Liz Woolley, an Oxford-based local historian, with connections to the University Continuing Education Dept and the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, came to the Museum on Wednesday to talk about the involvement of Oxfordshire people in the Spanish Civil War. The audience was small but I think knowledgeable. It included two people with close family connections to the War, and Ms Woolley's brisk, research-based narrative, presented in an attractive PowerPoint format, seized our attention.
We learned that at least 31 Oxfordshire folk (out of c. 2,500 from Britain and Ireland) travelled to Spain - a journey not nearly as easy then as now, of course - to participate on the Republican Government's side after Franco and his Army of Africa's coup of 1936. They either fought directly with the other foreign volunteers of the International Brigade or served as ambulance and other drivers, or as medical staff. 6 of the 31 died in Spain, at least two of whom virtually disappeared without trace; their bodies were never found and exhaustive family enquiries came to little or nothing. One of them was a Noel Fisher, who vanished while in the line on the Zaragoza Front in Aragon. These formed one of the most poignant stories of a bitter tale of struggle and defeat (Franco triumphed in 1939 and unleashed upon Spain what amounted to a reign of terror).
The other striking story was of the several hundred Basque refugees, mostly children, who were taken in by Oxfordshire people, processed in the first instance at several reception centres including Thame and Buscot Park near Faringdon. The British government, still pursuing its futile non-involvement policy in Europe under Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain, declined to help. When the Civil War was won and lost, the Basques were sent home forthwith - one wonders what awaited them in the grim aftermath of the brutal Francoist victory.
We were told of Victor Clarke, a labourer from James St, who went out to fight. Wogan Phillips, formerly of Magdalen College and from a very different stratum of society, served as an ambulance driver. Murray Fuhrman, a doctor at the Radcliffe Infirmary, lent his medical skills. Thora 'Red' Silverthorne, a Radcliffe nurse was fuelled by ideological zeal. Many though far from all of the volunteers were politicized, usually Communists; others like both Denis Healey and Ted Heath were perhaps sufficiently outraged by the prospect of a democratically-elected European government deposed by a coup to lend a hand with the 'Aid for Spain' fundraising effort. Others again were fired simply by human generosity and compassion.
If you don't know the Museum, I recommend an early visit. It's small, beautifully designed, with an enthusiastic team and has a glorious garden setting. Displays range from the Waterloo Campaign to the placing of British agents (trained near Thame) in Occupied France and the part played by the Oxfordshire Yeomanry in the liberation of the Belsen Death Camp.
It's also well worth looking out for Liz Woolley's lectures; she gives 60 or so a year. Catch her on her excellent website at www.lizwoolley.co.uk