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Circles and Links: the Brigaders and Tom Mann

IBMT member and history teacher Tony Fox is carrying out research on International Brigaders, which he shares, along with other research findings, on his history blog. This post reveals the links between the Brigaders, especially the last commander of the British Battalion Sam Wild, and Tom Mann, veteran of the British labour movement. It has been reproduced here in edited form with the permission of the author. The full version can be read on Tony Fox’s blog here, along with a follow-up piece here.


From left: Sam Wild, Bessie Berry, George Fletcher and Johanna Kelly.

I am currently working with the wonderful Mike Wild on a couple of projects with the equally marvelous Rosie Serdiville; looking at his parents. For people who are unaware, his father Sam Wild was the last commander of the 16th (British) Battalion of XV Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Mike’s mother Bessie was a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party. He is kindly sifting through ‘the family archives’ for us.

On 1 April 1939 Sam married Bessie Berry, who had worked in the Aid to Spain movement in Manchester, they married just three months after Sam returned from Spain at the head of the British Battalion. We see witnessing the signing of the register, George Fletcher and his wife Johanna. George had been Sam’s Adjutant; he had briefly commanded the Battalion himself for four weeks in October 1937 whilst Fred Copeman was in the UK.

The wedding is unusual as this was a joint wedding, for George also married that day, as you can see from the invitation kept by Sam’s father, he married Johanna at the same ceremony. The witnesses to the marriage show us how significant this wedding was: Harry Pollitt, originally from Manchester himself, was the General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1929 to 1956, Fred Copeman is known for his leading role in the 1931 Invergordon Mutiny and preceding Sam as Commander of the British Battalion during the Spanish Civil War. Charlotte Haldane is best known as the wife of JBS Haldane, the British geneticist, sadly, however, her significant work for the Communist Party and women’s rights has been overshadowed by this. Nan Green, who’d travelled as a nurse to Spain when her husband volunteered, was a leading figure in the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and the International Brigade Association, she was also a witness.

The reception was held at the Waldorf Hotel Restaurant, on Cooper Street in Manchester. It is not surprising to find that Sam and George were close. Sam was raised in Ardwick in Manchester, whilst George was from Moss Side, these are just over a mile apart. They were both members of the Communist Party and had both served in the armed forces before volunteering; Sam in the Royal Navy and George in the Army, serving in India. Both fought in the British Battalion throughout the campaign in Spain, Sam joining the Battalion in January, and George joining at the end of March 1937, both rose through the ranks – Sam ended the war as a Major and George as a Captain.

Mike has sent me a number of images of cards associated with the joint wedding. Of primary significance to me is the one that Mike sent to me first.

Dated 27 March, the author apologises for being unable to attend the wedding, uses the military ranks  the two men had at the time of leaving Spain just three months earlier; it is a coincidence that Franco’s fascists would enter Madrid the day after this card was sent, and the Civil War would end on the same day as their wedding – 1 April 1939.

For me the most striking element of the card is not what is says but from whom it comes from, as we have seen the wedding was attended by the biggest names in the Communist Party, but Tom Mann is a legendary figure in the history of the working-class movement in Britain, and someone who I have a special interest in after reading extensively about him during my time studying History and Politics at Keele University.

Mann was politically active up till his death in 1941; lecturing, public speaking and advising. At the end of the 1932 Hunger March, the police attacked the huge crowd in Hyde Park and the leaders were arrested, the 76 year old Tom Mann among them. This links us back to the Brigaders; George Short led the Stockton contingent on the 1932 Hunger march and his wife Phyllis was one of the 26 women of the women’s contingent; Phyllis received an injury at Hyde Park when she was attacked by mounted police.

A further link comes when I recalled some of my work on Tom Mann as my interest in the British Battalion who fought in the Spanish Civil War developed. Although The Young’uns inspired my interest with their ‘Ballad of Johnny Longstaff’, I quickly began to look at other volunteers from the area, and after meeting Marlene Sidaway I developed an interest in David Marshall, one of the first British volunteers for the International Brigades.

David Marshall travelled to Spain, and after a few weeks in Barcelona he was moved to Albacete, the International Brigade base, and, at the end of October 1936, officially attached to the mainly German Thälmann Battalion as part of the XI International Brigade, fought in the defence of Madrid. We see him in the famous image (above) used by many when referencing the International Brigades; it shows the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona in September 1936, with David Marshall standing on the far right; the unit David fought with was named after the man I’d studied closely as an undergraduate.

But my link to this does not end there, in October 2020 I was honoured to represent the International Brigades Memorial Trust at the Volunteers for Liberty event: a commemoration organised with the Communist Party to remember the International Brigade veterans. Events took place throughout the country and in Middlesbrough we read the names of the volunteers that appear on the Teesside Memorial plaque which David assisted in producing, he later attended a number of dedication services in Middlesbrough Town Hall where the memorial now resides. I asked Bob Beagrie to read David’s ‘I sing of my Comrades’, which was partly inspired when David stood at the same spot as we. Bob read this emotional poem standing before David’s Thälmann banner, which he had made in 1996 to commemorate the volunteers of the Battalion he had fought with 50 years earlier, the Battalion in which the Tom Mann Centuria was a part. In the image below I’m standing next to David’s banner, whilst Bob holds my copy of David’s poetry collection ‘The Tilting Planet’, which contains ‘I sing of my Comrades’.

There is also another story that links Tom Mann and George Short. The Teesside Communists organised the boycotting of a ship on Middlesbrough Docks in January 1938. Despite threats of sackings and the Trades Union officials also threatening the men, the dockers refused to load the Japanese ship Haruna Maru with scrap iron, as they said it would be used for war materials in Manchuria. A message was sent to the Communist Party in London, when the unloaded Haruna Maru left Middlesbrough for London, the message was passed to Tom Mann, he helped to organise the London dockers who also boycotted the ship once it arrived at London.

The links between Sam Wild and Tom Mann did not end with the joint wedding of Sam and Bessie and George and Johanna. Recently Mike sent me this:

At the funeral of Tom Mann, Sam Wild represented the International Brigade, with the British Battalion flag leading the coffin through ‘a lane of red flags’. This fascinating document is one of the few in which we get to hear Sam’s voice, although I must admit the flourish at the end of the statement does remind me of Bill Rust’s work. It also tells us something about what Sam was doing during the Second World War, for, like many veterans of the war in Spain, he was barred from the armed forces.

Sam Wild is quotes in Corkill and Rawnsley’s ‘The Road to Spain’:

‘They wouldn’t even let me in the Home Guards. They said I was “undesirable.” I wrote a protest to the Chief Constable of Manchester who was in charge of all that business and he said, “I will make the decisions I’ve decided that you’re not suitable and that’s that.” I couldn’t even get in the demolition squads, although I was a qualified building worker.’

I think you can see why the names Sam Wild and Tom Mann mean a lot to me, as I research my current hero, a man whose qualities I admire, it means even more to find connections to someone I admired as I initially began my journey as an historian. Thirty years ago I was researching the life and work of a communist who’s actions inspired multitudes. I seem to have travelled in a circle, for today I am researching the life and work of another communist who also translated his ideals into action, committing himself to leadership in one of the toughest arenas possible – 20th century warfare. Working with Mike is an experience which is rewarding and enriching, enriched especially by the knowledge that these two men; Tom Mann and Sam Wild, are linked.

Posted on 2 December 2020.