Singing Brigaders

Stuart Walsh, a wonderful colleague and friend in  Lancashire notified me of this recent find, an article in the Daily Worker, for 9th December 1938 mentions Stockton.

These eighteen lines are packed with valuable information: Firstly that in 1938 Stockton’s office for the Daily Worker was at 92 Hartington Road. This is just a few metres away from Trinity Churchyard where George Short held his NUWM surgeries on Sunday evenings after the local magistrates had banned him from holding them at the Market Cross. The Daily Worker was the Communist Party Newspaper, the proceeds from sales of this were used to fund the activities of the local Party.

Up until this point I had not considered a secular ‘Christening’ happening in the 1930’s, today a naming ceremony followed by  a celebration is much more common, but to see it so officially Party Political is quite surprising, although I love the concept of the children being named ‘under the red flag.’

I need to research three of the four names, but one needs no introduction, the last child listed is George Short jr, who is referred to as George III as his father and Grandfather were both named George Short; George Short jr’s parents are George and Phyllis Short, he being the Teesside District organiser for the Communist Party (see

The ‘songs by members of the International Brigade’ is also of great interest. The plural is used, which tells us there were more than one. Of the twenty one Teesside volunteers, seven were killed in Spain, hence we have a small number to choose from, although I suspect a number from Tyneside may have travelled down for this Party event.

We know of two brigaders in particular who were musical and also good singers. Otto Estensen had returned home just a few days earlier; arriving in Newhaven on 7th December 1938 with the rest of the repatriated British Battalion. We even have photographic proof of his musicality in Spain – the Iconic photograph of the XV Brigade anti-tank  battery. We also know that Otto was lodging with the Shorts in 1938, and did so until his marriage to Eleanor the following year.

We also know that his best friend, Tommy Chilvers, who had also served in the XV Brigade anti-tank  battery was musical; he played his guitar at the concerts put on by the Basque refugees from the colony at Hutton Hall. hence it is a virtual certainty that Otto and Tommy were providing the songs, and likely that they were a part of the ‘string band.’

What is even more pleasing is that George III is still with us, and I have been able to bring this small part of his personal story to his attention. It is a fascinating insight into the cultural outlook of these Communists on Teesside, a very personal event can tell us a lot about these wonderful people.

Sadly it is too late to add this interesting story to the book – I sing of my comrades: Remembering Stockton’s international Brigaders, however it reminds us that there is still much more to discover about these fascinating people.

The book has been produced to Support John Christie’s memorial campaign – 

It will be available soon, but if you wish to pre-order, please contact me through –



The school strikes of 1911

This is a special guest blog from David Walsh

On 5th September 1911, a group of thirty or so boys marched out of Bigyn council school in Llanelli in West Wales to protest over the caning of one of their peers. Within days, pupils in more than sixty towns throughout Britain had taken to the streets to express their grievances. And many of these protests and walk-outs also happened here in the North East

The school strikes of 1911 took place during a time of widespread industrial unrest. Llanelli itself had witnessed a traumatic strike of local railwaymen, with 600 soldiers sent into the town to keep the peace, but which only led to rioting and several fatalities.

The same was true in the North East. Early in that year there had been a stoppage by dock workers which shut the ports of Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Sunderland. This was then followed by a North East seamen’s strike and climaxed with the region’s railwaymen walking out as one – an action which led to troops being deployed in Darlington and East Cleveland and to railway services coming to a total standstill.

Children were not immune from all of this – many parents were directly involved as employees within these industries. They were also aware of the emerging adult labour movement – as one boy told a Daily Mirror reporter, ‘our fathers strike – why shouldn’t we?’ But should the strikes of 1911 be seen merely as copy-cat protests?

The particular incident which triggered the first strike in 1911 was the hitting of a child by an assistant teacher in the absence of the Headmaster, who was away from school on sick leave. By the end of the week the strike had spread to schools in the big cities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and other cities. The remarkable speed in which the strikes developed was often blamed by local councillors on the newspapers. While some of the protests were violent – for instance, boys in the East End of London were armed with sticks, iron bars and belts – the vast majority were peaceful affairs.

The Northern Echo covered the issue thoroughly, although initially with a degree of levity. The first reports on the 11th September covered schoolboy strikes in South and East London, Grimsby, Colchester and even Dublin, observing that the central demands were for the abolition of the birch and the cane, then still in wide use, and for payment for homework – a penny a day was suggested.

Clearly this publicity did not go unnoticed by local schoolchildren, and by the 14th, the first school strikes in the region – at Stockton – were reported, with a description of boys from Oxbridge Lane School walking out to hold an impromptu march through the town, parading with posters calling for a reduction in school hours, the abolition of the cane and payment of a penny a day for monitors. The Echo reported that the authorities, in the shape of Attendance Officers, the dreaded ‘school board men’, called on the parents of the absent pupils to ensure no repeat took place. Whether this had any real impact is hard to gauge – certainly by the same evening, the Echo was reporting that the very same boys were back, this time marching through Stockton High Street.

Oxbridge Lane School about 1932, from

By the following day, the strike fever reached Newcastle, where senior pupils at the Sandyford Road Council School struck demanding the abolition of homework. In the report it was said that “the headmaster’s stance, refusing to consider the application, led to the boys holding meetings outside the school and on the town moor.  Similar occurrences occurred on the other side of the Tyne involving a number of boys at the Gateshead Council and National Schools who also ” struck.”

Similar events occurred at Middlesbrough and York, where the demand was for ‘less work and less stick’.

Things in the Hartlepools took a more serious turn, with the London Times reporting that 100 boys at the Galleys Hill council school ‘came out’ and ‘that a storage room at the back of an hotel was looted and some bottles of stout and whisky and boxes of cigars were removed by the “strikers” some of whom were arrested and will be charged this morning….…The boys are also stated to have thrown stones at the windows of houses occupied by the teachers.”

The same paper also reported that “at Middlesbrough a procession of young “strikers” was dispersed by the police, who seized the placards they were carrying. Over 100 boys marched from school to school trying to bring others out and stones were thrown into one of the playgrounds where lads were drilling.”

This was borne out by reports in the then Middlesbrough Daily Gazette which identified the schools at the heart of the trouble as being “in the Newport District” and also observing that slogans were being chalked on school walls, and that, wonder of wonders, “they were both neat and correctly spelt”.

By the 18th the contagion had spread to Darlington and South West Durham. The Echo reported that “A number of the older boys at Harrowgate Hill School walked out of classes after the first lesson’, then, with what the paper said was a ‘meagre number’ leaving the school at midday to march to Rise Carr School where they linked up with a similar group who had also struck class, to hold a public meeting at a nearby street corner”.

This meeting must have been witnessed by an Echo reporter, as the account stated that the demands put forward there were for ‘a penny a week for all children and a four day school week’. The Echo observed that they ‘may have to wait a long time for this’ and acidly observed that ‘in the meantime it was voted as good fun to hold their meetings and defy teachers from the safe side of the school wall.’

The following week saw Echo reports of similar actions in South Shields where the majority of schools in the town were out, and where the police, robustly, corralled students back to class, and at Shildon, where schools in the town were picketed by pupils from the outlying Black Boy and Eldon schools, action which resulted in a ‘small number of students at the Shildon Council School joining in a march through Shildon under the slogan of ‘strikestrike and strike a blow for freedom.’

But by the following week, the strikes, save for a small reported flare up at Crook, were over, with pupils back at the chalk face, and their demands unmet.

The 1911 school strikes shouldn’t be overplayed. Numerically, while thousands were involved nationally they represented less than one per cent of the total school-age population. Their significance doesn’t relate to numbers – but the fact that many young people felt that they had to speak out on the issues that concerned them – and this, almost everywhere, centring around the practice of corporal punishment – the strap, the cane and even the birch.

It was also noticeable that all the stoppages in the North East related to what were called ‘council schools’ – that is, schools set up by the local authority, and given increased power through the earlier 1902 Education Act. The strikes did not seem to affect either the more middle class and exclusive church schools or local Grammar Schools, and the protests seemed to occur entirely in working class areas of the region.  Also noticeable was that the press reports spoke uniformly of “School Boys” – there was no mention of any involvement of girls from the strictly segregated all-girls council schools. Was there any ?

An image from Hull, School Strike 1911

There can be no doubt that these were genuine grievances. In following years some school authorities recognised the serious nature of the strikes and looked for ways to improve home-school relationships, against others who called for a firmer hand. In wider society, reforms to improve welfare provisions for children were well under way but corporal punishment remained the mainstay of controlling pupils for many teachers until as late as the 1970’s and the 1980s.

While schools today are required under the National Curriculum to provide opportunities for pupils to discuss a range of social issues, for instance in citizenship lessons, or through the setting up of School Councils, it is clear that, evidenced by school student protests over the future College Fees they will face, this is seen by many pupils as a mere token provision.

So, the decision to walk out of class and march through the streets – as we have seen in more recent years – remains the most dramatic form of pupil protest.

And the schoolboy strikers at Oxbridge Lane, Newport, Harrowgate Hill, Galleys Hill and Eldon – as well as all the other schools cited ? Tragically the leavers classes of 1911 were also the conscripts of 1916 who were then to face, not the cane, but the machine guns, gas and the barbed wire at the Battle of the Somme.

David Walsh

Citation from the Times Archive 


At West Hartlepool about 100 boys at a council school ” came out.” A storage room at the back of an hotel was looted, and some bottles of stout and whisky and boxes of cigars were removed by the “‘ strikers,” some of whom were arrested and will be charged this morning. While marching through the streets the boys stopped an errand boy who was taking some apples to a house and helped themselves freely to the fruit. The boys are also stated to have thrown stones at the windows of houses occupied by the teachers. At Newcastle-on-Tyne yesterday afternoon the bigger boys at Sandyford-road Council School “struck,” demanding the abolition of home work. The head master refusing to consider the application, the boys held meetings outside the school and on the town moor. A number of boys at the Gateshead Council and National Schools also ” struck.” At one school they demanded the payment of a penny to each from the rates every Friday afternoon.  At Middlesbrough a procession of young ” strikers” was dispersed by the police, who seized the placards they were carrying. Over 100 boys marched from school to school trying to bring others out, and stones were thrown into one of the playgrounds where lads were drilling.


