Baxell, Richard (2007), British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936 – 1939 (Warren & Pell: Abersychan)
Greening, Edwin (2006), From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of his Life (Warren & Pell: Abersychan)
For my first book review Richard Baxell’s work seemed an obvious place to start. The Spanish Civil War is a topic I have been interested in since my time in school, and was the topic of one of my major A-level essays. As such it is a subject I am reasonably well acquainted with. Furthermore this book happens to be one of my bestsellers. In the second-hand trade repeat sales of individual titles is not particularly common but thanks to the local market I have been able to acquire multiple copies of this book at a very reasonable rate. It’s publisher, sadly now defunct, is Warren & Pell, which at one time, operated in Abersychan, not too far from where I live. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Alan Warren through my father, and he helped me in supplying resources for my previously mentioned A-level project. Having once maintained a lively internet presence, following a move to Spain he seems to have sadly fallen off the radar, but I always keep my eye out for the books he helped publish. As such I have made use of this review to also mention another of his titles I currently have in stock, Edwin Greening’s “From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of His Life”. Not commonly available, I was able to pick up a copy going cheap on eBay. Greening’s work is a nice accompaniment to Baxell’s, serving as a personalized, first-hand account of much of what Baxell covers.
Before dealing with the content of the books I should also mention another reason that led me both to read “British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” and to choose it for review. That is the glowing comment supplied by a leading authority on the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston, which I reproduce here in full:
“There is a huge literature on the role of the British volunteers in the International Brigades. Some of it is inspirational, some of it deeply moving, yet if I could keep only one book on the subject it would have to be the one by Richard Baxell. No one before or since has managed to weld the volume of disorganized and confusing memoir material into a clear and coherent political and military chronology and geography. Not only is this entirely serious but it is also extremely exciting. Baxell’s book is a classic in the making on the Spanish Civil War.”
Such praise is not undeserved. Right from outset it is apparent Baxell’s work is one of rigorous research. He appears to have left little unexamined in his quest for comprehension. References are taken from first-hand accounts, Russian archives, historical appraisals, and even unpublished dissertations. The reference and bibliography section alone takes some reading. Yet, this is a remarkably concise book at 216pp. in total, with just 152pp. comprising the main text. Baxell’s ability to continually engage is also commendable given the academic rigour.
He begins by looking at who comprised the British section of the 15th International Brigade. Previous work had tended to overstate the proportion of middle-class intellectuals present. Often this has been a problem of perception as much as anything else, with the most prominent first-hand accounts of the conflict emerging from this stratum. Most famously George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”, but also figures like Laurie Lee and John Cornford have given greater prevalence to the role of the intelligentsia in the International Brigades than there numbers warrant. Instead Baxell draws out a clear picture of the predominant trend amongst volunteers: 80% working-class, largely from urban centres, and in unionised jobs. Whilst some expressed reluctance to state an explicit political affiliation upon recruitment, the majority that did were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).
Whilst some who attempted to go to Spain were refused as unsuitable, this seems to have been more on political grounds than anything else, as the recruits were largely inexperienced militarily. Nevertheless many members of organisations other than the CPGB did go to Spain, with the Labour Party having 110 declared members. The CPGB were however, undeniably the main force behind mobilisation for recruitment. Attempts at the time by the right-wing press, at its head, as ever, The Daily Mail, to depict the volunteers as unemployed layabouts looking for some action, appear unfounded on the basis of Baxell’s data. Although he accepts that, as was the case for many in 1930’s Britain, despite listing an occupation upon recruitment, many volunteers may have been struggling for consistent work.
As Baxell moves on to address what motivated the volunteers to go and fight in Spain he is entirely dismissive of the most cynical appraisals. There is no evidence to suggest anyone volunteered for financial reasons, as some critics have claimed, or that they were tricked into participation by a deceptive CPGB. Financial remuneration was low, and all first-hand accounts are clear that volunteers were made aware of this, as well as the many other hardships they would face in Spain, prior to enlistment. Whilst the motivation for a few may have been adventure and escape, such was certainly atypical. When one considers the amount sacrificed by volunteers, in what was, nominally at least, a foreign civil war, it can be hard to comprehend how they came in such numbers, from many parts of the world unless it is understood that they did not view the events in Spain as a foreign civil war at all, but merely the flashpoint for an international struggle against the encroaching march of fascism. Even a cursory glance across Europe in the 1930s should be enough to demonstrate why many people felt this, and in hindsight it is clear that they were quite right to. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was also generating some political momentum, and the experience of fighting the fascists on British streets, and forcing partial retreat, also drove many to Spain. Beyond anti-fascism, involvement in other social and political struggles also had influence.
