“When town and gown went to war: the role of the Oxford students and residents who fought in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939”
4 June 2015, St Giles, Oxford
Hours before this fascinating event held on one of Oxford’s main thoroughfares, the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas gave an equally insightful talk slightly further up the road about his writing. Cercas’s 2009 novel “The Anatomy of a Moment” concerns the story of the 23-F Coup: that moment on 23 February 1981 when the Spanish generals attempted to turn the clock back to Franco’s Spain (Cercas later wandered along to try and attend this event after a dinner held to honour his recent Oxford lectures, but could not gain access to the building as no-one was manning the door to let him in!)
While reasonable, the turnout for this event was depleted by the absence of undergraduates tied up in exam season. Nevertheless, the contributions of Dr Richard Baxell and Colin Carritt provided valuable illustrations of both the Spanish Civil War itself and the contribution of Oxfordshire volunteers to it. Plans for a memorial to be unveiled in Bonn Square (in the heart of Oxford town centre) this October were announced at the outset – the symbol of the fist and scorpion symbol which will appear on the monument representing the clash between Republicans and the Falange.
Baxell’s immaculately presented talk touched on a number of key themes. The non-intervention pact agreed by western powers could be regarded as the real fatality of the cause (Orwell always said the Spanish Civil War was settled not in Spain but London and Paris). Briefly during the presentation – and more substantially in the discussion afterwards – the Irish volunteers came up, though Baxell did not quite do full justice to the differences, both positive and negative, between the Irish and British volunteers. The former had objected when the Daily Worker labelled their fallen as British on the Córdoba front, and as an oversight it also neglects to hold to account the almost 700 Irishmen who volunteered for Franco (British volunteers for the Falange numbered no more than 20). To some extent this makes the exploits of the Irish International Brigadirs in the Connolly Column, Frank Ryan, Mick O’Riordan et al, all the more noble and extraordinary. They have been venerated accordingly in Ireland, while the historical reputation of Eoin O’Duffy – who led the Irish Brigade to fight for Franco’s Nationalists – lies in derisory ruins.
Brought to life through maps, photographs and film recordings, Baxell’s otherwise excellent overview could be enjoyed by both those with little knowledge of Spain and more seasoned observers. Evocative quotes from Orwell, Cecil Day-Lewis and Jason Gurney were aired, the latter’s now well-known encapsulation that the battle in Spain represented “a war of principle” crystallising the ethos for so many. Above all the struggle was accurately framed as the forerunner for the Second World War, with the fight against fascism in Spain merging seamlessly into the fight against fascism in Europe. If Oswald Mosley emerged as a chief antagonist in the struggle for the soul of the British working class, Jack Jones appeared as the beating heart of the Labour movement; through his Spanish Civil War service, long career in trade unionism, and later return as President of the IBMT.
In a film clip closing Richard Baxell’s talk, Jones commented: “The audacity, the bravery of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War was remarkable, its principle of internationalism. But the price was heavy – very heavy indeed.” His engagement luckily did not include the devastating Battle of Brunete, though Jones seemed to be echoing that unforgettable summation from Albert Camus: “It was in Spain that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.” Except, as Camus would have been ultimately aware, the power of the written word – of art, and how literature and even the history books are written – does in the end represent its own indefatigable spirit, marching on through the writers who were drawn to the Spanish conflict and framed how we understand it.
The second part of the evening featured a talk from Colin Carritt, whose folksy and plainspoken demeanour complemented the previous lecture nicely (at one stage Franco was referred to as a “smug bastard”). This was a more personal presentation focussing on Carritt’s father Noel, who was a friend of the great poet WH Auden (another Republican supporter). A striking feature to emerge from this talk was the class backgrounds of those who volunteered from Oxfordshire, which tended to be more affluent and middle class than the typical UK International Brigader. The latter was overwhelmingly working class and while it may be tempting to see the Oxfordshire version as a kind of well-funded adventurism, it touches on something Hugh Thomas once wrote that “if a country be unfortunate enough to experience a class war which becomes a physical conflict, it is the middle class which can be expected to suffer the most”. Carritt focussed on his father and five other volunteers: Nathan Clark, Victor Claridge, Gavin Henderson (aka Labour Lord Faringdon), Thora Silverthorne and Chris Thornycroft. All six are profiled along with 25 other Oxfordshire volunteers in the recently-published “No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War”, which is indispensable reading.
This was the local context but the link was to Brunete, which Noel Carritt mercifully survived. His brother Anthony, however, was not so fortunate and was presumed to have been killed in an air attack when he never returned from his ambulance-driving duty. Noel returned to England to dedicate himself to trade unionism, though he attempted to enlist for the Royal Navy when the Second World War began. The authorities were, however, somewhat disgracefully wary about those who had fought in Spain, and so his application was rejected. Nevertheless he joined Fairey Aviation which produced aircraft for the Allies and after the war taught biology at a school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire until his retirment. Carritt junior also went into the legacy and commemorative issues which continue to rumble on, such as the 2007 decision of the Spanish parliament to grant dual citizenship to those who fought for the International Brigades. One especially gratifying photograph was of a frail, wrinkled hand clutching both a newly-printed Spanish passport and a glass of white wine.
In a memorable Q&A following, two articulate young Spaniards spoke from the floor about how important and moving they found this event. They noted that such public initiatives still do not take place within Spain. Much of the post-lecture discussion accordingly concerned how the past is dealt or more precisely not dealt with in contemporary Spain. Vital debates around the pacto del olvido (the “pact of forgetting”) were raised, it being roundly accepted that progress may take a generational change of 20 years. In the meantime the International Brigade Memorial Trust and its affiliated commemoration committees across the UK and Ireland continue to step into the void left by the political mainstream to address the gaping wounds of the past. I can only end with a hastily scribbled down quote from one of the panellists: “You can’t forever brush history under the carpet and cannot obliterate historical memory.”
1 July 2015
For a review of “No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War”, see http://oxfordleftreview.com/peter-hill-damn-these-out-of-date-sports
For a copy of the book send £8 to IBMT, 6 Stonells Road, London SW11 6HQ (cheques payable to ‘IBMT’).