July 2011 marked the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which exercised public opinion in Wales like no other. Volunteers from across the nation said nothing and left quietly in the middle of the night making their way to London, Paris, and eventually on to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. Local communities, despite the still prevalent conditions of the Great Depression, organised committees, gathered money, food parcels and other supplies to send as Spanish Aid. After the international brigades were disbanded and the volunteer-soldiers returned home, the memories of Wales’ contribution did not dissipate and memorials were eventually erected to mark those who went and those who did not come back. These are located at a variety of sites from Aberdare Public Library and the South Wales Miners’ Library in Swansea, to council offices in Neath, Bedwas and Ammanford, and even at the supermarket in Blackwood near Caerphilly. More recently, the Manic Street Preachers reached number one with If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next (1998) a song directly inspired by events in Spain.
Fleeing Franco by Hywel Davies tells the human story of a remarkable aspect of Spanish Aid in Wales. In May 1937, the British government agreed (after much prevarication) to host refugee children from the Basque Country. This was a belated response to the pleas made by the Basque government earlier in 1937 for help in sheltering children from the daily bombing by the nationalist forces and the growing famine as a result of the blockade. Of the 4,000 children who arrived in Southampton on 23 May 1937, 230 came to Wales where they lived in one of four colonies: Cambria House in Caerleon, Sketty Park in Swansea, Brechfa near Carmarthen, and at Rooftree in Old Colwyn. ‘There’, writes Davies, ‘they were protected by people who from the start had been convinced of the absolute righteousness of the Republican cause […] It was a kind of homecoming’ (p. 51).
The book opens with chapters which drawn on the connections, real and imagined, between Spain, the Basque Country and Wales. The Spanish communities at Abercraf and Dowlais, which developed in the early part of the twentieth century providing workers at the colliery and the GKN works (respectively). There are also the perceived cultural and political links between Wales and the Basques. National figures such as David Davies of Llandinam and Lloyd George made much of the then common belief that the Welsh and the Basques were ‘brothers of blood’. This dual level discussion is fascinating and has merits beyond the immediate context of the Spanish Civil War. In a time of devolved governments, the historical experiences of Spain’s regions invite valuable comparisons, a point not missed by the author.
At its core are chapter-by-chapter discussions of the four colonies beginning with Caerleon and ending with Old Colwyn. Their discrete nature does not impair the driving narrative and allows the author to provide pithy anecdotes which might otherwise have been lost. For example: the colonies and the schools that were founded within them provided opportunities for those whose support for the Republic was clear but whose ability with the rifle was not. One such volunteer was the novelist Gwyn Thomas, himself fresh from his studies at Madrid University, who worked at Caerleon on an ad-hoc basis (p. 34). The book is brought to a close by an epilogue of the experiences of the Basque children after 1939 and here the fruits of Davies’ own oral history research come into their own. It is clear that the children who came developed a great love of their adopted land and its people and especially those volunteers, such as Maria Fernandez, who cared for them.
In an era when historians often hide behind masks of objectivity and balance, Fleeing Franco is refreshingly committed to its subject. It is often said of the Spanish Civil War that it continues to be fought by academics in books and articles and interviews. Welsh historians of the conflict have been, like the International Brigade volunteers from the coalfields, generally committed to the Republican cause. Recent revisionists have nevertheless attempted to downplay the strength of pro-Republic feeling in Wales but Davies has little sympathy with what he calls ‘scholarly nit-picking’ (p. 22) and instead draws out the genuine internationalism of much of Welsh society. The exception, as Robert Stradling has shown, was Plaid Cymru. This lack of engagement amongst Welsh nationalists with regard to the Basque refugees is developed further by Davies in chapter ten. ‘Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru’, he concludes, ‘remained resolutely indifferent to the children’s predicament’ (p. 119). The nationalists it seems had their own worries.
Illustrating the book are 14 pages of plates designed to resemble a photograph album. They exist, as a result, somewhat in isolation from the rest of the book and this is perhaps to be regretted. Certainly the discrete chapters on the four colonies would have benefitted from being illustrated in context without having to flick back and forth between the photograph in the plates and the place in the text. However, this is to carp at what are otherwise extremely valuable sources in themselves and are deservedly in print for the first time.
Fleeing Franco is, in sum, a significant contribution to our understanding of the impact of the Spanish Civil War on Wales. Grounded in empirical research in established and more novel archives including those of the Basque Children of ’37 housed in Oxford, new oral history interviews, and wide reading in the secondary literature in English and Spanish, the book sits readily and comfortably with Hywel Francis’ Wales Against Fascism (London, 1984) and Robert Stradling’s more recent revisionist study The Dragon’s Greatest Cause? (Cardiff, 2004). But its greatest quality is its sensitivity and the insight it provides into the experiences of the children themselves: the circumstances at home prior to evacuation, their football games and visits to Ninian Park, and their fears for family members left behind in Spain. Anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War, in Wales during the 1930s, in internationalism and refugees, or simply searching for a stimulating read should pick up a copy of Hywel Davies’ thoroughly rewarding book.