British Pathe has pulled together a set of 51 short newsreel films about female football teams as part of the English FA’s 150th anniversary.
They are intriguing for a number of reasons – not least because of the FA’s ban on women playing which lasted until 1971.
The full collection is available here. The earliest clips show female teams playing in London parks. The changes brought by war in 1914 saw women drafted en masse into factories to do the work men did before heading off to fight.
They also took on male sports, often as a morale booster. This may account for relatively high proportion of pre-1919 clips.
The women’s teams are drawn from workers from munitions factories, the Handley Page aircraft works and other ad-hoc groups. They played to raise money for forces’ charities, the restoration of Rheims Cathedral and in the north east for the welfare of miners’ children in the 1926 strike.
They tended to wear hats or scarves and matches were kicked off not by teams but by the referee or a celebrity. Training could be unorthodox – boxing and horse riding are shown here.
What is surprising is the large crowds in many of the films and the international range: France, South Africa, Germany and Australia.
As sound comes in, the tone becomes more patronising or titillating - bare female knees and thighs on show were something of a rarity then. There is also some second-rate schoolboy sniggering and rather weary references to Eve playing Adam’s game but newsreel commentaries were not noted for their originality nor their aversion to cliché.
One team stands out was based in Preston, Lancashire, the works outfit of the tram and locomotive manufacturers set up by William Bruce Dick and John Kerr. Both were Scots – not surprising since Scotland then was the world’s leader in taking football around the world (ah, how things have changed….) Kerr was from East Lothian and was elected as Preston’s Conservative MP in 1903. Dick died in Sevenoaks two years later. The team was formed in 1915 by which time the factory had also turned to making munitions.
Some of the Pathe clips are pulled together in this video which tells their story really well:
A key influence was their coach, Alfred Franklin. The team went on tour to Canada but weren’t allowed to play by the Canadian Football Association, following the lead of the English FA in 1921 , backed by the other home associations who viewed women as a threat and effectively banned them from club grounds for the next 50 years.
Undaunted, the Dick, Kerr ladies headed south to the USA, playing men’s teams. And the club itself went on to compete until 1965. There was never any doubting the quality of their play. Matt Busby rated Val Walsh the best player he had ever seen in his life, and, had she been a man, he would have immediately signed her up to play for Manchester United. This might have given a new perspective on the Busby Babes.
In recent years, there has been a wealth of digital history interest in this area. Gail Newsham blazed the trail with her seminal work on Dick, Kerr. Colin Jose provides a good account of the 1922 tour here. Spartacus, as ever, is excellent, providing some primary sources and there are also some evocative images here.
So plenty to explore and watch on the distaff contribution to the Beautiful Game…..
British propaganda said the First World War would be over by Christmas 1914.
It wasn’t. But peace of a different kind broke out on the Western Front when soldiers on both sides found their common humanity instead of the senseless carnage ordered from above.
The story of the Christmas Truce or Weihnachten Waffenstillstand (as I think it translates into German) has been well told elsewhere and there some very good digital history sources. Here are some of the best:
The BBC Witness programmes which first aired on the World Service and now on Radio 4 are of consistently high quality. This podcast weaves in stories from British and German soldiers.
So does this Imperial War Museum audio clip. We can look forward to much more from the IWM in the build-up to commemorations of the centenary of the start of the war.
And this website is a real delight. It was started by two journalists in Whitehaven, Cumbria – Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park. It was based originally on contemporary newspaper accounts but now offers much more.
The story of how the New York Times broke the story and why Reuters did not publish because of British wartime censorship is really well told here by Reuters historian John Entwisle who also recalls an interview with the last survivor or the Christmas Truce, Alfred Anderson who died in 2005, aged 109.
By the accounts of all the journalists privileged to meet him, Alfred, who served with the Black Watch, was a wonderful guy. Here’s Lorna Martin’s excellent piece in the Observer from 2004.
