Thanks to Alan Mason for this interesting post.

I had a July birthday recently, near the 80 anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 39) and as the occasion seems to have gone unmarked by the media, I thought about sharing a couple of stories with deskarati readers.

Like most English people, I left school with no knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, because it appeared in none of our school syllabuses; it was either too recent to be “History” and too far away to be English “Current Affairs”.

An Old Spaniard

When I left school I continued my studies at college, and needed to attend some evening classes, one of which was for GCE French. Of course, most of the class were teenagers, but there was also a Spaniard of about sixty. He spoke English with a heavy Spanish accent, and, as I discovered, he was learning to speak French with a heavy Spanish accent too. After an interval of sixty years I can still hear his gruff voice in my head.

Our French lecturer tried to make the elderly Spaniard feel included, among a crowd of English teenagers, by asking him questions, in French, about Spain. One evening the Spaniard asked the lecturer, very politely, to please not do this. Although it was fourteen years since the Civil War had ended, he still found any conversations about his country, among strangers, was just too much for him to bear.

Young David’s Story

After university, and some foreign travel, including Spain, I had become better informed about the people of Spain, and their history. Now in my thirties, I was visiting a colleague, Kay, and her husband, David, at their home. It was high summer, Wimbledon was in full swing, and Kay, a keen tennis player, was glued to the television set.

Neither David nor I was interested in tennis, so I suggested we sit in the garden, because I hoped he would tell me about his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. David began by explaining that, as a teenager, in the late 1930s he lived in London (2) and had a humdrum job in an office, as a clerk. Reports of the fighting in Spain were continually in the national newspapers. In his spare time, David had joined an organisation as a volunteer to distribute leaflets to raise money for humanitarian relief. .

The organisation began by helping with relief for Spanish families affected by the fighting (3), and then went on to arrange for orphaned Spanish children to be brought to Britain. David was helping to print and distribute leaflets. As the organisation expanded, it needed more people to handle the extra work, so it advertised for paid, full-time staff. David applied for one of the posts, and was accepted, packing in his job as a clerk, for full-time humanitarian relief work.

Going to Spain

One day, the chief called David into his office. “We need someone in Spain to handle the finances of our operations. We have English and Spanish women to care for the children, but we need someone to pay the bills. Someone to handle the chequebook to pay for food, children’s clothes and blankets, or anything else that is required. We need someone who knows our organisation, and someone we can trust. You are a young, single man, David, and we know you well. Will you take on this job for us and for the orphaned children?”

David modestly explained to me that he could hardly refuse the request, given that he was so committed to humanitarian causes. Like most young men of those times, he had never been abroad before. After acquiring a brand-new passport and authorisations, he packed some belongings in a small case. At Waterloo Station, he caught the train to Dover, (4) and then the cross-Channel Ferry (5). From Calais Maritime he continued his rail journey to Paris.

In those days, Paris, like London, was the centre for rail termini and there were no through routes. When David arrived at the railway station, Gare du Nord, he needed a taxi to reach the Gare de Montparnasse (6). As he got out of the cab, at the end of his journey, he reached for some money. The driver asked, “You’re going to Spain?” “Yes.” “There’s no charge.”

The Popular Front and the International Brigade

In explanation of the cabbie’s generous response, it needs to be said that during the Spanish Civil War there was a steady stream of young British men going out to Spain to fight. Perhaps the most well-known one, for modern readers, is “George Orwell” (pen name of Eric Blair) author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” as well as many other novels, and journalism. His fascinating account of his experiences in Spain was called, “Homage to Catalonia”

These young men were mostly left-wing, politically, and went to Spain to fight on the Republican side, as George Orwell did, but a few right-wingers, like the poet, Roy Campbell went to join the Nationalist side. In the 1930s, there was a loosely organised left-wing movement in France, called the Popular Front, and David’s cab driver probably saw himself as part of this. He assumed, without any real evidence, that David was going to Spain, to join the International Brigade to fight for the Republican cause.

