Yesterday’s horrors – today’s memories
David Ingram interviews Bill Scott in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, 21st Nov. 1975.
In July 1936, Spain’s Republican Government, beset by vast problems began to crumble under the pressure of her army led by a former Governor of the Canary Islands, General Francisco Franco Bahamonde.
As supporters of the Republican cause resisted, civil war and all its horrors were unleashed in Spain. That September, 28 year old Irishman William Scott arrived unheralded in Barcelona. He carried only a bottle of wine and a brown paper parcel of sandwiches.
The two events marked the doom of socialism in Spain and the start of an enmity which ended only yesterday in the death of Franco. As Franco breathed his last in the Prado Palace ear Madrid, the International Brigade, in which young men from all over the world fought him, is no more than a faint memory. In the intervening years, other legends have replaced it in the Hall of Fame.
But at 3 Pinfold, Alvingham, the Brigade and all it fought for are still as much in Bill Scott’s thoughts as they ever were. And the hate he has harboured for Franco has barely dimmed since the moment he heard Dolores Ibarruri – known to history as La Pasionaria – proclaim: “It is better to fight on your knees as free men than to live on your knees as slaves.”
Though her cry stirred millions the world over, only very few took the appeal to heart and went to fight on behalf of Republican Spain. On the other side, it was a different story. Franco’s Falangists sought and received great help from other dictators. Hitler sent units of his Luftwaffe with crews and bombs; Mussolini sent tanks and artillery. Thinly disguised ‘volunteers’ tried out the tactics that would appear again in World War 2.
The men who joined the International Brigade took a road that was to lead to inglorious defeat. The rights and wrongs of that conflict have long since coloured and discoloured by subsequent events. But in the light of the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, few can doubt that their fight against Fascism was justified.
And despite the deep involvement of Stalin’s brand of Communism on the Republican side, Bill Scott is still very proud of what he did. He was a young bricklayer from Dublin working in London when he first hard that Spain’s elected socialist government was under attack by rebel generals.
Conditions among the working class were still hard. The Depression was still strong in socialist memory, and they saw in Franco’s Fascism a threat to whatever security they possessed. Bill Scott barely hesitated on his way to a London address he had seen advertised as a recruiting office for an International Brigade. From there he was sent to Paris, where he was brought before a recruiting board of ex-officers of the French and Italian armies.
Safely through, he was given a bottle of wine and a package of sandwiches, taken to a Paris station and put on board a train to Barcelona, along with about 50 men of various nationalities. He found the wealthy Spaniards were ‘still living the highlife’ as if nothing was happening, and a twinge of disillusionment struck some of them.
In Madrid, they underwent a brief four-day training at the Casa de Campo, were given uniforms and rifles, formed into the Thaelmann Battalion and sent in batches to the from.
Mr Scott’s memories of the fighting are today like some vast collage from which certain images stand out starkly against the overall death and destruction. There were streams of refugees dragging their pitifully few possessions behind them, running from the slaughter and burning villages. There were the weeks he spent fighting from one building to another at Madrid University.
"There were two buildings we nicknamed the White House and the Red House, and hand-to-hand fighting went on between them for weeks", he said. "At one point one side occupied the ground floor with the other side in the upper ones. A lot of good men fell in that battle, then one day the fighting stopped- as sometimes happens in war – and we went out and buried our dead."
The city lay in ruins, yet for one old lady it spelled hope. Seeing them bury dead Falangists along with their own men, she said: “You have made Madrid the graveyard of Fascism.” She was wrong. The Fascists could call on vastly superior forces and weaponry, and even the intervention of Soviet troops to oppose the German and Italian forces using Spain as a training ground could not stem the tide. Against tanks and planes the untrained soldiers of the International Brigade had only their idealism to give them hope.
“Even when we were retreating I refused to think about defeat,” Mr Scott said. “I simply could not believe that Fascism would win. We all believed our cause could not fail, not because we were Communists – there were only six Communists members in the Coalition Government at the time – but because we thought we were fighting for freedom.”
He can still remember the names of the men who fought and died beside him in the cities and hills of Spain. In particular there was Frank Ryan, the leader of the Irish volunteers, who was captured and taken a German concentration camp from which he never emerged.
There were the men who perished at El Escorial in the Valley of the Kings. “It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen, but covered in the snow where men were dying”, he recalled.
Then, in October 1938, the League of Nations made the greatest breakthrough of its powerless life – and perhaps the most misguided – when it arranged for al the foreign forces to withdraw. The International Brigade and the more obvious foreign forces left, and the country fell to General Franco.
On their return the Irish volunteers were feted in their homeland by a British admiral living in Donegal. He threw his home open to batches of them for three-week holidays in which they recovered from the strain of battle and defeat.
Then it was back to looking for a job. When the war in Europe broke out millions of Britons discovered the idealistic fervour which had inspired the men of the International Brigade. Mr Scott continued his fight against Fascism by joining the British army.
Although he had found the people of Spain ‘beautiful’, Mr Scott never returned and vowed he never would as long as General Franco lived. He would like to revisit some of the old battlefields, but memories of the injustices and suffering are still strong.
Was he in the right, and would he do it again? Without hesitation he said he was and he would, although he was unsure now whether all the pain –and he was wounded – and anguish had any effect on the course of history.
His wife and five children heard the story many times. For them it is simply history and they would sooner forgive and forget. But for Bill Scott that is one thing he will never do.
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