Why we should remember our contribution to the Spanish Civil War.

This is a guest post written by Gregory Hill O’Connor,  History student at St. Andrews University.


‘They went because their open eyes could see no other way’

-Inscription on the International Brigade Memorial, Jubilee Gardens, London, unveiled in 1986, the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War


This July marked the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Despite MI5 releasing a list of British men and women who went to fight for the Spanish Republic, under attack from right-wing rebel Generals, early in July, this event went much unnoticed. So instead I will use the event of the 75th anniversary of the British Medical Unit to commemorate a much forgotten group of people in a much forgotten war. The British Medical Unit left Victoria Station on 23rd August 1936 to set up a military hospital and ambulance unit in Spain. I feel that it is important to remember this part of British history that is often eclipsed by the rise of Fascism and Second World War on the history syllabus in schools. In an age of intense politics made even more so by the media and internet we must remember that it is possible for people to act apart from overarching political organisations, be it a Trade Union or a political party. The activities of the British people during the Spanish Civil War exemplify such action.

When the democratically elected government of Spain came under attack on 18th July 1936 there was an immediate Europe-wide solidarity. Not from other democratically elected governments in Britain and France, by August they had banned international intervention in this ‘Civil War’ (you may be reminded of the bombing of the Basque city of Guernika by German aircraft), but from ordinary people around Europe who acted apart from established politics. Even the Labour Party in opposition supported the policy of non-intervention until their party conference in 1937 when a pamphlet was circulated outlining the argument against such a policy; using newly acquired evidence of Italian and German intervention in Nationalist Spain.

And this is why I feel it is important to remember the work of the British people during the Spanish Civil War; despite official opposition and the complicated politics surrounding the war in Spain there was a popular cooperation. In total 6 food ships were filled and sent to Spain by the coastal population. ‘Aid Spain’ committees sprung up everywhere and organised collections. In the northern town of Horwich schools, hospitals and mills were all involved in raising money. Individual Trade Unions bought lorries and ambulances to be sent to Spain. The most incredible feat was the settling in of over 4,000 children from the besieged Basque region in cities and town all over Britain. While needing government cooperation and having TUC approval, this task was completed without any significant help from either. Everybody is familiar with the image of solidarity during the Second World War; the romanticised view of people sleeping in underground stations keeping calm and carrying on. I am by no means trying to discredit this but it was, in a sense, a government sanctioned solidarity. However, during the Spanish Civil War the government were in the midst of appeasement and staying true to the Non-Intervention Treaty. The picturesque ‘Popular Front’ interpretation can be overemphasised and the historian Tom Buchanan has done excellent research into the political wrangling within the Trade Union movement and the Labour Party to paint a less idealistic picture. Even the Labour Party and the TUC were reluctant to relinquish this line.

Yet, where these organisations failed, people filled in. They didn’t rely on the TUC to help, they didn’t lobby politicians or beg the Labour Party to step up to the plate; they did it themselves. Labour Party members continued to sit on the same committees as Communist Party members despite Labour Party policy and the Communists’ historical hatred of social democrats. The Spanish Medical Aid Committee who sent that group of medical personnel on 23rd August 1936 did have members that were part of the TUC, part of the Labour and Communist Party; however, they acted as individuals and created the Medical Aid Committee aside from these organisations and without their direct intervention. This is where the British response to the Spanish Civil War remains relevant and wildly under-appreciated. In a time when David Cameron is calling us all to the ‘Big Society’ from on high and ideologies are tied to a particular group it is more important than ever to remember that while our political and democratic institutions must evolve and remain useful they are by no means necessary. By trying to dominate rather than just facilitate grassroots action the ‘Big Society’ is forgetting this dynamic between the organisation and the individual. It was the people of Britain between 1936 and 1939 who showed that things could get done without government and without established organisations.


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5 responses to “Why we should remember our contribution to the Spanish Civil War.”

  1. eoin macneill says :

    I am seeking help in researching information regarding a volunteer nurse from northern ireland by the name of sissy patterson, who served in spain during the civil war. Are there any lists of volunteer medical practitioners surviving today?

    • overhere1 says :

      I have asked the writer of the post to get back to you.

    • Gregory Hill O'Connor says :

      Hi, I wrote this piece based on research I did for a larger project on the Spanish medical volunteers. As far as I am aware there are no complete lists of the volunteers who went to Spain. However, the Imperial War Museum in London has a very good sound archive of interviews with volunteers conducted in the 1980s, so you may be able to track down Sissy Patterson from there. Alternatively, there are two books whose list of sources may help you get an idea of which documents are out there; these are: Jim Fyrth ‘The Signal was Spain’ and Angela Jackson ‘British Women and the Spanish Civil War’, both of which you may already have come across.

      Sorry I cannot be of more help. My research was based on general volunteers so I do not know too much about tracking down one particular person. Best of luck though!

  2. eoin macneill says :

    Thanks for those suggestions Gregory, I will put into action.

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