Paul Preston, Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE, reviews this book, Richard Baxell’s second work on the British contribution to the International Brigades, as “the definitive work on the British volunteers” – and I have to agree with him.
The work has as its foundation his 2002 PhD thesis on “The British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” carried out at LSE under Preston’s supervision, which looked at “the role, experiences and contribution of the volunteers” and was subsequently published as “British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” in 2004 by Routledge as part of their series “the Cañada Blanch Studies on Contemporary Spain”. Baxell then revisited the topic in this volume published in hardback in 2012 and then in paperback in 2014 (the edition reviewed here) by Aurum Press Ltd.
With the historiography largely consisting of studies of the International Brigades as a whole, the story relating to the British volunteers relied principally on their own memoirs which started to be published from the 1980s coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the war. An academic treatment was missing until the publication of Baxell’s thesis.
“Unlikely Warriors” takes this groundwork and skilfully blends in an engrossing oral historical aspect in the form of the volunteers’ own words. Also incorporated are elements of the extensive International Brigade archives sent to Moscow after the war – now available online – together with papers from the British Security Services held in the National Archives. The combination gives an academically sound portrayal of the conflict – yet one which is immensely readable as the volunteers’ voices come through illustrating their beliefs, doubts and experiences of the actions and events that the British Battalion were involved in. The volume also covers the experience of the Brigaders who were to languish in Nationalist prisons as well as the much smaller involvement of British individuals who fought on the side of Franco.
The post-war reaction and disappointment after the fall of the Republic of those involved receives good coverage as does the sometimes complicated relationship between the Comintern, the Communist Party and the men who fought for Spain in what they saw, primarily, as an anti-fascist response.
In conclusion, this is highly recommended and is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a sensitive and encompassing review of the idealistic Britons who fought for the liberty of Spain in the Spanish Civil War.
Brian Curragh MA – 20th April 2018