Ireland’s Wars: Brunete To The End Of The Spanish Civil War

Things were finely poised in Spain in the aftermath of the Battle of Jarama. The Nationalist efforts to capture Madrid had been defeated, but Franco retained enough strength that any kind of rapid Republican victory was impossible to foresee. Both sides took time to re-build their strength and consider future campaigns. Among them were the men of the International Brigades, who more than any other set of units had saved the Republic from a potentially decisive defeat at Jarama. The Irish remained part of the XV Brigade, but not united: regardless, they had plenty of fighting left to do before the conclusion of the war.

In the weeks and months after Jarama, the Irish of the British and American Battalions settled into an occupation of trenches. The Irish numbers in the British unit were bolstered by new arrivals from home, while a small cadre of those who had moved to the Lincolns remained in placed, numbering little more than a dozen. Efforts to enforce a reintegration appears to have met with little success. It was around this time that a few references to a recognised “James Connolly unit” of an “Irish section” are made, but this does not appear to have been something that was widely understood to formally exist, with not even Frank Ryan, during his recovery from wounds suffered at Jarama or upon his return to the fighting, mentioning it in his letters. It may be that a small number of Irish, especially in the Lincoln Battalion, used this designation as a means of differentiating themselves from others, but it was never officially adopted by the larger Brigade leadership, who still wanted to priortise working-class/communist links over any kind of separate national ethos.

There was still a war to fight. Irish soldiers in the Brigade remained in trenches around the Jarama front for over three months, dealing with the mundanity of life where a snipers bullet was the primary contact with the enemy, and efforts to alleviate boredom and ill-discipline had more focus than any effort to come to grips with their opposite number. Stern training regimes and equally stern political education went hand-in-hand, with the volunteers lacking much in the way of opportunity to indulge any desire for drink or other entertainments. It was around this time that the respective Irish sides of the divide in Spain were closest to each other, with a few Irish posted in trenches facing those held by O’Duffy’s Brigade: aside from some insults thrown back-and-forth, neither unit got the opportunity to engage in any fighting with each other. In the early Summer the Brigade was pulled off the line, but their period enjoying some well-earned rest and relaxation in the was short-lived. They were soon needed for the first full-blown Republican offensive of the war.

The aim was to take advantage of several fortuitous circumstances – the generally good state of Republican armies, Nationalist focus on northern campaigns, the aftermath of the Guernica bombing which had more sympathetic eyes on the Republican position than ever before – and attempt to smash through Nationalist lines west of Madrid, in what amounted to a sort of Republican-initiated Jarama. The XV Brigade was part of the second wave of the offensive, following in the wake of Spanish troops that attacking towards the town of Brunete. Now consisting of roughly 1’500 men, the Brigade became involved in vicious fighting at a village called Villanueva de la Canada, where Nationalists were small in number but benefitted from prepared positions. In the course of a few days the Republicans were able to grind on and take the village, upon which the Brigade was turned to attack Nationalist lines on “Mosquito Crest”. In baking temperatures the Brigade could make no more forward movement and was eventually compelled to withdraw, with men collapsing from a lack of water. The British Battalion was reduced down to less than 100 effectives and much of what was left of the Irish presence in the Lincoln Battalion was all but wiped out in the fighting. The larger offensive petered out amidst widescale organisational problems, and it was all the Republican military could do to retain small pockets of land, including Villanueva, that they had taken when the Nationalists counter-attacked.

Once again the XV Brigade was taken off the line for recuperation, but once again it was only for a short time. Their next mission was to Aragon, and the area south-east of Zaragoza, a major city held by the Nationalists. As Franco finished his successful efforts to neutralise the north of the country, the Republican leadership felt they were running out of time to effect the takeover of the city. By then the British battalion was, somewhat ironically, under the command of a Peter Daly, a Liverpool-born veteran of the anti-Treaty IRA who had once been discharged by the British Army when caught arranging for arms to be delivered to the IRA. He was out of action on the first day of this new offensive, shot in the stomach as the Brigade captured the village of Quinto, and succeeded by his adjutant, Paddy O’Daire, a veteran of the National Army: Daly would die of his wounds later. The Lincolns were involved in a brutal effort to take the village of Belchite, where copious amounts of casualties were taken as the environment was gutted, while the British Battalion was kept busy repulsing relief efforts from Zaragoza itself. After a few weeks in reserve the Brigade was sent forward again, in a failing Republican’s effort to effect a breakthrough near the town of Fuetes, suffering more significant losses. The campaign petered out into stalemate.

