This week marks the Anniversary of General Franco’s coup to remove the democratically elected left wing government of Spain in 1936. What would follow was almost three years of vicious politically motivated violence characterised by atrocities on both sides. Whilst the Fascist forces enjoyed the material support of both Nazi Germany and Mussolinis Italy the democracies of Europe turned their back on Spain. In this atmosphere thousands of men and women from across the world were drawn to the cause of the Spanish Republic and they travelled to Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic.
In Britain, an estimated 2500 men volunteered to fight in Spain (Buchanon, 2016) and were involved in most of the major battles of the conflict. Volunteers for the International Brigades were tightly controlled by the Communist International and prospective volunteers had to firstly report to a Local communist party office which would then send them onwards to the Party headquarters in Covent Garden, from there they were to buy a return train to Paris (completed partly by boat and requiring no passport in those days) in order to medically examined in France. From here they could cross France by train before having to undertake the nightmarishly gruelling crossing of the Pyrenees mountains (Baxell, 2001) described by George Orwell in his autobiographical depiction of his own time in Spain ‘Homage to Catalonia’.
Upon arrival in Spain the volunteers were hastily given the most rudimentary military training and proceeded to fight in most of the major battles, bleeding for the republican cause on battlefields up and down Spain facing some of the fiercest opposition in the battle of Jamara. At the end of the first day the British battalion had lost more than half of its number, the battle would drag on for another three weeks, badly depleting the ranks of the International Brigades and ending in stalemate (Hopkins, 1998). In this battle Alex McDade was one such volunteer to be wounded. Alex McDade was a Glaswegian labourer who had discovered Marxist ideology, like many others of his generation who lived through the Red Clyde side period, after witnessing the poverty that surrounded him in everyday life. McDade joined the International Brigade in 1936 and was wounded at Jarama before recovering only to later be killed by fascist forces at Brunete. McDade however, was a poet as well as a soldier and he penned the words to what would later become an International Brigade anthem recalling the ferocious fighting in the Valley of Jarama.
There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.
We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.
With the rest of the international column,
In the stand for the freedom of Spain
We swore in the valley of Jarama
That fascism never will reign.
Now we’ve left that dark valley of sorrow
And its memories of regret,
So before we continue this reunion
Let us stand to our glorious dead.
Eighty-one years later the Spanish Civil war serves as a reminder of some of humanities greatest and worst qualities. The ability of a strong and aggressive minority, here Franco and his Falange, to overthrow a much more popular democratically elected left wing government serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of extremist groups regardless of their perceived size or capabilities. The orgy of violence that followed showed the darkest face of humanity as political causes turned people into machines able to kill without question ideology allowing people to justify the deaths of civilians in Guernica or priests in Asturias. The war however also presents us with a shining example through the International Brigades of the spirit of solidarity. Solidarity which transcended the national boundaries and borders that today seem to grow larger than ever and allowed people whether coal miners in Wales or middle-class intellectuals in Oxford to be so moved by the suffering of their fellow human beings on the other side of Europe that they were willing to take up the gun and die in the hope of alleviating it.
We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute. – José Buenaventura Durruti, leader of an Anti-Fascist Column Spanish Civil War. Killed in action 20/11/36
Buchanon, T. (2016) ‘Ideology, Idealism, and Adventure: Narratives of the British Volunteers in the International Brigades’, Labour History Review, vol 81(2),
Baxell, R. (2001) The British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London School of Economics.
Hopkins, J. (1998), Into the heart of the fire: The British in The Spanish Civil War, Stanford University press.