November 2004 Scotland on Sunday

“SO you’re here to talk about the war,” says James Maley as I settle into the armchair opposite him in his Maryhill living room. I hesitate to reply. Maley will be 97 in February and by “the war” he could legitimately mean Iraq, the first Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea, the Second World War or the First World War. We are indeed here to talk about the war, but it’s the Spanish Civil War I have in mind.

That’s because in 1936, the 29-year-old Maley set off from his home in the East End of Glasgow to help the people of Spain in their struggle against Franco. He is one of just three surviving Scottish members of the International Brigades. His story is the basis of From the Calton to Catalonia, a funny, vibrantly written play by two of his sons, John and Willy Maley, which is being revived by Kayos Theatre Company, a youth group from Inverclyde, in Glasgow this week.

“On a Friday night at the end of 1936, I left George Square,” he says. “Three double-decker buses had been hired. Some were even standing on them. We were away to London and then we’d make our way to Spain.”

In an effort to appease Hitler and Mussolini, the governments of Europe had agreed not to respond to the pleas for help from Spain’s newly elected Popular Front government. A rebellion was under way and General Francisco Franco was marching on Madrid from his base in Spanish Morocco. His Army of Africa was an elite fighting force backed by the fascist powers in Germany and Italy.

Those, like Maley, who volunteered to fight did so without state support. He was among the 2300 British men who joined the international brigades, most from working-class areas of London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. Over 500 of them would not return. They were equipped with uniforms – Maley thinks they came from Belgium – but their Russian-supplied ammunition was out-dated and highly unreliable. They had right on their side, but organisation was poor and the odds were stacked against them.

For Maley, the war was to last just three days – three days in which more British soldiers were to die than died in the whole three-year war. “It was pandemonium,” he says. “They could have been better organised. You need to have somebody leading you and there wasn’t. And the other side had more planes.”

He was part of a 500-strong British battalion that faced Franco’s Moorish Regulares in defense of a key road between Madrid and Valencia in the Jarama Valley to the south of the capital in February 1937. Squaring up to a highly trained army while facing a shortage of usable ammunition for its machine guns, the battalion lost half its men by the end of the first day. It was much the same story on day two, so that by day three there were just 140 men left. Remarkably, they held their positions for the rest of the war.

“We opened the box of ammunition,” says Maley, making the sound of two or three rounds going off. “And that was it. Then there was silence. Total silence. We were left with guns and no ammunition.”

Maley’s war was short-lived. He was one of the 30 members of the Machine Gun Company who were captured in Jarama. It was only because they were English speakers that he and his comrades survived at all. “They thought we were Russians with the uniforms at first,” he recalled in an interview for the Imperial War Museum. “Somebody shouted, ‘Ingles?’ If it hadn’t been for that we would have been shot one at a time.”

Three of his captured comrades were shot in cold blood, five were sentenced to death and the rest were given 20 years imprisonment.

It sounds horrific, but Maley tells his stories with an impish delight, frequently breaking out into giggles. Despite his age, he’s sharp and lucid, firm on his feet, with a healthy head of grey hair and only his lack of lower teeth slurring his speech. He lived through those days – and saw further action in the Second World War – and now it all seems like one big adventure.

Among the family photographs on the wall is his red, orange and purple brigadier medal and a certificate awarded to him in 1996 by “El Director General” in Madrid to commemorate his efforts. He’s proud of his contribution and sees it as just one part of his lifetime commitment to socialism. Age has not mellowed him nor lessened his political interest. His conversation frequently diverges to talk about the war in Iraq or the unrest in the Ukraine or, appropriately enough, that night’s Celtic versus Barcelona match in Catalonia.

Like many of his generation growing up in 1930s Glasgow, this son of an Irish Catholic was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and had been following the situation in Spain for a good two years before the Civil War. “I don’t know how people don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says, giving no suggestion that he thought twice about going to war.

Unlike many of his fellow volunteers, he knew how to handle a gun having enlisted in the Territorial Army with the intention of learning military skills. Operating amid such carnage in Spain, they were skills that must have kept him alive. “The experience was handy,” he agrees.

His imprisonment sounds no less ghastly, but still he reminiscences with an easy laugh. “We were marched all through the night and put in prison, nine to a cell,” says Maley who was released after five months as part of an exchange with fascist prisoners held by the Republican forces. “There were only 27 of us left. The others had been shot. We were in there and all of a sudden the door opened. Two soldiers burst in with guns and they gave us a big pan of soup. They went out the door and that was it. There was nothing else we could do but eat it with our hands. After three or four days we had a visit from a British man and after that we got his spoons.”

He bursts into laughter as he recalls the time a soldier from Liverpool accidentally dropped his bread ration into the soup. The man rolled up his sleeve and fished it out with his bare hand. In a prison without toilet paper, it was an extremely unhygienic thing to do and his fellow inmates refused to eat until more soup arrived the next day. It’s a small anecdote that speaks volumes about the conditions they were in.

“The lice were murder,” he says, adding to the sense of discomfort. “But I couldn’ae grumble,” he adds with relentless good humour. They did seem to be treated reasonably well, the guards allowing them to trade their boots for extra supplies. Some asked for cigarettes, but Maley, who is teetotal and a non-smoker, got eggs and goats milk. He still relishes the memory.

The fact that Franco was victorious does not weigh heavily on him. He’s content to know he played his part. “My father would say that the Spanish Civil War was a preliminary skirmish and that war goes on as part of a larger political struggle,” says youngest son Willy Maley, 44, who is professor of renaissance studies in the department of English literature at Glasgow University.

Maley senior plans to be there for the opening night of From the Calton to Catalonia, which was first performed in 1990 and enjoyed successful revivals in 1991 and 1992. Committed to the last, his only concern is that he’ll be letting the side down if he doesn’t turn up on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday as well.

From the Calton to Catalonia, Tramway, Glasgow, December 1–4

© Mark Fisher 2004/2009

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