Colder Light on the Good Fight

Revisiting Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

Barry McLoughlin reviews the folowing volumes in Saothar, No. 28, 2003. This is the journal of the Irish Labour History Society. CC
  • Robert A Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939: Crusades in Conflict (Mandolin/Manchester University press, 1999), 288p, £11. Paperback
  • James K Hopkins, ‘Into the Heart of the Fire’; The British in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford University Press, 1998), £35 hardback
  • Peter N Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford University Press, 1994), £12.95 paperback

These volumes rely to varying degrees on dossiers made available in recent years by Irish, British, Spanish, US, and Russian archives, and represent a new stage in the historiography of the International Brigades (IB). The newly accessible archival material, when woven with interview protocols, enables is to understand the functioning of the IB as political entities, and assess the extent to which dissent was tolerated, why it originated, and how the leadership, especially the political commissars, came to terms with it.

Unfortunately, Professor Stradling (University of Cardiff) promises more than he can deliver, by not underpinning his arguments with facts, and treating carelessly or misreading his sources. In attempting to rescue the Blueshirts in Spain from the condescension of posterity and the barbs of Republican folklore, Stradling is sizing up for a fight: his books, he alleges, ‘strives for impartiality’ and ‘will outrage many’ (p4). I doubt if battle will be joined, for three reasons.

First, the two Irish involvements with Spain have themselves become ‘historicized’ and cannot arouse passions to the sae extent as in the long period when Civil War hatreds dominated Irish political discourse. Second, Stradling, in comparing both sets of volunteers, acts on false premises, for instance, that the 'nationalist cause in Spain was not inherently evil nor was that of the Republican inherently good' (p212). It is incontestable that the putsch of the military coterie on 17 July 1936 set out to topple a legally elected government, and reverse the moderate policies of social reform the Popular Front parties had set in train in a poverty-stricken country. In other words, it was a classic fascist coup of 'the haves' against 'the have nots', an event repeated nearly 40 years later in Chile. Third, time and again Stradling demonstrates that his grasp of Irish history is uncertain. Frank Ryan is described as supporting Nazi Germany in World War 2 (p1), the Republican Congress is portrayed as 'an obscure splinter group of the IRA' (p1), Ryan is said to have had 'his own fight the Blueshirts' (p2), and Bertie Smylie, editor of the anti-Franco Irish Times, is provided with a 'less Catholic' attitude than his counterpart in the clericalist Irish Independent (p86). Other unsubstantiated claims include the statement that Irish Catholics and British Communists had street battles in Britain every Saturday night (p89), that Irishmen in the XV IB, reputedly like their countrymen on the other side of the Jarama trenches, hated their officers more than the enemy (p211), and in another instance of inadmissible comparison, that the cause of the Irish internationalists was 'a single, communist crusade' (p139) and not a broadly anti-fascist or a dedicated 'Anti-Blueshirt' one.

Stradling's careless syntax and cavalier attitude to secondary sources pepper the text. Anyone conversant with the history of the Spanish Civil war knows that Paris was an assembly point for volunteers heading south, and not 'the headquarters of the Comintern' (p147), or that the countermeasures taken against guerrilla activities in the vicinity of Caceres, Extremadura, the former socialist bastion occupied by fascist troops and O'Duffy's Bandera, can scarcely be termed an 'anti-terrorist campaign (p48). After an entertaining narrative of the Irish Catholic volunteers, the text losses fluency because the author cannot make up his own mind on what the contribution made by the Irish in the XV IB amounted to. Stradling (p160) also misreads Michael O’Riordan’s reference (Connolly Column, n 15, p66) to the use of the pseudonym ‘Ryan’ by Kit Conway: this was his nom de guerre as a training officer in the IRA, and not when he assumed military responsibility in Spain. This criticism – not rechecking secondary sources – is justified by many other examples, but it is worth dwelling on the case of Kit Conway as it forms part of Stradling’s account on the background to ‘the split’ among Irish arrivals at Madrigueras in January 1937, just before the XV IB was established.

