, shown below – services are held to remember those who selflessly went to fight dark reaction. There are songs-aplenty telling the tales of men who made the trip to take Franco head-on and books charting the stories. Scots who fought during the International Brigades should still have as much meaning today for us as they did all those years ago. These men have inspired many other generations – and I include myself in that. The very idea is something that stirs the blood, particularly in those searching to be inspired in a time when morals and principle seem to have little say in the world.
During a period when society is crumbling, when thinking of your neighbour has become an unimaginable concept to so many, and the ugly face of extreme right politics is seen again on the streets of Europe, it is always good to look back to this period. It makes me smile to think of the courage it took, and the determination. There is no act braver than putting yourself in harms way for your fellow human beings and a better world, and that is exactly what happened.
Conor is a 20 year old Engineering Apprentice, a member of Highland Socialist Alliance, and active in Highlands No2 Bedroom Tax Campaign.