By 1930 the Frontier Nursing Service had shown that childbirth was safer in a remote area of Kentucky than in most of North America – and even much of Europe.
But for its charismatic founder Mary Breckinridge, it was the start of a decade of nightmares.
She visited Edinburgh in 1929 to be feted by Sir Lewis and Lady Helen Mackenzie and various dignitaries such as Edinburgh’s Lord Provost. Her fan base extended across the Scotland – Helen Mackenzie had embarked on a lecture tour on her return to raise the service’s profile.
The fundamental difference with the Highlands and Islands Medical Service was that it had a fixed annual government subsidy. This was £42,000 at the outset but it doubled as services were added (although never enough to meet all needs and expectations).
In contrast, Breckinridge had to start from scratch every year to fund salaries for around 30 nurse midwives, plus their horses and other equipment. Expenses in the first year amounted to almost $26,000.
She had made strenuous efforts to secure base funding for the FNS but it never materialised. Stubborn as ever, she then threw herself into courting private philanthropy through various fund raising committees in major US cities. The notion of public funding – federal or state – became anathema.
As a result, she was obliged to devote a lot of time fund raising and maintaining public awareness through the media. She excelled at this.
A courier service was set up which brought well-to-do young women (and a few men) for the FNS who rode with the nurse midwives and did basic tasks like tending to the horses..
The first of these was Marvin Breckinridge, whose father was Mary’s first cousin. Marvin had the bright idea in 1930 of making a film about the service – The Forgotten Frontier which became a milestone of the American documentary movement.
Marvin later developed a career in photojournalism and later became the first female member of the CBS team headed by the celebrated Ed Murrow (of Good Night and Good Luck fame) which reported from London throughout the Blitz.
This clip (above) shows nurse midwives giving school vaccinations – their role was far wider than midwifery as public health nurses, and health visitors.
The legacy of all this publicity is that we now have a far better insight into the lives of these brave women who were inspired to come and work for the FNS.
For many, it offered an intoxicating challenge. Most were British or Irish. In the absence of any training in the USA, some American nurses joined having studied midwifery in Britain. Some arrived and left soon after – not willing to suffer a life of privation and isolation or the domineering figure of Breckinridge.
Each nurse-midwife had her own patients – poor families scattered off the mountain trails. As in the Highlands they offered a complete nursing and public health service as well as midwifery. Above all, they had, through necessity, a high degree of professional freedom and responsibility – far more than the strictly regimented and poorly paid drudgery of many hospitals at home.
Complicated cases were referred to an obstetrician at the hospital. They also worked well with medical colleagues – welfare of mothers was the common priority – not touting for their particular professional interest.
Annie P. Mackinnon from Skye was one of early recruits. She had served with the French Flag Nursing Corps during World War One and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery in continuing to care for the sick and wounded under enemy fire during the retreat from Aisne in the early summer of 1918.
Inevitably, she was given the name “Mac”. She would joke with her Irish colleague Hannah “Nancy” O’Driscoll from Skibboreen, when playing Harry Lauder on the Victrola gramophone about what songs might be played in heaven.
Nancy was a joyful and enthusiastic colleague – she kept her long red hair, unlike their others who wore theirs cuts short under an FNS cap. Each had a blouson in Confederate gray and carried necessary gear for nursing and delivery plus snake bite serums in large saddle bags.
The women came together for social evenings at the Big House in Wendover, and the occasional dance. Practical jokes and jolly japes reinforced their comradeship. Annie Mackinnon, superintendent at Hyden, once tried her hand at brewing beer – but something went wrong and she ended up flooding a meeting of fundraising worthies from Lexington and Louisville in the hospital dining room.
In some respects they were similar to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounties always got their man but the Frontier nurse-midwives never left their woman once she had started labour.
