"Premature Anti-Fascist"--by Bernard Knox
I first heard the remarkable phrase that serves as my title in 1946 when, fresh out of the US Army, I went up to New Haven, Connecticut for an interview with the chairman of the Yale Classics Department, to which, taking advantage of the generous provisions of what was popularly known as the GI Bill, I had applied for admission to the graduate program for the Ph.D. in Classics. I had submitted a copy of my certificate of the BA I had received from St. Johns College, Cambridge in 1936. I did not make any mention of the fact that I had made rather a mediocre showing in the final part of the Tripos, ending up with a second class (at least, I comforted myself, I did better than Auden, who got a third, and Housman, who failed completely). To jazz my application up a bit, I had included my record in the US Army, private to captain 1942-45. The Professor, who had himself served in the US Army in 1917-18, was very interested, and remarked on the fact that, in addition to the usual battle-stars for service in the European Theatre, I had been awarded a Croix de Guerre a l'Ordre de l'Armée, the highest category for that decoration. Asked how I got it, I explained that, in July 1944, I had parachuted, in uniform, behind the Allied lines in Brittany to arm and organize French Resistance forces and hold them ready for action at the moment most useful for the Allied advance. "Why were you selected for that operation?" he asked, and I told him that I was one of the few people in the US Army who could speak fluent, idiomatic, and (if necessary) pungently coarse French. When he asked me where I had learned it, I told him that I had fought in 1936 on the northwest sector of the Madrid front in the French Battalion of the XIth International Brigade. "Oh," he said, "You were a premature anti-Fascist."
I was taken aback by the expression. How, I wondered, could anyone be a premature anti- Fascist? Could there be anything such as a premature antidote to a poison? A premature antiseptic? A premature antitoxin? A premature anti-racist? If you were not premature, what sort of anti-Fascist were you supposed to be? A punctual anti-Fascist? A timely one? In fact, in the '30s, as the European situation moved inexorably toward war, the British and French governments (the French often under pressure from the British) passed up one timely opportunity after another to become anti-Fascist. They did nothing when Adolf Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations and began a massive rearmament program (except that the British government negotiated an Anglo-German Naval Treaty that gave Hitler the right to build the U- boats that, in the early '40s, came close to starving Britain into surrender). No action was taken when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, demolishing the buffer against an invasion of France created by the Versailles Treaty. They allowed Hitler and Mussolini to supply Franco with planes, tanks, guns and troops, while enforcing a so-called Non-Intervention Agreement that cut off supplies to the Government. They remained silent while Mussolini conquered Abyssinia and Hitler annexed Austria. And in 1938, they sold down the river for a ludicrous illusion of Peace in Our Time the only strong, democratic state in Eastern Europe that might have been a deterrent to Hitler's plans for expansion, the Czechoslovak Republic. You couldn't call Chamberlain, Daladier and Laval 'timely anti-Fascists'. They declared war on Hitler in 1939 as he invaded Poland, a declaration that gave no help to the Poles, who were crushed between the armies of Hitler from one side and Stalin from the other. So what kind of anti-Fascists were they? My French maquisards had a phrase for the Frenchmen who, in 1944, as the Allied armies broke out of the Normandy pocket and raced across France in pursuit of the retreating Wehrmacht, finally tried to join the Resistance. Resistants de la dernière heure was their contemptuous name for them - 'last- minute anti-Fascists'. It is a perfect description of Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax.
But in 1939, last-minute was too late. Too late to save the millions who died in the death camps; too late to save the soldiers and sailors who died in the campaigns in Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, France and Germany, at Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa and many other places Americans had never heard of; too late to save the civilians who, like the inhabitants of Guernica, died under the bombs in Rotterdam, London, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Hiroshima. It would have been better to be premature.
I did not, of course, say any of this to the professor. I kept quiet and was admitted, and resumed the study of those ancient authors whom I had left untouched for ten years, ever since, a few months after graduating from Cambridge in 1936, I left for Spain. What I did not realize (something the professor knew perfectly well) was that 'Premature Anti-Fascist' was an FBI code-word for 'Communist'. It was the label affixed to the dossiers of those Americans who had fought in the Brigades when, after Pearl Harbor (and some of them before) they enlisted in the US Army. It was the signal to assign them to non-combat units or inactive fronts and to deny them the promotion they deserved. Not only did they deserve it; the Army needed them in responsible positions, for they were the only soldiers in it who had any experience of modern war, who had been bombed and strafed by modern German and Italian aircraft, who had faced German and Italian tanks, who had come under the fire of modern artillery, especially the Luftwaffe's 88mm antiaircraft gun, which the German crews had found murderously effective against ground troops because of its high muzzle velocity. It was later the nightmare of the GIs in North Africa, Italy, and France.
