Squeezed between the cosy couches and afternoon teas in the Sculpture Hall of Manchester Town Hall is a plaque to those people who dedicated their lives to one of the most important struggles of the 20th Century, the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Why was Spain so important? And why did some many working-class young men and women from the Manchester area,make their way to the battlefields of Spain?.
Benny Goodman, an International Brigader, explained in 1996 why he fought in Spain;
There were no financial inducements to go to fight in Spain. We weren’t mercenaries.We were idealists.
People like Benny grew up in an era when there was a rise in fascism across Europe. Hitler and Mussolini came to power on the backs of destroying democratic organisations and killing their members. In Britain, the Tory government (and Tory establishment) covertly supported the German and Italian regimes. The rise of Mosley and the British Union of Fascists showed that there was nothing foreign about fascism and its physical force mentality.
Across Britain people organised against Mosley and his armed gangs. On 29 September1934 he brought his Blackshirts to Belle Vue in Manchester. Local trade unionists and communists ignored a police ban on marches and held a protest meetin whilst , some people went into the meeting and shouted Mosley down.
Like today, in the 30s, there was a worldwide economic crisis, leading to mass unemployment and a level of social deprivation that is unheard of today. Walter Greenwood, in his novel Love on the Dole, showed how this poverty ground down every aspect of peoples’ lives. Greenwood knew what he was writing about, he came from Salford and was close to the communities he wrote about. For me the power of this book is the way he showed how people did fight back against the system and incorporated into the book is a real event when the local branch of the National Unemployed Workers Union took to the streets of Salford in October 1931 to protest against cuts in benefits.
The election of Popular Front governments in Spain and France in 1936 gave hope to socialists that there could be opposition to the rise of fascism. But as we now know, although it was Franco who led the revolt against republican Spain, he was supported by Hitler and Mussolini who were playing a bigger game in their plan to take over Europ
A number of countries signed a Non-Intervention agreement, which meant that they would not sell or send arms to Spain. These countries included Germany, Italy, the USSR, Britain and France. Germany and Italy, however, continued to support Franco with aeroplanes, tanks, and troops. Most importantly the American oil company, Standard Oil, with the backing of the US government, gave Franco the fuel to win the war.
In 21st Century Britain it is hard to explain why so many people were outraged at these events. But we are talking about a highly politicised working class who understood history and had been active themselves in many trade union and political struggles.
Organisations such as the Manchester and Salford Trades Council had throughout the 30s informed people about the rise of fascism globally. It now organised a series of events to educate and organise people to help Spain. Meetings were arranged to raise money for the National Council of Labour and the Spanish Appeal Fund. The film Defence of Madrid was shown and meetings and demonstrations were held across the city.
But some young people decided that they wanted to do more and that meant going to Spain and joining the armed forces. They left England, mostly in organised groups (although some people made their own way) and when the frontier between France and Spain was closed, they had to cross the Pyrenees, often at night. We still do not know how many people fought in the International Brigade as many used false names the British Government had passed legislation to stop people joining the Spanish republican forces.
Many people from Manchester went to Spain to work in the medical services. This included 22 year old nurse, Lillian Urmston of Stalybridge in Tameside. Her work meant nursing the wounded in caves, dodging bombing to reach injured soldiers, and fleeing across the Pyrenees whilst still caring for the sick and wounded.
She later recounted;
On the way the Fascists were right behind us and the French didn’t want us so we were interned with the refugees in France.
Syd Booth left school at 14 and became a railway worker. He joined the Communist Party and became a leading trade union activist. As an activist in the anti-fascist struggles he saw the importance of the war in Spain and, like his mates and younger brother, he followed them and joined the International Brigade. He spent many months fighting in Spain until he was wounded and returned to England. Back home he was active in the International Brigade Association and he designed this sculpture which was dedicated to the Manchester Brigaders.
The sculpture came about because Councillor Mike Hynes felt there should be a permanent memorial to the Manchester men who fought in Spain in the XV Brigade. A Greater Manchester Spanish Civil War Memorial Committee was formed, including WorkingClass Movement Library founders Ruth and Eddie Frow. Financial support for a plaque was provided by Manchester Trades Council, Labour Party organisations, MPs and individuals.
On 12 February 1983, the 46th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama, it was unveiled by the Deputy Lord Mayor of Manchester City Council. The plaque includes the names of the battles where International Brigaders fought and the farewell speech to them by the famous Pasionaria.
For many years an annual commemoration took place in February each year to remember the XV Brigade. Next month on 10 February from 11.30-12. 30 there will be a re-dedication of the plaque. Hilary Jones, one of the organisers of the ceremony said:
We are commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama -when the British Battalion of the International Brigades first went into action and succeeded in holding back the fascist attack on Madrid . Approximately 150 men went from Greater Manchester ..with 46 killed. We are also honouring the contribution of the men and women of Greater Manchester who helped the Republican cause in the Medical aid for Spain movement.
The event is organised by the IBMT, an organisation that was set up in 2002 which originally included veterans of the IB Association, the friends of the IBA and representatives of the Marx Memorial Library and historians who specialise in the history of the Spanish Civil War.
In March they have organised a conference in Manchester on the anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
For further information about the International Brigaders see Bernard Barry’s excellent From Manchester to Spain published by the WorkingClassMovement Library.
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