Book Review: Linda Palfreeman, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances.

Alan Sennett

Image © Bas de Jong

Linda Palfreeman’s new book, Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances. British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War, makes an important contribution to the historiography of Spain’s bitter civil war. Building upon her earlier ¡Salud! British Volunteers in the Republican Medical Services During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2012), the author offers a well-documented account of two hitherto neglected British humanitarian initiatives. While British relief efforts for Republican Spain have been well documented and analysed, there remain notable silences in the historical record. Until now, paucity of primary sources and, in the case of the Scottish unit, political controversy, has prevented the organisations and individuals discussed here gaining full recognition. Palfreeman remedies this through her impressive mining of some significant new archival material. Citing and quoting from an array of primary sources, she examines the remarkable work of the Scottish Ambulance Unit (SAU) and the George Young (University) Ambulance Unit (GYAU). In the current context of Gaza, civil war in the Ukraine and Syria, as well as commemorations of the start of the First World War, this proves a highly topical study of the dangers and obstacles faced by medical and other humanitarian organisations in conflicts zones. She deals, among many other things, with the dilemmas thrown up by the humanitarian requirement to aid all those who become victims of war, including combatants on what might be considered the “enemy” side. In the context of Spain, where the overwhelming volume of voluntary aid from the “democracies” went to the Republican side, this means Franco’s forces and those deemed to be Nationalist sympathisers seeking to escape the besieged capital, Madrid.

The author, a lecturer in journalism at a Spanish university, demonstrates a keen awareness of the power of the historian’s raw material: primary source evidence. She quotes extensively from reports, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and even sound archives. As a result, remarkable personalities emerge such as Fernanda Jacobsen, the fearless leader and forceful propagandist for the SAU who always appeared dressed in her Macaulay kilt and tartan hat. Jacobsen had been secretary to wealthy Scottish businessman and politician, Sir Daniel Macaulay Stevenson, whose brainchild the Scottish volunteer unit was. Among other notable figures discussed here is Francesca Wilson, veteran relief worker and Quaker representative who established children’s hospitals in Murcia against formidable logistical odds. Wilson became involved with the medical aid efforts to southern Spain of the GYAU, founded and directed by former diplomat and Spanish expert, Sir George Young.

In the first half of the book, Palfreeman charts the immediate Scottish response to pleas for assistance from Spain’s Republican government organised by a range of bodies including the Labour Party, trade union movement, NGOs and prominent individuals like Stevenson. The focus of their work was refugee relief and medical aid with generous donations from communities still suffering the effects of high unemployment and socio-economic crisis. This public support for a fellow democracy contrasts sharply with the cynical stance taken by the British government through its policy of “non-intervention”; a position that effectively placed Franco’s rebel government on a par with the elected government it was seeking to overthrow. The work of the SAU in and around the besieged capital from September 1936 through to the end of the war in April 1939 is outlined in considerable detail. Palfreeman notes the controversy and tensions thrown up by the SAU’s remit to serve broad humanitarian ends rather than partisan commitment to the republican side. Several of its volunteers were highly committed to the official Communist perspective and conflicts arose over allegations that food and medical aid was not all going to those for whom it was donated. This refers to the SAU distributing food supplied by the British government to refugees in the British Embassy, some of whom were thought to be Nationalist sympathisers. Here Palfreeman sheds new light upon the role of Captain Edwin Christopher Lance, the so-called “Spanish Pimpernel”, in smuggling Nationalist sympathisers and others seen to be in danger out of the capital. Jacobsen and the SAU were certainly involved in Lance’s operation, using its ambulances to take bandaged “casualties” from the Anglo-American Hospital down to Alicante or Valencia where they were evacuated on British ships. Palfreeman argues that Jacobsen and others were motivated by the knowledge that anyone considered sympathetic to the Nationalists, who were pounding the city with no regard for civilian casualties, faced the very real prospect of arrest and execution. Jacobsen’s motives were solely humanitarian and cooperation of the SAU with Lance is presented as being reluctantly given. Moreover, the author cites a number of contemporary sources that claim this initiative happened with the full knowledge of the republican government. This makes sense since the government sought to avoid any repetition of the executions of Nationalist sympathisers in the early months of the war.

Later Palfreeman turns to the work of the GYAU in Málaga and along the coast to Almería from February 1937. Here the Nationalists attacked the largely Anarcho-Syndicalist (CNT) militias and deployed terror tactics from the outset. This campaign was carried out with enthusiasm by the Army of Africa supported by German warships and using terror bombing, shelling and strafing of civilian refugees fleeing along the coastal road. The plight of some 150,000 refugees was chronicled by the noted Canadian Doctor, Norman Bethune, in The Crime on the Road: Málaga-Almería (1937). Sir George Young, who knew the area well, played a key role in establishing hospitals, assisting displaced persons and providing an ambulance service on the Motril front Lady Young also played an important part in the delivery of food and medical aid to Almería, with significant assistance from the Royal Navy.

It is within the context of the desperate humanitarian situation in and around Almería that Palfreeman notes some of the private views of Foreign Office officials. Some felt that humanitarian work was simply a cloak for Left-wing political support for the Republic. Certainly it would seem that the official mind viewed the Spanish government as a “Kerensky regime” that might soon give way to a Bolshevik one. Russian assistance to the Republic only reinforced this perspective. If one cannot entirely separate the work of these relief organisations from broader political support for the Republican cause, it is clear this had much to do with the desire of the great majority of volunteers to do something practical to stand up for human decency at a time when barbarous forces threatened to run amok in Europe. British official attitudes at the time essentially sought to insulate Britain from the tribulations of Europe by not intervening in Spain. Books like this demonstrate powerfully that a significant number of ordinary British people disagreed with their own government and realised that the battle being fought in Spain would soon have to be joined at home. The coming of another European war only five months after Franco’s victory once again illustrated the folly of British isolationism.

Published by Sussex Academic Press (UK) – Author: Linda Palfreeman

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