'Travesty' of a review in The Observer

Post date: 12/10/2020

The International Brigades, a Red Army Colonel and ‘The Mason’s Apron’ 


IBMT Ireland Secretary Manus O’Riordan  writes…


Guardian Newspapers has published two reviews of the new book by Giles Tremlett, ‘The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War’. 


On Saturday 3 October, The Guardian’s review by Dan Hancox gave the following misleading impression: ‘The brigades drew an astonishing array of international literary figures – Orwell, Hemingway, Spender, Auden’. None of these were International Brigaders. Only one of them was at all in combat, but it was with the POUM [revolutionary pro-Trotskyists] that George Orwell had enlisted. In fairness, the Hancox review was well intentioned, and he had the good grace to remove a first line howler that it had initially carried: ‘This article was amended on 3 October 2020 to remove a reference to the Spanish Communist La Pasionaria also being an opera singer.’ 


See here for Hancox's review. 


In The Guardian’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, the review was a rather different affair, where its ignorance is but one component in a particularly nasty anti-communist diatribe. 


See here for this review by Paul Mason, who writes of the Battle of Jarama: ‘For the English Speaking Battalion, so named to assuage the former IRA men who were among its few skilled fighters, the baptism of fire was to be brutal... After a three-day retreat, in which all but 80 were either killed or wounded, a Red Army colonel persuaded the stragglers to march back towards the enemy, singing the Internationale.’



There was no such entity entitled ‘the English Speaking Battalion’. There were indeed several English speaking (lower case) battalions, respectively named the British Battalion, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (USA) and the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion (Canada), with IRA veterans fighting in all three. And the Irish International Brigade leader, Major Frank Ryan, was no Red Army colonel. 


See here for my graveside oration at the Frank Ryan commemoration held by the International Brigade Memorial Trust in October 2005, where I highlighted how, in February 1937, it had been Frank Ryan who had rallied Brigadistas at Jarama with ‘The Internationale’. Ryan's great rally had been powerfully inspirational as a deed in its own right. But it was no less inspirational in the way that he himself went on to recount it in 1938 in ‘The Book of the Fifteenth Brigade’: 


'On the road from Chinchon to Madrid, the road along which we had marched to the attack three days before, were now scattered all who survived – a few hundred Britons, Irish and Spaniards… I recognised the young Commissar of the Spanish Company. His hand bloody where a bullet had grazed the palm, he was fumbling nevertheless with his automatic, in turn threatening and pleading with his men. I got Manuel to calm him, and to tell him we would rally everybody in a moment. As I walked along the road to see how many men we had, I found myself deciding that we should go back up the line of the road to San Martín de la Vega, and take the Moors on their left flank…


Up the road towards the cook-house I saw Jock Cunningham assembling another crowd. We hurried up, joined forces. Together we two marched at the head. Whatever popular writers may say, neither your Briton nor your Irishman is an exuberant type. Demonstrativeness is not his dominating trait. The crowd behind us was marching silently. The thoughts in their minds could not be inspiring ones. I remembered a trick of the old days when we were holding banned demonstrations. I jerked my head back: ‘Sing up, ye sons o’ guns!’ Quaveringly at first, then more lustily, then in one resounding chant the song rose from the ranks. Bent backs straightened: tired legs thumped sturdily; what had been a routed rabble marched to battle again as proudly as they had done three days before. And the valley resounded to their singing: 

"Then comrades, come rally,

And the last night let us face;

The Internationale

Unites the human race" 


On we marched, back up the road, nearer and nearer to the front. Stragglers still in retreat down the slopes stopped in amazement, changed direction and ran to join us; men lying exhausted on the roadside jumped up, cheered, and joined the ranks…'


Mason’s review is nothing but a travesty. What is particularly insufferable is the arrogance of invincible ignorance. ‘The Mason's Apron’ is a traditional Irish fiddle tune. Well might its name be applied to Guardian Newspapers. 



Ernest Hemingway (left), a sympathiser with the Spanish Republic, but not an International Brigader, and Major Frank Ryan, International Brigader, but not a Red Army Colonel. 



Blame for Republic’s defeat lies closer to home


Text of a letter sent to The Observer by IBMT Chair Jim Jump…


Anyone reading Paul Mason’s review (published online on 6 October) of Giles Tremlett’s book, ‘The International Brigades’, might be forgiven for concluding that the Spanish Civil War was a conflict between Stalin-backed communists on one side and General Franco, helped by Hitler and Mussolini, on the other. They might also think that the Spanish Republic was defeated because of disorganisation, demoralisation and the conduct of Soviet personnel.


The whole truth is much closer to home. Behind the veil of so-called non-intervention, the British government prevented the Republic from buying arms, oil and other essentials. Why else did the British Battalion of the International Brigades enter the Jarama inferno poorly equipped and suffer ‘senseless losses’? 


Such was the anti-left hostility of Baldwin and Chamberlain and their eagerness to appease the dictators that they were happy to see democracy crushed in Spain. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that without the arms embargo there would have been no need for the International Brigades, nor for Stalin to be asked for help by a desperate government.


The Spanish Republic faced many enemies, overt and covert, as well as a challenge to its authority from revolutionaries that no wartime government would have tolerated. Orwell and others may have enjoyed indulging their revolutionary fantasies, but there was only one way that fascism could ever have been defeated in Spain: on the battlefield by a proper army. Those who volunteered for the International Brigades understood this well enough. As Paul Mason acknowledges, we should remember their courage and sacrifice, including those 526 men and women from Britain and Ireland who gave their lives.


Posted on 12 October 2020.

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