What made me, and many others like me in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Canada and the United States, into premature anti-Fascists? I can speak only of my own case but it is, I think, typical of that of many of my contemporaries. I grew up, like most of my generation, haunted by the specter of what was known in England as the Great War, the war of 1914-18. My two earliest memories, in fact, are vivid pictures from that time. Some time in 1917, when I was barely three years old, I was carried, in the arms of a Canadian nurse who was boarding at our house in South London, across a street illuminated only by moonlight and the moving beams of the searchlights looking for German zeppelins overhead. Behind me came my mother, carrying my brother and sister, newly-born twins. We were hurrying to the bomb shelter, an underground taxi garage just across the street. My father was in the Army; he was engaged in the nightmare battle of Passchendaele in Flanders, a winter offensive in appalling weather conditions that won a few useless miles of muddy terrain at the cost of 300,000 casualties. The second picture is that of a Lee-Enfield rifle leaning against the wall of the sitting room of our house, and beside it a khaki kitbag with a helmet on top of it. It was my father's equipment; he was home on 24-hour leave before sailing for Italy, where his regiment was sent to stiffen the Italian army after its disastrous defeat at Caporetto.
My father, like many veterans of that war, would never talk about it. But like most of my generation, I read all the books about it I could get my hands on Robert Graves' classic Goodbye to All That, Henri Barbusse's unforgettable Le Feu, the unacknowledged model for Remarque's later All Quiet on the Western Front - and the poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg. All that we read induced in us a horror at what seemed a senseless waste of human lives and a fear that, in spite of the League of Nations, war might recur. The secondary school I went to in 1926, the year my father died, confirmed my fears. Like most such schools it had a Cadet Corps, a military training program designed to produce potential junior officers for the next war. Every Friday I went to school in uniform khaki puttees, breeches, a tunic with highly polished buttons, and a peaked cap; after morning lessons we went out onto the school playground and were put through the rigors of close-order drill, carrying rifles that dated back to the Boer War at the beginning of the century. But Friday afternoon was only the beginning. We also had firing practice at the HQ of the local Territorial Regiment with rifles and also the Lewis gun, the light machine gun of the British Army in the Great War, and every summer we went off to a camp on the Isle of Wight, where we lived through two weeks of military training under canvas, our lives regulated by bugle-calls and enlivened by simulated combat maneuvers against the cadet corps of other schools located in the vicinity.
When in the autumn of 1933 I went up to St. John's college in Cambridge, Hitler was already dictator of Germany and had begun his program of militarization of the country; the prospect of a renewed European war was now a grim reality. I soon joined something called the Anti-War Movement, which on November 11 organized a march to lay a wreath on the War Memorial. The inscription on the wreath read: 'To the victims of imperialist war from those who are determined to prevent another.' Naturally, we ran into opposition. November 11 in those days was not only a day of remembrance, it was also a sort of patriotic ceremony at which artificial poppies, reminiscent of those of Flanders, were sold by volunteers to raise money for wounded and hospitalized veterans. Our march through the central college area to the memorial was bitterly contested; not only were we pelted with fruit and eggs bought from nearby stores, we were also repeatedly charged by rugger toughs trying to break up our column. Though battered, we reached the memorial and deposited our wreath.
This demonstration, however, was only a symptom of a deeper malaise which affected us; we were worried not only about the possibility of war but also about the economic and political situation that produced it. And even if war was averted, we faced a bleak future. What would happen to us after three years of study and security at the university? England, like the rest of the world, was in the depths of the Great Depression, which seemed to have become a permanent condition. Even the professional optimists among the economic pundits could offer little hope of recovery. The Depression was a more dispiriting phenomenon in England than in the United States; the Roosevelt New Deal was no panacea but it was at least evidence of official concern, whereas the so-called National Government's policy of retrenchment was a defiant manifesto of indifference to widespread distress. In 1933 unemployment figures in the British Isles reached a record high of three million (23 percent of all insured workers); the unemployment benefits on which their families had to live were just enough to keep them from starvation on a diet of bread and margarine, potatoes and tea. Looking back at it in 1966, Harold Macmillan, who had been Prime Minister but was a junior conservative MP in the 1930s, remembered his conviction that "the structure of capitalist society in its old form had broken down... Perhaps it could not survive at all without radical change... Something like a revolutionary situation had developed."
