Richard Baxell: 'George Orwell and the British Battalion'

I right so there is no doubt that Tommy to Catalonia is by by some considerable margin for those widely wear wedge memoir football with British volunteers report inspect and its most people’s introduction to school as indeed it was mine however although of course was not the only audit ear to go to Spain and he was not the only volunteer to write an account with time in the war energy of the tumultuous events in Barcelona in May 1937 now while later speakers today would be talking more about or world himself his role with food and the impact of the book coming to Catalonia when it came out able to begin today’s session by looking at the experiences of rather different experiences and perceptions of another group of volunteers who were fighting in brain in spend at the same time as well as part of international gaze now the views expressed in many of their accounts of of their experiences in Spain on the impact of the street fighting buffer in May nineteen thirty-seven an elite on normal or whether his comrades in the Independent Labour Party group they tried i think they provide a fascinating if not to say contentious backdrop to the events described in homage to catalonia so while all well and his comrades serving the militia were freezing to death on an arrogant hillside the British battalion of the 15th international brigade were faring little better in the spring of nineteen thirty-seven the volunteers were languishing in the trenches and the parameter League about 30 kilometers southeast of Madrid which was the scene of vicious and bitter fighting earlier in the year in their first taste of action during three days of fighting between the 12 and the fourteenth of early nineteen thirty-seven the battalion was effectively annihilated over six hundred and thirty men who had gone into action on the first day of the battle only 80 were left unscathed when the battle ends in three days later who were further heavy heavy casualties later in the month when an absolutely disastrous attack was launched or attempted to be launched on the strongly held positions facing them and attempts to go over the top were met with a hail of well directed machine-gun fire so many of the volunteers simply refused to advance and those were tried were cut to pieces event look developed on the parameter which saw the Republican rebel forces construct increasingly well-protected trenches nevertheless the loss of life continued with snipers in particular taking a steady top the dangerous reality of life in the trenches was made immeasurably worse by the appalling weather during March and April 1937 it rains relentlessly for long periods making it virtually impossible to ever get warm drink and the insanitary conditions of the trenches method inevitably there were outbreaks of disease such as scabies but greater concern were typhoid and dysentery which had the potential of course to substantially weaken the potassium fighting ability now while new arrivals went some way towards restoring the battalion’s numbers repairing the damage inflicted on morale by the pooling level of casualties was a very different matter a handwritten note by the Scottish Italian coffee shop George Aiken acknowledged over the loss of morale and had it’s obvious causes many comrades he said are beginning to show signs of exhaustion and nervous strain the signs of nervous strain on the part of many is no doubt partly due to the fact that the vast majority of the leading forces in the battalion have been killed or wounded since the beginning of the present action one volunteer explained that particular disillusioned developed from the realization that somewhat rash promises made in London of repatriation following a fixed period of service were unlikely to be able to do fulfilled he says it was only now that people began to realize that nothing had been said in

King Street about coming home or even be given locally and no one had time to think of it before now that the potassium had been reduced to the level of a mere holding force on an an active front we began to feel that the granting of leave was possible and that we deserved it approximately 800 men were passed through the battalion between the 15th of februari and the 15th of March and now less than 200 men were left in the line none of us had enjoyed a nice 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 we began to feel that we were in a trap of which there was no escape faced with the very real prospect of being killed a number of volunteers took the decision to leave the front without permission as a senior figure in the battalion admitted some brambles and roust some eggs believe some took it without asking however on the twenty-ninth of April after 75 days on the throat the members battalion informed that they were finally being taken out of the line withdrawn to al-qaeda analysis about 30 kilometers east of Madrid a decent meal was most people’s priority though a small number apparently took the opportunity to get mind paralytic drug because only five days later the members of the battalion were informed that their lead had been cancelled that able to be immediately returned to their former positions on the hurom affront the volunteers were devastated and the truck abrupt cancellation of their much needed in spiritedly undoubtedly caused great resentment meanwhile all well in a group of Independent Labour Party volunteers we’re in another set of trenches I and sell pills I got 250 kilometers west of Barcelona as all well himself accounts he’d been rather disappointed just discovered that he’d been sent to was another British volunteer described as