Poppies & Pitches: Part 4a

Written by TJ

[Please note this article will be moving to a new home at Football In The City and will soon no longer be available on this website]

It All Happened Again

In a break with how the rest of this has been written so far.  I’m going to hurdle straight over the conflicts between the start of the Spanish Civil War and the end of the Second World War to get to the aftermath, symbolism and football in as short a time as possible. So for once I’m going to sum up complicated things as concisely and simplified as I possibly can.  I’m sure you all know the story anyway.  I will dwell more on ideological aspects for reasons of relevance.  What I mean is – the amount written is not proportionate to overall importance, just symbolism and ideology.

Part (a) – The Spanish Civil War:

Nominally it was Team Left (Democracy & Socialism) Vs Team Right (Fascism & Nazism) in a title match caused by the election of the leftist Popular Front who turned out not to be universally popular.

[To be read in a Michael Winner voice] In one corner, hailing from conservative and right-wing vested interests – notable supporters include the military, the church, wealthy landowners, the aristocracy and the fascist dictatorships (Portugal, Germany, Italy).  Wearing the Might-is-Right coloured trunks. The challenger – Teeeeeam Nationalist!

In the other corner, hailing from democratic elections –  supported by landless peasants denied education, and the democratic and socialist nations (Britain, USA, France, Soviet Union). Wearing the Freedom coloured trunks. The reigning Peoples champion – Teeeeeeeam Republican!


The military lead Nationalists,  directed by General Franco, failed to quickly take any major cities other than Seville. What they meant as a quick coup was going to be a sustained war against the galvanised Spanish populace opposing oppression.  The rebellion quickly called for aid which was forthcoming from the Fascist powers.  The war took on an international complex – perceived within Spain by the incumbent democracy as a foreign invasion.  While both sides started with a ballpark estimate of 90,000 troops; through conscription and international recruitment the numbers reached about 700,000 each by the start of 1938.  To many in Europe the war had become an idealist struggle between democracy and fascism and though no nation officially came in on the side of the Republicans, volunteers joined to fight for their ideals. They’d seen the rape of Abyssinia and the persecution of the German jews and declared it time to make a stand. This idealism and willingness of ordinary people to volunteer for what they felt was right would be romanticised including in songs such as ‘Spanish Bombs’ by The Clash and ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’ by the Manic Street Preachers.  It is worth dwelling on because the question ‘what are you fighting for?’ will be relevant to later conflicts commemorated by poppy wearing.

“These young men were the generous blood of the world. And in spite of their youth, or maybe because of it, they were also its conscience. Here was conscience in action, warning of the terrible danger which had to be confronted… Many would remain for ever under the earth which they had defended. The rest were reluctantly required to leave, as part of an effort to counter the dishonest arguments of those countries which had decided to abandon us. They left with their scars and wounds.”
Antonio Buero Vallejo, Spanish Playwright

On the Nationalist side, the international support was more openly provided. Hitler’s Condor Legion pilots flattened the Basque holy city of Guernica for example. On the Republican side there was no taste for direct involvement.  Reasons were plenty – fear of own country military backlash, right-wing sympathies at home, fear of escalation into another international conflict. Instead an international Non-Intervention Policy was adopted.  The Fascists roundly ignored it.

Ultimately the better weaponry and organisation (key facets of Fascist ideology) won out where manpower didn’t.  It was instrumental in the key victories at Jamara and Ebro.  The first mass air-drop using German and Italian planes allowed the rebels most proficient army (the Army of Africa) which had been stuck in Morocco to join the fighting while the Republicans held naval control.  The Republican retreat was beat under aerial bombardment and massed tank assault. They dug in and prayed for the Non-Intervention pact to be scrapped and help to arrive in the form of arms and men.  By now Germany had annexed Austria – what more evidence of the military expansionist ambitions did they need? The second World War was underway already – it was just one side was too paralysed by fear to recognise it.

Eventually the British and French stepped in and engaged the Fascist forces.  It was not in Spain, but Munich. It was not on the battlefield, but a meeting room.  While the last hopes of democracy in Spain fell apart, Neville Chamberlain was waving a bit of paper around declaring ‘peace in our time’. They had granted Hitler the right to march into Czechoslovakia.  With that the hopes of the Republicans and idealists in Spain died.  So too would many more lives in the firing squads and concentration camps of Fascist Spain to which that document of appeasement was an effective death warrant.

“The men who fought and those who died for the [Spanish] Republic, whatever their nationality and whether they were communists, anarchists, socialists, poets, plumbers, middle class professional men, or the one Abyssinian prince, were brave and disinterested, as there were no rewards in Spain. They were fighting for us all, against the combined force of European fascism. They deserved our thanks and our respect and got neither.” – Martha Gellhorn, US Journalist

Those brave souls that died fighting for ideals, principles and freedom in a foreign land were not part of the British Armed Forces and the families they left behind don’t merit the proceeds from the Poppy Appeal.  Yet their actions, if properly supported, could have saved the world from the genocides, atrocities and ethnic cleansing that would follow. There is no flower to attach to a lapel for the lives that could have been saved by those given on the battlefields of Spain, but there is for those that needlessly died in the bloody aftermath. These men of principle are forgotten when we remember who died to protect our freedom. They exercised their freedom to fight for that of everyone.

From an entirely personal perspective, when I take the time out to remember on 11 November this is where my mind goes more often than not. To such points in history where the world’s path might have been nudged onto a kinder course. Where a single catalyst could change everything.

A Facist Basilica, containing Franco’s remains

As for Spain, she still hasn’t really recovered. The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) built by Franco as a ‘national act of atonement’, and where he himself is buried, is viewed by many as nothing more than a monument to Fascism. The descendants of Republican victims of summary execution have recently been allowed to have their bodies exhumed and given a decent burial.  Other monuments to the vicious war such as Barcelona’s Fossar de la Pedrera (Mass Grave of the Quarry) – where the bullet ridden corpses of 1,700 Republican soldiers and civilians were dumped at the end of the war in a bed of quicklime – serve not as a reminder of honour but an uncomfortable, unignorable, yet unspoken presence. History has been contested and revised in Spain and the victorious Nationalist Fascist legacy not denounced as it was in Germany for example leaving a legacy of fear and distrust. What happened simply does not get talked about. To talk is to disagree about the true nature of what happened, the best path to hold silence and forget. Spain has been purged of symbols of Franco and the Civil War.

In Spain to remember is taboo.

With deepest apologies, I did not manage to finish this series before Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018.  Parts 4b would pertain to WWII and 4c to football during this war. Parts 5 and onwards would bring football, poppies and symbology up to date.  I shall resume this at start of November 2019 if there is still an appetite for the series to be finished

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