Twenty months in the International Brigade

By Brendan Moroney, Hibernia, September 1938, p23-25.

It was in November 1936 that I decided to accept a friend’s suggestion to go to Spain where the International Brigade was already fighting. I was not, and am not, a Communist; but I love adventure and I was assured I should be fighting for freedom, although I cannot say I knew overmuch about what was toward at that time. I do now.

Like the others, we got three pounds and a weekend ticket to Paris from Communist Headquarters in Covent Garden [London] and eventually we turned up at Figueras in Catalonia.

There were no flowers at Barcelona and only the members of the political organisation staged a welcome. The population in general did not seem to care ‘two pence’. I was glad the people did not greet us with clenched fists and the ‘Internationale’. This was left to the party men. I got the impression in Barcelona that 80%, were pro-Franco or anyhow not anti-Franco, but they dared not show it. However, we had little time to get a sound impression as we were bundled off to Albacete, the Headquarters of the Brigade.

They drafted me into an English-speaking battalion and sent me to Madrigueras where I fell sick and was sent to hospital in Albacete. Here I was ‘cured’ by a medical student and sent back to Madrigueras where I soon learnt to divide the Brigade men into two classes – those who really thought they were fighting for democracy and those who had no interest in democracy but only some Communist doctrine. I got seven days imprisonment for taking part in a meeting of the ‘democratas’, in January 1937, to protest against Communist methods. Of course, being merely a democrat I was dubbed ‘Fascist.’

The Black Hole of Albacete

The English-speaking Brigade in Albacete had a Political Commissary named Ralph Fox who was afterwards killed in action. At Madrigueras, McCartney commanded the British Battalion, and another Britisher, D E Springhall, was Brigade Political Commissar and had more ‘say’ than the Lieut. Colonel of the Brigade himself.

After my 7 days in prison in Madrigueras they court-martialled me at Albacete, but I caught fever and again went into hospital. That, at all events, was a respite. The hospital was at Benicasim, a lovely place, but the Reds vulgarised it and made it a desert. It was six weeks before I was able to walk, when I was sent back to Albacete to be interrogated. What was my surprise to find that my Court was composed of Asiatic Russians. Of course they could not prove me a ‘Fascist’ and I asked to go to the front, which pleased them; but my real reason by this time was to get over to Franco’s side as fast as my legs could carry me.

My companions en route to the front were mainly deserters, drunkards and what-not. They did not shoot them at first as long as there was a hope of making them fight. We went to Torriodones in May, on the Madrid front, and I struck a French Communist officer for having first struck me. He shot me in the arm and, as luck would have it, I had to go to hospital again. On June 28, seeing I was now completely out of sympathy with my tyrants – bullies, rogues and blackguards, the whole gang of them – I tried to make a break away to Franco’s side by going through France. I only got as far as Benicasin where I was caught and was soon ‘in durance vile’ in Albacete once more.

Never have I seen such a filthy hole as that prison once a spick and span Civil Guard’s barracks. The room was only 30 feet by 10 with bunks for forty men. Only fleas and worse ‘carnivora’ prevented us from sinking into sloth. Everybody seemed to have some sickness, including consumption and venereal disease. We had no change of underclothing. The sanitary conditions were indescribable. The food was unfit for pigs.

Nationalist Prisoners

On August 1, 1937, they took me to the Secret Police again and said they could not prove me a ‘Fascist’ but I was not a ‘good’ anti-Fascist. Insinuatingly they asked, would I like to go home? Now I knew that meant that if I said ‘Yes’ I should be inconveniently ‘bumped-off; it always did. So I said ‘No, I came to fight’. At least that saved my life. I was sent to a ‘recreation’, but really a ‘concentration’, camp with 1,500 deserters (so popular was the ‘people’s army’) largely men who fled from the Brunette front where we had had a gruelling. Our food was atrocious, our pay irregular, our medical treatment disgusting, and we had changes in our clothing when God sent it. Our tempers got as short as our rations, and as foul as our clothing, and I quarrelled with another Irishman over politics and we fought. Back to the Provincial Gaol at Albacete for 97 days!

I spent 97 days in this gaol among mainly Nationalist prisoners. The ‘Fifth Column’ they called them. Middle-aged and old men and women who couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt a fly. Some were there for the crime of being respectable, others because they refused to sign over their property to the thing called a ‘government’. But most had committed the heinous crime of being Christians, and this by a ‘legal’ government whose constitution says no man shall be persecuted for his ideas. Some were small farmers with a few acres they refused to part with and many were there on silly trumpery charges to give the persecution a show of ‘legality’. The few young men there were not Francoites at all. If they had been they would have been killed long before. They were Red conscripts who had no stomach for the fray. The food was as bas as elsewhere, and the filth.