Over twenty years ago (Irish Democrat, December 1978, as quoted in Cronin, Frank Ryan, p92), Peter O’Connor described how he and others at a meeting on 12 January 1937 tried to dissuade the Irish contingent from joining the American battalion after it emerged that leading British officers (Macartney, Nathan) had served in the Crown forces in Ireland during the War of Independence. Stradling recapitulates the disagreements between the Irish, including Frank Ryan, and the British officials and the IB base staff. He thereby poses some of the few theories in his book which sound plausible: A) that Conway, a Communist, and not the recognised leader Frank Ryan, a practising Catholic and non-Communist, was given the command of a company, thus explaining Ryan’s roving commission until his capture in March 1938; B) that the Irish, because of their disparate political composition and the lack of influence of the tiny Communist Party of Ireland, were not given national ‘unit status’ or their own commissars; C) that the British commissars, Springhall and Kerrigan, and perhaps Marty, head of IB base at Albacete, were just as pleased to see the ‘fractious Irish’ dispatched to two battalions.

While these interpretations hardly justify Stradling’s view that the Irish were a ‘potential Fifth Column’ (p161), some authorities were unsure about the Irish. Merriman, the prospective commander of the American battalion, resisted their transfer (‘a bunch of drunks.... fighting among themselves’). As Stradling quotes at length (p158), Kerrigan wrote to Pollitt in like spirit on 19 January 1937, saying that it was better that the ballot went in favour of the American option as many of the recent arrivals were ‘a lot of drunken Irish exiles....petty criminal [and] hooligan types’. Dissent on the part of a minority of Irish arrivals leads Stradling to the unfounded speculation that the first contingent from Ireland, despite their formal political affiliations, were closer to the anarchists or the POUM than the Spanish Communist Party (p187)

The numerous other factual errors notwithstanding, Stradling is to be congratulated on his analysis of the recruitment and battle service of O’Duffy’s 670-strong detachment within the Spanish Foreign legion (Tercio), the elite formation which functioned as ‘shock troops’ in every major battle. The Irish Bandera formed at Caceres was riven by class and regional divisions (Kerry vs. the rest) from the start. The officers were Civil War veterans who had been cashiered after the 1924 Army mutiny and hankered after the officer status they had little hope of regaining – a common component in the psychology of fascist adventurers. They travelled by cruise liner to Portugal, and then overland, giving themselves inflated military ranks.

The majority of the rank and file had to undergo a gruelling sea journey in the hold of a German freighter. Most of the non-commissioned seemed to have joined for religious motives or because their pals had signed up. Roughly half the volunteers hailed from Kerry, Cork and Tipperary, with Limerick and Tralee being heavily represented. As members of the Tercio, the Irish were well paid, but as no sports activities were organised, they were often bored and heavy drinking became a problem. Their officers were more assiduous in this respect: O’Duffy, usually absenting himself from the unit to visit aristocratic friends, was rarely seen without a bottle of whiskey at arms length (p116), and Tom Gunning, his aide de camp, mused that his memoirs of Spain could be titled ‘Drunk in Iberia’.

The behaviour of the Irish officers, who soon split into opposing camps and brawled with one another, influenced Franco’s decision to wind up the sorry affair Even the visit of Desmond Fitzgerald to Salamanca (p102) did not persuade the dictator to retain the Irish Bandera. General Yague of the Tercio had a low opinion of the Fighting qualities of the Catholic Gaels, especially as O’Duffy was not prepared to hand over command to a Spanish officer and had refused to send his men into a suicide attack without artillery or air support. This was shortly after the disastrous baptism of fire on 19 February 1937, when the Irish, dressed in unfamiliar German uniforms, were fired upon by their allies. The most popular Irish officer, Tom Hyde from Middleton, and a Tralee man were killed in the incident.

