When Carmelo Garcia, chief reporter on The Forester, the newspaper of the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, reported he had found the last British International Brigader in a local care home it was a testament to the residual power of British regional journalism.
Many believed 98-year-old Stan Hilton, who died late in 2016, had been the last. But, unlike the happy-go-lucky Hilton, who his son said had supported the beleaguered Republicans because they were underdogs, this last Brigadier was still politically engaged, expressing his disgust at the brutal treatment meted out by the police against people voting in the Catalan independence referendum.
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.
As a young man, Servante was raised in London, and schooled by Jesuit priests. After leaving school at age 14, he briefly joined the Royal Marines during the Great Depression before beginning work as a merchant seaman on the Canadian-Pacific Line.
He did not initially join the burgeoning National Union of Seamen (NUS), now the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT), admitting in later life that he had very little knowledge of politics in his youth. This apolitical stance set Servante apart from the 2,500 or so volunteers who went to fight Franco from the British Isles, the vast majority of whom were leftists or trade union militants.
Unlike these volunteers, 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.”
Servante’s previous experience on merchant ships helped him secure work easily enough on a boat heading to Spain. Upon docking in Valencia he deserted the vessel, repeating to locals the only Spanish phrase he knew: “brigadas internacionales.”
After some effort, Servante was eventually sent to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades. During his application interview, he was accepted into the Brigades, who were then recuperating from severe losses during the Battles of Brunete and Belchite.
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.
Led by the French-Polish Jew Maurice Tavlitsky, Servante was one of 70 men in the Battery, which consisted of 49 Americans, 10 Canadians, 6 British, and one each from Finland, Hungary, Romania, Sweden and Yugoslavia. His officer was the American volunteer Arthur Timpson, a graduate of artillery theory at the International Lenin School of Moscow.
Many volunteers were frustrated by the lack of ammunition and the outdated armoury; furthermore, the base commander Paul Maurice placed his fellow Frenchmen in key positions at the base, and was wary of allowing the volunteers to train with the two 80mm and 75mm guns they had on site. Tavlitsky sympathised with these concerns, lying on his daily reports that they had not trained on weapons he knew well they had.
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.
In November 1938, pressure from the League of Nations forced the struggling Republican government to remove all international fighters from the Republican Army, organising a demonstration through the streets of Barcelona where Dolores Ibbarruri – the legendary Communist figure known as ‘La Pasionara’ – told the surviving fighters:
You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.
We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain – return!
The John Brown Battery were somewhat forgotten in the chaos of the conflict, and were withdrawn alongside Spanish forces to Valencia and finally to Barcelona, where a train took them to the French frontier. There, they joined the retirada of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Republican refugees, who mostly ran the fifty miles to the French border while being strafed by fascist fighter planes. Servante and most of his comrades arrived, and were repatriated with the assistance of the International Red Cross.
In an interview with Garcia, 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.
He was also proud to accept the Spanish government’s offer of citizenship to all surviving International Brigade volunteers in 2009, registering his residence as Barcelona – meaning that he could vote in the Catalan elections, where he announced that he would be voting for the pro-independence alliance.
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.