The schoolboys’- strike ” showed signs of dwindling yesterday, and in many cases the returning truants were severely punished by masters or parents. The “strike” in Newcastle-on-Tyne was ended yesterday. The boys returned to their lessons in the morning, most of them bringing notes stating that they had been punished by their parents. They also received lectures from the school managers. 

Return to the Ebro


On  27th May 2021 Mike Wild posted some images of a programme for the Play Return to the Ebro.

he wrote :

Play by friend and neighbour Berlie Doherty for 50th Anniversary of SCW in 1986. Later broadcast on BBC radio 4 as There’s a Valley in Spain . Several amateur productions have been done. It was very well received on tour. Old Sam’s mannerisms and voice were well captured by ‘Joe Grundy’ from The Archers!

The programme bills this as a ‘world premiere’ of ‘The true and moving story of Sam Wild’

The production was specially commissioned by The Library Theatre Company (

As Mike mentions Berlie Doherty was a friend and neighbour, and the cast are exceptional.

Mike mentioned that it was later broadcast on BBC Radio4 as There’s a Valley in Spain. John Scholey has kindly shared his copy of the broadcast.

In the intervening years Berlie Doherty has gone on to become a Carnegie medal winning author , with well over 60 books to her name, as well as  many plays for radio, theatre and television.  Her website can be found at – Berlie Doherty

The Good Comrade – Memoirs of an International Brigader

The Good Comrade – Memoirs of an International Brigader. Jan Kurzke :– ISBN: 978-01-913693-06-0

Published by- The Clapton Press

I am beginning  to run out of superlatives for Clapton Press, for this volume is divine.

These are the memoirs of Jan Kurzke, born in Hamburg in 1905, he was a talented artist, he fled the Nazi regime in 1933, eventually finding refuge in Spain where he ‘toured the country’, he travelled on to England where he met Kate Mangan  the married artist, actress, and journalist. After meeting Kurzke in 1934 she gained a divorce and then in 1936 traveled to Spain to look for Kurzke. Jan had joined the forming International Brigades and fought in the defence of Madrid, when he was wounded Kate nursed him and arranged for his evacuation from Spain. On their return to England they married.

What is really odd is that none of this wonderful love story is mentioned by Jan in his memoirs, as Richard Baxell explains in his detailed introduction, this was half of a wider memoir written with Kate Mangan, and her part of this dual memoir is published separately, also by The Clapton Press as Never More Alive .

A challenge to this publication is that Kurzke’s memoirs are fragmentary; his description of his  Spanish tour is left incomplete in 1934, just as he embarks on a new adventure, it  begins again with him reentering Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic in 1936, and again ends as he crosses the border once again, this time as a wounded soldier.

The reason for the discontinuous nature of the memoir is made clear both by Richard in his introduction and in the two Appendixes. Put simply this is all that remains. I think it is a brave decision to publish what appears to be an incomplete account.

In my opinion this decision is fully justified and is one we should be thankful for, as we have this fantastic account to relish, this is because the prose is beautiful and the narrative compelling, it is a joy to read; in fact a number of times I stopped reading the narrative to go back and reread a passage simply to enjoy the phrasing of the prose; and one must remember this is written in his second language.

Richard Baxell provides a detailed introduction, which at first I felt was a real spoiler; he details what Jan does and sees, explaining what happens prior to and post his first visit to Spain and gives us the point in which the narrative cuts off. Richard talks about Kate Mangan and her search for Jan, and how she finds him in a hospital awaiting the amputation of his leg, how she manages to avert the procedure and eventually takes him to safety.

If you think, as I did, that there would be no surprises left, that Richard had summarised Jan’s account, you will be wrong, very very wrong. The prose is so outstandingly well crafted and the detail so finely balanced you will find yourself rapidly absorbed into the story.

Jan gives us a glorious account of life  tramping round the southern parts of Spain, he provides witness to the debilitating  feudalistic poverty of the rural population,  his first-hand accounts of his encounters with fellow tramps and the Spanish peasantry are horrifically empathetic; the descriptions of the absolute deprivation need no accompanying elaboration.

The opening scenes as Jan prepares to tramp around Spain are deeply reminiscent of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, but this account swiftly surpasses Orwell’s detached and observational account, for Jan is not merely playing a role for a few short months and then returning to his comfortable life,  gathering anecdotes and inspiration. We feel Jan Kurzke living the life of a tramp, we take the journey with him; he is literally penniless, he is barely surviving, barely keeping himself alive. This makes his accounts of the living conditions of the Spaniards he encounters so overwhelming, it is shocking to read his sympathy for the families he meets, as he realises that they are in a worse situation than him, at least he can escape the situation he finds himself in by moving on, or ceasing the struggle to  stay alive.

One really warms to Jan, his natural charm is manifest in the way he describes the people he meets and the relationships he develops. There are two significant relationships he develops whilst tramping, the first is with Hermann, the fellow German.

I struck the main road from whence I could see the town. A man was sitting in a ditch not far off and I  knew he was a German from the map he was studying. A Spanish tramp does not mind where he goes or what the distance is between one place and another, but Germans are more methodical. they always plan, or make one; they like to have an objective, they like to know the country they tramping through. i found it helped me a lot, especially when resting, and I studied the names of places and mountains, towns and villages, and i would pencil off roads already covered and measure the distance to the next town.

Implicit in the account of his time with Hermann is how Hermann mentored Jan, shared his experience, guided him, collaborated and trained Jan. It was a real wrench when Jan departs from Hermann. I feel that this partnership guides us through pre-war Spain, illuminating the conditions in Spain which demanded reform, but Jan does not preach, he does not analyse, he simply reports on what he has witnessed, and his  description of the impoverishment of the Spanish populace is more the powerful for his lack of judgement.

It is striking that despite the horrific hardship Jan witnesses and to some extent experiences is not morose or depressing, his prose is uplifting as well as enlightening, which makes the situations he describes even more enraging.

Jan departs from Herman to join a trio of entertainers, led by the German born photographer Walter Reuter, the others were Walter’s wife and the beautiful young blonde Margarethe Zembal, who Jan refers to as ‘Putz’ and who Jan clearly fell in love with, despite promising Walter he wouldn’t.

It is just as he begins his adventures with these three colourful characters that the memoirs come to an abrupt end. This is pretty jarring as the narrative is flowing so freely one feels very much like Wile Coyote as he runs off the edge of a cliff; we seem to continue on, until, after a delay, we find there is nothing there. Even with Richard’s warning it still comes as a disappointing shock, in fact I may even suggest that without the prior warning this halt in the story would be a killer. I think it is testimony to the editors skill that he feels he can highlight the gap in the narrative to openly, because pre-warned I felt eventually felt frustrated towards myself for forgetting the warning, rather than directing my frustration at anyone else who was depriving me of the continued pleasure of reading this fine narrative.

The opening scene in this second section has Jan travelling into Spain,  it feels much like an entirely  separate narrative, which indeed it is because two years have passed, and Jan is a different man; older, wiser, with more responsibilities. However the prior section means that we are familiar with this character, we have an insight into his thoughts and feelings, we know him. The wonderful prose is still there but this time it is  not so light, it is much more descriptive, reflecting the subject matter, although Jan has lost none of his warmth and humanity.

I found the  second section rewarding for different reasons to the first section; I am much more familiar with the context of the narrative, for this is the period which covers the events to which I have already studied whilst researching  David Marshall and reading, another Clapton Press publication, Boadilla by Esmond Romilly .

Jan Kurzke’s account compliments these other accounts, he not only looks at some similar events from a different perspective, but the fact that Jan is not English means that he has different priorities, and dare I say it, different standards to the other two. It is notablr that Jan had some experience in firearms before Spain, and is therefore slightly more confident than the Englishmen when in the heat of battle. Jan had an advantage over most of his fellow British volunteers, as he was multilingual he could communicate much more easily.

One similarity which seems to reflect the other two accounts is Jan’s easy familiarity with significant individuals, his friend John was the poet John Cornford, a legendary figure in the International Brigades. so too was Jock; who Jan says had a permanent look of puzzlement on his face. I’ll never look at a picture of Jock Cummingham, who led the British Battalion after Jarama, in the same way again, but of course Jan is writing about them before they gained recognition and notoriety. It would be John Cornford who would drag the wounded Jan to safety.

John Cornford

It is not the proximity to the great and the good, nor the association with the great events which makes this book so fantastic, it is the simplicity. Simon from Clapton Press is presenting a splintered narrative, an incomplete memoir, a flawed account; but this is what makes it so special, it has not been sanitised or developed by an historian, it has not been added to in order to clarify, we are left largely with mo0st of what Jan  Kurzke intended to leave us, and it is wonderful.

The account of his time in Hospital feels so authentic, with tiny changes in routine taking on monstrous dramatic significance simply because time is dragging for Jan, monotony prevails. Once again,  just as the reader feels comfortable with the flow of the narrative it ends abruptly.

It is at this abrupt end that Simon plays his trump card, Appendix one contains the correspondence between Charlotte Kurzke; the daughter of Jan and Kate Mangan, and Bernard Knox, the academic who had fought in the International Brigades alongside Cornford and Kurzke.

The exchange itself is fascinating as it highlights the difficulties and choices we face when using testimony; an account constructed after the events. We also see their frustration with Jan’s odd choices and omissions. It is shocking to find that Jan Kurzke does not mention Charlotte’s mother in his account; one disquieting omission comes when the lovers, Jan and Kate are reunited in Barcelona, Jan replaces this event in his memoir with a description of him bedding a girl he met in a bar. Neither Charlotte nor Bernard can explain this void in the narrative, the reader too can speculate but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation.

