Unlikely Warriors

Richard Baxell, Unlikely warriors. The British in the Spanish Civil War and the Struggle Against Fascism (London: Aurum Press, 2012)

Review by Lewis Mates UnlikelyWarriersCov c
The keen interest in the British response to the Spanish Civil War shows no signs of abating. The latest book taking this as its subject is Richard Baxell’s Unlikely warriors, which, as the author explains, is ‘the first to place the Spanish Civil War within the context of the volunteers’ lives, rather than the other way round’. (p.9).

This means the book begins with three contextualising chapters; the first discussing Brigaders’ responses to Britain in depression, to unemployment and the hated Means Test, the second the campaigns against indigenous fascism (especially the British Union of Fascists) and the third considering the debates around the Spanish civil war and various British responses at State and individual level to the conflict.

The final three chapters and epilogue continue the story after Franco had won in Spain, analysing continuing activism on the home front, the impact of the Hitler-Stalin pact and, later, the Communist Party’s controversial decision to deem the war against Hitler an imperialist war that should not be supported (a position it of course reversed after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union).

The other seventeen chapters, however, examine the Spanish Civil War itself, offering a pacy and engaging narrative account of the involvement of Britons in the conflict interspersed with chapters tackling various significant themes; those who worked in medical aid, the visits of foreign correspondents, the ILP contingent and the May days (1937) controversy, Brigade discipline, and the experiences of those in Nationalist prison camps.

A significant strength of the book is that it also contains a chapter on those who fought for the Nationalists. This demonstrates well the similarities between the experiences on both sides; poor training, poor pay (though the Nationalist volunteers were far worse paid than the International Brigaders; they also particularly coveted the Brigaders’ superiors trench coats), drink problems, fighting in units that sustained huge numbers of casualties and, for many at least, fighting for a cause they believed in.

The book’s aim is to tell the story ‘from the perspective of the participants themselves using, wherever possible, their own words’. (p.9) In this it succeeds admirably. Its major strength is the wealth of detail it provides of the individual experiences of British fighters. Baxell has done an excellent job in culling the published accounts of Brigaders like Jason Gurney and Walter Gregory, unpublished accounts, detailed interviews and correspondence of fighters, as well as, of course, major archival sources in Britain, Russia and elsewhere to richly illustrate the human side to the conflict. This helps to capture both the elevated and the base; the horror, the humour, the solidarity, the petty jealousies, the grumbling (about food, toilets, lice and so forth), the brutality, the filth, the squalor, the boredom, the confusion, the bravery and the fear.
Certain images, anecdotes and individuals particularly endure; for example, John Sommerfield’s image of a hungry dog trying to eat a dead fascist’s brain in Madrid and getting shot. In the pouring rain the blood and brains of both fascist and dog mingle and wash away; ‘It was as good a war picture as I could think of’ Sommerfield comments. (p.107-8).

Then there is ‘Tom Vino’, a Brigader who cunningly replaces water with wine in his water bottle; the unnamed MP who makes an unwanted sexual advance to Esmond Romilly and Lorrimer Birch; the hilarious (at times) and tragic (at others) anecdotes of other Brigaders’ failed or disappointing sexual adventures; the apparent disdain which Brigaders held for Ernest Hemmingway. Brigader Hugh Sloan remembered one occasion telling fellow Brigader Jimmy Arthur to shoot Hemmingway and an America colonel examining the British anti-tank guns without his permission; ‘Many years later Hemingway took his own life. I always had the feeling that Jimmy Arthur was the kind of morose character who might have saved him the bother’. (p.304)

Yet some of the most moving episodes occur in the recollections of Peter Kemp who fought for Franco, such as when Kemp was forced to shoot an Irish (Belfast) Brigade deserter (against Kemp’s wishes). After trying everything he could to prevent the execution, Kemp was forced to tell the unfortunate what will happen to him and then see that it is carried out. Kemp also relates finding a bag of post for American and Canadian International Brigaders in captured positions, including letters from girlfriends, wives and children; ‘It was horrible to feel that many of these men, who spoke my own language and who had come even further to fight for a cause in which they believed as deeply as I believe in ours, would never return to enjoy the love that glowed so warmly from the pages I was reading’ Kemp remarked. (p.392)

Throughout Baxell’s is a measured and largely balanced voice, striving to give all sides in still often rather contested debates around the International Brigade, the CP, and the wider conflict a fair hearing. Some debates could have been given lengthier consideration. Yet, while some readers will not agree entirely with the balance of the treatment and some of Baxell’s arguments, the attempt at balance is admirable and indeed very necessary if our understanding of this conflict is to deepen. On a more prosaic note, the hardback is attractively presented with sixteen pages of photos. At £25 for a full 450 pages it is also competitively priced. These features, combined with the high quality of the research and writing and the fascinating, beautiful and dreadful human story they relate make Unlikely warriors essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War.

The book is available at the special price of £20 from the International Brigade Memorial Trust, 6 Stonells Road, London SW11 6HQ.

Lewis Mates teaches history and politics at Durham University and is the author of ‘The Spanish Civil War and the British Left: Political Activism and the Popular Front” at

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