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The odyssey of nine foreigners in the trenches of the Republic

For the Gaul Gabriel Fort, the world turned black after the Civil War. He never saw his family again. And not because His life was taken from him while he was leading the XV International Brigade. In Brunete, a gunshot to the face left him blind forever. «I remember that he always sent me on vacation to Spain with some friends. When he returned, all he asked me was to describe the landscapes, the air, the smells … He adored those lands and that was enough for him ». The one who speaks to ABC, with a live voice over the phone, is José, his son. He was born in France, but his father gave him this name in memory of the country he loved the most. That

The one he longed to return to one day, when the conflict ended, and he would have liked to see again.

The Fort is a story that crosses mountains. It is, as Antonio Selva, director of the Institute of Albacete Studies and Co-director of the Center for Studies and Documentation of the International Brigades, reminds this newspaper, one of the many that should not tiptoe: “There were 35,000 lives, one for each brigadista who arrived in Spain”. A cocktail made based on the passage of time and the resentment they suffered when returning to their countries has led to forgetfulness. Today there are already few who breathe.

Fortunately, there are still many like José; children, nephews and grandchildren ready to defeat oblivion. The same ones who, according to the Draft Law on Democratic Memory, may request Spanish nationality.

Dark side

What all the stories did have in common was the starting point. After the start of the Civil War on July 18, 1936, the ‘Comintern’ – the Communist International – and different French groups called for combat. «About a thousand foreigners had already arrived in Spain on their own. They were the base and fanned the desires of many others. That was the germ of the Brigades, which were not officially formed until October. From then on, some 35,000 volunteers set foot on the peninsula ”, reveals the historian Giles Tremlett, author of ‘The international brigades: fascism, freedom and war’ (Debate).

Other of the many things they shared was a null military training, as Tremlett himself explains: “At first it was disastrous.” Many had not fired a single shot before going into combat; many others were used as shock troops despite their inexperience. The commanders, in battles like that of Jarama, sent them to the slaughterhouse in front of the Francoist machine guns. They are the two faces of some units whose effective value, as revealed by Republican General Vicente Rojo after the conflict, was exaggerated by government propaganda: “His combative role was inflated”. And it is that, in his words, they were not decisive to maintain cities like Madrid because of their disorganization.

The songs brought by the International Brigades created links and served as a propaganda vehicle. In the photo, found in the archives of a Swiss soldier, several foreigners wear their instruments – ABC

Briton Colin Carritt recalls how it was the departure of his parents to war. His mother, Liesel Mottek, a German and Jewish refugee, decided to travel to Spain. Noel, a school teacher, followed his wife shortly after. «He was a calm, simple man and convinced of his political ideas. He worked as a teacher and his students said he was very affectionate, ”explains his son. The teacher’s departure was as simple as packing a mat and getting on a railroad. “He left without notifying the school principal. He took the train to London and, as he had an hour to wait until he reached the English Channel, he wrote to my grandparents. He didn’t have stationery, so he did it on the back of a blank check, “he says.

Luck smiled at him. “As he had a British passport and the English Government had not yet made travel to Spain illegal, the borders were still open. He was not forced to endure a walk through the Pyrenees like many others, “he says. Once on the peninsula he enlisted in the BrigadesWhich Liesel couldn’t do, since they weren’t accepting women at the time. “She joined a group of militiamen who were fighting in Aragon,” says Colin. They were soon joined by Noel’s younger brother, Anthony. “He was only 23 when he arrived in April 1937.” After more than one battle, they both served as ambulance drivers in the Civil War.

Anthony died in July 1937, during a major offensive in Brunete in which the International Brigades participated. «He was called to pick up the wounded from the front positions near Villanueva de la Cañada. After several trips, there was a very intense aerial bombardment. He was never seen again, “adds Colin. When he found out, his brother received permission to search for him and spent days traveling. “He went from town to town and from camp to camp, although he could not find his whereabouts or that of the ambulance he was driving,” he adds. The blow was hard, but the couple continued in the front line of battle until 1937. Throughout that year, Noel returned to the United Kingdom.

Like the Carritts, Henry Fraser was living in London when war bells rang out in neighboring Spain. “He was quite short, but with a strong complexion,” his daughter, Pauline, reveals to this newspaper. She remembers his dark hair, his blue eyes, and his love of diving. “He worked for many years as a lifeguard and was fit until his old age,” he explains. Although what he will never forget is his passion to explain “scientific things” to him; he had the makings of a teacher. “One day, at the age of five, he told me how soap was made.” In the International Brigades he registered as a chemist, although she always saw him work as an electrician. He arrived on the peninsula on August 27, 1937 and he was soon caught up in the Aragon offensive within the machine gun company of the British Battalion.

