Saothar Reviews

Richard Baxell, British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War - the British Battalion in the International Brigades, 1936 - 1939, (Routledge, London and New York, 2004), 221pp, £65 hb.

Bob Doyle, Memorias de un rebelde sin pausa, (Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, Madrid, 2002), 187pp, €12 pb.

Richard Baxell, Laurie Lee in the International Brigades : Writer or Fighter?, (Len Crome Memorial Lecture, International Brigade Memorial Trust, London, 2004), 24pp, £5 pb.

Annette O'Riordan (ed), You are History. You are Legend, (Relatives and Friends of Waterford International Brigaders, Waterford, 2004), 31pp, €10 pb.

It is refreshing in these days, when what is now denounced as hagiography in Brigaders' own earlier accounts of the International Brigades has been succeeded by so many academic works of mean-spirited iconoclasm, to find a work like Richard Baxell's that cannot be pigeonholed in either category. It is in fact a critical history of British volunteers in Spain that does indeed openly take issue with many aspects of the account provided by the British Battalion's own historian Bill Alexander. But it is written with a sympathy for its subject-matter that, while not content with only highlighting the fierce courage and bravery of the great majority, nonetheless never loses sight of the humanity of those whose weaknesses, even to the point of desertion, also come under the spotlight in this warts-and-all narrative.

Baxell provides a systematic analysis of the background and motivation of the British Battalion's volunteers, dispelling on the one hand the myth that the Spanish War was a war of the poets (as distinct from one in which poets also took part) and on the other the picture fostered by some writers such as Laurie Lee that volunteers were largely drawn from the lumpenproletariat and the unemployed. He provides the statistical evidence that they were very much drawn from the solid democracy of workers and lower middle-class. But to sociological classification is also added an expertise in military analysis (complete with maps), making sense of the advances and retreats of war, and the battle decisions taken, both those decisively daring and those disastrously misplaced.

There is much that will particularly interest the Irish reader, with new details of the role of Irish volunteers, not only in the ranks but in the actual leadership of the British Battalion. We learn that Battalion Commander Peter Daly from Wexford fell courageously in leading the attack on Purburrel Hill, which Brigade staff had misleadingly described as "lightly held". And we further learn that, notwithstanding Brigade H.Q. insistence on continuing the attack, Paddy O'Daire from Donegal, who succeeded Daly as Commander, withdrew the Battalion until such time as artillery support was brought forward. Irish readers will also note how Baxell draws on the testimonies of Dubliners Bob Doyle and Maurice Levitas as to the atrocious conditions in the San Pedro de Cardeña concentration cap in which they were imprisoned by the fascists, upon being taken prisoner during the course of the Republic's rout on the Aragon front.

Baxell's treatment of a degree of friction between some Irish and British volunteers is, however, less satisfactory. With reference to the vote of a small majority of new Irish recruits to switch from the British Battalion to the American one in January 1937, he gives the impression that the argument "that distinctions must be made between anti fascist working class comrades from Britain and British Imperialism" was pointedy made as a riposte by many of the "rankled" British. In fact it was the precise argument made by the politically conscious among the Irish themselves - Charlie Donnelly, Peter O'Connor, and Paddy and Johnny Power - three of them ex-IRA men. And it is only 44 pages later that we learn at all, in passing, of Johnny Power's attempt to get the Irish volunteers to remain with the British Battalion. That, and the unfortunate confusing at one point of Tommy Patten of Achill and Michael Patton of Colchester, are but small Irish-discerned defects in what otherwise must be judged a masterly narrative of the British Battalion. Indeed Baxell is particularly meticulous in demonstrating how other writers have got it wrong in maintaining that some Irish volunteers were wantonly executed by their own side, when in fact William Meeke was not executed at all, and Maurice Ryan was executed for no other reason than the extremely serious one of drunkenly opening fire on his own side at a critical moment during the Ebro offensive.

What the enthusiastic reader will take exception to, however, is the extremely high price of Baxell's book - a clear case for making maximum use of the public library system!