The Basque Country

David crossed the French border in the south-west near Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast. He entered Spain, across the River Bidassoa, from Hendaye (9) on the French side, to Irun on the Spanish side. He began his work supporting the aid workers who were rescuing orphaned children. This part of Spain was known as “The Basque Country” and its inhabitants, the Basque people, have a language quite different from any of the other languages of Europe. It is believed that the Basques are one of the aboriginal or earliest races of modern humans to arrive in Europe.

I knew a little about the area in which David had worked, because in the 1960s I had spent a fortnight on holiday at Fuentarrabia (10). This is a seaside resort close to the border crossing.

The nearest seaport of any size, in the Basque region, was Bilbao and hundreds of children and adults were able to escape the conflict and sail to the English seaport of Southampton. Some four thousand children were brought to England and cared for, in the Southampton area.

The people in and around the Southampton area were encouraged to donate items like clothing or blankets, as well as things that could be sold to raise money for the Basque refugee children. (12)

The humanitarian work, for the Basque people, received a boost of international proportions when the town of Guernica was bombed and virtually destroyed on 26 April 1937 (13).

The Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, immortalised the event in his large canvas, simply entitled, “Guernica” (14). Although he was born in Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain, he lived most of his adult life, including the Civil War period, in the south of France.

Departure of the Ex-Patriates

At the start of hostilities in July 1936, many ex-patriates were keen to leave Spain, and the British government sent warships to embark British nationals and return them to the United Kingdom. The English poet, Laurie Lee, author of the autobiographical, “Cider with Rosie”, was in Spain at this time and he describes his experiences in a further autobiographical book, “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” (15).

“There was a loud hammering on the door. Emilia (his Spanish landlady in the village of Castillo) cried, ‘Hurry Laurenzo! Your king has sent you a ship…they have come to take you home. Before God, who more fortunate than you?’ A ship’s cutter was drawn up on the sand, guarded by pink-cheeked British sailors. A smart officer, in a white uniform, introduced himself. ‘No panic, but the Navy has sent a destroyer from Gibraltar to pick up British subjects.’

Once on board, the ship leapt into life, and sliced in a fast, sharp curve out to sea. I stayed on deck, watching Castillo grow small, and Spain folding itself away.” (Ref D)

Another woman colleague, Winifred, had gone to Spain in the mid-1930s to teach English in Madrid, and had met and fallen in love with Ralph, a young scientist at Madrid University. He had an English father and a Spanish mother. When the civil war began, they too were picked up by a Royal Navy warship, for a safe port, to return to Britain. They subsequently married and had four children, and I was delighted to attend their Golden Wedding Anniversary celebrations.

Winifred had a rather sceptical view of Laurie Lee’s book, and thought that much of it was fancy, rather than truth. She thought his command of the Spanish language was very weak, despite his glossing over this problem. I agreed with her scepticism, as I had found fanciful, or barely credible elements in his other autobiographical works.

The End of the War

At the start of 1939, many Spanish people realised that the war was drawing to a close, and there was a rush for the French border, most of which was along the summits of the Pyrenees Mountains. Politicians in France became quite worried about the possibility of ex-Civil War fighters, many of whom were Communists or Anarchists, de-stabilising the French State. They ordered the French Army to assist the police, who were often overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees.

The photograph, taken at the small Pyrenean village of Perthus, near Perpignan (16), amply demonstrates the problem, when so many people from Catalonia, in north-east Spain, tried to enter France.

The truth was that most of the refugees were women and children, who posed little threat to the police, military or French State (17).

The Spanish Civil War ended at the close of March 1939, with the victory of the Nationalist side. Unsurprisingly, thousands of Spanish people now tried to flee the country, but it was too late, as the ports and border with France were sealed by the new Spanish authorities.

Around a million Spanish people, and some other nationals, had died in the conflict (18).

The End of David’s Story

Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to hear the whole of David’s story, and the opportunity did not arise again. I do not know how David finally left Spain. There was only six months to go, after the end of the Spanish Civil War, before the British themselves were at war in September 1939. David would have been called up for military service during the war, but again I have no knowledge of this.

After the war, David had trained as a teacher, and then met and married Kay. They had a daughter who made a career in the jewellery business. David became the headmaster of a small country junior school.

I don’t know whether David received any award, or formal recognition of his work for humanitarian relief in Spain, but I rather doubt it. He was a modest man, and probably would not have spoken about any award. I lost contact with David and Kay when I was made redundant, and had to take a new job a hundred and twenty miles away.

