Jason Gurney was born in 1910. As a young man in Sheringham he heard a soap-box orator who introduced him to the world of socialism: "He then progressed to a William Morris type of idealist Socialism, where all men would be equal and happy. There was an ample sufficiency of all the good things of life, if only people would find the good will to an even and just system of distribution."
As a teenager Gurney read News from Nowhere (William Morris), The Conquest of Bread and Factories (Peter Kropotkin) and The Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx). When he told his parents that he was a socialist they went mad: "My aberration was ascribed to various causes ranging from adolescence, through innate vice, to the fact that my grandfather had been an artist, that I was partly French and that I had a Jewish great-grandmother."
His family moved to South Africa and after leaving school he found work in Johannesburg. He explains in his autobiography: "The Depression years in South Africa had been extremely hard. Eventually I had the good fortune to find employment in the Norwegian whaling fleet and had saved up enough money to come to Europe.
Gurney settled in Paris and studied under the sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He then moved to London and worked under Frank Dobson. Living in Chelsea he obtained a good living as a sculptor: "I honestly don't know how good a sculptor I was. I have no doubt that I produced at least three important pieces. I was a good craftsman in wood or stone but never achieved the delicacy of touch which I sought as a modeller."
Gurney also took a keen interest in politics. As he recalled in his memoirs: "Politically speaking, I saw things in simple, radical terms. I hated the poverty and wretched conditions of life at one end of the King's Road and the callous indifference of the rich around Sloane Square."
During the Great Depression Gurney experienced a very divided society in London: "I lived in Chelsea and vaguely saw it as the microcosm of English life. Beyond the World's End pub was a slum area where the working class lived in conditions of great poverty and despair. A high percentage were unemployed and even the ones who did have jobs received such pathetic wages that they were barely richer than those without." However, Gurney refused to join the "utterly discredited" Labour Party or the "tremendously bureaucratic" Communist Party of Great Britain.
Gurney became concerned at the growth of fascism in Italy and Germany. He became an active opponent of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. "I had seen the hatred and violence, with the resulting pattern of fear it introduced into the lives of ordinary men, and I hated the whole thing. People were becoming increasingly irrational in their attitudes as they became increasingly powerless to arrest the drift towards potential civil war. My attitude may be hard to believe today, but we had seen what had happened in Germany. There, too, people had laughed off Hitler and the Nazi Party until they had found themselves overwhelmed by the situation and the Nazis had become the masters of the German state. Fascism was strengthening its hand in every country in Europe and those who felt strongly about it, and took no action to stop it, experienced a very real sense of guilt."
In December 1936 Gurney decided to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War: "The Spanish Civil War seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth. There were many people who claimed that it was a foreign quarrel and that nobody other than Spaniards should involve themselves in it, but for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have national boundaries. By fighting against Fascism in Spain we would be fighting against it in our own country, and every other.... Too many people were talking too much and I felt that the time had come when any decent man must either put up or shut up."
Gurney joined at the CPGB recruiting centre at their offices in King Street. He was warned about what he would face in Spain: "It was a bastard of a war, we would be short of food, medical services and even arms and ammunition. If any of us believed that we were going into a fine adventure we might as well pack up and go home right away. He could promise us nothing but the opportunity to fight Fascism, on the evils of which he enlarged at great length."
Gurney was sent to Perpignan in France. After two days the volunteers were loaded onto buses and taken over the border to Figueras. In his autobiography, Crusade in Spain, Gurney wrote: "The buses arrived at midnight and the whole affair was supposed to be carried out in total secrecy. I succeeded in getting all my three sections into one bus and we set off in darkness and silence."
The volunteers from Britain were then transferred to Barcelona where they met up with those who had arrived from other countries in Europe. "On our arrival at Barcelona station we were met by a huge reception. Bands were playing on the platform, there were red flags and banners, and the chanting of revolutionary slogans. Here we were, about 250 rather scruffy civilians from a dozen different countries. We could not have presented any sort of military appearance but we were greeted with ecstasy by the enormous crowds that gathered as we proceeded through the city on our way to the artillery barracks. I can't imagine that anyone supposed that we were anything remarkable as a military asset. What value we possessed was purely symbolic. Spain was not to be left alone to fight the monstrous armies of Germany and Italy."
Eventually, Gurney was sent to Albacete, the new base of the International Brigades: "After breakfast on the following morning we were all marched down to the city bull ring and paraded according to national groups. There must have been about 600 men of all nationalities. The largest contingents were French and German; the British contingent had now increased to about sixty, by the addition of various extras, including one American, one Abyssinian - reputed to be the son of a general, a refugee from Mussolini's occupation of his country - and half-a-dozen Cypriots, who had all asked to join up with us as they spoke English and had no national group of their own."
This was followed by welcome from André Marty, the chief Political Commissar of the International Brigades. Gurney described him as a "sinister and a ludicrous figure". In his autobiography Gurney argued: "He (Marty) always spoke in an hysterical roar, he suspected everyone of treason, or worse, listened to advice from nobody, ordered executions on little or no pretext - in short he was a real menace."
Gurney was placed in the British Battalion. His first commander was Wilfred Macartney. Gurney pointed out in Crusade in Spain that "it soon became evident that he had very little idea of the duties of a Battalion Commander." The Political Commissar was Dave Springhill, a senior figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain. He did not impress Gurney who described him as being "a well-intentioned man who was completely out of his depth in the position in which he found himself."
Peter Kerrigan was the commissar for English-speaking volunteers in the battalion. "As I remember him in Madrigueeras, he was a tall, well-built man with a thick poll of tightly crinkled hair, as dour and ill-tempered as only a Scot can be, utterly devoid of any trace of humour and with a total acceptance of the Party line."
