Objects from the front

Post date: 10/08/2022

Showcased here are photos and objects from the Spanish Civil War brought back by London International Brigader William Leonard Wilson, discovered by his son Joseph Wilson. This piece originally appeared in ¡No Pasaran! 2-2022.

The majority of International Brigaders did not keep journals and only a few went on to write memoirs. What most of those who returned did have, however, were objects of their time in Spain, and objects tell stories.

Last year Joseph Wilson sent the IBMT pictures of a set of items belonging to his father, William Leonard Wilson, a painter from south London who went to Spain in December 1936 to fight fascism. The set includes scraps of photographs where he is pictured with other volunteers, a Christmas card sent to the British Battalion, a five peseta coin stamped with his name, and more. 

Wilson had a strong record in Spain. He was initially involved in the No. 1 Company of the La Marseillaise Battalion in the 14th International Brigade, a contingent of British volunteers within a French-speaking Brigade. This was prior to the formation of the British Battalion in January 1937. He is reported to have served at Brunete and Aragón in the British Anti-Tank Battery, a unit known for its high morale and respected status. He survived the civil war, was repatriated and lived the rest of his life in south London, passing away in Peckham aged 58. 

Identifying who is pictured in the photos and what each of the objects are would reveal more about Wilson and his comrades. Considering just the Christmas card: Joseph Wilson has pointed out that it proves that his father did not leave Spain in late 1937, as was previously thought, but served until at least the spring of 1938. The card is one of those sent to members of the British Battalion during that Christmas and New Year period, signed by Communist Party of Britain General Secretary Harry Pollitt and accompanied by parcels containing treats, toiletries and a pair of Penguin novels.

A closer look reveals a number of other signatures have been added to it, either in transit or after it arrived. These include some of Wilson’s comrades from Britain, who also appended where they were from and what organisations they belonged to, such as the Communist Party, Young Communist League, South Wales Miners’ Federation and National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. We can verify that the following names listed were British Battalion volunteers: Robert Walker and James Rutherford from Edinburgh, Paul Lewis, John H Baker and John Riordan from London, John Ness and Thomas White from Dundee and Thomas Glynn Evans and Thomas Picton from South Wales.

A few volunteers from other countries also seem to have signed Wilson’s card. These include Lincoln Battalion volunteers Curley Kramer (also known as Samuel Mendelowitz) of New York City, Sam Toole of Arlington, Kentucky and Chi Chang of Minnesota – originally from Hunan, China and one of two Chinese among the American volunteers. There is also a volunteer who marks his homeland as the USSR, but whose name is illegible. 

Perhaps the most recognisable names on the card are those on the front: beneath Wilson’s name and Pollitt’s signature is that of Paul Robeson, the pioneering African-American singer, actor and civil-rights activist. An ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades, Robeson spoke at a rally in London’s Albert Hall, attacking the British government’s non-intervention policy in December of 1937. He then went on a tour of Spain in January 1938, accompanied by his wife Eslanda Goode and prominent British communist campaigner Charlotte Haldane, who played an important role in establishing the International Brigade Dependants and Wounded Aid Committee. Haldane’s name appears underneath Robeson’s. The last of the identifiable signatures is that of Captain Fernando Castillo –assigned as Robeson’s military escort during his time in Spain.

If you are able to identify the people in Wilson’s photos or the provenance of his objects, please contact IBMT Executive Officer Ajmal Waqif at admin(at)

Posted on 10 August 2022.

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