Band of brothers

Seventy years ago, these British volunteers risked their lives to fight fascism. Why has their heroism been overlooked until now?

Chris Haslam in The Sunday Times, October 21, 2007

Aragon is like a desert in autumn. Beside the road from Zaragoza, dust devils whirl like dervishes above a bone-dry plain speckled with desiccated ruins. Twenty miles south of the turn-off, a church tower rises from the monk-brown earth, its symmetry seemingly deformed by the haze. But the distortion is real, and the smashed houses that surround it, like broken teeth in a punched-out mouth, are even uglier than they looked in the old photographs. This is the ghost town of Belchite, and if any town ever looked better in black and white, this is it.

The last time the International Brigades volunteer Paddy Cochrane, 94, was here was in 1937. He was blown up and left for dead after a mercy mission that went badly wrong. Now he sits by me in the hire car, his expression swinging between anticipation and dread of revisiting the spot where he should have been buried. He carries, too, the faint hope that among the depleted ranks of fellow veterans meeting here to commemorate the battle’s 70th anniversary, he might find the man who risked his own life to haul him to safety all those years ago.

Three miles out we divert from the main road on to a dirt track so we can approach from the east. It was from this direction that Paddy first saw Belchite in September 1937, a cluster of burning dwellings and shell-shocked steeples that stubbornly, suicidally, refused to surrender.

The attack had gone startlingly wrong for the Republican forces. Belchite should have been no more than a brief diversion on the road to the rebel-held city of Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon and a significant prize for the Republic. But a heroic defence by fascist troops and local militia – the newly elected mayor died with a rifle in his hands – had stalled the advance for 13 days, and the smell of the unburied dead was so strong that troops took to wearing their gas masks.

Bill Bailey, a volunteer with the American Abraham Lincoln brigade, described the fighting. “We would knock a hole through a wall with a pickaxe, throw in a few hand grenades, climb through into the next house, and clear it from cellar to attic. And, by God, we did this hour after hour. The dead were piled in the street, almost a storey high, and burnt. The engineers kept pouring on gasoline until the remains sank down. Then they came with trucks and swept up the ashes. The whole town stank of burning flesh.”

Cochrane was a 24-year-old transport officer attached to a medical unit, and what he remembers most are the flies. “We had to take the poor buggers who were dying and lay them down outside,” he says. “I’d try and get less wounded men to sit with them and keep the flies off their faces so they could die in peace, but it was a waste of time. There were so many flies.”

And so many casualties, the aid station was struggling to cope. “We needed more ambulances to evacuate the wounded,” says Cochrane. “I’d spotted three trucks parked in a square, so I took a big bunch of keys and two volunteers to see if we could sneak in and get them started.”

They didn’t get far. They’d infiltrated less than 30 yards into enemy territory when a fascist defender lobbed a grenade at the patrol. It landed at Cochrane’s feet and he took the full force of the blast. Shrapnel shredded his back, arms and legs, and the detonator – a chunk of steel the size of a spark plug – punched a hole through his left thigh, slicing the femoral artery before exiting through his buttock. Cochrane’s companions were luckier. One, a fellow Dubliner called Paddy Blake, suffered a minor head wound; the other, an American volunteer, Tex, was unscathed.

“When I came to, there was a terrific amount of blood pouring out of me. It shocked the others, I think,” says Cochrane. “Tex said he’d go and find help, but that was the last time I saw him. We crawled into a house and I did what I could to patch up the holes, then sat on my leg to try and stop the bleeding.” I ask him if he feared for his life at this stage, and he nods. “Not because of the wound – I didn’t realise how serious it was and I reckoned I’d be all right if I could stop the bleeding – but because of the risk of being found by the other side before help came.”

As darkness cloaked the ruined town, the chatter, clatter, bark and boom of machineguns, rifles, anti-tank guns and artillery fell silent, allowing the screams of the wounded, and the pistol shots of those who found them, to echo through the streets. Promising to return with help, Blake slipped away, leaving Cochrane bleeding heavily in the cellar.