But it was not only the working class that faced unemployment. University graduates, even the elite of Oxford and Cambridge, especially those whose studies were of the impractical type literature, philosophy and above (or perhaps I should say below) all the study of the Greek and Roman classics had only one road to go: teaching. And for someone like me, with a second-class degree, that meant teaching in some struggling boys' boarding school in cramped quarters and on unappetizing food for a miserable salary. There was an agency that found you such jobs; it went under the Dickensian name of Gabbitas and Thring (Auden parodied it in one of his poems as Rabbitsarse and String). It found a job for Evelyn Waugh when he left Oxford - a school that reduced him to such despair that he decided to commit suicide. He went down to the seashore and started to swim out to sea, determined to go on until his strength failed and he drowned. But he ran into a school of stinging jelly-fish and he turned back, to the delight of his later readers who were treated to hilarious visions of that school in his novels. Auden, also down from Oxford, ended up in a school in Scotland, where he had just as much difficulty understanding the Lallans dialect of his charges as they did understanding the bleat of his Oxford High-Church accent.
A 'revolutionary situation', MacMillan says. And he was right. And like many of my generation faced with what seemed to be the collapse of capitalism, I turned to the texts that seemed to offer an explanation of our dilemma - above all, that remarkable document The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. I was soon an active member of the Socialist Club; my investment of time in their activities and in Marxist studies are the reason why I ended up with a second-class degree. I was soon thinking of myself as a Communist. Not that the label meant very much in Cambridge, which was in those days still a purely university town; there were no factories, no unions, no working class except for the college porters, maids, and kitchen help. Our activity consisted mainly of Marxist study groups, with an occasional street demonstration. We also went to meetings of the British Union of Fascists to heckle and get thrown out by the Blackshirt thugs. There was, of course, as we were to discover much later, a serious side of Communism in Cambridge: Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and Blunt were all Cambridge men. But the first two had left Cambridge before my time and of the other two, the only one I ever saw, though I never talked to him, was Maclean. My sister still resists my requests for her to return a photograph I once lent her; it shows a demonstration in Cambridge with students carrying signs that say, 'Scholarships, Not Battleships'. By the side of the formation are two marshals shouting slogans for the marchers to repeat. One of them is Donald Maclean and the other me. On the back of the photograph, my sister has written: 'Bernard studying the Classics at Cambridge.'
Meanwhile, with money saved up from my scholarship funds, I had been spending all my vacations in Paris, living in cheap hotels on the Left Bank, deepening the knowledge of the French language I had acquired from a brilliant teacher at my London school, making friends among French students and even taking part in demonstrations against the government's policies. For in France, as in England, La Crise, as they called it, still crippled the economy and, as in England, a Fascist movement, Les Croix de Feu, the Fiery Crosses, had made its debut. One of its demonstrations provoked riots that resulted in 15 dead and over 1,000 injured. The threat of a Fascist coup united the French Communist and Socialist parties together with the liberals in a Front Populaire, which won an overwhelming victory in the elections of 1936. For the first time since the long-lasting Depression had begun, a government set out to redress some of the injustices of the system; long-overdue reforms were introduced: the forty-hour week, paid vacations. And Fascist organizations were banned. For the first time, a Western government had broken out of the pattern of retrenchment and repression.
It was a moment of jubilation and hope, but it did not last long. French capital reacted by pulling out of the country, and meanwhile, the newly-elected Spanish government of the Frente Popular was challenged by a military revolt. Popular demand in France huge demonstrations shouting 'Des canons pour l'Espagne', 'Des avions pour l'Espagne' and national interest both spoke strongly for the Spanish government's request to purchase arms, but the French premier, Léon Blum, under pressure from London, agreed to join the Non-Intervention Agreement, though Germany and Italy were openly supplying the rebels.
In September I received a letter from my friend John Cornford, the leader of the Communist movement in Cambridge, who had just returned from Spain, where he had fought for a few weeks on the Aragon front, in a column organized by the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the POUM, a party that was later to be suppressed as too revolutionary. He had returned to England to recruit a small British unit that would set an example of training and discipline (and shaving) to the anarchistic militias operating out of Barcelona. He asked me to join and I did so without a second thought.
