Ireland’s Wars: O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade

The Spanish Civil War mirrored the many other examples throughout Europe and the rest of the world of the conflict between the left and right, and managed to draw many of the combatants of that conflict within its own borders. That divide could take many different forms, and in Ireland had been characterised by the fighting between the right-wing Blueshirts and a variety of left-wing organisations, most notably the IRA. Just like so many others in countries elsewhere, this conflict was now going to see its next evolution occur in Spain, and we will look first at the right-wing experience. The majority of public feeling in Ireland had been behind the Nationalist faction, but the story of how that turned into tangible military assistance was one of failure for the man who led the Irish to fight for Franco.

That man was Eoin O’Duffy. He had not been voiceless since his departure from Fine Gael, despite the collapse of the Blueshirt faction he claimed to lead. He had founded his own political party, the Irish Corporate Party, and attempted to raise troops to support the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Both endeavours were failures, with O’Duffy later claiming his offers of support for Mussolini had been misinterpreted. But for the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it is quite possible that O’Duffy would fade from relevancy far quicker than he did, but what was happening in Spain gave him the chance to once again become a somewhat significant player in Irish life.

O’Duffy was not the first to attempt to organise some manner of unit for the Nationalists, with Cardinal Joseph MacRory approached by Navarrese noblemen to try and form some kind of mission. Nationalist generals, especially Franco at the time, were keen to play up links with countries like Ireland, owing to their largely Catholic nature. Alliances, even if they were only with small numbers of volunteers, would help to depict the Nationalist cause as a righteous Catholic crusade against Godless communist enemies and, in the case of would-be commanders-in-chief like Franco, helped to get strongly Catholic sub-factions of the Nationalists further onside. MacRory quickly put Nationalist representatives into contact with O’Duffy, who was more than happy to be involved.

The press too, played their part. Papers like the Irish Independent spent the early part of the conflict whipping up a frenzy with lurid tales of nuns’ bodies being left piled high on the streets of Barcelona, and then provided O’Duffy with all of the publicity that he needed as he went about trying to form a viable unit. This despite the reservations that its owners might have had about O’Duffy’s recent politics, but the narrative of heroic Catholic Irish soldiers marching to the defence of the Church on foreign fields was a potent one. If nothing else, it probably sold a lot of newspapers. Local government bodies, like the corporations of Limerick and Clonmel, would pass resolutions calling for recognition of the Nationalists and the recruitment of a force to fight for that cause, and this too played a part in giving O’Duffy and his project more notoriety. It should be noted that O’Duffy was far from universally popular among the supporters of the Nationalists, with the ICF largely ignoring his militancy in favour of fundraising for medical supplies, and with indications that this level of intervention was more popular nationally than the idea of sending men to fight in Spain. Recruitment was also negatively effected by a level of harassment of O’Duffy’s efforts from a Garda force that was no longer in his thrall.

O’Duffy would later claim that many thousands of men would volunteer to join what he grandiosely dubbed his “Irish Brigade”, helped by filmed recruitment messages that played in Irish cinemas, but this is more than likely an exaggeration. Even if it was true, only 700 of them would actually travel to Spain in late 1936. They made up a varied lot, many of them former Blueshirts who retained a degree of loyalty to their commander. Others were members of the NCP, veterans of the IRA, National Army and British military, but many were just young men looking for adventure in a foreign land, or enticed to join up through religious zeal, with members of the Church rarely hesitant in encouraging such things. The very name of the unit evoked memories of the Wild Geese and Fontenoy, adding a romantic sheen to the endeavour, but it was just a sheen: the Brigade was sparsely supplied before it left Ireland, with much reliance placed on training and equipment to be provided once it had arrived in Spain: despite his reputation as an effective organiser, O’Duffy did precious little when it came to arranging for the financial security of the Brigade, and this would be damaging later. There were also immediate issues with the officers O’Duffy selected, with some of them clearly feeling they were perhaps better suited to lead the expedition than O’Duffy.

By the time that O’Duffy’s unit was ready to set sail, it was already a largely doomed venture. A visit by the man himself to Spain had mixed results, with O’Duffy slowly coming to realise the depth of the factionalisation within the Nationalists, with much of the impetus for his work coming from members of the Carlist faction, whose opinions were not always respected by others. Initially greeted as a hero upon his arrival, a meeting with members of the Nationalist military hierarchy went poorly, with some indicating that they saw little in the way of opportunity for foreigners to join the Nationalist armed forces. A subsequent encounter with General Emilio Mola, then the nominal head of the Nationalists, went better and a loose agreement was made whereby the Irish Brigade would be permitted the opportunity to join the effort.