Stradling is also to be commended for his even-handed treatment of facts which the Irish proponents of Spanish republicanism or fascism did not care to be published. Gunning had tried to convince the Francoist authorities that Frank Ryan, captured in Aragon on 31 March 1938, deserved the firing squad for alleged crimes in Ireland and Spain (pp199-201); and Maurice Ryan of the British battalion, who features in [the] Connolly Column’s ‘Roll of Honour’ as killed in action during the Ebro offensive was shot in early August by battalion commander Sam Wild and his adjutant George Fletcher (pp190-94). Ryan was considered a ‘suspicious element’ for some time he boasted he had a brother fighting on the fascist’s side. The Scottish eyewitness, John Dunlop, the main source for Stradling’s interpretation, stated years later that Ryan, an expert machine gunner, had fired on his comrades as they advanced on Hill 481. Hopkins paces his magisterial study of the British anti-fascist fighters within the current left-wing intellectual trends of the 1930s and the rise of the protest movements against unemployment and fascism. Many of the introductory pages, and the concluding chapters, might have been judiciously pruned, as Hopkins is going over old ground. His treatment of the British battalion and how its leaders coped with disciplinary problems throws new light on the relationship between the Communist apparat and the ordinary riflemen. This examination is especially valuable because, while being basically sympathetic to the anti-fascist cause, it relies on Moscow files to illustrate how the system of observance over every volunteer worked in practice and delineates the powers the political commissars abrogated to themselves. The latter were all graduates of the Comintern cadre forge, the Lenin School in Moscow. Many of their liaison colleagues responsible for cadre issues (troop morale, appointments, and promotions) at the IB base at Albacete were Germans or Jugoslavs who had lived for years in the Soviet Union. These, in turn, liaised with the Soviet secret police (NKVD), through Spanish Military Intelligence (SIM), which had agents in all the battalions (p302).

Before reviewing Hopkins approach to the problems of discipline, it sees judicious to recall how badly the volunteers were armed and fed, and the tremendous strain of being in front line service, as elite formations, for comparably long periods. During World War 1 the British Tommy, who was incomparably better fed and equipped than the internationals in Spain, had the roster of four days in front-line trenches eight days in reserve and the remainder of the month in a comfortable billet far behind the lines. A US Army study on combat exhaustion during World War 2 held that most combat troops reached their peak of effectiveness in the first 90 days of fighting and became psychiatric problem cases after 180, or even 140 days.

The problem of longer front line service in the IB was only fractionally relieved by the short furloughs to Madrid, and conflicts also arose from the fact that men who had joined as volunteers became conscripts in 1937 when the Brigades were incorporated into the regular Spanish People’s Army. Many volunteers had enlisted in the belief that a tour of duty would last only six months. It is to Frank Ryan’s credit that he arranged for the repatriation of those of his countrymen whom he felt had ‘done enough’.

Hopkins addressed the problem of desertion, which was fairly prevalent after the heavy losses of Jarama, Brunette and during the retreats of March-April 1938. most British officers treated deserters with compassion, making them dig latrine trenches as punishment. Many who deserted in panic or despair returned voluntarily to their units. Will Paynter, the commissar responsible for the British in Albacete visited volunteers in prison and learned that many of them had absconded because their families were destitute and the brigade staff had refused them home leave. In a letter to Pollitt in June 1937, painter recommended home leave for all volunteers who had served more than half a year in Spain (pp255-56).

The exigencies of war prevented such a humane course, and in the coming months some deserters were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted before the Ebro offensive began in July 1938 (pp 265-67). In general, non-British Brigade staff and the IB Commissariat in Albacete called for far harsher treatment of miscreants than the company commanders were prepared to countenance. The latter understood the plight of their comrades, and cold anticipate the disastrous consequences which summary executions would have on British public opinion, and the fortunes of the Communist Party. As Kerrigan said in another context: ‘He cannot disappear without an explanation’ (p 271).

