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Last updated:24 April 2015

International Brigaders' letters

It is clear when reading some of the letters that the volunteers were not "mercenaries who had left good homes and jobs to get rich in Spain" (Manchester Guardian, 20 November 1936), nor were they the naive political illiterates the Daily Mail would have us believe, when, in May 1937 it made the astonishing suggestion that most of the volunteers "had been lured to Spain and hoodwinked by promises that they would spend most of their time picking oranges."

In April 1937, Joe Lees wrote:
"Carry on with the good work at home and force the Nat[ional] Gov[ernment] to support the Spanish people in the fight for liberty against the foreign Fascist invasion, make the people understand that the defence of Madrid is the defence of London and democracy the world over."

The men at the front saw the Aid work at home as a crucial element for the victory of the Republic, not only for its practical usefulness, in raising funds to help feed and clothe the Spanish people, but also as a means of increasing the British public's awareness of the situation.

Joe Fillingham wrote, in a letter to Bessie Berry (later married to Sam Wild, the Company Commander):
"The main usefulness of collections in cash and kind (as I see it) is to bring the Spanish issue before the masses and make them feel solidarity with the Spanish people. The next step being to arouse mass resentment against the Nat. Gov. and the 'inaction' of Labour's leadership, through this, big steps can be made in the unity fight."

Photograph of Ralph Cantor, International Brigader, killed during the Spanish Civil War

Ralph Cantor

Although the men, for obvious reasons, were usually very careful to avoid giving specific military details in their correspondence, there are a number of incidences where information has been blacked out by the Brigade's own censors. The archive, however still provides a unique and most valuable source of information for researchers on the subject. Ralph Cantor's letters especially give a fascinating insight into the military and political course of the war as seen through the eyes of those in the front line. He wrote eloquently and informatively of his thoughts on such topics as the Republican Government's handling of the war, the army, and the Spanish people. The letter reproduced below is a prime example, brimming with background information on the historical, geographical, social and cultural situation. It also contains a clear and concise picture of the political topography of Spain at the time. His diary is also useful, especially for those requiring a more concise chronology of events.

Those men who survived the war in Spain returned to continue the struggle as committed Anti-Fascists, for as Ralph Cantor's friend and comrade in arms, Jud Coleman wrote in October 1937:
"As anti-Fascist and class conscious workers we realise that only by victory and the defeat of Fascism can there be any real future for human society."

Letter from Ralph Cantor to Norah and Issy Rose (his half-sister and her husband)

Socorro RI
Plaza 161

Dear Norah and Issy,
With Issy confessing to an ignorance of conditions and events here, I shall attempt to give you a basis from which you will be able to see things clearer. I have not a map of Spain with me just now, but I shall purchase one shortly and send it to you, with notes and productive regions marked.

Firstly the Fascists hold one half of Spain exactly, the chief reason being that this half includes all the barren and unproductive regions in industry, agriculture and mineral wealth. Whenever Franco advanced, it was in such regions where no large concentration of workers lived. With one or two exceptions, the Fascists were quickly driven out of the industrial and mining towns.

In Spain a number of different languages are spoken, Catalan, Basque, Valenciano and Castilian. Castilian which is the universal Spanish is the language of Madrid and of all Spain not in Catalonia, Basque country or Valencia. Castilian which is also understood in every single province with varying degrees of fluency (eg. I speak a better Castilian than a Catalan) is the richest and most academic Spanish, being spoken in all of the countries in South America bar Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken and singularly, Portuguese politics prevail.

Previously to the establishment of the Republic in '31 in a very extreme degree, and since '31 to a smaller, although nevertheless still a large degree, Catalonia desired independence. Very much like Ireland, until July of last year, she was prepared to fight for it, and you can well understand that the repressive measures of a semi-Fascist country, and later on of the reformist Republican govts. did not react favourably on a self-sustaining province, different in language, custom and ideology.

Although Catalonia is still governed by the government of Spain, and the majority of workers favour this, the desire for independence is still reflected in the policy of the Anarchist party leaders, and military leaders, who are prepared to fight anybody who invades Catalonia and who do not send sufficient supplies and men to the Madrid and other fronts.

Catalonia where the Anarchists are in the majority (CNT and FAI have approx. 2,000,000 members) has 500,000 men under arms. These men have been stationed in Catalonia permanently in event of the Fascists penetrating that far. (Note also how this isolationist policy in this case proves abortive, as with such a large army, they are content to remain on the defensive on the Aragon front. This is the front to Catalonia, and no activity has been reported from there for several months.) The advent of the 'Frente Popular' persuaded the Anarchist and other genuine workers to throw their lot in with a new progressive Spain, yet it is apparent that such a deep-seated feeling is not yet eradicated. The remainder of Spain including the Catholic Basque country and Asturias province, is as one man behind the new Govt.

