Pembrokeshire Life Magazine, July edition 2006


The role of two West Wales men in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39

[Site note: This article, by Anthony Richards, has been added to the site with his permission, thanks for that. It is of interest because it details 2 volunteers in Spain, but also becasue it finally nails the story that Arthur (Thomas) Morris was an Irish volunteer.He appears Mick O'Riordan's Connolly Column and this mistake has been repeated elsewhere. C Crossey, August 9th 2006.]

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In July 1936 Spanish army officers led a revolt against the democratically elected government of Spain. At that time, two young men from west Wales found themselves in Canada and, in common with thousands of men and women across the world, volunteered to fight in defence of the Spanish republic.

Spain had experienced an increasingly turbulent political history during the early twentieth century.

A plethora of political parties and trade unions representing all shades of the political spectrum had become established and the elections of 1936 had returned a left wing coalition of political parties to power. The reforms of the new republican government had sought to address longstanding social and economic inequalities but in some quarters the change it promised was not greeted with enthusiasm. The military consequently led a well organised revolt against the new government with the support of the church, land owning aristocracy and right wing political parties. After the initial military uprising the country soon fragmented into zones held by the insurgents and the government and three bitter years of fighting ensued.

Suddenly Spain, which had been long regarded as a backward and almost feudal country was thrust onto the world stage. The ensuing conflict was to last almost three years and proved to be a testing ground for the soldiers, weapons and tactics of Nazi Germany, introducing mechanised warfare and aerial bombing of cities on an unprecedented scale that was to shock the world at Guernica. It was, in turn, to commit the Soviet Union to providing arms and advisors, while the remaining major powers of the world favoured a lame policy of non-intervention that was ultimately to cripple the cause of the besieged government. It was, though, seen by many as a personal opportunity to halt the rising tide of international fascism during the 1930s; for many, democracy was at stake.

While the military insurrection led by General Franco would come to rely on the arms and troops supplied by Hitler and Mussolini, thousands of foreign volunteers rallied to the support of the Spanish people to form the International Brigades. Initially, the militias of trade unions and left wing political parties joined forces with those police and military still loyal to the government to battle for control of cities and territory. Later they became part of a more organised republican army, of which the International Brigades were to form a significant part.

Arthur Morris and Percy James were among the 35,000 volunteers who joined the International Brigades to fight in Spain. Although predominantly working class, many leading intellectuals swelled their ranks, motivated by the same conviction to defend democracy and providing a rich literary legacy. Battalions of the international brigades first arrived in Madrid in the winter of 1936 at a key point in the defence of the capital and gave a tremendous boost to the morale of Spanish people. Proving to be disciplined and highly motivated soldiers, they were often deployed as shock troops and were to fight in most of the major battles from there on until their departure in 1939.

During the conflict, two hundred men left Wales to fight in Spain, often in secret and without the approval of the British government, which had adopted a policy of non-intervention. What sets Arthur Morris and Percy James apart, however, is that they were the only volunteers to come from rural west Wales and, more significantly, they fought with the American and Canadian Battalions of the International Brigades. So how did these two men from west Wales end up fighting fascism in Spain, in the company of thousands of Canadians and Americans?

Arthur Wigley Morris was born in Cardigan in 1908. He grew up at Claverley, 2 Gordon Terrace, Cardigan. His grandfather was a seafaring captain and this roving spirit seems to have inspired him to travel in later life. An auburn haired and fiery character on the rugby field, he was a keen sportsman and captained Cardigan football team. He was a popular man in his home town and worked as an apprentice at James’ ironmongery at Pendre. In 1929, he left Cardigan at the age of 21, and emigrated to Canada. He served in the army for two and half years before he eventually settled in Blairmore, in the Canadian state of Alberta, where he worked as a miner. North America was struggling through the depression. High levels of unemployment and harsh living conditions swelled the ranks of the Communist Party of Canada, which Arthur became a member of in 1933. Like many, his politicisation was a consequence of these hard times and he became a busy union activist, educating himself at night school.

Arthur Morris left Canada in 1936 to enrol in the International Lenin School in Moscow. This was the ideological finishing school for the most promising of the young communist activists from around the world. Arthur Morris’ brother observed that he took his politics very seriously but generally kept his opinions to himself. Selection for such training in the Soviet Union was therefore a reflection of Arthur’s political commitment. He appears to have concealed his political work from his family, who were under the impression that he was travelling extensively in Europe on business. After the outbreak of the Civil War the students of the Lenin School departed for Spain, and Arthur made his own way across Europe sending postcards home from Warsaw, Paris and Perpignan. He crossed into Spain and joined the American contingent who were forming the Abraham Lincoln battalion at Albacete, situated midway between Madrid and Valencia. His friends in Blairmore recalled his sudden departure from Canada in 1936 telling no one of his destination, in common with many other volunteers.

