There must always be a place for physical objects as reminders of people and events in history. The recent chance observation of a memorial to Jack Brent in the town of Whithorn in South West Scotland is proof of this. Jack Brent, whose real name was George Dickie, was initially born in Canada in 1912 but moved to Whithorn as a small child. Whithorn has a key association as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland through the initial establishment of St. Ninian’s “Candida Casa” or “White Chapel” at the nearby Isle of Whithorn around 400 AD. Up until the Reformation, the town of Whithorn was one of the key religious centres in Scotland but since then its role has significantly diminished.
Growing up in Whithorn, Jack Brent became an apprentice at a local butcher shop at around 13 years of age but at the age of 17 left to join the Cameronian Highlanders. He, however, successfully compensated for lack of schooling by a process of self-education.
Political Activities and the Spanish Civil war
He left the army in 1933 and became drawn to left wing politics in London, where the political scene increasingly reflected the “polarisation” of political belief taking place within mainland Europe. As part of this process he became a prominent member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Jack Brent volunteered to join the International Brigades to oppose the forces of General Franco – joining with the Canadian McKenzie-Papineau Battalion.
Injured at the Battle of Jarama
Jack Brent was, however, severely wounded at the battle of Jarama in 1937 which was an attempt by the forces of General Franco to cut Madrid from supply routes after having previously failed to capture the city. The battle is remembered as being largely inconclusive but with significant losses suffered by both factions. Injuries to his spine left him in constant pain for the rest of his life and this condition did not improve although he underwent several surgical operations. He was able, however, to walk with some difficulty using crutches.
At the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, with the victory of forces of General Franco, many prisoners of war who had sided with the International Brigades remained in captivity. It was in his role as national secretary of the International Brigade Association in assisting Brigadiers incarcerated across Europe that Jack Brent is especially remembered. In this role he worked with Dr. Leonard Crome (Assistant Chief Medical Officer for the 35th Republican Division) in successfully lobbying the US Ambassador to expedite the release of Brigadiers from camps in Vichy France. Jack Brent, however, died aged only 39 in 1951.
Remembering the Man
Many individuals who knew of Jack Brent’s humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war wished to establish a permanent memorial to him in his town of Whithorn. It was not until, however, 2006 that a memorial plaque would be unveiled at 55 George Street – at the site of the butcher’s shop where he had worked as a teenager. Speakers at the unveiling ceremony recounted memories of the individual – of his generosity and genuine humanitarian outlook. This memorial to Jack Brent in Whithorn, Scotland now compliments a Canadian memorial to the International Brigades in Ottawa. It is fitting that at the foot of the memorial plaque are the echoing words of Robert Burns:
“That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”