The International Brigades During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

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Bronze plaque honoring the British soldiers of the International Brigades who died defending the Spanish Republic at the monument on Hill 705, Serra de Pàndols.

The International Brigades were comprised of thousands of foreign volunteers who fought for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 when General Francisco Franco and other leading army chiefs began a revolt and attempted coup in Spanish Morocco. Fighting on one side for a new Spain was Franco and the nationalists who had strong support from the army, and on the other side, left-wing Republicans who were fighting to maintain the Spanish republic.

The International Brigades

As the Civil War escalated Franco appealed for help in arms and military support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, whilst the Republicans sought aid from Soviet Russia. The key European powers such as Britain and France had declared neutrality and distanced themselves from the Spanish Civil War lest it turn into an international conflict. Through the Third International the Republicans sought to recruit volunteers from abroad to aid their cause; and that call was duly answered. The men forming the International Brigades came from various countries and backgrounds, and although many were left-wing and Communist sympathisers, other political persuasions were represented. The volunteers came from Germany, France, Britain, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, USA, Belgium, and other countries.

The Brigades in the Civil War

The first problem for the volunteers was to get to Spain in the first place, which during the war was difficult; the majority of those from western Europe first travelled to France and crossed into Spain over land. Many countries imposed Acts in the hope to prevent volunteers from aiding the Spanish, passports were confiscated or marked as invalid for entering Spain, other people risked losing their citizenship if they returned to their own country, but this did not deter many. Once there they were organised into battalions and trained with the Republican fighters, as some volunteers had little military experience, as opposed to the experienced soldiers of Franco’s nationalist forces. The volunteers were under no contract or minimum term of service, and some who went were not politically motivated but were instead adventurous. Many had to supply their own uniforms and supplies were short in some areas. Not all volunteers in the brigades had combat duties, and a number served in important non-combat roles such as radio operation and medical jobs. Although the brigades fought with valour and bravery their losses in battle was consistently high throughout the Spanish Civil War, and many who weren’t killed were often too injured to continue fighting or make it back to their own lines, resulting in many being captured by Franco’s forces as prisoners of war.

In late 1938 at the height of the Battle of Ebro, which proved to be one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War, the brigades were ordered to be disbanded, in the hope that Franco might also disband his own foreign forces, and that an arms embargo imposed by France and Britain would be dropped. This was not the case however, and approximately 10,000 foreign volunteers were still in Spain at this time, with little option but to leave. This was certainly a decisive factor in the Civil War and did aid the Nationalist’s eventual victory.

Sources:

  1. Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War, Revolution and Counterrevolution. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  2. Bradley, K.& Chappell, M. International Brigades in Spain, 1936-39. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1994.
  3. Jackson, M. Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1994.