A quiet sector of a quiet front: Remembering John Cornford on the 85th anniversary of his death

Post date: 23/12/2021

This month marks the 85th anniversary of the death of communist, poet and International Brigader John Cornford, who fell in combat on 28 December 1936. IBMT member Harry Denton writes about Cornford’s life and untimely death and provides a poem in tribute.

John Cornford was born in Cambridge on 27 December 1915, to Francis, a Trinity College classics professor and Frances Cornford (née Darwin), a renowned poet and granddaughter of Charles Darwin. John’s original birth name was Rupert John, after the esteemed First World War poet and friend of the family Rupert Brooke. Cornford was educated at King’s College School Cambridge, Stowe School and at Trinity College, Cambridge where he read history. He became a communist at an early age and during a brief period of study at the London School of Economics, joined the Young Communist League.

Upon his arrival at Trinity College in the autumn of 1933, Cornford quickly became a galvanising influence within the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS) alongside fellow student and friend James Klugmann. Members of CUSS at the time also included future Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean who were in higher years and Kim Philby who had been CUSS treasurer in 1932. The darkening political situation across Europe and indeed the world in the 1930s, had the effect of increasing politicisation at Cambridge. Cornford believed that necessary action had to be taken by the people to stop the rise of fascism, end unemployment and prevent the horrors of another world war. He considered that the politicians of the day seemed reluctant and powerless to do anything about such issues. Indeed, his arrival engendered a new sense of resolve and determination into the Cambridge left. Cornford and Klugmann cultivated their fellow students, simplifying the communist message and making it appear attractive to those around them. As part of the Society, he helped to facilitate discussions and organised demonstrations and workers' strikes. This activity coincided with the Communist Party’s decisions to open up its membership to intellectuals and students and to introduce a popular front policy aimed at uniting all those on the left against fascism, war and the ongoing economic depression.

Whilst at Cambridge, John lived openly and fathered a son out of wedlock with a working-class girl, Rachel Peters. He later left Peters and their child to live with fellow Cambridge student Margot Heinemann, who came to be the great love of his life. Heinemann, also a committed Marxist, was as politically active and influential as Cornford himself. She had been motivated to join the Communist Party in response to the rise of the British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosley during the mid 1930s. Cornford, Heinemann and the members of CUSS would go on to support the Hunger Marchers of 1934, who passed through Cambridge on their way to London.

In 1935, Cornford joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), becoming a fully paid up member and acquainting himself with its general secretary Harry Politt. The party was headquartered in King Street, London and saw its membership surge in the mid 1930s.

In July 1936, a fascist backed military uprising led by General Francisco Franco erupted in Spain. The coup failed to succeed in most of the country’s major cities including Madrid and Barcelona, where forces loyal to the democratically elected Spanish Republic and anarchist and trade union columns put up stiff resistance against the rebels. Thus Spain descended into civil war.

Cornford travelled to Spain in the immediate aftermath of the coup, planning  to work as a journalist. Having renounced his previous pacifist stance, he quickly realised that a workers’ revolution could not be achieved without armed conflict. Inspired by the revolutionary fervour in Barcelona that summer (along with the realisation that his limited Spanish would prove an obstacle to any journalistic work), he joined the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) militia to fight against the rebels, who had gained the military support of both Hitler and Mussolini. This, despite both leaders declaring their respective nations, Nazi Germany and Italy, as ‘non-interventionist’. Cornford fought briefly with the semi-Trotskyist POUM at the Aragon front near Huesca. He became increasingly homesick and was frustrated and disenchanted with the organisation of the militia, an outfit that had little in the way of structure or a dedicated chain of command.

