David Lomon was one of the lucky ones. While fighting in Aragon in south-west Spain in the spring of 1938, the former salesman from Hackney was captured by one of the 100,000 Italian soldiers sent by Mussolini to fight for General Franco’s forces. Incarcerated in a Francoist concentration camp, his experiences were horrifying — brutal guards, starvation rations, insanitary and verminous conditions and a decidedly uncertain future — but he did at least survive. Many of his compatriots did not. Almost one in five were killed and most were wounded at least once in their fight to defend the Spanish Republic in the civil war of 1936-1939, in what some observers have seen as the opening salvo of the Second World War.

As I describe in my new oral history of the British volunteers, Unlikely Warriors, the actions of the young Jewish Londoner — like many others across Europe — had been spurred by an understandable horror at the rise of fascism during the 1930s. Galvanised by his participation in demonstrations against Oswald Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’ in Britain, where anti-fascists defiantly chanted the slogan taken from the Spanish war, ‘No Pasarán!’ (They shall not pass!), he decided he needed to do more than simply protest. He took the momentous decision to leave his home and family to fight in a war in a country he had never seen: ‘I wanted to do something’, he said, ‘I wanted to fight fascism’. In December 1937, David Lomon became one of 2,500 volunteers from Britain and Ireland to fight for the Republican government. Over the course of the war, some 35,000 men and women from more than fifty countries around the world would do likewise.

The conflict began on 17 July 1936 when a military-led rising against the Popular Front government failed to secure much of Spain, including the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao. As the frustrated plotters turned to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy for help, anti-fascists from across Europe began to arrive in Spain, determined to seize the opportunity to halt the spread of right-wing regimes across Europe. The trickle became a flood once Stalin and the Comintern (the Communist International) took the decision to help the Republic by coordinating the volunteers into International Brigades.

Formed just before Christmas 1936, the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. But unable to defeat the overwhelmingly better-armed and trained forces of General Franco (Britain and France refused to aid the Spanish government), the surviving members of the International Brigades were withdrawn in the autumn of 1938. Only 305 from Britain and Ireland remained. Six months later, the Republic collapsed and the hopes of supporters of democratic Spain from around the world were shattered. ‘In Spain,’ wrote the French author and philosopher Albert Camus, ‘[my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.’

The control of the International Brigades by the Comintern has led many to conclude that the volunteers were disciplined Communists, uncompromising followers of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Many certainly were, particularly the political commissars, but within the ranks this was not always the case. Communist Party membership lists suggest that the overwhelming majority had joined since the foundation of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1932 and David Lomon was by no means unique when he admitted that, ‘I joined the Young Communist League just because, I thought, these are the people who I could use to get over to Spain.’

Nor were the volunteers all young poets and intellectuals. Most were working people who believed that the European situation of the 1930s was sufficiently serious that it demanded ordinary people to take extraordinary action. One veteran explained to me how ‘the very air was different then.’ Many years after the civil war, a Scottish volunteer described his comrade-in-arms, musician, poet and Cambridge graduate Miles Tomalin, as ‘the unlikely warrior’. Tomalin later wrote back to correct him. ‘Hughie,’ he replied, ‘we were all unlikely warriors.’

Richard Baxell is the author of Unlikely Warriors, published on 6 September by Aurum Press and available at the National Army Museum.

Tags: 20th Century, Communism, Fascism, History, Military, Non-fiction, Spain