When Canadians look at the war history of the country in the 20th century, there is a focus on the First World War, Second World War and Korea. Mixed in between the First and Second World Wars though, was another war, one that Canada didn’t officially participate in but which many Canadians did on their own free will.
It was the Spanish Civil War of the late-1930s, and it involved 1,500 to 1,700 Canadians travelling to Europe to fight against the fascists. Only about 1,000 would return home to their families and when they did, they were not met with parades, but with anger, harassment and open hostility from the Canadian government.
Today, I’m looking at the Canadians who fought in the Spanish Civil War. At the end of this episode, I will also have my interview with Janette Higgins, who put together the experiences of her father, Jim Higgins, who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the book Fighting for Democracy.
The Spanish Civil War is an expansive topic that other podcasts cover a lot better than I will, and this episode isn’t so much about the war itself, but the Canadian involvement in it. As such, I will be glossing over a lot for a conflict that saw the deaths of half a million people and is considered the first theatre of the Second World War.
The war was fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans who were loyal to the Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with communists and anarchists, and the Nationalists who led the insurrection against the government, made up of a collection of monarchists, conservatives and traditionalists in a military group led by General Francisco Franco.
The Nationalists were aided with soldiers, air support and munitions from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while the Republican side was supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico. The other western powers of France, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States did not get involved and while they continued to recognize the Republican government, they had a policy of non-intervention. Even with the stance of non-intervention, tens of thousands of citizens from non-interventionist countries still went to Spain to fight, including from Canada.
In fact, the Spanish Civil War was such a non-issue for the Canadian government that it is barely mentioned in the diaries of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, except for some passing references. On Aug. 21, 1936, a month after the war started, he simply states, quote:
“I got news of day over radio, was incidents in Spain.”
In the end, the Nationalists would win the war, which ended in early 1939 just before the Second World War began and Franco would rule Spain until his death in November of 1975.
The Canadians who left the country to fight were mostly immigrants who had been in Canada for several years, but felt the urge to fight against fascism after seeing its rise in Germany.
These initial soldiers went over at their own cost to fight, and they were not organized into a specific Canadian unit, that would come later. Instead, they were often put into units with their fellow countrymen. For example, someone from Finland or Sweden would be put in a Finnish or Swedish unit at first. These units were all part of one of five International Brigades, which was made up the thousands of soldiers who had come from other countries to fight.
In 1937, the Canadian government would begin to put things in place to prevent men from leaving the country to fight in Spain. The most prominent of these was the Foreign Enlistment Act. Under the act, participation of any Canadian volunteer in Spain was outlawed and considered a defiant act against the Canadian state.
By the time the bill came in, 500 men had already gone overseas, but it did not stop the tide of volunteers who wanted to fight. By the end of the conflict, another 1,200 men, including three women, would have left Canada to fight.
The first Canadians would fall with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in February of 1937.
In the summer of 1937, which was the time of highest enlistment, a special battalion would be created. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was formed under the names of the leaders of the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions that occurred 100 years previous, and it represented a shared identity for those fighting.
Ironically, since Canada would not help volunteers get to Spain, William Lyon Mackenzie was honoured in the name of the battalion. He was the grandfather of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the prime minister of Canada at the time of the Spanish Civil War.
Those volunteers who joined the battalion included everyone from teachers and waiters to doctors and labourers. Typical volunteers fell into two categories, those who were born in Canada and those who came to Canada. The immigrants to Canada tended to be older and remembered the upheavals in their own countries from past decades. Most of the volunteers were also born between 1895 and 1910, making them too young to fight in the First World War and were coming of age as adults in The Great Depression. Many were supports of Communism as well. It was estimated that 70 per cent of the Canadian members of the unit were members of the Communist Party.
Thomas Beckett, who lived in Moose Jaw, wrote a letter home after he left stating quote:
Beckett would be one of the first Canadians to die in the war.
The first few months of the battalion’s existence were spent training and organizing, which put them ahead of other battalions that Canadians were part of that had little training. At first, there were more Americans than Canadians in the battalion, by about three-to-one, but as more Canadians volunteers joined, that ratio would drop. One person who joined the unit was Jean Watts, who became the only woman to join the battalion.
