Spanish Refugees entering France February 1939
A couple of days after my last blog, on the death of the trades union stalwart Jack Jones, I read a long article in a local journal on the plight of the Spanish Civil War Refugees who flooded into France in February 1939. After a four year struggle Spanish Republican forces had been overcome, and General Franco declared himself El Caudillo, a position he held for nearly 40 years.
It is the 70th anniversary of that great flood of humanity that poured over the Pyrenees into South West France, known as la Retirada. There have been a crop of books and newspaper articles produced in honour of this anniversary, and as most of them are written for French consumption they are slightly skewed (to say the least) in their analysis of the event. I suppose the expression ‘distance lends enchantment’ can be applied to this reportage. After all, seventy years is a long time, and those, like Jack Jones, who were eyewitnesses to the events of the Civil War are becoming scarcer as these old combatants die off.
In too many cases the warm welcome that the Spanish soldiers and civilians had anticipated from their neighbour was sadly lacking. Instead , the soldiers were immediately marched off to concentration camps on arrival , and those unfortunate civilians who had no friends or family to offer them shelter found themselves in miserable tented camps in the back-end of a bitter winter.
From the last few months of 1938 to February 1939, something like half a million Republican refugees crossed the border into the Basque region of France, where 17,000 were herded into the concentration camp at Gurs; and into the Pyrenees Oriental on the Mediterranean coast where the camp at Prat de Mollo, just inland from the fashionable town of Collioure, was a sea of displaced humanity.
In the months that followed this exodus more than 20,000 emigrated, by various means to America,but when Hitler invaded France thousands were sent to German concentration camps. Many of those that managed to evade the Nazi round-ups joined the French Resistance and continued their struggle against fascism.
The Civil War itself drew sympathisers from all over the world. One of the many women who volunteered to join the International Brigades as nurses was a girl from. England. - Lillian Urmston.
Born in 1914, Lillian lived in Stalybridge and attended St. Paul's Elementary School. She trained as a nurse at Lake Hospital in Ashton-under-Lyne and at the age of 22, in 1936 Lillian applied to the Spanish Medical Aid Unit after reading how Government troops were short of doctors and nurses. In June 1937 she left for the Spanish Medical Aid in London where she and another nurse left for Paris and journeyed through France to the Aragon front in Spain, where they rendered medical assistance to injured government troops and civilians.
In September 1938, Lillian returned to England to raise funds for medical supplies and food for the wounded in Spain. She was sent with an ambulance, from which she addressed many groups in surrounding towns. Some were very sceptical, even when they saw the ambulance, but she had deliberately left it as it was; blood stained inside.
In response, the people of Stalybridge started the ‘Nurse Urmston Fund’ in support of the Spanish Medical Aid Unit. There were house to house collections and money was donated at various meetings; the fund itself raised approximately £700.
Lillian accompanied some of the refugees into France where she herself was interned and she recorded her thoughts in a collection of writings from women who served at the front in the Civil War:
The things seen during the last days of our retreat from Spain, and the experiences undergone in the concentration camp of St Cyprian, near Perpignan, I shall never forget... The last few days spent in Spain, working close to the front, yet within sight of the Pyrenees, were utterly ghastly. Operating work was done, and efficiently, just inside houses by the roadside. In innumerable instances, we came upon families of refugees wounded whilst fleeing to safety. We cared for them and kept them with us if they were seriously wounded... On the late evening of the 8th we received orders to go into France. Although sad at leaving our Spain, we all realised that this had to be and looked forward to a rapid reorganisation in France which would result in our going back to another sector of Spain to carry on the struggle against Fascist aggression.
But we were soon disillusioned... We were led to believe that France had opened her frontiers to receive our soldier refugees and wounded, thus preventing a complete massacre. We expected sympathy and humane treatment. We had neither. The vigilance of hundreds of armed guards made sure that all people entering France entered the concentration camp. Ours was a stretch of sandy desert land, surrounded by the usual formidable barbed wire. Wounded men were even without treatment for about six days. We were not allowed to tend our sick comrades. One small spring supplied water for about 15,000 to 20,000people. Food was not supplied until the fifth day... Men attempting to dodge out to buy bread and send letters were treated brutally by the guards. Our comrades received bayonet wounds at the hands of these soldiers of the French army.
My friends turned to me and said: 'Would we be treated like this in England?' And I wonder, would they? Spanish soldiers told our men to return to Franco Spain and then they would get away from all this. Our soldiers felt deeply about this, and called out to those men who were collected to be sent to Barcelona, deploring their conduct. Then the camp resounded with 'Viva la Republica! Viva nuestra Independencia!'
Extract from Lillian Urmston from the book ‘Voice of Women’