The involvement of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War

Rojer Dandry

On the 18 July 1936, leading Generals of the Spanish Army led a revolt against the democratically elected Popular Front government of Spain. Within days the country was plunged into civil war with the Republicans fighting the insurgent Nationalists for control of the country. The various democracies of the world turned their backs on Spain?s plight and even hindered the Republicans by supporting non-intervention in the conflict. However, many people came to help the Republic. Las Brigades Internacionales, the International Brigades, would eventually include almost 40,000 men and women from 53 different countries, from all around the world.

The International Brigades began as an idea in July and August of 1936, but soon its formation became the main work of the Comintern (the body with the responsibility of fostering the world-wide spread of Communism). Each Communist party was instructed to raise volunteers who would be sent to Spain by train or boat. Around 60% of the volunteers were Communists, but non-Communists were also welcomed. The first group of recruits came to Spain by train from Paris, and arrived at their base in Albacete, halfway between Madrid and Valencia, on the 14th of October.

It was there that the 500 French, German and Polish recruits began training. The theme of the recruitment propaganda was based on the slogan that Spain should be ?The grave of European Fascism?, and with this in mind volunteers continued to flow into Spain from France. One of the organisers of recruits in Paris was the future Marshal Tito - Joseph Broz. In Albacete the volunteers were organised into language groups and the base was put under the command of Andre Marty. The Brigades were to be led by General Emilio Kleber and intensive training was to take place in the base before going to the front.

The International Brigades baptism of fire came on the 8th of November 1936, when the XIth and XIIth Brigades went to the Madrid front. They numbered about 3,500 men altogether, and were extremely important to the defence of Madrid. The fighting in Madrid eventually reached stalemate and the Brigades were transferred to other fronts. The XI, XIII and XV Brigades fought at the Brunete offensive of July 1937, where losses were very high, and where Oliver Law, the Afro- American commander of the Lincoln Battalion was killed. The Brigades also played a major part in the Aragon offensive of August 1937, and were formally incorporated into the Republican Army around this time. The Brigades were also present at the Battle of Teruel in early 1938, and the final battle in which they took part was at the Ebro, where 75% of International Brigade members who had crossed the Ebro River were killed.

Although General O?Duffy?s assistance to Franco is the most famous Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War, there were also Irishmen who fought on the Republican side in the conflict. ?Red Rule in Spain? was the headline of the Irish Independent following the victory of the Popular Front Coalition in Spain in February 1936. The atmosphere in Ireland, due to the church?s support of Franco, ensured that the majority of people in Ireland were pro-Franco. However some people came out in support of the Republicans, and in September 1936 the decision was made by the small Communist party of Ireland to form an Irish unit of the International Brigades. By December 1936 a small group of volunteers led by Frank Ryan was on its way to Spain. This first group included Jack Nalty of Dublin and Kit Conway of Tipperary, both former I.R.A men and Communists. Ryan told an Irish Press reporter that going to Spain was ?A demonstration of the sympathy of revolutionary Ireland with the Spanish people in their fight against international Fascism?.

On arrival in Spain, the former I.R.A men did not require much training and went into battle on the Cordoba front in the Christmas of 1936. They were led into their first battle, which took place in an olive grove on the Cordoba front, by Kit Conway. They were then transferred to the Madrid front, and at the end of January 1937, the badly depleted unit was returned to base to join the newly formed XV International Brigade.

The Irish were split between the British Battalion and the Lincoln Battalion, in which they formed the ?Connolly Centuria?, or column.