Frank Graham, North-East fighter in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War

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In October 1938, the women of Barcelona presented this banner to the British Battalion of the International Brigades, whose members had fought on behalf of the Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. It marked the end of the war for the members of the Battalion, which was disbanding in the wake of the victories of Franco’s Nationalists. However, the war in Spain continued until Franco’s final victory in 1939.

The banner is on show in the exhibition Conscience and Conflict: British artists and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Art Gallery. The exhibition shows the extraordinary impact the war had for many artists in Britain, who responded with sculpture, paintings, prints and posters.

People from a wide range of political opinion united in anti-Fascist feeling against Franco’s violent assault on the Spanish Republican Government. Around 2,500 British volunteers felt so strongly that they travelled to Spain to join the Republican fighters.

Frank Graham at Jarama resting behind the front red

A number of volunteers from the North East of England went to Spain, including Frank Graham. He’s particularly remembered for his books of local history, published by his own small firm in Newcastle. But as a young man, he spent 15 months fighting for the Spanish Republican Army in the Civil War, before being invalided out with wounds. He’s pictured (centre, wearing glasses) behind the front at the time of the Battle of Jamara, 1937.

Lieutenant Going Back

The gruelling fighting at Jamara blocked General Franco’s advance on Madrid. Graham spoke to the North Mail when he was home on leave in April 1937 after the fighting on the Jamara front:

despite his hard time of it 2

Bullet through heart 2

Lawther portrait enhancedAnother North-East man, Clifford Lawther, also lost his life in the battle of Jamara. However, there was no firm information on his fate until July. It was supplied by Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party, who had travelled to Spain to track down information on missing British fighters. Clifford Lawther was a bus conductor at Hexham before going to Spain, and was the younger brother of Will Lawther, vice-president of the Miners’ Federation.

Edgar Wilkinson, previously a Sunderland bus conductor, also went missing at the Battle of Jamara. The North Mail in July reported that his mother was travelling to London to see if Harry Pollitt had any definite news after his return from Spain.

In 1986, the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was commemorated in Newcastle with a plaque and a tree planted by Frank Graham in the grounds of the Civic Centre.

Graham plaque

tree 3

The stories of International Brigade members feature in a fascinating drama-documentary made originally for BBC Radio 4, To Make The People Smile Again (free, Laing Art Gallery, Saturday May 16th, 2pm-3.45pm.) It also tells the story of George Wheeler, who fought in the last great battle of the Ebro and was taken prisoner. The drama documentary will be followed by talks by the drama producer, Steve Chambers (University of Northumbria) and Martin Ellis (Zymurgy Publishing), publisher of the book on which the drama was based.

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Banner embroidered by the Women of Barcelona for the British Battalion of the International Brigades, Marx Memorial Library, London

Sources and further information

‘Story of Northerners’ Sacrifice at Madrid’, North Mail, April 10 1937 p7

‘Killed Fighting in Spain’, North Mail, July 7 p6

Frank Graham wrote and published his own account in The Battle of Jamara, 1987.

This online Chronicle story gives some more details of North-East fighters in the Spanish Civil War – Our soldiers who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

More information on Frank Graham is in this online biography.

There are more details in articles and books:

Mike Jamieson, ‘Heroes of the Civil War’, Evening Chronicle, 7 January 1988.

Lewis Mates, The Spanish Civil War and the British Left: Political Activism and the Popular Front. (2007). I.B. Tauris.

Don Watson, John Corcoran, An Inspiring Example: North East of England and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 , 1996

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