Madrid suspends plans to build over mass grave site

Post date: 24/01/2024

An international outcry has forced the Madrid city authorities to freeze plans to build a large rubbish depot on top of the unmarked graves of British and other international volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Among those believed to be buried there is the poet Julian Bell, a nephew of Virginia Woolf and member of the Bloomsbury Group. Bell’s death came while driving an ambulance on 17 July 1937 during fighting around Brunete, west of Madrid.

Bell is among at least four Britons whose bodies were dumped next to Madrid’s Fuencarral cemetery by the victorious Franco forces in 1941.

The site is also thought to contain the remains of:
– Samuel Walsh, a cook from Newcastle, who died on 27 July 1937 from wounds received at Brunete;
– Arnold Jeans, a commercial traveller from Lancashire. He was killed around 23 December 1936 in fighting outside Madrid at Boadilla del Monte;
– Edward Burke, from Croydon, a journalist and Unity Theatre actor. Burke died in a Madrid hospital on 12 February 1937 from wounds sustained in fighting at Lopera, near Córdoba.

The names of Jeans and Burke appear respectively as 'Arnold Gens' and 'Eduard Burken' in a list of the 451 International Brigade fighters buried at Fuencarral compiled by the International Brigade command towards the end of 1937.

The identity of 59 of the others buried there remains unknown. They were listed as 'desconocido' (unknown). So it is possible that this was the final resting place for several other Britons.

Three names are listed as 'inglés' ('English'), but they do not correspond to anyone in the IBMT's records. They are 'Willi Brocon', 'Jordan Lavarraux' and 'William Fraell' (Farrell?).

Julian Bell.

Madrid council’s decision came after protests from the IBMT and memorial groups in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Serbia and the US. These were coordinated by the Madrid-based AABI Friends of the International Brigades.

The IBMT has now been told by the Madrid city council, which is run by Spain’s right-wing Popular Party, that an archaeological survey of the site will take place before any work begins. As required under Spain’s Law of Democratic Memory, the aim will be to confirm whether it is a mass grave of victims of the civil war.

IBMT Chair Jim Jump welcomed the council’s positive response, noting that the remains of more than 500 British and Irish volunteers are scattered in unmarked and mass graves across Spain.

He added: ‘It is important for their dignity and to respect the cause of anti-fascism and democracy which took them to Spain that their resting places are identified and preserved.’

Virginia Woolf was devastated by the death of her nephew Julian Bell, who was a member of the Bloomsbury Group.  The loss inspired her to write the 1938 anti-war essay, ‘Three Guineas’.

Memorial to the International Brigaders buried at Fuencarral cemetery, which was raised by AABI in 2016.

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