Pauline Fraser reports from the Harry Dobson memorial weekend in Spain on 23 and 24 September 2023.
In the bright sunshine of a warm September morning, Ray Gleeson, nephew of Welsh Brigader Harry Dobson, unveiled a memorial to his uncle, Harry Dobson, a Welsh miner from the Rhondda, born 9 August 1907. On the plaque, it states that Harry died on 29 July 1938 of wounds received during the Battle of the Ebro.
The new memorial plaque sits alongside those to three Republican soldiers whose bodies lie with Harry’s in the mass graves in the cemetery of the little town of Bisbal de Falset, high up above the Ebro valley.
For Ray Gleeson, it was the culmination and fulfilment of many years of research into his uncle’s history. Ray told us it was his wife Daphne’s determination that had ensured the success of the project.
The memorial plaque to Harry Dobson in Spain (photo: Nation.Cymru).
Harry Dobson was active in the trade union movement and against fascism in Wales. On leaving Swansea prison, following his arrest at an anti-fascist demonstration in Tonypandy in 1936, he asked: ‘How do I get to Spain’?*
Local people, as well as visitors from Wales and other parts of the UK, packed the cemetery to hear Ray’s eulogy for his uncle. Also speaking at the unveiling were the current mayor of Bisbal, Óscar Vidal Rodríguez, and Enric Masip Gorgori, former mayor and first communist elected to that office after Franco’s death. Enric now runs a website on the local history of the Republican forces at the Battle of the Ebro: https://www.això-va-passar.eu/
Following the ceremony, a convoy of vehicles took many of those assembled to the nearby Cave of Santa Lucia, where an emergency field hospital was set up during the Battle of the Ebro. It was there that the severely wounded Harry Dobson was taken at the same time that Leah Manning, of the Spanish MedicalAid Committee, SMAC, was visiting.
In her report of 31 July 1938 to SMAC she wrote: ‘As I stoodby he [Harry Dobson] opened his eyes and spoke my name. I recognised him as a comrade whom I had met at a by-election in South Wales, a miner from Tonypandy named Harry Dobson.’ Doctors thought he might only live a few hours, ‘so I determined to stay with him until the end…..he seemed very happy to have met here. ’A photograph, probably taken by Winifred Bates, shows the sad scene, while Nan Green, in her memoir ‘AChronicleofSmallBeer’, mentions that Leah Manning sat up ‘all night holding the hand of a dying man...’+
The Mayor of Bisbal and Vicenc Villatoro, an eminent journalist who was until recently Director General of MPR, Democratic Memory, made speeches. Then a group of reenactors dressed in military and medical uniforms of the People’s Army brought history back to life. They showed what happened at each stage when wounded soldiers were brought from the front. They even had a ‘hospital dog’, dressed appropriately.
After a fine paella lunch, organised by the local Bisbal council, there was a showing of David Leach’s film, ‘Voices from a Mountain’, telling the story of there-discovery of a memorial to some members of the International Brigades killed at the Ebro. Those memorialised included David Guest and Maurice Miller from the British Battalion. The memorial was hidden away so effectively, that it is unique in Spain to have escaped destruction by Franco’s fascist forces.
Participants then took the ‘scenic route’ from Bisbal along tortuous, winding mountain roads to the Mine of Loussa-Linda Marquita, disused from its original purpose since early in the1930s. When the Second Republic came to power, it was put back to use, first as a school, then as a hospital for the People’s Army during the Battle of the Ebro. Several hundred soldiers were taken there for treatment. It is now being converted into an information centre on the role of the Republican medical services during the Spanish Civil War.
On our visit, a guide took us around the rooms to see exhibits of the equipment used at the time, including those developed for blood transfusions. It is hoped that, with further funding, visitors will be able to access the centre independently. Several interactive posts are already in place to explain the significance of the exhibits in three languages: Catalan, Spanish and English and I found these useful and engaging.
International Brigader Harry Dobson.
The following morning, some of the group took part in a scramble up the hillside to the memorial, from a point near Pinell de Brai, where they paid their respects to those whose names are inscribed on the memorial as well as to all those who died at the Battle of the Ebro. Wendy Lewis, of Cor Cochion, strumming her ukelele, led us inthesinging of ‘Jarama’.
After lunch in the nearby countryside, we had the opportunity to see two of the tunnels where vehicles carrying wounded soldiers would rendezvous for ‘triage’. Medical staff would decide which casualties needed emergency treatment onsite, which could be moved to a hospital behind the lines, and which were beyond hope.
A small group accompanied Mary and Crispin Green to the site where Crispin’s grandfather, George Green, was killed. He died on the penultimate day before the International Brigades were permanently withdrawn from the line.
Crispin spoke very movingly about the impact that George’s death had, not only on his father, Martin, who was only four years old when his father was killed, but subsequently, on the entire Green family. He read out part of Martin’s epic poem ‘Gandesa’. Crispin had prepared a temporary plaque, which was removed from the site after the ceremony for safekeeping and flowers were laid at the spot.
*Quote from Harry Dobson taken from Martin Shipton’s report for ‘Nation–Cymru’
+Quotes from Leah Manning’s report to SMAC taken from public source material held at Warwick University.