By sifting through the cadre files of the British battalion and the lists of ‘undesirables’ held in Moscow, Hopkins calculates that 26% of the volunteers from the British units who survived received condemnatory characterisations, that is 400 persons, roughly three quarters of whom deserted once or more (pp265-67). The strict application of harsh Soviet cadre criteria increased with the attempts by Billy Griffiths to introduce Party organisation in the battalion during the summer of 1938. With his comrade from the Rhonda, political commissar and Lenin School graduate Harry Dobson, Griffiths promoted a hard line. Both were in favour of shooting an officer who, severely wounded at Brunette, threatened to desert if sent into action again. Fortunately, battalion commander Wild and Kerrigan overruled the zealots from the valleys. Jack Nalty from Dublin, commander of the machine gun company, had no patience with the Stalinist intrigues of ex-miner Griffiths, saying that ‘the Party was a waste of time’ and assigning homo to military duties which left little time for politicking (p 300). Griffith’s last task in Spain was to evaluate the conduct of each party member in the battalion, an exercise in Soviet cadre control which was carried out as the men were waiting in Ripol near the French border for repatriation. Griffith’s delight in purging the ‘undesirables’ (p310) is reflected in the Moscow files: evidence on the evaluation of 176 battalion members shows that only 54 received the predicate ‘good’, and those termed ‘weak’ or ‘bad’ totalled 89.(10)

Carroll’s study of the American volunteers is a well-rounded work. He traces their political awakening in the cities of the Great Depression, and describes the battlefield experiences and conflicts between the enlisted men and the political commissars. Nearly half the volume is devoted to ‘afterwards’ – the persecution of the Lincolns by witch-hunting senators as early as 1940!) Some veterans remained loyal Communists and were forced to live underground for years; others broke with ‘the Party’ and, in a minority of cases, co-operated with the prosecuting agencies. Of the American volunteer total of 2,600 who saw combat, roughly 40% were card-carrying Communists, with the largest age group being 23-25 year olds. A third of the total came from a Jewish background, eight from an Afro-American one (pp14-19). The experience of the Americans during the first weeks in Spain mirrored that of the British: two political commissars and some officers were found to be glaringly incompetent and were sent home. Of more consequence were the appalling losses: by 23 February, 20 were killed, and 60 wounded; by 27 February, the battalion was reduced form 263 to 150 men (pp99-103). The aggrieved survivors demanded that George Wattis, an ex-British army officer, be put on trial for forcing the Americans ‘over the top’ at the point of a revolver. Wattis was acquitted and went on to gain popularity in the British battalion.

By appointing natural leaders like Steve Nelson (ex Lenin School) as political commissar and the Irish-American Martin Hourihan, another ex-army regular, as battalion commander, the morale of the Americans improved. The desertion rate within the Lincolns (approximately 100 cases) was lower than the British average, but a tougher attitude was later adopted towards those who went AWOL. In dealing with desertion, Carroll shows that, as in the British case, orders form divisional headquarters forced the hand of the battalion staff. The first victim was Paul White, a seaman who stole a truck during the March retreats. He pleaded guilty, but was shot by a firing squad formed from his own company. News of the execution, printed as a one-page leaflet, shocked and enraged the battalion. Another case of death by firing squad involved a medic involved in black marketeering. A third victim Albert Wallach, who deserted four times, as executed in Castillo del Fels prison near Barcelona. In testimony before the Dies House Committee on Un-American Activities, Wallach’s father accused Tony De Miao, an SIM agent and American cadres functionary in Albacete, with responsibility for his son’s murder (p186). A confederate of Wallach, Bernard Abramofsky, had deserted three times before being brought back to the battalion in April 1938. The staff did not want him around, troop morale was shaky enough, and he was shot out of hand by an officer acting on his own initiative.

