Judith Keene, Fighting for Franco: International Volunteers in Nationalist Spain During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, Leicester University Press, 2001

Harry Knowles

Judith Keene’s account of the volunteers who fought or aided Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War fills a long-neglected void in the history of the conflict. Not that there haven’t been various accounts of pro-Franco volunteers – indeed some of these go back to the late thirties themselves. What Keene does for aficionados of this somewhat romanticised period of Spanish history is to draw many of these accounts together and reinforce them with archival sources into a most readable narrative.

The author sets out to rescue for posterity this less numerous and less militarily important group of foreigners which comprised no more than 1500 English, Irish, French, White Russian and Romanian volunteers who offered their services to Franco. What is new about this book is that it combines and evaluates accounts of all these national groups.

Keene argues that these volunteers represented a wide variety of social and ideological backgrounds and that the catalyst which drew them to Spain was their collective conviction that the Republic was Communist-dominated and that its destruction was necessary to prevent the presence of a Soviet-type regime in Western Europe. Amongst this group were Catholics appalled by the disestablishment of the Church in Spain and by the destruction of church buildings and the atrocities committed against priests in the early months of the conflict. There were also Fascists who feared that Socialist and Communist trade unions posed a real threat to the ‘patriotic traditions, the necessary discipline and social hierarchy of Western capitalist societies ‘ (vii). The White Russians and the Romanians were mainly members of their Orthodox national churches but felt spiritually aligned with the Western catholic mission to defend ‘Christian civilization’ against the forces of Marxists, agnostics, atheists and Freemasons.

Keene devotes a chapter to each of these national groups as well as a chapter to the foreign female supporters of Franco. Their experiences were varied though often shared through naivety, incompetence (on both their part and that of the Spanish) and neglect. There were instances where the volunteers had an over-inflated opinion of their military value to Franco’s forces and were left disappointed and disillusioned by their reception. Some had strong active service records at senior officer level and one is left with the feeling that Franco might have done more to exploit this opportunity. Franco probably drew most advantage from the amateur writers and travellers, those amongst the volunteer group whose narratives had a useful propaganda value. As far as the volunteers themselves were concerned, the author argues that if there was a benefit, it accrued to their leaders. Several of the Irish and French leaders gained considerable recognition and favour from Franco’s Nationalists.

Keene’s account of Franco’s female supporters is most revealing of these confident and fiercely independent women. As literary propagandists or as medical personnel, these women played a part in Franco’s victory. But as Keene points out, such strongly independent women would have no place in the Franco dictatorship that followed the fascist victory. Although they were militant anti-Communists and unashamed promoters of right-wing causes, it is difficult not to admire the adventurous spirit, the tenacity and courage of women like twenty-year old Pip Scott-Ellis, the daughter of Lord Howard de Walden and Seaford who served as an energetic and committed nurse in Nationalist hospitals at the Front.

There is only one Australian listed amongst Keene’s cast of characters. Nugent Bull was the twenty-nine year old son of a prosperous family of Sydney undertakers who had attended a leading Marist school and had been strongly influenced by a teacher who was an intellectual in a Sydney-based branch of Catholic Action. Nugent was also fascinated by Taylorism and the new theories relating to increased organisational productivity and efficiency. He ran the family business following his father’s illness and led it successfully for several years until his brother returned from abroad and took over the reins in 1937. At somewhat of a loose end, Nugent travelled to Rome from where he made arrangements to enlist with Franco’s forces. He joined the Spanish Foreign Legion and fulfilled the terms of his enlistment for the duration of the War. After the conflict ended, he travelled to England and joined the Royal Air Force as an air gunner. He flew in Wellington Bombers from the outbreak of the Second World War until September 1940 when his aircraft went down over the English Channel. Bull was reported as missing in action, presumed killed.

In Fighting for Franco, the author has revealed a wealth of fascinating and new research in a lively and often witty account of a much-neglected group. After the War, Franco ensured the historical presence of foreigners in the conflict was expunged from the record. Judith Keene has restored this group to its rightful place in the history of the conflict.