"There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten
It is the 'last great cause'. The Spanish Civil War attracts 59,380 volunteers from 55 countries to fight in it. 9,934 of them die and a further 7,686 are seriously wounded.
By far the largest contingent, some nine thousand, come from France, with a further five thousand from Germany and Austria. Two thousand of the volunteers came from Britain; another three hundred from Ireland and what we now call the Commonwealth. Most - the miners and engineering workers, the shop stewards and militants - are forgotten and unrecorded outside their family circle but some are famous still: Jack Jones, the union leader; George Orwell, author of Homage to Catalonia; Claud Cockburn, then of the Daily Worker, later The Times and, later still, The Week, these days probably most famous for his most boring headline award for ‘Small Earthquake in Chile / Not Many Dead’; Kingsley Martin, later to be editor of the New Statesman; Esmond Romilly, nephew (by marriage) of Winston Churchill. And then there's one of my favourites, Roger Roughton, editor of an avant-garde magazine, who announces, in the Autumn of 1937, “This is the last number of Contemporary Poetry and Prose as the Editor is going abroad for some time”.
Some visit briefly to show support: Labour leader Clement Atlee, for example, Nehru, even future Tory leader Edward Heath. W.H. Auden, the author of Spain, volunteers as a stretcher bearer or maybe an ambulance driver or both. Stephen Spender goes out to run a broadcasting station which turns out to be long gone. Ernest Hemingway covers the war for the American Alliance newspaper, travelling with fellow-reporter and future wife Martha Gelhorn and subsequently using his experience to write For Whom the Bell Tolls and, less well-known, his play The Fifth Column.
Others, like Laurie Lee, author of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, are trapped in Spain at the outbreak of the war.
Many do not return. Felicia Browne, the artist, tells Sydney Smith of the Daily Express that “I am a member of the London Communists and I can fight as well as any man”. But she is the first British volunteer to die, killed in action on 25 August 1936 during an attempt to dynamite a Fascist train. Julian Bell, the poet son of Vanessa and Clive Bell, joins up as an ambulance driver on the Republican side. Christopher Caudwell, the Marxist scholar and author of Illusion and Reality, drives an ambulance to Spain and enlists in the Brigades. He dies on the first day of the Battle of Jarama Valley in February 1937. And John Cornford, who writes one of the most affecting of both 'poems from Spain' and 'poems for Spain', Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca, is killed in action at Lopera, near Córdoba, on the day after his twenty-first birthday.
Cornford is the poster boy of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He’s the grandson of Charles Darwin no less (and one of Franco’s first moves on seizing power is to ban Darwin’s works – and they stay banned until the year 2000). His parents are John, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge and the poet Frances, with whom he argues poetry and poetics even as a young schoolboy. His first name is Rupert, after Rupert Brooke – friend of his parents. He took a double first at Trinity, Cambridge, where he is just two or three years or so behind the likes of Burgess, Philby, McLean, Blunt. But, unlike them, he doesn’t need recruiting. He is an early and committed Communist, an active member of the Young Communist League, and he joins the party when he goes up to Cambridge.
It is Cornford, probably the best of “the young poets exploding like bombs” (Auden didn't explode, he imploded), who will be our protagonist in this story of the Spanish Civil War.
In February 1936, the Popular Front wins the Spanish election, appoint Manuel Azana as president, ban the Falange Party, take over education and healthcare from the church and begin the process of breaking up the huge landed estates. By July, the military in Spanish Morocco is in revolt, the government dissolve the regular army, and general Franco arrives in Morocco to take charge of a full-scale revolt.
It’s a right-wing revolt for sure, but it is not – at this point – fascist. It’s a union of the army and the catholic church and its objective is the overthrow of a democratic election in favour of the re-establishment of feudalism, pure and simple. But that is too pure and simple for Hitler and Mussolini, who provide the planes to transport the troops from Morocco to the mainland. They see this as a test for what they are planning later and Franco is happy to oblige them.
Which means that Stalin has to get involved, and he sends arms and materials to the legitimate government. He is also aware of this as a rehearsal for what will come later, and introduces ‘advisors’ to Spain. But Germany and Italy are sending regular army soldiers – 70,000 or more from Italy, 14,000 artillery and airmen from Germany, 20,000 from the Portuguese dictatorship. And this manpower is backed by endless supplies of arms, ammunition and planes.
The ‘democracies’ – Britain and France are pretty much the only ones at this point – refuse to become involved. They are still committed to maintaining peace in Europe, and are not minded to support a government which appeared to be losing and, where it was winning, is Communist in character.
In Britain, even the Labour Party and the TUC are non-interventionist. In France, too, the Popular Front’s parallel stance provoked riots on the street and demands that their government sell planes to the beleaguered Republic after the Conservative government in Britain persuades Blum that support for Spain would damage French imperial interests and influence in the Mediterranean.