The second appendix comes from Simon Deefholts, the CEO of The Calpton Press, in which he adds context and attempts to explain the end of the Story, where Jan abandons Kate and Charlotte to begin a new life. As with the first Appendix, this is not done to explain the situation, but to present information, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Simon is treating us like adults, who can weigh up the evidence, speculate and develop hypothesis of our own.

Put simply Simon has presented a number of parts, which don’t quite fit neatly together and certainly don’t make up a complete whole. I feels he has brought to our notice a fantastic account of Spain prior to the outbreak of the Spanish war, and a valuable account of the initial stages of that war, he has shown us what a fine writer Jan Kurzke was and the work his daughter has put in to bring it to the notice of the public. I believe this is an exceptional work of historical importance; we have an eye-witness account of life in Spain before the war, by an a gifted writer, combined with an account of the defence of Madrid which corroborates some of the most significant accounts in the English language.

If you want to read fine prose, you should read this book, if you want to get an impression of Spain before the outbreak of war, giving you an insight into why it broke out then you should read this book. If you want to read an interesting narrative, you should read this book. If you have an interest in the first few months of the Spanish Civil war you should read this book. If you have an interest in the construction of history then this book  will be a useful read. In short there are multiple reasons for getting hold of this publication, but primarily the major reason is that it is outstandingly good.

The book can be purchased from Clapton Press – here

















The Fighter Fell in Love

I have become a bit of a Clapton Press junkie, mostly because my primary focus for some time has been on the accounts and memoirs of the volunteers for liberty, and this is what Clapton Press have done  so well.

The first was Firing a Shot for Freedom by Frida Stewart  which I reviewed in September. The Fighter fell in love is the fourth Clapton Press book I’ve purchased.

With an impressive forward from Paul Preston; the leading authority on the Spanish War, and a preface by Jack Jones this book raises expectations before we even get to the first chapter. It is produced by Jim Jump, the son of James R Jump, and current Chair of The International Brigades Memorial Trust. With these aspects I fully anticipated something special, and I must admit this book exceeded these high expectations; it is very special in a number of ways. It goes without saying that the impressive cover is eye-catching.

By their very nature memoirs are unique, they have strengths and weaknesses simply because they are one person’s perspective. As they are written after the events, this means the person has reflected and begun to formulate their interpretation. This gives us the greatest strength of good memoirs, they are a first-person account, a personal account. James Jump’s account of his time in Spain is one of the finest; as a journalist his prose is detailed and entertaining, he has an eye for amusing anecdotes and colourful enrichment, which makes the reading a joy.

Reading through I loved the subtle way he introduced anecdotes, for one I’ll point you towards Lynne Walsh’s review in the Morning Star  mainly because  she  scooped me with one I intended to highlight:

“There always seemed to be a toddler at the end of the column who fell over and burst into tears or who had to be reprimanded for his slowness. It was just like our training.” (page 83)

There is a dispute as to what makes a memoir great; the dispute is whether it  should be mostly reflective or reportorial, most memoirs are balanced very much towards the reflective, as thay are  looking at critical formative moments, showing  how the personality was formed. War memoirs on the whole very generally tip a bit more towards the reportive side as formative events require context, and the reflection tends to come after the crucial events.

In The Fighter Fell in Love, it feels as if there is very little explicit reflection, which means that it reads very much like the interviews I have listened to, where the volunteers recall the events sequentially; James Jump was interviewed but the recording is not generally available ( therefore this is the first opportunity for most of us to hear his story in his own words, and he can certainly tell a great story well.

Although unique the vast majority of memoirs from the British volunteers follow a familiar pattern; they volunteer, travel to Spain, are trained rapidly and are then thrust into the fighting. Some like David Marshall and Esmond Romilly witness the early stages of the conflict, many like Bob Cooney, Johnny Longstaff and George Wheeler witness the latter stages of the Spanish War. James’ memoir falls into the latter group. He arrived in Spain in November 1937, when the XV International Brigade had already developed from a ‘people’s volunteer militia’ into the primary shock troops of the Republican Army; James was joining disciplined efficient soldiers.

Where The Fighter Fell in Love diverts from the memoirs previously published is in the role James is given. As a journalist with language skills he was appointed an interpreter and paymaster for the battalion, keeping him away from the fighting lines for the first few months of his time in Spain. This makes the memoir so rewarding, for the context is familiar but the story is fresh. In other accounts this experience is mentioned only in passing; for example the 18-year-old Johnny Longstaff spent a few months behind the front lines, and was then allocated to a company as a runner. This fresh insight into the operation of the Battalion is wonderful, it shows the Spanish War in a different light; we get a fuller picture of the conflict, which is enriched by the author’s wonderful narrative.

I was particularly struck with the description of the train journey he had to undertake when the Battalion records had to be evacuated in April 1938. I was fully immersed in the journey, frustrated by the speed and lack of progress, I could almost feel the time dragging, although reading it was far from tedious, as James’ sharp eye for detail enlivens the narrative, to the extent that I felt as though I experienced the journey alongside him, the mark of an outstanding prose.

The pace of the narrative is perfect, neither rushed nor padded with surplus material. The pace does alter once James is allocated to a rifle company and joins the front line companies at the camps near Vilaseca, where the Battalion prepared for the Ebro offensive. We get a real feeling for the comraderly of the men; throughout James Jump tell of the little stories where groups of young men interact. Take for example Lynne’s example in the Morning Star review :

Ever the newspaperman, Jump livens up the orders of the day, which he translates. He and fellow clerk Jose select passwords and counter-passwords to amuse their comrades, so “Generalissimo” requires the response “hijo de puta” (son of a whore).(Page 65)

It was at Vilaseca that James helped Sam Wild, an anecdote which just screams authenticity, it is a small matter which all would find amusing at the time, and is little more than that, however it demonstrates how personal this memoir is. The exchange  would be virtually meaningless in an historical account  of the events, but here it is  a reflection of the personalities. James Jump was allocated to an all Spanish Company, he was the only foreigner in the unit.

The next morning Captain Sam Wild, commander of the British Battalion, came on a tour of inspection. He was accompanied by Bob Cooney, a red-faced Scot who was political commissar of the Battalion. They conferred with my company commander and I could see that they were finding it hard to communicate. I strolled over to the group and said to Wild and Cooney: ‘Do you need an interpreter, comrades?’ They admitted that they did, and I managed to get them over the language barrier. Then Sam Wild turned to me. ‘Gracias, camarada, -‘ ‘You speak very good English.’ ‘That’s, hardly surprising, ‘ I replied, ‘since I am English, I’m from Merseyside.’ ‘Then what the bloody hell are you doing in this unit?’ (Page 108)

I love these little stories, the personification brings so much to the story, and fleshes out the characters, making it easy to identify with the men. It is from this point that the narrative changes in character; as he enters combat the narrative becomes much more familiar, but with the prior story and the excellent prose the most familiar aspects are told from a different and original perspective; the assault on Hill 666 particularly stands out.

Johnny Longstaff’s account of Hill 666 is particularly harrowing, it isn’t graphic, it is so emotionally charged it chills the bone, enhanced by the fact that it is audio testimony, we can hear how much it is affecting him. James Jumps account is less harrowing, but just as emotional, maybe because he tells it in such a straightforward manner. I have little doubt that The Fighter Fell in Love is one of the premier memoirs produced by British Battalion volunteers, it is one of the few based on a diary kept at the time, but it is the quality of the narrative that makes it stand out.

James Jump is second from the right, with his distinctive black curly hair.

The clarity of the story, and joyful prose make this memoir one of the foremost produced, however there is an additional element which makes this memoir very, very special: at the end of each chapter Jim has provided a poem written by his father. James Jump  wrote several books and textbooks on Spain and Spanish. He was also a prolific poet and his poems appeared regularly in Tribune during the 1980s.

The superb title poem The Fighter Fell in Love, was previously unpublished, as were four of the other twenty in this book. The poems alone would warrant a stand-alone publication. Jim was the editor of Poems from Spain and as you know I have a special interest in poetry for and from the Spanish War; not only because I’m honoured to assist Bob Beagrie (see There’s Wally) and David Marshall holds a special place in my heart, but there is just so much high quality poetry.

The addition and  positioning of the poems is inspired, as said, the memoir would be outstanding without them, and the poems could stand alone, but combined they raise this publication to a monumental height. The narrative provides the context to the poems in a subtle way which does not detract from the individuality of the poem itself. Also the poems add an emotional maturity which cannot be provided in any other way. The positioning allows the reader to pause and reflect at the end of each chapter, which enhances the experience. As a reader I could comprehend what James was saying in a deeper way, because the poem made me reflect, pause, take time to think before plunging into the next narrative stream.

The last time a novel literary technique had such a profound effect on me was when I experienced Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War. She casts aside the usual chronological narrative of an autobiography, literally  throwing the reader into the middle of his chaotic story, and then following threads and ideas without ever returning to the start point. Lucy’s autobiography was acclaimed as The Times autobiography of the decade in 2013.

I feel that The Fighter Fell in Love is comparable to this, it is like no other war memoir, it has stunning aspects which supplement each other.  It is a work of art, it is one of the finest memoirs I have read, it is a collection of beautifully crafted poetry, and it is a fitting commemoration to a fine man and his comrades who volunteered to defend the liberties of Republican Spain. Individually these elements make it special, but these are combined in such a beautiful synergy that this publication deserves recognition beyond those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War.

I think it is fitting to leave the last words to James himself. Here is the first stanza of the title poem The Fighter Fell in Love:

I went to Spain to fight for a cause,

to defend a people’s right

to fair play and just laws.

I went resolved to fight.

I fought

and fell in love with Spain



The Teesside International Brigade Memorial

The Teesside International Brigades Memorial Plaque

 Middlesbrough Town Hall

In Spain on the evening of 17th July 1936, a pre-planned Army revolt began; rebel soldiers disarmed Officers loyal to the Republican government, before declaring a region free from governmental control. The army’s rising was supported by the fascist Falange Party and some Civil Guard units, who often acted on their own. In Morocco, Mallorca, and some other areas the rising was generally successful. However, in most areas, including the major cities of Madrid and Barcelona, the rebels were met with bitter and effective resistance from loyal members of the Civil Guard and from workers’ militias who seized arms despite government instructions.

