The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War

The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War – A Military History of the Republic and International Brigades 1936–1939

By Alexander Clifford
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Hardback £25 (£4 P&P) Pages: 315, with 43 Illustrations
ISBN: 9781526760920
Published: 22nd January 2020


Available from

Exactly a year ago I was reading Prof. Esdaile’s wonderful The Spanish Civil War, a military History, an academic assessment of the military conflict, one of the few books which looked at the military aspects exclusively, separating these from the political aspects of the war. Alex’s book is directly comparable to Charles’, he does use Charles’ The Spanish Civil War, a military History as a framework, he also conforms to the highest levels of academic convention; providing detailed notes, attribution and an extensive bibliography. This publication is very far from a populist account; this is an outstanding scholarly narrative, demonstrating writing of the finest order; equal to the works of any full-time academic historians I’d care to namedrop. Alex is a History teacher, like myself, this clearly shows in this fine addition to an increasingly popular area of study.

I earlier referred to the term populist, as there tends to be a distinction between academic works and the more populist works. The former are deeply focussed upon a particular aspect of the war; for example Esdaile’s The Spanish Civil War, a military History sees the Spanish Civil War as a military event, in particularly the conflict  between the two sides of the Spanish armed forces that split prior to the coup. The populist publications tend towards a more general view of the conflict, addressing the conflict with broad strokes sometime leading to oversimplification and generalisation. There are some very fine publications covering a lot of the ground Alex is addressing, Richard Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors being the foremost, this looks solely at the British Battalion, whereas Alex looks at the International Brigades as a whole, placing the British Battalion in wider context. It was with Richard’s and Charles’ publications to mind that I began reading Alex’s The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War. The first thing that struck me, from the introduction onwards, was the fluidity of the prose, Alex writes with a light touch which masks the complexity of his sentences. The narrative flows freely because the paragraphs are clear and concise, there is no elaboration to restrict the smooth flow. To say that there is little explanation would be a travesty, as the paragraphs are well balanced. I think it is fair to say that explanation is used economically and appropriately; to create clarity rather than to reinforce a point.

Like most people in the UK my chief focus will obviously be the volunteers from Britain and Ireland, looking at their role within the 15th International Brigade. These are central to The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War, however, as the title implies Alex has placed these within the wider context of the Republican army, comparing them to other Spanish and International units. Alex is quite subtle with his arguments, leaving his points to evolve from the narrative, rather than pushing a particular line of argument and using the evidence to support this, he appears to simply highlight the obvious points that emerge from the story. The best example of this is demonstrated in the balance of the chronology, three quarters of the book covers the campaigns of Jarama, Brunete and Belchite, the last three chapters look at Teruel, the ‘slow agony of defeat’ and an assessment of the People’s Army, this reflects the significance of these events rather than presenting a uniform chronology; the main focus of the narrative relates to just four months, July to October 1937, when the International Brigades were at their peak in terms of equipment and manpower.

After a very brief summary of the cause and outbreak of military conflict in Spain, Alex gives an assessment of Franco and his army, which once again is quite refreshing, I have found that a number of publications show the rebels simply as two dimensional stereotypes – the Fascist Dictator in uniform, single-handedly commanding his barbaric Army of Africa with their German equipment. Alex shows the complexity of the rebel forces, the challenges Franco faced in order to maintain the substantial supply of arms, equipment, supplies and men that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided. It is worth noting that Alex carefully contrasts Mussolini’s and Hitler’s relationship with Franco, distinguishing the different roles they played in maintaining the armed coup. It is to Alex’s credit that I can only think of Paul Preston’s work which gives a similar nuanced assessment. The two Fascist dictators saved Franco’s coup from meeting the same fate as the 1932 Army coup, but did so to further their own ends. It is pleasing to see someone highlighting the role of the Italians in this conflict, beyond that of their submarines torpedoing ships carrying men and supplies to Republican Spain.

I was impressed by the description of Jarama as comparable to the trenches of the Western Front in the Great War, this resonates as most of the memoirs speak of trenches, dugouts and digging, this is especially true of Frank Thomas a brigader in the British anti-tank battery. The analogy runs deeper as we find stretches of endless waiting, even boredom interspersed by short, intense, brutal action. Examining Jarama Alex’s light touch shines through, I perceived the overall battle whilst focusing on the individuals, as well as experiencing the frantic chaos of battle. For clarity and immersiveness I felt this was on a par with Frank Graham’s account; Frank Graham, however, had the benefit of being able to write from his own experiences.

The description of Brunete as ‘The Republic’s Somme’ is inspired, this is one of the focal points of the book, the hub around which the arguments and explanation revolve. The use of the phrase ‘The Somme’ is emotive, but justified by Alex’s narrative, he embeds his comparative description deeply, allowing the numerous implicit connections to emerge from the description. I am very familiar with Brunete because of my focus on the Teesside brigaders, (I am part of a group campaigning for a memorial – but this chapter brought fresh insights and clarity; even with a familiarity with a number of individual stories, I still found a level of comprehensibility in the overview which enriched my prior knowledge. An example of this is the use of Copeman’s account of the killing of Bill Meredith, (Meredith is one of the ten names on the Teesside memorial) it’s tone is  similar to that of Copeman’s description of George Bright’s killing; the clinically precise detail underscores the brutal tragedy, whilst also suggesting the context: the horrific barbarism of some of the combatants whilst others perceiving their actions to be honourable, and in the case of Meredith chivalrous. The barbarity of Franco’s troops is well presented here, whilst avoiding glorification of violence. Alex is demonstrating Brunete as a development of Jarama, a transition between the trench warfare of the previous European conflict and the attritional slogging match of the European conflict which would swiftly follow.

I feel the way Alex demonstrates the interconnection between the conflict in Spain and the Second World war; especially the Eastern campaign where Soviet and German tactics, equipment and sometime men, clashed once again. This reflected and enhanced my understanding of the Spanish conflict, his chapter on Teruel alluding to Stalingrad only deepened this understanding. Alex argues convincingly that the watershed moment in the Spanish Conflict was at Jarama, where Franco’s military coup was stopped, where the Army of Africa and the International volunteers fought themselves to a standstill, denying the military coup success. Hereafter the conflict could best be characterised as the Spanish Government attempting to prevent an invasion by foreign powers. The French and especially the British actions ensured that the Spanish Government would be unable to fight off this invasion. The valour and bravery of the shock troops of the Republican Army would henceforth only delay the conquest of Spain by the fascists. It is further to Alex’s credit that this situation is made abundantly clear, not through commentary, but through his clear narration of the events. The later chapters have a much slower paced feel, they have a rather morose atmosphere, it’s obvious the Government faces defeat, no matter what they do, fittingly this last chapter is giving the title ‘A slow agony.

At the end of each chapter Alex writes a ‘conclusions’ section which draws together his thoughts on the events he has just related, I found this exceptionally useful, as it allowed me to consolidate my thoughts. It is within these conclusions that Alex assesses the events and actions of groups and individuals; this allows the preceding narrative to flow, there is no pause to assess the impact. It is fitting therefore that the assessment of the People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War is completed in a separate final chapter, where Alex gives a favourable, but I feel balanced, assessment of the forces the Spanish Government could deploy.

The strength of this book is that I found myself agreeing with his conclusions, however, I do not feel as if I have been persuaded, I feel as if I have been allowed to come up with these conclusions myself. It is very difficult not to take up an emotional position on this conflict, especially as someone who has studies the men for my home town, who has spoken to the relatives and friends of brigaders, and who measures a number of these men as personal heroes. It is a danger that one can react emotionally to criticism, there is criticism, but The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War could be seen as a tribute to the Republican soldiers and medical staff, it shows their honour, their valour, bravery without glorification. It also shows the mistakes, the challenges and the disparity between the shock troops and majority Spanish recruits, without making excuses; it does not raise the Republican Army to the heights of a mighty military regime which could have been successful if the odds had not been stacked against it. Alex make it clear that this People’s Army was a poor Army; poorly led, poorly equipped, with poor tactics and scant resources. I think a fair and balanced assessment, one that can lead to debate.

The book is completed by four Appendix, of which the first, on the firearms used in the conflict, provided a useful, if rather repetitive insight; basically, the rebels had almost all the best firearms and they had a plentiful supply. The order of Battle and details on the armament shipments to both sides reinforce Alex’s narrative handsomely. I must finish with a mention of the illustrations, the maps are what I consider ‘old style’ black and white line drawings, which suit the text well, they amplify the thrust of the narrative, rather than distract from. I found the photographs of Brunete and Belchite refreshing, as they show the battlefields rather than the combatants we usually see; the one of Purburrel Hill has special significance for me.

I believe Alex’s The People’s Army in the Spanish Civil War is exceptional, it is accessible in that it spans the divide between academic and populist publications. It can be read by anyone as the History teacher here presents the information in a way that is clear, but challenging. The chapter structure and style of writing make the reading of this volume a pleasure, the chapters are distinct units, part of a larger unit, one has the feeling of fulfilment on reaching the end of a chapter. It is usual to impose a qualification on recommendation, limiting the recommendation to a particular grouping of people. In this case this would be unnecessary, for experts on, and novices to, the topic will get something from this publication. Lastly it needs highlighting that Pen and Sword are the publisher of this book, they produce a huge quantity of military publications, giving authors like Alex the opportunity which they would not usually get from the larger publishers. It is to their credit that they encourage new authors, for it would be a travesty if this book had not seen the light of day, I believe it sets a standard many academic publications will fail to reach.

March 2020

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *