SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Unlikely Warriors’ by Richard Baxell

When a Nationalist military uprising was launched in Spain in July 1936, the Spanish Republic’s desperate pleas for assistance from the leaders of Britain and France fell on deaf ears. Appalled at the prospect of another European democracy succumbing to fascism, volunteers from across the Continent and beyond flocked to Spain’s aid, many to join the International Brigades.

More than 2,500 of these men and women came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, and contrary to popular myth theirs was not an army of adventurers, poets and public school idealists. Overwhelmingly they hailed from modest working class backgrounds, leaving behind their livelihoods and their families to fight in a brutal civil war on foreign soil. Some 500 of them never returned home. 

In this inspiring and moving oral history, Richard Baxell weaves together a diverse array of testimony to tell the remarkable story of the Britons who took up arms against General Franco. Drawing on his own extensive interviews with survivors, research in archives across Britain, Spain and Russia, as well as first-hand accounts by writers both famous and unknown, Unlikely Warriors presents a startling new interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and follows a band of ordinary men and women who made an extraordinary choice.

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This book caught my eye while I waited in the entry queue at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid last year. Off to see the Dali exhibit, along with a trip to see Guernica and the civil war exhibition for a second time, I spotted this book in the gift shop as I shivered in the cold. Me – war book – sold.

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.

Richard Baxell is a research associate at the London School of Economics and a trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Learn more about the author on his website – Richard Baxell

Purchase Unlikely Warriors on Amazon

On Wednesday 30 April, Richard Baxell will be appearing at Offside Librería bookstore in Madrid, giving a presentation on his work from 8pm.

Book covers and blurb via Amazon

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