The work could be unrelenting and dangerous. The first to die was Nancy. She had ridden out to care for a mother but stayed with her despite taking ill herself. By the time she got back, Nancy’s appendix had ruptured. She was only 35. Hundreds of grieving patients lined the route of her funeral.
Others came very close to death. Mary Breckinridge herself broke her back in a fall from her horse in 1931. She survived but she had a long and painful road to recovery and she was plagued by back pain for the rest of her life.
Another glimpse of life on the frontier came in July 1934 from the enterprising Scottish missionary Dr Ruth Young who was conducting a survey of public health nursing conditions in North America and the Far East for the Rockefeller Institute.
In Kentucky she visited the FNS nursing station at Beech Fork where found a compatriot Miss “Stevie” Stevenson in charge.
“She is a cheery soul and good company. She has been with the service for two years” Young noted.
“Formerly two nurses worked here but since the depression which has hit the service badly, there is only one and the area worked has been cut down. A nurse has to be several things besides a nurse here.
“She keeps a cow, a horse, chickens, pigs and grows corn and vegetables. She also cans berries and vegetables for the winter and makes jam. The blackberries and huckleberries were both sampled and were excellent.
“Miss Stevenson is ideal for his kind of life as she is domestically minded besides loving the life here. It has freedom and adventure and many more thrills than a hospital can provide.”
In the early 1930s, the FNS was left hanging on a thread. Successive droughts and the Depression almost brought about its demise and certainly put paid to Breckinridge’s hopes that its example might be replicated in rural areas across North America.
At times, only the American Red Cross saved local people from starvation. Wealthy benefactors, who included Mrs Henry Ford, had also seen their fortunes wiped out by the Wall Street Crash.
But survive it did and its extraordinary success continued. War in Europe posed an even bigger challenge as the British midwives felt obliged to return. The FNS had to establish its own graduate school of midwifery to train its staff.
Fond farewells were exchanged and they all went to the movies to see Gone with the Wind in Lexington. Curiously, both the FNS and its inspiration, the Western Isles of Scotland, both managed to feature in Nazi propaganda as examples of the enemy’s “decadence”.
Lester and Mackinnon did their service – and then came back after the war: Kentucky was now their home.
Much changed after the war. Jeeps replaced horses for the nurse midwives and the school’s graduates took their skills around the world.
The Highlands and Islands Medical Service was incorporated into the NHS. Many regretted its passing and the pioneering trailblazing spirit which inspired it.
Transatlantic nursing links have continued. Edinburgh University’s establishment of graduate nurse training – the first in Europe – was largely inspired by Elsie Stephenson’s experience at the University of Toronto on a post war Rockefeller scholarship. The Family Nurse Partnership Programme developed by the University of Colorado has now been widely adopted in Britain.
In 2011, the Frontier Nursing Service moved from its clinical service to become the Frontier Nursing University and FNS alumni still come back to retrace Breckinridge’s route in 1924.
Jennifer Worth wrote Call the Midwife – her celebrated memoir of her early career in 1950s east London because of the dearth of any histories of from midwives themselves. Television and new digital history resources are fuelling increased public interest.
And the Dewar Committee’s centenary this year formed the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament and new initiative seeking to apply its pioneering ideas in the 21st century.
So the trailblazing spirit embodied by brave nurses and midwives in the Hebrides and Appalachia so many years ago is very much alive.
Read part one of this post here.
Marie Bartlett, The Frontier Nursing Service, McFarland and Co, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2008
Mary Breckinridge Wide Neighborhoods University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1981
Anne Z. Cockerham and Arlene W. Keeling, Rooted in the Mountains, Reaching to the World: Stories of Nursing and Midwifery at Kentucky’s Frontier School, 1939-1989. Butler Books, Louisville, KY, 2012.
There’s a reckoning at the end of every war. Counting the cost of American dead after World War One caused a few to reflect on a much more disturbing statistic: far more American women had died in childbirth than American men in war, including the Civil War which elevated martial slaughter to an industrial scale.
