“My guards were so tired that they only awoke when grenades were thrown up the alley in the early hours of the morning. I was standing with my back to a doorway stroking the muzzle of a starved burro when suddenly the strains of beautiful music floated over the city for some minutes followed by a speech over a loudspeaker, followed by rifle and machine-gun fire and grenade explosions. More music and speeches then a short silence and then a terrific bombardment of hand grenades thrown at our barricade, followed by fascist shells thundering over our heads... we soon discovered that the explosions came from fascist officers who were trying to make a getaway, not to attack... The whole night was like a fantastic melodrama, weird, beautiful, dangerous and delightful because we knew victory was ours.”
-Pete Neilsen of Vancouver with the Lincoln Battalion, on the battle of Belchite (1937)
“I Support Our Troops” ribbons are everywhere in Canada, particularly once you get outside the cities. Although the slogan only appeared after the U.S. led-invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it evokes enough of the Canadian’s reverence for the soldier’s duty that I’m sure the ribbons will hang around long after this present war is over. There is a general feeling that soldiers do something honourable and terrifying and they deserve not just gratitude for it, but unquestioning respect. The slogan also contains a subtle but nasty inference that there are those who don’t support the troops and need to be publicly defied – you know, people who question wars.
That soldiers do something terrifying is undeniable – engaged in the business of killing and being killed, they volunteer to do work that most of us cannot imagine, cannot even imagine if we ourselves would be capable of doing their job. But the sweeping claim that what they do is honourable is too fanatical a notion for me - it depends on the man and it depends on the war. During Rememberance Day Celebrations in Canada, the soldiers of good wars and bad are honoured, partly because a sincere populace wishes to, but also because it helps political support for future wars. But soldiers who fought against the government’s wishes are not remembered. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion are among those left out of popular sentiments of “supporting the troops.”
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a war so messy and divided that it is hard to find general consensus on whether anyone was fighting a just war. Not that it is talked about: teaching it to a university class last year, most of my students were amazed they had never heard of the war, much less what it was about. As a prelude to the Second World War, it does seem strange that it appears most often as a footnote in history. It is also the time of one of the most staggering events in world history – the volunteer army of 40,000+ who came from all over the world to fight on behalf of the Spanish Republic – the International Brigades. Neither before nor since have so many common people left their home countries to fight and die for an ideal in a foreign land. Fighting fascism in defence of democracy might seem like a no-brainer today, but in 1936 fascism didn’t look so bad to a lot of people. Franco and his buddies Hitler and Mussolini had yet to commit their worst atrocities, and supporters of authoritarian policies are often too naive to understand the implications of their positions.
The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion is shorthand for the Canadian contingent that found its way to Spain and fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic. Out of a population of just 12 million, 1200 Canadians made the journey, an incredible proportion. They were recruited from among the ranks of socialists and the working poor, but the On-to-Ottawa trek is the legendary beginnings of the adventure: hundreds of unemployed men were organized by agitators in the work camps established by the Canadian government, not much more than prison camps for the unemployed, and marched to Vancouver to occupy the city and demand for work and wages. They tried to cross Canada to confront the Prime Minister in Ottawa by hopping trains. They were stopped halfway in Regina by the RCMP, resulting in a city wide riot that ended the movement but radicalized thousands of Canadians. Young men with nothing and nothing to hope were attracted to the higher purpose offered in fighting fascism.
Even though the Canadian volunteers came from all walks of life and from every part of the country, the operation was organized by communist elements within Canadian society. It could be said this affirmed conservative suspicions that communists were behind radical activity in the country, but it could also be said that only the communists had the organization and the physical resources to mobilize Canadians in an idealistic endeavour that was discouraged by the elites of their own societies.
There was never really a wholly Canadian battalion – the Canadians fought under Americans and English, mainly in the Lincoln Battalion, winning the privilege of forming their own battalion a year into their involvement. Even then, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was a mixture of Americans and Canadians, suggesting more than anything the complexity and chaos of the reality of the war. Or any war, for that matter.
After making the arduous journey into Spain (some of them didn’t make it – including the infamous torpedoing by an Italian submarine of the Spanish steamer Cuidad de Barcelona that killed many Canadian volunteers), the Canadians found themselves in a war in which the odds were stacked against them. In spite of this, the International Brigades were no propaganda piece – they fought hard battles, as brutal as any in the coming Second World War. The Canadians fought without experience, but with awesome tenacity. They participated in bloody battles in defense of the capital Madrid that for a time turned the Fascist advance, and were part of valiant and briefly successful counteroffensives in the north of the country.
