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My granddad and the Spanish Civil War

Speech given by Gideon Long on 24 September 2013 at the site of the last stand of the British Battalion, near Corbera d’Ebre on 23 September 1938…

I’m the grandson of Sam Wild, the commander of the British Battalion during the Battle of the Ebro.

I never spoke to my granddad much about Spain – in part because he was a man of few words, in part because I was only 15 when he died in 1983 – and like most 15 year old boys, I was more interested in football and music than in Spanish history.

But in part I didn’t speak to him much about Spain because back then people didn’t talk much about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades. In Britain at least, it seemed to be a forgotten war, overshadowed by what happened afterwards in the rest of Europe.

In Spain, of course, it was by no means forgotten, but even here, people didn’t talk about it much. They kept their memories to themselves. Even in the mid-1990s, when I worked in Madrid as a journalist, it was something of a taboo subject. You had to be a bit careful before launching into a conversation with a Spaniard about the war.

For me, that all started to change in 1996, in that extraordinary week when hundreds of Brigaders came back to receive their honorary Spanish citizenship. For some, it was their first time back in Spain since the 1930s. And it was the first time that Spaniards had the chance to come out on to their streets and thank the International Brigaders for what they did. And although I don’t live in Spain now, I get the sense that that process of opening up has continued. Spaniards do talk about the war now. Young people are interested in it. Wartime atrocities are being investigated. The official histories of the Franco era are being questioned and revised. And that can only be a good thing.

Now, to the Ebro. I want to read you a few excerpts from the memoirs of Nan Green who, as many of you know, was a British nurse here, and served during the battle. Her account starts with the successful Republican crossing in July 1938, and the hasty retreat of Franco’s forces.

“We crossed the Ebro by night, one night after the first of the troops… It was a scene of desolation, with still unburied bodies lying by the roadside, shattered dwellings and huge piles of jettisoned material, papers, suitcases, bedding, even rifles, showing the haste with which the enemy had made his get away.”

But then, Nan describes how the fascists hit back, and how it gradually became apparent that the Republicans were fighting a losing battle.

“We had daily air raids and were sometimes under shell fire. When planes came over, we had no need to identify them as the enemy’s or as ours. A glance at the sky was enough. If it was one of ours, the sky was full of bursts of anti-aircraft fire, but if it was one of theirs, an occasional puff of smoke was all that could be seen…

“Its first onslaught over, the 15th Brigade got a few days rest. I visited the British Battalion, a raggle-taggle bunch of weary men, scattered over an arid hillside…

They went back into the lines, where the British won the name of the shock battalion for their part in the near successful attack on Hill 481 outside Gandesa…

“But the long, slow, desperate and heroic retreat of the Spanish People’s Army had begun.”

Nan then goes on to describe how the International Brigades were withdrawn, and how her husband George was killed here, 75 years ago yesterday, on the final day of the Brigades’ active service.

Those of us who have a family connection with the International Brigades sometimes, I think, tend to forget that they were a relatively small part of a large army. Scores of International Brigaders died at the Battle of the Ebro – men of many nationalities – and it’s right that we remember them today. But thousands of Spaniards died at the Ebro, defending the Republic. And we should remember them too.

It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those men, but one detail from the historian Antony Beevor sticks in my mind. He says the fascist aerial bombardment was so fierce that the Republican soldiers hung pieces of wood around their necks, and they’d bite on them, to help them endure the ordeal.

There has been a lot of debate about the rights and wrongs of the war, the role of the International Brigades, the role of the Soviet Union, the rifts between communists and anarchists, and so on. And much of what’s been written has come from people who are more interested in defending their own political positions than establishing the truth.

Personally, I like Martha Gelhorn’s no-nonsense assessment of it all. In the 1950s, she said she was fed up of the endless analysis of the leftwing cause.

“Long ago I gave up repeating that the men who fought and those who died for the Republic, whatever their nationality, and whether they were communists, anarchists, socialists, poets, plumbers, middle class professional men... were brave and disinterested… They were fighting for us all, against the combined force of European fascism. They deserved our thanks and our respect, and got neither.”

I want to close with a few lines from a poem written by Bob Cooney, a Scottish Brigader and friend of my grandfather. He wrote this in the 1960s when, of course, Franco was still in power. And he looks back to the civil war, but also forward to the day when Franco is gone and he can return to a liberated Spain.

“We will stroll in the Puerta del Sol

And the Ramblas of Barcelona

We will cross the Ebro

And drink with our friends in Mora

Friends who’ll be free!

We will look at them

And at each other

And each of us will think

This is why I came in 36…

I went to Spain!

And because of that great yesterday

I am part of the greater tomorrow.” 

 

Sam Wild

 

Gideon Long with his mother Dolores Long, daughter of Sam Wild