Thousands of US nurses had served in Europe where they learned the value of well- trained midwives. Returning home, they were left to ponder why the world’s richest power had among the highest maternal death rates of any country – four or more times that of some places in Europe.
The reasons were complex: it wasn’t a political or social priority, unqualified “granny” midwives still prevailed, medical authorities were dismissive if not contemptuous; and many women simply did not have access to any care.
It made a mockery of all the notions of motherhood and apple pie idealised in Alonso Foringer’s portrait which was adopted by the American Red Cross.
New York City provided the focus of those pressing for change. And prominent among them was Mary Breckinridge.
She had been born into a rich and influential Southern family. Her grandfather was the only presidential candidate to later face the other contender in battle – in 1864 as a Confederate general in a raiding force looking over at Abraham Lincoln in Washington.
Breckinridge suffered the tragedy of losing both her children before they reached the age of five. Trained as a nurse, she worked for the American Committee for Devastated France before qualifying as a midwife at Woolwich in London.
Her ambition was to establish an effective nursing and midwifery service in rural Kentucky. The model she chose – or maybe it chose her – was the Highland and Island Medical Service in Scotland (HIMS).
HIMS was established in response to recommendations from the Dewar Committee. It took evidence for four months and managed to pull together its final report in just one day at the North British Hotel (now the Balmoral – you can’t miss it rising above Waverley station) in Edinburgh just before Christmas 1912. Smart work for what, arguably, was the most important Scottish health legislation of the 20th century.
HIMS was a unique social experiment predating the NHS by 35 years. Medical and nursing services were either poor or non-existent in many areas within the crofting counties, which were not effectively covered by the national insurance scheme for workers in the rest of Britain.
It was established in 1913 with an annual Treasury grant of £42,000 to the Scottish Office which distributed it to local nursing and other organisations.
Fees were set at minimal levels but inability to pay did not prevent people from getting treatment. State resources were directed to basic needs – providing a house, telephone, car or motor boat to get around and cover for further study and holidays.
It had obvious appeal for Breckinridge. She made contact with Sir Leslie Mackenzie who had sat on the Dewar Committee and was medical member of the Board of Health – in effect Scotland’s chief medical officer.
Sir Leslie and his wife Helen had also been close friends of Elsie Inglis. She ran a small hospital in Edinburgh’s High Street for women and children prior to setting up the Scottish Women’s Hospital Service (SWHS) in World War One. It is no coincidence that the remaining funds of the SWHS when it was wound up were devoted to setting up maternity hospitals in Edinburgh and Belgrade.
Armed with a letter of introduction from Sir Leslie, Mary ventured forth. It was a journey that was to change her life.
“Sometimes an experience is so deeply creative that you respond to it with everything that you have, not only in retrospect but at the time. When I went to Scotland in mid-August of 1924 to make a study of the Highlands and Islands Medical and Nursing Service, I knew that weeks of enchantment lay ahead of me, but I could not know until it happened what it would be like to enter a strange country and feel at once that I had come home” she later wrote.
Tellingly, Breckinridge added “and Nursing” to the Highlands and Islands Medical Service title. And she was right – nursing was what the Dewar Committee had identified as the most urgent need.
Mary’s first port of call was the Scottish Headquarters of Queen Victoria’s Institute for Nurses. Highly-trained “Queen’s Nurses” provided the backbone of the HIMS. Many had additional qualifications in midwifery (regulated as a profession in England from 1902 and in Scotland from 1915).
She then went off to meet them. A letter of introduction from Sir Leslie opened doors across the Highlands and Islands. It proved an epiphany – she was overwhelmed by the warmth and kindness of the welcome from the communities and midwives, particularly in the Hebridean islands.
Breckinridge also took copious notes – 11,000 words of her meetings and experiences. Her meticulous approach extended to several studies of the population in Kentucky. This was pioneering epidemiology – long before the time made it into medical textbooks.