I knew no more about Spanish politics and history than most of my fellow-countrymen, that is to say, not much. I had read (in translation) much (but not all) of Don Quixote, and seen reproductions of the great paintings of Velázquez and Goya. I knew that Philip II had married an English reigning Queen -- Mary -- and on her death claimed the throne of England, but had been defeated when in 1588 he sent the great Armada to invade England and enforce his claim. I knew that the Duke of Wellington had fought a long, hard campaign against Napoleonic armies in Portugal and Spain and that guerrilla (which was to become my military specialty in World War II) was a Spanish word. But I had no real understanding of the complicated situation that had produced the military revolt of July 1936. What I did know was that Franco had the full support of Hitler and Mussolini. In fact, that support had been decisive at the beginning of the war. The military coup had failed in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's principal cities. Franco's best troops, the Foreign Legion and the Regulares, the Moorish mercenaries recruited to fight against their own people, were cooped up in Morocco, since the Spanish Navy had declared for the Republic. Planes and pilots from the Luftwaffe and the Italian Air Force, in the first military airlift in history, had flown some 8,000 troops across to Sevilla, Franco's base for the advance on Madrid.
And this was all I needed to make up my mind. I left a few days later for Paris, with a group of a dozen or so volunteers that John had assembled. There were three Cambridge graduates and one from Oxford (a statistic I have always been proud of), as well as one from London University. There was a German refugee artist who had been living in London, two veterans of the British Army and one of the Navy, an actor, a proletarian novelist and two unemployed workmen. Before we left, I had gone with John to visit his father in Cambridge; he was the distinguished Greek scholar Francis MacDonald Cornford, author of brilliant books on Attic comedy, Thucydides and Greek philosophy, and Plato. He had served as an officer in the Great War and still had the pistol he had had to buy when he equipped himself for France. He gave it to John, and I had to smuggle it through French Customs at Dieppe, for John's passport showed entry and exit stamps from Port-Bou and his bags were likely to be given a thorough going-over.
Once in Paris, we went to the Comité d'Entraide au Peuple Espagnol and that was where John's scheme for a small British unit on the Aragon front was abandoned. We were sent to a hotel in Belleville, a working-class section of Paris, where we found ourselves a tiny English drop in a sea of large national groups French, Polish, Belgian, German, Italian - all of them bound for Spain. We left next morning by train for Marseilles where, at night, we boarded a Spanish vessel that left at midnight and, once clear of the harbor, turned off all its lights there were reports of Italian submarines on the prowl. But we reached our destination, Alicante, safely and sailed into the port late one afternoon only to find it full of foreign naval vessels, all there, presumably, to enforce the Non- Intervention Agreement (which did not, however, apply to human imports). As we moved in, a British destroyer crossed our bows, its signal lamp flashing a message in Morse code. "They're telling us to show our colors," said one of our Navy men, and sure enough, a few minutes later, two members of the crew, black-bearded and wearing brightly-colored scarves, came on deck with a flag they proceeded to run up. It consisted of two triangles, one black, one red. The captain of the destroyer must have searched his flag book in vain; they were the colors of the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica.
From Alicante we went by rail crowds at all the stations shaking clenched fists at us and shouting UHP to Albacete, where we were housed in what had been the barracks of the Guardia Civil. Our British section was assigned (mainly, I suppose, because I could serve as interpreter) to the French Battalion, where we ended up in the compagnie mitrailleuse, the machine-gun company. But for the rest of September and all through October we had no machine guns, not even rifles; the only weapon around was John's pistol, which he kept well under wraps. Since we couldn't train with weapons, our days were spent practicing close-order drill (French, English, or sometimes Spanish) and going on route marches along the dusty roads of the province of Murcia. No one knew when or where we would be sent to fight when (if ever) the weapons arrived, though the scuttlebutt rumors had us held in reserve for a flanking movement via Ciudad Real that would take Franco, now moving steadily toward Madrid, in the rear.
As the calendar moved through October and into November, events suddenly developed so fast that we could hardly grasp what was happening. One late evening, we were suddenly alerted and marched to the railroad yards, where huge wooden crates were being unloaded. We were given tools to open them up; our weapons had arrived at last.