Gurney also served with Fred Copeman. He described him as one of "the strangest characters I knew at Madrigueras". He added: "He didn't appear to have any particular function but raved around as a self-appointed officer. An exceedingly large and brutish-looking man he was popularly believed to have acquired a reputation as a heavy-weight boxer in the British Navy. Certainly, everyone was frightened of him as he charged around the place threatening to beat everybody's brains out, and looking as if he was quite capable of doing it. Unfortunately there was nobody around who was large enough to take him on with any prospect of success and he got away with it."
Gurney was impressed by George Nathan, the Chief of Staff of the British Battalion. "He is the only personality serving with the International Brigades who emerges as an authentic hero figure, with a mythology of his own. A number of individuals of all nations behaved magnificently but none of them had the essential larger-than-life quality that distinguished George Nathan."
On 6th February, 1937, Tom Wintringham became the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Gurney preferred him to Wilfred Macartney. "He was invariably pleasant, informal and unpretentious. I don't think that he really knew any more about military affairs than I did, but he was a completely sincere radical who did his best to be useful to the cause without any idea of personal aggrandizement."
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February.
General José Miaja sent three International Brigades including the Dimitrov Battalion and the British Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Jason Gurney was asked by Tom Wintringham to go on a scouting mission. "As soon as it was light enough to see what we were doing Wintringham assembled the scouts and we set off to explore the situation ahead of us. Our only instructions from Brigade Headquarters were that our sector would be to the south of the Morata-San Martin road and that the enemy were held up by the river forming our Western Front."
On 12th February, at what became known as Suicide Hill, the Republicans suffered heavy casualties. This included Walter Grant, Christopher Caudwell and William Briskey, who was in charge of No. 3 Company. Tom Wintringham was forced to order a retreat back to the next ridge. The Nationalists then advanced up Suicide Hill and were then routed by Republican machine-gun fire.
On the right flank, the Nationalists forced the Dimitrov Battalion to retreat. This enabled the Nationalists to virtually surround the British Battalion. Coming under heavy fire the British, now only 160 out of the original 600, had to establish defensive positions along a sunken road.
During the afternoon Jason Gurney had been ordered by Tom Wintringham to reconnoitre to the south of the sunken road: "I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery. One little Jewish kid of about eighteen lay on his back with his bowels exposed from his navel to his genitals and his intestines lying in a ghastly pinkish brown heap, twitching slightly as the flies searched over them. He was perfectly conscious. Another man had nine bullet holes across his chest. I held his hand until it went limp and he was dead. I went from one to the other but was absolutely powerless. Nobody cried out or screamed except they all called for water and I had none to give. I was filled with such horror at their suffering and my inability to help them that I felt I had suffered some permanent injury to my spirit."
On 13th February, 1937, Tom Wintringham was hit in the thigh while trying to organise a bayonet charge. Jock Cunningham replaced Wintringham. When he was wounded, Fred Copeman became the new commander of the British Battalion. Jason Gurney was not impressed with his new leader: "Fred Copeman, that great bull of a man, clearly visualized himself as a divinely-appointed leader by virtue of his immense strength - he had been a heavy-weight boxer in the Navy - although he was almost illiterate. Throughout his life he had used his fists to put himself in charge of any group of men he found himself among. He was completely without physical fear and seemed almost entirely indifferent to physical injury... By this time he was more or less insane, giving completely inconsequential orders to everybody in sight, and offering to bash their faces in if they did not comply."
Robert Merriman and 373 members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion moved into the trenches on 23rd February. When the battalion was ordered over the top they were backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. On the first day 20 men were killed and nearly 60 were wounded.
On 27th February 1937, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Robert Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces again at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merriman was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. One soldier remarked afterwards: "The battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated." Edwin Rolfe survived but wrote: "When we were pulled out of the lines I felt very tired and lonely and guilty. Lonely because half of the battalion had been badly shot up. And guilty because I felt I didn't deserve to be alive now, with Arnold and Nick and Paul dead."
Jason Gurney joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion as their brigade observer. He was impressed by Marty Hourihan, his new commanding officer. "Marty, in his role of Commander, inevitably lived a rather lonely life; he had to maintain absolute neutrality without any close friendships or favourites, but he was by nature a gregarious man and the friendship which we had formed for one another was very strong. He had a terrific sense of humour and, although he had little formal education, a very good mind and a superb sense of human sympathy. He never bore grudges or carried on feuds, he could be tough as hell in public, but there was much more of sorrow for human weakness than condemnation of wickedness in his outlook."
The Battalion Political Commissar was Steve Nelson. Gurney later recalled: "Steve Nelson, a big, tough shipyard worker from Philadelphia, became the Battalion Political Commissar, but Political Commissars were not very popular in the Battalion at that time and he never tried to throw his weight around. I think that he conscientiously tried to do his best for the Battalion at Brigade HQ but he never seemed to carry much influence...I got the impression that he was a very dedicated Communist, rather humourless and uncertain of the role that he was supposed to play in the affairs of the Battalion. He never seemed to be very active and was frequently absent for several days at a time."
Gurney recalls in his autobiography, Crusade in Spain that while he was with them the battalion was visited by John Haldane, Charlotte Haldane, Clement Attlee, Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Dos Passos, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Herbert Matthews and Ernest Hemingway.
However, by this stage Gurney had become completely disillusioned by the actions of the Political Commissioners in the Spanish Civil War. He became convinced that Steve Nelson was "responsible for the mysterious disappearances of a number of people from among our ranks and for the secret trials, for real or imagined offences, which caused so much fear and suspicion within the Battalion." Gurney later recalled: " The nobility of the cause for which I had come to Spain was clearly a fiction, and now the sudden and absolute conviction that life was an experience with no past and no future, merely ending in annihilation."