The Canadians as a group displayed the toughness of a people who grew up in the bush, able to endure deprivation and hardship with an instinctive adaptability. Individual acts of the Canadians, lost in the innumerable defeats and tragedies the Republicans suffered against the better supplied Nationalists, seem like matters of legend. It defies the imagination that people could cross an ocean to fight for strangers for an ideal, and perhaps it could never happen again. But these Canadians did it, not for common nationalism or supremacy, but to fight fascism, pure and simple. In the cynical present, such acts are not just dismissed, they are ignored as irrelevant.
Tiny Anderson was of course a giant of a man who heartened the men around him. He survived the sinking of the Barcelona, the worst of the fighting, through the defense of Madrid, through the counteroffensives and the retreats from Nationalist rushes, only to fall in the last battles in 1938. At the Battle of the Ebro, Arthur Linton of Windsor recounts that he and Anderson were running up a hill and kept falling behind. Anderson yelled at him, “Come on you little bugger and don’t drop the machine gun,” and kept hauling him up. When they got to the top a mortar shell hit and took both of Anderson’s legs. Tiny’s last words were “When we get back from here, boy, there’s no pension, no nothing...” then he stuck a rifle in his mouth and shot himself.
Pete Nielson recounts the death of a young Canadian during named Jim Wolf the battle of Quinto, “War seemed to stun Jim up to the attack on Quinto. There he appeared to have made up his mind to fight in the front ranks at every opportunity... A hand grenade exploded near his face smashing one side of his jaw and neck... He could not smoke so he gave me his cigarettes.”
Finnish-Canadians signed up in numbers disproportionate to their population, and many of them did not come from unemployed backgrounds: they were idealists and internationalists and hardy ones at that. Toivo Saair was assigned to small groups of guerrilla fighters who ventured behind enemy lines, blowing up train tracks and recruiting subversives in Nationalist-held towns. Saair cuts a dashing figure, surviving a night alone hiding from Nationalist forces in a swamp for three hours, finally circling the enemy and scattering them with machinegun fire. He then swam across a river and rejoined his men on the other side. He eventually survived the war and returned to Canada.
Other Finns such as Gunnar Ebb, Nilo Makela and Untamo Makela conducted themselves heroically, fighting as if they were on home soil. Ebb and Untamo fought in dangerous guerrilla assignments like Saair’s, Ebb taking over as commander during the last campaigns. Ebb was not from Canada but had come to the Mac-Paps after being released as a political prisoner in his native Finland. Nilo Makela, from Timmins, Ontario, one of the most respected leaders of the Mac-Paps and who seemed personally invincible, fell during the retreat from the Nationalist push in 1938 – torn apart by mortar burst.
Maurice Constant lived up to his name and was a source of strength to the Battalion, being in the heat of the worst battles the Canadians fought. He went down during the retreats from the Ebro in 1938, taking grenade shrapnel in the face. He managed to make it back to an ambulance, ending up covered in blood from the slow drip of a dying soldier lying in the berth above him. He remembers his commander, Colonel Copic, astride a white horse strangely, seeing him being led to the ambulance and weeping at the sight of Constant’s wounds.
Most of the stories are such as these: men doing incredible things only to fall in losing battles. Charlie Walthers of Vancouver picking up bags of grenades and throwing themselves at fascist emplacements. The Mac-Paps delaying the Fascist advance as Spanish and International troops retreat. Jules Paivio recalling hearing the news of having to attack a Fascist stronghold: “there was something awful in the way the men knew they should not go back, some even couldn’t, but every man was there grimly waiting for that fateful order to march ten kilometres into the inferno again. At that moment, I thrilled to be one of them.”
These are a few illustrations to give some sense of the heroism of their efforts, as great as that of the veterans of Vimy or Passchendaele or Normandy, in service of a cause in which hope was in much shorter supply. In the end, the Republic fell to the fascists, in no small way because Western democracies like France, England, America and Canada left them hanging out to dry. Spanish democracy was too left wing to be of interest to democracies corrupted by moneyed interests. Even worse, there was not much in the way of documentation, given the Canadian government’s disinterest at the time and given the illegality of volunteering to fight in Spain, and many of the volunteers’ names and deeds are nowhere recorded. They not only died, but have vanished from memory, recognized only as an absence. The Mac-Paps returned with a 50% casualty rate, with many captured Canadians executed by the Fascists.
The Spanish Civil War is one of the great lost causes of history – after the fall of the Republic, Franco tyrannized the country for thirty years before dying a good old man in his bed. But at the time, history had yet to be written and a great thing was possible – the defense of a socialist democracy, uniting the ideals of liberal freedom and socialist equality, against the darkness of fascism. The odds of pulling this off were slim to none, but that makes the contribution of the Canadians all the more noble - in the bleakest and truest sense of nobility.