As the air force and the navy remained loyal to the government the resistance in the major centres made it likely that the army coup would fail, as had an army coup in 1932. This time was different however, the unruly officers received significant support, the most noteworthy being the British Government: MI6 operative Major Hugh Pollard charted a plane, piloted by another MI6 operative Cecil Bebb, they collected Franco, effectively in exile on the Canary Islands and flew him to Morocco. The German Air force (Luftwaffe) then transported the 18,000 strong, brutally trained Spanish Army of Africa from their barracks in Morocco the short distance across the Mediterranean to the Spanish mainland, where as head of the only unified army in Spain Franco quickly replaced the imprisoned de Rivera as leader of the Falange Party, proclaiming himself Head of State and Government under the title El Caudillo.

On 14th September 1936 a non-intervention pact was agreed with Germany, Italy the USSR, France, USA and the UK the major signatories. Franco, however, continued to receive substantial military support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in direct contravention of the agreement. In October, in order to maintain the non-intervention policy, the Soviet Union called on the Communist International (Comintern) to organise Brigades of Volunteers. The International Brigades offered Stalin an opportunity to support the Spanish Republic without breaking the non-intervention pact, he was trying to form an alliance against Hitler, therefore he had no wish to alienate Britain and France.

The French and particularly the British imposed strict non-intervention regulations; in Britain on 9th January 1937, with all-Party support, the National Government invoked and amended The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870; the 1870 Act had made it illegal to recruit mercenaries, the 1937 amendment now made it illegal to also volunteer as a mercenary. The Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Munitions to Spain) Act passed the same day, made it illegal to send anything that could be of military use to the Spanish Government. The French-Spanish border was closed, and Royal Navy Warships enforced what was effectively a naval blockade of Republican Spain.

Members of the British Tom Mann unit in Barcelona in September 1936. Left to right: Sid Avner, Nat Cohen, Ramona, Tom Winteringham, George Tioli, Jack Barry and David Marshall

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in September 1936, Middlesbrough born David Marshall had travelled to Spain to join the forming International Brigades in Barcelona, along with Esmond Romilly he joined one of the first International Brigade groups, the German Thaelmann Battalion, with whom he fought to defend Madrid. On 12th November 1936, a sniper’s bullet hit him just above his ankle. He was removed by stretcher under heavy fire, then transported to a field hospital. After treatment in Alicante he was repatriated to England at the end of 1936 where he began campaigning for aid to be sent to the Spanish Government.

The Teesside International Brigades Memorial

The text on the plaque reads:

TO DEFEND LIBERTY  . . . they typified the real Britons hatred of the tyrant, they went to safeguard peace and the arts of peace that humanity might go forward. They went to help the defenceless Spanish people fight the invading armies. They went to save their loved ones and us from the horrors of fascism. because they loved peace they went out to fight from . . . TEES-SIDE

The Teesside International Brigades Memorial is an oak board, with a triangular pediment top. The lettering and International Brigade crest are hand painted. It shows the International Brigades Crest, the names of ten volunteers who fell, an inscription and a list of XV Brigade Battle Honours.

The idea for a memorial arose during a 1939 meeting in the offices of the Young Communist League (YCL) in Middlesbrough, on Marton Road, it was to be a memorial to their friends and comrades who lost their lives fighting Fascism with the International Brigades. We believe George Short Chaired the meeting, the people attending included:  George’s wife Phyllis International Brigaders Tommy Chilvers, Otto Estensen, David Goodman and David Marshall.  Harold Bennet attended, but we have no records for the others who were also present. It is possible that the Teesside memorial is the first to be produced in the UK, it is certainly one of the earliest memorials to International Brigaders in Britain.

Harold Bennet, from Kent, was visiting relatives, he was a carpenter and French polisher, he asked to make this memorial especially; as he was aware he was losing his sight, sadly he lost his sight almost immediately after the completion of the memorial.

Born in Middlesbrough, Tommy Chilvers, who served in the Anti-Tank Battery of the XV International Brigade from May to August 1937 painted the lettering and crest on the Memorial. I have recently been told local Communists call it ‘Tommy’s plaque.’

Names on the Teesside memorial

Joseph Myles Harding,  Born 1909, Stockton – Scaffolder. Arrived in Spain 22nd January 1937, Killed 23rd September 1938. Ebro

David Halloran CP, Born 1898,  South Bank, Middlesbrough – Bricklayer. Arrived in Spain 17th February 1937, Killed 27th February 1937. Jarama

Martin Durkin, Born 1915, Eston, Middlesbrough – Painter. Arrived in Spain 5th November 1937, Reported missing, March 1938. Death cert. issued 30th August 1938. Aragon

Ron Dennison (William Meredith) CP, Born 1914, Bellingham, Northumberland – Labourer. Arrived in Spain 14th January 1937.  No.2 Company Commander, Killed 6th July 1937. Villanueva de la Canada, Brunete

Wilf Jobling CP, Born 1909, Chopwell, Northumberland – Labourer. Arrived in Spain 27th January 1937.  No.2 Company Commander, Killed 27th February 1937. Jarama

George Bright CP, Born 1877, Thornaby on Tees – Labourer. Arrived in Spain 14th January 1937, Killed 12th February 1937. Jarama

Thomas Carter CP, Born 1904, Hartlepool – Labourer. Arrived in Spain 7th January 1937, Killed 27th February 1937. Jarama

Robert Elliott CP, Born 1900, Blyth, Northumberland – Town Councillor. Arrived in Spain 7th January 1937. Political Commissar No2. & No.3 Company, Killed 8th July 1937. Brunete

Bert Overton CP, Born 1904, Stockton – Docker. Arrived in Spain 1st January 1937. No.4 Company Commander, Killed 8th July 1937 Brunete

John Unthank CP, Born 1910, Eston, Middlesbrough – Labourer.Arrived in Spain 10th January 1937, Died (Benicasim Hospital, of wounds sustained at Jarama) 2nd April 1937


The North East recruitment of volunteers was organised by a small group of close friends. George Aitken, Wlif Jobling and George Short were all graduates of the International Lenin School in Moscow. George Aitken and George Short were the two Communist Party District Secretaries for the North East of England. George Short was a Communist Party Central Committee member and Teesside Secretary of the, Communist Party organised, National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), he and his wife Phyllis originated from Chopwell, it was know as ‘Little Moscow’ as it had a Communist Club and Henry Bolton’s Socialist Sunday School.

A prodigy of Henry Bolton, Wilf Jobling, was also from Chopwell, he was one of the three NUWM Executive Committee members, along with the Communist Councillor for Blyth, Bob Elliott. Newspaper reports show Wilf Jobling speaking alongside George Short from the platform at Stockton’s May Day rallies prior to the Spanish Civil War. This network of friends vetted and organised the volunteers; the Stockton Brigader Otto Estensen has written George Short as his Communist Party contact on his Biografia de Militantes held in the RGASPI Archives. David Goodman, a Middlesbrough Brigader, writes in his From the Tees to the Ebro that George Short recruited him, and later attended Brigader reunions on David Marshall’s boat in London. In a fragment of an interview held by Manchester’s Labour History archive George Short describes part of the process:

I used to meet them and before they left the area, that night, they’d have a cup of tea and a bite at our house, and then I would say to them, you know, ‘make up your mind. If you don’t want to go – no hard feelings. You’re going there; you may not come back.’ We never had one withdraw. We lost the flower of the party. [George was quite upset at this point so I turned off the tape recorder](CP IND Kett 5 4001 – Labour History Archive, Manchester)

George stated in another interview in the 1960s that recruiting for the International Brigades was one of the hardest things he did, because he knew that many would not be coming back; of the twenty one volunteers from Teesside, eight did not return.

Once selected the volunteers would be organised into groups which would travel to Spain, via London.

The Volunteers

Richard Baxell has shown that of the 2,300 volunteers that came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, roughly 80% were members of the Communist Party (CP) or the ‘more socially acceptable’ Young Communist League (YCL) and Labour League for Youth (LLY), but there was no bar on volunteers who were not Communist. It is estimated that several hundred volunteers had been National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) activists. In recent research Martin Sugarman suggests that a significant number, over 20%, of the British Brigade volunteers were Jewish. The volunteers came from overwhelmingly working-class backgrounds, with the largest number from London, almost a third, then Scotland and the Northern industrial cities providing the bulk of the volunteers. Only a small number were unemployed with large numbers involved in industrial occupations, such as labouring, construction, ship-building and mining. The average age for the British Brigader was twenty-nine.

A significant number had already fought fascism in their own towns and cities, Cable street seems to have been an important watershed for many. Alternatively, a group of 25 men were sent out by the Independent Labour Party (ILP), this does not  include George Orwell, who found his own way to Spain, he joined this group when  his application for the British Battalion was rejected, the ILP men joined POUM militia units. We also find a dozen, mostly Irish Catholic men, fighting for the Fascists.

The men shown on the Teesside memorial reflect most of these statistics well. All ten men were in employment when they left for Spain. George Bright being Jewish ensures that the men reflect the disproportionate number of Jewish volunteers; unlike Newcastle and Leeds, less than 0.2% of Teesside’s population were Jewish. Eight of the ten were members of the Communist Party, with most of them activists of some standing. George Bright for example was a CP member and NUWM activist, he was described in Spain as ‘an uncompromising fighter for Trade Unionism’, and ‘was well known to Copeman [later Commander of the British Battalion] from the unemployment rallies both had attended in London.George Bright at 60 was the oldest Brigader in the British Battalion which increases the average age of these tenvolunteers to 33.

The Communist Party on Teesside were particularly successful in their use of non-violent direct action to further their aims, especially against Fascism at home and abroad. From 1932 George Short had organised an almost continuous disruption of the recently formed British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) meetings in Stockton and Middlesbrough.