The truth is that he did not use to shoot. «His work was one of the most difficult. He was to take the messages from the front to the Brigade Headquarters. That made it possible for him to be hit on the road, ”adds Pauline. Like many others, it suffered from inclement weather in the Battle of Teruel, where it reached 30 degrees below zero. “He told me that the guns froze and the men died of hypothermia,” he confesses. The cold caused him to hit his bones in a hospital, but he hitchhiked back to the front when he was able to get out of bed. He survived and was repatriated in 1938. “I was born six years later. My father talked a lot about the war and about a friend of his, Sam Pearson, who died in the Ebro. As a teenager, I almost felt guilty for being alive when he had died, “he concludes.

His compatriot, Sam Wild, decided to also go to Spain. He did it from Manchester though. Dolores, her daughter, confirms to ABC that she came from a very poor family. She reminds him of slim but physically fit. In fact, he had been a boxer. And the thing is that in the Brigades there was everything. From ex-convicts to trileros. He traded his fists for a rifle. “He was promoted and became the last commander of the British Battalion,” he explains. His worst moment was when he tried to defend Belchite from the Francoists. “He had to get out of there with his men. He told me that he made a night march to escape. He did not sleep for about three days. What hurt him the most were his soldiers. They were men who had gone through incredible mental and physical pain and who collapsed from exhaustion, “he completes. He returned in 1938.

Jump the puddle

Although, if there was a famous unit of the International Brigades, that was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Steven Nelson was one of its members, as his daughter, Josephine Yurek recalls: «He tried to enter Spain in March 1937 from FranceBut he was arrested and spent time in Perpignan jail. When he was released he crossed the Pyrenees and enlisted ». He soon won the affection of his men and was promoted to political commissioner. His greatest test was lived in September of that same year. «He was wounded while leading an attack on Belchite. He crawled into a gutter that led to a church. From there he killed the sniper who had been firing at his unit. He returned to the United States, but never forgot his time in Spain.

Under Nelson’s command was, in all likelihood, Hyman Wallach. This Pole living in the United States hid his march to the Civil War from his family. This is how his daughter, Nancy, remembers: “He didn’t tell anyone because he didn’t want to be dissuaded.” What affects the most is that he left knowing that it would bring him problems. «In the passports of the North American brigadistas it said ‘Not valid for travel to Spain ‘ and it was indicated that, anyone who went there, would face fines or jail time, “he completes. Among all the things his father told him, there is one that he will not forget: “He always spoke of hardships, including the freezing weather. They had no shoes or warm clothes. And the same at the military level “, sentence.

Sam Wild poses with his brigadistas
Sam Wild poses with his brigadistas – ABC

If in Spain he suffered from inclement weather, in the United States he suffered the icy indifference of a government that was repelled by him. Wallach, like many others, enlisted in the army with the advent of World War II, but was considered a “risk element” by the higher command. Sebastiaan Faber, president of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, explains to ABC: “Between 1939 and 1941 they were treated with suspicion because they had enlisted in a foreign army and Hitler had just allied himself with Stalin. However, after Pearl Harbor, the misgivings ended. At that moment, the image that society had of them changed.

Although the Lincoln also had its dark side. “There were very unpleasant things that we must not forget. For example, how they killed their prisoners after the taking of Quintus. That was a blot on his record. In my book I also count some episodes such as the rape of the head of the unit’s wife by another officer. That reflects that the environment was very misogynistic, “adds the French historian.

But neither Great Britain, nor the United Kingdom. The country from which the most brigade members arrived was France, with 28.3% of the total, according to historian Giles Tremlett.

Love to spain

Gabriel Fort left from Gallic lands when he could still see. «He attended when he was 40 years old. He was a military man and he thought that this had to be stopped or a new world war would begin, ”says his son. He soon took command of the XV International Brigade for his courage and his training. “Few had their abilities,” Gabriel emphasizes. Although the fight took away his sight, it also allowed him to find love. «After being wounded in Jarama, he met a nurse, María Teresa, who took care of him. They both returned together and got married. She is my mother », complete.

Tomás Lora Izquierdo, exiled in France, joined the International Brigades much later than Giles. As his nephew, George Bertrant, told this newspaper, he arrived in the peninsula on May 6, 1938 from Stains, north of Paris. «He left the stationery where he worked to fight. They killed him in the battle of the Ebro, while he was participating in a diversionary attack with the XIV Brigade, “he explains. He did not know him, but he did fight for his memory. «We had to wait for a trial in 1972 so that his death was officially registered», Ends. Something, by the way, that happened to many fighters.


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