Flag of the International Brigades

¡No Pasarán!: a letter from the Spanish Civil War

5 min read

July 2021 marks the 85th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In this we’ll look at a letter from Eddie Rice, an International Brigades volunteer from Airdrie, and what it tells us about Lanarkshire’s role in the fight against fascism before 1939.

Whilst the political left had grown in support across Europe during the interwar years, so too had another force on the far-right: fascism.

Benito Mussolini and his Fascisti had taken power in Italy in 1922, followed by Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933. In Britain, Oswald Mosley’s ‘blackshirts’ emulated European fascists, with aggressively anti-Semitic and anti-socialist activities. There were even blackshirts in Lanarkshire. A British Union of Fascists (BUF) branch was active in Motherwell by 1934, claiming 200 members.

All eyes would turn to Spain. The Frente Popular government (Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties) had been elected in January 1936. A fascist coup was launched by Spanish military leaders on 19th July, leading to an all-out civil war. In response, tens of thousands of people from across the world volunteered to join the ‘International Brigades’ to defend the Spanish Republic against fascism.

This letter is written by International Brigade volunteer Eddie Rice (also recorded as Ryce) to his friend Sam Kermode in Airdrie. The letter tells us a bit about their beliefs and what the wartime conditions were like for Eddie.

Eddie begins by talking to Sam about how he is still “in the employ of the Spanish Government”, the heat of the Spanish sun, and the difficulties of corresponding by letter in wartime conditions. He addresses it from an office of Soccoro Rojo International – the Spanish wing of ‘International Red Aid’, an organisation founded as a communist alternative to the Red Cross.

During the Spanish Civil War Soccoro Rojo conducted aid work such as running soup kitchens and refugee camps. This would suggest he was doing aid work for Soccoro Rojo at the time, rather than fighting on the front line.

From the contents of the letter it is clear both Eddie and Sam identify as communists. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) provided the bulk of the 2,500 British volunteers for Spain, with the International Brigades being organised by the Soviet-based Communist International.

At home they were the most militant opponent of Mosley’s blackshirts, and had strong representation among steelworkers, miners, and unemployed workers in Lanarkshire. At a Motherwell BUF rally on 28th September 1934,

“The Communists were out in full force and in matters of numbers they were easily superior to the Fascists…” (Motherwell Times, 5th October 1934)

The report goes on to detail how the Communist counter-demonstration physically halted the rally, hurled the BUF speaker from the stage, then proceeded to hold a demonstration of their own.

Recruits with other left-wing affiliations – such as from the Independent Labour Party – also joined the International Brigades. Others from the left but not supportive of the CPGB –  such as the famed ‘Scots Scarlet Pimpernel’, Bellshill anarchist Ethel MacDonald – travelled to Spain to support the fight in other ways.

Ethel MacDonald (1909-1960) transmitted English-language broadcasts from Radio Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Glasgow Libraries holds the Ethel MacDonald collection, around 5000 objects relating to her life and work in Spain.

The address indicates Eddie was in the city of Albacete, in the south-east of Spain. Albacete was also home to the headquarters of the International Brigades. He likely joined the International Brigades through the Communist Party, travelled to Spain, and was seconded by them to the Soccoro Rojo.

In the letter Eddie notes he was still attached to ‘Transport’, with “plenty of driving and long journeys”, and that some had made “the supreme sacrifice”. From this we can conclude that Eddie was driving aid lorries out of Albacete, possibly into harm’s way near the front lines.

He requests Sam send him soap and chocolate. Evidently there were shortages – “the boys are just talking about how long it is since they bought a bar [of soap]. He notes that he had just received a box of chocolate, and that Sam send him newspapers or books as they “receive a special welcome here.” He also makes the request that Sam send his parcel by air mail as normal post was taking c.8-10 days to arrive, meaning he and other drivers were missing out on parcels if they were travelling.

British International Brigades volunteers, Albacete 1936-37. Eddie may well be among those in this picture.  © IWM HU 71509

Despite volunteering to fight for a cause that he passionately believed in, it’s clear he still felt many of the normal complaints soldiers felt about war – shortages of essentials; hoping for luxuries such as chocolate; and boredom during gaps between activity, hence the eager requests for reading material.

The letter also suggests he had been in Canada at one time – it’s unknown for how long – and that in Spain he had bumped into the brother of “Jim M-“, someone they knew in Airdrie. It seems to suggest Jim M’s brother had been in Canada also. Who this was and why he was anonymised is anyone’s guess, but it does suggest that Eddie had moved around before the war.

Unfortunately we don’t know much more about Eddie than this letter, but it does give us some indications as to his politics, what he was doing, and what it was like in Spain during the war. He isn’t listed as having been killed on the British International Brigades Roll of Honour so we may guess that he survived the war and returned home, either to Airdrie or perhaps to Canada.

However a familiar name does pop up on the list of those killed. James Kermode, a 34-year-old quarryman and Communist Party member from Black Street, Airdrie, was killed at Las Rozas near Madrid on 12th January 1937.

James S. Kermode, Airdrie, killed Las Rozas 12/1/1937 (International Brigades in Spain -Scottish Volunteers)

Were he and Sam Kermode related? They certainly had politics and Airdrie in common, but we don’t know for certain if they shared a family connection too.

Ultimately fascism triumphed in Spain, with the Republican government overthrown in 1939. Francisco Franco presided over a regime that ruled until not long after his death in 1975. Today there are still mass graves being uncovered and Franco’s burial tomb is a source of heated controversy. These wounds run deep.

40 volunteers from North Lanarkshire fought in Spain, 11 of whom were killed. A memorial dedicated to them was unveiled in Motherwell’s Duchess of Hamilton Park in July 2013. Annual commemorations are organised by the local No Pasaran Memorial Committee – taking their name from the Spanish for ‘they shall not pass’, a phrase made famous by the war.

More recently, in June and July 2021, the memorial was vandalised several times with fascist graffiti before being cleaned up by local volunteers. It’s a reminder that as long as racism, bigotry and oppression exist, the war fought by those in Spain is one that we must still fight today. ¡No pasarán!

 

Also in this category