Gilbert Taylor left Cardiff for Spain in November 1937 to fight for the Republican Army in the Civil War that had erupted following the attempt by the Nationalist forces in 1936 to depose the government. His letters to his wife Silvia and his friends and colleagues in Cardiff detail his service with the International Brigade from November 1937 to March 1938. The account below provides a flavour of his time in Spain and, in particular, the journey to Spain and his first impressions of the country and army life. It draws, primarily, on letters, written in November and December of 1937.
It is estimated that 35,000 men and women from across the globe responded to the call by the Communist International – the Comintern – to fight for the Republic in attempting to repulse the coup launched in 1936 by General Franco’s Nationalists. Approximately 2,300 came from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. Most were recruited by local branches of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the party also organised their passage to Spain.
Gilbert was the manager of the Collets Bookshop in Castle Arcade and, to an extent, he fitted the profile of those selected by the Communist Party for the International Brigade. He was young, fit and an active member of the Young Communists. However, there was no shortage of volunteers and, where possible, the party opted to recruit single men in their late 20s and early 30s, knowing that dependents were unlikely to receive any financial support if volunteers were killed or injured in Spain. There would, therefore, have been question marks against Gilbert’s name given that he was a married man. However, it may well have been that by November 1937, when the bookshop manager from Cardiff joined the Welsh contingent in Spain (made up, primarily, of men from the mining communities), that this rule had been relaxed.
Gilbert would have been recruited to fight in Spain by the Communist Party and the party would have provided a train ticket for him to travel to London for the first leg of the journey to Spain. His letters convey the excitement and trepidation he would have felt in joining the fight against Franco’s Nationalists, seen by many as a battle between the forces of democracy and fascism. Britain and France had adopted a policy of neutrality and the volunteers were instructed to say, if challenged, that they were on a day trip to Dunkirk. In reality, although they were often placed under surveillance by both the British and French police, both countries took a reasonably relaxed view of the young men travelling to fight for the Republican cause in Spain.
Gilbert’s letters to his wife, Silvia, and Phyllis Greatrex, penned hurriedly on 7 November 1937 during the overnight stay in Paris, tell the story of the first leg of his journey. The first letter, to Phyllis Greatrex, deals with the journey itself, starting with his arrival at London:
‘I’m here!’ Part of the way at least and it’s all very strange and exciting. I met at 3 o’clock as arranged with 16 other comrades and we waited and were talked to for what seemed hours. Harry wasn’t there but the comrade who did all the talking was really ever so nice. The 17 were divided into three groups and I was put in charge of one of them. When I thought all the talking must be finished I was called into the office by myself and had a brand new and much longer talk – I was to be in general charge of the whole Party! – My chief job is (a) to take letters across (b) that nobody gets drunk (c) to see that nobody does anything with women (d) to look after all the money. You may think all that’s rather funny – I laughed a lot. The second part of my special talk was to explain in great detail the political situation there, so that I would be able to allay and answer queries that might be raised. We left Victoria at 10pm… The journey was uneventful, very tiring but often very amusing. My efforts to keep the comrades away from drink and women would have raised a laugh anywhere, but on the whole they were successful. We arrived in Paris as 10 o’clock this morning without having had any sleep at all [Letter to Phyllis, Paris, 7 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/2].
The reference to ‘Harry’ is almost certainly a reference to Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. On arrival in London the recruits would have made their way to offices used by the Communist Party, probably in the Covent Garden area, to be interviewed and receive their instructions for the next leg of the journey. The journey would then have continued from Victoria Station by overnight boat train to Dunkirk, followed by a train to Gare du Nord in Paris.
It would have almost certainly been the first time that Gilbert had visited Paris, and in the short time available he took the opportunity to take in the sites including a visit to an exhibition – probably the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life that ran from May to November 1937. Many countries provided pavilions for the exhibition and from his comments, it is likely that Gilbert visited the Soviet pavilion. He may also have gone along to the Spanish pavilion. If so, he would have seen Picasso’s painting of Guernica – the picture that came to symbolise the horror of the Civil War in Spain. Gilbert’s letter to his wife, Silvia, captured his impression of Paris and the exhibition.