Despite this, O’Duffy had trouble arranging for suitable transport, a difficult endeavour with the non-intervention agreement presenting legal quandaries, and any ship booked for the process needing to anchor off-shore. After a planned embarkation at Waterford was cancelled in August owing to Franco withholding the needed ship, O’Duffy was obliged to make another trip to Spain where he meet with the generalissimo, by then the undisputed master of the Nationalist faction after several key successes early in the conflict. The two hammered out a more formal agreement, whereby O’Duffy’s Brigade – fully expected to be at least 4’000 men in the end, with O’Duffy thinking he would be able to rally a huge portion of the Blueshirts to the cause – would become part of Franco’s army, with O’Duffy to have the rank of Brigadier General. They would be officered by Irishmen, with Spanish liaisons only. They would only be required for an initial deployment of six months, and would not be asked to engage with Basque units, whose strongly Catholic ethos made O’Duffy nervous of the possibility. Transport would be arranged for as soon as possible. In truth both Franco and O’Duffy must have realised there was a possibility that the Brigade would never actually be needed to fight: Nationalist forces were closing on Madrid and it seemed likely the Republic could collapse within a very short time.

In the end, most of what would constitute the brigade only made it to Spain because of a German ship the Ulundi, which embarked from Galway Bay with just under 500 men onboard in November. They endured a torturous journey to Spain in the midst of stormy seas: a substantial Garda presence was there when they embarked, but did little to interfere, an apathy perhaps aided by the calls of local clergy to save their souls by letting the men pass. 200 others would make it to Spain by other means, usually a weekly cruise line from Liverpool to the Canary Islands, with Brigadiers disembarking in Lisbon, sometimes in the guise of trainee priests.

The Brigade was formally attached to the Spanish Foreign Legion, or Tercio, as it’s XV Bandera, or 15th battalion, and was based initially in the western city of Caceres, not far from the Portuguese border. The Foreign Legion was considered an elite unit, but had suffered greatly during the recent, failed, assault on Madrid, perhaps why Franco was willing to shore up its numbers with untried soldiers: only around 20% of the Irish Brigade’s number has previous combat experience. Given German World War One-era uniforms that were dyed green and identifiable by a silver harp emblem, the Brigade was divided into four companies, three of which were general infantry and a fourth being a machine gun company. From there they embarked on a strict training regimen under the direction of Spanish officers, who had orders to get the Brigade to the level expected of units within the Foreign Legion. O’Duffy, situated separately to his men’s camp in a nice hotel would spent much of the period attending a series of banquets held in the Brigade’s honour.

After an initial period where things appeared to be going well and morale was maintained, problems arose. O’Duffy clashed with some of the Brigade’s officers, especially those formerly in the employ of the British Army that O’Duffy thought might have been spies: some of them in turn fell out with Spanish officers they were expected to defer to, even if they had more combat experience from the First World War. Ill-discipline also reared its head quickly, often in the form of copious amounts of drinking from the rank-and-file, who had little else to spend their pay on, except gambling. The young men were unused to the quality, and strength, of the Spanish wine they had all too easy access to, and even before they had reached Caceres there are reports of them being difficult to control owing to drunkenness. And it was recurring: no matter the complaints of the Spanish units the Brigade was attached to or their Chaplin who was not hesitant to criticise them, drunkenness continued to be an issue long-term.

The weather was bad, letters from home were frequently delayed and there appears to have been little effort expended in finding anything for the men to do outside of training hours. The Brigade members, for their part, grew rapidly disillusioned with their experience in Spain, which was one marked by condescending Spanish officers, boredom and in a few cases an uncomfortable witnessing of the war’s true nature. Caceres was not on the front line, but was still part of a region awash with guerrilla activity and subsequent “counter-terrorist” campaigns carried out by the Nationalists, which resulted in the city having crowded prisons and no small shortage of summary executions. Some Brigade members recorded witnessing such things, which brought home the reality of the Civil War quickly.

A few months after their arrival, when they were long past the point of boredom being a serial issue, the members of the Brigade were seemingly deemed capable of being put into a combat zone, and were sent to the Jarama front. The Battle of Madrid had not resulted in the crushing victory that Franco had hoped for, with the city’s successful resistance to the assault emboldening the Republican cause greatly. A month long battle was fought east of the city in February 1937, with Franco’s Nationalists hoping to cross the River Jarama and breach Republican lines, thus weakening the enemy hold on the Spanish capital. Despite early success, aided by Germany warplanes, a substantial breakthrough of Republican lines failed to materialise, and subsequent counter-attacks rapidly turned the campaign into a bloody stalemate.