Until mid-July 1936, Belchite had been a prosperous country town of 3,516 inhabitants. The river flowed all year round, and the arbequina olive trees that surrounded the town loved the red earth. The olive oil for which Belchite was famous had brought wealth for some, and work for others, and the town supported two churches, a convent and a seminar Despite appearances, all was not well. Local landowners and businessmen were at odds with a socialist council trying to push through the land reforms proposed by Madrid. The olive-oil industry depended upon the vast numbers of unemployed who would work for bread or a few pesetas a day, but now the socialists were advocating workers’ rights, a minimum wage and the expropriation of the large estates.

The church was under fire, too: the clergy had been banned from teaching – inconveniently, since the church owned all the schools – religious festivals like Easter and Christmas had been replaced by International Women’s Day and Workers’ Day – and even funeral processions were prohibited. To one half of the population, Spain was on the threshold of a brave new world. To the other, it was teetering on the brink of the abyss.

Souldering resentment within the ancien régime exploded on July 17, 1936, when generals Franco, Goded, Mola and Sanjurjo launched a coup d’état. Their attempt to take Madrid failed, but only just. As news of the coup spread, towns and villages declared for either the Republic on the left or the rebels on the right, and within 48 hours the battle lines of the Spanish civil war had been drawn. Belchite found itself behind fascist lines, and its socialist reformers never stood a chance.

Aurelio Salavera still lives in Belchite. He was seven years old when the neighbours came knocking. “They’d warned my father they would come for him, but he didn’t really believe it,” he recalls. “He told my mother not to worry because he hadn’t done anything wrong. He hadn’t campaigned for the left or spoken out – like everyone around here, he was just a farmer.”

He was wrong. “They shot 370 Belchitanos that day,” says Salavera. The victims included his father, 11 uncles and aunts, three pregnant women, the village idiot, and Mariano Castillo, the socialist mayor.

Similar massacres were being perpetrated by left and right all over Spain, and while the German and Italian governments knew how to respond – by sending troops, arms and aircraft to aid the rebels – the British and French prevaricated.

On the one hand, the democratically elected government of a European state was being threatened by fascist insurgents and was begging for help. On the other was the inconvenient truth that the Spanish administration was a little too friendly with Moscow. If Spain fell to the Bolsheviks, France and Britain could be next.

Thus was born the non-intervention pact – signed by 27 countries, including Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Portugal and Sweden, as well as Germany and Italy. This cynical agreement, then described by Time magazine as “a suave British finesse”, prohibited the export of men or warlike materiel to aid either side, while ignoring American, German and Italian assistance to the fascists.

Paddy Cochrane didn’t agree with non-intervention. At seven – like Aurelio Salavera – he’d seen his father dragged into the back yard of his Dublin home and shot by the Black and Tans. By the age of 12 he was reading about Marxism, and at 15 he was seeing the effects of the Great Depression from the American Dust Bowl.

In July 1936 he was living in Liverpool’s slums and spoiling for a fight. “Fascism was like a forest fire, and I could see that if we didn’t put it out in Spain it would spread to the whole of Europe,” he says. “I stood up at a meeting and told them that bombs on Madrid meant bombs on London.”

Men and women all over the world were coming to the same conclusion. By July 1937 more than 35,000 – 2,300 from the UK and Eire – had enlisted in the International Brigades, established by the Soviet Comintern.

Vilified as “reds” by their governments, their motives were as diverse as their backgrounds. Hardened IRA men shared trenches with Oxbridge dreamers and Jewish East Enders who had fought Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts. But, badly organised and poorly equipped, the British battalion stood little chance against Franco’s army and Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Their greatest victory was the defence of Madrid against Mola in November 1936, a battle from which was born the war cry of the International Brigades: “No pasaran” – they shall not pass.

Their final engagement, in July 1938, was the battle of the Ebro, the last, desperate attempt by the republic to avoid the inevitable. It was a bloody failure, with 90 British volunteers among the 30,000 killed in eight catastrophic weeks.

That September, the survivors were sent home – the then Spanish prime minister, Juan Negrin, naively hoped that withdrawing the Republic’s foreign troops would persuade the League of Nations to ask Franco to do likewise with his German and Italian forces.

