Commemorative Crossing of the Pyrenees
14-17 April 2006

Seventy Walkers Commemorate Seventy Years of the International Brigades

This report was compiled by Pauline Fraser, an officer of the IBMT for its forthcoming newsletter.

At Easter this year, seventy plus members and friends of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, including three veterans of the International Brigades, set off on a walk through the Pyrenees from France to Spain, taking a route that could have been used by some of the volunteers who made the crossing by night to aid the democratically-elected Republican Government of Spain.

It was the right time of year for the walk: Spring would bring a spring to our step, we hoped. Walkers wanted authentic, but some things had changed. Walkers who made the journey by train, set off for Perpignan from Waterloo, not from Victoria, the Brigaders' point of departure between 1936 and 1938. It is now possible to do the journey from London in a day, whereas the volunteers broke their journey in Paris, and left on early morning trains to arrive in southern France towards evening. Leaving from King Street no longer had the same cache, now that the former offices of the Communist Party of Great Britain had become a branch of the HSBC Bank. So we chose to start from the National Memorial on the South Bank, close neighbour of the London Eye. At its unveiling in October 1985, it felt safe in the shadow of the Greater London Council building. Now, as the rain came down, it seemed more like an orphaned child. Plans to refurbish Jubilee Gardens will mean an inevitable shift of position. The International Brigade Memorial Trust is keeping a watching brief, determined that it will keep a prominent position in the new, landscaped gardens.

The crowd that gathered at the Memorial at 9am on 14th April 2006 carried rucksacks and pulled little cases on wheels. They were going for the Easter weekend and knew their date of return. In 1936 the volunteers took all their belongings wrapped in a brown paper parcel: toothpaste and toothbrush, shaving gear, for one volunteer, a prized Parker pen that would be lost in the Pyrenees. They were going for - who knew how long? For 526 it would be forever.

14th April 2006, the day the walkers set off, was also the 75th anniversary of the coming to power of the Second Republic in Spain, following the abdication of the king, Alfonso, who presided over a bloody dictatorship that had lost him the support even of the army. The prospect of a democratic government, at last, unleashed hopes and expectations in the Spanish people for radical reform. Land redistribution was a key concern. Landless labourers in some parts of Spain, such as Andalucia, lived in abysmal poverty. In many areas of the country half the population was illiterate.

The failure of the middle-class and social-democratic government to meet the expectations of the people, resulted in the 1934 uprising, led by the miners of Asturias, which was savagely repressed by the army under General Franco. The centre and left republican parties formed a Popular Front electoral alliance, which took power in the election of February 1936. Five months later, on 17th July 1936, Franco invaded Spain from Morocco with the Spanish army of North Africa.

"July 1936. The Generals revolted in Spain. Fascism threw down the gauntlet. The effete Democracies looked on with almost benign indifference. Who cared for Spain? ….But a few, a very few, realised after a few days that it was the beginning of the attack of World Fascism." So wrote one of the International Brigaders, Bob Clark, in the memoirs of his time in Spain 'No Boots to my Feet'.

Foreign volunteers had been fighting in the Republican ranks from the first days of the Spanish Civil War, during the second half of July 1936. The first British casualty was the artist, Felicia Browne, in August 1936. She was the only British woman to die while fighting the enemy during the war. The idea of making the most of this steady stream of solidarity by creating a regular body of foreign combatants within the armed forces of the Republic was the work of the Communist International [the Comintern] in the first days of September 1936. By the 12th October 1936, the first 500 volunteers of the International Brigades had arrived in Spain.

The XV Brigade [largely English-speaking] was formed during January 1937 and marched into battle for the first time at Jarama on February 7th 1937. It was at Jarama that the British Battalion and the XV Brigade as a whole, sustained its heaviest casualties, until the Battle of the Ebro, near the end of the War. The British Battalion was withdrawn from the front at the end of September 1938 and returned to a heroes' welcome at Victoria Station on December 7th 1938.

