IBMT Chair Jim Jump writes…
Geoffrey Servante, almost certainly the last surviving British member of the legendary International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, died today (21 April 2019), aged 99.
Geoffrey joined the fight against General Franco’s fascist-backed rebellion in Spain in June 1937, 11 months after the outbreak of the war. As an 18-year-old merchant seaman, he jumped ship in Valencia and caught a train to the International Brigades’ main base in Albacete. Because he was not yet 21 he was refused admission into the British Battalion and was instead assigned to an Anglo-American artillery unit known as the John Brown Battery.
Initially deployed in Extremadura in south-west Spain, the battery was transferred to the Toledo front south of Madrid in December 1937. There Geoffrey remained until the final months of the Spanish Civil War, which ended with Franco declaring victory in April 1939.
Born on 18 May 1919, Geoffrey Servante was hardly typical of the 2,500 volunteers from the British Isles who joined the International Brigades, 534 of whom were killed in Spain. Most were labour movement activists and communists. Geoffrey, brought up in London and educated by Jesuits, had never been in a political party. Indeed, he claimed in later life that he only travelled to Spain for a £100 bet – which he never recovered – after someone in a Soho pub said it was no longer possible to join the International Brigades.
However, in Spain Servante joined the Communist Party, and he remained throughout his life extremely proud to have fought for Spanish democracy. He was also delighted in 2009 to accept Spain’s offer of citizenship to all surviving members of the International Brigades, travelling to the embassy in London to sign the papers.
During the war in Spain, with ammunition extremely scarce, the John Brown Battery saw little action and rarely did much more than take pot shots at enemy lines. Geoffrey recalled in an interview later in life that one such speculative shell that he fired missed its target by miles – but accidentally scored a direct hit on a fascist officer’s car, blowing him, the car and his aide-de-camp to pieces.
Early 1939 the battery’s members were withdrawn to Valencia, then on to Barcelona. From there, a train took them half-way to the frontier and they joined the columns of fleeing refugees to walk the remaining 50 miles to the French border, harassed all the way by Franco’s aircraft. Eventually Geoffrey and the other Britons were repatriated via Paris and Dieppe.
Within a year, he was called up into the British Army, serving for three years in Egypt with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After the Second World War he worked in engineering, finally joining Vauxhall in 1957 and staying with the car-maker until early retirement 20 years later.
The IBMT was only able to make contact with Geoffrey in the final years of his life, when he was living close to his family in a nursing home in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. This was thanks to a locally-based journalist, Carmelo García, who found out about his existence and realised that this was in all likelihood the last known British survivor of the International Brigades.
They shall not pass! ¡No pasarán!
Posted on 21 April 2019.