‘I drew the War’: The Spanish Civil War pictured by its children

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The first shots of the Spanish Civil War were fired 80 years ago on July 17 1936. Over a period of three years the Republican Government fought to suppress a Nationalist rebellion led by General Franco. By the time the Nationalists had finally secured victory, in April 1939, it is estimated that up to one million people had died. The war was seen by many as a battle between the forces of fascism and democracy. Certainly Italy and Germany provided men and equipment to aid the Nationalist cause and the Soviet Union provided similar support for the Republican army. Officially France and Britain remained neutral, although many men and women from both countries joined the International Brigades established to fight alongside the Republican Army.

In a prolonged and bitter conflict, that turned neighbour against neighbour, atrocities and summary executions were commonplace and were committed by both sides. The victims were not just those who had fought for the opposition but frequently those who were suspected of supporting or sympathising with the enemy. It was one of the first wars where civilians on both sides were in the front line with fighting in many towns and cities and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas. There was also a climate of fear with purges and often executions of those denounced as traitors and enemy collaborators.

The horror of the war was captured dramatically in a series of paintings completed by Spanish children aged 10 to 12 years in 1938 and used to raise money to care for those orphaned or separated from their families by the war. Glamorgan Archives holds a set of 6 pictures of the war produced in 1938 as postcards. They are part of the Gilbert Taylor papers, a collection of letters and memorabilia of a young man, living in Cardiff, who fought and died with the International Brigade in Spain in 1938. It is likely that the cards were sent from Barcelona, to Gilbert’s wife, Sylvia, by Bill Morrissey a fellow member of the British Battalion. Bill served alongside Gilbert in the 16th (British) Battalion of the XV International Brigade.  He helped Sylvia at a time when she was desperately seeking news of her husband, who went missing in the fighting to repulse the offensive launched by the Nationalist forces in the Aragon in March 1938.

The cards were the work of Dr Alfred Brauner who, with his wife Francois, went to Spain to work for the Republican cause. Francois was Austrian by birth and worked as a doctor in the hospital at Benicassim set up by the International Brigade. Alfred headed the Committee for the Refugee Children of the International Brigade and travelled through the Republican areas where thousands of children were separated from their families. Prior to the outbreak of the war the Republican Government had used summer schools as a means of bringing education, including political education, to villages and towns across Spain. The schools were reconstituted during the war to care for the thousands of children evacuated from towns and cities and separated from their parents. The International Brigades were one of several organisations that supported and ran such schools. In many cases the children were eventually evacuated to countries that supported the Republic including Mexico and the Soviet Union. The British Government was, initially, reluctant to accept evacuees. However, it was agreed in April 1937, after the bombing of Guernica, that 4,000 children from the Basque country be accepted and cared for in Britain.

The pictures were almost certainly produced by children cared for in the Republican schools. Most would have seen and would have lived through air raids on their towns and cities and possibly on their homes. There was clearly a fascination with attacks that brought a new and dramatic dimension to warfare. Great care and attention was given in the pictures to the bombers and the fighter planes. They also show the destruction to buildings and, in one case, a boat, caused by bombs and machine guns.

The Brauners promoted the use of art and drawing as means of helping the children to come to terms with the trauma of war. Alfred Brauner, known as ‘Dr Fred’, provided a background note on the production of the pictures.

When visiting the refugee children in the homes established by our international comrades we asked the children to draw something from their life.

Most of them were influenced by familiar illustrations or imitated their neighbours, while the remaining represented the war in some form.

We reproduce here some of these drawings.

Invariably the child selects as the place of the drama his village. Above is always drawn the terrible menace, the airplanes.

These children’s drawings are horrible realism. The types of planes are well shown. The forms of bomber and pursuit planes learned by observation. Notice the details of the air battle; the people escaping; the black and red of the night attack; the destruction with only a picture of the family nailed to a wall dangling at a curious angle.

The children, victims of this war, are never to forget it. A little artist, one of these refugee children of whom our wounded are guardians, has learned to give to the garden of the home … a breath of peace.

Committee for Spanish Children of the International Brigades, Barcelona.

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The card ends with the plea in bold type – Help us through your local aid Committee for Spain. It has to be remembered the pictures used for the postcards were carefully selected as part of a wider propaganda campaign that used images of children caught up in the war and the brutality of the Nationalist attacks to build support, both within Spain and internationally, for the Republican cause.

The five pictures were signed by the child in each case. They were all 10 to 12 years old. The child also added a title and, in most cases, detail on where the attack took place. In two instances, anti-fascist slogans were used. The pictures portray war in towns across Spain, from villages such as Oropesa to the large urban communities of Madrid and Toledo.

Card 1.

Bombardeo de mi calle en Madrid

Bombing of my street in Madrid, Manuel Arias, aged 11.

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Card 2.

Un Barco bombardeo en Benicassim

A ship bombed at Benicassim, Antonia Perez, aged 11.

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Card 3.

Bombardeo en Toledo

Bombing of Toledo, E Arroya, aged 10.

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Card 4.

Bombardeo en Oropesa

Bombing of Oropesa, aged 12 years.

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Card 5.

Por aqui ha pasado el Fascismo!

“This is the work of Fascism!”, M Arias, aged 11 years.

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Card 6.

Esta es la obra del fascism!

“Fascism had passed this way”, Manuel Perez Osana, aged 12

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It is possible that the artists were among the 35,000 children that were later evacuated from Republican held territory during the war. The 4000 ‘ninos’ who came to Britain were housed with families in Swansea, Brampton, Tynemouth, Margate and Carshalton. Although most were reunited with their families after the war, it is estimated that 250 made their lives in Britain because their parents and family could not be found. In 2012 many of this group came together at Southampton University to mark the 75 year since they had left Spain as part of the ‘Expedicion a Inglaterra’.

The drawings provide a graphic record of the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. The Brauners went on to use the techniques developed in Spain in the treatment of hundreds of children who escaped the Nazis to France in 1939 and, subsequently, with 440 children released from Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1945 and brought to France. Many years later they established a clinic for the treatment of disabled children at Saint Mande close to Paris. Their collection of children’s drawings in wartime was brought together in a book published in 1991, J’ai dessine la guerre: Les dessin de l’enfant dans la guerre, Alfred and Francois Brauner, Expanision Scientific Francais, 1991.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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One thought on “‘I drew the War’: The Spanish Civil War pictured by its children

  1. Arcade Personalities: Gilbert Taylor – Cardiff Arcades

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