She developed the concept of the nurse midwife – providing not just care around births but also public health nursing looking after entire families. It was revolutionary – and a sound statistical base was essential to demonstrate that it worked.
As in parts of the Highlands, births and deaths had gone unrecorded for years. To demonstrate what nurse midwives could do, they would need evidence and what followed was a classic early example of nursing-led epidemiology.
Breckinridge contacted Sir Leslie and tracked down Miss Williamina Bertram Ireland, (what makes you think her parents wanted a boy?) who had acted as secretary to his inquiry on the Physical Welfare of Scottish Mothers and Children and later had done field work in the Western Isles for his report on housing for the Carnegie Trust.
She had served with the London unit of the SWHS in Salonika and moved to the US after the war to work for the Committee on Maternal Health in New York.
Miss Ireland had two further essential qualities. She could ride a horse and she could take a nickname. The Frontier Nursing Service also pioneered the now blokeish practice of giving nicknames to each new member of staff. ”Ireland from Scotland” became the first of many.
Ireland passed the first test – the 20 mile ride from the railheads Krypton or Hazard around 20 miles across mountains and fording rivers and streams.
In June 1925, Breckinridge noted: “She has begun her work on Hell-fer-Startin’ Creek and Devil’s Jump Branch – really. She is blistered, sore, stiff, and undaunted”
She had chosen Leslie County in the eastern Appalachian Mountains – the name is a bit of a giveaway recalling the Scottish immigrants who first settled in Kentucky.
An early landmark was building the first FNS hospital – at Thousandsticks Mountain in Hyden. There was only one choice to perform the opening ceremony on June 26 1928. Sir Leslie Mackenzie, then 66, and Lady Helen were delighted to oblige. Neither could ride so a buckboard was brought in for the 22 mile journey from the railroad involved teetering over precipices in a violent rain storm and fording the swollen Kentucky River.
He waxed lyrical in his address, later published in the Lancet:
“It is a story full of adventure, sacrifice, passionate enthusiasm and splendid initiative. When, some years ago, Mrs Mary Breckinridge came to us in Scotland to see how we had faced a similar problem in medical service and nursing, we were filled with a new sense of significance of the work we had tried to do in the thinly peopled and difficult areas of Scotland.
“When, therefore, I was invited by the Frontier Nursing Service of Kentucky to give verbal form to the dedication of the hospital and nursing system now established in these mountains, I felt indeed, a glow of supreme satisfaction that our work in Scotland had found an echo in the great spaces and mountains of an American Commonwealth. The invitation was a call of the Highlands to the Highlands. It is a symbol of kinship in feeling and outlook. It is the lightning spark that reveals the essential unity of our culture…..
“The beacon lighted here today will find an answering flame wherever the human hearts are touched with the same divine pity. Far in the future, men and women, generation after generation, will arise to bless the name of the Frontier Nursing Service.”
If you’ve read this far, you may be ready for a musical interlude. Kentucky and the Celtic nations already had links forged by migration, music and moonshine before the arrival of midwives.
Listen here to Jean Ritchie, the queen of American folk music, who would have been six years old when Sir Leslie was making his speech. She was born and raised in Viper, a few miles from Hyden. This recording on the Tobar an Dulchais site dates from her Fulbright year in Scotland in 1953.
The Frontier Nursing Service may have a good claim to the first Healthcare Maintenance Organisation in the USA – it certainly predates Blue Cross, Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente.
Whatever skepticism it faced at the outside, an external audit provided astonishing vindication of the work of the FNS:
“We have had a small but convincing demonstration by the Frontier Nursing Service of Kentucky of what the well-trained midwife can do in America. …. The midwives travel from case to case on horseback through the isolated mountainous regions of the State. There is a hospital at a central point, with a well-trained obstetrician in charge, and the very complicated cases are transferred to it for delivery.
