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For the Cause

John Mulqueen

Jason Gurney’s Crusade in Spain was posthumously published in 1974 and republished by Readers Union, Newton Abbot, Devon in 1976.

Even The Olives Are Bleeding, a television documentary broadcast in 1976, told the story of the Irishmen who went to fight for both sides in the Spanish civil war. The film, broadcast forty years after the war began, made an impression on this author, as did Jason Gurney’s painfully honest memoir Crusade in Spain, republished the same year. In the preceding decade, when there was little interest in Ireland about this conflict, Michael O’Riordan began work on his history of the Irish contribution to the International Brigades – the volunteers from across Europe and North America, who, like himself and Gurney, fought for the elected government against Franco and his allies, Hitler and Mussolini.

Gurney’s book first appeared in 1974, following his death a year previously (at a time when another general, this time in Chile, was emulating Franco’s brutality). Veterans’ recollections of the Spanish civil war, written soon after it ended, by dedicated, or, disillusioned, communists, did not impress Gurney ‑ a “farrago of nonsense”. In his view the forty thousand men who enlisted in the brigades deserved better. Writing about his personal experiences in this crusade might explain their motives and their suffering.

Gurney draws attention to the presence of fascists in a Britain pulverised by the Depression (where parliamentary democracy did not collapse as it did elsewhere). Fascism had more than a little appeal there in 1936, and Moscow-led communism also had its adherents. Gurney describes a for him local scene on London’s King’s Road. “Outside the Gaumont cinema there were a couple of men in fascist party uniform, trying to sell copies of Action, but they were not very military looking and their hearts didn’t seem to be really in it. Further up, by the bus stop, a small man was offering the Daily Worker, his thin fanatic’s face opening and closing as he called his wares. But it was past the rush-hour and the few people around didn’t seem to take much interest.”

The fashionable and the rich had yet to discover London’s Chelsea. In the 1930s this largely slum district comprised squalid bedsits, back-to-back dwellings and run-down lodging houses. Several hundred artists’ studios – cold and derelict – were also there, plus a flourishing art school. Writers and students joined artists such as Gurney to create a bohemian milieu, which was regarded unfavourably both by the poverty-stricken working class and the super-rich of Sloane Square. The Communist and Labour parties had big and active memberships in the area; so too did Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. Gurney hated the wretchedness of life at one end of the King’s Road and the indifference of those around Sloane Square, with their big houses and servants.

I was a working sculptor and just making a sufficient living to keep going on the fairly marginal standard to which I had trained myself. I worked hard all day and spent the nights drinking with my friends and making love. I could eat for half-a-crown a day. I spent nothing on clothes: a pair of jeans, a cotton singlet and a seaman’s guernsey were all that I ordinarily wore. A pint of bitter cost eightpence and five bob was enough to buy as much as I could stomach. Chelsea seemed full of interesting and amusing people and of splendid women. I was absorbed in my work and almost totally happy.

He had been converted to socialism as a teenager, but the Labour Party had nothing to offer him, or his circle. Ramsay MacDonald and his cohort had been tainted by power, they thought, and Clement Atlee’s had little attraction either. If left-wingers such as Gurney greatly admired the Communist Party, there was no place in the local branch for them. Bureaucratic and “always right”, any hint of levity for the communists “was treated like farting in church”. Having studied Marx, Engels and Lenin, they had the answer to every question under the sun. Therefore the party was not for him. Nonetheless, many of his friends did join.

Despite the suffering of the Depression years, the Communist Party in Britain did not have a mass membership and made little impression on the electorate. It compensated for its small size, however, with immense energy. The Popular Front phase saw communists abandoning revolutionary demands in favour of building a broadly-based body of democratic opinion to apply pressure on the Western powers to hinder Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. Protecting the Soviet Union came first here. There were protest committees against every injustice going, and no shortage of vain luminaries willing to lend their name to the various anti-imperialist and peace causes.

For radicals, the rise of fascism in Europe inevitably meant war. Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 and the “collective security” offered by the League of Nations could not save it. Hitler seemed capable of delivering on his promises to wage war in Europe, outlined in Mein Kampf. Gurney’s generation – young, angry, idealistic – were horrified at the powerlessness of the political mainstream to stop fascist aggression. To this way of thinking, a revolution in Britain, further down the road of course, would be more likely to be a fascist one. Mosley had charisma, financial backing and powerful media support in the shape of the Daily Mail. Just as the appeal of British fascism peaked, Spanish generals rebelled against the elected government and Spain’s civil war began in July 1936. In Ireland, the Irish Independent cheered on Franco and the Catholic ultras volunteered to “defend Christianity” in Spain (where they saw very little in the way of military action and limped home early).