One thing to bear in mind is that during the street fighting the Anarchists were the only other party to form a rapid militia besides the CP and as they have a larger membership, you can understand that they did the bulk of the work at that time. To revert to the distribution of agricultural and mineral wealth, the Fascists hold the barren province of Galicia in the NW corner of Spain (This province yields such veg as potatoes and lettuce only and must be classed as extremely poor in comparison with the rest of Spain). They hold Toledo, a rich steel town which does not function, as all the technicians and man-power have been conscripted into Franco's army, they hold the rich vinyards and orange groves of Seville and fruit growing regions in Andalusia. The close proximity of the front has disorganised the Fascists' olive groves around Cordova. Together with the Rio Tinto mines, whose yieldings have been expropriated by the Fascists, from mainly British investors, these constitute the total wealth of the Fascists.

On the other side, the Republic has the three largest towns, Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Barcelona plus Bilbao and Oviedo are the largest industrial and steel towns in Spain. All three produce more now, than at any previous time. The Republic has the richest fruit growing region in the world in the provinces of Valencia and Murcia, and the very rich olive region of Jaen province which realised 2,000,000 pesetas (£3,000,000) on the first crop earlier this year. The recent advance on the Cordova front made secure the mercury mines around Pozoblanco, Penarroya and Fuentevejuna. These mines gave the Republic immense wealth, they almost constitute a monopoly of the world's supply. The govt. has already received many millions of £s in exchange this year. Also the govt. has the whole rich mining province of the Asturias. Oviedo is at present held half by the Fascists and the other half is ours. It does not produce anything at present. .... and together with the extraction of lead in very great quantities, tin, gold, silver and coal, the govt. is accumulating wealth despite the expenditure of war.

The govt. has two thirds of the population, who although they all adhere to the 'Frente Popular' are all split in many organisations. UGT (Communist and Socialist United Trade Union) has a membership of something under 2,500,000. The CNT (Anarchist) Trade Unions a membership of something under 2,000,000. The CP has 350,000 members with over half at the front. The Socialist Party is the only other political party with a large membership. The Anarchist party (FAI) is very small and so are the other numerous political organisations of the Frente Popular such as the Radical party, the Syndicalist party etc. The left Republicans which pursues almost a communist policy, and praise of the Soviet Union has large influence in Catalonia.The POUM (Trotskyist) and 'Friends of Durruti' an offspring of same have been suppressed. The bulk of the 2,000,000 in the Anarchist trade unions are very genuine and honest anti-Fascist workers who felt a desire to join an organised workers' movement. The Anarchist political following is reflected in the smallness of their party. The Friends of the Soviet Union, the SRI etc have very respectable memberships and there is also the JSU (a massive united communist and socialist youth affiliated to the YCI). There are as a consequence of this, about 15 daily papers on sale in Madrid and elsewhere.

When the Fascists advanced on Madrid, they concentrated all their forces on the Madrid front, and allowed our army to place all ours together, thus accelerating the institution of 'Mando Unico' (united command) by facilitating the grouping of our then inexperienced army. Their first move showing any military strategy was their attempt to cut the Madrid-Valencia road by attacking on the Jarama front. This move was taken when they despaired and abandoned the project of first entering Madrid, and it was left too late, when we had already built a good military machine with good arms and a superlative aviation. Another move was the furtherance of 'fifth column' activity in Barcelona especially. Their latest attempt on Bilbao has already failed and we are still advancing at Guadalajara and Cordova.
The new govt. has the support of the UGT and CNT regional executives now, and its quick legislation which includes the calling up of half a million men is drawing the whole of the Spanish people behind it.

We have been withdrawn from the line for a rest, so I will have plenty of time to write for the next fortnight or so. Thank Issy for his letter, I have mislaid it and can only remember his thirst for knowledge.

You can teach Bobby a few things about Spain as it is impossible to gain any grasp of events, without some knowledge of the contrasts and conditions.

Although flesh figures very largely in the Spanish diet (to the exclusion of fruit which they think is grown for export only) the Spanish people are a remarkably strong race (mind you they suffer from Rheumatism, Ghout, etc as a result of this). They are also very handsome up till the age of thirty, when both sexes begin to wrinkle or either grow flabby. They are stoical and brave. They bear life at the front quite impassively as a reaction from their past hard times where there was almost slavery and not enough food and entertainment. They are at least 60% illiterate and in this and in the no. of organisations present a close analogy to the Russian Revolution. I shall have to continue next week.

Love, Ralph

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