on 19 April 2013
Bolted on to the back of the Rev. William Rickman's tombstone in the churchyard of the Dorset village of Powerstock is a plaque of green Cumberland slate commemorating his widow Annie and their only son John Pascal Rickman who `Died in Spain in February 1937. He Gave his Life in the Cause of Freedom'.
Fifteen years ago I went in search of the late John Rickman but found instead the then lively George Wheeler, an International Brigade veteran who inhabits Baxell's vibrant narrative along with many of the 2500 British and Irish volunteers who offered their young lives to defend Spain's fragile democracy.
Baxell's book is a substantial achievement. Combining published and unpublished memoirs with letters and taped and filmed interviews, the author allows the men and women who went to Spain to speak for themselves. The testament is underpinned by Baxell's forensic knowledge of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade and lucid explication of the political and socio-economic forces that propelled these young people over the Pyrenees and into the inferno.
Baxell's passion for the subject and his empathy for the volunteers is evident in his crisp, confident prose. He employs humour and irony to take us as close as we can ever get, seven decades later and from the comfort of our armchairs, to the frontline in Spain.
George Green, a classical musician from Stockport, was a most unlikely warrior. Like George Wheeler, we meet him in the author's chronicle at the Battle of the Ebro. In a letter home, surprisingly not quoted by Baxell, he wrote: `Mother dear, we're not militarists, nor adventurers nor professional soldiers. But a few days ago on the hills the other side of the Ebro, I've seen a few unemployed lads from the Clyde, and frightened clerks from Willesden stand up (without fortified positions) against an artillery barrage that professional soldiers could not stand up to. And they did it because to hold the line here and now means that we can prevent this battle being fought again on Hampstead Heath or the hills of Derbyshire.'
On 23 September 1938 the British Battalion went into action for the last time. George Green was killed, George Wheeler was taken prisoner. I once said to him, `You fought in blistering heat. You saw your mates killed by your side. You were captured. You faced summary execution. You spent nine months in a fascist concentration camp.' `Yes,' he said. `And I'd go again.' In `Unlikely Warriors', Richard Baxell explains why.
on 4 December 2012
Richard Baxell writes about British volunteers who served in the International Brigades, medical services and in the revolutionary militias. The book looks at the subject through the personal re-collections of the volunteers as well as the authors exhaustive research on the subject. The main section concentrates on the volunteers experiences in Spain, but the author also tells in detail the story of the volunteers before they went to Spain and their experiences in World War II. The author obviously has a sympathy for his subject matter but is not afraid to re-account mistakes, disasters, breakdowns in morale and ill-discipline that occurred. It also covers the hardships, horrific losses and heroic stands made by the British volunteers in Spain. I strongly recommend this book as the definitive book on the British Battalion of the International Brigade. It is well written and even to a Spanish Civil war geek I found much information that was new. A warts and all account of British volunteers in Spain that will hopefully reach a wide audience.
on 22 February 2013
The only pity about this book is that it has taken over 75 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War for such a comprehensive book about the British volunteers to be published.It is such an important part of British working people's fight against fascism in the Thirties and yet, no doubt due to their embarrasment at their appeasement of it, the powers that be have been happy to suppress it.
The real beauty of Baxell's book is that he allows the volunteers to tell the story in their own words, taken from the records of their heroism that have been left. What we have is an enthralling number of little potted biographies of those of those 2500 men and women from Britain, who left for a foreign land to fight an evil they realised threatened their own country - and with a one in five chance of being killed.
Their stories are woven together so that the narrative runs very smoothly and becomes totally engrossing. It is also brilliantly referenced and indexed for those who will crave to know more about these magnificient examples of working class heroism.
on 5 May 2014
Talk about finding a gem. Unlikely Warriors is a remarkable accomplishment, with solid five-star reviews for excellent reason. Baxell has taken research to a new level, and used archives and interviews in the UK and the Abraham Lincoln files in New York, and material not yet published. Interviews from the Imperial War Museum in London have been accessed to give a rich account of those who went to Spain to fight the righteous fight. The International Brigades have been fleshed out like never before, along with those who went to fight for various other factions, including those who went to serve Franco’s side.