“This study shows conclusively that has in fact been demonstrated before, that the type of service rendered by the Frontier Nurses safeguards the life of the mother and babe. If such service were available to the women of the country generally, there would be a saving of 10,000 mothers’ lives a year in the United States, there would be 30,000 less still births and 30,000 more children alive at the end of the first month of life.”
You might pick him up for his grammar (should have been ‘fewer’ rather than ‘ less’) but no-one could doubt his authority. The audit was carried out by Louis I Dublin, vice president of the Metropolitan Life Assurance Company in New York and former president of the American Public Health Association, the foremost health statistician in the United States.
The first five years had brought astonishing success for the Frontier women but the next decade was to prove far more testing….. read part two here
Government publications are more likely move you to sleep rather than to tears.
But not Neil MacLennan’s excellent monograph which you can read here. It tells the stories of the 79 civil servants who appear on the First World War memorials at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.
In 1914 they were based in various Scottish Office departments in London and Edinburgh. All men and most scarcely out of their teens, having just passed their civil service entrance exams or finished university. And with everything to live for.
One thing they didn’t tend to mention with all the excitement at the recruiting booths was the reasonable prospect of horrible death. More sensible women like those in the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units knew the reality that lay ahead. Despite being rejected by the War Office, they’d managed to establish a field hospital at Royaumont by the end of 1914.
Going off to war was billed as a great adventure. If you weren’t convinced by “doing your bit” for King and country or giving the Hun a bloody nose, then you could join up with you’re your pals and impress the girls with a dandy uniform….and still be home for Christmas.
But no mention of being blown to smithereens, cut in half by machine guns, or your lungs wrecked by gas, loss of an eye, leg or your whole mind.
By day Neil is also a civil servant. But he’s devoted his spare time over the last four years to meticulously researching the stories behind the names – their families, their work, and their service.
If you’ve been on one of the Doors Open Days tours of St Andrew’s House, you’ll recognise him as the big fella at the back who knows a lot a stuff. He also unearthed the entertaining stories of folk who’d worked at St Andrew’s House for the 70thanniversary of the building.
Neil’s painstaking work makes real the lives of the lads who joined up with the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles), Civil Service Rifles, Lancashire Fusiliers, Yorkshire, South Wales as well as Scottish regiments, and McCrae’s battalion of the Royal Scots which included many Heart of Midlothian footballers.
There are also glimpses of Bangour and other hospitals to treat the boys who came home broken in body or in mind. All of this links to the present – for me anyway. Bangour was where my granny (kitchen maid) and grandpa (ambulance driver) first met – grandpa making the Jocks some money through backing him in professional races, or so the family story goes.
The aftermath of the Armistice was grim and lasting. There was fierce debate among Oxford colleges about whether the names of Rhodes scholars from Germany should go on memorials.
Dr William Spooner, who the inspired “Spoonerisms” linguistic lapses was emphatic that they should – and so they did at New College where he was warden. German students were just the same as British students – both sent like lambs to the slaughter.
And in Germany Robert Bosch, head of the automotive electrical firm, remained pledged to reconciliation even by 1935 when he organised a meeting French and German World War One veterans in Stuttgart to promote peace and understanding.
Neil has made extensive use of the online resources where you can now piece together what happened to individual soldiers. These are just 79 stories out of several million. But it is good that they can now be told. It is a deeply poignant and fitting memoir – almost a century overdue.
The small town of Belchite in Aragon was reduced to rubble in the course of one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish Civil War.
First taken by Republican troops on September 6 1937 it was won back by the Fascists in March 1938. General Franco ordered that it be left untouched – as a perpetual memorial to the wanton destruction wreaked by his enemies.
Walking around Belchite now is a chilling and moving experience. You don’t readily find it on official tourist trails and there are no interpretive facilities.
A few years ago, you could pick up empty cartridge cases. There is still the odd artillery shell sticking out from a wall.
