The second effort of the 11th International Brigade

Post date: 23/02/2021

Nancy Phillips, US-based IBMT member and contributor to the Friends & Families of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade group, provides the following account of the ‘second effort’ of the 11th International Brigade, when over a thousand volunteers returned to the front line in Spain one last time. With thanks to Reinhardt Silbermann for research help.

Roll call of a unit of the 11th Brigade in the second effort in 1939.


Several years ago I was reading the biography of a German brigadista and came across a phrase I had never heard: the ‘second effort’ (zweiten Versuch). The second effort turned out to be an important part of the history of the 11th Brigade, as I found out from accounts by Brigade members Ludwig Renn and Willi Bredel that were given to me (along with a historic photograph) by Reinhardt Silbermann.

The second effort took place months after the departure of those members of the International Brigades who could go home, and shortly before the fall of Barcelona. The story of the second effort is set out below.

On 23 January 1939, the Spanish government once again called upon the international volunteers to protect the Republic. This time, to protect Spanish refugees as they fled towards France from attacks by Franco’s troops. Thus, members of the reorganized 11th Brigade were faced with the question of their willingness to go into combat again.

According to Ludwig Renn, their numbers had grown to 1,360 Germans, Austrians and Scandinavians, including the lame and others who were physically disabled. Towards evening on 23 January, all brigade members were called to a meeting in a large cafe in La Bisbal. It was far too cramped for over a thousand men. Only a few could sit. The brigade leader sat with others on a small podium where musicians usually played. 

He rose: ‘Comrades! We have called you to a meeting where everyone’s cooperation is required and where we need to hear the opinions of all of you. As you know, the border was opened for a short time. During this time, new weapons arrived. The situation at the front is very serious. Already, the city of Barcelona is threatened. Unusual measures are needed to protect it.

‘You know why Minister-President Negrin agreed with the League of Nations that the international volunteers should be withdrawn. He wanted either to force Hitler and Mussolini to withdraw their troops, or, at least to show their lawlessness to the peoples of the world where law prevails and international treaties are kept. You know further that while our volunteers were withdrawn, Hitler and Mussolini did not withdraw theirs.

‘You know, too, how the French government agreed to our withdrawal because it weakened our cause, but, then, would not let us leave Spain. They have forfeited any right they may have had for us to deal with them. That is why we Internationals are being mobilized again. But not everyone who is here should be forced to serve at the front. We have old, sick and wounded among us. Nobody should be forced. Therefore, I ask you: Do you want to go back to the front voluntarily? Speak up!’

When he had finished, I saw someone climb onto a chair: ‘Comrades! What is this discussion about? Did we come to Spain to hang around in the outback? No, we came to fight! Therefore, when they call us to fight, we go!’

‘Bravo!’ was heard from many voices. Then there began such a din of shouts that only a few could be understood. 

‘We are all going back to the front!’ 

‘Give us lists to sign us in!’

‘Lists are posted at all the entrances!’ shouted the Brigade leader.

In the midst of the din, a voice began to sing the Internationale. Many had tears in their eyes, for these were men who had fought for years and had gone through forced labor, prisons and concentration camps. 

After the song, people crowded to the exits and stood closely around the small tables with the lists. One by one, they approached and signed, mostly in block letters, so that one could read their names without any mistake.

And so began the second effort of the 11th Brigade. 

At the end of January 1939, the battalions of the Brigade, together with the Spanish People’s Army, retreated while conducting defensive battles against the fascists in the Granollers-La Garriga area, north of Barcelona, to the French border. In the last of their battles, the brigadistas protected the flow of half a million Spanish refugees trying to escape to France. 

On 12 February 1939, the 1st Battalion of the 11th Brigade became the last unit of the International Brigades to leave Spanish soil as they crossed the border into France at Perthus.

Posted on 22 February 2021.

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