Here it is apt to mention Greening’s memoir. He details his involvement as a young miner, in and out of work, in several campaigns around the Welsh valleys, particularly the National Unemployed Workers Movement. He describes communities enthused with political struggle, mass rallies and debates, and the desire to stand up and fight the government. His disappointment at the Labour Party’s unwillingness to take the battle to the streets and organise mass demonstrations led him into the local section of the CPGB. Greening’s account, whilst very much his own, is in many ways representative of the broader experiences which led individuals to volunteer for the International Brigades. Solidarity with the Spanish Republic was particularly strong amongst mining communities, in part fuelled by links that had been developed through British miners support for the 1934 uprising of Spanish miners in Asturias. Hywel Francis’ book “Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War” of which I have a copy, but am yet to read, elaborates on this point. Perhaps I will return to it at more length when I have done so.
Having established the make up of the volunteers, and the reasons behind their decision to go to Spain, Baxell then gives an account of their combat role. Throughout the war, the Republic was at a continual disadvantage to Franco’s forces in several vital aspects, often exemplified in the International Brigades’ experiences. Whilst the Brigades did encompass some of the Republic’s most skilled military cadre, those with previous combat experience were very much the minority. This was true throughout the Republican forces, and only worsened as the war wore on and conscription became necessary.
The arms situation was even more deplorable. Entirely inexperienced recruits were sent out into the field without any weapons training. Within the International Brigades the training seems to have been particularly poor, amounting to little more than marching drills. Whilst there does appear to have been some negligence in regards to training, the lack of military equipment was the predominant factor. There were simply not enough guns to spare, and even if a raw recruit was lucky enough to handle a weapon prior to seeing action, ammunition was unlikely to be supplied. If one compares this situation with that of their adversaries it seems remarkable the Republic held out for as long as it did. Highly trained, experienced troops comprised the core of Franco’s fighting force. A flood of arms from Nazi Germany was also at their behest, not to mention advisers, aircraft, and troops on the ground. This allowed Franco to continually outnumber the Republic’s forces.
It also brings light to one of the most discussed aspects of the Civil War. I will not deal with it in any depth here as it is not Baxell’s main concern, but it cannot pass without mention. The international support enjoyed by Franco was arguably the fundamental reason for his eventual victory. Whilst Britain and France sat on their hands cowering behind a Non-Intervention pact, the fascist world made no attempts to hide their mass arming of Franco. Meanwhile Stalin, driven by his fear of Hitler, was anxious not to over aggravate Britain and France, and thus sent only minimal financial and military support to the Republic. Given the role the Spanish Communist Party was to play, under Comintern direction, in seeking to control the revolution and stifle its most radical elements could also arguably be seen as an essentially destructive force to the cause of the Republic. Whilst Greening, a good Party man, certainly makes no such claims for the adverse role of Soviet intervention, instead praising their support, he is clear in his view that the British establishment was essentially complicit in the fascist victory in Spain. It’s evident that large sections of it favoured a fascist Spain to a communist Spain.
This was one of many factors that fuelled British volunteers with the immense bravery and conviction they showed in Spain. They viewed it also as a struggle against there own ruling class. High morale and political dedication were arguably a major factor in the length of the Republic’s resistance, and helped to compensate, albeit meagrely, for their obvious deficiencies in other aspects. This was an army overwhelmingly committed to the rightness of their cause, and willing to go to any extent to defend it. Such was particularly true of the non-Spanish sections of the Brigades, who had after all, given up all that they had, without any pressure other than their convictions. One Brigader, mentioned in Baxell, and prominent in his own right, is Tom Wintringham. I have admired his work since becoming aware of it. One of his books, “Armies of Freemen”, offers a tenuous but engaging thesis that wars throughout the ages have been won by those with liberty on their side, who were fighting for themselves, and not at the behest of any elite or master. He uses examples such as the Spartans at Thermopylae, victorious against great odds, over a slave army. His assertions would not meet historical rigour, but it is a highly entertaining read nonetheless. The outcome of the Spanish Civil War itself is a clear exception to Wintringham’s thesis, but there is certainly something in his assertion that political conviction amongst troops is an important asset in war. Greening perhaps offers a more apposite perspective. In response to a statement made by 15th Brigade Chief of Staff Captain Smrka that, “… good morale is better than all the bombing planes in the world!” he writes, “I disagree; both are of equal value in battle.” (p. 86)
The first prominent involvement of British troops in Spain was the important role they played in the Republican defence of Madrid in 1936. Baxell recognises the significance of their contribution whilst urging caution towards certain accounts that have portrayed the 15th Brigade as solely responsible for the victory. As the war went on such successes were to become few and far between for the Republic. Still, accounts of great bravery amongst the British volunteers emerge from every major battle. It seems even considerable problems with coordination and organisation failed to dint the commitment of many. Greening describes, in perhaps the most captivating section of his book, how during the Ebro campaign in 1938, Greening and two comrades were separated from their unit and had to spend several days scavenging behind enemy lines before being able to rejoin the main group. (pp. 87-93) It seems such things were not uncommon.
