Len Crome Memorial Conference 2020: An introduction to Scotland and the Spanish Civil War

Post date: 20/02/2020

This year’s annual IBMT Len Crome Memorial Conference will be held at the alma mater of its namesake, the University of Edinburgh on Saturday 21 March. Tickets to the conference can be booked here. IBMT Scotland Secretary Mike Arnott gives a taster of what to expect at the conference with an outline on the impact of the Spanish Civil War on Scotland.

The principles of social justice, health, education, women’s and workers’ rights, on which the fledgling 1931 Spanish Republic was based, chimed loudly with progressives around Europe and beyond. But it was these principles which were to come under brutal assault by Spain’s forces of reaction, including the army and the Catholic Church. It was also these principles, as well as the recognition that Spain was perhaps a prelude to another world war, which drew many from the politicised working-class to the ranks of the International Brigades, formed by the Comintern in the autumn of 1936. Scotland’s working-class was no different.


The vast majority of the 549 Scots who volunteered were working-class and mostly communists, some already blooded in fighting fascism at home, such as in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall or on Aberdeen’s Castlegait. Glasgow-born Jock Cunningham, Aberdonian Bob Cooney and nurse Annie Murray were amongst the Scots who became rightly renowned for their leading roles in Spain. But it is within the lived experiences of the unheralded fighters, nurses and the Aid Spain volunteers on the home front where revealing, untold stories can be found. 


Accounts of the Scots in Spain, from Ian MacDougall’s ‘Scottish Voices from the Spanish Civil War’ to Dan Gray’s ‘Homage to Caledonia’ and STV’s documentary ‘The Scots who Fought Franco’, all combine to present a group portrait of those involved. Forged in austerity, on hunger marches and in street battles with the Blackshirts, the honesty and sincerity of their witness resonates across the years. These are not the dupes of Moscow or the Stalinist dogmatists portrayed by lazy historians or those with an axe to grind. These are humane, often funny, free willed but disciplined individuals, full of life and optimism, all driven by a desire to defeat fascism. Many more joined the largest community-based international solidarity movement the country had ever seen. From beetle drives in elegant Edinburgh terraces to collection prams pushed around the cobbled pit rows of Fife and Lanarkshire, money, food, bandages and clothes poured in. 

Len Crome, born Lazar Krom in the Russian Empire, moved to Edinburgh to study and qualified as a doctor in 1934. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he volunteered with the Scottish Ambulance Unit and then joined the International Brigades. He became Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division and of the 15th Army Corps. The IBMT’s annual conference is named in his honour.

The first organised group to leave for Spain was actually the Scottish Ambulance Unit, organised by a former Glasgow Lord Provost, Sir Daniel Stevenson. On 17 September 1936, six ambulances, a supply lorry and male and female medical and support staff left George Square in the city. One of the drivers, Thomas Watters, would become the last surviving Scot who served in Spain, dying aged 99 in February 2012. The diary of one of his fellow SAU volunteers, Donald Gallie, has just been published by Sussex Academic Press, edited by his daughter.


The military volunteers followed, building in number as Christmas 1936 approached. In all more than 200 from Glasgow and over 60 from Dundee made up half of those who were to go from Scotland, the last not leaving Scotland until April 1938 when the bad tidings from the front line must have been known to them. One of these, a teenage Steve Fullarton, was the last Scottish combatant to die, in February 2008. Four volunteered from his street alone in Shettleston in Glasgow. A few were involved in the late 1936 fighting around Madrid, but all of Britain and Ireland’s volunteers in Spain were brought together at Albacete following Christmas that year to join the new arrivals who would form the new British Battalion. They left for the front line, 600 strong, in early February 1937, to Jarama.


Since 2011, a memorial to the 39 Scots Brigaders who fell at Jarama has stood in the cemetery of the town of Tarancón in Spain, where some of those remembered died in the hospitals of the Republican medical services. It is a touching coincidence that Len Crome served as a doctor in Tarancón. Every year, as part of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI) annual Jarama commemoration, hundreds who gather at the memorial also learn about those medical services and about a local campaign to preserve one of the original hospital buildings. This has attracted wide support from locals and visitors alike.


As many fell in the successive battles: Brunete, Teruel, Gandesa, Caspe and the Ebro, more arrived, but in fewer numbers. Eventually, in September 1938, the Brigaders were withdrawn and arrived back in the UK in December that year. They left over 120 Scots behind, to rest forever in Spanish soil. The words of Dundonian Mary Brooksbank’s poem ‘Graves of Spain’ recall how their sacrifice was remembered at the time; ‘Tread softly, señoritas, o’er their lonely graves, / Spaniards mute your voices for our dead; / Stars shine steadfast, eternal vigil keep, / Light soft the soil around each valiant head.’

Scottish Brigaders at a reunion in Glasgow, 1986. From left: Eddie Brown, Phil Gillan, George Murray, George Drever and Steve Fullarton.

In the years since the end of the civil war, physical memorials to that same sacrifice have arisen across Scotland: from those almost epic in their scale, at Glasgow and Motherwell, to iconic symbols in small communities, such as Renton’s famous Spanish bull, they act to this day as focal points for the growing numbers of annual commemorations that continue to populate the calendar. Dundee in February, Edinburgh in April, Renton in May, Motherwell in July, Glasgow, Irvine and Kirkcaldy in September.


Popular culture has also celebrated the legacy, with last year’s play ‘549 Scots of the Spanish Civil War’ by Wonder Fools joining the Maley brothers’ ‘From the Calton to Catalonia’ from the previous generation to create a proud theatre tradition inspired by the Scots Brigaders. In music, the Lanarkshire Songwriters continue a fine tradition stretching back through Ewan McColl to Glasgow Brigader Alex McDade, who penned the original lyrics of ‘Jarama Valley’.


Consider this a taster and a hearty invitation to join us in the hallowed precincts of Edinburgh University where the young Mr Crome became Dr Len Crome.



Posted on 20 February 2020.

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