Readers who want a far less expensive introduction to Baxell's talents as a researcher should, however, read his lecture on the English writer Laurie Lee. His investigations establish that, while Lee's autobiography is more than likely fictitious as to his claims that he had actually fought in Spain, Lee did have the courage to volunteer for such fighting and was only rejected in Spain itself because of his recurring epileptic fits. Baxell's appreciation of Irish involvement in that struggle against fascism is further evidenced not only by his description of the British Battalion as being composed of both British and Irish volunteers, but also by his tribute to Bob Doyle for bearing witness to Laurie Lee's good character as an International Brigade volunteer.

That December 1937 report by Doyle had first been discovered by Barry McLoughlin in the Moscow archives of the International Brigades, and McLoughlin's own account is reproduced as an appendix in Bob's own book. For most readers it will come as a disappointment that Bob Doyle's autobiography has yet to be published in its original English, even through its Spanish translation has been in print since 2002, read by this reviewer with the aid of a dictionary. The Spanish editor, Severiano Montero Barrado, has also added a useful outline of Irish history and numerous footnotes in order to assist the Spanish reader.

I would quarrel with just one of Montero's footnotes, referring to Frank Ryan's imprisonment in Spain: "The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Ryan would subsequently be handed over to the Gestapo in 1940, dying in Dresden in 1944". As Ryan was not a prisoner in Germany, and there had been no Gestapo involvement whatsoever in his transfer, the suggestion that he was one of their victims is totally misleading. Notwithstanding a slip-up in a caption to a previously-unpublished photo of Ryan, which states that he "died a prisoner of war in 1940", Baxell is wisely more circumspect, while remaining within the bounds of accuracy, when he writes that Ryan was "taken to Germany and never returned to Ireland. He eventually died in Dresden in June 1944". And that is how it should be, unless the writer is prepared to go into the complex details of Ryan's work in defence of Irish neutrality in the final years of his life, a record that needs to be rescued from hagiographer and iconoclast alike. (Note 1)

Doyle's own memoirs cry out for publication in their original English. For his is not only an account of Spain: it chronicles a life of poverty in Dublin and exploitation as child labour in Wicklow (while officially in care), as well as post-war activities as a trade union activist in the British newspaper industry. But Spain remains central to his narrative, not least his record of cruelties and savage beatings experienced in the Spanish fascist concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. His account of his capture along with Frank Ryan in March 1938 is both vivid and poignant. Ryan's courageous behaviour as an officer in the face of an assault by an Italian fascist officer is dramatically recounted, as well as the restraining influence of Doyle himself and Jackie Lemon of Waterford in saving him from further beatings. And then there is the heart-wrenching description of the conversation between Ryan and Doyle as they are being marched off as prisoners, when Ryan simply informs his comrade: "They published my book today". Some book launch!

This account by Doyle of Ryan's capture has been translated back into English for inclusion in the commemorative booklet that was issued in connection with the unveiling on July 9, 2004 of a monument in memory of eleven Waterford International Brigaders. As I was responsible for text compilation, it would be invidious for me to review this limited edition of 1,000 copies any further! Suffice to say that it is an anthology of existing writings (including a couple of previously-unpublished letters) that detail the role of the Waterford volunteers in particular, enhanced by over 30 historical photographs, some published for the very first time.

All of these publications indicate that the well of historical research on the Spanish Anti-Fascist War is still very much full.

- Manus O'Riordan

Note (1):

I have dealt in detail with Ryan's role in Germany in two reviews of Fearghal McGarry's biography Frank Ryan (2002). These were published in the Spring 2003 issue of History Ireland, under the heading of "Frank Ryan - Patriot or Collaborator?", and in the Fall 2003 issue of Irish Literary Supplement (Boston), under the heading of "Was Frank Ryan a Collaborator?".

Manus O'Riordan is Head of Research with SIPTU

Several documents with reviews of material on Ireland and the SCW

More articles on the Irish international brigade members
For the general index of articles on lreland and the SCW