Poet and playwright Bob Beagrie introduces his poem about the death of Walter Tapsell on 1 April 1938.
Over the past few months I have been writing a sequence of poems inspired by events during the Spanish Civil War. While trying to commemorate the revolution, the resistance to fascism and the support given to the Republic by the International Brigade, it also seeks to act as a lens through which to view some of the civic tensions, political corruptions and rising populism, the cultural divisions and social unrest and the worrying slide toward authoritarianism we are currently witnessing in the UK. I hope to produce enough material to produce a chapbook of poems on the subject.
The poem ‘There’s Wally’ was inspired by reading the developing manuscript of ‘I Sing of My Comrades’ by Tony Fox, which is due to be published in late 2021 as a booklet to accompany the unveiling of the Stockton memorial to the eight members of the International Brigade from Stockton-on-Tees. The campaign for the memorial is ongoing and can be supported via: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/stocktonbrigaders
Walter Thomas Leo ‘Wally’ Tapsell.
Whilst I found the whole manuscript highly informative and based on a wealth of research, providing a valuable overview of the conflict from the perspective of the volunteers from the town, I was particularly struck by one particular incident which occurred during the Aragon Offensive. On 31 March 1938, during the Battle of Belchite the British Battalion was being escorted to their forward positions and came across a group of six tanks which the men mistook for Republican tanks.
We were soon disillusioned. With terrifying suddenness the tanks opened fire on us. Another group of tanks emerged from the wood on the right, and simultaneously hoards of Italian infantry appeared yelling their heads off. It was a shambles!
– ‘Proud Journey’ by Bob Cooney
The account goes on to describe how Wally Tapsell, the British Battalion commissar, was shot immediately by a fascist officer in the first tank.
The British managed to return fire, some men tried throwing empty cans, in an attempt to fool the tank crew that they had grenades, this gave enough respite for the Battalion to scatter. The men made their way back to Republican lines in small groups: Walter Gregory led one group, Malcolm Dunbar another, Lewis Clive led a handful of men who took several days to make their way back, Bob Cooney had been captured initially but managed to escape with another handful of men.
– ‘I Sing of My Comrades’ – Tony Fox
The death of Wally Tapsell, like all the losses incurred during the conflict is tragic. However, it struck me that this incident and the flight back to Republican lines would make a strong and dramatic screenplay, one that could capture the psychologies and backstories of the men involved and convey so much of the overall war and the involvement of the International Brigaders.
I was reminded of the way the Sam Mendes film ‘1917’ focusses upon the seemingly impossible journey of Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake into enemy territory to deliver a message aimed at saving 1,600 of their comrades. The incidents and encounters involved in their mission act as a macroscopic lens through which to view the broader conflict.
Could a script about the journey of Lewis Clive and the handful of men with him work in a similar fashion? It is certainly something I would like to work towards. However, in an attempt to begin a rudimentary exploration of the ambush I focussed it into a poem, trying to use each line as a cinematic style close-up of accumulating details, which paint a bigger picture and capture the shock, drama and tragedy of the event.
The pictorial nature of the poem led to the conceit of using the refrain ‘There is the…’ which renders the event in a kind of fixed eternal moment, one which we might view from afar, study intensely but never fully understand.
I realised the approach bore similarities to illustration and remembered the children’s ‘Where’s Wally?’ picture puzzle books by English illustrator Martin Handford. These books ask the reader to locate ‘Wally’ among the extraneous details and other figures within a certain location.
Tapsell (second from right) with, among others, from left, Hookey Walker, Vladimir Copic (fourth from left), Bill Rust, Harry Pollitt, Malcolm Dunbar and Fred Copeman and, on right, Bill Alexander.
The connection between Wally Tapsell and Handford’s ‘Wally’ is meant to be one of ironic tragedy given the poem begins with Tapsell’s sudden death, described using the simile of the bull at the hora de la verdad, a sacrificial bull at ‘the moment of truth’ in a bullfight, when the matador makes the killing thrust of his sword between the horns.
From there each line expands upon the scene but also attempts to break out from this moment by referring to the soldiers as ‘boys ducking and diving as if caught oggy-raiding’, suggesting innocence and its loss, possible common experiences of childhood, trespass and landownership, while ‘Lewis Clive barking orders like a starting gun’ hints at his sporting achievements as a gold medal winning rower in the 1932 Olympics.
The poem tries to capture the ‘shambles’ and panic of the situation and towards the end returns to focus upon the prostrate, still body of Wally Tapsell and the necessity to leave him if they are to survive the ambush and avoid capture.
There is a great deal more research I need to conduct to explore the reactions and consequences of the ambush and how the survivors evaded capture and made it back to Republican lines. But the poem works as a snapshot of the event and hopefully a way into the subject matter for the development of a screenplay.
There is Wally toppling like toro in the hora de la verdad
There’s the dead glare in his eyes even before he hits the ground
There is the small cloud of gun smoke from the barrel of the pistol
There is the rosette bullet hole flowering in the soil of his flesh
There’s the stricken, disbelieving stare of his comrades in ideals
There is the turret of the tank from which the shot was fired
There is the flush of panic in the faces of the ambushed Brigaders
There is the frantic, headless chicken-run as realisation kicks in
There are the boys ducking and diving as if caught oggy-raiding
There is the sporadic yell and splutter of hastily returned fire
There are the Italian infantrymen emerging from the tree line
There are the British throwing tins of food as if they were renades
There is Lewis Clive barking orders like a starting gun, ‘Regroup! Retreat!’
There is the scatter and scramble for escape into the woodlands
There is Bob Cooney shouting, ‘I thought they were ours!’
There is Malcolm Dunbar dragging Bob behind a tree trunk
There is Bob insisting they can’t leave their Commissar like that
There is Malcolm pointing at Wally Tapsell lying still in the dirt
There’s his voice saying, ‘He’s gone! Now run! Run, or we’re done!’
Posted on 24 October 2020.