The war seemed to be a clear-cut issue for Gurney:

Either you were opposed to the [rise] of fascism and went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth. There were many people who claimed that it was a foreign quarrel and that nobody other than Spaniards should involve themselves in it, but for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have national boundaries.

By combating fascism in Spain they could fight it in their own countries.

Gurney takes issue with the notion that “writers and poets” flooded the ranks of the International Brigades. A few students, such as the celebrated John Cornford, killed aged twenty-one, were the exception to the rule. The Communist Party leadership discouraged their recruitment: they should get good degrees and serve the party more usefully later. The role of the working class in the brigades, Gurney contends, has been eclipsed by the part played by intellectuals. The British working class “as an entire class” had good reasons to hate fascism, according to this argument. “They had seen the trades unions and every kind of working-class organisation destroyed in Germany and Italy. The leaders were all dead or imprisoned, and they themselves were suffering all the miseries of unemployment and the means test. Even the employed were so badly paid that many of them lived barely above the subsistence level.”

In December 1936 Gurney decided to join the International Brigades, already playing a part in the defence of Madrid. Hearing a rumour that the Communist Party had opened a recruitment centre, he made his way there. The recruits were told what they could expect: a shortage of food, medical services, arms and ammunition. Following this rather threatening lecture, someone persisted in asking about conditions of service. He was told by a party official: “If you’re looking for conditions of service, you’re not the kind of bloke we want in Spain. So get out.” The next day Gurney and fourteen others travelled to Paris.

On arrival at the Gare du Nord, taxi drivers, all “Reds”, drove them free of charge to the assembly point for European recruits. The departure of the “Red train” to Perpignan had become “one of the sights of Paris” and banner-waving crowds saw them off. “It was rather embarrassing to be treated as heroes before we had done anything, and we were delighted when the train finally pulled out.” Crowds greeted their train, giving them food, wine and flowers at all the stops in Catalonia; there were bands playing on every platform when these scruffy civilians arrived in Barcelona. “I can’t imagine that anyone supposed that we were anything remarkable as a military asset,” Gurney recalls. “What value we possessed was purely symbolic. Spain was not to be left alone to fight the monstrous armies of Germany and Italy.”

But the absence of any serious training proved costly. Following a daily pep talk by the battalion political commissar – “idiotic preaching” – the volunteers trained to be soldiers without rifles or machine guns. In its amateurishness the exercise reminded Gurney of his military training at an English public school. “It was unfortunate that we only learned to advance over open country – any other manoeuvre being considered negative in its approach to the problems of war. In the event, what we most needed to know was how to fortify a position and hold it, or how to beat an organised retreat, but neither of these things formed part of the curriculum, with disastrous results on the very first day that the battalion was in action.” When it came to the real thing his unit found it had largely useless weapons; eighty per cent of the men had never held a loaded weapon before.

Conventional military wisdom did not apply. Gurney found that the communists ran the show, with most of the officers appointed for having displayed organisational ability as activists in the past. A sound knowledge of Marxist doctrine, it was presumed, enabled commanders to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, good intentions on the battlefield proved to be no substitute for military experience. Interpreting orders for the multilingual brigades became a serious problem. Then there was the question of discipline: in a “people’s army” all ranks were addressed as “comrade”. “We were all supposed to be equal in some respects but not in others and just where the division lay was always obscure,” he remembers. The International Brigades never resolved the confusion between political and military functions or responsibilities.

The arrival of around thirty experienced British volunteers – eulogised by the communist propaganda machine – briefly enlivened his battalion’s training ordeal. Some of these men had seen action in the siege of Madrid. But disappointment replaced excitement when the novices heard a story that would become increasingly familiar. When the promised air and armoured support did not materialise in the battle at Boadilla, confused communications led to the issuing of “impossible orders”, which resulted in large casualties. Somebody had to be blamed. And so André Marty, the chief political commissar, identified a culprit and had him executed. This commander, absurdly in Gurney’s view, had been accused of working for Franco. “We could not know that this pattern of unkept promises of support, chaotic orders and communications, followed by inquests, the finding of scapegoats and their execution as enemy agents, was to underlie the whole course of events in the future.”

Boadilla’s disasters were repeated at Jarama and many of Gurney’s companions did not survive the slaughter. Apart from everything else, they were overwhelmed by the firepower of professional soldiers, including Franco’s Moroccan troops – the so-called “Moors”. There were thousands of them, backed by the artillery and heavy machine-gun fire of Hitler’s Condor Legion. “It was a formidable opposition to be faced by a collection of city-bred young men with no experience of war, no idea of how to find cover on an open hillside, and no competence as marksmen.” Twenty-five thousand republicans were lost in the battle, fought over twenty-one days, against twenty thousand on the other side. Having succeeded in crossing the Jarama river, Franco’s offensive failed in its principle purpose of cutting the road link between Madrid and Valencia. From a military point of view it had achieved “no useful purpose”. The republican defenders had done well in the circumstances.

