Women’s crucial efforts in the Spanish Civil War

Post date: 09/03/2016

Historian Angela Jackson remembers the nurses, fighters and spies who were sisters in struggle


IN 2002, I was asked by the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) to give the very first Len Crome Memorial Lecture.


I spoke about a cave hospital in the Spanish civil war and the work of nurses who had gone to Spain to help the Republican people in their fight against Franco. I was especially pleased to have the chance to talk about my research because I had been lucky enough to get to know Dr Len Crome and some of the other International Brigade medical volunteers. Now I could tell more people about the vital role they had played during the war. 


Since then a great deal more research has been done, both on the role of women in the war and on the medical services and the advances they made to save lives, such as in the development of blood transfusions.


This year, at the Len Crome Memorial Conference in Manchester, the IBMT are presenting a programme of four lectures by historians whose recent research has brought to light further insights on women’s interaction with the civil war. Paul Preston, Helen Graham, Linda Palfreeman and Sylvia Martin will be covering aspects of the diversity of women’s work in wartime Spain, from politician to photographer, from secretary to spy.


Years ago I asked a Spanish historian why he didn’t mention women at all in his books on the civil war. He replied: “Because there weren’t any.” I was astonished to think he could say that about a war in which women actually fought at the front, held political office, flew planes, worked in armaments factories, nursed the wounded and, for the first time, were the victims of widespread bombing raids.


Now women’s roles in the war are being recognised by an dedicated conference on the subject. But can historians tell the whole story when it comes to the emotive subject of what life is like in wartime? As the writer of a Spanish civil war novel as well as history books, I don’t believe they can.


Such questions were discussed at the LSE and Canada Blanch-organised event Fact versus Fiction? The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination. It explored the effect of the war on the literary imagination, from George Orwell to the present day and reflect on the challenges of incorporating real events into fiction. 


Sometimes fact and fiction converge to form a potent cocktail. It was the powerful autobiographical novel, Arturo Barea’s The Clash, that first drew my interest to the Spanish civil war. However meeting and listening to real women who had been there during that war enchanted me completely. They were the reason I spent many years researching and writing history books telling of their experiences in wartime Spain.


When writing For Us It Was Heaven, the biography of the English nurse Patience Darton, it often seemed to me that her real-life experiences were the stuff of novels. But when writing my novel Warm Earth, based on the reality of these women’s lives, I felt I could slice like a surgeon with a scalpel to the truth of how it felt to live in the emotional turmoil of war, when what is truly important to us is more clearly defined by the presence of loss.


Telling truths is the work of both historians and novelists: the meticulous research of historians can uncover hidden or forgotten truths. A good novelist can reveal the telling truths that we all might face in our lives.

Warm Earth is now available on Kindle from Amazon. It can be downloaded free from March 12-16 2016 to celebrate the IBMT Len Crome Memorial Conference: Women and the Spanish Civil War. The conference is on March 12 from 11am-5pm at the Manchester Conference Centre, Sackville Street, Manchester, M1 3BB. Entrance is £10 on the door, or book in advance to include lunch at international


This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 8 March 2016:

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