In the face of this ambivalence and prevarication from the two major democratic powers and their parliamentary left, it is left to the Communists to respond to the calls for help such as this:
“Workers and anti-Fascists of all lands. We the workers of pain are poor but we are pursuing a noble ideal. Our fight is your fight. Our victory is the victory of Liberty. Men and women of all lands! Come to our aid. Arms for Spain!”
And it is the Communists who will dominate the International Brigades. Despite the plethora of independent and independently-minded Marxist groupings and the powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain, the Communists will become the most powerful of those fighting the Francoist rebellion.
September 1936 is the key month. The Non-Intervention Committee (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the USSR) have their first meeting, at which it is immediately clear that Britain and France are the only participants who will adhere to decisions. Franco is appointed by the military junta as commander in chief of the armed forces of Spain. And that same month, the Comintern Executive Committee formally establishes the International Brigades, allocating a quota of recruits to each national Communist party.
Almost 90% of the Germans, and Austrians, 85% of the Latin Americans, 75% of Poles and Balkan volunteers, 70% of the Americans (including 81 Afro-Americans) and 60% of the French are Communist party members. In Britain, where it is illegal to enlist in a foreign army and the government impose restrictions on the issue of passports, the party recruited carefully and discreetly, refusing the applications of leading party members, and carrying out background checks on any non-party volunteers. Many of those approved by the party travel to France on weekend returns, for which passports are not necessary.
Once in France, the influence of the French party, with a membership of over a quarter of a million at this point, and the Paris-based organization of Comintern leaders such as Joseph Broz, later of course Marshall Tito, makes reaching Spain on what is known as “the secret railway” relatively straightforward. By 13 October, the first volunteers are arriving in Albacete, the training camp and reception centre for the International Brigades, and a week later the Republican government officially recognizes the Brigades as part of the Republican Army but with their own commanders and infrastructure.
It is to Albacete that John Cornford travels in September 1936.
It is his second visit to the conflict in Spain. He is the first British national to join the fighting - in July in Barcelona, where he serves with the POUM militia on the Aragon front, before returning to England to recruit volunteers for “a small British unit that would set an example of training and discipline (and shaving) to the anarchistic militias operating out of Barcelona”.
That recollection is from the celebrated classicist Bernard Knox, who is one of the handful - eight actually make the journey - who join “without a second thought”, and take, with Cornford, the Paris route and the secret train, to Spain and Albacete.
In a sense, they are the first International Brigade. The formal proposal to found the Brigades, from PCF leader Maurice Thorez, comes a few weeks later.
“A good soldier”
The commandant of the Albacete camp is André Marty. Ernest Hemingway describes him thus:
"Also known as ‘The Crazy’, Comrade Marty is a very well-known French Communist and the Commissar of the International Brigades … He's turned bitter and paranoid after years of party struggles and thwarted ambition, and likes killing just about everyone he can get his hands on because he's convinced they're insubordinates. Real historical figure, by the way.”
As you can infer from Hemingway’s description, Marty is probably the least appropriate person to be in charge of volunteers with no military experience. “Why aren’t the volunteers achieving much?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it because they lacked enthusiasm? A thousand times no. Is it because they lacked courage? I say ten thousand times no. There are three things they have lacked, three things which we must have – political unity, military leaders and discipline.”
Cornford would probably agree on all three points. He speaks disparagingly, in The Situation in Catalonia in 1936, of the failure to “recognize the need for discipline in their militia columns: but the realities of the war have forted the necessity of some kind of discipline on them; but they insist on calling it ‘organized indiscipline’.” On a couple of occasions, he steps up to the plate. In a letter to Margot Heinemann, he reports that, with the section leader absent, “I took charge on the moment”. In this same letter, he tells her that “I’m becoming a good soldier, longish endurance and a capacity for living in the present and enjoying all that can be enjoyed. there’s a tough time ahead but I’ve plenty of strength left for it.”
The third – Marty’s first – priority is political unity and this, in any report from Spain, is a vexed and confused issue.
For those, like me, who turned at an early age to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and whose view of the internal disputes amongst the Republicans has been informed by that book, we must look again. The correspondent of the New York Times, Herbert Matthews, believes that “the book did more to blacken the loyalist cause than any book written by enemies of the Second Republic”.
The problem is, Orwell is not disinterested, and nor is he sufficiently informed about the broader picture. As he himself acknowledges later, “my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events” produced what is, at the least, and in both sense, a partial account.
But there is, nonetheless, more than a grain of truth, and Cornford the communist is remarkably non-sectarian in his judgements, although convinced that military discipline requires a strong, central leadership which could only come from the Communist Party. And it is under French Communist command that his group find themselves in October. His battalion is sent to Madrid to defend the city, where Cornford and his comrades fight in the Battle of University City, which the Loyalists take frightening losses as it achieves a temporary victory. It is in this battle that Cornford is injured, taking a head wound from shrapnel. He recovers quickly and returns, now promoted to section leader, and leads his section in the counter attack at the Battle of Boadilla which secures Madrid for the time being.
