By Pauline Fraser
This is a tale of two 20-year-olds, Sam Lesser and John Cornford, who went to Spain to fight fascism and defend democracy. They fought in University City, Madrid, and later went south, by train, to Andújar, in Andalusia, to fight in the XIV Brigade.
They fought in the hills and valleys near Lopera. Sam was wounded and left for dead, but had his life saved by his friend, Jock Cunningham. John Cornford was killed trying to bring back the body of his friend, Ralph Fox. He had just turned 21.
Sam never forgot John or Ralph, and impressed on us, in the IBMT executive committee, how important it was to remember them. He wanted to see memorials to his comrades at Lopera, where they had been killed, and in Cambridge, where John had studied and Ralph taught and researched.
It was Sam who proposed that our new organisation, formed from the International Brigade Association (IBA) and Friends of the International Brigades (FIBS) should be called the International Brigade Memorial Trust.
The memory of Sam, who died in 2010, as well as that of John, Ralph and all their comrades, was in my mind when at last we had the opportunity of commemorating them with Spanish and international comrades, 80 years on since their respective rescue and deaths.
Andalusia had not forgotten them. Still a stronghold of the Left, the local branch of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) were out in force to greet us as we arrived, by coach, at Andújar railway station for the commemorative weekend on 8/9 April. The local Socialist Party (PSOE) mayors had coordinated the entire programme with the friends of the International Brigades (AABI) based in Madrid and all events were excellently organised.
They unveiled the plaques with us and they provided us with lunch and hospitality; the sense of solidarity was strong. But the most moving moments for me, and probably others, were when local historian, José Luis Pantoja, pointed out the spot in Las Esperillas, a couple of miles from Lopera, where he believes the bodies of John Cornford and Ralph Fox still lie, despite the stories of bodies being burnt en masse.
Families and friends of the British, French and Irish Brigaders were able to see and hear, in situ, what they had previously only been able to imagine from the written accounts, above all, that of Joe Monks. Now covered by olive groves, it was hard to imagine the treeless plain where the Brigaders had to fight. It is said that the olives are nourished by their blood.
At four in the afternoon, everyone assembled at the memorial in Lopera to Ralph Fox and John Cornford, unveiled in 1997. Gavin Fox, nephew of the writer, read the unpublished and only recently re-discovered last letter written to his family nine days before his death. Then Brenda O’Riordan and Paco Gómez read, in English and Spanish, the poem of love that Cornford wrote to Margot Heinemann in the autumn of 1936 on the Huesca front.
Finally, at five o’clock, we all gathered in front of the mural of Miguel Hernández and his poem ‘Andaluces de Jaén’. There were speeches by Almudena Cros, President of AABI, Richard Baxell, historian and Chair of the IBMT, Sean Crow, member of the Irish Dail, Eddie O’Neill, President of Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland (FIBI) and Angelita Sabatier, daughter of Emil Sabatier, who fought at Lopera and later became commander of the XIV Brigade.
Before unveiling a plaque to all the International Brigaders who fought at Lopera, Isabel Uceda, Mayor of Lopera, paid tribute to the thousands of young people who joined the fight of the Spanish people to defend the Republic under attack by the rebel forces and fascist powers. The local council plans to organise an international congress on the Battle of Lopera, and establish a museum and interpretation centre of the battle. She also referred to a forthcoming re-enactment of the battle, which took place the following weekend on 16 April.
Pauline Fraser is a founder member and Trustee of the IBMT.
CAPTIONS (from top)
Close-up of the new plaque at Lopera.
Gavin Fox rerad his uncle’s last letter.
‘Even the olives are bleeding’.
José Luis Pantejo explaining the Battle of Lopera.
After lunch at Lopera.