Robert Hargreaves on Manchester volunteer Thomas ‘Tommy’ Moore …
It's comforting to think that Tommy Moore’s 22nd birthday on Boxing Day, 1937 was, in all probability, a happy one – although it was to be his last.
As a member of the XV International Brigade, fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he was part of a recently re-equipped and re-formed British Battalion, temporarily based at Mondajar, not far from Madrid, awaiting further orders. Despite General Franco’s success in northern Spain, with the capture of the Basque country, there were grounds for optimism on the Republican side: partly because of the brave sacrifices of the International Brigades, Franco had been unable to take Madrid, and the Republic was ever hopeful that the British and French governments would intervene to help combat the help being given to Franco, in the form of guns and planes supplied by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
Harry Pollitt, as general secretary of the British Communist Party, turned up with Christmas puddings and letters and comforts sent from home, and American singer Paul Robeson also visited Mondajar to rally the troops. On top of that, news from the Aragon front, where Spanish troops had recaptured the town of Teruel was encouraging. Could this be the turning point of the war?
But within a month, the situation had changed desperately. Franco’s counter-attack at Teruel began three days after Tommy’s birthday, and in response, the XI and XV Brigades were ordered into action. Fighting alongside Germans, French and Canadian companies the British were sent to defend high ground north of the town, at a place called Cuevas Labradas, only to be engulfed in blizzards and the bitterest cold weather that Aragon had experienced for 20 years, with temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero! Frostbite, as well as enemy action, took a terrible toll.
All the Brigades fought bravely. Despite being dive-bombed by German and Italian planes, and outgunned by superior mortar fire, the British were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Nationalists – and thanks to lessons learned earlier in the war – they were able to carry out an organised retreat, minimising casualties. General Modesto, in overall command of Republican forces paid tribute to their bravery and ability.
As Franco’s forces advanced, the Brigades made a heroic defensive stand in the last week of January. Tommy, a cabinet maker from Salford, with Ancoats connections, was among the 20-odd members of the British Battalion who fell before Teruel was recaptured in mid-February. A comrade described how Tommy was killed manning a light machine gun, covering his comrades’ retreat; the family grave says he died on January 24; other records say January 21 – 86 years ago.
The Moore family grave.
Ironically, the battle was indeed a turning point, alas portending eventual fascist victory. But the Republic fought on and ensured that Franco paid a heavy price. And it was at Teruel that the exceptional ability of another Mancunian volunteer came to the fore. When Bill Alexander was wounded, Ancoats lad Sam Wild took over as commanding officer, and thanks to his mastery of tactics, the British remained an effective fighting force, until the International Brigades were withdrawn from the line in October 1938.
Twenty yards away from the Moore family grave lies the body of Pte B Horobin, killed in France in 1940. His body lies beneath an official war grave. Of course, no such honour was accorded to Tommy Moore. But they were fighting for the same cause – the defeat of fascism and the vanquishment of evil.
When they got home, surviving Brigaders customarily visited relatives of those who would never return. One veteran of Teruel recalled how he felt utterly helpless in the face of a mother questioning him, and wanting to know if her son had a proper funeral and a decent coffin. How could he ever explain the horror of battle?
Tommy Moore, like nearly all Brigaders, lies in an unknown grave – but thanks to his proud father who provided for the inscription on his own grave, he will never be forgotten.