a quiet sector on a quiet front by april nineteen thirty-seven the lack of action have begun to frustrate some of the group all well as static cotton a young volunteer religion originally from Southampton felt that they had come to Spain by fascists not to be shot whilst foraging for firewood on the hillside so the parent discussed the prospect joining the International Brigades many of their comrades tried to talk them out of leaving but a staff of cotton but it Madrid was the place under attack and we had a comrade Lee duty to help here we were on the Aragon phone with very little happening you saw the enemy miles over there that little moving dot on the landscape you really didn’t feel as though you were making a useful contribution to the Spanish Civil War therefore when the ILP group will pop out of the line of the 25th of April and send somebody to Barcelona or one approached while he terms as a communist friend attach the Spanish medical aid in Barcelona to inquire about joining the International Brigades asked to see if other members the column could be persuaded to come with him or what agreed to talk to his comrades two days later or spoke to a senior british comedies to Barcelona Walter taxol previously the circulation manager for the day worker who would later serve with the British battalion as a political commissar capsule have been instructed by the Communist Party to mingle with the iron peacock members and he discussed with or well the prospect of him joining the International Brigades a confidential report the sense that British communist party general secretary Harry Potter describing Orwell’s disaffection the leading personality and most respected man in the contingent at present is Eric Blair this man is a novelist with a capital m and has written some books on proletarian life in England he has little political understanding and so he says he is not interested in Party politics and came to Spain as an anti-fascist to find fascism as a result of his experiences however he is growing to dislike the poop and is now awaiting is discharged from the food militia however as a lot of course reveals an homage to catalonia events quickly

overtook any desire to leave the food militia to join the International Brigades on their arrival in Barcelona the British RALP section had found the city to be in a state of high tension and map change from the earth from the Barcelona that all wealth had so famously described the previous January when the working class had been in the saddle instead by May 1937 Orwell discovered that the minister uniform and the blue overrule had almost disappeared everyone seemed to be wearing the smart summer suits in which the Spanish came is specialized fact prosperous men elegant women and sleek cars were everywhere propaganda for the New Republic and popular army had a snack for the militias government attempts to restore centralized Authority in the Republican zone which had seen a virtual collapse of the state state apparatus following rising were receiving strong support from the Communist Party who of course had their own reasons for wanting to limit the power of the amicus and end the dishes now as I’m sure everybody here is well aware street fighting broke out on the third of May 1937 when the government attempted to take over the telephony cabinet the boss Tony telephone exchange held by members with the amicus trade union the CMT when the local police chief sent three Laurie those of Civil Guards to remove them the occupant’s refused to admit them shots were exchanged and anarchists across Barcelona supported by members of the food who were fearful that the government was preparing to roll back their revolution in games erected barricades and prepared to defend themselves meanwhile communist seize their opportunity by accusing the Pooh of being agents of Franco Peter Harrison a British Communist Party member and journalism Portsmouth witness Tobias violence in Barcelona having traveled to Spain late April driving a lorry full of Verma see and insecticide becoming lice as he waited for papers permitting printing to carry on to the International Brigade base at Al vercetti he saw a large crowd gathering outside the telephone exchange where he was told there have been some shooting Harrison described how it was warned that there had been a revolt by the revolutionary fai yarmulke fan and the trotskyist poo against the Catalan government and the Communists safe inside British Medical Union flat in ka kya Gomez Arison watched on as grounded an anarchist armored car appeared at the top of badness coming our way firing indiscriminately to keep up his spirits from our 4th floor balcony we would watch it slowly approach the barricade and drive past slowly breaking it with machine-gun fire while the police and other government supporters would reply with all the weapons they possessed and try to roll hand grenades beneath the armored car to add the sound of battle snipers on the roofs around would join in meanwhile caught up in the fighting on the other side of the barricades or well and the other members of the British IRP group helped defend a number of the booms buildings during six days of street fighting they washed on as hundreds lost their lives and many more were arrested the battles only ended on the 6th many when 6,000 Republican assault guards arrived in the city and the barricades began to be dismantled not surprisingly the street party fighting book page always wish to join the Communist dominated international gas whilst horse of taxol apparently still believed that another might be persuaded to join his attempts were summarily rejected by the IRP volunteers who are incensed by communists portrayal of the poop and fascist agents they probably correctly surmised that they would be seen as politically unreliable within the International gates so the 10 that may the group returned the Westco front as part of the 29th division of the Republican Army back in their trenches under her an affront the men in the British battalion received accounts of the fighting in Barcelona from their political commissars and for the communist newspaper The Daily Worker as early as the sixth of may the painful was carrying storage and accusing anarchists protecting the street fighting by their seizure of the telephone exchange rather