Brigades had to face other considerable problems too. Desertion was a factor, as was internal conflict on both national and factional-political grounds. Whilst efforts had been made to enforce a policy of shooting deserters it appears that the British sections at least, were unwilling to do so, although a few accounts have filtered through of undesirable individuals purposely being placed in harm’s way. Baxell considers that the factual evidence suggests this may have happened once or twice during the course of the war, with a similar level of executions, reserved only for deserters it was believed were attempting to aid fascist troops. Baxell states, “… there is no doubt that the belief that the battalion was ruled with rigid and merciless discipline, including the execution of deserters, is an exaggeration.” (p. 147)
It appears that for the most part those who deserted the Brigades did so due to the appalling hardship of the war, rather than political disaffection, or anger at the dominant role of the official Communists within the Brigades. No doubt there were political disagreements but these seem to have been secondary to disputes of a national nature, at least according to Baxell’s account. In a way this may seem strange, avowed internationalists bickering along national lines, but whatever ones beliefs, the influence of national culture and identity impacts on ones outlook. For the most part it was manifested as harmless banter, but it did have a more sinister and disruptive side, particularly as the war continued. Some British volunteers began to view the Spanish as weak. Conversely the Spanish were coming to resent the seniority enjoyed by foreigners within the International Brigades, which, by the later stages of the war, were predominantly comprised of Spaniards. Irish Brigaders defected from the British Battalion to join the American Lincoln Battalion over unwillingness to fight alongside men who had served in the British Army inIreland. Greening recalls a fight breaking out between white American and black Cuban Brigaders shortly before repatriation. (p. 102) But these disputes should not be overstated. Baxell concludes that for the most part they remained petty, and went against the prevailing spirit of the Brigades. The appreciation of many normal Spaniards for the role played by the International Brigades was clear when they turned out to bid them farewell once the decision for repatriation had been made.
There were clearly also personal disputes within the Brigades. It appears they never reached sufficient levels to disrupt operations, but there were some events of note, one of the most prominent and intriguing being the incident between Wilf McCartney and Peter Kerrigan. It was claimed that Kerrigan had accidentally shot McCartney thereby ending his service period inSpain. Some Brigaders believed it not to have been an accident at all. McCartney had become a liability, and “increasingly critical of the Party”. However, Baxell remains unconvinced it was anything other than an accident seeing as McCartney was about to return on leave to Britainanyway, and could have been prevented from returning to Spain had the CPGB leadership considered him unfit. (pp. 72-73) Nevertheless the varying accounts of volunteers supplied by Baxell seem to suggest a degree of factionalism surrounding the dispute, perhaps a possible indicator of deeper lying political divisions. Greening also relays his personal dispute with Lance Rogers about his period of absence from the Brigade following his separation at the Ebro. (p. 102-106) It certainly appears a somewhat bizarre affair. Such things were certainly an aspect of life for British volunteers in the Brigades.
Baxell’s penultimate chapter deals with the experiences of British prisoners of war. Despite efforts by elements of the British press sympathetic to the nationalist cause to play down the levels of mistreatment suffered, Baxell concludes that conditions were harsh for Brigaders captured by the fascists. They were however largely safe from execution due to Franco’s unwillingness to risk provocation. On the whole their punishment was restricted to severe beatings and attempts at indoctrination. Some of the latter allowed prisoners to mock their guards with faux appreciation for Franco, amending the cry of ‘Franco!’ to ‘Fuck You’, and offering a bizarre display of comical fascist salutes. More constructively, sections of the CPGB formed prisoners committees in an attempt to manage internal disputes without involvement of the guards.