The Spanish communist orator Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionaria, addressed the brigaders as they left. “You are history,” she said. “You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality. We shall not forget you, and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again… come back!”

There aren’t as many olive trees at Belchite these days, but Cochrane has finally accepted the invitation. Fellow veterans are thin on the ground. Earlier, we had spotted a few groups struggling with wheelchairs, but now, with the ruins shimmering in the heat, Belchite is ours alone.

Few buildings remain intact. The Becu river, once choked with corpses, skirts the wasteland; the broken town blends so seamlessly with the rocky high ground, it’s hard to tell where civilisation ends and wilderness begins. The flies are still here, as we wander in the noonday sun, using a barely adequate battle map to try to locate the spot where Cochrane fell.

Suddenly he holds up his hand. “Can you hear that?” he whispers. I’m not sure; I thought it was my imagination. It’s not the wind, nor the hum of traffic on the highway. It comes and goes, a multitude of murmurs, a barely discernible rumble rising from the rubble. It’s unnerving but not unexpected: if you’re abroad in a ghost town, you should expect to meet ghosts.

Cochrane is smiling – at his age there’s little left to fear – but I’m glad when we stumble upon the only other living soul wandering Belchite’s streets. Julio Diaz was born in a house at the corner of Plaza del Pozo in 1946.

“History says the town was razed in the fighting, but that’s not true,” says Diaz. He bends down and pulls a fragment of china from the red dust. “There were over 2,000 people living here in 1940, and most of the houses were still standing. Then Franco came and declared Belchite a national monument. He told the people they could either have a canal or a new town.” They chose the latter.

Diaz’s father, a Belchitano republican who had escaped summary execution in 1936 and 14 months on death row in 1939-40, served 18 years’ hard labour in the prison they called the Russian camp, southeast of the town. His job, along with 2,000 fellow political prisoners, was to build a new Belchite alongside the old. In time, the prisoners’ families joined them, occupying the ruins as their fascist neighbours moved out into their new houses, but life was hard on the vanquished.

The street names of the new town were a constant reminder of the war: Calle de la Victoria, Avenida Calvo Sotelo – named after the fascist leader whose murder is often cited as the spark that started the war – and Calle 18 de Julio. Those who had picked the winning side treated defeated neighbours with vicious disdain.

“They made our lives a misery,” says Diaz. “The persecution was unrelenting until Franco died.” The return of democracy in 1977 should have brought an improvement in relations, but the wounds were too deep. “We are equals now,” says Diaz, “but we don’t drink in the same bars and we never talk about the war.” The Plaza del Generalisimo may have been renamed, but new Belchite sits uneasily on the campo like an angry, troubled man ignoring a tumour.

Beside it, the old town disintegrates slowly into the Aragonese dust. It has become an embarrassment. The 70th anniversary of the battle passed unmentioned in the Zaragoza press, and calls for funding to preserve the ruins have elicited big promises and little action.

“They should bulldoze the place,” mutters truck driver Jorge Abeldani in one of the bars Julio Diaz doesn’t frequent. In the bodegas of Zaragoza, Aragon’s elegant youth agree. “It’s good for tourism,” says law student David Sanjurjo. “But if Spain is to move forward, maybe places like Belchite are best forgotten.”

Like Belchite, the International Brigades are also returning inexorably to dust – of the British volunteers who survived, just 15 remain. For 70 years they’ve lived in relative obscurity, their achievements overshadowed by memories of the second world war. But now, when it’s almost too late, the Brigade is back in fashion. Return Journey, a documentary following the Welsh veteran Alun Menai Williams back to the Ebro, has been shown nine times on BBC Wales; Alan Warren, a historian who conducts tours of the civil-war battlefields, reports a surging interest in the Brigades.

Jack Jones, a former union leader and volunteer, now president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, ascribes the surge in interest to disillusion with British politics. “When people lose faith in their leaders, they look to the past for an alternative,” he says.

“The brigaders were ordinary men and women who knew they were being lied to by their governments about an unjust war, but rather than moaning about it, they tried to make a difference. People admire that.”

The future poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis explained the movement thus: “It was not fraud or foolishness/Glory, revenge, or pay/We came because our open eyes/Could see no other way.”

