The Scottish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

Author: 
Stan Crooke

Daniel Gray’s “Homage to Caledonia” is about the Scottish men and women who mobilised against fascism in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 – either by going to fight in Spain itself, or by building support ‘on the home front’ for the anti-fascist forces.

The Scottish desire to intervene in Spain, writes Gray, was “typical, though in its scale unique.” Around 2,400 British nationals fought in the International Brigade in Spain. Although Scots accounted for only 10% of the British population, over 20% of British volunteers – just under 550 – were Scottish. And many of them never returned.

At the same time, writes Gray, Scotland saw more campaigning to provide material support to Republican Spain than there was elsewhere in Britain “or indeed the world.” According to an article published in the Communist Party’s “Daily Worker”, for example: “Scotland does better than any other part of the country in its contribution to our fund (for Spain).”

Much of the book is taken up by allowing the Scots who fought in the International Brigade to speak for themselves. Although the last Scottish survivor of the Brigade died in March of last year, Gray has structured his book around the correspondence of the volunteers at the time of the conflict, and interviews conducted with them in the years after their return from Spain.

Through the use of such correspondence and interviews Gray gives his readers an insight into the motives, the beliefs, the hopes, the fears and, ultimately, the despair of the Scots who fought in the International Brigade. Despite the passage of time, the words of the volunteer combatants have lost nothing of their compassion or conviction.

“I am writing this on the eve of going into action against fascism,” wrote Glaswegian volunteer Sydney Quinn to his son, “… Whenever I see thousands of Spanish children streaming along the road away from the fascists, my thoughts revert back home, and I can see you and your brothers in the same circumstances if we don’t smash the fascist monsters here.”

Many of the incidents described by the volunteers are equally emotionally charged. Tommy Bloomfield gave an eye-witness account of the death of Ted Dickenson after his capture by the fascists: “He was given the choice of dying or soldiering for Franco. He chose death. He marched up to a tree like a soldier on parade, and did a military about-turn saying ‘salud comrades’ the second he died.”

Other volunteers were killed even before they had the chance to fire a bullet. Jimmy Malley described his detachment’s arrival at the front line: “Men started to die right there and then. There were men just dropping around us, people from our own group. … There were soldiers of the British Battalion dropping as we were going up. Without firing a shot they were getting killed.”

These first-hand accounts of the fighting in Spain give the book its strength. The book’s weakness, on the other hand, is the political context in which the author sets those accounts. In fact, it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that it is the contributions from the Scottish volunteers which save the book from its author.

Gray refers to the “unique scale” of the number of Scots who volunteered to fight in Spain: just under 550, out of a total population of nearly five millions. “Scotland,” he writes, “sent more men (pro rata) to fight than anywhere else in Britain and arguably beyond.” As Gray puts it: “The lion rampant roared on the Spanish republic.”

But Gray’s argument is flatly contradicted by the statistics compiled by Remi Skoutelsky and published in his study of the Spanish Civil War, “Hope Guided Their Steps”. The International Brigade attracted nearly 9,000 volunteers from France (population: 42 millions), for example, and 1,700 from Belgium (population: 8,500,000).

More fundamentally: does it really matter which country provided the most volunteers for an International Brigade? And was Scotland’s contribution to the International Brigade really the result of Scotland being “home to a resilient and tenacious people”, or was it a reflection of the influence of the Communist Party in 1930s Scotland?

Gray writes that “reaction to hostilities in Spain must be viewed through the prism of 1930s Scotland.” This is obviously true. But the Scotland portrayed by Gray in the opening chapter of his book is reminiscent of the romanticised imagery of wartime Red Clydeside rather than of the Depression-wracked Scotland of the 1930s:

“Their Scotland was one of communist councillors and Members of Parliament, and seemingly endless waves of strike action, protest marches, and demonstrations. … Members of the Scottish working class threw themselves from the dole queue and the soup kitchen into the maelstrom of progressive politics. … These were times of daily ferment and solidarity.”