On Teesside the Communist party successfuly campaigned against the British Union of Fascists (BUF). In September 1933 a 3,000 strong crowd, organised by George Short and his wife Phyllis,  prevented the BUF’s National Propaganda Officer  from speaking at Stockton’s Market Cross, this became known as the Battle of Stockton, it resulted in the BUF’s Teesside Organiser, Michael Jordan,  resigning and acrimoniously leaving the BUF.

George Bright took part in the infamous Battle of Cable Street in London on 4th October 1936. Subequent Communist actions ensured the BUF failed to gain any legitimacy on Teesside. A  week after Cable Street The North East Daily Gazette reported that on 12th October 1936, thirteen BUF members ‘had to take to their heels’ because ‘3,000 Communists and their supporters’ turned up to prevent the BUF’s National inspector for Yorkshire speaking in North Ormesby. Spain would see the continuation of the Communist Party’s anti-fascist activism.

 To Spain

We know that the volunteers travelled together, Frank Graham tells us he left Sunderland on 15th December 1936 with two friends, Dolan and Lower. It is likely that Aitken, Jobling, Elliott, Meredith, Graham, Bright and Overton were some of the ‘responsibles’ for the North East Group; that is they were established party activists who were tasked with the welfare of the volunteers; ensuring discipline and political reliability. Once in Spain they would become officers and Commissars.

In London the groups were sent to 16 King Street, the Communist Party offices, to meet the formidable ‘Robby’ Robson who would assess their suitability, in military and political terms. In February 1937 Robson moved from 16 King Street to 1 Litchfield Street as a result of the Foreign Enlistment Act, which made it a criminal offence to volunteer, and recruit, for Spain. From June 1937, when recruitment declined, the office became the headquarters of the International Brigades Dependents’ Aid Fund. On acceptance volunteers were told to purchase weekend return rail-tickets from Victoria Railway Station to Paris, as this did not require a passport, at the railway station Special Branch officers would try to dissuade volunteers from travelling.

In France volunteers had to act with discretion as groups of volunteers would occasionally be arrested and repatriated. The recruitment of the International Brigades was coordinated by the French Communist Party in Paris.

On arrival in Paris the volunteers would be met by their liaison, Charlotte Haldane, the wife of J.B.S. Haldane. It was in the red-light district of Paris that they underwent a medical examination and more checks on their political reliability. From Paris, until February 1937, they would travel to the Spanish border by train, on what became known as ‘The Red Express’ and then travel across the frontier by bus or train.

After February they would be smuggled past the non-intervention patrols, in groups, over the top of the Pyrenees. Tommy Chilvers and his best friend Otto Estensen were smuggled across the Pyrenees in May 1937, with Otto carrying his precious mandolin over the rough terrain. Some volunteers were smuggled onto ships which attempted to break through the naval blockade of patrolling Royal Navy warships and Italian submarines. Once across the frontier, they would be taken to the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete, where volunteers would be vetted again, processed and divided up by nationality to be placed into the different linguistic battalions of the International Brigades. British speakers were placed in the XVI Battalion of the XV Brigade.

 The British Battalion

Bert Overton was the first Teesside man to arrive at the Madrigueras training base on 1st January 1937. Apart from Martin Durkin all the others named on the memorial would arrive at the base within four weeks of this date. This suggests that they continued to travel as a group throughout the journey from Teesside to Spain. Bert Overton, who had been in the Welsh Guards, in the British Army, was given the command of No.4 Company and sent to the Officer’s school at Poco Rubico. Meanwhile at Madrigueras the riflemen’s instruction came mostly from fellow volunteers with previous military training. Myles Harding was not a CP member, he was however a veteran who had served with the Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment – The Green Howards, he gave instruction to others in the Battalion, the following anecdote suggests he was a fine instructor:

Jack Edwards, a CP activist in Liverpool, arrived in Spain with no military experience, yet believed his training at Madrigueras, supervised by Joe Harding who had served in the British Army for ten years was, in the circumstances, very good. When Edwards later volunteered for the RAF during World War Two, his proficiency with a rifle was noted by an NCO who was somewhat puzzled by Edwards’ claim that he had never served in the military. (Interview with Jack Edwards, IWMSA 808/3/2)

Officers, commissars and specialists received separate instruction, the ‘responsibles’ took leading roles in the British Battalion: George Aitken had been the Communist Party District Secretary for The North East Coast, had also served in the Black Watch during the First World War. Aitken would be appointed the Political Commissar for the British Battalion. Frank Graham would command a section of No.1 Company until later gaining promotion to Scout. Bill Meredith, a well know activist from Tyneside, would later command No.2 Company. Bob Elliott would be the Political Commissar for No.2 Company with Wilf Jobling his deputy Commissar. Bert Overton, as mentioned earlier, was put in command of No.4 Company; he would briefly command the British  Battalion on the night of the 13th February. George Bright was assigned to the Battalion Staff.

The North East seems to be overly represented by Officers and Commissars. Later in the war Sunderland born Bob Cooney became Battalion Commissar, Otto Estensen was appointed Commissar for, and commanded, the Anti-tank Battery. Dave Goodman, a Middlesbrough born Brigader became the No. 4 Company Commissar on his arrival in Spain in January 1938.

 The Battle of Jarama

Just three weeks after their arrival in Spain the British battalion was rushed to the front, to stop Franco’s assault on the East of Madrid. On 12th February, they faced Franco’s elite ‘moors’ of the Army of Africa. George Bright, due to his age had been told to remain at the rear but on the first day of Battle he managed to find his way to the front line regardless. In his 1948 book Reason in Revolt, Fred Copeman, who would later Command the British Battalion wrote:      

Just then I came across George Bright. George was a carpenter, over sixty years old. He had come to Spain to do carpentry, being too old to fight. George had been well known to me during the unemployed struggles in London. I asked him what the hell he was doing here, and just as he opened his mouth to answer, there was a very quiet plop and a small red hole appeared in his forehead. He died instantly. His Union card fluttered out as he fell – A.S.W. I thought what an awful thing it was that he, at his age should be here, and yet I am certain he would not have wished for any other end. (Reason in Revolt p 89)

David Halloran of South Bank lost his life at Jarama too, but it would be the loss of Wilf Jobling, the prominent NUWM organiser and gifted public speaker, that would catch the headlines at home.

Wilf Jobling, born in Chopwell was in Blaydon when he volunteered. He was a prominent North East activist, in the YCL (Young Communist League), CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) and NUWM (National Unemployed Workers Movement) He was sentenced to six months imprisonment in 1933 for leading a revolt against the Means Test in Durham. After spending two years at the Lenin School in Moscow he became the Communist Party organiser for the North East Coast, taking part in the 1934 and 1936 Hunger marches; he led the North East marchers to Hyde Park, London, on Sunday 8th November 1936., speaking to the 100,000 strong crowd. In 1934 he stood as a Communist Party candidate in the Chopwell ward of the Blaydon UDC. Imprisoned for ‘working class activities’ later in 1934. He initiated and organised the Blaydon Spanish Aid Committee before volunteering for Spain. Margot Heinemann recalled that it was Wilf that inspired her:

I remember there was a demonstration to go out to greet the contingent of hunger marchers from the north-east coast who were passing through Cambridge. And we marched out to meet them at Girton and marched back with them… And there was a meeting in the town in the evening which was addressed by the leader of the contingent, Wilf Jobling… And I remember that as a landmark because it was the first time it had ever occurred to me that the working class could have a leading role, or a central role in politics. Margot Heinemann IWMSA 9239

Wilf Jobling lead a group of volunteers who arrived in Spain on 27th January 1937. He was appointed deputy to the Commissar in No.2 company, his close friend and colleague Bob Elliott was this Commissar. Wilf’s Sweet-heart was fellow Communist Maggie Airey, who, with Phyllis Short, had marched in the Women’s section in the 1932 Hunger March. It would fall to Charlie Woods, the new District secretary for The North East Coast to break the news of Wilf’s death to his niece, Maggie, and for Frank Graham to hand over a last love-letter from Wilf. Jack Lindsay dedicated a stanza of hisRequiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade to Wilf Jobling:

Where now is he, a voice among many voices,
who said: In poverty’s jail are bolted the guiltless,
the thieves lock up their victims. His voice protested.
Sentenced, he saw through a stone-wall the truth.
Clearer that wall of privation than any arguments.
He struck his hand on the stone and swore he would break it,
he took a rifle and broke through that wall in Spain.
Where is Wilf Jobling of Chopwell?

Requiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade – Jack Lindsay, 1938, in Who are the English?  – Smokestack Books

Thomas Carter

Two other men who travelled in the North East Group to Spain, Thomas Carter from Hartlepool (who is listed on the memorial), and Thomas Dolan (one of Frank Graham’s two companions) from Sunderland, are also given a stanza in this poem, they too were killed at Jarama, the first major engagement for the recently formed British Battalion.

 This war has roots everywhere, in the soil of squalor.
He watched on the tarnished slates the glistening moon,
a milky drip of light mocking the mouth of hunger,
a promise of cleansing beauty, a pennon of freedom.
and midnight, yawning, creaked with the ghosts of old pain,
till resolution regathered like the moonlight flowing
in through the cast iron bars at the end of the bed.
Where is T. J. Carter of West Hartlepool

Requiem Mass for Englishmen Fallen in the International Brigade – Jack Lindsay, 1938, in Who are the English  – Smokestack Books

 Alex and John Unthank of Eston were seriously wounded at Jarama, John was taken to Benicasim Hospital, where he would die from the wounds he sustained on 2nd April 1937. Alex Unthank can be seen in the photograph taken of wounded Brigaders at La Pasionaria Hospital, Murcia, which also shows Bert Overton with his arm in a sling. The high death rate at Benicasim Hospital was due mainly to the lack of medical supplies caused by non-intervention.

Also at Benicasim Hospital at this time was Sergeant Major Alex McDade, he too had been wounded at Jarama, he is best known for writing the lyrics to Jarama Valley.