His unit is ordered south to retake Córdoba. Joe Monks – one of the Irish volunteers – recalls in a 1985 memoir:
“A young hero, his head swathed in bandages, joined the Company. He was the first of the men from Madrid to come amongst us. We had read about him in the newspapers and now we gathered around to hear stirring accounts of the battles that had halted the Nationalists-cum-Fascists at Madrid. His name was John Cornford.”
As part of the attempt to retake Huesca, Cornford’s company – ill-equipped and poorly led by ‘Colonel’ LaSalle (shortly to be shot as a fifth columnist, as is Marty) - is ordered to an unprotected position which is under heavy machine gun attack, artillery fire and strafing from newly arrived German planes. They are forced to retreat to what is known, to this day, as la colina ingles.
Joe Monks again, on his last memory of Cornford: “Beneath his bandaged forehead his pale, sallow face was sad. Crossing the shadows that the tall trees cast upon the roadway, I thought of John’s last Mile to Huesca.” Monks is injured, a bullet passing through him, but later, on rejoining the unit, he hears that, “when the Section renewed contact and Commissar (Ralph) Fox was missing, John Cornford crawled out into no-man’s-land to search for him. Later both bodies were seen by a patrol that gathered papers off the dead.”
His body is never recovered, almost certainly joining the hundred thousand or more whose bodies were tossed into unmarked mass graves, drenched in petrol, and burned.
It is 28 December 1936, the day after his 21st birthday.
"If true, if false”
Cornford dies as a soldier, not a poet. But his life and his death, his poetry and his letters, have become a grindstone for those with axes to grind.
George Orwell starts it, in his 1940 essay My Country Right or Left:
“Let anyone compare the poem John Cornford wrote not long before he was killed (Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca) with Sir Henry Newbolt’s There’s a Breathless Hush in the Close Tonight. Put aside the technical differences, which are merely a matter of period, and it will be seen that the emotional content of the two poems is almost exactly the same. The young Communist who died heroically in the International Brigade was public school to the core. He had changed his allegiance but not his emotions.”
In fact, Cornford is not really public school. True, he attends the (relatively) liberal Stowe School, but he is still only 16 when he is living in London, studying at the LSE and working as a Communist organizer. But it suits the Etonian Orwell, with his “cut-glass Eton accent” which prompts so much hostility amongst the other volunteers in Barcelona, to push this narrative: that patriotism, School, team spirit can morph seamlessly into internationalism, Party and comradeship.
The flip side of this view, which has currency amongst the real public schoolboys who, having missed out on the Great War, see Spain as a “test” of their manhood, is that he is little more than a Communist cadre, subscribing uncritically to the Party line and adopting a Communist pose out of guilt of being born into a privileged class.
But, as Stan Smith, Professor Emeritus of English at Nottingham Trent University, points out, his poetry and his letters from Spain support neither view. His essay, Hard as the Metal of my Gun: John Cornford’s Spain, published in the Journal of English Studies, reveals a far more nuanced picture than either standard characterization. What follows owes a great deal to that essay.
Smith directs us to the fifth stanza, noting that it is the first entry in Cornford’s diary and, in that draft, opens the poem and contains “the germ and stimulus of the whole poem”.
“All around the barren hills of Aragon
Announce our testing has begun.
Here what the Seventh Congress said,
If true, if false, is live or dead,
Speaks in the Oviedo mausers tone.”
There are thousands of words that can be written – indeed, have been - on the multiple policy changes of the Comintern during this period, but the Seventh Congress made a profound reversal of strategy. “What the Seventh Congress said” is that the Communist Party should embrace the concept of the “Popular Front”, a reversal of its previous condemnation of “false left” parties and refusal to work with them.
For Cornford, the “Communism (that) was my waking time” was of this kind, the so-called “Third Period” and this reading emphasizes the personal dilemma, attempting to synthesize the Party’s “correct line” with his own commitment to a Communism which is now being characterized as “ultra-leftist” and “Trotskyist”: “Now, with my Party, I stand quite alone.”
Stan Smith places the poem alongside a letter to Cornford’s lover and fellow Communist Margot Heinemann in late August in which, after describing the situation in Catalonia, he writes that:
“The only possible tactics for the Party are to place themselves at the head of the movement, get it under control, force recognition from the Government of the social gains of the revolution, and prevent at all costs an attack on the Government – unless the Government actually begins to sabotage the fight against Fascism. that may be what the Party is doing. But I have a fear that it is a little too mechanical in its application of People’s Front tactics. It is still concentrating too much on trying to neutralize the petty bourgeoisie – when by far the most urgent task is to win the anarchist workers, which is a special technique and very different from broad Seventh Congress phrases.”
One can sense the implicit criticism of the Party in “a little too mechanical”, and the fighter’s scorn for “broad Seventh Congress phrases”.
This is a poet, a wordsmith, dismissing mere words. But it is carefully chosen, powerfully direct and uncompromisingly honest words that he uses to express the dilemmas - as a fighter, a Communist, and a poet - he faces as he waits for the battle to come. In this stanza he is all three
"Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears me by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves."
He wants to be "invincible as the strong sun / hard as the metal of my gun". He dies knowing that:
“Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things.”