More than 2,200 volunteers from Britain and Ireland went to Spain to join the International Brigades. They were part of a total of about 35,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries who went to the aid of the democratically-elected Republican Government of Spain. Of these, approximately 10,000 were killed in Spain fighting for democracy and freedom, 526 British and Irish dead amongst them. Their bodies lie in Spanish soil.

Since then, there have, and continue to be, many actions of international solidarity, but none on the scale of the support given to one country by the peoples of the world. In Britain, even the 2,000 plus who volunteered, were small in number compared with the huge hinterland of support involved in getting them there, and in raising humanitarian aid for the Spanish people. Support stretched far more widely than the Labour movement. Even members of the House of Lords, such as the Duchess of Atholl, were fully committed to the Republican cause.

What were the factors that led to such an outpouring of solidarity across the world? The onslaught of fascism, which threatened to end all democratic rule in Europe, was a most important factor. The swift action of the Comintern in organising the recruitment and infiltration into Spain of the volunteers was another, but none of this could have had any hope of success without the widespread support of the people of France. The Brigaders, in their memoirs, have nothing but praise for the efficiency with which the crossings were effected.

On our walk, we, too, had support from some of the people of France, both native, and those who have chosen to make their homes there. Members of a local walking club, Randonnee Ceretane, gave their services to guide us, help out with other emergencies, act as interpreters, and in many other ways. Mario Kloostra, originally from the Netherlands, whose father and uncles were all International Brigaders, ferried people around in his car and made a spectacular donation of wine to the group. IBMT members Maggie and John Comley, helped identify a suitable route, and supplied flowers to lay at the memorials along the way.

From 21st February 1937, when the Non-Intervention Committee enforced its ban on volunteers and brought in a system of border control, the volunteers had to cross at night. The British Government also revived a 19th century piece of legislation, the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, designed to prevent Britons serving as troops - mercenaries - in foreign armies.

In 'British Volunteers for Liberty' Bill Alexander described how the procedures for getting into Spain changed after this.

"The land route over the Pyrenees was most generally used. The small parties were collected into larger groups in Sète, Ceret, Perpignan and other towns within easy reach of the frontier. The francs given in Paris were taken back; with some volunteers the appeal of the wine had overcome their scruples and they had less than 200 francs left. Some groups were given a pair of rope-soled slippers - alpargatas - soon to become common footwear in Spain. Then, at night, in buses, lorries, and taxis, the groups were taken to the foothills of the Pyrenees. In darkness, with no smoking and no talking, the march began, in single file, up the mountains."

Even with the tight and committeed organisation of the French, many dangers still lay ahead. Sometimes they were arrested by police before they even got to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Sometimes they had to abandon the attempt to cross and lie low for a few days until the threat of arrest by border guards had passed. All the Brigaders describe a very arduous and hazardous climb to reach the Spanish border. A few volunteers didn't make it. They were killed by fascist border guards, or missed their footing and fell to their deaths from the high peaks. Some even died from exhaustion.

Walkers had a booklet describing the journeys of a number of the Brigaders, so we could compare our crossing with that of those in whose footsteps we followed, 70 years on. Whereas the Brigaders would have started their all-night climb just uphill from the small towns and villages that dot the lower slopes of the Eastern Pyrenees: Ceret, Maureillas-las-Illas, Amelie-les-Bains, and so on, we drove up the steep, narrow, and winding mountain road on the morning of 15th April, to the little hamlet of Las Illas, just three quarters of an hour's walk from the border, after an overnight hotel stay in Perpignan. In Perpignan, the party of 40 that had travelled by train, met up with those who had flown from Dublin, Glasgow, and Manchester.

Every nation in the British Isles was represented: The Republic of Ireland, the Six Counties still under UK rule, Scotland, Wales, and, of course, England. It was a colourful occasion: A special commemorative walk T-shirt was produced for the occasion; two of the Scottish contingent, Rob and Christopher Smith, wore kilts; most of the Irish sported Easter lilies, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, under the leadership of James Connolly, the great socialist and internationalist, and members of Cor Cochion, the Cardiff Red Choir, carried the Welsh flag and wore T-shirts from the Choir. The four grandsons of Benny Goldman, wore T-shirts in memory of their grandfather.