The books concluding chapter is perhaps it’s most interesting. Here Baxell takes a step back from the immediate experience of British volunteers in Spain and asks the question, “British Volunteers for Liberty, or Comintern Army?” He positions himself firmly in the former camp. He is highly critical of recent accounts that have reduced the International Brigades to a mere pawn of Stalin. Whilst he accepts that Stalin did attempt to manipulate the Brigades and the Spanish situation at large, in alignment with his policy of “socialism in one country”, there are little grounds for seeing the Brigaders themselves as the exponents of Stalin’s domestic policy on Spanish soil. The great purges in Russia were never matched in Spain. In fact there are very few reported executions, with deserters receiving largely liberal treatment. It is also important to keep the events in context. Spain was locked in a brutal civil war. Simply allowing fascism to seize the reins was not a consideration for the Brigaders, thus certain measures otherwise undesirable, would have been considered. With that in mind Baxell concludes that the authoritarian nature of the Brigades has been overplayed by both right and left. He is also adamant that it does a severe disservice to the Brigaders to view them as Soviet dupes, “they went to Spain to fight fascism, and by their definition of fascism they did just that.” Any support they received from Soviet Russia was welcomed with open arms, whilst most of the world stood by and watched. Baxell’s concludes by deploying the weight of hindsight, and sees history as vindicating the volunteers. Their “analysis was … proved correct. [They] were fighting an illegal military rising launched against a legally elected government, the rising was supported by the might of the European fascist powers of Italy and Germany and the war was the precursor for the wider European conflict that the Western democracies had sacrificed the Spanish Republic to avoid.” (p. 152)
It is hard to feel anything but massive admiration for all those who risked and gave their lives fighting to stave off fascist advance, with the hope to forge a brighter future. Both Baxell and Greening’s works are important contributions to their history. I would go so far as to say Baxell’s account is essential. And I’m not just saying that because I have it for sale! It appears unmatched in comprehension and even-handedness. Greening’s work is more supplementary, but it is the availability of such accounts that has allowed Baxell to compile such an impressive panorama. The books work well when read in conjunction, Greening providing the personalised narrative to Baxell’s analytical treatment.
Greening discusses much more of interest than that I have dealt with here, providing insight into life in the Welsh valley towns up to and during the 1930’s depression, his politicisation, and a brief account of his experiences during the Second World War.
Details of the copies I have in stock:
Baxell, Richard (2007), British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936 – 1939 (Warren & Pell: Abersychan). 2nd edition. Paperback. Condition: Fine. 216pp. Profusely illustrated with maps and tables. £10
Greening, Edwin (2006), From Aberdare to Albacete. A Welsh International Brigader’s Memoirs of his Life (Warren & Pell: Abersychan). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Nr. Fine. 160pp. Illustrated. Slight creasing to top corner. £15
A selection of other titles on the Spanish Civil War I currently have in stock:
Kenwood, Alun ed. (1993), The Spanish Civil War. A Cultural and Historical Reader (Berg:Providence). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Very Good. xiv + 306pp. From the Berg European Studies Series. Marking and wear to covers. £6
Kay, Solly ed., In Defence of Liberty. Spain 1936-9. International Brigade Memorial (International Brigade Memorial Appeal: London). 1st edition. Paperback. Condition: Very Good. 24pp. Illustrated. Marking to covers. Some creasing to corners. £4
Edwards, Jill (1979), The British Government and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Macmillan:London). 1st Edition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in very good dust jacket. xiv + 280pp. Contains maps and tables. Dust jacket spine faded. £20
Heaton, P. M. (1985), Welsh Blockade Runners in the Spanish Civil War (Starling: Risca). 1stEdition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in fine dust jacket. 107pp. Illustrated, with maps. £6
Lee, Laurie (1991), A Moment of War (Viking: London). 1st edition. Hardback. Condition: Fine in near fine dust jacket. 178pp. Illustrated. Creasing to internal front flap of dust jacket. £3
Campbell, Roy (1939), Flowering Rifle. A Poem from the Battlefield of Spain (Longmans, Green, and Co.: London). 1st edition. Hardback. Condition: Very Good. No dust jacket. 157pp. Previous owners’ signature to front end paper. Variable mild foxing, occasional throughout. £20
If you are interested in any of the above titles, or anything else I have in stock, please contact me on the email address provided. Please note that the above prices do not include shipping costs.