Prologue: The Bittersweet Farewell
The Canadians walked on flowers. It seemed every man, woman, and child in the crowd past which the Canadian volunteers of the XVth International Brigade marched had a limitless supply of flowers to cast forth. Like a soft snow of brilliant reds, whites, pinks, and yellows, flowers showered down upon their shoulders and berets, dribbled redolently down their tattered uniforms, fell away to deepen the blossomy carpet beneath their worn and broken boots.
Along the sycamore-lined El Diagonal–that broad avenue that slashes through Barcelona’s heart–they marched in rows eight abreast. Before and behind the small clutch of about two hundred Canadians paraded volunteers from all the national battalions that constituted the International Brigades. Two thousand brigaders marched. They were but a mere fragment of the forty-two thousand Internationals who, since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on July 17, 1936, had fought for Spanish democracy. On October 29, 1938, however, only two thousand were able to muster for this farewell parade.
For some of the Canadians present it was the first time they had ever marched as part of the legendary Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, fondly known as the Mac-Paps. Although many Canadians back home thought of the Mac-Paps as their unit, it had always been a mongrel comprising Canadians, Americans, a few Cubans, a scattering of other Internationals, and many Spaniards. For their part, some sixteen hundred Canadians had served in the American, British, German, Ukrainian, Czech, French, and other International and regular Spanish battalions. Today, however, for the first and last time the Canadians marched as a single entity.
The Internationals marched toward a massive reviewing stand erected in the Plaça de la Gloria. A Spanish military honour guard stood rigidly at attention on either side of the El Diagonal. Overhead, the small Russian-made Republican fighter planes circled like a small flock of so many noisy ravens, ensuring the parade proceeded undisturbed by fascist bombers.
Behind the honour guard, the people of Barcelona pressed forward by the thousands. They crowded the balconies of the facing buildings, massed upon the rooftops, perched by the dozens in every tree.
Like so many of the soldiers, Canadian volunteer William Beeching was overwhelmed with emotion. It was the singing that struck him, that indelibly touched his heart. “The Internationale”–the anthem of popular fronts the world over–rang joyously from every mouth.
Finnish-Canadian Carl Syvänen had never seen so many people. Their singing and cries of Viva thundered louder than any artillery barrage he had endured during the brutal months of combat. But this was no hostile barrage. This, he thought, was the sound of a people’s love. And it was a love directed toward all those who travelled from distant lands to fight in this terrible war.
The crowd was not content to be kept apart from their brave foreign compatriots. They surged forward and the honour guard parted, unwilling to use force to sustain something as un-Spanish as disciplined ranks. Syvänen, Beeching, all the Internationals were swept up like fall leaves and carried forward in the crowd’s current. Stunningly beautiful women with flashing brown eyes kissed Syvänen s cheeks, embraced him, and only reluctantly passed him forward into the arms of another equally beautiful woman. The people gathered the soldiers up and marched arm in arm with them to the reviewing stand. By the time the Internationals reached the stand they were blended, folded, mixed inseparably with the people of Barcelona.
Syvänen’s Finnish-Canadian compatriot John Keitaanranta saw the tears in the women’s eyes. He listened to them sing “The Internationale” again in voices cracking with emotion. “It is their battle song,” he thought. For a moment he allowed himself the foolish, fervent hope that the defiance and devotion pouring forth in song might be transformed into a righteous violence that could shatter Franco’s advancing fascist armies and even now save the Republic. Keitaanranta lent his voice to the song, as did the other Canadians.
On the reviewing stand, Republican president Dr. Juan Négrin and his war cabinet signalled for the people to quieten. Gradually a gentle hush settled, a silence broken only by the perpetual drone of the overflying aircraft. Dr. Négrin spoke. He spoke softly and with careful formality. He spoke of why his government had withdrawn the Internationals from combat at a time when the Republic’s need was so dire. He explained the decision to send them home, even though they had not asked to leave. He told of the government’s hope that this would lead Franco to withdraw the countless thousands of German and Italian troops who fought on the fascist side. If the Germans and Italians also left, he said, the war would again become an entirely Spanish affair. Left to their own future, Dr. Négrin said, the Spanish people could yet triumph, the Republic be saved, and democracy preserved.
The Internationals tried to hide their scepticism. Listening to his words, Syvänen and Beeching both tasted the bitter salt of failure. Dr. Négrin spoke with courage and resolve. But he offered only fanciful words. The truth was a plainer, harsher thing. La causa, the cause so many friends had died fighting for, was lost. At best, the Republic could hold another few months. Then, El Diagonal would ring with the jackboots of the fascist troops of General Francisco Franco, Adolph Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. They would sneer their defiance at the world’s democracies, who had offered Spain as a sacrifice before the altar of appeasement.
As the Spanish Communist Party leader and spiritual light of the Republican cause, Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria” herself, approached the microphone, Syvänen felt tears trace down his cheeks and tried to set aside these bitter thoughts. He did not cry alone. It seemed they all cried. Hard men no more. Her words to the women of Spain wrung his heart and evoked images of the more than eight hundred Canadian comrades who had fallen during the years of battle.
“Mothers! Women! When the years pass by and the wounds of war are staunched,” she said in her powerful, deliberate voice, “when the cloudy memory of the sorrowful, bloody days returns in a present of freedom, love and well-being . . . speak to your children. Tell them of the International Brigades. Tell them how, coming over the seas and mountains, crossing frontiers bristling with bayonets . . . these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom. They gave up everything, their loves, their country, home and fortune–fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, and children–and they came and told us: ‘We are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.’ Today they are going away. Many of them, thousands of them, are staying here with the Spanish earth for their shroud.”
To the men of the Internationals she said, “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality. We shall not forget you. And, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, come back! . . . All of you will find the love and gratitude of the whole Spanish people who now and in the future will cry out with all their hearts, ‘Long live the heroes of the International Brigades.'”
And around the brigaders the people of Barcelona again sang “The Internationale,” the song that in 1938 was sung by millions the world over. In Canada, tens of thousands knew the words. They sang it in the union halls, in the hobo jungles, in the church basements, and at the political rallies. They sang it and believed. They believed the future the song promised humankind. They believed the people could be set free–all people everywhere. Standing in the fading afternoon light of Spanish autumn, Beeching still believed. Just as he had believed on an autumn day in 1936 when he had made the fateful decision to go to Spain and fight for the Republican cause.