As we neared our destination, the rain cleared, and, outside the Hostal dels Trabucayres, tables laid with morning coffee and cakes greeted us. The three Brigaders who had come to revisit and, perhaps, partly to relive, their previous journey of 70 years ago, Jack Jones, President of the IBMT, committee member Jack Edwards, and Bob Doyle, were able to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the animated scene, as film-crews vied to get the best shots, and we met friends who had traveled independently to get to this spot.

As they waited to cross the Pyrenees, many of the parties of volunteers also experienced fine French hospitality. Ex-waiter Wally Togwell described his experience thus. "A very homely farmer's wife provided us with an excellent meal of rabbit such as I still dream about, not having ate the like of before or since, and I've worked in the top culinary establishments such as 'Boulestins' in its hey-day."

Before we set off on our walk, we paid homage to Republican fighters, at a memorial plaque in Las Illas, which had been erected by a French Brigader in 1996 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Spain and the formation of the Brigades. There we heard from Serge Barba, secretary of the FFREEE, the organisation for descendants of the 500,000 Spanish refugees who fled from Franco's tyranny after the collapse of the Republic along these self-same paths. In February 1939, in the bitter days of deepest winter, they poured across the border into what they hoped would be a safe haven. If they survived the journey, and some did not, as the refugees included the very young, the very old, the ill, the despairing and the desperate, following the fall of France just a few months later, it was to become a dangerous hell.

Some young Catalans joined us in paying respect both to their grandparents, who had fought in the Republican forces, and to the International Brigades. At every stop we paused to listen to readings from the poetry and memoirs of Brigaders. Marlene Sidaway, Secretary of the IBMT, was the first to read. She read 'Ales', by Miles Tomalin, followed by Cllr. Ray Davies, of Caerphilly, and member of Cor Cochion, the Cardiff Red Choir, who read a section from George Wheeler's 'To Make the People Smile Again'. Then, in contrast to the total silence which the Brigaders had to endure, the Choir, led us in singing 'The International', and we filled the air with song and began our walk.

At the border we stopped again to eat a packed lunch and to listen to Lynda Walker, of Belfast, who left the hills echoing with the words of Bob Clark on his first sight of Spain. "The dawn was breaking when we reached the summit and we sat or lay down for a long breather. What a magnificent panorama! Mile upon mile of stupendous heights which, stretching away into the distance, melted into broad rolling plains intersected here and there by tiny white villages. The climb was worthwhile even if we got no further. I, for one, would never have regretted going so far." We too, could feast our eyes on similar scenery. Martin Green, whose father, George, had been killed on the Ebro in the last moments of the Battalion's action before it was withdrawn from the front, and whose mother, Nan, helped organise medical services in Spain and later became secretary of the International Brigade Association, read "Sunrise in the Pyrenees, May 1937" by Tony McLean.

Then there was a parting of the ways. About half the walkers took the shorter route towards the nearby village of La Vajol, while the rest went to Castell de Cabrera, a fine viewpoint involving more of a climb. When the Brigaders arrived, they did not have the luxury of making such decisions. As they waited for lorries to take them to the Castle of Saint Ferdinand at Figueres, some of them had time to reflect. These were George Wheeler's feelings: "Sitting there, waiting for the trucks, I reflected on the last few days. I had progressed from being an onlooker to an active participant, prepared to do my best to defeat fascism and prevent another world war. I was now inside Spain and among men impelled by the same essential urge."

The walking groups gathered at the Manrella Comaulis Restaurant and joined the party that had crossed the border by coach. Refreshed, we listened to mayors, or their representatives, from the two local villages, La Vajol and Agullana, who were most welcoming and supportive of our commemorative walk. Where the Brigaders would then have continued their journey, we doubled back up to the border again, this time to a monument to Lluis Companys, the President of the Catalan Generalitat when the Republican forces collapsed. Along with the President of the Republic, Manual Azana, and the Basque President, Jose Aguirre, Companys had been part of those forlorn columns of refugees forced to flee Spain early in 1939.

Josep Fernandez, Secretary of the Committee that preserves the memorial and memory of Companys, told us that the former president was arrested by the Nazis in Paris following their invasion of France, and taken back to Spain, where he was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1940. This year is also the 65th anniversary of his execution. We laid flowers at his memorial, and Gerry Abrahams, our Newsletter editor, read a poem called 'Salud' by Eric Edney, and Anne O'Hara, her sister, a second passage from George Wheeler's book, where he writes: "Approaching the foot of the mountains we passed many old Catalonian landworkers who raised their hands in the clenched fist salute and greeted us with "Salud, camaradas!" "Greetings, comrades!" They were the first Spaniards we had ever seen and it was obvious by the warmth of their greeting that we were more than welcome in Government Spain."

We had a comfortable ride into Figueres in our coaches, whereas the Brigaders had to make do with dusty old lorries.

The next day, Easter Sunday, we followed the Brigaders' route to the Castle of Saint Ferdinand at Figueres. Bob Clark remembered the arrival. "With a loud shrieking of brakes, we pulled up outside an amazingly solid looking fortress. A loud call of the bugle and the huge gates swung open, the guards presented arms and in a matter of minutes we were in a large room which obviously was the administration part of the fortress. A perfect babble filled the room. It seemed as if the representatives of all the peoples of the world were present in this one room."

For us, the friends and descendants of Brigaders who had mustered at the castle prior to being taken to the Brigades' HQ at Albacete for induction and training, there were, if not representatives of all the peoples of the world, at least a fair smattering. A party from the Fighters and Friends of the International Brigades, the German counterpart to the IBMT, joined us. For some of us who had met before, there were emotional embraces. The Amigos, the Spanish Friends of the International Brigades, who had organised splendid reunions and tributes to the Brigades in 1996 and 2001, sent four representatives, including their secretary, Ana Perez.

What we had all been waiting for was the unveiling of a plaque which the Generalitat [Parliament] of Catalonia, had commissioned, to be placed in the grounds of the Castle where so many volunteers had come. The inscription, suggested by the IBMT committee, is in four languages, the English version of which reads:

'1936-2006 70th anniversary of the formation of the International Brigades

Remembering the volunteers who came to help the Spanish Republic, and mustered at the Castle of Sant Ferran [Saint Ferdinand] after crossing the Pyrenees mountains.

"We came because our open eyes could see no other way."

C.Day Lewis'

16th April 2006

This is followed by the emblems and names of the bodies that unveiled it:

Generalitat de Catalunya - International Brigade Memorial Trust - Ajuntament [Council] of Figueres

The unveiling of the plaque was an emotionally-charged moment and moved Jack Jones to make a particularly fine speech. We celebrated this moment with Maria Jesus Bono, the representative of the Catalan Generalitat, Pere Casellas of Figueres Council, the Director and Curator of the Castle, and all our friends. A wreath was laid at the newly-installed plaque. Inside the castle, a further reading from Brigaders' memoirs was given by committee member and publisher, Alan Warren, and the poem 'The International' by Clive Branson was read by Connie Fraser, widow of Brigader Harry Fraser. Manus O'Riordan, son of Brigader Michael O'Riordan, gave a vote of thanks to the Generalitat, which included the singing of James Connolly's "Rebel Song". Kate Leiterer, of the German friendship organisation, brought her greetings.

As well as being a successful event in its own right, the walk will have raised in excess of £7,000 for the IBMT. This includes a fund-raising element built into the cost of taking part, plus sponsorship that individuals on the walk have undertaken. A final break-down of the total raised will be given at the AGM in October.

The four poems referred to will all appear in an anthology of Brigaders' verse, entitled "Poems from Spain" which will be officially launched at the Jubilee Gardens commemoration on Saturday 15 July. It will be published by Lawrence & Wishart.

An enlarged booklet for the commemorative walk will also be available at the July meeting and at other events over the summer.

Copies of George Wheeler's book: "To Make the People Smile Again" may be obtained through the Morning Star newspaper.

Here is Manus O'Riordan's report of the trip and his speech.