than their defensive it The Daily Worker reporter Lord khobor fighting under his student Frank a co-accused geologists and the police stirs have been armed with weapons which they have been stealing four months past including tanks which they stole from the barracks just at the beginning of the rising the calumny was repeated by ralphs days a senior british fingering spade working with republican government propaganda and information services he visited the battalion piranha and lectured the volunteers on the disorders in Catalonia as one Manchester volunteer confirmed.thanks speech made it absolutely clear to all the Pooh trotskyists and spies engineer in a particularly virulent article published in the daily work on the 11th of mode entitled pitkin Nets Barcelona veil Claude kobo claimed the German Italian agents in cooperation with local Trotskyists were preparing a situation of disorder and bloodshed he went on to claim that the Pooh acting in cooperation with well-known criminal Adams planned organized and led the attacks in the rearguard accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front that Bilbao in the plainest terms that poem declares it is the enemy of the People’s Government to further down the Pooh an interview with the IRP volunteer Frank Frank forgiven to San nessa the former International Brigade ER working as a radio broadcaster in Barcelona appeared in The Daily Worker it was deliberately edited to appear as though Frankfurt was accusing members the poop and fraternization and included the utterly unfounded claims that arms the May uprising have been supplied by the Nationalists not surprisingly as the political caucus of that Alexander you don’t mention of earlier legs described news of the fighting was greeted with incredulity consternation and then extreme anger audience and astrogators the potato commander fred Coquelin also described events outrage why then asked was it possible that these people could obtain arms an equal chance so far in the reader when a frontline was starved of ammunition but overwhelmingly reliant on propaganda it is perhaps not that surprising that many in the British battalion reacted with such hostility it was extremely difficult if not impossible but others on the front line to obtain objective news their poster censored and newspapers were essentially restricted to those that put across the official party line as one volunteer described we were not to what involved newspapers Spanish of British came to us in a hit-or-miss way often none at all for several days Spanish papers were either the Communists will know around or a socialist elf socially throat neither noted for objective reporting anyway printed in Spanish they were regrettably unintelligible to three quarters of the British irregularly we saw the Daily Worker unavoidably seven days old and sometimes Reynolds news & now’s the part cooperative party publication which as a Sunday paper was likely to be even more behind events besides as one volunteer openly admitted many of the British volunteers in Spain did not really have a great understanding of Irish politics there was an abysmal ignorance he said of Spain and Spanish repairs coming common to an overwhelming majority of the volunteers in prison recent events thrust the country is equal to the forefront of our political consciousness we rightly saw their struggle as an extension of our own in Britain we went to help to demonstrate the Solidarity of working classes about the lands but of the complexities of Spanish politics the wide range of passionately held beliefs of so many parties from liberals to communists not forgetting anarchists and trots gifts left Republicans and separatists with you little or nothing even a singers bigger such as Len crow mentioned earlier the chief medical officer the entire 35th Republican division declared that he a little personally of what was actually happening in Barcelona and that will cook on trust the information he was

given I was very badly informed about it all he said I wasn’t taking too much interest either you know at the front in the army we didn’t know what was happening the international gate were run by calmness and I believe what I was told but while the members of the battalion and the trenches were too busy fighting frankerz forces to be personally involved in the mayor medicine Barcelona and the victim victimization the food and the ILP which follows there is no doubt the several British members did play a part the University student David crook who have been wounded at her have been sent to officer training school after recovering from his rooms whilst convalescing crook was approached by George sorry a Soviet agent working for the communist newspaper infracore who recruited him for Republican military intelligence crook was charged with be friendly and reporting on members of the pooh and he also spied on those involved with the British iop group the command with George the British Independent Labour Party leader John McNabb and of course the or worse