On 12 February 1937, 630 British and Irish soldiers of the International Brigades, who had fired just 15 bullets each during their brief training, were sent to attack a professional force three times their size that was backed by artillery and anti-tank guns. It ended, predictably, in slaughter.
The Spanish civil war had begun in July 1936 when the far-right general Francisco Franco led a military coup against the newly elected government of the centre and the left. As fascist regimes in Italy and Germany poured troops and material into the conflict, the Soviet Union mobilised volunteers via the world’s communist parties, while sending a small cadre of generals and fighter pilots from the Red Army.
For the English Speaking Battalion, so named to assuage the former IRA men who were among its few skilled fighters, the baptism of fire was to be brutal. Positioned on an indefensible ridge, with no friendly forces to their left or behind them, they were sliced to pieces by artillery, bayoneted by the advancing fascists and saved from catastrophe only by the chance discovery of some machine gun ammunition, which their commanders had neglected to provide.
After a three-day retreat, in which all but 80 were either killed or wounded, a Red Army colonel persuaded the stragglers to march back towards the enemy, singing the Internationale. In the dusk, they strayed so deep behind the fascist lines that they caused a rout on the other side, finally ending the Francoist advance.
The action at Jarama became a legend, both for the British left and the Irish republican movement. So did the actions of the French, Yugoslav and American units they fought alongside. But after the republican defeat in 1939, the whole story became fragmented: the official unit records were taken to Moscow and not made available until after 1989. Meanwhile, the military and political history of the war was reliant on the memoirs of participants, often writing under conditions of repression, exile or, in the case of the British commander at Jarama, remorse.
The 35,000 men who joined the International Brigades were often chosen on political merit first, military skill second
As a result, while history-writing about the war itself has been extensive, there has, claims Giles Tremlett, been no comprehensive and global history of the International Brigades in English since the mid-1960s, when the sources were far fewer.
Tremlett’s book aims to remedy that: it is a history written from below, favouring no single national standpoint and determined to avoid the hagiography into which some on the left writing about the conflict stray.
Tremlett, a British journalist and historian based in Madrid, has chosen the vantage point of the individual soldiers, commanders, nurses, political activists, journalists and, occasionally, adventurers, as recounted in the voluminous memoirs, intelligence reports and oral histories he has consulted, including from the fascist side.
The book captures the shambolic nature of the mobilisation, which was itself the result of geopolitics. Despite all major countries in Europe signing a “non-intervention” agreement, Mussolini shamelessly deployed 76,000 Italian troops and the German Condor Legion would number 17,000 aircrew and artillerymen. Stalin, however, limited Russia’s involvement to arms, munitions, specialists, commanding officers and an extensive secret police operation.
The 35,000 men who joined the International Brigades during the course of the war were often chosen on political merit first, military skill – or physical fitness – second. Told they were elite troops, and used as such, almost every battalion at first experienced what the British did: senseless losses, disorganisation and demoralisation.
Yet by the mid-period of the war they became, as a result of numbness, experience, better weapons and sheer abrasion, a fighting force that could mount successful offensives and defeat larger formations of regular troops, as in March 1937, when Italian communists and fascists fought each other to a bloody standstill at Brihuega.
To tell this story, Tremlett has chosen a chronological narrative, foregrounding the voices of the fighters themselves. Inevitably, that means treating the political, diplomatic and military history of the war as background. This approach makes it difficult, at times, for the reader to judge the significance of a specific tactical engagement against the strategic situation.
As to the politics, Tremlett does not flinch from identifying the role Stalinist communism played in countering the revolutionary struggles of the Spanish workers or from portraying the pettiness and brutality of the Soviet commanders. He devotes a whole chapter to the Soviet-backed purge and crackdown against the anarchist left in Barcelona and the surveillance operation deployed by Stalin’s NKVD against George Orwell and his circle after it was over.
In its focus on the Soviet generals and commissars, the book provides a valuable addition to the postwar accounts based on individual memoirs: due to secrecy and hierarchy, few of the volunteers knew anything about the identities and pasts of the Russians who commanded them.
But the book is at its best when telling the unvarnished stories of the individuals drawn to the republican cause, such as Robert Capa, the photographer, who arrives on the front line only to be forced to change his trousers as “my guts aren’t as brave as my camera”; or Oliver Law, the first black soldier to command white troops in American history, killed at Brunete in July 1937; or Marion Merriman, wife of an International Brigades commander, raped by an officer from her own side, who decides to stay silent in order to avoid “great trouble”.
Tremlett’s book marks a heroic episode in the history of the left. At a time when real fascists with real guns are patrolling the streets of American cities, and when far-right violence is on the rise in Spain, the sacrifice of the International Brigaders deserves to be remembered. In doing so, Tremlett reminds us that even just wars are dirty and chaotic, breeding grounds of sadism and injustice, and that the selfless often die first.
• Paul Mason is a writer and film-maker
• The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett is published by Bloomsbury (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15