Marty Hourihan shared Gurney's feelings about the behaviour of the Political Commissioners who were taking their orders direct from the Soviet Union. He began to question the orders he was receiving from Vladimir Copic. Hourihan told Steve Nelson: "I'm not going to give any orders to the Battalion to climb out of the trench and get themselves slaughtered until there is some real support." Gurney commented that Nelson accepted this because he knew "the entire Battalion was sufficiently angry to mutiny, as it had done before."
It was while in the trenches at Jarma that Gurney was hit by a sniper's explosive bullet: "I had been hit by an explosive bullet in the outer side of my right hand which had laid it open for about two and a half inches through the flesh, and left a hole large enough to take a hen's egg. My hand had been pressed against my forehead and the explosion in the middle of my hand had knocked me out, many of the splinters had passed through into my face, and my eyes were damaged."
Gurney was taken to the American Hospital at Villa Paz near Madrid. Villa Paz had been the summer home of Alfonso XIII who had abdicated in 1931: "All the medical staff was American, under the leadership of a very large, pompous, and rather aristocratic looking gent. He was reputed to be a senior physician from New England, and the last person one would ever have imagined to have got involved in radical politics. His second in command was a surgeon of about forty-five from Chicago. In addition, there were two young doctors who worked with such tremendous energy and enthusiasm that everybody admired and loved them. They always worked together as a team and seemed to be practically inseparable."
By August 1937 Gurney had recovered enough to be sent to Barcelona: "Barcelona in August was vastly different to what it had been in December. There were far fewer people in the street. The parades with bands and banners had all gone. The euphoric revolutionary enthusiasm had disappeared and everybody seemed to be minding their own business."
The medical board at Albacete ordered Gurney to be repatriated as he was considered to be unfit for further military service. Eventually he got back to England: "I found that my mother and all my friends had heard that I had been killed. There had been no official confirmation, which was not surprising as there was not even a system of registering next of kin. Relatives and friends of the men in Spain were entirely dependent for news on gossip or reports from those who had been invalided out and returned home. This peculiarly heartless attitude was typical of the lack of concern exercised by the bureaucrats of King Street.... My future prospects were - to say the least of it - unpromising. There was clearly no possibility of continuing my career as a sculptor or in any other manual trade, and I had no idea in the world what I wanted, or was able, to do in its place."
Jason Gurney died in 1973. The following year his wife arranged for his autobiography, Crusade in Spain, to be published.
My political interests dated back to the time when I was fourteen. I had spent the afternoon wandering alone on the beach at Sheringham. As I came off the promenade, on my way home, I noticed a little man standing on a soap-box and addressing an audience of half-a-dozen people. He was not a very inspiring figure: straggling moustache, dressed in a bowler hat and a shapeless overcoat. His voice was very mild and he had no art of delivery, but he was obviously filled with a deep and compassionate sincerity. His theme was simply the old cry for human justice: that there was something bitterly wrong with a society that left a large part of the population in misery and near-starvation, and under which the privileged minority could live in such ludicrous and totally unnecessary affluence. He spoke of the long hours and tedious labour, the appalling struggles of working people to keep themselves decently clean and fed, the never-ending terror of unemployment: of couples who were too old to work ending their days in a work-house. He was an uneducated man and his speech was very simple but I was profoundly moved by what he had to say. I knew enough about the world to realize the truth of it, but had accepted the situation as a natural and immutable ordering of society. He then progressed to a William Morris type of idealist Socialism, where all men would be equal and happy. There was an ample sufficiency of all. the good things of life, if only people would find the good will to an even and just system of distribution.
I was a rather solitary boy on the verge of adolescence and I experienced all the symptoms of true conversion, in the religious sense of the word. I would give my life to this fine and noble cause of human brotherhood. The whole thing seemed to me to be so incontrovertably right and just. There was no idea in my mind of the working class fighting for their rights or of my helping them to do so. The concept of the brotherhood of man was infinitely higher than the squalid bickering over purely material considerations. I was convinced that all men should have the opportunity to live in freedom and in dignity. That material considerations entered into this condition was obvious, but they were secondary. This I later discovered to be the difference between a radical and a Socialist. While it is obvious that there exists a minimum of material well-being below which any sort of dignity and happiness is impossible, it is futile to imagine that a mere redistribution of wealth can bring about the millennium. To reduce the thing to the level of a class struggle was to lose sight of the very purpose for which the struggle was being fought. Even at the age of fourteen it was apparent to me that wealth and happiness are not synonymous, although it took many years for me to realize the implication of this fact. The fight against poverty was the immediate cause and I, too, became a Socialist. The gospel must be preached, the ignorant converted and the unjust brought to book. When I arrived home and announced to my family that I had become a Socialist, they nearly went mad. My aberration was ascribed to various causes ranging from adolescence, through innate vice, to the fact that my grandfather had been an artist, that I was partly French and that I had a Jewish great-grandmother.
I had been an observer of all this in the year preceding the Spanish Civil War. I had seen the hatred and violence, with the resulting pattern of fear it introduced into the lives of ordinary men, and I hated the whole thing. People were becoming increasingly irrational in their attitudes as they became increasingly powerless to arrest the drift towards potential civil war. My attitude may be hard to believe today, but we had seen what had happened in Germany. There, too, people had laughed off Hitler and the Nazi Party until they had found themselves overwhelmed by the situation and the Nazis had become the masters of the German state. Fascism was strengthening its hand in every country in Europe and those who felt strongly about it, and took no action to stop it, experienced a very real sense of guilt.
The war in Spain had started at a time when the apparent danger of Mosley's Fascist movement was at its height, and produced a wave of emotion in England similar to the Philhellenism at the time of the Greek War of Independence. I think that this strong element of emotionalism was largely produced by one's sense of being powerless to do anything about the rise of Fascism. The Spanish people were fighting desperately and with considerable courage for the freedom in which they believed, and their courage was, in a sense, a reproach to those in England who saw the danger but did nothing to avert it. With the benefit of hindsight it is very easy to argue that we were wrong and foolish, but in the con¬text of the period it seemed entirely reasonable.