It is difficult to walk away from Belchite without a desire to find out what happened there. This post is inevitably an incomplete sketch of the story – please leave a comment if you’ve something to add. Sources are shown in italics and listed at the end.
The historiography of the Spanish Civil War is marked by decades of suppression under the Franco regime followed by a flourishing in print, film and audio recordings.
More recently the web has brought a wealth of digital history – the recollections of those who took part. It has been a poignant swansong for those who served in the International Brigade, the volunteer army from nearly 50 countries who came to the aid of the Republic.
Franco’s revolt in July 1936 triggered appalling violence by both sides in communities across Spain. In Belchite, it was directed against the Republicans: 370 of its inhabitants (around one in ten of the population) were summarily shot- including the socialist mayor and even the village idiot. (Haslam).
The following month the sacred Our Lady of the Pilar Cathedral in nearby Zaragoza was bombed. Somewhat bizarrely, this is still commemorated with two of three bombs on prominent display near the main altar. What happened to the third bomb is not clear.
The battle for Belchite was part of the Aragon offensive by Republican troops to seize Zaragoza, command of the river Ebro and link up with anti- Fascist forces in the north.
Laurie Lee recalled the experience of an American volunteer captured near Belchite:
“The Aragon was a cock-up, the Yank said. No artillery, no plans, no timing, no leaders, everybody running around like rabbits. He was a machine gunner, had a beautiful Dichterer, too – only they gave him the wrong ammunition. That’s why he had his ass shot off. Lucky to be alive, none of his pals were left.
“They were surrounded ….. some Moors took his pals prisoner, and cut their throats, one by one; then they dropped him off a bridge and broke his legs.”
The International Brigades were used by the Republic as shock troops and Canadian, American and British brigaders bore the brunt of the assault and later defence of Belchite.
Fife miner Hugh Sloan recalled: (Gray)
“Belchite was a particular kind of battle at close quarters. You were seeing the person you were killing. That’s a different thing from killing people at a distance. In that respect it was a very bitter battle.
“I remember walking up what you could call the main street and I couldn’t bear the smell of death. Some of our people were digging large holes into which all sorts of remains of living things, humans but also pigs and goats, were being thrown.
“We came to the square. There was a very large heap of dead human beings piled up. And in the very hot weather the smell was completely unbearable.”
Irish-American Bill Bailey was also there: (Spartacus)
“We would knock a hole through a wall with a pickaxe, throw in a few hand grenades, climb through into the next house, and clear it from cellar to attic. And, by God, we did this hour after hour.
“The dead were piled in the street, almost a storey high, and burnt. The engineers kept pouring on gasoline until the remains sank down. Then they came with trucks and swept up the ashes. The whole town stank of burning flesh.”
A range of websites like Porta de la Historia have fuelled renewed interest in the war. Ciaran Crossley’s excellent site offers source material on the Irish Brigaders and the Irish contingent led by Eoin O’Duffy who briefly fought on the other side.
Leonard Lamb, another American volunteer recalled: (Spartacus)
“Belchite – the stinkingest town I was ever in… we had to storm that stupid, stupid town against tremendous odds and many of our people were killed because it had been announced – by the War Ministry – that Belchite had been captured.”
Paul White also served in the Abraham Lincoln battalion and told his court martial: (Spartacus)
“After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France.” White was later executed by his commanders for desertion.
The Nationalist defenders put up a valiant and stubborn resistance for several days – the exhausted remnants running out of food and water finally surrendered. It is still not clear how many were killed in the battle.
Paddy Cochrane, an Irish volunteer in a Republican ambulance unit was badly wounded by a grenade. (Curiously, he had a namesake in another ambulance unit – Archie Cochrane, a Scottish medical student, who became the father of evidence- based medicine: the international Cochrane Collaboration is named after him).