The book starts off with the realities of life in the UK for those who heard the calling to Spain. While the stereotypes stated that volunteers were ‘radical romantics or middle-class Marxists’, the reality was far different. A large majority were working class, and no doubt imagined they understood the battle that Spaniards faced. However, the upper class, intellectuals and writers were littered among the brave men, from a great range of lifestyles across the class divide. What the International Brigades had was working class men fighting alongside those highly educated, for a common cause, and Baxell has written about these people in a fluid and enjoyable down-to-earth style. The men, the majority Communists, fought under the premise that if Franco won in Spain, Hitler would then go on to victory with his own endeavours. While Britain and France sat idly by, individuals were able to see past self-interest and faced a brutal reality for the common good.
The reality put volunteers at a disadvantage from the start, with many without military training, and provided with exceptionally little. With the International Brigades, just one part of many groups fighting together in an uneasy alliance for the Republican cause, leadership was haphazard, as was any type of planning, along with weapons and gear given. While many volunteers were Communists, those in power among the forces also had to battle against other leaders from other groups. It meant that those on the ground never genuinely formed a coherent group, unlike the united forces under Franco. The massive battles undertaken by British forces, such as Madrid, Ebro, Brunete and Jarama, were bloody affairs littered with an enormous death toll. Just the struggle alone within the medical divisions was horrific as they fought to save the lives of young men, whose cause became increasingly hard to identity. Fighting fascism is a broad notion, to be romanticised as men, gun in hand, throw themselves at the enemy, but Baxell does not subscribe to this notion. The author gives a more realistic and honest account of war, where individuals are convinced of one thing at home, and struggle when faced with the gruesome battles in Spain. Some volunteers were hopelessly inadequate for the war in Spain, due to age or experience, and some were there for the wrong reasons.
Unlikely Warriors doesn’t just cover what happened in Spain. The book explains how these volunteers suffered, and many were lost, but those who survived considered their fight to be one of the greatest moments in their lives. Many went home with little or no regrets. The May Day battles in Barcelona are well covered in the book, explaining how the communist sympathisers fought enemies on all sides. When international volunteers were all ordered out of Spain in late 1938, dreams of these men being able to live in Spain as citizens were not realised until long after Franco’s death. Tales of men held prisoner are told with clarity, showing what many volunteers endured through their time on the peninsula. While British men went home once their battalions got disbanded, they struggled to enlist to serve in WWII and some nationalities were either imprisoned or stripped of their home country citizenship. Their battles did not win the war, just as Europe fell into a state which allowed evil to flourish.
Baxell has created a book where those new to the subject can learn and understand, but at the same time, give more knowledgeable readers a more personal and vulnerable perspective to the battles. Many books on the war can read as stiff or academic, but Baxell has created a marvellous account which humanises but does not romanticise the role of international volunteers in a complex war. The book breaks down the struggles in Spain, to give a realistic account of what life was like for those who sacrificed for a cause which did not succeed in victory. Unlikely Warriors is a must-read for anyone interested in Spain and its recent history.
on 14 October 2013
Bought this book on the recommendation of the previous reviews. I wanted to understand what the war was all about and this book is very thorough and easy to read. Also, an ancestor, Douglas Frank Springhall, who died when I was very young, is mentioned several times and I am interested to know what made him tick.
on 8 November 2013
Scholarly yet engrossing account of the British (and Irish) contribution to the International Brigades, which were so important in the Spanish Civil War, with an intelligent and detailed analysis of the surrounding politics. Essential reading, which gives more detail and analysis than the other essential accounts, such as George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.
Tells the stories of the individuals who risked (and often lost) their lives in the fight against (and, for balance, sometimes for) Fascism.