By the end of February the Battalion had exhausted itself, Fred Copeman had returned to the UK, Battalion commander Tom Wintringham was in hospital, leaving Jock Cunningham to take command of the battalion’s 140 survivors; the British Battalion started Jarama with 500 men, just 72 hours later 136 were dead and over 200 seriously wounded or captured.

This high level of casualties is highlighted by the fact that half of all the British Brigaders killed fighting for the International Brigades in the two year conflict fell at Jarama. The Teesside brigaders reflect this: of the ten men named on the memorial, five were killed at Jarama, four were injured.

The memorial erected at Jarama by the men of the British Battalion   In this photograph one can just make out (4th and 12th down) the names of Thomas Carter and Wilf Jobling  

The battalion remained in the trenches at Jarama until 17th June 1937, In May after the French allowed Soviet arms and equipment into the Republic the XV Brigade was rearmed and reorganised, it was at this time that George Aitken was promoted to XV Brigade Commissar.

Otto Estensen and Tommy Chilvers arrived at Madrigueras on 16th May 1937, Otto, from Thornaby, and Tommy, from Middlesbrough, were close friends from an early age. Once in Spain they were posted to the prestigious XV Brigade Anti-Tank Battery, this specialist unit formed in May 1937 from forty British volunteers training at Madrigueras. The battery was issued with three Soviet 45mm guns, capable of firing both armour-piercing and high explosive shells which, at that time represented state-of-the-art military technology. As recruits were specially chosen for their ‘superior intellect’ the men were seen as an elite unit.

Later Otto would command the Anti-tank battery, he is shown in a number of photographs, most memorably, in the iconic photograph, seated before No. 3 gun playing his mandolin, accompanied by Miles Tomalin, who is playing his recorder.

The XV Brigade Anti-Tank Battery. Otto Estensen playing his Mandolin, with Miles Tomalin playing his recorder.

The Battle of Brunete

Almost as soon as the XV Brigade withdrew from the trenches of Jarama they faced what Alex Clifford in his book The People’s Army of the Spanish Civil War has labelled ‘The Spanish Somme’ – The Battle of Brunete. In an attempt to relieve pressure in the North, the government forces attacked West of Madrid, again coming against Franco’s African troops, but this time these shock troops were supported by the Nazi’s Condor legion and masses of artillery. The trench warfare of Jarama had decimated the XV Brigade, Brunete would have a similar effect; three of the remaining Teesside brigaders fell at Brunete.

Bert Overton

Cyril Sexton a Brigader from Croydon writes in his memoirs that Overton was in a ‘Genie battalion’ (a labour Battalion) on the third day of Brunete. This confirms accounts which state that Overton was killed at Mosquito Hill, on 8th July, whilst taking ammunition to the front lines.

Bill Meredith and Bob Elliott

Bill Meredith (real name Ronald Dennison) was killed during the capture of Villanueva de la Canada. Fred Copeman gives the widely reported story:

A bloke was lying on the road calling. And by now the only light was the flames from the village. Bill Meredith went over to help him and it was one of these fascists, as old Bill bent over to help him the fascist shot him. (Reason in Revolt p 97)

Fred Copeman admits to executing a Fascist officers minutes later and a number of brigaders report that prisoners were not taken for some days. Two days after the death of Bill Meredith, Bob Elliott was killed, Fred Copeman wrote of Bob Elliott: his undying faith in the working class was an inspiration to the whole Battalion. he dies [as] he lived – in the struggle. The Bob Elliott Nursing Home in Blyth was named after him in 1986. Brunette effectively wiped out the British battalion, of the 330 men who started the battle only 42 remained a fortnight later, henceforth there would be no huge numbers of British reinforcements, large scale recruitment ceased, the Battalion would hereafter consist mostly of Spanish troops built around a core of battle hardened British runners, officers and commissars.

Martin Durkin joined the British Battalion in November 1937, he fought through the terrible Battle of Teruel, it was fought between December 1937 and February 1938; during the worst Spanish  winter in thirty years. During the Aragon Offensive in March 1938 he was reported missing, most likely wounded and shot by the fascists. His death certificate was issued on 30th August 1938. Myles Harding, initially repatriated wounded in August 1937 had returned to Spain on 17th October 1937 when he was promoted to lieutenant in the Transmissions Company.

The largest and longest battle of the war was the Battle of the Ebro, the assault begun in July 1938 when the Republican army crossed the River Ebro, tragically it was a disaster for the Republican Army. One consequence of the fascist control of the air was that large numbers of Republican troops became trapped on the Fascist side of the river when the German planes destroyed the bridges. Many men had to swim the Ebro to escape capture.

On 21st September, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced at the League of Nations in Geneva that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. Two days later the XV Brigade, including the British Battalion moved back across the River Ebro and began their journey out of the country. Myles Harding did not return, he was killed in the last action of the British Battalion on 23rd September 1938 at the Ebro River.

 XV Brigade Battle Honours

Cordova – The Battle of Lopera (27th to 29th December 1936)

Jarama – The Battle of Jarama (6th to 27th February 1937)

Brunete – The Battle of Brunete (6th to 25th July 1937)

Belchite – The Battle of Belchite (24th August to 7th September 1937)

Saragossa – The Saragossa offensive (24th August to 7th September 1937)

Teruel – The Battle of Teruel (15th December 1937 to 22nd February 1938)

Aragon – The Aragon Offensive (7th March to 19th April 1938)

Gandesa – The Battle of Gandesa (1st to 3rd April 1938)

Ebro – The Battle of the Ebro (25th July to 16th November 1938)

Huesca – The Huesca Offensive (12th to 19th June 1937)

After the Second World War the Teesside International Brigades memorial was on display in the Middlesbrough YCL Marton Road office, it was presented to George Short in 1956 and hung in his office for many years, until its transfer to the Communist Party office on Grange Road, Middlesbrough. In 1967 the Communist Party sold their Grange Road premises and the building was cleared. YCL members Stuart Hill and David Wedlake went down to the offices to help with the clearance, David rescued the damaged memorial from a skip, he took it home as it had a crack in it, telling Stuart that he knew someone who could repair it. David went to Exeter University shortly after this and the two boys lost touch.

In 1983 the memorial was found by a teacher in a scrap Yard in Acton, West London. Stuart relates that John Longstaff; an International brigader originally from Stockton who was living in London was absolutely furious when he spoke about its rediscovery. “How could anyone treat such an important memorial with such casual neglect?” he said, we now believe John Longstaff brought the plaque back to Teesside.

It seems likely that it was in 1983 that the memorial plaque was presented to Sir Maurice Sutherland, who was the Chairman of Cleveland County Council at the time; it was certainly on display in the Council offices from his time. Sir Maurice had a personal connection to the XV Brigade, his brother in Law, Otto Estensen, had commanded the XV Brigade Anti-Tank battery.

Thanks to Mike Wild, the son of the last Commander of the British Battalion Sam Wild, we now know that on Friday 27th April 1984 ‘The Memorial to the Brigaders of Teesside’ was unveiled in ‘Cleveland County Council premises’. Mike has uncovered a letter the Chairman of the International Brigade Association (IBA), Bill Alexander, wrote to Sam Wild  he is informing him of IBA events such as meetings and books being released, he ends by mentioning the unveiling:

 The memorial plaque to the volunteers from Teesside will be unveiled by our comrade Jack Jones on Friday 27th April in Middlesbrough in the Cleveland County Council premises . . . pride of place will go to the local brigaders – John Longstaff (who has taken the initiative in this project), Tommy Chilvers (of the Anti Tanks), Morry Levitas (prisoner at San Pedro), David Marshall (one of the earliest in Spain), and David Goodman (prisoner in San Pedro) who originally came from Teesside. The local media is taking a lively sympathetic interest in the event. Salud. Bill Alexander. Chairman.(supplied by Mike Wild, Wild Family Archive)

Tommy Chilvers mentions that he attended this service in his IWM interview, he recalls it was at this service that he met Fermin Magdalena again, he had been one of the Basque refugee children he had played the guitar for, and cared for at Hutton Hall, Guisborough, fifty years earlier.  Fermin Magdalena was employed as a footman at Ormesby Hall and visted Hutton Hall about this time.

The memorial plaque was moved and re-dedicated at a ceremony in the Council Chamber where International Brigaders David Marshall, John Longstaff and Frank Graham were the guests of Honour. The ceremony was held on 14th February 1992, the 55th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama. When the Spanish government granted veterans of the International Brigades Spanish Citizenship in 1996 Cleveland County Council granted the brigaders a reunion, again in the Council Chamber, this was reported upon by the local BBC, once again David Marshall, John Longstaff and Frank Graham were guests of honour.

In 2002 The International Brigade Memorial Trust was formed from the veterans and Friends of the International Brigade Association, representatives of the Marx Memorial Library and historians specialising in the Spanish Civil War. David Marshall, John Longstaff and Frank Graham were some of the founding members, they all served on the executive committee at various points. The International Brigade Memorial Trust aims are:

To educate the public in the history of the men and women who fought in the International Brigades and in the medical and other support services in the Spanish Civil War. In particular, by preserving and cataloguing valuable historical material relating hereto and by making such material available to the public.” “To foster good citizenship by remembering those who have fallen in the Spanish Civil War by preserving, maintaining and assisting in the construction of war memorials.

The IBMT held their 2009 AGM in the North East of England, the President, Marlene Sidaway had been David Marshall’s partner until his death in 2005; she originates from Thornaby. During the AGM, in Middlesbrough’s Council Chamber, a ceremony of rededication took place, led by Mayor Ray Mallon, Marlene Sidaway and Duncan Longstaff (John Longstaff’s son).

On 8th February 2019 Duncan Longstaff showed the memorial to the folk trio The Young’uns on the day they performed The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff in Middlesbrough Town Hall.

Further details about the IBMT can be found at:

On 17th October 2020, a socially distanced ceremony took place in which the names of the seven Teesside men listed on the plaque was read out. The Volunteers for Liberty event was organised by the Communist Parties of Britain and Spain and the IBMT. As part of the Centenary celebrations for the founding of the Communist Party, on the anniversary of the last International Brigades parade in Spain, we commemorated the men and women who gave their lives for the Spanish Republic. Events were held in Cardiff, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Sheffield, Oxford, Cambridge, Crewe, Newcastle, Taunton and Southampton.