The Spanish Civil War seemed to provide the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of Fascism and went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth. There were many people who claimed that it was a foreign quarrel and that nobody other than Spaniards should involve themselves in it, but for myself and many others like me it was a war of principle, and principles do not have national boundaries. By fighting against Fascism in Spain we would be fighting against it in our own country, and every other. We felt that the victory of Fascism was inevitable. Mussolini had triumphed overnight, Hitler appeared to be irresistible, and there were similar leaders throughout the world.
In December 1936 I therefore decided I had a positive duty to go to Spain and join the International Brigades, who were already playing their part in the defence of Madrid against the army of General Franco. This was not a political decision but a question of my own personal integrity as a man. For several years I had been deeply concerned in the current pattern of radicalism. I had professed certain convictions and felt that it would be dishonourable not to fight for them now that an opportunity presented itself. I am convinced that this was not an unusual or eccentric position, at that particular moment. The Spanish Civil War produced a genuine crisis of conscience amongst the radicals of the period. There is no doubt that at this time Leftism had become fashionable at the Universities and amongst intellectuals all over the country. A great number of them were obviously deeply concerned about the condition of national and international affairs, but many of these professed radicals seem to have been inspired either by a desire to be fashionable or to profit from the movement. Too many people were talking too much and I felt that the time had come when any decent man must either put up or shut up.
I had heard a rumour that the Communist Party had opened a recruiting centre at their offices in King Street at the back of Covent Garden market. One morning I made my way down through the chaos of barrows, baskets and trucks until I eventually found the office, huddled between two fruit wholesalers. Up a bare wooden staircase into a maze of small offices with inter leading doors and passages. At that time there was a particular type of young woman who seemed irresistibly attracted to the Communist Party. She was usually thin and dark, with stringy black hair and a sallow, oily complexion, and frequently of an exceedingly aggressive and bossy character accompanied by a sneering manner. These women were the truly dedicated and regarded everybody else as charlatans. To support their detachment from everything but the 'cause', they dressed in plainest black and seemed to take pleasure in making themselves as physically unattractive as possible.
After hanging around for some time I cornered one of them and explained that I had come to join the International Brigades. She looked at me as if I was likely to be more of a liability than an asset and told me to wait. There was a terrific flow of people dashing in and out with a great air of purpose and activity, but eventually I was shown up to an office on the top floor and introduced to Comrade Robson who sat at an old-fashioned roll-top desk in a room which contained no other furniture than nine old kitchen chairs. There were only two others present when I arrived and I was instructed to sit down and wait while Robson continued his work in the bowels of the old desk. Within about ten minutes the room had filled up with the addition of another half-dozen. Nobody seemed to know anyone else and we all sat around and fidgeted until Robson finally turned round and delivered himself of a short and rather threatening lecture. He was completely fair and frank in what he had to say. It was a bastard of a war, we would be short of food, medical services and even arms and ammunition. If any of us believed that we were going into a fine adventure we might as well pack up and go home right away. He could promise us nothing but the opportunity to fight Fascism, on the evils of which he enlarged at great length. He then sat back and asked if any of us had any questions. One individual became very insistent about the conditions of service, whereupon Robson snapped at him, "If you're looking for conditions of service, you're not the kind of bloke we want in Spain. So get out." This seemed to me to be the right attitude and I was impressed. I was going to regret it later, but at the time it seemed almost indecent to ask conditions for the privilege of serving in a crusade. We were not submitted to any kind of medical examination. Robson asked if we were fit and healthy and took our word for it. We were given twenty-four hours to make our personal arrangements and told to report back at the same time on the following day.
After two days in Perpignan we were loaded onto buses which were to take us over the border to Figueras. The buses arrived at midnight and the whole affair was supposed to be carried out in total secrecy. I succeeded in getting all my three sections into one bus and we set off in darkness and silence. Things were completely uneventful until we reached the French border post. We were stopped at the barrier and I could see various officials moving about with lanterns. Our bus was third in line and all the activity seemed to be taking place at the head of the column. Suddenly one of the fellows at the back of the bus started screaming "I don't want to go. I don't want to go." Everybody sat looking at him without doing anything. Our crossing of the border was entirely illegal and although the authorities were conniving at it, they were liable to become excited if there was a major drama. When French officials start to get excited the future always becomes very uncertain and I decided that since I was in charge it was up to me to do something about it. The only way I knew to shut a man up quickly was to belt him. Any sort of a struggle would have made things worse so I hit him on the point of the jaw and he dropped. He cried a lot that night at Figueras but seemed to be quite content thereafter and never held it against me. But when I saw his body lying dead, two months later, on the Jarama fields, I felt like a murderer. It was all very well trying to be a good soldier but it needed a kind of ruthlessness which was not in my nature. I could do the things which it was necessary to do at the time but I always had to pay the price for it in retrospect.
On our arrival at Barcelona station we were met by a huge reception. Bands were playing on the platform, there were red flags and banners, and the chanting of revolutionary slogans. Here we were, about 250 rather scruffy civilians from a dozen different countries. We could not have presented any sort of military appearance but we were greeted with ecstasy by the enormous crowds that gathered as we proceeded through the city on our way to the artillery barracks. I can't imagine that anyone supposed that we were anything remarkable as a military asset. What value we possessed was purely symbolic. Spain was not to be left alone to fight the monstrous armies of Germany and Italy.
