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How families and friends established the foundations of the IBMT

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the formation of the IBMT, when the IBA (International Brigade Association) veterans' organisation merged with the FIBS (Friends of the International Brigades). Drawing from papers and personal recollection, IBMT Trustee Pauline Fraser has written a first-hand history of FIBS, which is introduced below. ‘History of Friends of the International Brigades’ is available to read here.

A preliminary meeting in 2000 to discuss the foundation of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. From left: Pauline Fraser, Marlene Sidaway, David Marshall, Paul Preston, Sam Lesser and Angela Jackson (Photo: Richard Baxell).


At last the story of the Friends of the International Brigades (FIBS) – the Friends, as it became known – has been told and not before time. It was urgent to get it done, as key protagonists had died, while those of us left were in our 70s. However, the importance of writing it only dawned on me slowly, when I realised that it might be of interest beyond those directly involved. 1

The story of FIBS began in November 1996, at the 60th anniversary reunion, or Homenaje (Homage), in Spain. Veterans from around the world came together for what would be the last time on such a scale, as most veterans were by then over 80. 

The Homenaje was, by all accounts, brilliantly organised and coordinated by the organisation we knew then as the Amigos, or to give them their full title: Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI). It left an indelible impression on all who took part in it. 

The 60th anniversary reunion was the catalyst for the formation of groups in several countries which would bring together veterans, relatives, friends, historians and others who felt that the story of the International Brigaders, their fight against fascism and their example of international solidarity, must continue to be told. There was a feeling of urgency, because, as veterans died, younger generations would no longer hear at first hand their accounts of the atrocities of fascism and why it must always be confronted and opposed. 

It was in this atmosphere that four children of British Brigaders, Martin Green, Dolly West-Shaer, Dolores Wild and Hilary Jones, met in Spain during the Homenaje, to discuss setting up a group to bring together relatives and friends of the International Brigades. 

FIBS had a difficult birth, one filled with drama and suspense and fraught with conflict. Attempts to establish a solidarity and friendship group with the International Brigade Association (IBA) were met with suspicion and rejection. That opposition came principally from the Honorary Secretary of the IBA Bill Alexander. There were even moments when the future of a united organisation hung in the balance. Despite the rebuffs from Bill Alexander, Dolly West-Shaer and Martin Green, Secretary and Chair of FIBS respectively, were not deterred and contacted as many people as they could by letter. This was a successful strategy. Some members of the IBA had reservations about the way Bill had been running the association. They felt it had become more or less a one-man band. Brigader Fred Thomas, in particular, supported FIBS’ efforts to establish a friendship organisation. 

On 11 July 2000 Bill Alexander died. This was a turning point in the relations between the IBA and FIBS. It led to a historic meeting taking place at the Marx Memorial Library in October 2000. Members of the IBA, FIBS, Marx Memorial Library and historians came together at that meeting to discuss the possibility of developing a closer relationship. To prepare for the meeting, the IBA and FIBS asked veterans how they envisaged a future organisation, if any, and this triggered a wide range of responses. Replies ranged from: disbanding entirely, through to establishing an association of veterans and friends of the International Brigades to be jointly responsible for maintaining the memorials, keeping the ‘memory and spirit’ alive and disseminating information. Veterans who were also supporters of FIBS favoured moves to create a joint organisation. 

The struggle to establish FIBS is unique among the friendship groups that were set up in many countries following that landmark 1996 Homenaje. To the best of my knowledge, none of the others encountered such difficulties in their formation.

One problem was the uncertainty over the redevelopment of Jubilee Gardens on London’s South Bank, the home of the national Brigaders’ memorial. Representations were made by both organisations, but no satisfactory conclusion had been reached by the time the IBMT was formed and these concerns continued to dog its earlier years. 

Writing the story of FIBS provided an ideal lockdown project for me, especially as I had all the paperwork to hand. Dolly West-Shaer, Secretary of FIBS for most of its existence, handed everything over to me in the spring of 2001 when I took over from her as Acting Secretary. By then moves to create a new organisation were already well advanced. 

Dolly had carefully filed everything in manila folders and there they all were, piled up in my loft, gathering dust. I didn’t have to go anywhere or meet anyone face-to-face to put it all together. All I had to do was to contact the others who had been involved or their relatives to see what papers they might have that would add to the story. What they unearthed made a big contribution to the final work.

Thanks are due to Dolores Long (Wild in the history) and Hilary Jones, British Battalion Commander Sam Wild’s daughters, Crispin Green, Martin Green’s son, and Carole Mathurin, daughter of Dolly West-Shaer.

A big thank you must also go to IBMT President Marlene Sidaway, who sent me useful information concerning the coming together of the IBA and FIBS. Together with partner David Marshall, she carried out much of the work of the IBA in its final months before the merger with FIBS. 

I put everything I found into chronological order and filed by month and year in two venerable lever-arch files. Next I collated all the items in a chronological database, under date sent, by whom, to whom, whether Brigader, relative, friend, historian or other, and with a comment column to give a snapshot of the contents. And then I started to write. 

The history is based on the evidence of these letters, printed emails, minutes of meetings and other documents in my possession. I used these sources to explain how things happened the way they did and kept my own comments to a minimum, allowing the documents to speak for themselves. 

In the history you learn what key players in the drama did or said, perhaps even what they were thinking at crucial moments. It’s always important to know your history and, in the case of FIBS, that history is what came before the IBMT. It’s equally important for those who joined FIBS and for those who have joined since the IBMT was formed. Most FIBS members would not have known what problems beset the nascent group at the time. 

Looking through the paperwork, I was amazed how little I remembered, yet I was one of those involved. The Friends of the International Brigades existed as an independent organisation for less than five years, from 1997 until late 2001, when it came together with the International Brigade Association to form the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Those five years were, however, crucial in establishing an organisation which would continue the legacy of the British and Irish volunteers. This history sets out to show the importance of FIBS in the formation of the IBMT.

 

Posted on 25 January 2021.