In Middlesbrough Martin Levy spoke for the Communist Party of Britain, Julio Romero spoke for the Communist Party of Spain, Tony Fox spoke for the International Brigade Memorial Trust and Bob Beagrie, a senior lecturer at Teesside University, read David Marshall’s I sing of my comrades and his own composition Vagabonds. After the reading of the names a minute’s silence was held, the wreath was later cast into the River Tees as a symbolic link between Teesside and Spain. Bob Reading Vagabonds can be found on Youtube here –

John Christie is looking to raise £6,500 to fund an International Brigades memorial to the eight men from Stockton-on Tees who volunteered to Fight in Spain in the XV Brigade.  for more details see –

I was asked to produce an information leaflet for Middlesbrough Town Hall, this post is the result of this work. The  leaflet; as a PDF can be downloaded using the link on the IBMT post – A Complete History of the Teesside memorial plaque.

Fighting for Democracy: The True Story of Jim Higgins

Fighting for Democracy: The True Story of  Jim Higgins (1907-1982), A Canadian Activist in Spain’s Civil War – by Jim Higgins, with  Janette Higgins 

Publisher:  Friesen Press

Published: 20th August 2020

Pages: 204

It has been a real pleasure researching the Stockton volunteers for the International Brigades I have had huge support from so many people, and heard so many inspiring and interesting stories.

One of the eight volunteers was a Canadian, Wilf Cowan, he was the youngest son of John and Sarah Cowan of Tilery Road, Stockton, they had immigrated to Canada in 1925, as I discussed in

Wilf served in the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, which was part of the XV International Brigade, hence I have looked at this fascinating Battalion  as well as the British Battalion and the Anti-Tank Battery of the XV Brigade.

In September I became aware of a new book soon to be published: Fighting for Democracy. It came to my notice as Janette commented on a Facebook Post of mine regarding Wilf Cowan, she has since been very supportive, and so too has Ray Hoff, her Facebook Page is well worth a visit. Shortly after this I read Stewart Walsh’s review – Read it here, and resolved to get a copy when it became available in the UK.

In September I asked Janette if, when it becomes possible, she would be willing to speak and maybe do a book signing, she agreed, but for obvious reasons this is on hold. Janette being in Canada was curious about the UK distribution of the book, therefore when I ordered it from Drake the Bookshop I asked if it was possible to get the details, within a few days we had the book, finding the process pretty smooth, we passed the information onto Janette. I then had the challenge of waiting ten weeks as ‘er indoors claimed the book as one of my Christmas Presents.

Jim Higgins wrote part of his story in 1939 in Saskatoon and the rest in 1977 in Peterborough, where he died in 1982. It lay fallow until his daughter, Janette Higgins, organized it into coherence with additional biographical detail. Friesen Press

I began reading memoirs forty years ago, the first was the fabulous Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, by John Kincaid, which sets a pretty high standard. The majority of the Napoleonic memoirs I read  were wonderful, as the men were describing their experiences, and this added context to the knowledge I had of the campaigns, and enriched my understanding.

I find that a major weakness of many more modern memoirs, biographies and autobiographies is that the author attempts to use the narrative to tell the bigger story. This is also noticeable in testimony, although recent experience has led me to believe that  this is generally down to the line of questioning; I’ve listened to dozens of IWM sound archive interviews,  many are the times when I could scream as the veteran’s interesting anecdote is interrupted by the question – “and when was this?” The demand for a specific date not only interrupts the flow of the narrative, but quite often pulls the interviewee away from their experiences and towards a description  of the larger picture, sacrificing the story for the sake of Chronological integrity.

What is hugely impressive about this memoir is that it is clearly focussed on Jim’s experiences, it is clearly his modest voice one hears on reading this. The writing is wonderfully succinct, one can picture the events and experiences as the writing is light and fluid. Therefore we get a purposeful and meaningful memoir, and yes it can be compared favourably with Kincaid;  Fighting for Democracy is a cracking story told in a compelling way, it could be said that Jim writes in a straightforward way, without any flourishes, but this style hides the emotional depth of the prose. Take the beginning for example; Chapter one is starkly titled – ORPHANED

I was born July 26, 1907, without aid of a midwife, in the attic of a pub run by my parents. The address was 644 Wandsworth Road, Clapham, London, England, and the name on my birth certificate was Harry James Thomas Higgins.

As he says himself everything changed when the pub was demolished during a Zeppelin raid in 1915, his father was killed, he and his mother were seriously injured in the attack. Jim then goes on to explain in a heartbreakingly simple way the consequences of this event:

I later learnt that my mother was unable to provide for my two sisters and myself, which is why we were sent our separate ways.  

You’ll note I refer to the author as Jim, for one does feel that you are with him on his journey, without persuasion you see and feel things his way, you accept the triumphs and hard knocks he experiences, not because he explains things but rather the opposite,  his open and positive outlook is infectious.

Ever the optimist Jim saw being sent to an orphanage in a positive light, seeing the care he received as hugely beneficial, especially the schooling in Bristol and Manchester. In Manchester he was taught in the Industrial School in Ardwick; by coincidence Sam Wild, the Commander of the British Battalion was born in Ardwick in 1908, both Jim and Sam were the same age.

I will never forget my arrival in Canada. It was August 1928, and I had just turned twenty-one. About thirty of us were in a cement floored room being questioned by government bureaucrats who were deciding where we would be sent. We were chatting on rows of wooden benches, and a uniformed guard kept ordering us to stop talking. We thought this unreasonable so we ignored him. Then one of the men lit a cigarette and the guard shouted, “put that cigarette out!” we rose off the bench and surrounded the guard, voicing our displeasure. 

This set the pattern in Canada, where he endured the Great Depression,  he took whatever job he could find to survive and was sometimes compelled to take shelter at relief camps, or “slave camps” as he called them, but more often than not he ran into trouble with bosses for organizing the other workers or advocating for better terms and conditions. I must admit I was totally absorbed in the narrative, willing him on and taking pleasure in the simple pleasures he describes in his affable style. 

I’m not going to retell his story here, quite simply you need to read it for yourself, it is an outstanding history, not just of his life, but of the times he lived through; there are, and I feel will be, few histories which will explain the soul destroying grind of life in the first half of the 20th Century in such a eloquent way.

We are almost a third of the way into the story before Jim goes to Spain, and it almost comes as a surprise, I was so immersed in his experiences. The account he gives of his time in Spain is invaluable, as he simply and openly describes his experiences and feelings, once again the reader is travelling alongside Jim on his journey. I think it is a huge credit to Janette that she has not patched the holes in his account; there are large gaps in the chronology. The immersive aspect of these memoirs would be lost if the context was explained or described, there are few accounts of combat which can match this for clarity. For someone like myself, familiar with the timeline and  events this memoir covers, it is hugely refreshing, everything is renewed; we see familiar events  from a fresh perspective and are captivated by unique and detailed anecdotes. This is the international Brigades experience from the ground level, from the front line, the brutal kill or be killed isolation of modern warfare. Nevertheless somehow the horror and brutality is overcome by the light and affable writing, we are not repelled by the horror but neither are we distanced from it. Even the failure at the Ebro and the withdrawal of the International Brigades is presented as a disappointment, Jim never seems to portray any bitterness or anger.

Another link to my own research is that Jim Higgins travelled back to Spain with Stockton born Wilf Cowan; On 3rd February 1939, Jim and Wilf arrived back in Canada, stepping ashore in Halifax after travelling as part of the first batch of repatriated ‘Mac-Paps’ who had travelled on The Canadian Pacific Line’s ship The Duchess of Richmond. Two men, both born in England, both emigrated to Canada, both fought in the Mac-Paps and both returning home to Canada to continue the struggle for democracy.

I think it is the mark of the man that an incident for which he gives just  10 lines in his memoirs is hugely significant to so many people; in his last weeks in Spain he rescues as boy  from drowning. Manuel Alvarez then spends the next forty years tracing the Canadian who had saved his life, travelling to meet Jim in 1978. Janette briefly tells the story, and Manuel published a book about his search, however, despite writing up him memoirs at the time Jim modestly fails to add anything to his own recollections.

In the last third of the book Jim, added to by Janette, describes the life Jim made for his family, and the sacrifices he made so that his family could have a better future. I will admit to shedding a tear, or ten, as I read the beautiful prose Jim writes of his wife, Reta. Jim Higgins certainly had a hard life, but one lived to the full, this book is a fitting commemoration of a great, good man.

This memoir is outstanding for numerous reasons, but primarily Jim is describing his  experiences in vivid and coherent detail, this added context to the knowledge I have of the campaigns the XV International Brigade fought in,  enriching my understanding of the conflict. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the most outstanding memoir I have read, in fact I can safely say it is one of the few truly magnificent books I have read, I cannot see how it could be improved or even surpassed. I would not only highly recommend it, I would go so far and insist that you read it.





David Marshall fighting in Spain

Continuing on the story from  we left off David’s account with him going into action having not yet fired his rifle.

We got into lorries at Chinchon the next morning. We were detrucked south of Madrid near a place called Cerro de los Angeles, the hill of the Angels, it’s a symmetrical hill which I think is said to be the geographical centre of Spain. They were on top in a bloody old heavy building and we had to try to get them out. David Marshall IWMSA

The bloody old heavy building can be seen in the image below.

It was a bit of a shambles, we had a couple of tanks with us, they only has 2 pdr guns, and the convex curvature of the hill meant as they were climbing up they couldn’t depress enough to hit the building at the top anyway until they got too close. It was a stirling time. We stood there, you see, you could see Madrid far in the distance, far away, you could see it being bombed a little, you could see the great plumes coming up. And then we started to move forward in open order, we were shooting and firing but nothing much happened, we attacked all night. Like all war it was a bit of a balls, we didn’t get anywhere. I got shot the next day. David Marshall IWMSA

A number of times I have mentioned David getting injured, however, to hear him describe the event brings it into sharp relief.

