Having just now posted about George Orwell’s fundamental truthfulness, it’s worth recalling the classic song by Manic Street Preachers, which hit #1 in the UK in August of 1998.
‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ was #1 for just one week (but) not bad for a song which lifted its title from a Republican Spanish Civil War poster and which was heavily inspired by The Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’ and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The Manics would return to the topic of the Civil War with the song ‘My Guernica’.
Now to the point.
Britain’s Last Brigadista, by Marcus Barnett (Tribune Magazine)
Geoffrey Servante passed away earlier this week aged 99. He was almost certainly the last Briton to fight fascism in the International Brigades to Spain.
… Geoffrey Servante, who was almost certainly the last surviving British volunteer for the International Brigades, died this Sunday 21st April. He was 99 years of age – just weeks away from his 100th birthday.
Servante was to become a committed internationalist, but it began with beer.
Servante’s entanglement in the Spanish conflict began in summer 1937, when he was enjoying a beer with his father in a Soho pub. A stranger they struck up conversation with was telling them how it was impossible to join the International Brigades due to the fact that France had closed the border. “I bet I can join,” Servante told the man, who refused to believe him. “I’ll bet you a hundred quid I can do it.”
He made it to Spain.
Servante admitted that he was only eighteen, which led Brigade authorities to post him to an artillery unit in Almansa, some 70 kilometres east of Albacete. This unit, the John Brown Battery, was named after the American abolitionist, and had a battle song to the tune of a famous US Army song from World War One:
Over sea, over land
We have come to take our stand
With the fighters for Spain’s liberty;
Point that sight, lock that breech,
We have just begun to teach
The fascists the meaning of Red.
And he saw action.
In December 1937, the Battery was transferred to the Toledo front, defending Madrid from the south, where the soldiers saw slightly more action as the nationalist forces closed in. In an interview with historian Richard Baxell, Servante recalled that while he was incredibly drunk, he fired a shell which missed his target by miles, resulting in formal punishment. It was only afterwards that he realised he had directly hit the car of a senior fascist officer, blowing the officer and his aide-de-camp to smithereens.
The Spanish Civil War ended badly for the Republicans.
In an interview, Servante recalled his misery when he heard the news of Franco’s victory, saying that “We knew it was coming. It was inevitable. Once Madrid had fallen that was it.” Despite his initially apolitical stance, the struggle of the Republicans against fascism changed Servante, who became and remained a loyal Communist Party member, and is registered as a “good and disciplined comrade” in the official records of the Brigades.
By the time Servante got back home, the man who had bet him £100 had passed away. During the Second World War, he was conscripted into the Royal Army Ordinance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, where he served in north Africa. After war’s end, he took up work as an engineering worker in a Vauxhall car factory, and retired in 1977.
It’s a time that should be remembered — but I know; there’s a sale at Old Navy.
Over the course of the Spanish Civil War, more than 35,000 men and women travelled to take up the call of the Spanish Republic and thronged the ranks of the International Brigades. From the fields of Cork, the ghettos of Baghdad and the slums of Sofia, from every region and continent across 53 countries, these volunteers knew that the enemy of the Spanish people was also theirs, and that the defeat of fascism in Spain would destabilise fascist regimes across the world.
The defeat of the Spanish Republic was a tragedy for millions. “It was in Spain,” Albert Camus once wrote, “where my generation learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.”
This perhaps explains why so many felt a personal sense of loss when hearing of Geoffrey Servante’s passing: rapidly, the last partisans of the struggle against fascism are vanishing. We must do everything possible to keep their memory alive.