But his contemporary Ezra Pound held a less heroic opinion of the International Brigades: “Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes,” he declared, and a glance at the literature generated by the conflict suggests that it indeed attracted more than its fair share of tourists and self-aggrandising myth-makers. And the conflict was far from being what Stephen Spender, a volunteer himself, described as “a poets’ war”. The Republican forces were a confusing confederation of disparate political parties, paramilitaries and union militias, and the volunteers soon found that the Popular Front they’d been sold was, in truth, a mass of mistrust, enmity and betrayal.

George Orwell saw that internal rivalries would bring down the republic just as effectively as Franco. “In any serious emergency the contradiction implied in the Popular Front is bound to make itself felt,” he wrote in 1937.

“For even when the worker and the bourgeois are both fighting against fascism, they are not fighting for the same things: the bourgeois is fighting for capitalism, the worker for socialism.”

From his headquarters in Albacete, the communist political commissar André Marty ruled the International Brigades by fear. In addition to the danger, the diarrhoea and the dire lack of equipment at the front, volunteers learnt to watch their backs for Marty’s informers.

The German Brigader Gustav Regler recalled Marty’s preference to shoot people on suspicion of crimes rather than prevaricate with “petty bourgeois indecision”.

Marty himself later admitted he had ordered the execution of about 500 volunteers, including at least one Briton.

So, do the International Brigades deserve to be remembered as more than a bunch of incompetent idealists conned by the communists into fighting for a lost cause? Paul Preston, professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics and foremost expert on the history of the Spanish civil war, says they do.

“First, the Brigaders were anything but incompetent,” he insists, “although they did have to go into battle with virtually no training, the poorest equipment and against overwhelming odds. Defeat was not the result of incompetence.

“The second point is that while the Republic lost, fundamentally because Britain, France and the United States deprived it of the means to defend itself while giving Hitler and Mussolini a free hand to help Franco, the true cause was that of democracy, and this was not lost.

“The Spanish civil war was the first battle in the second world war, and the struggle of those who defended the Republic gave Britain the breathing space necessary for the rearmament that permitted the defence against Hitler.”

Paddy Cochrane is unequivocal on the deeds of the brigades. “I was very proud of what we did, and I still am,” he says. “We stood up for what we believed in, and the number of us who died is enough to tell you we accomplished something. We held up Franco, the Germans and the Italians for three years; all the British government could manage was appeasement.”

He stops abruptly and points his walking stick at one of the houses on Calle Mayor. “That’s the one,” he cries. His wheelchair can’t cross the rubble – “No pasaran”, he grins as he hobbles to the bullet-peppered doorway and peers inside. The interior is littered with rubbish and human waste, the walls scrawled with graffiti. He spends a long, long time staring into the room. “This is the one,” he nods at last. “I lay in here all night. At one point I heard someone creeping in. I called out, but he didn’t reply, so I shot him.”

His victim – his only victim of the entire war – was a goat. Deep in shock from loss of blood, cold, alone and in fear of summary execution if found by the defenders, Cochrane lay in the shadows knowing that if he fell asleep, he wouldn’t wake up. Through sheer bloody- mindedness and effective first aid he survived the night, and just before sunrise he heard an urgent whisper at the door. “ ‘Any Americans,’ he was calling, ‘any Americans in here?’ ” says Cochrane. “I called back, ‘No – just a wounded Irishman,’ and this enormous fellow appeared. He threw me over his shoulder and carried me down the street.”

Fascist defenders opened up as the pair fled. “I remember seeing their rounds striking the walls around us as he ran with me,” says Cochrane. “How he made it out of here with me on his back, I could never understand.”

Nor did he ever learn the identity of his saviour, and he admits it was a fond hope that the two might have met up again in the ruins 70 years later. Yet one curious coincidence remains.

In a local bar we meet Valeriano Gascon-Garcia, another veteran. Like Cochrane, he too is 94. Like Cochrane, he too was wounded on Calle Mayor, dropped by a sniper at sunset on September 5, 1937. Same age, same street, same day.