Just a very hurried note to say that I’ve got this far safely and without intervention. There’s lots to tell you already but no time to write. I leave tomorrow night, all being well and I’ll do my best to get a letter in before I go. After I leave I shan’t be near a PO for at least a week, maybe more, so don’t be worried if you don’t hear for some time. I’m in the exhibition at the moment – its lovely. Here’s a very small likeness of our comrade and leader the great Staline (as the French people so quaintly say). I wish you could see the Ex. Couldn’t you? You can get a day trip for £1.16. You’d love it. Must go now. Lots of love and thanks to everyone. You most of all. Yours Gilbert [Letter to his wife Silvia, Paris, Sunday 7 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/2].
Gilbert and his companions would have been met in Paris by a member of the French Communist party and provided with a supply of francs and further train tickets to Marseille, and then onward to Perpignon. In the early days of the war the final leg of the journey across the border into Spain was often by bus. However, the French authorities tightened the border controls later in the war. For many travelling from Britain and elsewhere this resulted in a long and arduous journey, sometimes on foot, through mountainous terrain. On crossing the Pyrenees and securing entry to Spain they would have travelled south by train and bus to the headquarters of the International Brigade at Albacete and then onward to Tarazona, where the British Battalion had a training camp.
Gilbert’s next letter was from the British base, dated 16 November – some nine days later. Although the group had set off in high spirits it would have been a long, uncomfortable and difficult journey.
We arrived here yesterday after a long and very tiring journey – miles of walking, 12-24 hours continuous stretches in Spanish trains and endless waiting. The journey has been harder than anyone had anticipated but we have enjoyed every minute of it: our spirits and enthusiasm have grown, snowball like, with every difficulty and trial we’ve had to meet. Certainly the journey would be impossible for anyone whose determination wasn’t cast iron – one or two comrades have suffered badly because of this, and should never have been allowed to come. I have written a very long account of the trip, but after having seen the long list of things which can’t be mentioned I have come to the conclusion that it would probably not get through. Perhaps I’II rewrite it, see what happens. Perhaps it can wait until I get back [Letter to his wife Silvia, 16 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
Gilbert wrote at length about his first impressions of Spain. It is perhaps surprising that, while new and very different in most respects, he saw similarities with the hills to the north of Cardiff.
The mountain scenery is really glorious – the sides of the hills are heavily wooded, with occasionally a vast slab of bare rock. In shape they are very much like the hills around Cardiff, Caerphilly mountain and the Wenallt. In striking contrast to England, all the hills seem to be concentrated – all the roads that I have seen are straight and flat with scarcely an incline anywhere. In the early part of our journey we saw olive trees and oranges everywhere and usually side by side, but we have not seen any here. Spanish buildings are ugly I think, they seem all side and no roof – most of them are detached being different from French houses, which seem to be all roofs, no sides… [Letter to his wife Silvia, 16 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
As with many of his colleagues, Gilbert was struck by the scale of the poverty he encountered in rural Spain. However, he also made a point of underlining the improvements that the Republican Government was making, particularly in the field of education, and how the progress was threatened by the Civil War.
Here in this village practically all the buildings are made with mud and straw – many are 400 to 600 years old and it is said that the mud bricks become increasingly lasting by the continual baking of the sun. On the top of the hill just outside the village stands the only modern building the village has ever seen. It is to be a school, not yet completed and now waiting for the war to end. It is a beautiful building even now, in the shining white concrete which looks so well in the Spanish countryside. The school was part of the splendid work of the Popular Front Government – standing there on the hill uncompleted it is tragic indication of work suspended, almost a symbol. Soldiers parade on the square beneath it [Letter to his wife Silvia, 16 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
Yet everything was not entirely to his taste and, in particular, the food.
Spanish food is awful and has been the most difficult thing we’ve yet had to meet. Certainly we have not seen Spanish food under ideal conditions but even so I don’t think I should like it. It may be thick or thin, fried, boiled or stewed but however it is done it tastes and smells the same , terrible… here at the base we have English food – or if it isn’t English it certainly isn’t Spanish, and that is all we ask for. The only meat we have had since we came to Spain is Donkey , occasionally Mule. It is incredibly tough but quite good [Letter to his wife Silvia, 16 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
Although newly arrived in Spain there was an immediate preoccupation with securing the little luxuries that help break the monotony and hardships of military life.