The Brigade arrived in the area – after a train journey marked by what was later claimed to be an attempted sabotage by a “Red” driver – in mid-February as part of a second wave of offensive operations. They were assigned to join the right flank of the Nationalist position, with orders to relieve forces holding a village called Ciempozuelos. A lengthy march in that direction without rations, and without the presence of their General who was off meeting higher-ranking Nationalist figures in the area, left the men exhausted.

In a situation where, as a result of Republican counter-attacks in the vicinity, the Nationalists were unclear where the frontline was exactly, the Brigade came into contact with an unidentified unit. After a brief effort to remedy the situation verbally turned violent, an hour long gun battle resulted, with either side attempting to hold their ground. The Irish had machine guns, the opposing force had a trench mortar, and in the course of the exchange men were lost on both sides. Eventually the “enemy” withdrew, with the Brigade choosing not to pursue, instead resuming their march.

It eventually became known that they had actually been engaged with a nominally allied unit, a Falangist group from the Canary Islands. Ignorant of the Brigade’s movements – with the XV Bandera hours behind schedule on their march anyway – and unable to recognise the Irish uniforms, the Islanders appear to have already been on their guard before they spoke with some of the Brigade’s English speaking officers: upon hearing the foreign accents and the identification of them as Irish, it seems that the Islanders mistook their counterparts for a unit of the Republican International Brigades, perhaps thinking they may have been attempting some kind of infiltration of Nationalist lines. O’Duffy would later claim that blame for the incident had been placed entirely on the Islanders, whose unit was disbanded, but there is no verification for this. Two members of the Brigade had been killed, with nine of the Islanders dead in turn.

Following this, the Brigade toom their positions in and around Ciempozuelos, within touching distance of the Republican lines. They did so under artillery fire that continued for the entirety of their time there, and had to reckon with the horror of occupying positions that Republican defenders had been annihilated in a few weeks before, with unburied bodies attracting wild dogs. Existing in miserable weather – Spain was suffering one of its wettest Spring seasons on record – and subsisting on oily food they were largely unused to, the Brigade suffered from the spread of disease and ill-health during weeks of sedentary holding of positions. Republican snipers provided another threat, but there were no attacks to deal with: in line with the rest of the sector both sides were content to hold what they had.

A month after their arrival at the front, the Brigade was called upon to undertake its first proper offensive action, against the actual enemy at any rate. The Battle of Guadalajara was raging to the north-east of Madrid, another attempt to force a breakthrough that this time fell largely on the Italian Expeditionary Force: like Jarama, it too would fail. Units around Jarama were ordered to undertake divisionary attacks around this time to keep Republican units in that sector, and the Irish Brigade were among them.

Their operation was an attack on the town of Titulcia carried out in heavy rain on the 13th March. It was an enormously ambitious objective for the Brigade to attack, being a strongly held Republican bulwark of the Jarama line, approachable only through open ground and with plenty of artillery in support of the defenders. The operation was a debacle, with the Brigade struggling to advance over waterways and boggy ground, and saved only from annihilation from shells owing to the soft ground absorbing some of their impact. Progress to the point of useful contact with the enemy was all but impossible, and the attack was called off when the light failed. Casualties were relatively light, with four killed and a few more wounded, but the damage to the psyche of the Brigade after such a miserable day in the mud was enormous.

What happened next is somewhat disputed, but what we do know is that when the Brigade was ordered to resume the attack the following day, no such attack took place. O’Duffy would claim to have convinced his superiors that such an attack would be pointless, and got their authorisation to cancel the offensive, but it seems possible that he took the action on his own authority when it became clear the men would refuse orders. Thereafter they were moved to a different group of defensive positions to the north. Nationalist commanders were scathing in their summations of the Brigade’s use, with one, General Juan Yague, telling Franco that “the military efficiency of this unit is absolutely nil”. The generalissimo himself inspected the XV Bandera in their new positions – coincidently on St Patrick’s Day – and does not appear to have been pleased with what he saw.

The Irish had now inherited a new group of trenches, where they suffered more miserable weeks with limited supplies of water, strafing attacks from Republican aircraft, a sudden heatwave and an ever growing desire to leave the front behind, at least for a time. They were part of a repulse of a Republican attack in April 1937, aided in large part by Carlist and Moorist units on either flank: it would prove to be the XV Bandera’s last significant contact with the enemy. Low morale now swept through the Brigade. A large portion of its manpower were considered too ill to serve, underage recruits were under the microscope more and more and one officer made off with the unit’s pay in April 1937. Other officers, tired of circumstances in Spain and homesick, resigned and requested repatriation, still others were arrested for mutinous sentiment.

600 additional volunteers had never been picked up from Waterford in January, with the ship assigned to transport them again ordered to other tasks by the Nationalist military, which perhaps gives an indication of how seriously Franco was now taking the endeavour: the only additions after the initial arrival in Spain would be a pipe band personally arranged by O’Duffy. Amid a major political realignment of the Nationalist movement and an offensive in the north that demanded most of his attention, Franco seems to have had little time for the idea of the Brigade continuing as it had.

Things disintegrated quickly. O’Duffy, now growing increasingly unpopular with the men he commanded, could see there was little point in continuing the endeavour, and formally requested the disbandment and repatriation of the Brigade on the 9th April, even while it was still holding trenches on the Jarama front. They were finally withdrawn late that month, and sent eventually back to Caceres. No longer on active service, the Brigade would spend another miserable few months in Spain as arrangements were made for its journey back to Ireland. Finally, in June, they would embark at Lisbon on the SS Mozambique, and sail back to Ireland. There, it was greeted by much smaller crowds than those who had seen it off initially, though it would enjoy an official reception from Dublin Corporation. Or rather, half of it would: divided distinctly between those still behind O’Duffy and those who blamed him for most of the Brigade’s ills, the returning men formed two distinctive lines as they marched away from the Dublin docks. Not even O’Duffy’s grandiosely titled account of the entire affair, Crusade In Spain, could do much to change perceptions that the Brigade was returning in a much less glorious manner than many had expected when it had left.

It is only fair to note that a few members of the Brigade choose not to be repatriated, but instead decided to stay in Spain and be enrolled with other units of the Nationalist Army. Some of them would be killed, some would desert, some would survive to the end of the war and return home then. More than one would later join the British Army, and somewhat ironically fight against the forces of fascism in Europe. But they would never get the respect and admiration at large that they may have expected when they first joined up with the Brigade.

This particular Irish Brigade is a great example of how quickly these kinds of expeditionary units could fall apart. The Brigade did not like for a certain kind of enthusiasm, but it lacked nearly everything else: competent leadership, adequate training, familiarity with the environment they were heading into and the right amount of discipline that could maintain cohesion and make it a respectable fighting force. Absent these things, it is a wonder the Brigade ever made it into combat at all, and when it did its record speaks for itself: three engagements, one a basic defensive repulse, one a failure and the other an extended “blue-on-blue”. Placing the unit within the military elite of the Foreign Legion was a mistake that only exacerbated its lack of competence, and one suspects that O’Duffy’s plans counted on Madrid being about to fall when he arrived, so that all he would have to do would be to play a part in a victory parade. Suffice to say, the Irish Brigade can be considered a resounding failure. The final lines of O’Duffy’s account are the dramatic “We seek no praise. We did our duty. We went to Spain”. And they did little more than that.

For O’Duffy, the entire affair was the last significant event of what was rapidly becoming a sad life, marked by an increasing unpopularity in public and an ever more damaging alcoholism in private. In the years that were left to him he did court members of the IRA in terms of forming a partnership during the Second World War, spoke at rallies with the German ambassador during that conflict and in the most extreme instance, spoke to the German embassy about organising a unit of Irish soldiers to fight on the Eastern Front. The final offer does not appear to have been taken in any way seriously by the Germans, who did not accept O’Duffy’s request to be flown to Berlin to negotiate such a force. O’Duffy would die in 1944, aged 54. De Valera ordered a state funeral, and in this, attended by members of the government, the ambassadors of Germany and Spain and numerous former comrades, O’Duffy received perhaps more dignity in death than he had created for himself in his final years. He remains one of the most controversial of personalities in Ireland’s 20th century history, at once a vital part of the organisation that fought the War of Independence and the Civil War, yet the very picture of Irish fascism in the decades afterwards.

Of course, this is only one half of the Irish experience in the Spanish Civil War. A much larger, more effective and arguably more heroic story revolves around those who travelled to Spain in order to volunteer to fight for the Republicans, whether it was with the International Brigades or other units. Like the Irish Brigade, they did so for many different reason, and we will look at their journey in the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Sorcha Nic Eochaidh says:

    Odd coincidence this was posted the same day Ukraine’s foreign legion was decimated by Russian bombers..

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Irish In The International Brigades | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Brunete To The End Of The Spanish Civil War | Never Felt Better

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