By Jim Slaven
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Harry Fry. Perhaps not a name familiar to many, but it should be. Earlier this year I was fortunate to attend the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama on the outskirts of Madrid with the Friends of the International Brigades Ireland (Fibi). The commemoration made its way around the battle site stopping at points for short descriptive talks on their significance. We visited the memorials to Charlie Donnelly and Kit Conway, two IRA volunteers who died defending the Spanish Republic. Throughout the day two other people were never far from my thoughts. Harry Fry and Jimmy Rutherford were not killed at Jarama, they were captured but both would eventually die on Spanish soil at the hands of Fascists just like their comrades Donnelly and Conway.
The Scots who joined the International Brigades have been described as the heirs to John Maclean. People motivated by solidarity with the people of Spain, defence of democracy and hatred of Fascism. Many of them, like Fry and Rutherford, were working class and communist. They were also the heirs of James Connolly, whose internationalism and class solidarity was evident throughout his life, whether in Scotland, the United States or Ireland where he would die defending the Irish Republic.
Harry Fry and Jimmy Rutherford were both from Connolly’s home city of Edinburgh. Fry was, like Connolly, a veteran of the British Army and, again like Connolly, a cobbler (although it is not known whether Fry was more effective at shoe repairing than Connolly!). His military experience led to Fry being appointed Commander of one of the machine gun companies at Jarama. The Commander of the other was Kit Conway.
Despite heavy losses the Battle of Jarama holds a special place in International Brigades history. A history wonderfully told in books such as Daniel Gray’s Homage to Caledonia and Richard Baxell’s Unlikely Warriors. Fry, along with most of the surviving members of his machine gun company were captured and taken prisoner. Some prisoners were executed after being given the choice between fighting for Franco or death. Badly injured in the battle Fry nonetheless led his men with great dignity and courage. His comrade Donald Renton later recalled ‘Forced to watch the cold bloodied murder of Phil Elias and Johnnie Stevens, later the execution of his friend Ted Dickenson, he nevertheless maintained that demeanour which during our period of training and at the front had made him more than simply our military commander. Even the Moors who had bound his shattered arm in telegraph wire and beat him up could not make him forego his attitude of quiet contempt towards them’.
Fry and Jimmy Rutherford were sentenced to death. Renton’s account of the sentencing hearing sums up the determination of Fry; ‘His shrug of the shoulders was an eloquent testimony to the fact that he could die as Dickenson had died, with his fist clenched and a defiant, “Salud!”’. Both Fry and Rutherford were later exchanged for nationalist prisoners and deported. Part of the prisoner exchange agreement was that they would never return to Spain. Both Fry and Rutherford had observed first hand the reality of Fascism and their mistreatment of prisoners of war. After a short period back in Edinburgh both returned to Spain and rejoined the fight.
Harry Fry was made overall Commander of the British Battalion but was killed in the Ebro offensive on 13th October 1937. His young friend and comrade Jimmy Rutherford was recaptured in 1938 and, although using a false name, was recognised by a Fascist officer and executed. Jimmy was 20 years old. Writing in December 1937 of her husbands decision to return to Spain Harry Fry’s wife said:
“My husband went to Spain because he realized the danger of Fascism, and believed that his military experience could best be used in fighting it. He joined the International Brigade because he thought it was the job he could do best. His experience of Fascist methods of warfare and the brutal treatment of prisoners behind the lines only helped to strengthen his determination to carry on the fight until Franco, Hitler and Mussolini were beaten. This is why he went back to Spain again after a short period of leave, his wound hardly healed, and without even seeing his baby boy which was born the day after he left. I would not have stopped him even if I could, because I believed he was right, and I am sure that his last thoughts must have been of regret that he could not live to see the final triumph of the forces he fought for. Please excuse me comrade, if I don’t write anymore”.
As we approach Remembrance Day, Harry Fry and Jimmy Rutherford may not be who the state has in mind for us to remember. But in an age when the term ‘hero’ or ‘role model’ is applied too cheaply, it is people like Fry and Rutherford, Donnelly and Conway who working class people must rediscover. People from our community, from our streets, who despite facing great odds chose to struggle for a better world. Who chose to go to Spain to fight against Fascism, a hateful ideology represented by Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini. In 1945 Herbert Matthews of the New York Times wrote of the Spanish Civil War:
“It gave meaning to life; it gave courage and faith in humanity. It taught us what internationalism means, as no League of Nations or Dumbarton Oaks will ever do. There one learned that men could be brothers, that nations and frontiers, religions and races were but outer trappings, and that nothing counted, nothing was worth fighting for but the idea of liberty”.
The crisis in Catalonia has seen minds return to the Civil War and Franco era. It is worth remembering the fight against Franco was fought by people right across Spain. Many of them paid a very high price for their defence of the Spanish Republic. Not just during the Civil War but in the decades that followed as well. One of them was poet Miguel Hernandez who was imprisoned after the Civil War for his continuing opposition to Fascism. Hernandez died in jail. A wonderful poet he had captured the special place the International Brigades have in the hearts of anti-fascists in Spain in his poem To The International Soldier Fallen In Spain.
If there are men who contain a soul without frontiers,
a brow scattered with universal hair,
covered with horizons, ships, and mountain chains,
with sand and with snow, then you are one of those.
Fatherlands called to you with all their banners,
so that your breath filled with beautiful movements.
You wanted to quench the thirst of panthers
and fluttered full against their abuses.
With a taste of all suns and seas,
Spain beckons you because in her you realize
your majesty like a tree that embraces a continent.
Around your bones, the olive groves will grow,
unfolding their iron roots in the ground,
embracing men universally, faithfully.
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Jim Slaven tweets @JimSlaven