The barracks in which we were billeted for the next three days had been the centre of a battle which had lasted for several weeks. At the outset of the revolt the Commanding General had declared in favour of Franco. The garrison had been besieged by the townspeople with the support of those naval and military units that had remained true to their oath in support of the Republic. It must have been a weird situation, with most of the city living a more or less normal life while a large-scale battle was being fought in the suburbs. The trenches around the barracks had been manned by someone who might have had lunch in the city and then ridden out on the tram to relieve somebody else who had been in the trenches for hours. He, in his turn, would hand over his rifle and catch the tram home to have dinner with his family. The battle had continued until the arrival of miners from Asturias who had blown a breach in the walls which enabled the place to be stormed and overwhelmed. The whole barracks was still in an appalling state of dirt and chaos when we arrived. Nobody seemed to be in charge of the place and crowds of militia-men seemed to come and go as they felt inclined, but everyone was exceedingly amiable. Our draft was given a meal after which we were free to go out on the town.
Fred Copeman was one of the strangest characters I knew at Madrigueras. He didn't appear to have any particular function but raved around as a self-appointed officer. An exceedingly large and brutish-looking man he was popularly believed to have acquired a reputation as a heavy-weight boxer in the British Navy. Certainly, everyone was frightened of him as he charged around the place threatening to beat everybody's brains out, and looking as if he was quite capable of doing it. Unfortunately there was nobody around who was large enough to take him on with any prospect of success and he got away with it. He made himself out to have been the leader of the Invergordon mutiny in 1931, but in fact he must have played a very minor role as he was never charged with any offence after the mutiny was subdued. He later achieved his ambition of commanding the Battalion where he was universally detested. On his return to England in 1938 he was converted to Moral Rearmament, and then to the Catholic Church, and in both he was for a short time a prize exhibit as a converted Communist. He later wrote a book which is a farrago of nonsense and self-aggrandizement.
George Nathan had made such a good reputation for himself in command of the English Company on the Toledo Front that he had now been appointed Chief of Staff of the newly-formed XVth Brigade. He is the only personality serving with the International Brigades who emerges as an authentic hero figure, with a mythology of his own. A number of individuals of all nations behaved magnificently but none of them had the essential larger-than-life quality that distinguished George Nathan. However, the legends which have grown up around him bear little relation to the man as he really was. The myth of his gold-topped swagger-stick which appears in practically every book on the Civil War is a typical example. What he really carried was a good, solid walking-stick - a very practical and useful object for climbing over rough mountain territory. Another myth continually recounted of him is that he rode around the hills of Jarama on a "magnificent charger". In fact he always travelled around at the Front on the pillion of a despatch rider's motor-cycle, simply because that was the most effective transport available. Naturally there were no roads up on the hills amongst the rough scrub and olive groves, but a good and determined rider could always find a route - albeit a rough one - anywhere over the hills, far more quickly than someone on horseback or in a car could. It is true that Nathan was something of a showman, but most certainly there was nothing of the clown in his make-up. He was always immaculately clean and well turned out in the Spanish Regular Army uniform without embellishments of any kind, as befitted the totally dedicated, military professionalism which was the basis of his life.
Physically, he was well above normal height, broad-shouldered and slim, with a very erect and military carriage. His features were unmistakably Semitic: long-faced, with a rather hawkish nose and black, curly hair. He had the most tremendous stamina and appeared to be completely impervious to physical exhaustion. I never saw him carry a weapon of any sort and although the wearing of large pistols had become a status symbol among those in positions of power, he regarded it more as an encumbrance than an asset. He had an excellent and ready sense of humour, together with enormous charm. Probably his greatest merit was his magnificent air of authority and decision. His self-assurance was so complete that he never felt the need to shout or to give orders in anything other than a quiet and normal voice. And I have never heard of his orders being questioned, as he possessed the gift of being able to instill into others the unquestionable certainty that he knew what he was doing and that it was for the best.
It has often been said that he was a homosexual. While it is true that he did build up a personal entourage of chauffeur, batman and so forth which may have been suspect, he always behaved with such admirable personal discretion that there was certainly never any overt suggestion of homosexual tendencies. Thirty years ago people felt much more strongly about these things than they do today, and had there been any serious hint of something of this sort at the time, he would have never emerged with such an untarnished image from the history of the period.
He was neither a Communist nor a mercenary. It was not in his nature to think deeply on political questions but was content to trust his own feelings, and I knew him well enough to know that he believed strongly in the justice of the cause for which he thought he was fighting. He was a Jew of working-class origins but was almost totally unconcerned with Judaism or class sympathy. I am quite certain that when he resigned his hard-won commission in the British Brigade of Guards, after the First World War, he can only have done so as a matter of principle - his exceedingly strong sense of sympathy for the under-dog. Nathan's special quality was his pride, which he nursed as other men nurse their most precious possessions, and it was the greatest form of pride that I have ever known for it would not permit him to perform any action which was below the immaculate standard of perfection which he had set himself.
All this may seem a little bit too good to be true but the man was well known by several thousand officers and men over a period of two years. Most of them were very tough characters indeed. Many of them were fanatical Communists whose very instinct caused them to mistrust a man whose characteristics of speech and behaviour derived from essentially upper-class attitudes. Nathan made no attempt to conceal his lack of political enthusiasms in any Party sense. The whole army was riddled with intrigues between factions out to destroy one another, but in spite of all these things Nathan emerges from the history of these events as the only person who was universally admired.
