Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Not Just Orwell

In A.Graham, Reviews on February 18, 2010 at 9:01 am

REVIEW: “A Quiet Sector of a Quiet Front”

The Independent Labour Party Volunteers and the Spanish Civil War.
by Christopher Hall

The Spanish Civil War, which raged between 1936 and 1939, was a bloody, bitter conflict that divided not only the country but also those who rallied to defend the Republic.

It all began with an attempted military coup against the elected left-wing republican government in July 1936. The rising by the insurgent generals met fierce resistance in many centres where support for the government was strong – particularly in Madrid and Barcelona – and the ensuing struggle was to drag on until March 1939.

General Franco, who emerged as leader of the Nationalist insurgents, gained support from both Germany and Italy. Hitler, indeed, was to practise his military strategies in Spain – particularly with the bombing of Guernica. As for the beleaguered Republic, it received little support from governments that adopted a policy of strict “neutrality”. Only the USSR gave active backing.

But hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women did flock to Spain to give their support to the Republic. Most of them joined the International Brigade; but there was a significant minority who instead joined the militia forces – those from POUM or the Anarchist battalions (mainly based in Barcelona).

This book by Christopher Hall looks at the part played by volunteers from the Independent Labour Party (the ILP) in the fight against Fascism in Spain. Most joined the POUM (“Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista”) militia. POUM was a left-Socialist party based largely in Catalonia, with whom the ILP had links.


Christopher Hall includes an outline of the history of the ILP, which by the time the Spanish conflict broke out had disaffiliated from the Labour Party and was reduced to a mere four MPs in Parliament and a membership of a few thousand. But it was still capable of punching above its weight. It gave full support to its fellow Socialist party in Spain and was able to muster a hundred volunteers to fight for the cause (including, of course, George Orwell). Its first direct involvement was to equip and send an ambulance to Spain. It attempted to organise a food ship to the beleagured population of Bilbao, and also housed some forty Basque refugee children in a home in Street, Somerset, provided by the Clark family, who owned the nearby shoe factory.

But the bulk of the book is concerned with those who fought alongside their POUM comrades in what became the 29th Division on the Aragon front – until the early summer in 1937 when POUM was suppressed.

The Aragon front was described by poet John Cornford as “a quiet sector of a quiet front”. The number of international volunteers who served there could be counted in hundreds, as compared to the tens of thousands who served in the International Brigade in the defence of Madrid – but their contribution should not be underestimated. They held the line, and even made some small gains in inhospitable terrain.

Some commentators saw Spain as a “rehearsal” for the Second World War – and indeed it was international politics that sealed the fate of Spain. And for decades afterwards the ILP was condemned and belittled by many (not least by those in the Communist party) for its role in Spain. Now, thankfully the part that it played (along with POUM) has been recognised – and Christopher Hall’s book is a welcome part of its rehabilitation. It is painstakingly researched, despite the difficulty he had in tracing what happened to many of the volunteers.


Incidentally, Ken Loach’s graphic film, “Land and Freedom”, tells the story of a British volunteer who joins the POUM militia on the Aragaon front. Loach had become friendly with Staff Cottman who, at the age of 18, became part of the ILP contingent. It’s been suggested that the film was, at least in part, inspired by conversations between the two.

I was privileged to get to know Staff and his wife Stella. Both of them read the Clarion and when Staff died ten years ago we were able to include an obituary.

For me, this book is not just an important addition to the many works produced on the Spanish conflict, but also recognition of the part played by those like Staff Cottman who fought against fascism and for a social revolution in war-torn Spain.


  1. Would you know where a copy of this text can be found? I have been asked to add this item to stock within an academic library and cannot find anywhere that has the book.

    If you can be of any assistance, please contact me at

    Any help would be appreciated.

    Kindest regards,

    Kevin Sanders

  2. Unfortunately the URL is a dead link, but I have managed to get in contact with the author directly and source from him.

    Many thanks.

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