- Spanish Civil War
- Irish Democrat 28th August 1937
- Franco Fascists use Women and Children
Frank Ryan describes recent heavy fighting on the
I have sent today an appreciation of the four lads of ours who were
killed in July – William Beattie and William Laughran, Belfast; Bill
Davis, London; Michael Kelly, Galway. Richard O’Neill of Belfast who was
also killed at Jarama on February 14, was overlooked. Assure relatives
of the safety of Michael Lehane, Lowry, Duff and Peter O’Connor, now
back at the base.
Our boys were all in the big push on the Centre Front. Their first
objective was Villaneuva de la Canada, a town nearly as big as Bray, Co.
Wicklow. To get there they had to drive in outposts, capture a line of
trenches strongly fortified with barbed wire. Break through a line of
pill-boxes, and finally storm the trenches at the entrance to the town.
Paddy Duff commanded a machine-gun section. He got as far as the
block-houses. While dashing between two of them he got a bullet in the
ankle. (Same old leg as before!) He rolled into a shell-hole, would let
nobody near him, yelled them onward and waited for the First Aid men.
Great, cute old soldier, Paddy.
The final storming of the town was a desperate affair carried out
just at nightfall. (The whole attack was carried out between dawn and
dusk.) The Americans and ourselves were trying to find cover in flat
ground a few hundred yards from the houses. Our aircraft and artillery
had pounded the place well, but the church (which, of course, dominates
every landscape here) kept standing. And from its tower machine-guns
seriously hampered us.
Just at dusk a crowd of women, children and old men, and about 40
young men, came out the road, hands outstretched, calling ‘Camaradas.’
Pat Murphy (Sean’s old pal) and some others were behind a dung-pit. They
thought the crowd were refugees. Pat got up and went to meet them,
telling them to drop their arms if they had any.
Just as he approached, a revolver barked, then grenades started to
fly. For five minutes there was pandemonium, guns cracking, grenades
bursting, and women and children shrieking. Pat, engaged in a
hand-to-hand struggle, fell into a drain with his opponent, where he
dispatched him. Beside him fell a little girl of about ten years who had
been at the head of the group. ‘Lie quite, girlie,’ said Pat, and she
smiled back as if she understood. A grenade burst in the drain and Pat
was severely wounded in the groin.
In five minutes it was all over; the last of the Fascists was
accounted for. When the lads went around to collect their own and the
non-combatants, they found the little girl, two old women and three old
men dead. It was at least a satisfaction that every single one of the
Fascists who had driven them in front of them as cover was also dead.
A few minutes later the town was stormed from two opposite points. It
was dark by then, with bursting grenades – it was almost all grenade
work – to light the way. It was done so well that the two storming
parties were within an ace of storming each other. The mopping-up
continued through the night, the Fascists mostly dropping their guns and
becoming innocent peasants, in the cellars with the women and children.
There were weird sights. In one house you went to talk to three men
lolling on chairs. Not a scratch on them. They had all been killed by
the concussion of aerial torpedoes. And every Fascist prisoner, if you
could believe him, was either a Communist or a Socialist. It was the
most People’s Front town in all Spain!
Michael Kelly was killed that day. He was a Battalion runner, and was
out with the Observation Officer. He was killed instantaneously by a
bullet to the head. He was a good type, always full of energy, always
linking up the struggle here with the struggle at home. He was the chief
organiser of the Connolly Commemoration held in the Jarama trenches last
May. And he never shirked work; he was actually an embarrassment by his
habit of volunteering for dangerous work for which he was not capable.
His loss is universally regretted here. Unfortunately the papers he was
carrying with him (he was a walking library) were lost. I have just a
few things he gave me the day before.
Bill Davis, of Dublin, one of those wandering Irish fighters of whom
there are quite a few here, was killed in the final rush on Villaneuva,
as was Laughran. Bill was in the Irish Guards fro years, being dismissed
for ‘Red activities.’ He worked with Tom Murphy, of Belfast, another
ex-Guardsman, in London, where both were in the Camden Town Communist
Party. Bill caught a burst of the machine gun from the church tower as
he was charging forward. Tom was by his side. ‘He curled up,’ says Tom,
‘his fist shot out, clenched. ‘Salud, camaradas,’ he smiled, and died.’
Our Wild Geese of olden days went out to fight with
any army that was fighting their old enemy. But our Wild Geese like
Davis, and Tom Murphy and ‘Dublin’ Hayes and Dinny Holden of Carlow,
learned as they wandered that there is one common enemy, and all of them
who fought and those of them who fell here, have not done their
wandering nor fighting nor dying in vain.
I wish that I could give you certain pictures of the fighting – and
there’s some I try to forget myself. At times I saw it all like a
panorama in front of me; then there were some hours when my nose stuck
further and further to earth. Ludwig Renn (the German author, an officer
in a Saxony regiment during 1914-19, Irish Dem. Ed.) says it was like
the Somme, only a bit worse.
One sure thing is you never get inured to bombardment; used to it –
certainly. But every time the torpedoes start to fall, you feel your
guts contract, and the blood gets sucked up out of your body. Of all the
reading matter, what should I have in my hand one such day but the story
of Guernica. Then I really realised what it must have been for the women
And Oh! I picked up in one of the captured villages a magazine
published in Salamanca. Which had some terrifying pictures of Guernica
after the bombardment. And the hounds out of hell who had done that
ghastly destruction brazenly attributed it to us!