During all the months up on Jarama our skeleton Battalion had received no reinforcements, only some members of the original strength, returning from hospital or from a spell in the Penal Battalion. But we had heard recently that a large number of men had arrived from Canada and the States, and were in training around Albacete. This was exciting news because the rumour was that we were to form a new Brigade of two Canadian and two American Battalions - in one of which we were to be included - all under the command of George Nathan. We felt that under these conditions we should make a lot more sense. We would be free of Copic and under a Brigadier who we could really trust, and there would be one language throughout the Brigade so that we would all really understand what everyone was talking about for a change. Officially I belonged to the Brigade staff, and was not a member of the Lincolns, however, I was determined to stay where I was, and Marty agreed that if we were taken out of the XVth Brigade he would arrange my official transfer to the Lincolns. We had shared a dug-out for some three months and, for lack of an adjutant, I had become a sort of unofficial general amanuensis, in which role I had become accepted by the rest of the Battalion. Marty, in his role of Commander, inevitably lived a rather lonely life; he had to maintain absolute neutrality without any close friendships or favourites, but he was by nature a gregarious man and the friendship which we had formed for one another was very strong. He had a terrific sense of humour and, although he had little formal education, a very good mind and a superb sense of human sympathy. He never bore grudges or carried on feuds, he could be tough as hell in public, but there was much more of sorrow for human weakness than condemnation of wickedness in his outlook.
These were completely raw troops, imperfectly trained and disciplined, ordered to hold a position on an exposed hillside against heavy artillery fire. They had no entrenching equipment, nor had they received any instruction in fortification. So they just had to hold on and endure it as best they could. In front of them were considerable forces of Moorish infantry, the finest infantry at Franco's disposal. It was obvious that as soon as the artillery had finished their softening-up process the infantry would attack. It was true that they were in a tactically inferior position as they would be advancing up hill over open country, and if our automatic weapons had been effective they would have suffered terrific casualties. Unfortunately the shossers had proved completely disastrous in action and the Colts, which were efficient weapons in themselves, were almost entirely useless owing to the supply of defective ammunition belts. This had been suspected before we went into action but since ammunition was short, we had not done enough practice firing to discover the extent of the defects until it was too late to remedy them. In the event, the men of the three Companies put up a very gallant defence but they were hopelessly outnumbered by enormously superior troops, and very few of them survived to retreat.
The situation remained more or less unchanged until late afternoon. It was a ghastly experience to sit in the comparative security of Harry Fry's trench and to watch the gradual but remorseless destruction of men with whom one had lived in conditions of peculiar intimacy in the billets in Madrigueras. Wintringham had tried to persuade Gal to agree to withdraw to the line of the sunken road - but the line must be held `at all costs', any retreat would be met with court martial and all manner of dire penalties. One of the Russians arrived from Brigade HQ and put on a terrific turn in a mixture of Russian and incomprehensible French. By this time the question was becoming largely academic. There were very few of our men left on their original line and a huge body of Moors were advancing steadily up the hill.
Both Gal and Copic had a passion for orders of an arbitrary kind. "You will counter-attack, regardless of circumstances," capped by "These are my orders," and threats of court-martial and executions. Where they had acquired these habits I don't know. It is all part of the ridiculous attitude of mind that war should be a parade ground for courage; whereas, it is usually something closer to a restraint of panic. Acts of courage do arise, but they are not part of the bread and butter business of fighting a battle, and the commander who expects to see them performed all the time and several times a day is a fool. At this particular moment we were a broken battalion. We had been beaten by heavier fire power, superior numbers and superior skills. The best that Wintringham could have hoped for was to prevent the men in his command from running away altogether. But to talk of making an attack with the battered remnant left at his disposal was merely absurd; to have court-martialled him for failing to comply with the orders would have been criminal.
The original leadership under Wilfred Macartney, Peter Kerrigan and Dave Springhall had evaporated before the Battalion went into action, and now most of the leadership at company and platoon level had been killed. The Battalion HQ remained intact but it was obvious that the command was hopelessly confused by events and did not know what orders to give. This situation was further disturbed by a self-appointed commander who charged around all over the place, giving orders to everyone on every subject. Fred Copeman, that great bull of a man, clearly visualized himself as a divinely-appointed leader by virtue of his immense strength - he had been a heavy-weight boxer in the Navy - although he was almost illiterate. Throughout his life he had used his fists to put himself in charge of any group of men he found himself among. He was completely without physical fear and seemed almost entirely indifferent to physical injury. On this occasion he was nominally in command of a machine-gun section over on the right flank, but had left them to their own devices, having received at least two wounds, one in the hand and the other in the head, which had been roughly tied up with field dressings. By this time he was more or less insane, giving completely inconsequential orders to everybody in sight, and offering to bash their faces in if they did not comply. Fortunately, he passed out at this stage and was carted away to the rear. Some days later he returned to the front and appointed himself unofficial joint Battalion Commander with Cunningham. When the latter was wounded later on, Copeman became the official Commander.
The Christian teaching to which I had been subjected as a child had never really meant anything to me, but until now I had supported a vague belief in life after death. I imagine that the wish was both father and mother to the thought. But even this belief now became ridiculous - the dead looked so utterly and irrevocably dead that it was impossible to imagine that any part of them had survived. All my childhood teaching had been heavily coloured by the idea of earthly sin and divine punishment after death. I don't know that I had ever believed it, but had merely accepted the whole concept without analysis. Now, However, the whole structure of morality, as I had unthinkingly accepted it, had entirely collapsed. If there was no after life there was no basis for traditional morality.
This may not have been a very original piece of thinking, but for me it was quite devastating. I had grown up in the English middle-class tradition of the period which was seriously concerned with right and wrong, with good and evil, with what was proper and improper, but this moral code had to have some basis of justification. I had never believed in the Anglican Christ - it was too palpably a convenient fiction for supporting the Empire and the Establishment - but I had vaguely accepted a notion of the `supreme being' which I had never bothered to define, simply out of intellectual laziness. I had acquiesced to a number of vague fictions to save myself the trouble of having to think about them. I wasn't an intellectual, I was an artist, concerned almost entirely with emotional and sensual criteria. The loss of my intellectual props was a serious one. I had been under severe strain for several months. The nobility of the cause for which I had come to Spain was clearly a fiction, and now the sudden and absolute conviction that life was an experience with no past and no future, merely ending in annihilation, left me in dire confusion and it was while I was in this condition that I received the wound that put an end to my military career.