crook invades himself into the offices of the ILP in Barcelona where he copied documents and passed them on to the Russian embassy and to his hand ashore Hugh O’Donnell who’s working in a clandestine capacity the Socialist Party of Catalonia O’Donnell alluded to his work in a letter to Harry Potter in the spring of nineteen thirty-seven he said my work consists of looking after the English Pete speaking people passing through Barcelona and keeping track of those in Barcelona I should explain that the nature of my work cannot be fully explained in the letter and that much of it is of a character which can only be undertaken by a party comrade who has previous experience in this word other British volunteers were also prepared to play their part if required on room to Spain at the end of May 1937 while Scott was part of a group of volunteers were approached in France by Spanish emissary to discuss the significance the Barcelona maintains the Scottish volunteer was quite clear how he felt a good arguing that it was causing obstructions to the unification process needed to find the day it was a Trotskyite party that was over ten probably provocator to enter he said the band the volunteers was asked a simple question in the situation in Barcelona worsened would we go to the support of the government to help put an end to that situation in Barcelona the answer was clear without exception the whole group agreed that we were and many former International Brigades continue to accept the version of events portrayed in The Daily Worker the years after the Spanish Civil War the Newcastle veteran Frank grain remain convinced that the food was an enemy of the Spanish Republic he wrote why not made of four reports reached us that the food are so-called left-wing Socialist Party had revolted and was trying to overthrow the government in Barcelona we were outraged they’re not surprised but once it was known that the leadership had been working secretly with Franco and many of its members were former parameters Spanish crashes or brushes who had been unable to escape to the south when Franco invaded Spain and former political commissar and battalion commander Alexander always maintained that the political repression instigated by the Republic was completely justified the Republic had to safeguard itself against internal enemies in justices and mistakes were inevitable but the government heard of anything on the side of complacency and lack of vigilance however other veterans were less convinced the former political commissar Zhang Angus mater summarize the feelings of some when acknowledged that the POUM was perhaps not as black as it is sometimes being portrayed though he still argued that the attitude of the amicus in the poop was not at all helpful to winning the war no not actually 5th colonists they were believed medically innocent 90 people who work very remote from reality now this view is probably no longer prevalent in fact the many in Britain and the odds the persecution of the food has become a central story war drawing from their

reading of over many come to believe that it was stunning the Communist Party and the bits of sectarianism who which was responsible the Republic’s defeat even though Stalin’s Russia was the only major power to be actually assisting the Republic this view of the Stalinist terror in Spain was reinforced by Ken Loach’s film land and freedom which gentleman screenplay portrayed American International gauges shooting Republican volition furthermore over the years has been quickly and quite wrongly alleged the thousands of members of the group and other left-winger cup organizations were like who leader on drew near brutally tortured and murdered in communist presence in Spain in fact as all got himself acknowledged the Spanish premier qui Nguyen and the others have kept their heads and refused to stage a wholesale massacre of Trotskyists considering the pressure that’s been put upon them it is greatly to their credit that they’ve done so this of course is not to fall into the trap of arguing the starving was the great advocate and defender of Spanish democracy as the historian a jacob taylor has convincingly argued it is highly unlikely that the USSR aid in spain on principle started with probably of welcome peaceful relations with Nazi Germany if it’s all possible conflicts in Spain was more welcome to the Russians than conflict near their own border actually paid argued that starting Wars determined the Spain should not become a fertile breeding ground the Trotskyist and other deviationist critical of the Soviet Union as I forgiveness has argued no significant aspect of communist or Soviet policies during that period can be understood without reference to the action against trotskyism now while the fattest either purchase may have contributed to demonisation amongst the government supporters and undoubtedly damaged the Republic delimitation of all I would suggest that they were not the primary cause of Republic’s woes the greater military experience and efficiency of the national is more significant but it seems to me that the most dangerous obstacle facing Republic has not started terror but Britain and France is determination to support the farcical non-intervention fact which placed restrictions on the influx of armaments of materials to the public while doing nothing to prevent German and Italian 83 flooding into Franco stoner in fact as the frank huis Minister federal offense rodriguez admitted after the end of the Civil War many Spaniards believe the weekend our victory exclusively through German and Italian aid I am convinced that though this did contribute the fundamental reason for our winning