Christopher Hall explains what drove him to discover the untold stories of ILP volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War
In 2006 many new books were published and many events held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
As an historian and researcher on the Spanish Civil War for over 20 years, I was eager to be involved and so I helped to stage a concert in Manchester headlined by Billy Bragg on behalf of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Yet as 2006 came to an end it dawned on me that in Britain all the events and most of the articles had focused on the International Brigades. Those anti-fascist volunteers who had served in the ILP contingent alongside George Orwell and the POUM (an anti-Stalinist Communist Party militia) had been seemed to have been ignored.
Many books have been written about the Spanish revolution and the way it was crushed by the Spanish republican government and its Stalinist allies. Probably the most famous is Burnett Bolloten’s monumental work. However, very few books mention the role of the ILP contingent in any depth. The most famous and, in some opinions, the most controversial account is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which tells about his time fighting with the POUM. Using this, and my earlier interview with ILP volunteer Stafford Cottman as a starting point, I began my research.
My aim was not to write about the Spanish (social) revolution or to explore the political intrigues of the time but to discover who the members of the ILP contingent were, why they went to Spain, what happened to them in Spain, and what became of them on their return home.
I discovered about 40 names but the available details of their lives differed greatly. For example, Bob Edwards – the leader of the ILP contingent – has a whole archive in Manchester, whereas there is only the odd line or picture of some volunteers. For background I found it was necessary to include a brief history of the POUM and the ILP, and cover in more detail the role of the two parties in the Spanish Civil War.
The role of the ILP in the Spanish Civil War has been criticised by many academics and by the majority of the Labour movement at the time. In fact for a small political party, the ILP was hugely involved in the Spanish Civil War and continued to support the Spanish republican government even after POUM was suppressed.
The ILP continually raised money for POUM and the Spanish people. It paid for a fully equipped ambulance to go to Spain (named after the POUM leader, Maurin, who was presumed dead). One of the ambulance drivers with experience from World War I stayed in Spain to help train and command an artillery unit. When the Basque country was being overrun by the fascists, the ILP looked after and fed some refugee children from anarchist families at a house in Street near Bristol. Over 100 ILP members served in the republican forces in military and non-military units, with many serving in the International Brigades too.
Leading ILP figures visited Spain three times to try and free POUM prisoners with varying degrees of success. The most infamous case relating to the ILP was the death of their leading young activist and leader of the ILP ‘Guild of Youth’, Bob Smillie. He died in prison after being arrested on the border because he did not have the proper discharge papers. In prison he died from a combination of neglect and appendicitis. To their credit the ILP made no attempt to make political capital out of this and continued to support the Spanish republic till the end of the Civil War.
A mass of biographies and autobiographies of British and Irish volunteers in the International Brigades have been published, and many hundreds of books have been written about the International Brigades and the British involvement in them. Some of the ILP volunteers, including Bob Edwards, Stafford Cottman, Frank Frankford and Urias Jones, have been interviewed for the Imperial War Museum and South Wales Miners Library. Before my work, however, the only written account of the ILP contingent in Spain was a 1987 article by Peter Thwaites in the Imperial War Museum Review. No easily accessible book on the ILP contingent has existed until now.
One of the main criticisms of the ILP contingent has been that it served for only six months on a quiet front in Spain, achieved little and then went home. Looking at the involvement of the International Brigades in every major battle of the Civil War, and their huge losses, this criticism at first seems justified. But as my research progressed, and more information about individual members of the ILP contingent came to light, this view of the ILP volunteers proved to be much less than the whole picture.
Fifteen members of the ILP contingent were involved in a small action at a place called Ermita Salas and several volunteers were wounded. ILP members did indeed serve on a quiet front and became embroiled in a ‘civil war within a civil war’ while on leave in Barcelona. Many of the volunteers did return home after just over six months but since POUM had been declared illegal they risked imprisonment if they remained in Spain.
Several ILP volunteers served in other republican units, even in some cases in the International Brigades. Around a third of ILP volunteers were wounded or hospitalised and two died – a statistic that shows the ILP volunteers’ commitment to the anti-fascist cause in Spain. And several ILP volunteers served for long periods – Reg Hiddlestone from January 1937 to January 1939 (much longer than most International Brigade volunteers); and Robert Williams, who joined up alongside Orwell in December 1936 and served with republican forces until November 1938. He was wounded three times.
John Donovan served in the International Brigade alongside Winston Churchill’s nephew, Esmond Romilly, before deserting to join the ILP contingent. In the attack on Ermita Salas he was cited for bravery by his commanding officer. He later left the ILP contingent to serve in an Anarchist unit before returning to Britain. Arthur Chambers, a First World War veteran, was an NCO in the ILP contingent. In May 1937 he also left the ILP contingent to join an Anarchist unit, and was killed on the Aragon front in August 1937.
Until now the role of the ILP contingent in the Spanish Civil War has been overshadowed by the fame of George Orwell, and any examination of the ILP volunteers has centred on him. This book includes a brief biography of Orwell as his book Homage to Catalonia is still a major source for any discussion of the ILP contingent. Orwell’s account also provides invaluable descriptions of the way the Spanish militias were organised, trained and armed. As its title clearly states, this book is not solely about Orwell but about the volunteers who served with him.
The book provides the first full account of the ILP contingent’s role in Spain, alongside a list of those men who served in the contingent and their experiences. Stafford Cottman became a friend and advisor to the film director Ken Loach when he was making his 1995 film ‘Land and Freedom’, which was loosely based on Cottman’s experiences.
According to his wife, Stella, Cottman attended a film premiere in Bath for ‘Land and Freedom’, and afterwards said: “George Orwell always said, ‘The truth about what happened to the republican cause in Spain will never be told.’ But now it has been.”
I hope in some small way this book has a similar impact and changes people’s perception of the role of the ILP in the Spanish Civil War.
‘Not just Orwell’: The Independent Labour Party Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War by Christopher Hall, is published by Warren and Pell, May 2009.
The book is available for £14.99 plus £2.50 postage and packing from Warren and Pell
The book launch took place on May 30th at Salford Working Class Movement Library near Manchester, where a plaque honouring the ILP volunteers was unveiled by 1930s ILP activist, Sidney Robinson, and former POUM militia man, Roma Marquez Santos, who spent ten years in a Franco jail.
Further details of the event: independentlabour.org.uk/main/?p=359