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Voluntary valour in Spanish civil war

No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 by Chris Farman, Valery Rose and Liz Woolley (Oxford IBMC, £8)

NO OTHER Way is an exemplar of the local historical research which merits emulation in every town where connections with the Spanish civil war exist.

The book’s title, taken from C Day Lewis’s 1938 poem The Volunteer, relates to the conclusion reached by so many at the time that the best active support for the elected government of Spain in its struggle against a fascist coup had to be by volunteering to fight or assist with medical back-up in the International Brigades.

A study of Oxfordshire provides a particular antidote to the popular view, much promoted by mainstream media, that this was a war of poets instead of the engineers, miners, transport workers and peasants who actually fought.

It’s a well-illustrated work, with a good half of it devoted to accounts of the Oxfordshire people who went to Spain, organised solidarity support for the Spanish republic or organised the reception of child refugees.

There are well-researched biographies of 31 people who were either born, worked or studied in Oxfordshire and were involved in the war, six of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice for peace, being killed in action in Spain.

The authors do not court controversy — the much disputed role of George Orwell is dealt with sparsely. And it’s disappointing that only a little more than a third of the subjects were individually identified in the book as Communist Party members and its role comes across generally muted. Thora Silverthorne, one of the three women included, was a remarkable communist who had trained as a nurse at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary and almost deserves a book to herself.

Given that perhaps three-quarters of the British brigade were communists, perhaps more research is needed or is it the case that communist involvement from Oxfordshire wasn’t as heavy as elsewhere?

Even so, this is an excellent work and proceeds from its sales will go towards the cost of a local Spanish war memorial which local campaigners have been agitating for.

  • Available at £8, including p&p, from IBMT, 6 Stonells Road, London SW11 6HQ.

Review by Graham Stevenson


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