Margaret Powell: from Llangenny to Poleñino, and beyond

Post date: 29/07/2022

Margaret Powell (1913-1990) was a Welsh nurse, born in the village of Llangenny, who volunteered in support of the Spanish Republic in the civil war. She served in Aragón over the winter of 1937-1938 and in Barcelona for the rest of the conflict. She was one of the last British International Brigade nurses to leave Spain. After the war she married Brigader Sam Lesser. Her profession and political commitments led her to travel and aid refugees during the Second World War and work in Moscow in the 1950s.

The following excerpt is taken from a new biography written by Powell’s daughter Ruth Muller and gives an account of her medical service in the village of Poleñino, on the Aragón front. ‘Margaret Powell: An Extraordinary Life’ (2022) is published by Crickhowell District Archive Centre and available here.

‘One night we were called by one of the village girls with cries of “Ambulancia” and we were overwhelmed with shocked and wounded men. I had been detailed, during a rehearsal for such an occasion, to look after the wards and the wounded. Who made that mistake? Two nurses in the operating room and only one in the wards! They were put into bed with their clothes and, mostly, bloody boots still on. I didn’t know who to let die first. I started to look after an older man but he made me see to a younger man across the room. I proceeded to do this and as I held up the container of blood for a transfusion I saw the older man die. The young one screamed – they were brothers. The older one was the regiment’s commissar. I wanted  to run away.

‘We had a few Franco prisoners. One of them, about 18, wore an enormous ring bearing the symbol of the fascists. He would not let me touch him. He needed a transfusion and died vehemently refusing it. I’m glad I didn’t waste it on him. At least while we were in Poleñino we had a refrigerator and could store the blood. Away from [the village] all we could do was to behave like vampires. We waylaid lorry drivers going back and forth to the front, grouped their blood and took a pint of it. All the donors got was a swig of rum.’

British nurses at the Poleniño hospital, May 1937. Back row, from left: Margaret Powell, Susan Sutor, Anne Murray and Patience Darton; seated: Agnes Hodgson and Mary Slater.

These extracts come from a short memoir that Margaret wrote in July 1980, after ‘being threatened by my daughter with a tape recorder.’...Two of the things that Margaret left out of her own ‘memoir’ was the fact that one day she almost died herself as blood was being directly transferred (in an emergency) from her arm into a patient; everyone was so thrilled to see the man recovering before their eyes that they quite forgot about her! And also that it was in Barcelona, then being bombed several times a day, when she was working at Hospital No. 7 in the city during a short break from the battle front, that she met the man she would eventually marry thirteen years later…

Margaret also didn’t write about the fact that she was part of the mass of refugees fleeing to the French frontier at the end of January 1939 as Franco’s forces were taking Barcelona – the term used for this event being La Retirada. For a time during that month, and in December, she and her medical unit were working in atrocious conditions in the snow of the winter-blighted Pyrenees, sometimes low in the foothills and at other times higher up. Eventually they had to flee and Margaret recalled being on a road with thousands of others, the majority women and children, when, hearing and feeling the sound and vibrations of a very low flying plane, she looked up – and saw opening bomb doors with a device already rolling out. She was unable to move, fixated by the deadly cargo about to hurtle towards her, and many minutes seemed to pass before someone grabbed her legs and pulled her into a ditch.

Posted on 28 July 2022.

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