A few good men
STEVE Fullarton went to a dance in Glasgow one Saturday night in 1938 and ended up fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He was just 18.
Granted, his transition from a Saturday-night hop in Shettleston to war-torn Catalonia was perhaps not quite as spontaneous as that. Like many of his friends, he was well aware of what was happening in Spain where, 70 years ago today, civil war broke out when Franco's Nationalists staged a rebellion against the elected Republican government.
"Newsreels in the cinemas showed the bombing of women and children in Madrid and Barcelona," recalls Fullarton, who, aged 86, is one of just two survivors of the 500 Scots who fought the fascists with the 40,000 volunteers from 50 countries in the International Brigades in Spain.
"Being human, I was annoyed about this," he adds, with dry understatement, sitting in the sunshine outside the residential care home in Edinburghwhere he now lives. "There was a popular movement to collect food and money for Spain and I was involved in that. I'd heard often enough about the International Brigades and I always had the feeling..."
The "feeling" turned into action at a dance held by the Communist Party in a hall in Shettleston, where he lived with his widowed mother and sister. "Just by chance I saw the Communist Party organiser in the hall and I went over and asked if I could volunteer. He said he'd come and talk to my mother."
Fullarton's friend from the neighbouring stair, 19-year-old Willie Gauntlet, also volunteered. Only one of them would return from Spain.
"Apart from the first few days, it wasn't a civil war," Fullarton, now almost blind, takes pains to stress. "It was a war of intervention by fascist powers, Italy and Germany, aided and abetted by Britain and France [who had signed pledges of non-intervention]."
After lying about their ages during successive interviews, Fullarton, Gauntlet and five others travelled to London, then Paris, before ending up in a band of 49 volunteers who were issued with rope-soled alpargatas (sandals) and led on a night march over the Pyrenees into Spain. He was put on a corporal's training course - "We were the original Dad's Army," he says, "exercising with bits of wood shaped like rifles" - but training was cut short as the British battalion had to retreat from Belchite and Calaceite (he spells out the names meticulously, remembering every detail) after being attacked by Italian tanks.
Fullarton and his comrades ended up being bombed, shelled and machine-gunned, trying to take what he knows as Hill 481, near the Ebro. It was horrifying, he recalls, as he watched his comrades falling around him. He fired his Russian-made light machine gun until he ran out of ammunition, then tried to help some of the surrounding wounded, including a Dumbarton man, Kelly, and their lieutenant, Paddy O'Sullivan, both of whom were badly hurt. "O'Sullivan told me to reach a safe place and come back for him when it got dark. I was making my way towards a hole when I was plugged."
He never heard of O'Sullivan and Kelly again. Wounded in the side, he managed to slide down the hill, dragging the precious machine gun behind him, and was eventually taken back across the Ebro on a stretcher slung across a rowing boat. In an operating theatre with neither X-rays nor anaesthetics, they probed for the bullet with a six-inch needle. "That was no fun," he remarks casually.
After convalescing, he eventually returned to Glasgow. His friend, Willie Gauntlet, was not so lucky and was killed towards the end of the conflict.
Although they were both living in Shettleston at the time, it wasn't until Fullarton was in Spain that he met the formidable James Maley, Communist activist and fellow-International brigader. Unlike Fullarton, who had no previous military training and was relatively unpoliticised, Maley had joined the Communist Party in 1932 and, two years before the Spanish conflict erupted, had joined the Territorial Army.
"I always knew there would be a war against the fascists and I knew I had to learn to shoot," says Maley, the only other surviving Scots brigadista, and an astonishingly spry 98. Born in Glasgow's Calton district, Maley made the Pyrenees crossing in December 1936 and, after six weeks of training at Albacete, Valentine's Day found him with a heavy machine gun company, covering the Republican retreat at the Battle of Jarama.
He nonchalantly recalls the bloody chaos of the Jarama Valley as "a bit of a hassle-bassle". In fact, they found themselves at the wrong end of one of the last cavalry charges in history, as Franco's crack Moorish Regulares bore down on them.
"We were on trucks, going like the hammers of hell, right into it," he recalls at home in Maryhill, smartly dressed in a check shirt and sporting his red-starred International Brigade veterans' medal, presented to him when he revisited Spain for the first time on the 60th anniversary in 1996. With him is his son, Willie Maley, a lecturer in English literature at Glasgow University, who co-wrote, with his brother, John, From the Calton to Catalonia, a play inspired by their father's experiences.