The greatest shortage here is cigarettes. You can’t buy them in the shops or Canteen for love or money – there just aren’t any to be had. Government issue to the International Brigade is irregular. Even then the cigarettes are lousy – at the best they are the cheapest French kind, but more often than not we understand they are Spanish…
So will you please try and get everyone who is the least bit sympathetic to send even a few cigarettes or some tobacco as regularly as possible. Whatever you send will be shared around among the comrades in the Group. Try to get people to send the cigarettes themselves – I will acknowledge them and we are anxious to do as much propaganda in this way as possible – but if they won’t will you please do it for us? Where there is any choice it is better to send cigarette tobacco (and cigarette papers) – it lasts much longer.
I also badly need writing paper and envelopes and Ever Ready razor blades. Paper here is scarce and very expensive. Could you send one of those Woolworth ‘Canadian’ pads, octavo size, say once a fortnight? I think it would get through.
Finally and almost above cigarettes, we need news of home. We are terribly isolated here from activity in the rest of the world and we feel it keenly. Tell us what is happening in the party, in the LBC, in Parliament, in Cardiff, London – anywhere. Let me know as much as possible about all the comrades at home, what they are doing and when, where, why. Send me newspaper cuttings and reports of meetings that are held. Do you think you could send me the New Statesman, Labour Monthly and Left Review on the day of publication? We see newspapers in the library here, but most of them are ancient history… [Letter to his wife Silvia, 16 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
The stories of young men being whisked straight to the front to join the hard pressed Republican Army are, by and large, inaccurate. Most recruits on arriving in Spain were given an extended period of basic training. Gilbert was no exception and he was based at Tarazona for the best part of three months. During this time military training would have been in full swing with endless drills, guard duty and rifle practice for the young, enthusiastic recruits. Yet it must have been a strange experience for men who had little or no military experience and may well have sympathised with the pacifist cause.
I find a great contradiction in my make up! There is a serious danger of my making a really first rate soldier. I am obedient. I respond easily to discipline. I can shoot as accurately as anyone else and I can pick up the mechanics of rifles, machine guns etc more quickly than most. Finally, my Spanish pronunciation is definitely not worse than anyone else’s. And yet I’m still too much of a pacifist to make a really effective soldier. I can become politically vicious about fascism, but I can’t get really vicious about shooting fascists. It is all very difficult [Letter to his wife Silvia, 5 Dec 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
However, as a political activist he found an outlet for his talents both in the production of the camp newspaper and also in opportunities to work as a political commissar.
As soon as we arrived in Spain I was elected Political Commissar, or Officer, by the comrades in the English Speaking Group. This includes English, American, Canadian comrades and I was officially re-appointed at the political meeting held last night. The vote was unanimous and there were no other nominations and I felt highly flattered. I think I get 3 pesetas a day extra pay – also a badge! But is not as important as it sounds; it’s just about the lowest form of political appointment in the army and the only one that is elected [Letter to his wife Silvia, 18 November 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
His pleas for a few luxuries certainly bore fruit and, on Christmas Eve 1937, he wrote to Silvia and other family members thanking them for presents forwarded to Spain.
Dear Mother, Silvia, Ruth, Ray, Ivy, Phyllis, Gladys, Mrs Shaxby, Aunt Connie, Mr Shaxby, Frank and Vera, Auntie Alice and Lilla – and anyone else I’ve forgotten to name.
Here I am in the draughty barracks sitting on my wooden bed and single blanket: – I’m wearing the best leather jacket in the Spanish Army, smoking a pipe of real English tobacco, wearing thick woollen gloves and brand new socks. I have just eaten a piece of Cadbury’s chocolate, smoked an English cigarette, blown my nose on a real handkerchief, shaved myself with a new blade and soothed my chin with Nivea cream! And spread out before me are dates and figs and Horlicks milk, more handkerchiefs, socks, razor blades, cocoa, chocolates, sweets, tobacco, writing paper, envelopes, Marmite and Halibut liver oil capsules…
How can I thank you all and tell you what it means to have these good things.
