A Bandera volunteer remembers

Retracing the past - 70 years later: 1936-2006

By Niamh McGuinness

This extract from a 2007 university dissertation deals with the experiences of Denis McGuinness, a Dublin volunteer for O'Duffy and Franco. The author is his granddaughter. My thanks to Niamh for giving permission to carry this extract, copyright rests with Niamh - C Crossey - added online, October 27th 2008

A first hand account

As the title suggests, I was privileged to gain first hand accounts as to what it was like to fight in Spain during the civil war. My granddad was a member of the NCP and signed up to fight in the Spanish Civil War under the command of General Eoin O'Duffy. In December of 1936, he left along with hundreds of other volunteers on a cargo boat from Galway; he was just twenty years of age. Before they were fully able to leave the country they came up against trouble from the Irish government under the restrictions of the Non Intervention Pact and they were nearly prevented from leaving the country. However, they soon set sail on their journey to Spain and it was three long days before they reached the Bay of Biscay. They spent their first night at the Spanish naval port, El Ferrol where they slept on a ship docked in the harbour, the following day they travelled to Salamanca where one of Franco's headquarters was based. After their time spent in Salamanca they were ushered to Caceres were they set up their headquarters. It was in Caceres that my granddad and his fellow colleagues received valuable training and were fitted for uniforms, it was the beginning of an adventure for some who would live to tell the story for years to come or those who would never return home.

During this interview, my granddad made it clear that the NCP went to Spain to fight communism and were not fascists, however, while in Spain they failed to shake off the stigma attached to them. My granddad initially went to Spain to earn money to send back home, but they only earned an average of fifteen pesetas every five days and so it was hardly worth his while. Whilst in Spain the Irish Volunteers became known as the XV Bandera Irlandesa del Terico of the Spanish Foreign Legion, my granddad was in the "A" company of this battalion. In March 1937, after a training period in Caceres the Irish troops were heading towards Ciempozuelos on the way to Madrid, my granddad vividly recalled a gruesome memory. "The train we were on, the driver tried to kill us on the mountains, he let the train go and he jumped but a civil guard was on board and was able to pull the train up. I believe they shot the driver in the back of the head, we heard the shot." After the events of the train journey they finally reached Ciempozuelos, here they set up camp. Before they could fully get themselves accustomed to their new surroundings, the Africanistas targeted them. For twenty minutes they were engaged in gunfight before the Africanistas realised their mistake that the XV Bandera were actually on the Nationalist side. However, this realisation came too late, as two soldiers, a sergeant and a captain were all left dead. After that mishap, they forged on with their mission to stop the Republicans advancing towards Madrid. A battle ensued at the Jarama River, where they eventually succeeded in pushing the Republicans back across the river, although the fatality list was quite high on the Irish side. This was the last major battle the Irish volunteers were to face as by June, 1937 they were sent home via Lisbon, Portugal.

While conducting this interview with my granddad I was eager to find out as much as I possibly could. When I asked him the question "Did you ever see anybody get shot?" his honest answer revealed the reality of war. "I saw 15 Reds getting shot one morning before we went up to the line. About twenty miles from Caceres there is a place called Badajoz there was many communists based there…Sergeant Lee said to me there are fellas getting executed in the morning, so you can get used to the blood. So the next morning came and there was about forty civil guards waiting, wearing three-cornered hats. They had the privilege of shooting them, the prisoners were way down the field and they were chained together. And so, they were executed. I tell you though, I started to think of their families as they struggled on the ground. I watched an officer come along and put a bullet through their brains. When it was over they were thrown onto a cart, I don't know where they were buried." This harrowing story is just one of many, and reflects the true reality of how gruesome war can be and how heartless people can be when it comes to defending their principles. My granddad did say that after witnessing this event he commented on how brave the Republican soldiers were, as they awaited their death. Another aspect from this interview that struck me was that whenever they reached a new city there was a large emphasis put on attending mass and receiving Holy Communion. Although it is not surprising as they were mostly Catholic but it reinforces the idea that the Nationalists maintained a strong, working relationship with the Catholic Church. In June of 1937, my granddad's period of duty came to an end he went home to Ireland where a reception at the Mansion House, Dublin awaited their return. There was talk later of the NCP returning to Spain but it never materialised.

Without the help of the International Brigades both the Republicans and the Nationalists would not have progressed as far as they did. The invaluable aid that the Nationalists received from Germany and Italy was without a doubt what helped to secure a win for the Nationalists.