War’s hell. There’s little glamour in it when you’re there,
especially when you see what’s left – after shell and the heat – of
fellows that were joking with you a few hours before/ But this one has
got to be done and won, so that makers of war can never again cause
Guernicas and Almerias and Bilbaos.
It was on the 23rd, in the height of the Fascist counter-attack, that
Beattie got killed. Hillen (also from Belfast) was wounded the same
time. Pour old Beattie; he survived a report of his death last December,
and he was the last man to die in this campaign.
In the last few days of the battle we were outnumbered three to one
in artillery and airplanes. The more planes our fighters knocked down,
the more kept coming on. And for all their bombardment – which was
terrible in its intensity and duration – they only regained one village
and a few square miles of territory. We hold the greater part of a wedge
we drove into their lines. And we have plenty of manpower; the enemy
relies on planes and artillery to make up for his poor-quality troops.
The offensive is certainly a victory for us: we came best out of it by a
long chalk. (That’s not propaganda; that’s for your information.)
Here is propaganda that’s true. Peter O’Connor and Michael Lehane and
Jones, of Gorey, Co. Wexford, were among those who went through three
weeks of hell. And on the evening we finally for out of that scrap there
was a rumour that we were to go right back in again. Men, good men, were
just too exhausted to stir, and those three guys I heard with my own
ears complain that they were exhausted, but if they were to go back
that’s just b[lood]y well do it.
And they meant it. It wasn’t heroics. After those three weeks heroics
wouldn’t fool even themselves. Some of the finest men in the world are
in our little gang. (I can hear myself cheer, nearly.) [Note by CC. The
lines of this paragraph were mixed up in the actual newspaper, this is
how it should read.]
Early in January the Irish were on the Centre Front participating in
a counter offensive on the northwest of Madrid. Majadahonda captured
after a brilliant attack. Las Rozas was the next objective. Dinny Coady,
Dublin worker, died at the head of his section. It was a very depleted
Unit that returned to the base at the end of January, when the survivors
of the various formations were drafted into the 15th Brigade, which had
just been formed.
The Irish Unit was representative of all Ireland. Belfast and Derry
sent their sons as well as Dublin and Cork, for the anti-fascist cause
bridged partition. All parties and professions were represented.
Communist, Socialist Labour Party members and Republicans; dockworkers
and teachers, far-labourers and city-clerks.
Their Commander was Frank Ryan, Irish Republican Army veteran, and a
leader of the Left Wing Republican and Labour Movement in Ireland.
They came primarily to fight Fascism, enemy not merely of the people
of Spain but of liberty and progress the world over. They had added
incentive in that a careerist ex-General, discredited in Ireland, had
induced a body of Irishmen to go to fight for the traitor Generals ‘in
defence of Christianity.’ Irish honour thus besmirched they would
redeem. Irish sympathy thus misrepresented they would express aright.
So they threw their bodies as battle-gages into the conflict in
The Unit fought in two Sections, and at one period there was a third
Section. While the First Section was on the Madrid Front in January a
Second Section which was being formed at the base was drafted to
reinforce the Lincolns, not yet at that time a battalion strength.
Subsequently a Third Section was for three months on the Cordoba Front
with the 86th Brigade.
Contrary to opinions held by narrow nationalists, it was easy and
natural for Irish and British workers to unite in the common struggle
against fascism. The unity forged between them on the battlefields of
Spain will have far-reaching results in their respective countries, in
days to come. I was fortunate and fitting, too, that military exigencies
should have brought the Second Irish Section to serve with the Lincoln
battalion. They Irish have played an important part in the history of
America, and have contributed much to the advancement of the American
And there are already a number of Irish exiles, and Irish-Americans
and Irish-Canadians with the Lincoln battalion – Paul Burns, Boston
labour journalist and Irish Republican Congress leader, afterwards twice
wounded in action; Michael Blaser, better known in New York as Micky
Brown (subsequently killed at Jarama); Patrick R McLoughlin, formerly of
the Clan na Gael in New York; Stuart (Paddy) O’Neill of Vancouver
(killed at Brunete), and veteran Joe Kelly.
Of the original members of that Second Irish Section, which went into
action with the Lincolns at Jarama, the survivors included the three
power brothers, of Waterford, and the three Flaherty brothers, of
Boston, gallant fighters all. Peter O’Connor holds the record for the
Irishman who came unhurt through the most engagements.
Dinny Holden, 56 year old soldier from Carlow who ‘deserted’ so often
from the rear to the front lines, that he was eventually allowed to
remain there; ‘Dublin’ Hayes, the canny veteran whom every Section
Commander wanted to have with him – all these and a few others survive.
Charlie Donnelly, University student from Tyrone, young revolutionary
poet and working class militant, fell a few yards from the Fascist
trenches in that terrible charge of the Lincolns, on February 27. Hugh
Bonar, rugged Donegal fighter, and Liam Tumilson, who stowed away from
Belfast, and hitch-hiked across Britain, ‘to be with the boys in Spain’;
Bill Henry, Belfast Socialist, a Company Commander – these and other
Irish died in action at Jarama
Note the reference of Dinny desertion was because of his age, he was
made rearguard, but in true Irish fashion the man wanted to be up front
in the fight.
Sent in by Terry Curran c2007