There were stamps and bills of lading and brand marks on the cases that showed they had made the rounds of the international arms markets; some were in Arabic and one case was branded with the letters IRA. They contained rifles American '03 Springfields, the rifle carried by the Doughboys in the Great War and, at last, our machine guns. They were a sad disappointment antique models that sported a bicycle seat for the gunner high up in the air, real suicide traps; no one, not even the French, knew what they were (though the cases had French stamps on them) until our oldest French volunteer, a patriarch known as grand-père, identified them as St. Etiennes, a gun that was declared obsolete in the first weeks of the 1914 war. They must have been relics from the war of 1870.
But it was with these museum pieces that we set out in open trucks on the 6th of November, not for Ciudad Real, but for Madrid, where the war was about to be won or lost. Franco's troops had pushed through the Madrid defenses in the Western and Northwestern sectors; the government had left for Valencia and international opinion was unanimous that Madrid would fall. (One Paris newspaper actually published a fake picture of the Generalisimo riding on a horse down the Puerta del Sol.) The fall of Madrid would certainly be followed by British and, though reluctant, French recognition of Franco as the legitimate ruler of Spain.
We arrived on the eastern outskirts of Madrid on November 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The point was made in a speech by the Brigade's Political Commissar, Nicoletti, who urged us in Italian-accented French and with emphatic gestures to fight to the last man in the defense of Madrid and gave us the password for the night: "Madrid será la tumba del Fascismo." I was much struck by his gestures and especially his habit of sticking his chin far out when he made an especially defiant statement; in that pose, he bore a startling resemblance to Benito Mussolini. I learned later that Nicoletti (whose real name was DiVittorio) had been a close associate of Mussolini when they were both Socialists, before Italy entered the Great War. That night we were put on a train which went round Madrid to the Estación del Norte, and from there we set out, in the morning, on our famous march through Madrid to the front at Ciudad Universitaria, carrying our useless machine guns. We were three brigades -French, German, and Polish - that made up the first, which was officially denoted the XIth (International) Brigade. We arrived at a building called Filosofía y Letras where, while waiting for orders on the open ground, we had our baptism of fire - strafing by an Italian plane and artillery fire from German gunners - before moving into the building and taking up positions facing the enemy-held buildings, dominated by the Hospital Clinico on its hill, from which the Moorish snipers looked down our throats. It was there, as we frantically tried to get the hang of our antique guns (they seemed to work by an intricate mechanism of springs), that we were called to attention; a general had arrived. His name, he told us in English, which he spoke well with a transatlantic (perhaps Canadian) accent, was Kleber. His name was actually Stern and he was a Hungarian, but Kleber was an appropriate nom de guerre. Jean Baptiste Kleber was one of the French revolutionary generals who beat back the Austrian invasion of France in the 1790s. He asked us if we liked our guns and we told him in no uncertain terms what we thought of them. He asked if Lewis guns would serve our turn and two Lewis guns is what we got next day. They were guns we knew and we kept them firing during the next week or so as the Fascists made repeated attacks.
Early in those days, we had our first casualties. One gunteam was sent ahead to an advanced position but was overrun during the night by the Moorish troops, as we learned from the one man who returned. One of the dead was Maclaurin, a Cambridge man like John and myself. Meanwhile, life in Filosofía y Letras was no rest-cure. We had smashed the huge wide windows in the American-style building (flying glass can do just as much damage as the bullets or shell-fragments that produce it) and the Madrid winter cold (which came as a surprise to Northerners like us who had been fed on tourist propaganda about sunny Spain) seeped into our bodies no matter how many blankets we wrapped around our waists. The snipers, meanwhile, made us crawl along the floor when we had to move, until one night we built, on the wide window-sills, a barricade high enough to enable us to walk upright without giving them a target. The barricades were made of books from the building's library; we took the thickest and tallest books we could find - one of them, I remember, was an encyclopedia of Hindu mythology and religion. We later discovered, after hearing bullets smack into the books, that the average penetration was to about page 350; since that discovery I am inclined to believe, as I did not before, those stories of soldiers whose lives had been saved by a Bible carried in their left-hand jacket pocket.
We were later moved out of the building and marched by night to the vicinity of a village called Aravaca, where we caught our first glimpse of our battalion commander, Colonel Dumont, wearing a smart officer's uniform and a French kepi. (He was later to be shot by the Germans for his activity in the French resistance.) At Aravaca, we were in support of an attack by the Polish battalion; we sat in trenches under shell fire and helped the wounded survivors of the failed attack to the dressing station. Soon we were on the road back to University City, where some of the buildings, stormed during our absence, had to be recaptured. We later spent some time in the Casa de Campo, unable to sleep at night for fear of the Moorish patrols that moved swiftly and silently about their deadly work. And then back again to our old home, Filosofía y Letras, where John got a head wound from a shell that burst inside our room; for the next week or so, he wore a white bandage round the top of his head that made him look, from a distance, like a Moorish trooper.