We had advanced as far as we could and we were firing at the windows of this building in a controlled way. We were right on the right flank and we felt bloody exposed because we knew moors were in the offing, we had a healthy respect for them. David Marshall IWMSA

The ‘moors’ are another thread which seems to weave it’s way into the British Battalion. A Jarama the XV Brigade, including the British Battalion, faced the Moors of Franco’s Army of Africa. At this stage the Army of Africa and the Spanish Foreign legion were used as shock troops; leading the assaults as these were the only units who’s morale Franco could rely upon. After Jarama and Brunete, Franco relied more and more on the Italian Blue Division and the German Condor Legion as his leading shock troops.

I was laid at an angle to the building because there was a very shallow furrow and I was hoping this would be of some help and firing a bit across myself. I got one particular window as a target and was having a steady go at it, without being wasteful. David Marshall IWMSA

I have written about the ammunition in the earlier post – see the link to David Marshall’s Spanish Equipment at the top of this page.

They were giving us Machine-gun stuff. When you hear the first bullet go past you, you know you are not invulnerable, and there was a bit of shrapnel about, not a lot.  Then this marksman got onto me, and I heard the bullets hitting the ground around me, he must have put half a dozen around me, and then he hit me in the leg. Didn’t hurt. It was like a red hot blow, as I say it didn’t hurt, and that was the end of my military stuff. David Marshall IWMSA

Despite forty years passing, one can still hear the frustration in David’s voice as he relates the incident.

By this time it was late afternoon and the sun was coming down, and I just laid quietly, as time passed I crawled back. David Marshall IWMSA

David received his wound; just above the ankle on 12th November 1936, he had been in Spain for just over ten weeks.

I was sitting at the base of an olive tree, this figure came frantically storming at me with a bayonet. I managed to spot him and said “Frank it’s me,” He helped me back, then stretcher bearers came and they insisted on putting me on a stretcher, which I resisted, I resented in a way as I could certainly get along on my rifle. We were shoved into lorries and many of the lads were badly hurt of course. We travelled for an hour or two, the stars were so close you could’ve picked them out of the sky. David Marshall IWMSA

It seems likely that the man who helped him back was the Australian Frank Browne , this is the only man named Frank, that we have records for, serving in Spain at this time, in this unit.

Republican forces “execute” a statue on Cerro de los Ángeles  in 1936


David Marshall’s Spanish equipment

Reading accounts of the Battle of Jarama, and the XV Brigade up until May 1937 I am struck by the seemingly relentless impression given that the British Battalion were; ill equipped, ill disciplined and had inadequate training: Ben Hughes in They Shall Not Pass  is a good example :

. . . the training was severely hampered by the lack of guns . . . As well as the antiques, some of which dated from 1888, wooden ‘rifles’ and sticks were used on manoeuvre. In the evenings, Macartney indulged his passion for night-time raids. Whilst he remained in his villa, the men would fumble their way across the sodden fields seeking check points in the dark. The marches often ended in farce. (pg 60)

Frankly this does not hold up to much scrutiny,  alas it appears to be the standard narrative. This made me look to where these misconceptions come from; the answer is partly  from Tom Wintringham’s English Captain and partly from what appears to be a confusion over the chronology of the accounts of ‘English’ volunteers fighting in the first six months of the War in Spain. As David Marshall was one such volunteer, one of the first to volunteer,  I think it is useful to look at his experience.

We’d taken things seriously, we drilled, we tried to practice a few manoeuvres. I can drill in German, Spanish, English and French, doesn’t do you much good. David Marshall IWMSA

This is remarkably similar to John Longstaff’s account, who recalls the Spanish instructions in his IWM interview. 

We did field manoeuvres which were useful, we learnt to advance in open order. David Marshall IWMSA

David had spent seven years in the British Army during the Second World War, and felt his training in Spain was comparable. Talking about his time in Albecete (see David Marshall and the Tom Mann Centuria) he moves on to talk about the equipment:

The only rifles we’d ever had must have come from Morocco, they were all engraved in Arabic, they had no firing pins, and we used to use these for drilling with.

back in May I wrote about Firearms in the Spanish Civil War, but this was only about the firearms not the equipment.

We were kitted out with Uniforms there [Albecete] I’d had several different ones before all of them dreadful. This time we got more or less what became the accepted uniform of the International Brigades, it was rather like Battledress . They were dark cord blouse and trousers, the trousers buttoned at the ankles.

The equipment was bloody awful, it was a sort of black plastic on canvas and you had two shoulder straps, a belt around you and three enormous ammunition pouches about as big as  building bricks. well the one in the middle of the back was bloody stupid, every time you crawled it caught  on everything and you felt like a camel, you felt like you were bound to be shot through the backside, so we soon ditched that, most of us generally stuck to one which we kept for bread and grapes for food. When we did get amo we slung it round our necks in its bandoliers. David Marshall IWMSA

We’d been there [Albecete] about 10 days when the rifles came, they were in cases, i don’t know, half a dozen rifles to a case, or eight or something like that, reeked like hell. It seems they were Ross Rifles, a Canadian rifle from the Great War, which had not been used because they were larger than the Lee Enfield and had a more delicate sight, a more damageable sight, and were not so well suited to trench warfare. These  were brand new. David Marshall IWMSA The ammunition was in boxes and in English printed on the sides – “reexamined in England, 1932, for target practice only” – Well we intended it for target practice in a way, didn’t we?  David Marshall IWMSA

We were given these rifles one day, it was a job finding cloth to get all the grease off, I think we’d to sacrifice the odd sock. then we’d hadn’t finished cleaning them and we’d dished out 100 rounds a piece which as I’d said we’d hung of course around our necks, when they shoved us on the train that night . . . We hadn’t even fired the rifles before we went into action. David Marshall IWMSA

I think one can see where the idea of an untrained, underequipped group of men, who hadn’t even fired  their rifles comes about. However this is October 1936, not February 1937, these early  men and women had made their own way to Spain, but when put into action the units did have some idea as to how to fight as a co-ordinated unit. The success of the Republican Army in holding off the Army of Africa in 1936 is testimony to the skill and, admittedly brief, training they had.  

David Marshall and The Tom Mann Centuria

After recently writing about Tom Mann and the link to David Marshall ( I came across this colorisation of the iconic photograph. Colourised by Rafael Navarrete, you can see his work at :

The image is of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in 1936, it shows (from Left to Right) Sid Avner, Nat Cohen, Ramona Garcia Siles , Tom Wintringham, Georgio Tioli , Jack  Barry, and David Marshall. I will admit I was taken with the image at first, it is certainly arresting. It does have it’s weaknesses however, it’s not up to the standards of Marina Amaral , the Brazilian digital colourist who first came to prominence when she colourised the image of Czesława Kwoka, the impact of the photograph sowed the germ of an idea which resulted in the Faces of Auschwitz project, a collaboration with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, academics, journalists and volunteers.

As you can see the image has been heavily cropped, which I feel loses a substantial part of the context.

Yesterday, by coincidence I was listening to David Marshall’s IWM interview and got to the point where he talks about the Tom Mann Centuria, I have begun to transcribe the interview. He had left his home and job in Middlesbrough and travelled to Spain, where, in September 1936, he joined up with a small group of English speaking Communist Party volunteers in Barcelona. He explains to the interviewer that this was before the formation of the International Brigades, therefore he joined the militia units forming in Barcelona.

This was the Anti-Fascist Militia of Catalonia, because there was no International Brigades.

We mentions that in these early months there was little in the way of organisation.

We just went to the front in groups and that was that. 

We were moved from place to place in Barcelona and spent some weeks there and got more and more bored as the units moved off, and our numbers slowly grew until we were eight or ten people.

We were young people together. The active, bright chaps were YCLrs [Young Communist League] funnily enough, but not all of them were. We had regular cell meetings and I was soon made a member of the Spanish Communist Party, and I stayed in the Communist Party for forty years. 

These were organised and led by an East End London activist, Nat Cohen, who had been in Spain for the Barcelona Olympiad when the Military coup occurred. The group named itself the Tom Mann Centuria.

All English, the leading figure was Nat Cohen, a Londoner, he was just back from an abortive attempt to take  Majorca, I remember  visiting a chap called Richard Tish.

Nat Cohen formed us into the Tom Mann Centuria, there is a picture of us carrying a banner in Bill Alexanders’s book Volunteers for Spain . On that you will see Sid Avner, Georgio Tioli who got me in, Tom Wintringham; who was just visiting, and Nat Cohen and a Spanish girl called Ramona who later on he married. . . . and there was this Australian lad called Jack  Barry, who we used to call ‘Bluey’, then we had with us Phil Gillan, and Lorimer Birch, Ray Cox, they were both YCLrs, splendid chaps

In October, before the formation of the International Brigades got fully underway, this group went to Albecete where they drilled and were assimilated into the Thaelmann Battalion. The Thaelmann Battalion would be one of the first, and later eventually became the largest of the groups that formed the International Brigades.

We were feeling the shame of being idle and getting fed up, finally organisation was beginning and they decided to gather the foreign volunteers in a group, and this of course later became the International Brigades, and so we were sent to Albecete which is about half way between Alicante and Madrid, and this was always the base for the Internationals training and getting together.

We were perhaps 16 English all told, when I say ‘English’ it was Scots, Irish, Australian etc. We were officially attached to the Thaelmann Battalion to make their numbers up to the Battalion strength which was about 120.

I have found David’s comments a fascinating insight into the formation of the Anti-Fascist units in the early months of the Spanish War and the makeup of the Tom Mann Centuria in particular. 

Of particular note is the role of Nat Cohen, who formed the Tom Mann Centuria, credit is generally given to the self publicist, self centred Tom Wintringham, who would later prove so disastrous to the British Battalion six months later; but that is another story. 

David goes on to related the training and equipment, therefore, to keep the length of the posts down I’ll report on this separately.

Foxburg on the Interweb

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