In contrast with the British battalion, many American political commissars were deeply unpopular with the men, due in no small measure to an inquisitorial manner which interpreted discontent as evidence of ‘Trotskyism’. But, as with the British, the battalion’s collective ethos provided the corrective from its own ranks – new appointments and the willingness to discuss the en’s problems. The new commissar, John Gates, unloved but respected, cleared up the thorny repatriation question once and for all – the enlisted were in the field for the duration of the war.

Carroll’s account, spiced with many humorous examples of how the bitching rank and file turned Marxist ‘criticism from below’ on its head, could serve as a model for a new look at the Irish IB volunteers. The essential Moscow files are on unrestricted access, as are the documents held in the Marx Memorial Library, the Imperial War Museum (interview transcripts), and the dossiers from the former Communist Party of Great Britain archive now housed in the National Museum of Labour History, Manchester.

Barry McLoughlin.

  1. Marion Merriman and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Nevada, 1986, p86
  2. For example, he states (p87), without giving a source that Sean Murray, secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, had ‘retired’ to Northern Ireland by early 1937. Likewise, his claim that the recruitment campaign of the CPGB peaked in 1936-37 (p130) is incorrect. The peak was achieved between December 1941 and December 1942, when membership soared from 23,000 to 56,000 (Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, London, 1997, p252) Finally, the claim (p184) that Michael Lehane went to Spain with O’Riordan and others in 1938 is contradicted by sources Stradling himself quotes: Lehane’s military service book (reproduced in Connolly Column, pp128-129) proves that Lehane joined the IB on 14 December 1936. Joe Monks, With the Reds in Andalusia, p50, emphasises that Lehane was the only member of the 13 man group which had crossed the Spanish border with Frank Ryan on 14 December to remain in Spain until the IB were repatriated in Autumn 1938. Of the remainder, six were killed and six were sent home in 1937.
    [Note by C Crossey, 10th August 2004. 6 dead, 6 repatriated, that leaves F Ryan and Lehane. One problem is that Lehane actually served 3 periods in Spain, see the, "Lehane collection of reports written by Manus O’Riordan elsewhere in this site.
    My research gives these dates: He served from Dec 14th 1936 to March 1937; June 1937 to some unknown date late that year and then again from March 29th 1938 until he arrived back in Dublin on Dec. 21st 1938.]
  3. National Archives, Dublin, Kerney to Dublin, 2 June 1938, DFA 244/8
  4. National Archives, Dublin, Kerney to Dublin, 24 May, 2 June and 7 June 1938, DFA 244/8. The IB veteran Carl Geiser confirmed this charge by referring to letters he had found in the archive of the Spanish Foreign Ministry. See Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. (Westport, Connecticut, 1986), p125, p276.
  5. Michael O’Riordan, Connolly Column (Dublin 1979), p127, p163; William Rust, Britons in Spain (London, 1939), p197; Bill Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty (London, 1982), p274.
  6. Ian MacDougall, Voices from the Spanish Civil War: personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers in Republican Spain 1936-39 (Edinburgh, 1986), pp145-47. See also p152, p155, p324 for more recollections of the ‘likeable rouge’ Ryan.
    [Additional note by C Crossey. Eugene Downing confirms that M Ryan was an expert machine gunner, see his letter to the Irish Times about the machine gun display given to mark the visit by Pandit Nehru. Eugene was interviewed by me and in the course of that detailed the allegations about Ryan. He was executed after getting drunk, while in charge of a machine gun, and firing on his own men.
    The available transcript is listed here.
  7. This is confirmed by my own research in the former Central Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (RtsKhIDNI), comparing the lists of British and Irish commissars at battalion and company level (RtsKhIDNI 545/6/95: 37-38) with class rolls of the Lenin School (RtsKhIDNI, 531/1/32-4:4-6; 531/1/106:5,71,86).
  8. Denis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London, 1979), p81
  9. Stephen E Ambrose, Band of Brothers. E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle Nest (New York, 1992), p207
  10. RtsKhIDNI, 531/6/96; 2, 25