Wintringham stood up to lead the charge, was almost immediately shot through the thigh, and collapsed into the sunken road. Aitken and about ten others jumped to their feet, scrambled over the bank of the road and charged. Very, very reluctantly I followed them.
I was running with my head down, presumably subconsciously imagining that my helmet would protect my face, and with absolutely no idea what I would do when, and if, I got to the other side. By the time that I had run about sixty yards I realized that there was no longer anyone in front or alongside me, and I dived for cover under one of the small hills built up around the foot of every olive tree. The heap of earth was only about eighteen inches wide and one foot high, but the eight-inch trunk of the tree provided cover for my head. This was the only part of my body that I was worried about at that particular moment and it felt as vulnerable as an egg shell. I had absolutely no confidence in my French tin helmet.
I was now lying in the middle of no-man's-land with rifle fire coming from both directions. I was familiar with the phrase "to hug the ground", and I was now hugging it with a vengeance, as if I could press my way into it by pure force of will. My olive tree, and its minute hillock, gave me some protection from the front, but my backside was completely exposed to the fire coming from our own men behind me and I began to feel terrifyingly vulnerable. There was such an enormous mass of metal tearing at the air above my head that I dare not get up and try to run for the shelter of the road. I lay very close to despair. I had no thought of prayer, although I think that it might have been a very valuable consolation at such a time; nor did I think back over my past life, nor any of the other things that people are supposed to do in the face of imminent death. But I did feel very unhappy in no very specific way.
I wasn't frightened of being killed but of being mangled. The sight of a dead man did not cause me any particular distress; it was simply the end of a man which seemed to me normal and reasonable. But a living man, smashed out of shape, caused in me a reaction of the purest horror. To some extent this may have been because I was a sculptor, and the logic of the human body was for me one of its most exciting characteristics : the bone structure which maintains the basic shape; the articulation which enables the bones to operate around one another, but only in a limited and disciplined manner, making chaos impossible; the extensor and flexor muscles which act one against the other to control the movements. The perfection of the whole fascinated me, but the sight of the smashed and deformed living bodies at the end of the sunken road on the previous evening had shaken me badly. The thought of being torn and broken terrified me.
Finally my mind cleared sufficiently to arrive at conscious decision - if I stayed where I was, I was bound to be hit sooner or later, if I ran I might be able to reach the shelter of the road. I ran. I ran like hell and dived over the banking of the road and rolled to a stop on the far side of it. I have no idea how long I lay out in no-man's-land - time is not a factor in that sort of situation.
I had only gone about 700 yards when I came across one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen. I found a group of wounded (British) men who had been carried to a non-existent field dressing station and then forgotten. There were about fifty stretchers, but many men had already died and most of the others would be dead by morning. They had appalling wounds, mostly from artillery. One little Jewish kid of about eighteen lay on his back with his bowels exposed from his navel to his genitals and his intestines lying in a ghastly pinkish brown heap, twitching slightly as the flies searched over them. He was perfectly conscious. Another man had nine bullet holes across his chest. I held his hand until it went limp and he was dead. I went from one to the other but was absolutely powerless. Nobody cried out or screamed except they all called for water and I had none to give. I was filled with such horror at their suffering and my inability to help them that I felt I had suffered some permanent injury to my spirit.
While the firing was at its height I heard a great gasp from Dave and turned round to see what was the matter with him. The only thing wrong that I could see as he turned round to face me was what appeared to be a black mark in the centre of his forehead. He never said anything, but I have never seen such a look of total surprise on a human face. There was no expression of pain or sadness, or anything else other than pure surprise, in that instant as he stood looking at me before he dropped to the ground, stone dead. He had been hit by the million to one chance of a bullet passing through the half-inch slot between the two steel rails of the observation defence. There was no use calling for stretcher bearers, so I forced myself to turn back to my job. Dave Polansky was dead - there hadn't been anything extraordinary about him. He was just an ordinary working-class Polish-American from some industrial city in the mid-West. There was nothing high-flown or idealistic about him. Born in a slum, educated in an over-crowded State school, gone to work in a series of underpaid, boring jobs in between spells of unemployment. He wasn't a Communist or a member of any political organization, but he had believed in justice as he saw it and for that he had died. He now lies in an unmarked grave somewhere up in the Jarama hills, nobody knows where, and I don't suppose anyone cares. Just one of hundred of millions killed in all the untold numbers of wars since the world began.
On that summer's morning we had just finished a lunch which had been a little less frightful than usual. It was a lovely day and the enemy appeared to be completely quiescent. There was no noise except the vague murmuring buzz of insect life. The Brigade telephone rang with orders from the abominable Bee to obtain a new set of bearings for all the enemy machine-guns in our sector. I knew that this was a completely worthless operation since they were already charted as accurately as they ever would be, and nothing had changed for several weeks. However, I took up my compass and note book, and started work from the junction of our sector with the British Battalion on the right flank. I was in no hurry and stopped off to gossip with friends in various dugouts as I worked my way along the trench. There was no firing from either side, the vines and the flowers were flowering very prettily in no-man's-land; I was possessed of a particularly happy and carefree attitude towards life in general. I set up the compass at intervals in the small firing-holes in the parapet, my hand held over the glass against the possibility of any reflection from the sun which would reveal my position to the enemy, noted down the bearing and moved on.