Maley's outfit was eventually rounded up by the Moroccans. "There were two men in charge of us and the first was simply pulled out and ... 'bang'. The second was being pulled out when Spanish [Nationalist troops] came on the scene and stopped the Moors from shooting any more prisoners. I think they recognised that we were British."
There were times, nevertheless, when Maley and his friends thought they might end up being summarily executed. Instead, he appeared in a fascist propaganda film, standing on a truck with other Republican prisoners, and flanked by tricorn-hatted Spanish fascist guards. And that was how, back in Glasgow, his astonished mother first learned of his plight, as she sat in a cinema watching a newsreel , and recognising her missing son. She persuaded the projectionist to cut a couple of stills from the film for her.
Fortunately, however, an exchange of prisoners enabled Maley to get home. Both he and Fullarton went on to serve in the Second World War, Maley in the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and Fullarton in the RAF. A third Scots International Brigadier, John Dunlop, died in May. But it wasn't just men who put themselves at risk for the Spanish republic. There were the Canadian nurses, for instance, who helped look after Fullarton, or Ethel McDonald, the redoubtable "Bellshill Girl Anarchist", who went to Spain in 1936 and ended up broadcasting in English for Barcelona's anarchist radio station. McDonald, who died in 1960, was in Barcelona when the Communists attacked the anarchist headquarters, killing some 300 anarchist volunteers. McDonald visited anarchists in prison and helped some escape, becoming known as the "Scots Scarlet Pimpernel".
Such brutal factional fighting marred the supposed solidarity: a question mark still hangs over the fate of Bob Smillie, the 22-year-old grandson of Robert Smillie, the Scottish miners' leader and an Independent Labour Party member, who fought with the Republicans but was arrested by the Russian secret service while returning across the border for a lecture tour. He was imprisoned, and the Communists subsequently announced that he had died in June, 1937, from peritonitis.
Some were more politicised than others: Fullarton recalls listening to the powerful rhetoric of Jimmy Maley, well known in Glasgow as a Communist speaker. "They'd be quoting Lenin and Marx by the yard and I'd be sitting there with my mouth open," grins Fullarton. "So I made my mind up to pay attention."
He joined the party in Spain, but didn't remain a member, while Maley remained a confirmed Communist until the British party wound up in 1991. Don't try asking him about New Labour.
As the band of veteran brigadistas dwindles, as the rallying cry of "No Pasaran!" becomes a distant echo in history, or a line in a song, what are their feelings, 70 years on? It's hard to imagine the same degree of idealism exercising us now as individuals, to go and fight in a foreign country for our beliefs. Maley, however, points to the huge turnout of young people who took to the streets to demonstrate against the Iraq War. His son, Willie, regards it as vital that we don't forget what happened in Spain and points to the profound effect it exercised on a generation. "We're often told nowadays not to compare things, not to worry about history. We're told not to compare Iraq with Suez."
Whatever motivated these doughty internationalists to risk their lives, often making the ultimate sacrifice, it should not be dismissed as blind idealism. "Some say that, but it runs much deeper," says Geraldine Abrahams, a Glasgow freelance journalist and committee member of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, whose father, Gerry Doran, who died in 1976, was in the Irish contingent of brigaders led by Frank Ryan (as celebrated in the song Viva la Quinta Brigada).
"These people had decided long before that fair wages, good education and a more equal society were important," adds Abrahams. "That was what had been elected in Spain and it was being squashed by Franco. They went out because that was what they believed in, not only from here but from 50 countries around the world, against the wishes of their governments who had taken pledges of non-intervention."
Last Easter, Abrahams and her sister, Anne O'Hara, made what proved to be a highly emotive pilgrimage over the Pyrenees, in the company of 68 others (to mark the 70th anniversary) including three veterans. Standing on the spot where their father, who was seriously wounded at Cordoba, crossed into Spain was, she says, "indescribable. We were all overwhelmed."
And they were warmly greeted by the Spanish, at a time when the civil war and its atrocities are only now being openly discussed following a prolonged pacto do olvido or "agreed forgetfulness". "There's been such a silence in Spain for a long time," adds Abrahams, "but, especially with the new government, that's changing. Civil war is a terrible thing. To try and get past all that, to get on with life, but not to forget, is the most important thing."
For his part, Fullarton points to the prophetic nature of the conflict. He remembers vividly a Republican poster which he says read: "Madrid and Barcelona today, Paris and London tomorrow..." "So they were warning us, and they were right. Some of us took notice, but others just left it to the other fella."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West