After the Jarama battle, however, Gurney and his comrades became demoralised. How could they have suffered such heavy losses? Were there traitors at work among the command staff? The clichés of the commissars failed to mollify the men, he observes, “and they were mutinous to a point where they threatened to march out of the line”. Suffering the dreariness of life in the trenches, nobody pretended to have confidence in their officers. Little miseries such as no mail or cigarettes, and the lack of washing facilities, took on exaggerated importance. “The food was certainly much worse than it need have been. In practically every battalion the classic mistake of pushing the duds into the cookhouse had been made.” They only realised at this stage that the possibility of leave had never been mentioned. “None of us had enjoyed a night’s sleep out of uniform or a decent hot meal for several months. There was no relief from the continual fear produced by snipers and occasional mortar shells.” Filthy and plagued by body-lice, they began to feel trapped.

Now that the Jarama front had become relatively safe it became an attraction of sorts for distinguished guests of the communists. These visits, in Gurney’s recollection, were on the lines of a board of guardians inspecting an orphanage. Visitors included WH Auden, Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Dos Passos and Stephen Spender. Ernest Hemmingway arrived, Gurney writes, “hearty and bogus. He sat himself down behind the bullet-proof shield of a machine-gun and loosed off a whole belt of ammunition in the general direction of the enemy. This provoked a mortar bombardment for which he did not stay.”

In addition to manipulating international volunteers for propaganda purposes, the communist organisation in Spain, Gurney argues, had one outstanding failing: a passion for conspiracy, and its corollary, paranoia. Men went mysteriously missing. They were not temporarily deserting to go hell-raising in Madrid, it turned out, but had been tried in secret, for real or imaginary offences. The rank and file thought it best not to inquire about those who went missing.

Throughout the war the leadership was convinced that among the International Brigades there were a number of people who were fascists who had joined for the purpose of spying and sabotage. Personally I consider this proposition to be ludicrously improbable. Practically none of them spoke Spanish, without which it would have been absolutely impossible to pass back and forth through the enemy lines … If a man wants to commit effective sabotage he does not join an infantry regiment where he has less privacy than he would enjoy in prison.

At this time news arrived of the conflict in Barcelona between the POUM militia and the communists. The largest Marxist organisation not toeing the Stalinists’ line, the POUM outnumbered the Communist Party in Catalonia. There were various wild rumours about the situation in Barcelona but no reliable information. Marty later claimed that he “only” ordered five hundred executions, but this figure may be considerably underestimated. “In any event, this was not what I had come to Spain for,” Gurney states, “and I was determined that I should get out at the very first opportunity. It was no longer my war.” Furthermore, he believed, it could not be won.

As it happened, a sniper got him. Discharged from hospital and badly wounded, he returned to the Albacete barracks where he had arrived as a raw recruit the previous January, hoping the authorities would declare him unfit for military service and repatriate him. The atmosphere in the barracks was poisonous. “Albacete, at this time, was full of [communist] party bureaucrats of all shapes and sizes. They were immediately recognisable by their black leather jackets, Sam Browne belts with large automatic pistols, and huge black berets, in emulation of their master, André Marty. They were all infected with spy-fever and everyone knew that there was a Russian [NKVD] prison and interrogation centre somewhere in the neighbourhood. On the slightest hint of subversion or ‘Trotskyism’ – which might include almost anything – a man was likely to disappear and never be seen again.” Gurney, however, lucky to the end, received his discharge papers and got out.

When he arrived home he found his mother and friends had heard that he had been killed. Relatives of volunteers depended for news on gossip or reports from those invalided out – the “heartless bureaucrats” of the Communist Party did not provide any form of welfare service for veterans. “It was the party’s business to send men out to fight in the International Brigades but it did not bother itself with what happened to them subsequently.”

Despite his overriding feeling of being used by the communists, Gurney never regretted his decision to fight fascism. Outraged at bluffers and cynics, in this memoir he succeeded in demystifying the role of the International Brigades in Spain. He gave the last word to “La Pasionaria”, Dolores Ibárurri, who addressed the stand-down parade of the brigades in November 1938. These “crusaders for freedom” were told they could go proudly – “we shall not forget you”. When the Spanish Republic’s day of victory came, she said, they should come back. Gurney did not live to see that long-awaited day. Michael O’Riordan did.


John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left (Liverpool University Press, 2019).



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