Words backed by action

Post date: 18/03/2024

Robert Hargreaves on the inspiring legacy of five brave Brigaders

They were among the first international volunteers to lay down their lives in defence of the Spanish Republic, and the wall plaque at La Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid, remains a moving testament to their sacrifice.

Erected more than 30 years ago, the plaque memorialises Los Cinco Escritores Britanicos, five British writers: Julian Bell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox, Charles Donnelly, and Christopher St John Sprigg, nom de plume Christopher Caudwell. True, Donnelly would have wished to have been remembered as an Irishman, but for Irish, as well as Scottish and Welsh volunteers, being lumped together by Spaniards as Brigadas Inglesas, was a cross they had to bear.

Julian Bell, a poet in the romantic tradition, and nephew of Virginia Woolf, was killed at Brunete, in July 1937, aged 29, serving as an ambulance driver; his best-known poems were published in two anthologies, Winter Movement and Work for Winter. John Cornford, also a poet, and a member of the the POUM militia, was killed in action at Lopera in December 1936 a day after his twenty-first birthday; among his best-known poems are those written in Spain, including Before the Storming of Huesca and A Letter from Aragon. Ralph Fox, a well-known writer of Marxist tracts, and notably a biography of Lenin, was 36 when he was killed at Lopera. A few moments before his death at Jarama on 27 February 1937, Irish Republican poet Charles ‘Charlie’ Donnelly, aged 24, was heard to exclaim: ‘Even the olives are bleeding!’

Rob Hargreaves and Stephanie Turner pay their respects at the plaque to the Five British Writers.

However, the particular focus of IBMT members Rob Hargreaves and Stephanie Turner, on a visit to the plaque during this year’s Jarama commemorations, was Christopher St John Sprigg, who died at Jarama, alongside Clem Beckett, the hero of Rob’s recent biography of the famous speedway star.* They were manning a light machine gun, covering their comrades’ retreat from Suicide Hill.

‘Sprigg was an amazing man’, said Rob. ‘He was the only one of the five not university-educated, but by the time he volunteered for Spain he had written books on literary criticism, physics and aeronautics, as well as detective novels, and, of course, poetry. Two weeks before his death he wrote his last poem, From an English Guest, for Scottish comrades at the Burns Supper in the British Battalion base at Madrigueras.’

In a ceremony arranged by Madrid-based Los Amigos de Brigadas Internationales, Rob and Stephanie were joined by members of the Serbian International Brigades Association, who laid flowers at the plaque. ‘We felt very humbled by their presence’, said Rob, who recited Sprigg’s moving anti-fascist poem. ‘Part of it is in Scots dialect, which was a bit of a challenge for our translator, but it seemed to go down well. The power of words. Like the others, Sprigg was an idealist who backed up his words with action.’

Members of the Serbian International Brigades Association with Rob Hargreaves and Stephanie Turner in Madrid.

Rob added: ‘The plaque was the scene of a re-dedication held under the auspices of the British Council in 1996, attended by Brigaders and friends, including Frank Graham, Vera Graham, Robert Peters, Wallie Togwell, Sam Russell, and Jack Jones. We were very proud to follow in their footsteps.’

* 'Clem Beckett: Motorcycle Legend and War Hero', published by Pen and Sword

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