In order to get over to Spain, those who had a connection to the Communist Party of Canada, simply needed to contact the party and the rest of the work would be taken care of. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t risk. The RCMP was constantly monitoring those who were volunteering to serve in Spain. The RCMP also had a large group of informants who allowed them to keep tabs on anyone that might want to leave Canada.
At the time, there was no legal recourse to pursue any action against those men who enlisted, and all the RCMP could do was to monitor volunteers and allow them to go overseas.
Once the Communist Party was contacted, they would obtain a passport and often the men had to journey across Canada and even through the United States to get to the Atlantic Coast in order to make the journey organized by the Communist Party. For those in Quebec and eastern Ontario, they typically just needed to get on a steamer to Europe and the journey was much easier.
The Mac Paps would arrive in Spain in September of 1937. They then spent the next two weeks patrolling quiet areas before they were moved up to the front.
The first battle for the Mac-Paps would be at Fuentes de Ebro, which was commanded by American Robert Thompson. The attack began on Oct. 13, 1937 but things quickly went awry. The planned aerial bombardment was much smaller than expected. Added into the issues was the fact that tanks were supposed to move ahead as soon as the planes left, but there was no sign of the tanks for 90 minutes and this allowed the Nationalists to regroup in the trenches that had just been bombed.
When the tanks did arrive, they crushed through the parapets, accidently fired on the Mac Paps as they passed and crushed two soldiers in the process. The tanks then roared ahead at 30 kilometres per hour, too fast for the men to keep up with. The tanks were then hit with antitank fire and destroyed. The Mac Paps were then fired upon and they had to dive for cover in a ridge. By the afternoon of that day, the battle was over and the Canadians had lost 60 men, with 200 wounded.
In November of 1937, the battalion was commanded by Canadian commander Edward Cecil-Smith. Cecil-Smith had been a member of the Communist Party of Canada, and was a former journalist and militiaman. He would command the battalion for most of its existence during the war.
Through 1938, the Mac-Paps would participate in several battles including the Battle of Teruel and the Aragon Offensive.
On Jan. 14 to 15, 1938, the Mac-Paps were ordered to the City of Teruel to defend it from the Nationalists. On Jan. 17, the Nationalists struck with 60,000 troops but this time, due to the Canadians, Spanish and British troops, the Nationalists were put back with heavy casualties. This would not be the only attack but the Canadians would continue to repulse the Nationalists but due to overwhelming numbers, things were getting dire for the Canadians. Commander Lionel Edwards would say, quote:
“The end had to come. Mechanized might and overpowering numbers finally told. Our machine guns were all blown to pieces, we were under fire from nearly every side and no more reinforcements could reach us as the hill to our right had been taken. There was only a handful of us left and our only arms were rifles.”
The Canadians left the line on Feb. 3, and headed to Valencia to recover.
For the next two months, the Canadians would continue to retreat with the Republicans as the Nationalists continued to press on. This time of the war became known as The Retreats.
The final battle for the Mac-Paps would be the Battle of Ebro, which was the Nationalist victory that essentially broke the back of the Republican forces. The battle took place on July 25, 1938 and the Canadians were the first to cross the Ebro River. Edwards would say, quote:
The battalions would attack for 10 days but were unable to take the town of Corbera after having taken the towns of Flix and Asco. The battalion was then ordered to the Mountains of the Moon, which was an area scarred by war, covered with bodies. One man would say, quote:
“Most of the area was bare rocks. Some hard jack pine and mountain scrub, covering the crests had been burned off by bombs and shells. The whole piece was blackened, evil-looking and stunk chokingly of death since the dead could not be buried.”
For the next 10 days, the Mac-Paps occupied Hill 609 and dealt with constant enemy shelling. By the end of those 10 days, the Mac Paps were at half strength and had lost two company commanders.
On Sept. 21, 1938, the Spanish Prime Minister ordered all international brigades withdrawn from the country, and six months later on March 28, 1939, the war ended. It is said that when the Mac-Paps withdrew from the conflict in September of 1938, only 35 men left on their feet.
Of the official 1,546 Canadians who fought in Spain, 721 did not make it home. The numbers may differ slightly depending on sources, due to no official records being kept for the number of volunteers who did go over.