the war was the English position opposing intervention in state it’s too strong to actually say they want as much damage to public as a see any sickness I can fairly easy to establish that there was no way to stay with friends natural allies of the Republic all sorts of differences with Republic especially boudoir characters that granite or should begin to end the bathroom Russians reshma Stooges are involved so really when Congress said for my iron me they weren’t exaggerating at least within a constant the problem is is that there’s two things going on this is the reality of what actually was happening and then it is the perceptions and as the reporting what’s going on in kind of accounts of things so clearly the anarchism and the food to some extent were not supporters of parts of the republican government in Spain true but they were there’s no doubt that the Pooh Easter’s were just as they were store junkie passion and they were fighting in just the same way that the Communists were nine when I talked about the fact that that all whether the IRP were fighting in a quiet sector of quiet front to use John coordinates grace

they’re almost sounds as though you know I’m being delivered insulting about that but of course soldiers don’t choose where they fight they are allocated to a set of the front and every bit of course is important because every other and there are various parts where war flares are clearly at that stage the druid was the kind of that it was the heart of the battle there’s no the heart of the heart there’s no doubt about that but let the same at the same time is just as important that every other part of the and I think they were playing they played their role independent in this culture public just as it as the comments did there’s a question about the extent of the persecution of the firm how because all of course talked about in the question was in essence have an ID or was his account the first pictures of whom were they really persecuted animistic there is no doubt that they were there were many people thrown in jail the were there were 700 killed with industry fighting but as I said in the next itself the idea that thousands and thousands were thrown into prison and tortured to death it just is just not the case those that were imprisoned work puts on trial and the one degree that the premiere of Spain at the time although it’s often accused of being a kind of Communists dude she was just doing Stalin’s worth dirty work for him the evidence seems to suggest that actually worked quite hard to make sure that those people who were who were in jail had a fair trial so there was persecution of that there is no doubt but at the same time the state apparatus of these times republican government either the theme was compromised perhaps some people would make their volunteers who deserted from the international game will also be rounded up and he actually said in his book that the end the number of foreign deserters from the international gates image as many hundreds and we do know which you hadn’t actually tacked on that that many desserts is were actually executed by the leadership of the gays Marty actually the leader of the International Brigades are no Marty the communist them leader he actually said whether we actually do have 2 500 deserters beneath national gays that is quoted by Anthony be bored so there was very significant depression it’s not just at the decision to the gays but also of the young poom and kiss in babylonia I think we should down sign up at all right okay so I’m not downplaying it at all I fully accept the worst and I thought I made that clear sorry I thought I made it clear that indeed the worst persecution of the Pooh and the anarchists after and several hundred people were killed and people were throwing to jail but I’m that I don’t you seek to deny that at all and indeed it’s also the case that were a lot of International Brigades thrown into jail for deserting for drunkenness and for all sorts of crimes but mine work is on the British and there were no British volunteers executed for desertion it just isn’t ducts if you didn’t happen there were two that we know of it or executed one of them was he was a deserted but the reason why he was shot was because he was deserting with when his court he had a map of all the British machine gun positions and I would suggest to you that I would probably happen in any army the second one that was executors was because was after a number of other incidents blind drunk he opened fire on a number of his own comrades and that was taken exceeded extremely seriously and he was shocked the needs of those were desertion now the classic quotes Andre Marty the butcher of outer setting has been used over the years it’s always about that I say to you produce these bodies there is it is simply not the case Andrew and Marty said all sorts of it now I have absolutely no doubt the marty was perfectly capable of pumping or five he was by all accounts a homicidal maniac but but but here’s what he actually said is not that you should be shot 500 it’s been exaggeration over the years and it’s always well done if that were the case some goodies to produce these bodies and that never has been done as far as I’m aware svenska tell kids book called abrogates talks about lacking in great detail when I don’t you know I’m not attempting to downplay what happened in three days you know the word people we’ve got thrown in jail and some who got thrown in for movies politically give you you know I don’t dispute that but I think we need to be led by the

evidence rather than you ever thought would seem to me to be a good point at which to leave this first session you