I had almost completed the job when I reached an area where the parados (the earth banking at the back of the trench) was lower than the parapet. This made it possible for an enemy sniper to see the sky through one of our firing holes - when his view of the sky disappeared he knew that he had a target to set up for him. However the range was over two hundred yards and the firing hole was only about five inches square, so it needed a very fine marksman to score a bull's eye. I had spoken to the Company Commander about it a couple of days before but things were so quiet that nobody had bothered to do anything about it. In my light-hearted mood I never noticed that I was setting up my compass in the exact position where this situation existed. I was moving along the trench peering through the firing holes, one by one, looking for a place where I could get a clear field of vision. Finally I found the place I wanted for a back-bearing, set up my compass and bent down, with my right hand over the top of it, to get the reading.
Suddenly I felt as if there had been an enormous explosion in the centre of my brain. I was not conscious of any pain and as I fell to the ground I remember thinking, quite calmly, "Christ, I wonder if it's killed me?" No fear, no drama, but a completely detached curiosity. I had been hit by an explosive bullet in the outer side of my right hand which had laid it open for about two and a half inches through the flesh, and left a hole large enough to take a hen's egg. My hand had been pressed against my forehead and the explosion in the middle of my hand had knocked me out, many of the splinters had passed through into my face, and my eyes were damaged. When I came to in Doc Pike's dug-out dressing station, the pain in my hand was tremendous, but what upset me far more was the pain in my eyes. The doctor had dressed my hand and filled me up with morphine which, combined with the concussion, had evidently left me a little mad. Marty was in the dug-out and spoke to me. I was practically in tears, not at my own plight, but obsessed with the idea that I had failed Marty by getting myself shot, just when he needed to make use of me. The morphine injection didn't seem to ease the pain at all but made me feel as if I wanted to vomit. Finally I was carried off to an ambulance and carted off to the field clearance hospital at Colmenar.
Probably the worst experience that any soldier has to face is the ambulance ride to hospital after he is wounded. It is in the nature of things that the road immediately behind the line is in an appalling condition so that the unfortunate passenger is thrown all over the place. He is usually in a condition of severe shock and considerable pain.
It now became increasingly plain that the War was lost. It was all very fine for the "left" of Europe and America to beat their breasts and demand that the common people of Spain should fight to the last man, but this was as brutal and irresponsible as the mob shouting for blood at the Roman circus. Once it had become apparent that the War could not be won it should have been terminated.
From a purely military standpoint we were out-gunned and outthought. Franco had the trained professional soldiers and the over-whelming superiority of technical equipment. Moorish infantry supported by German artillery, Italian tanks and aircraft in bewildering quantities, might be held down by the fanatical heroism of the workers' battalions in street fighting, as they had been at Madrid, but when it came to set-piece battles we were no match for them. Madrid still held, but the northern sectors - Basque, Galicia and Asturias - had been over-run, with the result that Franco could now concentrate his entire force on the Central Fronts.
Politically speaking the situation had become desperate. Azana as President had proved as indecisive as he had been when Prime Minister. The Government in Valencia no longer had any pretence to being the representative of the will of the people. Largo Caballero, whose premiership had more or less been accepted by all the factions of the Left, had been forced to resign as he would not agree to the destruction of the POUM. The Government was totally dependent on Russia for its supply of arms with the result that the Communist Party had total control of the political structure within the Republic. Negrin, whose very name was totally unknown to the mass of the people, was appointed Prime Minister on the instructions of the Party. He was an intellectual and a man of extreme arrogance. Nominally a member of the Socialist Party, and a deputy for several years, he played no active role in politics until Largo Caballero had called him in as Minister of Finance in September 1936. He was a man of the grande bourgeoisie and certainly no Communist, but he admired the ruthlessness of the Communist Party policies and thought that he could use them as a tool to centralize the diverse elements in the Republic and bring them into a single planned and efficient unit. It was typical of his arrogance that he believed that he was making use of the Communist Party when, in fact, they were using him. It was agreed between them that the Trades Union movement - both CNT and UGT - were to be united, whether they liked it or not. There was to be no further talk of the Revolution. All political parties were to be strictly subservient to the central Government. We were now fighting solely for the Republic and there must not be any kind of action or propaganda that would upset bourgeois sensibilities. The process of land reforms was to be halted and assistance denied to the co-operatives. Everything that the mass of the Republicans thought that they were fighting for was cancelled out.
Later on, when I arrived back in London, I found that my mother and all my friends had heard that I had been killed. There had been no official confirmation, which was not surprising as there was not even a system of registering next of kin. Relatives and friends of the men in Spain were entirely dependent for news on gossip or reports from those who had been invalided out and returned home. This peculiarly heartless attitude was typical of the lack of concern exercised by the bureaucrats of King Street - they could not see the necessity for even the most elementary welfare service. It was the Party's business to send men out to fight in the International Brigades but it did not bother itself with what happened to them subsequently. My future prospects were - to say the least of it - unpromising. There was clearly no possibility of continuing my career as a sculptor or in any other manual trade, and I had no idea in the world what I wanted, or was able, to do in its place.
However, the whole thing was behind me now and the nightmare was over. All the friends that I had made were dead or, for one reason or another, I was never to see again. There is no longer any point in trying to untangle the web of lies and confusions which lay behind that ghastly Civil War. It arose out of total confusion and chaos. There were individuals on both sides who committed every possible form of cruelty and beastliness. And nobody, from either side, came out of it with clean hands. We, of the International Brigades, had wilfully deluded ourselves into the belief that we were fighting a noble Crusade because we needed a crusade - the opportunity to fight against the manifest evils of Fascism, in one form or another, which seemed then as if it would overwhelm every value of Western civilization. We were wrong, we deceived ourselves and were deceived by others: but even then, the ' whole thing was not in vain. Even at the moments of the greatest gloom and depression, I have never regretted that I took part in it. The situation is not to be judged by what we now know of it, but only as it appeared in the context of the period. And in that context there was a clear choice for anyone who professed to be opposed to Fascism. The fact that others took advantage of our idealism in order to destroy it does not in any way invalidate the decision which we made.