For Reg Saxton, the decision to volunteer in a war in which he
had no personal ambition or relatives at risk was a simple one.
"I felt something must be done to stop the advance of the Hitler
empire," says the retired physician from West Sussex, England, who
went to Spain to fight dictator Francisco Franco.
The International Brigades of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War
pulled 40,000 people from across the globe to fight fascism.
Thousands fell on the battleground and their effort failed.
But last week Mr. Saxton, along with hundreds of others from 29
countries, returned to Spain as heroes to commemorate the Brigades'
participation 60 years ago in some of the century's fiercest civil
Six decades and 21 years since the victorious Franco died,
about 350 veterans of the Brigades have been granted honorary
Spanish citizenship and have come to Spain to help the country -
and themselves - put that chapter of history into perspective.
With Adolph Hitler in power in Germany, and Benito Mussolini
ruling Italy, many people saw Spain as one more notch in the
fascist belt. So they volunteered.
While the German and Italian governments supported Franco,
thousands of volunteers from those countries joined the Brigades in
the war, which pitted the "Brigadistas International" and the
supporters of Spain's republic against Franco's army and wealthy
landowners. The Soviet Union also sent volunteers, and the Soviets
were responsible for most of the military supplies and nearly all
of the volunteer organizing against Franco.
"I'm not a Communist, but I am an antifascist," says Robert
Peters, originally of Wales, of his spur for joining the
volunteers. His entrance into the war was typical: Sneak into Spain
from France, get two weeks of training - "not enough for all we had
to go through" - and then into battle. Mr. Peters was shot in the
back one day during a battle at Brunete.
The Brigades lost nearly every battle in which they fought, a
result of a combination of poor training, inexperienced leadership,
and lack of equipment. International treaties kept most nations
from selling arms to either side, but Franco was given military
superiority by German and Italian armaments, planes, and troops.
Despite his own reliance on foreign aid, Franco despised the
Brigades, and most soldiers captured got a field execution instead
of a trip to a POW camp.
Peters, who has been a merchant marine, described living
conditions on the front as "shocking, terrible." Food was scarce
and primitive, with a hearty meal consisting of salt-dried fish and
chick peas. Clarence Kailin, recruited to the Brigades by
Communists in Wisconsin, says that eventually troops were reduced
to bread and whatever water they could find. His diet improved only
after he was hospitalized from a sniper's bullet. Despite the bad
food, disease, and an enemy eager to kill, Mr. Kailin says he never
wavered in his commitment to the war.
"That never occurred to me," he says, despite the fact that
nearly half of the 3,200 Americans were killed in combat. Many of
the American volunteers were Communists, like Kailin, or Communist
sympathizers, and all firmly believed Spain was the place to make a
stand against fascism and for the people, regardless of the odds. …