The sniper’s bullet had entered through Gascon-Garcia’s right shoulder, torn through his lung and emerged above his left hip. Drowning in his own blood, he took cover in the nearest house and fought to remain conscious. He turns and points to a photograph on the wall. “It was this one,” he says, “No 22 on Calle Mayor” – just two doors down from where Cochrane was sitting on his shredded leg.

Gascon-Garcia remembers a huge man looming in the doorway. “He was an American – I’m sure – and he asked if I was too. I said no, but I was republicano, and he carried me out anyway.”

By now the tears are streaming down his face and the ancient warriors are gripping each other’s hands like lost little boys. “I always wondered what happened to the American,” he says.

Paddy Cochrane raises his glass. “Me too,” he replies.

Keith ‘Andy’ Andrews

Andrews, 100, first witnessed right-wing oppression in China in 1926, where he watched Chiang Kai-shek’s troops massacre trade unionists in Shanghai. A decade later he went to Spain as an ambulance driver, and took part in every battle fought by the British volunteers.

Lou Kenton

Kenton, 99, joined the Communist party in 1929 because it seemed the only way to fight fascism. “I reacted badly to being called a Jew bastard,” he recalls. He served as an ambulance driver in Spain before being recalled for an “Aid for Spain” tour in England. By the time he’d raised enough for a new ambulance, the Republic was dead.

Bernard McKenna

At 21, McKenna, now 92, left his home in Chorlton to “try and resist further fascist aggression”. After enduring 17 months of “dreadful” trench warfare, he was taken prisoner by Italian troops. “If it had been Franco’s troops,” he says, “then I doubt that I’d still be here...”

Bob Doyle

Raised by nuns in Dublin after his mother was committed for “religious insanity”, Doyle, now 92, joined the IRA at 14 and was a hardened fighter by the time he arrived in Spain in 1937. He fought at Belchite and Teruel. Taken prisoner, he spent 11 months in the fascist concentration camp at Burgos. He was released in 1939.

Jack Edwards

Edwards, 93, had no illusions about the war. “I expected it to be rough, and it was,” says the former member of the Young Communist League. Wounded at Jarama — site of the notorious Suicide Hill — in early 1937, he remained in the Republican rear as a mechanic.

Sam Lesser

Lesser, 92, abandoned a career in Egyptology to fight in Spain. One of the first British volunteers, he saw action in the defence of Madrid and was wounded shortly afterwards at Lopera — shot accidentally by his own side. Evacuated from the front, he saw out the war as a reporter for the Communist party newspaper, the Daily Worker.

Steve Fullerton

Newsreels showing the bombing of Barcelona persuaded Fullerton, now 87, to give up his engineering job and volunteer to fight. “There were women running around with terror in their eyes,” he says. “I had to go.” He was wounded by machinegun fire during the Ebro offensive.

Terry Maloney

The Surrey art student volunteered in October 1937 but was hospitalised with pleurisy until February 1938, by which time the Republicans were in retreat. He fought at the battle of the Ebro and was wounded in August 1938. Maloney, 90, regards his service in the International Brigades as “one of the more worthwhile things I’ve done”.

Jack Jones

Arriving in Spain in 1938, Jones, now 94, fought for six months before being hit in the shoulder by an enemy bullet at the Ebro. Repatriated, he spent the rest of the Spanish civil war organising aid for Spain, and is today the president of the International Brigade Memorial Trust.

Paddy Cochrane

Cochrane, 94, was born in Dublin, where, aged seven, he watched British soldiers shoot his father. Paddy doesn’t see the Spanish civil war as the last great crusade. “Young people today are capable of doing what we did. Look at the anti-globalisation protesters,” he says. “The spirit of the International Brigades is still alive.”

Penny Feiwel

After being sacked from her nursing post for aiding hunger marchers, Feiwel, now 98, went to Spain. Her experience led to her posting as the sole female in the 600-strong Garibaldi battalion, where she succeeded in preventing a cholera epidemic among the Italian volunteers.

Note: Ciaran Crossey - Nov. 15th Additional Material:

There is not a lot of material about Paddy, but there is a short interview with him available here with the remarkable headline "...I sat on my leg to stop the bleeding..."