Marking a heroic homecoming with pride

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Comrades gathered across Britain at the weekend to honour the return of the International Brigaders in October 1938, whose legendary battle against fascism continues to resonate today, writes LYNNE WALSH

JOURNALIST Martha Gellhorn, reporting on the volunteers who fought fascism in the Spanish civil war, wrote: “They were fighting for us all, against the combined force of European fascism. They deserved our thanks and our respect and got neither.”

On Saturday, in towns and cities across Britain, communists and comrades chose to differ.

In an overwhelming display of solidarity, gratitude and honour, they came with wreaths, flowers, flags and banners.

Staging more than a dozen events, commemorating the homecoming of the International Brigaders in October 1938, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) was supported by the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT).

In the face of Covid-19 restrictions changing at the last minute, plans were made and remade.

Cheshire East Councillor Joy Bratherton was set to attend the Manchester event with colleague Mick Roberts from Unite, but as their home town of Crewe was blanketed in tougher measures, they laid wreaths at the memorial bench in the town’s cemetery honouring brigaders George Fletcher and Eddie McQuade.

In Kingston-upon-Thames, a small group took to a boat on the river, remembering brigader Felicia Browne, the first British citizen to die, fighting with the Karl Marx militia in Aragon.

Flowers in the vibrant red, yellow and purple of the Spanish Republican flag were cast into the Thames.

In Middlesborough, too, a group walked to the Newport Bridge and cast their wreath into the river Tees.

Martin Levy from the CPB said: “They fought because they had knew that if fascism was not stopped in Spain it would soon come knocking at our own door. The best way to honour the brigaders’ memory is to fight for peace and democracy and to build worldwide solidarity against imperialism.”

Scottish comrades went to the exquisite La Pasionaria statue at Glasgow’s Custom House Quay, unveiled in 1980, and depicting the communist MP Dolores Ibarruri with arms stretched upward.

In Manchester, her namesake Dolores Long, daughter of brigader Sam Wild, gave the famous farewell speech of gratitude made by Ibarruri to the volunteers as they left Barcelona.

“Comrades of the International Brigades, you can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality. And we shall not forget you.”

In a message of solidarity from Spain, Dr Almudena Cros, president of the Asociacion de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI), said she was delighted to see the outpouring of respect for all those who came to fight “for the cause of democracy, of the working class, and of the Spanish Republic.”

The brigaders would never be forgotten, “they are the best examples for our generation, and for the generations to come.”

In Cambridge, a group gathered at Ronald Rolph Court, named after the local volunteer who served as a medical auxiliary in Spain.

In Cardiff, another lively city muffled by lockdown, a small group walked to the stone memorial in Alexandra Gardens, Cathays Park.

Wreaths were laid by Mary Greening, daughter of brigader Edwin Greening, and by Will Barton of the CPB and Malachi Kakembo of the Young Communist League (YCL).

Barton said: “Their struggle was not in vain. Their achievement in helping to hold back the advance of European fascism played a vital part in the battle that unfolded across the continent.

“But the struggle is not over. Today we are seeing again the rise of fascism across Europe — even here in attacks on refugee housing in Wales.

“Our continuing struggle against this is part of what we have come here today to do.”

Kakembo said: “The International Brigade fought to defend the work of groups such as the mujeres libres or free women, whose radical feminist demands terrified Franco and the fascists!

“The active participation of women in the international brigades and the wider resistance contributed hugely in the fight against fascism and helped to inspire the increased role of revolutionary feminism in liberation movements worldwide.”

CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths said: “We are especially proud of those men and women in Wales — miners, unemployed workers, nurses, seafarers — of Welsh, Irish, Jewish, Spanish and Arab descent who made that journey to Spain.

“Today, as the scourge of racism, fascism and imperialist war walks the Earth with renewed vigour, we must ensure that the sacrifices of the International Brigaders and their medical units were not in vain.”

In London, at the memorial on the Southbank’s Jubilee Gardens, IBMT chair Jim Jump said: “Of 2,500 International Brigade volunteers from Britain and Ireland, more than 520 gave their lives. Most were communists.

“As a registered charity, the IBMT is required to be politically neutral, and indeed we are. But we’re happy to be associated with this commemoration because we are dealing here, not with party politics, but with historical facts.

“Historians have calculated that three-quarters of the British volunteers in Spain were Communist Party or YCL members.

“They joined because the Communist Party, unlike others, was not fooled by the appeasers in the national government of the time who concocted the cynical non-intervention policy that deprived the Spanish government of arms, oil and other essentials.”

In Manchester, Paul Ward of the CPB said the struggle of more than eight decades ago had echoes today: “In an increasingly troubled world, with a Prime Minister in Britain who is openly racist, homophobic, misogynistic and promotes Islamophobia, we can all join the fight against racism and fascism. We are all internationalists. We are all anti-fascist.

“From Cable Street to the Ebro, to a valley called Jarama, to the brigades leaving Barcelona, we continue to say: ‘No Pasaran — they shall not pass’.”