At this point, some time in December (we had lost count of the days), we were given leave in Madrid. We sat in cafes and drank endless cafés con leche (food was scarce but coffee seemed to be plentiful) and went to the movies, where we saw a Russian film, Chapayev, in which Russian partisans in the Russian Civil War were armed with heavy machine guns. They were water-cooled Maxims, mounted on a heavy steel carriage, with a metal shield to cover the gunner. They were exactly the guns we were now using (we had exchanged our Lewis guns for them some time in November), but in the film the partisans had them pulled by teams of horses, while we had dragged them over the bumps and pits in the Casa de Campo and up and down the staircases of Filosofía y Letras with our bare and half-frozen hands.
Our leave ended suddenly with an alert; we were packed into the open Russian trucks again and driven round to the north-west of Madrid to a small village called Boadilla del Monte, where for the first time we met the English section, about the same size as ours, in The German Battalion of the XIIth brigade, which had arrived at Madrid a few days after us. But we had little time to celebrate. The enemy, stalemated in the western sector, had launched an offensive to outflank the Republican army, cut off the main road to the NW and perhaps attack the city from the North. We set up our two guns in front of the village and waited for daylight.
With it came the boom of artillery and the ripping sound of machine gunfire in the near distance and soon we saw the milicianos in front of us in full retreat; as they came towards Boadilla and the main road our orders were to cover their retreat and hold our position until further orders. The order to withdraw soon came; we did so by sections, one covering the other with fire as it came back. As our section was moving back, dragging the gun, I felt a shocking blow and a burning pain through my neck and right shoulder and fell to the ground on my back with blood spurting up like a fountain. John came back, with David, our Oxford man who had been a medical student. I heard him say; "I can't do anything about that" and John bent down and said, "God bless you, Bernard" and left. They had to go; they had to set up the gun and cover the withdrawal of our other crew. And they were sure that I was dying. So was I. As the blood continued to spout I could feel my consciousness slipping fast away.
I have since then read many accounts by people who, like me, were sure they were dying but survived. Many of them speak of a feeling of heavenly peace, others of visions of angels welcoming them to Heaven. I had no such feelings or visions; I was consumed with rage--furious, violent rage. Why me? I was just 21 and had barely begun living my life. Why should I have to die? It was unjust. And, as I felt my whole being sliding into nothingness, I cursed. I cursed God and the world and everyone in it as the darkness fell.
Many years later, when I returned to the study of the ancient classics, I found that my reaction was not abnormal. In Homer's Iliad, still the greatest of all war books, this is how young men die. Hector, for example, "went winging down to the House of Death/ wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind, his young and supple strength." And Virgil's Turnus goes the same road: vitaque cum gomitu fugit indignata sub umbras: 'his life with a groan fled angry to the shades below." "Indignata. Quia iuvenis erat," the great Virgilian commentator Servius explained. "Angry. Because he was young."
Some time later -I shall never know how long I came to. The blood was no longer spouting, just oozing. In a daze, I stood up and walked back through the abandoned houses of Boadilla del Monte out on to the road to Majadahonda, where I met my machine gun section in position at the edge of a small wood. My friends were astonished to see me but they could be of no help; there were no ambulances available and I had to walk the long miles to Las Rozas where there was a dressing station. (It was bombed, in spite of the Red Cross painted on the roof, by Italian planes shortly after I left it that evening.) I left it with three other walking wounded, in a car driven by a man who got lost time after time (he had never been to Madrid before); every time he slammed down on the brakes after making a wrong turn, every one of us screamed in agony. We finally arrived at the Brigade hospital. It was the majestic Hotel Palace, where I have stayed as a paying guest several times since then, always relishing the memory of what it looked like in those days -guns parked where people now leave their hats and coats and armed sentries at all the entrances (it housed the Russian military missions as well as the Brigade's wounded).
