The International Brigade is an umbrella term given to numerous groups that arrived in Spain to help the Republican cause – the overthrow of the Nationalist attempt to take over the country. Members of the International Brigade came from numerous countries – Great Britain, France, the USSR, and the former Yugoslavia for instance. However, while they may have had the same desire, the International Brigade was a collection of mainly men who had no loyalty to other groups within the International Brigade and followed no other leader than their own. Whether as a unified and cohesive force the International Brigade could have made any difference to the final outcome of the Spanish Civil War is open to conjecture.
The state of Europe as a whole presented individuals with an incentive to do their bit to help the Republicans. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had made it very clear where their loyalties were while the USSR led by Stalin had done likewise with the Republican movement. To Hitler and Mussolini the attempt by the Republicans to take over Spain was nothing more than an attempt to further expand the spread of communism.
“We must prevent communism from establishing itself in the Mediterranean.” (Mussolini).
“We must save Spain from Bolshevism.” (Hitler)
In August 1936 the British government announced that it believed that no other country should send aid to Spain. Her fear was that such a move would escalate the situation possibly into a full-scale European war. A Non-Intervention Committee met in London with representatives from Germany, Italy, France and the USSR present. The USSR had left the committee in October 1936 while Germany and Italy left the committee in June 1937. It soon became obvious that certain nations were supplying the Republicans or Nationalists with weapons but not manpower. The USSR sent so much aid that Largo Caballero was forced to send £63,256,684 gold reserves to Moscow to pay for the aid.
Stalin had already sent artillery experts to Spain to help and advise the Republicans but had warned them to “stay out of range of artillery fire.” But any help was piecemeal and not enough to help the Republicans.
When it seemed as if Franco was having success, the Republicans put out calls such as:
“Workers and anti-Fascists of all lands. We the workers of pain are poor but we are pursuing a noble ideal. Our fight is your fight. Our victory is the victory of Liberty. Men and women of all lands! Come to our aid. Arms for Spain!”
In the UK a poll showed that out of 105 journalists and writers only five supported Franco whereas 100 wanted the Republicans to win.
The driving force behind British volunteers was support for communism. Nat Cohen and Sam Masters were the first two British volunteers to aid the Republicans and both were communists. The first British national to actually join in the fighting was a student from Cambridge called John Cornford. He too was a communist. The first UK volunteer to die in the conflict was a communist called Felicia Brown who died on August 25th 1936.
Members of what became known as the International Brigade crossed the French/Spanish border on what was known as the ‘secret railway’. The first unit of the International Brigade was organised by Joseph Broz (later Marshal Tito) from an office in Paris. He sent 500 volunteers to Albacete via the ‘secret railway’ on Train 77. The 500 were commanded by Lazar Stern. Other ways were found to cross into Spain over the Pyrenees that did not involve the use of trains. Members of the International Brigade came primarily from Britain, France, USA and the USSR. Volunteers also arrived in Spain from Italy and Germany to help the Nationalists.
One Republican leader made clear where he felt the International Brigade was failing. Andre Marty, the commander of the Albacete training camp asked the question “Why aren’t the volunteers achieving much?” Marty answered his own question.
“Is it because they have lacked enthusiasm? A thousand times no. Is it because they have lacked courage? I say tem thousand times no. There are three things they have lacked, three things which we must have – political unity, military leaders and discipline.”
A unit from the International Brigade entered Madrid on November 8th 1936. When they needed to be moved around the city they were moved via double-decker buses.
In October 1936, nine merchant ships from the USSR arrived in Spain carrying equipment. One unloaded 25 tanks and 1500 tons of ammunition. However, the training of the International Brigade had not extended to the use of tanks in warfare. The tanks were first used on October 29th when they smashed their way through Nationalist positions. However, there was no infantry available to support the tanks and their fought Nationalist cavalry in the streets of Esquivias by themselves and ended up having to retreat.
The support of Stalin worried Hitler who sent to Spain what became known as the Condor Legion.
Units of the International Brigade were used in the Battle for Madrid. In the initial stages of battle for the capital city, the Nationalists had done well. The International Brigade units were used to launch a counter-attack against them around Carabanchel. They charged under the cry of:
“For the Revolution and Liberty – Forward.”
When the fighting had died down 24 hours later, a third of the International Brigade had been killed. Squabbles had taken place between members of the Anarchists in the International Brigade and other units. The Anarchists would not take orders from anyone else other than an Anarchist. With such division the Nationalists found it easier to take part of the city around University City. Such issues came to characterise the International Brigade. While guarding a strategic bridge near the junction of the rivers Jarama and Manzanares, members of the International Brigade placed explosive charges under the bridge to ensure that if there was a danger that they would lose control of it, they could destroy it and ensure that the Nationalists could not use it. When the explosives were detonated the bridge rose a few feet in the air and then came back down on its supports once again. A French unit around the bridge was wiped out by Nationalists who had poured over the bridge.
In total it is thought that as many as 32,000 to 35,000 actually fought in combat for the International Brigade with another 10,000 in a non-combatant role. Over 9,900 were killed and just over 7,500 wounded in action. Volunteers came from all over the world including Mexico and Estonia.