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Book Review Eloquent tribute to Welsh volunteers who defended democracy in Spanish civil war

You Are Legend: The Welsh Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
by Graham Davies
(Welsh Academic Press, £19.99)

“WHEN the years pass by and the wounds of war are staunched... speak to your children. Tell them of these men of the International Brigades,” Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria) pronounced in her farewell address to the International Brigades in Barcelona in November 1938.

Graham Davies is the latest to speak of those men. Despite a seemingly narrow focus on the Welsh men — and two women — who volunteered, the book gives a full account of the causes of the war and its events, while seamlessly weaving the personal stories of the Welsh volunteers into the general history of the brigades.

To give a context to the Welsh brigaders, he begins with a clearly written background to the civil war, highlighting the complexities of the opposing forces, the class struggle between landless peasants and landlords, industrial workers and factory owners, regionalism versus nationalism and anti-clericalism.

He describes the Welsh situation at that time, showing how following the General Strike in 1926 life in the South Wales coalfields was marked by unemployment and semi-starvation which, coupled with political education and militant activism, led to clashes with the police and often imprisonment.

By 1932, almost a third of miners were unemployed and relief measures were poor and chaotic. The communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement co-ordinated activity which led to massive hunger marches on London. British Union of Fascist meetings in South Wales were disrupted and at one in Tonypandy, 36 Rhondda men were imprisoned for driving out the fascists.

The strong Communist Party presence in South Wales led to heightened political understanding among people who were already class conscious. The South Wales Miners’ Federation was affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions, part of the Comintern, and was greatly interested in Spanish affairs.

There was a thriving and politically active Spanish community in South Wales, well integrated into trades unions and left organisations. Volunteers Roman Rodriguez, Victoriano Esteban and Frank Zamora died defending Spanish democracy. The 2,500 British recruits were overwhelmingly working class and roughly 70 per cent of the Welsh contingent of almost 200 were communists, with over half miners.

The book’s chronological account of the war has chapters on the main battles and how the Welsh fighters fared and Davies has accessed previously unpublished material, including letters, photos and memoirs, to trace the experiences of the Welsh volunteers through their eyes.

He gives vivid descriptions of the ferocity of battle and of the desperate bravery displayed in the face of overwhelming odds. He makes clear the difficulties the International Brigades and the republican soldiers faced in trying to overcome the use of modern equipment, aerial bombing and the blitzkrieg tactics of the Nationalists and their backers, Hitler and Mussolini.
Huge bravery was shown by medical staff such as communist Thora Silverthorne, who put her medical training and political acumen at the disposal of the International Brigades. She was one of two Welsh women to do so.

This is not a heavy academic tome. Davies’s analysis of complex issues is lucid and his narrative is well paced. As such, it’s an extremely readable and significant addition to the literature on the Spanish civil war.
 

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