Finding the brother who fell at the Ebro

Post date: 05/05/2022

Paul and Steve Bennett recall the story of their grandfather Donald and great-uncle Gordon, both International Brigaders from Walsall. Gordon Bennett was killed during the Battle of the Ebro but his body was never recovered. However, Catalan authorities may now be able to identify his remains using DNA testing. This article originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 1-2022.

Gordon ‘Dusty’ Bennett in Spain (front row, third from right).

Paul Bennett: In September 2021 I took an unexpected phone call; my local authority wanted to know if I was related to a Gordon Alexander Bennett. I explained that I was and that he was my great uncle. ‘Did he take part in the Spanish Civil War?’ they asked. After a few background questions from them they explained the reason for their call. Catalan authorities had discovered a number of human remains in a mass grave near Gandesa, in the municipality of Móra d'Ebre. 

It was there on 28 July 1938 that Gordon Bennett, also known as Gordon ‘Dusty’ Bennett, was killed fighting for the Spanish Republic as a member of the International Brigades. He went to Spain alongside his brother Donald Stewart Bennett. Grandfather Don returned to England but great uncle Gordon was lost to our family. The Catalan authorities believe that one set of recovered remains may be that of Gordon.

My brother and I have spent the last 40 years or so trying to work out what happened in those last few days and what had become of Gordon’s body. Finally, it would seem that we may be within touching distance of finding out. I will shortly give my DNA to the researchers at the Catalan authority, in the hope that it matches the human remains that have been found. My brother Steve, who now lives in Spain, takes up the story.


Steve Bennett: When we were kids Paul and I always used to spend our weekends with Don at his apartment. Don was a very understanding man. He was always campaigning for peace; he hated war. I was at that age when you want to know everything and I learned about his time in the US. He was in Washington when the veterans from the First World War converged on the White House to demand the bonus the US government had promised them for their service. The 1934 ‘Bonus March’ garnered a lot of support from all quarters in the US and Don told me that the National Guard were brought in to break up the demonstration, backed with army tanks rolling down Lexington Avenue.

Paul Bennett (left) with his grandfather Don.

I asked him about what happened to Gordon (Don's brother) in Spain – well, I didn't exactly ask but interrogated. I wanted to know every detail. It was very insensitive of me, but when you are a child you don't pick up on these things. So there I was: 'what happened next?', 'then what happened?' and so on. Don told me that he had gone to Spain in late 1936 and trained at the International Brigades headquarters in Albacete. He was a machine gunner leading a group of three auxiliaries. He fought in all the major battles in Spain: Jarama, Madrid, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Aragón, Pozoblanco and the Battle of the Ebro, which is where Gordon was killed.


I continued on, oblivious to his mounting grief, as he told me that Gordon was a rookie and had been teamed up with Don to show him the ropes. I was told that the Maxim machine gun had a guard which bisected the gun triggers and the sights at the end of the water-cooled barrel. The guard came loose, Don couldn't see where he was shooting and Gordon jumped up and tried to force the guard back onto the gun. He flew back over Don. He had a small hole in the front of his chest, and when Don turned him over most of his back had been blown away.

'What did you do next?' I asked. 'Well Steve you gotta understand that we was in a battle. There was this wall behind our nest, so I pulled it over him, weren't no time for grieving, we had to carry on.’ Then to my surprise, Don just broke down sobbing. I felt awful, I began crying as well. 

I learned that sometimes it is diplomatic not to ask for every last detail. He then said: 'War is the most terrible thing invented by man. No movie, no book, nothing can prepare you for war. You shit your trousers and piss yourself with fear. No one knows what is happening – your only thought is base survival. All the time you have the stench of dead corpses, flies everywhere. There is no glory in war.’ I never discussed it with him again. I knew why he would wake up screaming in the middle of the night; why he would sometimes start trembling uncontrollably.

Our story is a sad one, but one that has been replicated thousands, if not millions of times, whenever war raises its ugly head. Both Steve and I have been lifelong campaigners for peace, for trade unions and for socialism. Lessons from history are seldom learned and so when fascism raises its ugly head again let’s hope that, like the International Brigades, many people will answer the call to fight it, in some cases, to the ultimate end.


Posted on 5 May 2022.

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram