The promise of the British Battalion

Post date: 24/03/2023

This excerpt is reproduced from the British Battalion souvenir booklet, published and sold by the International Brigade Wounded and Dependants’ Aid Committee for the first British Battalion memorial meeting held on 8 January 1939 a few months after the British volunteers’ return. The author contrasts the urgency of what they experienced in Spain with the malaise and complacency of England, warning the English of the looming fascist threat.

‘Are you glad to be back?’, they’ve been asking us. ‘You must be glad to be back!’ When you haven’t seen your family and friends for twelve, eighteen, twenty months, of course you’re glad to be back. 

When you have been feeding thinly on duck-peas and lentils, it’s good to have your wife or mother overfeed you. When you have been dodging bullets, shells, and bombs in all weathers, from burning heat to bitter cold, you appreciate a few creature comforts. It’s good to have eggs and bacon for breakfast, and to meet your old pals over a pint in the local.

Yes, that lasts for a few days, and then the novelty dies down. Now the difficulties begin to stick out. What about a job? What about ARP, and the National Register, and Chamberlain selling out one country after another to the very men you have been fighting?

The British Battalion marching from London's Victoria Station after arriving home on 7 December 1938.

‘You should stay in Spain if you want a comfortable life,’ wrote a friend in England to a member of the 15th International Brigade, at the end of the recent crisis. ‘It is impossible to live in England now, the way things are going, and it looks as if in a short time Spain will be the safest corner of Europe.’

But Spain found herself strong enough to fight without the International volunteers, and to show the world that the Spanish people were fighting under no Government’s orders but their own, they withdrew those men that had come to help in their moment of greatest need, and had taught them how to build an army.

And so we English came home to a country that is still enjoying the comforts of peace – a country where you can buy cigarettes, chocolate, milk round any corner, and the sky is not filled with the black wings of fascist aviation.

The contrast was immense. It hit us with a jolt, and when the first days of excitement had passed, it seemed almost a shameful thing for us to be enjoying even these simple comforts when our friends in Spain, who had cheered us on our last march through Barcelona with such a grand warmth and enthusiasm, were at this very moment entering on a winter of privation and hardship worse than we had ever known. 

I spoke to a woman soon after I came back. She said: ‘War is horrible. Why did you have to go and join a war that had nothing to do with you? Why couldn’t you let Spain work out its own troubles by itself? After all, England is different.’ I answered her: ‘If Spain had been left to work out her own troubles from the start, there would have been no need for anybody to go. The Spanish people never wanted fascism, least of all to-day. But, thanks to somebody, those who wished to invade and conquer Spain have been given a free hand to do so, and if you want to know who that somebody is, it’s the man who governs this different England of ours.’

I was angry enough to say a lot more, but the woman hadn’t seen what I had seen. She didn’t really grasp what was going on. I told her how I had listened to Spaniards speaking of the England of Mister Chamberlain, and how for the first time in my life I felt downright ashamed of my country. England is different? Very well, then, England is blind and Spain can see – that’s the difference.

‘Pobre Inglaterra’ runs the text of a song they sing in Spain; ‘Poor England! She tries to cut out throats and only succeeds in cutting her own.’ 

When we left Spain, we promised the Spanish people we would carry on the fight for them at home with at least as much resolution and energy as we had shown on the Spanish battlefields. It wasn’t just a sentimental fancy. We weren’t feeling sentimental, and we aren’t now. It isn’t only that we want to see justice done to a brave and generous people. There are folk in England whom we have loved all our livs, and to see them suffer as we have seen helpless Spaniards suffer, will be worse for us than thte worst we have seen. If the fascists were to conquer Spain, these same horrors, larger, more brutal still, if that is possible, would be creeping nearer and nearer to England.

It must not happen. As long as these men are governing Britain who have not only allowed, but encouraged, the fascists down the road of aggression that ends among the ruins of our own homes, we, the British volunteers of the International Brigades, will fight them. In some ways we have the most difficult actions yet to face. We have changed our front and changed our weapons, that is all.

The promise we made to the people of Spain will be respected. To this we now add another, a promise to the people of Britain. We, who know the horror, the degradation and suffering of war, pledge ourselves to do all in our power to save our own people from it. Our fight for world-peace is carried on now under the flag not of Spanish but British democracy. Those who in the name of ‘government’ are betraying the traditions of democracy sacred to the British people are our enemies. We will fight them in the name of peace, happiness and honour. Those who have not lost their faith and pride in their own country will fight at our side. We will not expect to rest until these men are forced into submission.

This is the promise of the British Battalion to Britain.

Posted on 24 March 2023.

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