Book Review: To Make the People Smile Again by George Wheeler
Review by Paul O’Connell – Journalist and Spanish Civil War expert
George Wheeler, proud of his working class Socialist roots and a carpenter by trade, was one of over 2,000 or so volunteers from Britain who defied their government and secretly crossed the Pyrenees to fight on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Wheeler had inherited his political beliefs from his father George and an Uncle who were regular orators’ at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
Discouraged by the then British Government’s ‘non-intervention’ pact with France; the British government was enforcing the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act. And after hearing a rousing speech by the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan in Trafalgar Square early in 1938 denouncing the policy of non-intervention, Wheeler decided to leave for Spain.
It was May 1938 when he set off from London for Paris with two other International recruits, one of them Liverpool docker Jack Jones, who became one of the great post-war British Trade-Union leaders.
Wheeler quickly made his way via Paris and the Pyrenees. Describing his journey as tranquil and reflecting for the taste for adventure and possible battles that might lie ahead. He certainly never foresaw what the next year had in store for him.
The first half of Wheeler’s account in his book, vividly illustrate some of the tedium’s of non-battlefront activity; he arrives and is given his boring rough army kit, he enters nearby towns to forage for food; he searches for water wells, lack of water was indeed a major concern amongst troops, and tells of the long marches up and down hills and into the countryside. He urges for battle but still notions for the romantic side of war.
Wheeler writes of getting to know fellow International Brigadiers’ from Sweden, USA, Australia and the British Isles. He strikes up friendships with many only never to hear from some of them again once they set about marching in their different platoons in the scorching heat towards the battlefront. He still has time for some romance with a young beautiful Spanish woman, who is destined to marry a soldier from her village fighting at the front. All this in the first few months of arrival.
Then events change rapidly. In August and September 1938, Wheeler, takes part in the ‘Ebro offensive’ in a desperate push to reunite Catalonia with the rest of Republican Spain after Franco’s forces had split the country into two. The British volunteers crossed the river Ebro and advanced as far as the town of Gandesa, but were pushed back by ferocious aerial and artillery bombardment from German guns and Italian aircraft. Wheeler carries injured and maimed bodies in blankets across the river.
The Republican forces had virtually no air cover, tanks and no forward military movement. In fighting around the infamous Hill 481, Wheeler saw many of his comrades’ die. One, a fellow Londoner, Lawrence Pryme, died in his arms. He was standing beside his company commander Lewis Clive, ironically the godson of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a proponent of non-interventionism, when Clive was killed. Wheeler describes what happened; ‘Lewis Clive reappeared and asked about the activity in the Fascist lines. It was a hot, sunny day and, as usual, my shirtsleeves were rolled up. At that moment I felt splashes on my forearm, and glancing down, was astonished to see they were splashes of blood. Turning, I saw Lewis reel and fall.’
Wheeler was captured during the battle of the Ebro in the autumn of 1938 and then spent the next seven months, as a prisoner of war. A foretaste of how he would be treated in captivity came on the first night, when 18 other volunteers alongside himself and over 200 Spanish Republican soldiers, were herded into a barn outside the Catalan town of Bot.
At daybreak the Francoist guards summoned each of the International Brigadiers in alphabetical order, Wheeler would be last, and asked them two questions. ‘Why had they come to Spain and would they return if they were released?’ They answered that they were in Spain because they were fighting Fascism and they would return if needed. Each volunteer was then led out of the barn and there followed a burst of machine-gun fire. When Wheeler had answered, thinking that his time was up, he was also led out to be greeted by the sound of a machine-gun – and astonishingly, the sight of his comrades lined up but still alive. “I reflected on the meticulous care with which the Fascists had prepared their sadistic little joke,” he wrote.
Wheeler was eventually taken to the notorious International Brigade prisoner-of-war camp at San Pedro de Cárdenas near Burgos. There he survived whippings from sadistic guards, lice-infested and typhus-infecting filth and severe rationing of food and water. Writing of the time the British volunteers found ways of maintaining morale; For example when forced to make the Fascist salute and chant ‘Franco, Franco’, they would instead, excitedly chant, ‘Fuck you, fuck you.’
Wheeler recounts of his experiences, in the heat of battle and in prison with forthright honesty. He is afraid of dying and misses his family, exclaiming the British Consulate did ‘next to nothing to help’. He despairs of getting home. He firmly blames the British Government for not pulling out of the non-intervention pact, and sending war material for the Spanish Republic thus allowing Franco, Hitler and Mussolini to carve up Spain, committing huge atrocities on the way.
Released in April 1939, Wheeler returned to south London working his trade as a carpenter. He married his childhood sweetheart with whom he was together with for over 50 years. After army service during the Second World War, which took him to Africa, he settled in Croydon and continued to work as a carpenter in a local joinery, becoming a union shop steward. He died aged 92 in February 2003.
The war in Spain had affected him deeply, so much so that he wrote an account of his time in Spain, which for years remained unpublished, until film-maker David Leach offered to edit it. To Make the People Smile Again was finally published in February 2003. A brilliant account of one individuals’ commitment to the anti-fascist movement.