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The lessons of Spain

This article appears in the latest issue of the IBMT Magazine (issue 2-2017), which IBMT members receive in the post. Non-members have to wait until another issue is published before the previous issue is posted on this website. The article was written in 1975 by International Brigader Frank Farr, then living in London, though previously from Leicester. Unpublished until now, it is in the IBMT Archive at the Marx Memorial Library in London. Farr’s papers, including a diary of his time in Spain, were donated to the Trust in 2016 by his family. His article appears to have been written with the intention of it being published in Philip Toynbee’s ‘The Distant Drum’, a collection of memoirs about the Spanish Civil War that was published in 1976.

To those of us who came back from Spain at the end of that war to be involved only months later in World War II, the whistle of bullets and the crash of bombs were easily forgotten.

Spain was a low-key war of meagre armament compared with what came later and our memories of it are more of people and politics than battlefields. I went out early, in 1936 with the first British ambulance unit, and came back finally more than two years later with the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade. When I went we were confident of victory against Franco’s army rebellion; when I returned we all knew that the war was lost. But the experiences in between led not so much to disillusionment as to a realistic awareness of what was militarily and politically possible.

Never before has there been such international unity in a single cause. Men of 50 nations made their way to Spain just to take a hand in someone else’s war. Although mainly of the political left, there were men of all parties and none among the volunteers on the Republican side. Only a handful of committed fascists supported Franco in the field, except from the interventionist German and Italian forces.

When I arrived at the Aragon front with the first ambulance unit the line was held by volunteer militia units. They were organised into ‘centurias’ of 100 men each and commanded by centurians elected from their ranks. Everything was idealistically democratic and tactical decisions were taken by rank and file vote after endless discussions.

Frank Farr (centre) in Spain with unidentified companions.

On one occasion when rain turned our crude trenches into muddy ditches, the Spanish centuria on the right flank of the sector voted themselves out of the mud and back to the comparative comfort of the village behind us. The German centuria on their left woke up in the morning to find their flank completely exposed. If the fascists facing us had known, they could have walked right through the lines without hindrance.

From this sort of anarchy to the organisation of a trained and disciplined army was a long step and it was not fully completed when the war ended. It looked strange to us to see huge posters around, well into the second year of the war, saying: ‘The People’s Army is necessary’. It seemed obvious to us. But to the Spanish anarchist and syndicalist elements the idea was not easy to swallow. Military organisation and discipline were alien to their ultra-democratic ideals.

When the International Brigades were formed, divided mainly into language groups, they set comparatively high standards of discipline. But cooperation with the new People’s Army was bedevilled by political divisions and jealousies. The Internationals always felt that they got less than their fair share of help from the over-stretched supporting arms, aircraft, tanks and artillery, to say nothing of simple small arms ammunition.

After I had left the ambulances to join the Brigade in the last year of the war I found the [British] Battalion about 80 per cent composed of raw young recruits straight out of home. For two or three weeks we camped around the countryside armed with quite good new Czech rifles but no ammunition at all. Then we handed them in and received a consignment of ‘Mexicanskis’ plus ammunition. Training consisted of firing five rounds per man. Then we went into our first action at Gandesa and the new rifles got hot and jammed in the first few minutes of firing.

This was my first and last action as an infantryman. I was wounded, spent three months in hospital, nearly died of typhoid and associated illnesses, and finished up in the central barracks outside Barcelona as comisario de guerra for all the XVth, a post carrying duties a cross between adjutant and chaplain to all members of the Brigade passing through, from new recruits to wounded coming out of hospitals and back into the line.

By this time the depleted ranks of the Internationals were being filled up with Spanish conscripts. They were not too keen to go to war and, despite the strident propaganda designed to keep up morale, few of them believed any longer that the Republic could win.

Our own men, too, were war weary and thinking only of getting home alive. Pep talks by political activists met a cynical reception and a distribution of cigarettes seemed more important than a battle. It was not until we came home, excited and happy, that we realised what a great historical event we had taken part in. Those huge cheering crowds at Victoria Station when we came off the train, the bands and banners, hysterical relatives and spontaneous public reactions woke us up to the fact that we represented far more in the political arena than our puny numbers had meant in the battlefield.

Only much later on, after serving in London through the Blitz and then in North Africa and Italy, did I realise fully what we had lacked in Spain in the way of organisation, equipment and sheer military experience. Looking back on it I would not have missed the Spanish experience for anything. The friends I made and lost alone made it worthwhile. But if such a situation arose again I could not honestly encourage my son and his contemporaries to go. Soldiering is for soldiers, not for enthusiastic amateurs.

Posted on 31 May 2017.