Rightly considered by many contemporary observers to be a pivotal turning point with a decisive effect on Europe’s future, it should come as no surprise that the Spanish Civil War became something of an obsession for a generation of politically conscious young Britons. Many such men and women travelled to Spain to fight Fascism as members of the International Brigades – foreign volunteers for the Republican side, thought to number up to 35,000. Among the 500 British casualties were several poets and writers who have become symbolic of the deeply ideological struggle and emotional turmoil that first divided Spain, and then reverberated across the continent in the late 1930s.
From birth, Julian Bell was linked to the celebrated Bloomsbury Group. His parents were the art critic Clive Bell and artist Vanessa Bell, and he was the nephew of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Born in 1908, Bell read history at King’s College, Cambridge where he engaged in a brief affair with Anthony Blunt, one of the ‘Cambridge Five.’ Bell failed to live up to the literary and academic expectations that came with his Bloomsbury heritage, and in 1935 accepted a position teaching English literature at Wuhan University in China.
He returned to England in March 1937 after his passionate relationship with the married writer and painter, Ling Su-Hua, was publicly exposed. Never a Communist, though frequently and wrongly assumed to be one, after the outbreak of civil war in July 1936, Bell was determined to go to Spain, in the face of the substantial protestations of his resolutely Pacifist relations. On 18th July 1937, during the Battle of Brunete, he was severely wounded by a Luftwaffe bomb. Bell was taken to El Escorial hospital near Madrid where he succumbed to his injuries.
Christopher St John Sprigg was born in Putney in 1907. After leaving school at the age of fifteen, he moved to Bradford to work as a reporter for the Yorkshire Observer and by 1934 had adopted the pen-name Christopher Caudwell, after committing himself to Communism. Increasingly drawn to Marxism, Caudwell wrote Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry in 1935, although it would only be published after his death along with other significant works including Studies in a Dying Culture.
In December 1936, Caudwell left for Spain where, drawing upon his journalistic experience, he edited the British Battalion’s newspaper. As Franco’s Nationalist troops advanced on Madrid across the valley of Jarama, in one of the conflict’s fiercest battles, later immortalised by the song “Jarama Valley”, Caudwell was killed in action on 12th February 1937.
The son of two Cambridge academics, Francis and Frances Cornford (née Darwin), Rupert John Cornford had been christened in honour of his parents’ friend, Rupert Brooke, another war poet who died in Greece in April 1915, the same year their son was born. Attending Stowe School and then Trinity College in Cambridge, Cornford became a Communist in 1933.
At the same time, his personal life was complicated and in spite of his romantic involvement with the Marxist writer Margot Heinemann, an affair with another woman led to the birth of his son James, who was adopted by Cornford’s parents. Cornford travelled to Barcelona as soon as war in Spain broke out, but illness necessitated a return to England. After using a period of recuperation as an opportunity to recruit British volunteers, Cornford left for Spain again where, on 27th December 1936, he died on his twenty-first birthday. He was killed in the Battle of Lopera as he went to the aid of his friend and comrade, Ralph Fox.
Ralph Winston Fox
More of a biographer and critic than a poet, Ralph Winston Fox was born in Halifax in 1900, and became attracted to Socialism soon after going up to Oxford in 1919. In 1923, Fox embraced Communism after moving to the Soviet Union, and he began working for the Communist International in 1925.
In Moscow, Fox found himself taking up the post of librarian at the Marx-Engels Institute. After his return to England in 1932, Fox published a biography of Lenin the following year, and in 1934 he established the Writers’ International with the Marxist Tom Wintringham and the Labour Politician John Strachey. Joining the International Brigades in 1936, Fox became a political commissar for the British Battalion. Uncertainty exists as to the exact date and nature of Fox’s death. It is believed that he died alongside John Cornford, but the 3rd January 1937 has also been cited.
Sung to this day to the tune of the American folk song “Red River Valley”, Alex McDade is best known for his poem Valley of Jarama, which he used as the lyric for the International Brigades anthem, “Jarama Valley”. McDade had been seriously wounded in the Battle of Jarama during the desperate Republican effort east of Madrid in February 1937. McDade was born in Glasgow in 1905, and had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain after witnessing the economic hardships and injustices suffered by his fellow labourers.
After leaving for Spain in 1936, like Fox, McDade became a political commissar for the British Battalion of the International Brigades. On 6th July 1937, the first day of the Battle of Brunete, having recovered after Jarama, McDade was again badly injured. There is some confusion as to whether McDade actually died in Spain, with reports suggesting that he in fact died in a Glaswegian hospital after being brought home to Scotland.
On 1st April 1939, Franco and the Nationalists declared victory. The valiant efforts of many Spanish and foreign fighters could not prevent Europe from hurtling towards another major war. Whilst their loss was soon to be overshadowed by the horrors experienced on the beaches of Normandy, or as Luftwaffe bombs rained down on major British cities, the poets and idealists who never returned from Spain left an indelible mark on British literature and culture.
Dr Caroline Potter is an historian of 20th century Britain educated at the University of Cambridge. A long-held fascination for the generations of poets who left the university to meet their ends in foreign conflicts led to her thesis on Julian Bell. Currently authoring several post-doctoral publications, she blogs at asketchofthepast.com, and you can follow her on Twitter.