LONDON (Reuters) - Their spirit and convictions undiminished by age, British veterans of the Spanish Civil War were honoured this weekend at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the epic conflict.
The International Brigades fought for the Republican side against fascism. And though General Francisco Franco won the 1936-39 war, the deaths of their colleagues was not vain and the eventual return of democracy in Spain had made it all worthwhile, speakers said.
The event took place at the International Brigade Memorial in a park by the River Thames in London. Relatives and supporters of veterans raised one-fisted salutes, laid wreaths and sang songs of solidarity.
The guests of honour were David Lomon and Thomas Watters, two of only four known British volunteers still living.
“I was Jewish, I was an anti-fascist. Hitler and Mussolini were all over Europe. Mosley was stirring up trouble in London. I had to do something,” said Lomon, now aged 93, of his decision to join the International Brigades.
The war broke out on July 18, 1936, with a military uprising against the reformist Republican government. Franco was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Russia aided the Republicans but Britain and other powers followed a non-intervention policy.
But some 35,000 British, American and other nationalities joined the brigades, many of them dockers, miners or other workers who saw Spain as the frontline against a global threat.
Lomon told Reuters he volunteered just after his 18th birthday through the Anti-Communist League and was given a train ticket to Paris.
From there he was taken to the French-Spanish border, walked over the Pyrenees into Spain, and after a few weeks training found himself at the frontline manning a Maxim machinegun.
“It was scary. It was an education for me,” he said. “The people were so wonderful. The peasants suffered but they helped us so much, they made it all worthwhile.”
“I fell in love with Spain. It was worth fighting for,” he said, dapper and still sharp-minded at the age of 93.
Lomon was captured by Italian troops during the Republican retreat of 1938 and spent several months in a prison camp until he was repatriatad.
“When I came back I decided I would carry on the fight.”
With the outbreak of World War Two, he joined the Royal Navy and served on minesweepers in the English Channel and Asia.
Watters, 98, served with the Scottish Ambulance Unit. Born in Alloa, he trained as a medic while working as a bus driver in Glasgow and his main motivation was to help people.
“I had to go. There were many wounded. They asked for volunteers and I had to do it. I wasn’t political,” he told Reuters.
He was at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937, where both sides suffered huge casualties. After two years in Spain, he returned to his job on the buses.
Last week, the British government released intelligence files that said about 4,000 British and Irish men and women joined the anti-fascist fight, some 1,500 more than previously thought. Around 500 are known to have been killed.
Britain’s MI5 spy agency kept records on them into the 1950s due to its fears of their possible communist links.
Among then were Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, who wrote about his experiences in “Homage to Catalonia”, and author Laurie Lee.
In the decades since the conflict, it has become a reference point for many other foreign interventions and civil wars, particularly during the Central American wars of the 1980s.
This year British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd both evoked it when calling for international action in support of Libyan rebels.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro compared the NATO bombings to the German and Italian support for Franco.
And as the anniversary nears, the war is still controversial in Spain, which has been wary of reopening old wounds.
Peter Preston, regarded as the war’s leading historian, said in remarks at the ceremony organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust that after the war, Franco “brainwashed” people into thinking he stood for freedom.
Recent attempts to account for the thousands of dead from extra-judicial killings during and after the conflict had been stymied, he said, noting the removal from office by the conservative judiciary of investigating judge Baltasar Garzon.
“The struggle continues,” Preston said, quoting the Republican rallying cry.
Still, a Spanish diplomat attended the ceremony and praised the foreign veterans.
“Their solidarity, their generosity, their courage and their decency is an example to the younger generation,” said Fidel Lopez Alvarez, cultural counsellor at the Spanish Embassy.
In 2007, Spain passed a law giving citizenship to the veterans. Lomon said he had received his passport two weeks ago.
“You deserve it,” Lopez Alvarez told him.
Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Michael Roddy;