Reassessing the military strength of the Brigades

Post date: 10/02/2021

Alex Clifford at the launch of his previous book, 'The People's Army in the Spanish Civil War'.

Alexander Clifford’s most recent book on the International Brigades, ‘Fighting for Spain’, was published late last year by Pen & Sword. It follows his last book, a study of the People’s Army of Republican Spain, which received a positive review in the May 2020 issue of ¡No Pasarán!.

While a lot of comprehensive work has been done on the political, social and cultural significance of the Brigades, such as Giles Tremlett’s recent comprehensive study (reviewed by Jim Jump in ¡No Pasarán! 1-2021 and Manus O’Riordan here) less has been said about their performance as front-line troops. It is this military history, according to the author, that ‘Fighting for Spain’ focuses on in detail, through documents and vivid illustrations.

Clifford, who is a Newcastle-based IBMT member, looks at the foundation and recruitment of the International Brigades, as well as their training, discipline and motivation. Using Soviet and Comintern documents, the reports of a US military attaché, journalists’ accounts, and of course the writings of the volunteers themselves, the book tells the story of the brigades as combat units, tracing the course of each major battle in which they fought and showing the drastic changes they underwent as the war progressed.

Little more than an untrained polyglot militia in 1936, by 1937 many International units had become tried and tested shock troops. However, repeated maulings during the war’s bloodiest battles saw the Brigades reduced to a shadow of their former selves by 1938 and the introduction of Spanish conscripts to fill their ranks damaged cohesion and combat effectiveness. 

‘Fighting for Spain: The International Brigades in the Civil War 1936-1939’ is available now from Pen & Sword publishers.

This new book is likely to be welcomed by International Brigade historians and enthusiasts. Richard Baxell, IBMT Historical Consultant and historian of the British Battalion, believes it’s an excellent addition to the literature: ‘Accessible and well written, backed up with useful maps and images, it includes a wealth of information on the formation and composition of the Brigades and their role during the war.’ 

While many historians have picked up on reports of demoralisation and desertion, what is most remarkable is that the majority of volunteers kept on fighting right up to their withdrawal in September 1938, demonstrating valour and a spirit of sacrifice on a par with the finest troops in the People’s Army. Clifford challenges previous dismissals of the International Brigades’ military impact and counters claims they were primarily a propaganda tool through a close study of their battlefield contribution. A review of the book is forthcoming in a future issue of ¡No Pasarán!.


Posted on 10 February 2021.

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