Forty years ago yesterday the Spanish Civil War began, with an army revolt against the Popular Front government. Three years later 580,000 were dead - 220,000 had been murdered by both sides - and 400,000 had emigrated. After the Republican surrender, 200,000 'Red; prisoners died through execution or disease. Several dozen Ulstermen served in Spain, a few on the victorious Nationalist side. The feeling of the time is recaptured by MICHAEL McDOWELL.
[This full page article from some unknown paper, is obviously from July 1976. CC]
Most of the idealists from Ulster who fought in Spain are now dead. Some who survived have kept their involvement a secret from their employers. A few are willing to talk.
Joe Boyd, from Tyrone, did not go to fight. He served as an ambulance driver and he and a companion from Belfast almost lost their lives. Joe went to live in Spain a few years ago, but he returns to Ulster every so often.
In 1936, when he was 26, he had Liberal and Socialist ideals. "The Civil war had just started and for once in Ulster the Unionists and Nationalists were united - in propaganda against the Republican government. Some f my acquaintances wanted to fight for the Popular Front. I thought that people who fought would, sooner or later, be regarded as mercenaries and expendable. I left with an ambulance unit organised at Glasgow University."
Joe Boyd's first vivid memory of the Spanish Republic was the scene outside a bank. "I saw two Anarchists guarding it. I had thought Anarchists blew up banks, but they were guarding the people's money. In Barcelona I met all types in the International Brigade. I'll never forget a Scottish miner of 17 who was shot through the neck and used his fingers to stop himself bleeding to death. Of course there were fanatics like the Communists - often brave but bigoted individuals.
After the unit of six ambulances and a store wagon had been paraded through Madrid, Hoe handled his first casualty at the front. "I took a wounded man from near Toledo which the Fascists had just captured. His leg was broken, but that 60-mile journey hurt me more than it hurt him.
"A companion from Belfast [Fred McMahon] and I attached ourselves to a medical professor at Madrid University, a truly great man who after the war was not allowed to practise - part of the penalty for being on the wrong side.
"On November 8 - my birthday - my Belfast friend and I were caught by the Fascists. The war was fought on an open front - holding hills and towns, not a solid line of defence. We were heading for Carabanchel, outside Madrid, and knew that the day before there had been heavy nationalist shelling in the area and that they had captured the village. But we were told our side had retaken it.
"Our soldiers warned us in Spanish (which we couldn't then understand) not to venture past them. But we drove on and met two boys with red crosses on their arms. They told us that a girl, the sister of one and the sweetheart of the other, was wounded. Turning a corner, we ran smack into a Fascists machine gun post. They hauled us out of the ambulance. One of the boys was murdered there and then."
The two Ulstermen were taken behind the Nationalist lines and passed by what was to be a familiar sight on both sides - a mass execution. "What appalled us was that some of the victims were wearing Red Cross armbands."
"At Getafe we were given a gruelling interrogation by a man I believe now to be the Nationalist General Yague, who massacred so many people in the building at Badajoz. We weren't shot, but we were sent to Toledo and kept in the cellar of a hotel."
Their guards were young soldiers who took part n the siege of the Alcazar - a symbol of Nationalism in the early stages of the war and now a national monument. A reporter visited the two men and promised to contact the British consul. They did not know that Ulster Labour MP Harry Midgley was making the most strenuous efforts to save them from execution, contacting everyone who could put pressure on the Nationalists.
And Joe had a remarkable meeting:
"While we were imprisoned in the hotel a distinguished old man I a nightgown asked us about Madrid and talked generally about the war. I now know him to have been the President of the Junta, General Cabanelias. We survived to tell our tale and were sent back to Ireland."
Joe is now 66. Looking back, would he have acted as he did with the benefit of hindsight? "I am very sad at the way the war went. I doubt that I'd risk my hide again except in Ulster. I became disillusioned about things but that doesn't mean you forget about injustice. I believe the people who fought and worked on the Republican side were risking their lives in a good cause. They weren't being paid to do it. Many lost their lives on Spanish battlefields. "
What stands out in Joe Boyd's experience of his bloody civil war? "Without hesitation I'd say that all those 40 years ago the word 'comrade' really rang true. That's something I'll never forget."
Joe's daughter Liz wrote a piece about him
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