Red Terror in Albacete

They said it was a stark falsehood to say the Nationalists, during their brief domination, had shot Reds and Republicans in Albacete. In fact, a month before the war broke out, the Reds had burnt out numbers of churches leaving the blackened walls which were usually of stone. I myself could see this. This induced the townsfolk to join the rising against the government. The Nationalists, small in numbers, were completely cut off from all help but held out for five days, during those five days they executed absolutely nobody. I got that from my friends in Albacete and I trust them better than newspaper correspondents who were not witnesses. As soon as the Reds took the town a veritable reign of terror commenced. The average number of people they shot daily was 58, the lowest total on any day was 38 as long as the terror lasted – till the end of August, 1936. The execution squads were mainly sailors from Valencia who had already murdered their officers. But they were cowards at fighting and broke at the battle of Brunette, which determined the Republican defeat.

One young man had been in gaol since the war [accused] of being (1) a priest, (2) living an exemplary life and (3) being famous for his charity. They hadn’t shot him yet because the poor stood up for him. But his time will come.

One young woman had been in gaol since the war began. They had been obliged to acquit her on charge of ‘disaffection’, but she was kept in prison all the same. She was tried twice more but they hadn’t a jot of evidence against her. Still, there she is in prison. Another is there for refusing to be a strumpet of the Reds. There was a school mistress of 55, a lady of 65 and a very old lady of 84. Wives accompany husbands, children their parents, to gaol. So sometimes the whole family is there through the father being sentenced.

International Brigade Prisoners

In October and November, 1937, the Judicial Commissar of the International Brigades imprisoned a batch of men for the duration of the war. I provoked a hunger strike which greatly upset the organisation. Yet; by this time I certainly did belong to the ‘Fifth Column’. After four days our names were taken and we were sent to the Investigation men, who were really GPU [Soviet secret police] under another name; but they had no evidence against any particular man and so had to release us, save a few who went to the penal colony of Chinchilla, including a French journalist. To ingratiate himself with the Cheka this man afterwards denounced me as a ‘Fascist’. After being released I got leave and 200 pesetas of my back pay which does not go far in Spain today, and went to recuperate on the Duke of Alba’s estate near Denia. I now tried to dodge the Brigade and though I went back in December 1937 I dodged around there till I was arrested on January 22, 1938, or it may have been the 24th. This time they said roundly I was a ‘Fascist’ and after seven days detention I was bundled off to the jail [check orginal, cc] in at Tarazona de la Mancha where the Commander was Major Alan Johnson, of the American Army.

A ‘Second Soviet’

The Tarazona base was a second Soviet, with Soviet police and guards under a Greek Communist with the alias of ‘Pedro.’ This officer had absolute authority. On his own responsibility he sentenced volunteers to from 30 to 60 days for mere drunkenness or absence without leave. Most democratic I thought. The prison had once been a beautiful cemetery chapel. Now it is fit for a pigsty. Only the walls remain intact. At reveille and retreat the seven companies saluted the flag with clenched fists – nominally the Republican flag, but the Red flag with hammer and sickle complete was always in the offing.

The village church was a town-hall and concert hall. Nigger minstrels, including Paul Robeson, regaled us. He sang ‘Red’ songs, some of them of his own composition. Harry Pollitt honoured us with his august presence, speaking from the place when the altar had stood.

I attended the so-called trial of an American deserter by the Brigade. The volunteers were the jury. It was a farce for the verdict had clearly been decided on beforehand. His crime was that he had not actually been to the front.

Sympathy for General Franco

Most of the folk in Albacete hate the Reds. “It won’t be long now before General Franco comes!” they say to cheer each other up. The senoritas have nothing against the Spaniards but they despise the “internationals” and will not go into the street because of them. The only folk who hobnob with the “internationals” are Reds and women of the streets. It is the same everywhere. I visited what was left of the churches secretly. Bodies had been disinterred for valuables and left lying about and such religious objects as had not been stolen were lying about smashed and twisted in heaps. The crosses on the tombs had been broken and thrown down. This was nothing new. I saw it everywhere I went in Red Spain, in Madrid, Alicante, Valencia, Denia, etc.

Let all those who are taken in by lies about ‘religious toleration’ take note”! The Reds say openly there will be no more religion in Spain because it is ‘the dope of the people.’

Hazardous Days

On February 10, 1938, I was sent to the front with others under armed escort. When we left Albacete railway station the Brigade band played revolutionary songs and the ‘rearguard’ Reds strode up and down the platform yelling “Long live world revolution!” “Down with the capitalist class”. “Long live the Komintern” was another of many slogans. As for us, I wouldn’t drink, but most of the poor deluded asses had been thoroughly soaked with atrocious wine distributed by soapbox orators and political commissars who, since they were not going to fight, were naturally bubbling over with Sovietic enthusiasm.