I was able to piece together the sad end of David’s story, in fragments, from friends and acquaintances. The marriage between David and Kay broke up. Kay, who had always been a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in her early sixties. David had moved away to one of the south coast resorts, becoming an alcoholic and dying in poverty.

“Call Them to Mind”

A friend once offered some guidance about the dead, who were once respected, admired, or loved by you.

“Sit down, somewhere quietly, and just call them to mind, call them to mind.”

Raffia is dyed straw, woven into various kinds of shapes, which are light but strong and hard-wearing. I have a raffia workbasket in the form of a cylindrical box, and a cap with a knob on top. Some of the yellow straw has been dyed in red, or green, so my workbasket has patterns in these three colours. Over the years the colours have faded, except for the interior of the cap, which is still fresh and bright (19). Whenever I have some darning or sewing to do, I take down my raffia workbasket. It was given to me as a gift by Kay, so it is an instant reminder, in a quiet time, of Kay and David.

The Politics of the Civil War

This essay is written as an homage to David, and other workers like him, and I have avoided any account of the war itself, but a word of caution is needed.

Spain was a deeply divided country before the war began. It still is now, in the early 21 century. Beware of simple explanations. It was all more complicated than you imagine. Half of the ordinary people of the country were prepared to fight the other half of the ordinary people. This means that, both sides felt that right was on their side, and that their actions were justified. There were wicked men on both sides, who committed wicked acts. The facts of these wicked acts prove nothing, for or against, the justice of a particular cause.

The father of the former Conservative cabinet minister, Michael Portillo (20), came from Spain. He was one of five brothers, and supported the Republican side, while the other four were for the Nationalists. That is how deeply divided the Spanish people were.

The Children

In time of war, it is often the children who suffer the most. They are frightened, and really do not understand what is happening. Their world has been turned upside down, and they make the terrifying discovery that their mother and father cannot always protect them from harm. Home is not where they are warm and safe, but just where they happen to be at the time.

The Spanish schoolgirls (21) have luggage labels tied on to their gymslips, probably bearing their names, and parcels of belongings tied up with string.

It was David’s achievement to bring some comfort and hope to distressed children caught up in the war.

(I have used the real Christian names of the people in this essay, as all of them are dead.)


A. “Spanish Civil War” by Jack Gibbs, Ernest Benn, 1973

B. “Decline of the English Murder” by George Orwell, Penguin, 1965

C. “France Grandes Routes 689 Michelin, 1963

D. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning”, by Laurie Lee, World Books, 1970

E. “Fifty Years in Pictures”, Associated Newspapers, 1946


1. Nationalist troops moving position (Ref A)

2. Blackfriars Underground station in the nineteen thirties (Google)

3. Rescue of injured civilians after bombing raid on Barcelona (Ref A)

4. Rail journey to the Channel coast (Google)

5. Cross channel ferry from the inter-war period (Google)

6. The Gare de Montparnasse in the inter-war period (Google)

7. George Orwell (Eric Blair 1903 – 1950) portrait by Peter Blake (Ref B)

8. Significant places on the Basque Coast (Ref C)

9. The River Bidassoa, with Hendaye (France) on the far shore and Irun (Spain) on the near shore (Google)

10. The beach at Fuentarrabia, northern Spain (Google)

11. Spanish refugees leaving Bilbao for Southampton (Google)

12. Lorry collecting saleable items in Southampton (1938) for the “Aid for Basque Children” campaign (Ref A)

13. The destruction of Guernica, 26 April 1937 (Google)

14. “Guernica” a painting by Pablo Picasso (Google)

15. Dust-jacket contrasting a Spanish pueblo with his home village, Slad, in Gloucestershire (personal copy)

16. French police and soldiers controlling Spanish refugees at the Perthus crossing (Ref A)

17. Police and military checking closely for Communists and Anarchists (Google)

18. The Agony of Spain (Ref E)

19. The unfaded interior of the cap of my raffia workbasket (Author)

20. Michael Portillo, son of a refugee from the Spanish Civil War (Google)

21. Refugee Spanish children (Popperfoto – Getty images))

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