Christian Wilson looks back at the return of the British Battalion from Spain 80 years ago…
Upon the cliffs in south-east England, situated on the strategic vantage point of Newhaven Fort, a sole bench overlooks the port of Newhaven and into the English Channel. The bench itself, unveiled by Jack Jones in December 2008, stands as a commemoration to the British Battalion of the XV International Brigade. The words ‘You are History! You are Legend!’ are inscribed honouring the valiant effort made by those Britons who fought against fascism in Spain’s civil war.
It was 80 years ago when the remaining members of the British Battalion returned home through the port of Newhaven. It is estimated that nearly 2,500 British volunteers had been fighting in Spain for the International Brigades. Thousands of men and women worldwide journeyed to Spain after Franco’s coup d’état to oppose the spread of fascism throughout Europe. However, by late 1938, the situation had become dire for the democratic Spanish Republic. Nationalist forces had received vast quantities of troops and equipment from the Hitler and Mussolini resulting in catastrophic losses.
Jack Jones, British Battalion veteran and President of the IBMT, unveils the Newhaven memorial bench in 2008.
The British Battalion was withdrawn from the front in late September of that year. The Spanish Republican government had decided that withdrawing the International Brigades was the best course of action. In reality, it was little more than a last-ditch effort hoping to put pressure on the international community to take measures against Franco’s German and Italian aid. Even though many in the battalion knew their time in Spain was coming to an end, the final 48 hours of fighting on the battlefield of the Ebro were amongst the bloodiest. Many of the 90 British Battalion members who died in the Battle of the Ebro lost their lives in those last few days.
Once withdrawn, many of the remaining 320 British and Irish volunteers paraded in a momentous farewell rally in Barcelona on 28 Ortober. Then, amid tearful farewells, the last of the British Battalion boarded a train early in December bound for the French port of Dieppe, from there to sail back to England.
After a long and arduous trip across the channel, the British Battalion disembarked the Versailles at Newhaven on 7 December 1938. They were met by noticeable suspicion on the part of the authorities. After all, many travelled illegally to fight in Spain after the policy of non-intervention was adopted by the governments of Britain and France. Nonetheless, the hostile environment they returned to in Newhaven was markedly different from the extraordinary reception of crowds of supporters at London’s Victoria railway station.
Members of the British Battalion on deck as the Versailles docks in Newhaven.
Photo: Marx Memorial Library
Among those there to greet them were leading members of the labour movement, including Labour leader Clem Attlee. It was a cheerful yet saddening experience. Among those returning home were many wounded – and they had left behind more than 500 who had been killed in Spain. Some were still in Franco’s prisons, and the International Brigade Association campaigned to secure their release.
Ten years after the unveiling of the bench and eight decades since the Versailles moored at the small ferry port, the area has experienced immense change. The fort at Newhaven has now all but lost its defensive significance and is presently a museum holding an exhibition of the British Battalion. Unlike the purpose of the fort, the memory of the Britons who fought fascism in Spain is by no means diminishing. Memorials such as the bench at Newhaven serve as an unrelenting reminder of the sacrifice that so many made in the name of liberty.
Posted on 17 November 2018.