I was there for several weeks. The doctors were afraid that I would have a hemorrhage; in fact they were astonished that I had not had one on the long trek to Las Rozas. I was confined strictly to bed for the first two weeks. When the doctor came on his rounds, if he happened to have some student interns with him, he would point to the entry and exit wounds and say to them: "Tell me all the things the bullet missed that would have killed this man." There were apparently lots of them. I was later told by an English expert that the bullet must have been near the end of its trajectory and so took the path of least resistance. But he said: "You were lucky to have such good blood. Punctured carotid arteries don't usually heal up so fast and so well."
I had one professional nurse (they were rare, for nurses had usually been members of a religious order and they were mostly on the other side) but also a younger attendant who was clearly a novice, but was willing, unlike the nurse, who was frantically busy, to try to understand my fractured Spanish. After cleaning me up and passing the time of day with me she always took a long careful look at me, put her hand over my forehead and then went behind the bed where she made some notation, as I gathered because she came back with a pencil in her hand. I could not turn my neck round anything like far enough to see what she was up to -the wound was very painful if pressured - but finally I was able to do so, and saw, to my astonishment, a temperature chart. I had never seen one like it; it had the most amazing up and down zigzags, suggesting that the patient had died from hypothermia or boiling blood several times in the past few weeks. When she came again I asked her where she had trained as an enfermera. "I'm not an enfermera" she said proudly, "I'm a Voluntaria de la Libertad." I asked her where she had learned to take patients' temperatures and she replied, with a sweet smile "De las películas americanas" -from American films.
Early on in my stay in the hospital John came to see me. With what was left of our original group, he was on his way to Albacete to join the British Battalion that was now being organized. Our German refugee artist had also been badly wounded at Boadilla, a crippling wound high in the thigh, and John was killed a week or so later at Lopera in the South. Freddie Jones had been killed at Aravaca, and Paddy Burke, the actor, was killed a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, the doctors at the hospital told me that for treatment of the muscular or nerve injury that inhibited the full use of my right arm I would have to go elsewhere; in fact, they advised me to go home. And the news of John's death, which I received back at the base in Albacete, decided the issue for me. I returned to England, where I did in fact get expert treatment. But on the way from Madrid to Albacete I had seen an encouraging sight. We stopped at one point to let an oncoming train go by. As It rattled past, I saw men waving and giving us the salute with the clenched fist; evidently, these were reinforcements for Madrid. As the coach passed, I saw that it displayed a long white banner that read THE YANKS ARE COMING. It was a contingent of the Lincoln Brigade on its way to the front.
Back home, I watched in utter despondency as the British government persisted in its policy of appeasement and the prospect of victory in Spain receded fast as Hitler and Mussolini gave Franco a steadily increasing preponderance in weapons and troops. The sellout in Munich in 1938 plunged me into despair; it seemed to me that Chamberlain and his sinister Foreign Secretary Halifax were intent on making England a junior partner of Hitler's Drittes Reich. A meeting with a young American woman whom I had met at Cambridge some years before but with whom I now fell in love changed my life, not least because when after Munich she yielded to her parents' anxious insistence that she come home, she persuaded me to apply for an immigration visa, come to America and marry her. Which I did early in 1939.
In the interim I had ceased to think of myself as a Communist. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was understandable; the Western betrayal of Czechoslovakia was a clear signal to Stalin that if Hitler turned against Russia (as he repeatedly announced that he would in his book Mein Kampf), the West would not raise a finger to help. But the brutal annexation of the Baltic states and still more the aggressive war against Finland were harder to accept. I was appalled, too, by the show-trials of the Old Bolsheviks, Bukharin and the rest; I read the verbatim accounts of their so-called confessions, published by Moscow in English and available at left-wing bookshops in London. I was appalled. These tales of recruitment by the British Secret Service in the first days of the Revolution and a lifetime of espionage and sabotage were beyond belief; they could only be the product of fear and perhaps the experience of torture. And I was sickened too by reports, later confirmed, that our General Kleber, whose coolness under fire at University City had taught us all how to face danger, had been recalled to Russia and executed. Loyalty to the ideals for which my friends had died in Spain was undermined by the grim realities which I could no longer ignore. When I came to the United States I joined no party, and though remaining a resolute defender of the cause of freedom in Spain, refrained from political activity.
When the war finally broke out in 1939 it was aptly named the "phony war" -nothing happened in the West as Poland went under. When something did happen, and Hitler drove the British Army out of France, I was tempted to return but realized that I owed more to my wife, who had worked like a Trojan to get me admitted to the United States, than I did to the government which had made this defeat inevitable. I also had a feeling that America would sooner or later become involved and I would be able to fight in the uniform of the country that I was beginning to love.