He recognised the need to organise the Republican forces, but was wary of the effect that the popular front policy might have in Catalonia which, in the aftermath of the military coup, had developed into a workers’ revolution. He did not wish to see the merits of revolutionary spirit (in the activity of the anarchists, CNT/FAI trade unions and POUM in Barcelona) be swept aside by bringing all forces of the left, including the liberals and middle-class, into an anti-fascist coalition charged by the Communist Party. Nevertheless, Cornford saw that first and foremost, fascism had to be defeated in order to consolidate any possibility of long-term revolution and this meant that effective organisation and procurement of arms were vital. The ultimate initiative came from the Communist Party and Comintern.

Whilst serving with the POUM, Cornford composed three poems that would cement his name in the canon of 20th century poetry. They each provide visceral insights into his political convictions and his thoughts on war; ‘Full Moon At Tierz: Before The Storming Of Huesca’, ‘To Margot Heinemann’ and ‘A Letter From Aragon’, which begins with the powerful lines: ‘This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.’ They also remind readers that their author was still a young man who feared losing his life and the love that he shared with Heinemann in a conflict far from home.

In September 1936 Cornford came home to recuperate after becoming ill at the front. He was reunited with Margot and his family. This however was to be a short stay. He had primarily returned to recruit more anti-fascists for the Republican cause. They would join a number of volunteers already in Spain (including a number of Britons), travelling independently to fight for the Republic. Cornford returned in October with a group which included John Sommerfield, a London based communist and writer, and Bernard Knox, who would eventually become a Harvard and Yale professor in later life. They departed Newhaven harbour for Dieppe, from where they would travel on to Spain. In Paris however, instead of venturing across the border independently, they were directed to join the International Brigades.

Cornford’s group was attached to the machine gun section of the French-led Commune de Paris Battalion in the 11th International Brigade formed in Albacete. They took part in the defence of Madrid in November 1936, fighting against Franco’s forces at University City, the Casa De Campo park and at the Battle of Boadilla. The use of the International Brigades as ‘shock’ troops meant that Cornford’s unit suffered heavy losses in battle. He himself received a severe head wound during the defence of the capital. In December Franco’s forces in the south advanced towards Lopera from Córdoba. Cornford and the survivors of his group were folded into an English-speaking company in the Marseillaise Battalion of the 14th International Brigade and sent to the front. When the Brigade launched its attack on Lopera, Cornford was killed. How he died has never become clear, the main theory being that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet whilst trying to reach a fallen comrade. He died just hours after his 21st  birthday.

From reading his letters one can see how Cornford’s passionate belief in communism and anti-fascism was not simple naïve idealism. He clearly believed that one ‘can’t play at civil war’ and that communism was a serious solution to a serious problem. In the decades since the Spanish Civil War, the profile of Cornford has reinforced the romanticised image of the handsome Cambridge poet running off to war to fight for the security of democracy and freedom, pausing occasionally to write verse between breaks in the fighting. In terms of the International Brigade and its members, he was an anomaly when one compares his presence with the largely working-class dockers, miners, labourers and other union members that made up the international volunteers. Nonetheless, Cornford’s life and legacy remains a beacon of hope and is worth remembering, particularly in light of today’s uncertain times, its divisions and it’s political apathy.

The poet Stephen Spender wrote in a review of Pat Sloan’s 1938 memorial of John Cornford that ‘the fact that Cornford lived and that others like him still live, is an important lesson to the leaders of democracies. It shows that people will live and die and fight for democracy if it gives them the justice and freedom which are worth fighting for.’


John Cornford
By Harry Denton

All it took was the sniper’s aim
To slay this honorary son of Spain
The bullet struck and the boy fell down
To lay still forever on a Lopera mound
His words returned in place of an urn,
No name on a grave in a village church
A life unlived at twenty-one,
A legacy left to a father’s son.

Amongst the men of the Marseillaise,
His Lewis gun trained on the legionnaires,
He felt the fear of bullet and flesh,
Of leaving the front and seeing the end
Of democracy’s final laboured breaths.

As Spender said,
For justice
For freedom,
His death.


Posted on 23 December 2021.

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