He joined the battalion as a motorcyclist on 4th February 1937 only weeks before they were sent to the front line in the defence of Madrid. With little training and poorly equipped they were rushed to up to the front line to reinforce the republican army who were faltering in the face of a major Fascist offensive to the south of Madrid. Franco’s forces sought to encircle Madrid and cut the vital Madrid- Valencia road. The battle that raged in the Jarama Valley to the south of Madrid in February 1937 was one of the most ferocious of the war with the Fascists deploying German artillery with devastating effect for the first time. On reaching the front Arthur Morris wrote a letter, addressed front line trenches somewhere near Madrid, to the Friends of The Abraham Lincoln Battalion in New York; “ we’re doing a good job on the fascists from this side hows about some smokes and chocolates and detective stories from the other side…Salud”.

The Abraham Lincoln battalion was ordered into the attack on a wet and dreary morning of February 27th with the promise of tank and air support which did not materialise. This was to be Arthur’s first action. He had fallen in with a group of Irishmen known as the Connolly Unit who chose to fight with the Americans and one of them recorded the story of his role in that first main engagement: ”… I remember him well on that day. The Fascists were about 250 yards ahead. We got the order to advance. Never have I seen a human being so calm, so cool under fire. It was here that Comrade Morris won the hearts of the Irish section. After advancing about 150 yards in two or three bursts, we took cover in no man’s land…” Arthur Morris then remonstrated with his group leader about the need to rescue a wounded comrade but they were under orders to advance and not return to tend the wounded. “It seemed that a lull came in the fighting for a few minutes. Comrade Morris could not bear it any longer. He made an attempt to rush back to his comrade. I stopped him. I knew it meant certain death, because right in front of us a hundred yards away the Fascists were waiting with their machine guns.” On resuming the advance Arthur took aim with his rifle “…Before he had time to pull the trigger an explosive bullet passed through his head. His death was instantaneous”. At the age of 29 Arthur Morris met his death in the olive groves of the Jarama Valley.

The hotly disputed order to advance on the fascist positions resulted in over half of the 263 Americans being killed by machine gun fire in one afternoon. The extent of the slaughter of the American contingent led them to wryly observe that their battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he too was assassinated. Several desperate offensives by the International Brigades succeeded in holding the line but at a huge cost. Charlie Donnelly, another member of the Connolly Unit, was also killed that day and left these chilling lines about Jarama ‘Death stalked the olive trees Picking his men His leaden fingers beckoned again and again’.

Despite the very short time he had been in Spain, he was evidently held in high esteem by his comrades in arms, with his Irish companions mourning the loss of this inspiring and popular recruit in their battalion newsletter. The battle raged on for four months and degenerated into a stalemate of trench warfare until the republican army opened an offensive to the north of Madrid at Brunete. Many of the fallen who could be retrieved at Jarama were originally buried in the village cemetery of Morata de Tajuna, where a simple memorial was hastily erected. When this territory was overrun by Franco’s troops, the memorial was demolished and many of the bodies were disinterred and thrown on nearby waste ground. Remains of the shattered memorial are evident today with a later memorial being erected by Francois Mazon, a French volunteer, who returned many years later to erect a simple memorial in the local cemetery.

In May 1937 news of Arthur’s death finally reached his mother and made front page headlines of the Tivyside Advertiser and West Wales Guardian, competing for space with the Coronation; ‘Killed in Spain –Cardigan Man Dies Fighting for Spanish Government’. A letter informing his mother of his death from the Abraham Lincoln Battalion was also published and signed by the volunteer and New York sculptor Phil Bard. It makes poignant reading. “Dear Mrs Morris, we have been asked to inform you that your son Arthur Morris has been killed in action while heroically fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion against the Fascist invasion of Spain. In extending our heartfelt sympathy to you and his relatives and friends we know that no words of ours can comfort you in your bereavement, yet it is our hope that the thought of the cause for which he died will in some measure ease the pain which must be yours. Arthur Morris died that Democracy shall not perish from the earth. Let that thought be your comfort. Fraternally, Phil Bard.” It was not unusual for such a delay in informing relatives due to the chaotic nature of the conflict and the lack of organised brigade staff. It is also now thought that death notices were staggered in order not to deter recruitment. His mother, who had presumably not seen him since he emigrated, described him as a “beautiful boy, always fighting for what he thought to be right”.