It was a hazardous journey. The guards stole out rations and I complained. The American Jew who commanded the expedition ordered my company commander, a Greek, that I gave ‘the slightest provocation’ on the way up to the front, I was to be shot dead; and as we had so little to eat and were so harshly treated there was a chance I might break out at any minute. We dodged Franco’s planes (and here I wish to say I never saw him bomb any but military objectives) and, just before we reached Alcoriza the guards started beating up some of the men for being drunk with truncheons and rifle-butts. We were put in charge of another American Jew. There are many men of his type in the International Brigades who shoot prisoners, priests included, and civilians as well, with explosive bullets, and I am prepared to uphold the truth of this statement before anyone.

Catholic Priests ‘Are Good Men’

I understand Spanish very well and wherever I went people in Spain the people opened their hearts to me. They said the stories about bad priests were lies. They were miserably poor yet charitable and of godly life. Yet they were murdered, persecuted, slandered and defamed in the vilest cartoons it has ever been my lot to see.

The people said that they had never been ‘oppressed’ by the landed classes. Their state then, compared to what it is under the Bolshevik heel, was really happy. They had liberty of thought under the monarchy and under the dictatorship and republic, but the latter had persecuted religion more and more. These people ought to know much better than the lying propagandists.

I never saw a Spaniard drunk, but as for the “internationals” the less said the better. The people are very kindly, but impressionable, and the Reds are trying to turn them into degenerates. Just think, for example, of the effect on the young of the disgusting pictures I have just referred to. They told me night mass murders had been going on at first regularly and later at intervals all over Spain, especially in Madrid Valencia, Barcelona and the bigger towns, but I think everybody knows all about these by this time. Those who do not want to believe would not do so if they had seen them. Whenever they lose a battle the Reds start murdering again.

On the Jarama Front

The Reds were utterly dismayed and confused when they lost Belchite in March this year. Bad leadership was responsible. They have the numbers all right (at one time the International Brigades numbered 75,000 men most of whom will never see their homes again); but they were beaten by better leadership and greater enthusiasm among Franco’s men. The Republican officers are as often as not men who get their job for being the noisiest in the [Trade] Union they belonged to, but with no military training and seldom with any natural military talent. What can you do with an Army like that?

On this front a company commander named Overton was unjustly court-martialled for getting lost at night. He was eventually sent to the front under armed escort. He had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We never hear do him again, but we can guess his fate.

Persecution of Peasantry

The peasantry may be ‘their country’s pride’ but they have quite turned against Negrin’s Government. They are almost slaves, for their crops are commandeered and they get nothing for it. The worth-less paper tokens called money are unwanted, People want food and commodities. The peasants resist, are called Fascists and shot and imprisoned. In July, 1937, I saw in Albacete 15 peasants led to town by the International Brigade. They were thrown into prison and at 4 a.m. next day were marched off to about 3 or 4 kilometres, put up against a wall and shot. I witnessed this by keeping concealed. The officer himself shot three of the victims.

The civil population does not flee before Franco, it is driven by the Reds, who hate the idea of these poor folk achieving freedom. I used to tell them not to flee – that all that was said about Franco was lies; that nothing would happen to them. I hope those who believed me and stayed behind will, in their new found peace and happiness, not forget me in their prayers, for now they are allowed to pray. Of course, those with crimes on their consciences need no spur to flee. In the flight through Aragon, the poor-spirited conscripts did not stop till they reached, in some cases, Barcelona or Valencia. The public laughs at Negrin’s ‘Resist’ appeals, and look upon Miaja, whom they call ‘Pyjamas’ – as a doddering idiot. He became a Communist, but probably wishes he was well out of it. The Communists pull all the strings and run things as they, not the people, want.

The factory women are half-hearted but sing revolutionary songs all day long, for if they didn’t the watchful eye of some Communist sister would denounce them as Fascists. I know this for they have told me so. If they were suspected, their families were punished

I Escape

When Franco had driven the Reds across the Ebro I was sent to the Mora front, where an Englishman called Ellis told me I should be ‘bumped off’ if I tried any more ‘funny business.’ I knew my death sentence had been given and sought to escape. I ‘swung the lead’, pretending to be sick, and was sent to the Brigade doctor who sent me to Tarragona hospital where I escaped and got home via Marseilles though the British Consulate. If ever I fight in Spain again it will not be for the Reds and tyranny but for "Franco and Freedom!".