When that I happened I somehow escaped the discrimination that hampered the military careers of so many of the American veterans of the Brigades. The only occasion on which the possibility emerged was one of the many medical examinations I went through as an enlisted man. The doctor noticed the scar on my throat. "It looks like a bullet wound," he said. I told him it was and he asked how I got it. "And don't tell me," he added, "that it was a hunting accident -or that you were cleaning the gun and it suddenly went off." So I told him I had fought in Spain. "What side were you on?" he asked, and I replied, indignantly, "The government side, of course. His face became a scowling mask. "You mean the Goddam Reds," he said. I made no reply, as he turned me round to find the exit scar. Then he said, "All right, go on to the next booth," and as I started he said, "They damn near got you, didn't they?" But I had no repercussions from this incident and was later selected for OCS and commissioned. And eventually I fought in Europe in a special force organized by the American OSS, the British SOE and the Free French to coordinate the action of the French Resistance forces with the advance of the Allied armies. It was the OSS too that later sent me to North Italy to work with large partisan formations that were operating on our side of the lines but in mountainous areas where heavy American equipment could not be used. The OSS also gave many Americans who had fought in the Brigades a chance to use their skills. General Donovan didn't care what your politics were or might have been as long as you were willing to fight, and there were many ex- Brigadiers who did dangerous and effective work between and behind the lines in Italy.
It was in Italy, too, that I had a sudden reminder of Spain. I was discussing operations with the staff of the Divisione Modena, a large partisan formation, and sometimes getting my newly acquired Italian mixed up with my half-forgotten Spanish, saying fuego instead of fuoco, for example, and frente instead of fronte. Suddenly, after another such fumble, the division commander stood up, smiling, walked over to me and patted me on the shoulder. "Spagna, no?" he said. He had been in the Battaglione Garibaldi that had fought next to us in the Casa del Campo. From that point on, relations with the partisans were no problem.
But of course I had never forgotten Spain. Not only, after the Second World War, did I often go back there (my American passport did not show, as my British one had, an exit from Spain in February 1937 and no entry). I went not only to see the Spain I had not been able to visit during the war -Seville, Granada, Burgos, Cordoba- but also to see again the places where I had fought. Boadilla looked just the same, but the Ciudad Universitaria had been rebuilt in a way that made it difficult for me to retrace my steps. On one occasion, when Franco was still in full control, I made myself rather too conspicuous in my search for the past. I was in the Museo del Ejército, a magnificent museum neglected by most tourists -it is their loss, for it contains many treasures, for example the silk tent used by Charles V when he was on campaign in Morocco and a coverage of the Spanish-American War that does not feature the Maine and Roosevelt's Rough Riders. It had at that time (I wonder if it is still there) a scale model of the Ciudad Universitaria as it looked in November, 1936. There was Filosofía y Letras, with the Hospital Clinico up on the hill, every detail exact. I spent so much time prowling around it that two of the guards came into the room and stared at me and I suddenly realized that I had been there for over an hour. I looked at my watch, muttered a greeting, and left in a hurry.
I also acquired and read what is now a rather large library about the war, including two books -La marcha sobre Madrid and La lucha en torno a Madrid by Colonel José Manuel Martinez Bande that with their photographs and maps explained to me, at last, where exactly I had been and what I was doing. Not that I really needed to be reminded. I am one of those who, in Herbert Matthew's phrase, "went to Spain and left their hearts there." And the poet of the Lincoln Brigade, Edwin Rolfe, spoke for all of us when he wrote, as he trained in Texas for the later war, his haunting poem, First Love:
I am eager to enter it, eager to end it.
But my heart is forever captive
of that other war
that taught me first the meaning
of peace and of comradeship.
And all of us have memories that can at times bring tears to the eyes in a rush of sadness and exaltation. Like Rolfe's-
and always I think of my friend who
amid the apparition of bombs
saw on the lyric lake
the single perfect swan.
Bernard Knox was born in Bradsford, England in 1914. He was Professor of Classics at Yale from 1947 to J961; from J962 to 1985, he was the Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. Among his publications figure: The Heroic Temper (1964); Word and Action (1978); The Oldest Dead White European Males (1993), and Backing into the Future (1994).
from The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - Bill Susman Lecture Series. King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center - New York University, 1998. Online Source
Return to About the Spanish Civil War