Percy Martill James was born in 1905 and lived at Tivy Bank in Crymych. He was the son of a well known agricultural produce merchant, Mr D. James and emigrated to Canada in 1927, settling in Vancouver. Unfortunately, we know little about his time there. Arthur and Percy were by all accounts friends and presumably came to know each other in Wales, growing up in neighbouring communities, linked by the Cardi-Bach railway. Percy James was an engineer who came to Spain via New York in around June 1937 and was reported to have taken part in the fighting around the Madrid front at Brunete with the Lincoln battalion. He then joined the emerging Canadian battalion, who were named after two nineteenth century leaders for Canadian independence, Papineau and Mackenzie and Papineau. The Mac-Paps as they came to be known went into action for the first time at the town of Fuentes de Ebro in October 1937 as part of the Aragon offensive. Thereafter they fought in many of the major engagements, enduring the extremes of the Spanish climate and struggling heroically against the increasingly superior firepower of Franco’s well equipped forces.

By a remarkable coincidence we have a reference to Percy, which was discovered in the remains of a battered republican strongpoint by the editor of The Aeroplane magazine, C G Grey. An ardent supporter of Franco, C G Grey was touring the battlefields of Spain as a guest of the nationalist army and on September 16th 1938 he visited the Ebro front at Gandesa “…Before dinner we all went up to the top of the mountain which had been one of the strong points in the fortifications of Catalonia. There I had a good chance to study the effects of heavy bombing. In one particular place there had been a gun position protected by heavy sandbags. A 500lb bomb had hit it plumb on the top and turned it clean inside out. Inside it we found an envelope addressed to Mr Percy Y James and a leave chit from the International Brigade Headquarters in Madrid. If he was there when the bomb fell he went on leave by the back door as a projectile”.

By this stage of the war, Percy was in captivity and Mr Grey would later join him when, during the Second World War he was interned by the British Government due to his Nazi sympathies. In July 1938 the West Wales Guardian reported Percy’s capture by Franco’s forces, after “an engagement in Aragon”. It appears from battalion records that he was listed as a prisoner of war from April 1938 onwards and was probably captured in the defence of Gandesa in early April as the republican forces were overrun in the chaotic retreats to their stronghold in Catalonia.

Percy James was fortunate indeed, the Civil War was one of the most uncompromising conflicts of the twentieth century and shortly after its outbreak it was customary for the fascists to summarily execute foreign volunteers captured fighting in the International Brigades. The growing need to appease the nations of Europe and North America and organise prisoner exchanges led Franco to revise this policy by the time of Percy James’ capture. It is probable that he was eventually incarcerated with many other English speaking Brigaders in the old monastery of San Pedro de Cardena, near Burgos, which gained an infamous reputation for the brutal treatment of its prisoners. More akin to a concentration camp, the inmates were subjected to degrading psychological studies and physical examinations, which concluded that they were mental retards and social imbeciles. The majority of the prisoners were repatriated between February and April 1939 as part of exchange for Mussolini’s prisoners of war, captured fighting for Franco. Some were never released, being considered too politically dangerous and were later executed or died in Nazi concentration camps.

Little is of known of Percy James after his repatriation to Britain in 1939, we know he returned briefly to Crymych but did not settle there and at present we can only speculate whether he eventually returned to Canada. If he was alive in 1996 he would have been invited to Spain and offered honorary Spanish citizenship, as a token of Spain’s gratitude to the many volunteers. Franco’s victory in 1939 resulted in a severe repression of those people who had elected to fight on ‘the wrong side’ during the long dictatorship that followed. The Second World War was soon to engulf Europe and many International Brigade volunteers enlisted in the allied forces to continue their fight, while Franco sent Spanish troops to fight alongside Nazi forces on the eastern front.

Arthur Morris and Percy James recognised the threat posed by Hitler and had the courage of their convictions to volunteer to stand by the Spanish people in what still ranks as one of the most uncompromising conflicts of the twentieth century. Arthur Morris is commemorated on a plaque at the South Wales Miners’ Library in Swansea together with 50 other Welshmen who died in Spain. In recent years, consideration has been given to honouring Arthur’s memory in his home town of Cardigan. The inscription ‘Arthur Morris, Madrid, 1937’ would indeed arouse curiosity about this little known conflict. A true internationalist, he volunteered to defend liberty and, together with Percy James, is deserving of our recognition and gratitude.

Anthony Richards is a member of the International Brigades Memorial Trust, which is dedicated to promoting awareness of the Spanish Civil war and the men and women from the UK and Eire who volunteered to fight alongside the Spanish people.

The photograph of Arthur Morris, kindly loaned by Mr Tony Bowen, St Dogmaels.