By Marshall Mateer (IBMT Film Coordinator)
Many IBMT members will already know the story of the three garment workers from Stepney in the East End of London – Nat Cohen, Sam Masters and Alec Sheller – trade unionists and members of International Labour Defence and the Communist Party.
They were on a cycling holiday in Spain when, on hearing of the outbreak of fighting in Spain on 17 July 1936, rode straight to Barcelona where they joined the Republican militias.
A few Saturdays ago, as the words of 'The Internationale' rose in the skies above the national memorial on the Southbank, London, the stalwarts of the National Clarion Cycling Club 1895 set off for Dieppe and their marathon commemorative ride through France and on to Spain.
Back in November 1936, during an attack on a heavily fortified enemy position on the Aragon front, both Masters and Cohen were wounded and after treatment in Spain returned to London. Cohen's knee cap was shattered, taking him out of the war, though not away from his activism on the streets of London. Gradually Masters’s wound to the lung healed and he returned to Spain in June 1937, joining the International Brigades at Albecete.
Sam Masters (left), with Ramona Siles García, Nat Cohen and unidentified person,
Sam wrote home from Albacete:
Frankly, I've never felt in my life such love of comrades as here. These boys are the finest, the grandest that I've ever seen in my whole experience of men. When we sing the 'Internationale' together it sounds like Bedlam, but you can't mistake the meaning and their faces are as hard and determined as granite… I go forward, confident that I shall do my duty against the enemies of progress, and that whatever comes the strength of the workers will overcome all opposition in Spain and the rest of the world.
Masters, along with many others, was killed in action under the cruel sun of Brunete in July 1937. Speaking at our 2017 annual commemoration, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, spoke of the thousands who ‘will do whatever it takes for democracy and justice’ – such a person was Sam Masters.
To mark, in a small way, the 80th anniversary of his death, I sent this account of Sam Masters to my Spanish friends and, as we gathered in Jubilee Gardens, Almudena Cros, President of the AABI International Brigades memorial association in Spain, at the memorial event at Brunete on the same day mentioned Sam: ‘We honour the memory of the lnternational Brigades, including Sam Masters and Oliver Law.’
The other say I also received this reply from one of the Spanish Marea Granate expat group we met at the IBMT’s Len Crome Memorial Conference in Manchester in March this year, Almudena Cascales García. However, Almudena didn't write to me, she wrote to Sam, responding to each of the points he made 80 years ago.
I don't know you, but probably a part of me knew you in Spain in 1937 in Albacete. I am sure that in those fields in La Mancha you met somehow my grandpa Vicente, enrolled in the Communist Party, as you were, and that the truthful gravitas and reliable left-wing spirit that was in you, impressed all your comrades fighting for the democracy that was in agony in Spain. Part of your spirit, I am sure, reached all the Spaniards that received your help and that were inspired by you. Singing ‘The Internationale’ together will keep this spirit alive, this love that you felt for the rest of your Spanish and International comrades. My grandpa fought in the civil war, probably with you at some point. He passed on to me so much passion for life, although he did not like to speak about politics in view of all the repression we lived through after the war… his spirit is already in my heart and I keep it for the good and difficult moments in life. From Marea Granate Manchester we preserve your spirit of freedom and democracy and, Sam, we thank you so much for sharing and giving your life for democracy and a better world. Without your ideals Spain would have endured even more.
María Almudena Cascales García
Posted on 10 July 2017.