Please, please, understand comrades that these thoughts and tokens of your sympathy and support are as important to us here in the International Brigades as our training and guns and ammunition. Give us the certain knowledge that you are with us, that you remember us and wish us well and there’s nothing we will not do, and no sacrifice we will not make, to defeat Fascism in Spain and throughout the world [Letter to his wife Silvia and others, 24 December 1937; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
The reference to personal sacrifice proved prophetic. In a postcard to Silvia, from the International Brigade Hospital in Benicassim, dated 13 March 1938, Gilbert Taylor confessed to feeling …just a bit churned up inside to be quite frank! It was almost certainly his last letter. After completing his military training Gilbert had hoped to be selected for further training as a Political Commissar. However, with the Nationalist military offensive gaining momentum he was first sent to the front in February 1938. He was already ill on leaving the base camp and was eventually evacuated to hospital in Benicassim before seeing action. He made a speedy recovery and was close to being discharged from hospital in March 1938 when the news came that, in response to the Nationalist breakthrough on the Aragon front on 7 March, the Republican army was drawing together all those judged fit for active service to mount a counteroffensive. There was clearly no time to write at length but he did manage to send a short note to Silvia.
I’m just off in about 10 minutes, but I still don’t know where for certain. But I think it will be to the Brigade. Write to 161 GP anyway. Your tobacco of the 5th and letters and woodbines of the 6th arrived last night, just after I had posted my letters to you. Nice to hear from you just before I leave. There’ll be a gap for some days now I expect. The coltsfoot is lovely and arrived in perfect condition. I shall keep it with my few others transportable treasures, which include a shilling, a photo of Erith and Barbary and two French postage stamps!
I’m feeling just a bit churned up inside to be quite frank! Love, Gilbert [Postcard to his wife Silvia, 13 March 1938; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/1].
There were no further letters or news of Gilbert. It was thought that he might be wounded and in hospital or possibly that he was a prisoner of war. Silvia and her parents made numerous efforts to find him through letters to members of the International Brigade and the Spanish authorities. In response to their enquiries in June the Spanish authorities wrote to say that:
…Gilbert Taylor of the XV Brigade, disappeared between 10th and 17th March 1938 during sustained fighting against the enemy in the defence of the Republic in the Caspe- Belchite section [Certificate provided by the Ministry of National Defence, 24 June 1938; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/4].
Hope of finding Gilbert must have finally faded when five months after he had last been seen Peter Kerrigan, a political commissar with the International Brigade, wrote to Silvia’s father from Barcelona.
…I have been trying to investigate the position regarding Gilbert Taylor. There seems to have been some confusion as to what happened to him. He was marked with the Battalion April 1938. On the records this was crossed out and the words ‘hospital’ inserted with a query. I have investigated the position with the responsible people in the Battalion with the following result. He is not with the Battalion. He had not been with the Battalion since March. As he is not in the list of prisoners issued by Franco and not in any Hospital as far as we can trace, it seems pretty conclusive that he must have been killed.
In conclusion I must say that I’m sorry if this is not as definite as you may expect. My personal opinion, for what it is worth, is that Comrade Gilbert Taylor was killed in action in March during the retreat. It may interest you to know that in records I saw, he was ranked very highly for his qualities as an Anti-Fascist soldier [Peter Kerrigan to Dr J H Shaxby, 9 August 1938; The Gilbert Taylor Papers, D748/4].
In an attempt to open the way for a negotiated peace the Republican Government announced at the League of Nations on 21 September 1938 that the International Brigades were to be withdrawn. The Brigades were formally disbanded after a farewell parade in Barcelona in October 1938. Most, including the remaining 300 British soldiers, left Spain by December 1938. However, Franco’s forces continued the war, with the last Republican enclaves falling in the spring of 1939.
Gilbert Taylor was one of the 33 men from Wales who died while serving with the International Brigades in Spain. Memorials in Cardiff, Swansea, Aberdare, Pentre and Penygroes commemorate the Welsh volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
During his time in Spain he wrote at length to family, friends and colleagues. The Gilbert Taylor papers are held at Glamorgan Archives.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer