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Sunday, 12 October 2008

Seventy years on

Roving Correspondent

Seventy years have passed since they marched out of Barcelona amid crowds of weeping, cheering Spaniards, but it is only now that the last few British volunteers who fought in Spain against General Franco's fascist-backed rebels are finally to be rewarded by the Spanish state.
The handful of British survivors from the 2,300 men and women in the International Brigades during the civil war are now in their 90s or have passed 100, and most are physically frail.
They still cling to the memories and spirit of battles fought seven decades ago and have welcomed an offer by the cabinet of the Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, last week, that would allow them joint nationality.
"It is a gesture to those of us who survived and I'll take it in memory of all those who paid the final price and who lie unknown under Spanish soil," said Sam Lesser, 93. "There are so few of us left now."
Lesser is one of seven members of the brigades thought to be still alive and living in Britain. All have said they will take up the offer of joint nationality.
The veterans said they retained vivid memories of a country and a cause which, in many cases, changed their lives. "It certainly made a big difference to my life," said Penny Feiwel, 99, who volunteered as a nurse and ended up as an officer running a frontline mobile operating theatre before being injured. She had felt a natural sympathy for what was seen as a struggle by Spanish workers against the growing forces of fascism in Europe.
"I come from a working-class family. My father had been without a job for a long time. People today don't realise what times their grandparents went through or what they achieved."
While Hitler and Mussolini sent arms and troops to help Franco, Britain and Europe's other democracies stood on the sidelines as tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world travelled to Spain to help the Republic.
The civil war was, for many, a first big commitment in what became lifelong careers as leftwing campaigners. Among those still alive is Jack Jones, who went on to lead the Transport and General Workers Union. Jones said he would also accept the offer of nationality. Like many other members, however, he had had some doubts about Spain's current condition as a constitutional monarchy when he and the other brigaders had fought to defend a republic.
"The answer is yes, I would welcome it very much. I've had a very active life and have been leader of a large trade union, but this was a very special period."
A mixture of politics, romance and adventure drove people to sign up for the International Brigades or find their own way to Spain to fight after Franco led a rightwing rebellion against the government in 1936.
"I wasn't a communist but I was rather leftwing as a young man," said Paddy Cochrane, 95. "I hitchhiked down to London from Liverpool and went to the Communist party but they wouldn't take me on as they said I had no military experience.
"Then I saw an advertisement in the newspaper saying that drivers were needed to take ambulances to Spain, so that is what I did. Once there, he was able to enlist and was wounded by shrapnel from a hand grenade in fierce fighting at the town of Belchite. A bit of it went in at my hip and out of my bottom without hitting a bone."
Some of those wounded found it hard to stay away from Spain. Lesser was injured in a battle near Córdoba in which the poet John Cornford was killed. He later returned to do political broadcasts in English and became correspondent for the Daily Worker newspaper.
He was there in Barcelona when the brigades, who had been formally disbanded, marched away in October 1938. The firebrand communist politician Dolores Ibárruri, known as La Pasionaria, gave them a rousing send-off as tens of thousands of people packed the streets of Barcelona. "You can go with pride," she said. "You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy. We will not forget you."
Brigaders from across the world will travel to Barcelona this month to mark the 70th anniversary of their departure.
Most would like to have taken Spanish nationality when the idea was first floated in 1996, under the rightwing government of prime minister José María Aznar. The small print of that offer, however, meant they would have had to renounce British nationality. None of them were willing to do that.
"It is a shame," said Marlene Sidaway, of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. "They were all much haler and heartier then."
Among those unable to take up the offer was her partner, David Marshall, who died in 2003.
Even some of those still alive fear they might not live long enough to pick up the reward of Spanish nationality.
"I'd love to take it," Les Gibson, who fought at the Jarama front, said in a telephone interview. "But I'm now 95 years of age and I am not sure I will be able to.
"I'm still very interested in Spain and the Spanish. It was an important part of my life. I lost some good friends there, mind you, but I managed to scrape through somehow."
A fifth of those who reached Spain from Britain did not get back alive.
"We felt we weren't just defending Spain but also our own country," said Lesser. "We were also fighting to save peace and to save Britain."

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