The war now turned decisively against the Republicans, as Nationalist attacks in the final days of 1937 split their territory in two. As Franco moved to re-take the vital city of Teruel, whose capture would leave the road open all the way to the Mediterranean, the International Brigades were flung into the fight, in the middle of the worst winter for over two decades. Often having to fight in sub-zero temperatures, the British Battalion was reduced to less than a hundred effectives again through dead and wounded in battle, and those suffering from ailments like frostbite. It was all in vain: Teruel was taken in late February, and something of a collapse of Republican military cohesion in the sector occurred in the aftermath, as the Nationalists pressed their advantage. A shattered XV Brigade retreated in ragged order after taking a battering near the village of Caspe along with the other units of the International Brigades, before a huge portion of it was surrounded by elements of the Italian Expeditionary Force west of Gandesa. Exhausted, demoralised and running low on supplies, elements of the British and American Battalions were among those to surrender, including in their number Frank Ryan. He would spend two years in Nationalist captivity, where he was sentenced to death for alleged war crimes. A popular campaign at home, which included the intervention of Eamon de Valera, convinced Franco to postpone the signing of the warrant. Ryan would eventually be released in July of 1940, over a year after the war had ended, though he was not sent back to Ireland in the process: we shall discuss where he ended up in a later entry.

The Republican government would sue for peace in May, but balked at Franco’s insistance of unconditional surrender. Fighting continued, but it now seemed a matter of when, and not if, the Nationalists would take the rest of Republican Spain. The Brigade, their numbers boosted by the inclusion of staff recruits and a still steady influx of volunteers from all over the world, next saw combat in the final, desperate throw of the dice for the Republic, in the Battle of the Ebro. Aiming to relieve pressure on Valencia, force Nationalist units into the sea and reclaim a huge swath of lost territory, the campaign was hopelessly ambitious. Despite some early gains, the advance stalled in late July, with the International Brigades slamming against a determined defence of Foreign Legion troops not far from Gandesa. Repeated efforts to take hills ahead of the town achieved nothing but more heavy casualties. The battle would rage for several more months in the region, with the depleted XV Brigade called upon repeatedly to defend key points such as bridges or ridges, but they could not stop the overall Republican line from being forced inexorably backwards. By the end of their time in the battle, the 1st Company was commanded by Johnny Power, one of three Waterford-born brothers who had come to Spain, and the last still alive. He led the Battalions last significant action, helping to halt a Nationalist tank advance, from which he barely escaped. When pulled from this final charnel house, the British Battalion could muster only 150 men, 15 of them Irish.

In desperation at the seemingly unstoppable Nationalist advance, the Republican leadership attempted to appeal to international mediation, and agreed to repatriate their foreign volunteers in the hope that the Nationalists could be compelled to do the same and that an arms embargo against the Republic would be lifted: in essence taking the line that whatever usefulness the International Brigades had been, the Republicans would be better off if all foreign fighters in Spain were removed from the table. By that time the Brigades were only a small part of what was left of the Republican military, and had plenty of Spanish supplementing their numbers: at some point in late 1937, the nominally English-speaking British Battalion, had less than half of its number fitting that description. After a famous parade in Barcelona in mid-October, one of the last celebrations of Republican Spain, the Brigades were officially disbanded. Most of their personnel would be repatriated, though some accepted Spanish citizenship and amalgamation into Spanish units.

As for the Republicans, their end was not long in coming. Following the failure at the Ebro their line of defence collapsed bit by bit, before total disintegration in the Spring of 1939. Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces in late January, then Madrid at the end of March essentially bringing an end to the war. Franco would remain in a position of total power over Spain for the better part of the next four decades, before his death in 1975, whereupon democracy was re-instated.

Those who had fought for the Republic returned to a country that had little time for their achievements. Whatever about a certain lessening of enthusiasm for Franco and his cause, sympathies for the Nationalists still outweighed that for the Republicans in a general sense, and members of hard-left entities like the Communist Party had gotten no more popular. De Valera’s government, which now fully recognised Franco and his movement as the legitimate government of Spain, had no interest in any recognition, memorial or commemoration of the Irish who fought for the International Brigades any more than it did for those who had fought for the Nationalists, and even to this day recognition of what those men did is limited enough. For those members of the IRA, they returned to an Ireland that was less enamoured, officially speaking, with Volunteers than it had been when Fianna Fail came to power.

It is difficult to offer a firm critique of the “Connolly Column”, given that it covers different units and different times. It is enough to say that, in line with the International Brigades as a whole, the Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic did so with courage and no small amount of determination, but were too often let down by factors outside of their control: poor equipment and supply organisation; higher leadership that was inadequate for the task; incompetent planning of offensives that more often than not had the Brigades facing fearful odds; and an unrelenting enemy that was better able to utilise its advantages. In numerous instances the Irish were part of defensive stands that had little hope of holding their ground, not least at Jarama, but they held. Experience from the IRA or other armies played its part in that, and perhaps a greater ideological commitment to what they were doing. In the end they could not save the Republic but, if nothing else, they could easily claim to have had a bigger impact on the Spanish Civil War than their counterparts fighting under O’Duffy had been able to accomplish.

For now, we must move on. As stated before, the Spanish Civil War is sometimes dubbed the “dress rehearsal” for the much greater conflict that came after, a moniker whose inherent disrespect perhaps masks a degree of truth. That greater conflagration would not be long in the coming. For now we take a one week break, but when we return we will be going headlong into the history of the Irish experience of the Second World War, where the Irish state, the IRA, foreign powers and others would all face pivotal challenges as it came to that war, and Ireland’s place in it.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: Brunete To The End Of The Spanish Civil War

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

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