At its March meeting the branch agreed to donate £250 towards a memorial to all the people from Oxford who went to Spain 75 years ago to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Here branch member Chris Farman tells the story of why they went, and of two journalists who were among the 26 volunteers from Oxford.
In July 1936 a military rebellion was launched against the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. For the next three years Spain was torn apart by a bloody civil war which claimed almost a million lives and left the country in the grip of a pro-fascist dictatorship under General Franco.
Franco’s success owed much to Hitler and Mussolini, who supplied him with a constant stream of guns, tanks and planes. They wanted to try out their new weapons and tactics, and Spain provided an ideal testing ground. The Republic appealed to the Western democracies, but this was the era of appeasement, and Britain and France, anxious not to antagonise the Axis powers, refused to send any help. Eventually, the Republic did receive aid from the Soviet Union, though never on the scale of that sent by Hitler and Mussolini to the so-called Nationalists.
The war aroused intense political passions and some 35,000 volunteers, including 2,500 from the British Isles, would serve with the International Brigades, the military force recruited to fight for the Republic. From Oxford, 26 volunteers headed for the battlefields of Spain, of whom seven would never return. They included nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers, as well as combatants, and represented a wide range of backgrounds and political views. One was an engine driver, one was a member of the House of Lords, one was a teacher and one was a musician and composer.
There were even two journalists – Ralph Fox and Tom Wintringham. They met as undergraduates at Oxford in the 1920s, where they became close friends and ardent communists. They wrote for the party newspaper, The Daily Worker, and founded an avant-garde journal, Left Review, which attracted rising literary stars such as Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda and Stephen Spender.
By the end of 1936, the two friends were in Spain. On December 28 Fox was killed as his unit led an attack on the town of Lopera, near Cordoba. Also killed was the poet John Cornford, who the day before had celebrated his 21st birthday. According to one account, he was shot while trying to retrieve Fox’s body.
In February 1937, Wintringham commanded the 500-strong British Battalion in its first action, at the Battle of Jarama. More than half the battalion was killed or wounded and Wintringham himself was hit in the thigh. He returned to the front again in August, but was again wounded and repatriated to England.
Like Fox and Wintringham, many of the volunteers were communists. But there were also plenty of Labour party supporters and ordinary trades unionists who saw that a victory for fascism in Spain would be the prelude to further aggression. They were proved right, but were never given any official acknowledgment or thanks. Over a hundred towns and cities in Britain have tried to make up for this by erecting their own memorials to the volunteers. Oxford now has the chance to follow their example.
The International Brigade Memorial Trust has launched a fundraising appeal for a memorial to the volunteers who lived, worked or studied in and around Oxford. The initiative has the support of the Oxford & District Trades Union Council and Oxford City Council, which has given a site in Bonn Square for the memorial.
The proposed date for the unveiling is September 6, but this will only go ahead if sufficient money is raised. The appeal fund currently stands at more than £2,000 – including a donation of £250 from the branch – but the target is £5,000, so there’s still a long way to go. Please help to make sure that Oxford’s volunteers for liberty are not forgotten by supporting this appeal. Send donations to 6 Stonells Road, London SW11 6HQ. Make cheques payable to ‘IBMT’ and write ‘Oxford Memorial Appeal’. on the reverse. All donors will be acknowledged in the commemorative booklet that it is hoped to publish when the new memorial is unveiled.