Paddy had seen his father shot dead by the Black and Tans when he was seven. He returned to Belchite on the 70th anniversary hoping to find out more about the big American who save his life. The journey was poignantly chronicled by Sunday Times journalist Chris Haslam.
Republicans celebrated the victory but their elation was short lived. They never reached Zaragoza and Belchite was retaken on March 10, 1938 in another grisly battle.
Priscilla Scott-Ellis, a British nurse working for the Nationalists, helped clear rubble and scrubbed floors to establish an operating theatre.
Queuing for water at a fountain, she was told that there were eighty-five prisoners of the International Brigades nearby, mostly Americans but also some English. ”They will all be shot as foreigners always are” she noted in her diary. (Preston)
Later, and apparently indifferent to the fate of her fellow countrymen, she added: “I have never enjoyed a day more but have never been dirtier.”
A Manchester Guardian report on March 12 referred to the defence mainly by soldiers of the International Brigade, the majority of whom were Canadians. About 100 were taken prisoner.
Various nationalities, including Canadians and Americans, often fought in the same units. Their fate is not clear.
One man stayed back, rejecting the call to retreat. Barney Shields, from Glasgow, was a former British Army soldier in India and a proficient marksman. He took his machine gun up the bell tower in the church to give covering fire for his comrades. He was thus the last brigader standing in Belchite until he was flushed out and killed (Gray).
Memories of the civil war are still raw in Spain and, as Ritchie Calder once told the House of Lords, “Memory has long knives ….and history books sharpen them.”
But Belchite is not simply a Spanish matter nor will it ever be. Around 9000 volunteers like Barney came to Spain and did not go home. The Brigades were truly International.
Laurie Lee, A Moment of War War, Viking, 1991.
Daniel Gray, Homage to Caledonia, Luath, Edinburgh, 2008.
So too has the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives
Ciaran Crossley’s Ireland SCW site is a real treasure
Paul Preston, Doves of War, Four Women of Spain, Harper Collins, 2002
Chris Haslam’s piece on Paddy Cochrane’s return to Belchite
There are a couple of references to Barney Shields in the Imperial War Museum’s audio archive which it is seeking to make available online. It is also developing an online poster collection of the Spanish Civil War with the Biblioteca Naçional de España.
(This post appeared first on the allmediascotland site)
Amid all the gloom that hangs over traditional news media, there’s one bright spot from an unlikely source.
Digging up old stories and putting them on the web is flourishing. The fancier name is ‘digital history’, and, don’t say it too loudly, Scotland is doing rather well at it.
It’s not just text – photographs, audio and video also make up what we now call ‘content’. Older journalists like me, recoil at the term ‘content creator’, but once you‘re over the initial gagging reflex, it is actually good fun.
And maybe it’s not that surprising – the words story and history both come from the same Latin root. Every story becomes history the moment it’s published and we all know that news is the first draft of history.
What is startling is its phenomenal growth. You can hardly move for history on mainstream broadcast schedules.
I don’t know what this that says about us as a society – baby boomers on a nostalgia trip, an atavistic desire to connect with previous generations or oldies showing digital isn’t just about playing games..
The biggest explosion has been in history-related activity on the internet – ordinary people tracking their family tree, local history or sharing any number of interests.
This thirst has been slaked by new fountains of knowledge. Unlikely as it sounds, the clear web leader in Europe is the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Sport is another huge growth area. Digital history offers a key to a football club’s soul.
Football Memories is a ground-breaking project involving Alzheimer Scotland to help people with dementia.
Scotland has also led with very good examples of public sector collaborations. Tobar an Dulchais is one of the most recent – bringing together decades of song and speech from all over the country.
Of course, it’s not all rosy. There are still the problems of websites starting on a wave on enthusiasm and dying from apathy or running out of funds within a year.
Arguably, the most successful international enterprise has been brightsolid in Dundee. It has produced Scotland’s People (with The National Archives of Scotland), Findmypast, and is now digitising UK newspapers with the British Library.