Writing of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had split from the Labour Party in 1932, Gray describes it as “essentially a revolutionary Leninist party”, albeit one which “rejected the dictatorial notion of democratic centralism.”

That the ILP was, in essence, revolutionary and Leninist is certainly an insight into its nature which has hitherto escaped all other historians, including those who specialise in Scottish labour movement history. And if, as was certainly the case, the ILP was not democratic-centralist, how could it yet have been Leninist?

Gray makes great play of the lack of support for Mosley’s pro-Franco British Union of Fascists (BUF) in Scotland, counterposing this to the breadth of support for Republican Spain: “Scottish BUF numbers were infinitesimal. … Wherever the BUF materialised in Scotland they were crushed by a far weightier anti-fascist movement.”

This is true enough as far as it goes. But what Gray overlooks is the support for quasi-fascist Protestant-sectarian movements, such as the Scottish Protestant League (SPL) and Protestant Action (PA), in Scotland in the 1930s: these won up to a third of the votes in local elections.

Both the SPL and the PA were hostile to the BUF. When Mosley spoke in Edinburgh in 1934, for example, John Cormack and his PA played a leading role in the physical opposition to his visit.

There was a simple reason why the BUF was unable to win support from the SPL and PA. It supported Franco and Mussolini, both of whom were backed by the Catholic Church, and was also sympathetic to a United Ireland. This was anathema to a political tradition which saw Hitler and Mussolini as part of a Catholic plot.

As SLP leader Alexander Ratcliffe put it in 1939: “"Hitler and the Pope are a pair … (with) much in common...plotting together with Mussolini, also in the plot, to smash Protestantism throughout Europe.”

Gray gives over one chapter of his book to the allegations that ILP volunteer Bob Smillie was murdered by Stalinists in Spain, and another chapter to the experiences of Glaswegian anarchist Ethel MacDonald in Spain and her criticisms of the role played by Stalinism in Spain.

But this does not lead into a serious discussion about the politics of the Spanish Stalinists and their supporters in the Communist Party in Scotland. In fact, one striking ommission in Gray’s book is the absence of any reference to the debate about Spain which raged in the pages of the Glasgow socialist newspaper “Forward” in the late 1930s.

Despite acknowledging the brutal suppression of the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Spanish socialist party, Gray almost trivialises criticisms of Stalinism, referring to “the politicking surrounding Bob Smilie and Ethel MacDonald” and “tit-for-tat newspaper allegations and rumours.”

When it comes to the support movement built primarily by the Communist Party in Scotland, Gray is full of praise for a movement which “garnered support across class, party and gender.” Gray finds nothing incongruous, for example, in Communist Party members allying themselves with the Duchess of Atholl.

(Communist Party support for the Duchess reached its pinnacle of absurdity when it supported her in the West Perthshire by-election of 1938 on the grounds that she was “the ideal candidate to split the Tories on patriotic grounds.” But of this there is no mention in Gray’s book.)

The Duchess “retained many conservative views,” writes Gray, but “her commitment to the cause of Scottish aid” cannot be doubted. In fact, there was no contradiction between the Duchess’s conservative views and her opposition to Franco.

The Duchess belonged to the pro-imperial right wing of the Conservative Party. She saw victory for Franco as a threat to British imperial interests in the Mediterranean, and the spread of fascism in Europe as a threat to the British Empire as a whole.

As the historian William Knox puts it in “Lives of Scottish Women”: “Her stance on the Spanish Civil War conferred on her the title of the ‘Red Duchess’, although never was a title more undeserved than in this case.”

But just as Gray fails to take a serious look at the politics of Stalinism in Spain, so too he fails to take a serious look at the politics of Stalinism in Scotland. As a result, his book ends up being anecdotal rather than analytical.

“Homage to Caledonia” is worth reading for what those who volunteered to fight in Spain have to say. Rather less so for what its author has to say.