Of all the men who served in Spain, none are more famous than Dr. Norman Bethune. Dr. Bethune will be getting his own episode in the coming months, so I won’t be going deep into his life, but its important to highlight his work in Spain because it changed battlefield medicine forever.
Dr. Norman Bethune, who was a distant relative of both Christopher Plummer and Prime Minister Sir John Abbott, was born on March 4, 1890 in Gravenhurst, Ontario. A veteran of the First World War, he would become a doctor and during The Great Depression, he would help poor Canadians and provide free medical care. A supporter of socialized medicine, he would travel to the Soviet Union in 1935 to view universal free health care first hand. It was at that time he also became a member of the Communist Party of Canada.
In 1936, he went to Spain and arrived in Madrid on Nov. 3, 1936. He was unable to find a place to work as a surgeon so he came up with the idea of creating a mobile blood transfusion service that allowed him to take donated blood to wounded soldiers on the front line. This was the first system of its kind in the world. Bethune would return to Canada on June 6, 1937 and he embarked on a speaking tour to raise money for volunteers for the Spanish Civil War.
In his speeches, he would say, quote:
“I am a doctor, a surgeon. My job is to sustain human life, in all its beauty and vigour. I am not a politician, but I went to Spain because the politicians betrayed Spain and tried to drag the rest of us into their betrayal. With varying accents, and with varying degrees of hypocrisy, the politicians ruled that democratic Spain must die. It was my belief, as it is now, my conviction, that democratic Spain must live.”
In January 1938, Bethune went to China to help the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong. He would perform emergency battlefield surgery and he trained doctors, nurses and orderlies. He would help wounded soldiers on both sides.
On Oct. 29, 1939, he cut his middle finger while taking bone fragments out of a soldier’s wounded leg. The wound would reopen during surgery three days later and would become infected. Dr. Bethune died on Nov. 12, 1939.
Chairman Mao would publish In Memory of Norman Bethune, which became required reading in Chinese schools in the 1960s. Today, Bethune is one of the few Westerners in China who has dedicated statues honouring him. Several buildings and universities are named for Bethune in China as well.
For the Canadians who served overseas, the work began to get home. Many could not get home because there was no financial help from Canada and soldiers had to rely on friends and family to collect money to get them home. For many, there was the worry of being arrested upon return to Canada. Some were even arrested in France when they tried to pass through.
In January 1939, after the war was over, the Canadian government agreed to let the veterans return to Canada.
Upon their return to Canada, the soldiers found that the Canadian government had not forgotten about them and the prosecution of the Spain veterans would begin under the Foreign Enlistment Act. They were investigated by the RCMP because most of the veterans were affiliated with the Communist Party of Canada. Others could not find any sort of employment and more were refused the chance to serve Canada during the Second World War because of their history. That being said, some Mac-Pap veterans were able to serve in the war.
While the government did not look kindly on the volunteers, most regular Canadians did. On Feb. 5, 1939, 272 men were greeted as heroes by 10,000 people in Toronto as they returned home.
Methodist social reformer Salem Bland would tell the people who gathered there, quote:
“Canada didn’t understand at first what you were doing, but understands now, and as time goes by, you will have more friends, more honor, because you have done one of the most gallant things in history.”
The news media was less than enthralled with the men. The Globe and Mail would write, quote:
“The men returning from Spain are acclaimed as heroes. Many of them deliberately defied the law. We are not aware that the government is even taking the trouble to learn how they were induced to do this. Is this situation simplified by the fact that they fought in a lost cause? At any rate, what is a law for?”
More recently, Canada has been more inclined to honour and memorialize those who left Canada to fight in Spain. Three monuments have been installed that commemorates the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. The first was installed on June 4, 1995 in Toronto and consists of a large boulder transported from a battlefield in Spain. Another monument was unveiled on Feb. 12, 2000 in Victoria, BC. On the one commissioned in Ottawa in 2001, the names of all the known volunteers are listed.
While there are memorials, since Canada was not officially participating in the Spanish Civil War, the Canadians who died in the war are not included in the Books of Remembrance at the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. As well, on all federal war memorials, and in Remembrance Day ceremonies, the veterans are not commemorated. The survivors of the war were also not entitled to veterans’ benefits.
Information from Valour Canada, the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, The National Interest, Read Passage, CBC, Great Canadian Speeches,