frontline volume 2, issue 5

‘¡No pasarán!’ Jarama, Battle Hymn of the International Brigade

Bill Scott continues our series on radical song with a look at Jarama, a song about the heroism and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War began 71 years ago with an attempted coup by the Spanish military against the democratically elected Popular Front government of republicans, socialists, communists and left liberals. The coup’s leaders called themselves “nationalists” but were a rag-bag of imperialists, militarists, monarchists, fascists (Falangists) and religionists. The coup was quickly defeated in most regions of Spain by a spontaneous uprising of thousands of workers who armed themselves to defend their government.


General Franco, a leader of the coup, was forced to flee Spain to North Africa but he swiftly returned with 14,000 elite Army of Africa troops. The transport of Franco and his troops was carried out by the Luftwaffe. Without their aid it would have taken Franco nine months to ferry his assault brigades to Spain. The Nazis also sent extensive aid to the “nationalist” insurgents. This included $570 million, hundreds of tanks & airplanes, 10,000 soldiers and 6,000 airmen of the Condor Legion. The Italian fascist state also sent 80,000 men, thousands of artillery pieces, tanks and airplanes.

With Franco’s return, the defection of thousands of the Spanish officer corps and their troops and the massive influx of support from Italy and Germany the Nationalists began to make progress and dominate the more rural areas of Spain – outwith the Catalan, Basque and Andalusian areas where they were fiercely opposed.

Initially the Popular Front government in France supported the Republic but was soon bullied into a Non-Intervention Pact by Britain (to which Nazi Germany was also a signatory!) and both countries then actively prevented volunteers and munitions reaching the Republican government by patrolling the seas and border.

International Brigades

In response working class people throughout the world rallied to the defence of the Spanish Republic. The Comintern organised the raising of volunteer International Brigades from Paris but those volunteering to fight included socialists, Wobblies, Labour Party & ILP members, anarchists, Trotskyists and ordinary trade unionists as well as communists.

An estimated 50,000 volunteers from fifty-five countries served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. They were organized into the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Brigades. Special mention should also be made of the 140 men of the Connolly Column who fought alongside the Lincoln and British Battallions as part of the XVth Brigade. The Lincoln Brigade was commanded by an African American – the first time that any American forces had been fully integrated and led by a black officer. Oliver Law. Amongst those who volunteered from Britain was a young Glasgow labourer, Alex McDade who became the Political Commissar for his brigade.

Almost as soon as the first British volunteers arrived, when they had barely begun their military training, the XVth Brigade was mobilised to defend Madrid. On 11th Feb 1937 the Nationalists had launched a surprise attack on the XIVth Brigade and crossed the Jarama though the Garibaldi (Italian) Brigade continued to hold their own front against superior forces. The Nationalists attacked with 25,000 elite infantry and 12 squadrons of cavalry. They were supported by German troops from the Condor Legion including machine gun battalions, a tank corps and batteries of artillery. If the fascist attack were to succeed the Republic would lose its capital and effectively be cut in two.

Suicide Hill

On the 12th February the British Battalion of the 15th Brigade took the brunt of the Nationalist attack, coming under heavy fire for seven hours. They were forced to withdraw to a position later called ‘Suicide Hill’. At the end of that first day of fighting, only 225 of the 600 troops of the British Battalion remained alive.

On the 13th a Nationalist flanking manoeuvre, supported by tanks, forced them to give up their position on Suicide Hill and retreat. They were met by the commander of the 15th brigade, Colonel Gal, who convinced them that unless they returned to the attack Madrid, and the Civil War, would be lost. With unbelievable courage, given the casualties they had already suffered, they returned to Suicide Hill causing the fascists occupying it to retreat in confusion. On 17th Feb, the Republicans counter-attacked. With heavy casualties on both sides a stalemate was reached with both sides digging in for trench warfare - but Madrid remained in Republican hands and the Republic survived another two years. The Brigade’s slogan was No Pasarán - they shall not pass - and they remain the Workers’ Movement’s 300 Spartans.

Alex McDade wrote the original version of the song setting it to the well known music of the US folk song, Red River Valley. Typical of many soldiers’ songs it bitterly mourned the waste of young lives caused by incompetence higher up. The later version we sing today evolved from it , partially during the Civil War itself, for Brigade veterans remember singing that version as their marching song. However the last verse must have been added several years later as the first Brigade re-unions did not take place until after World War II.

The XVth Brigade went on to fight at the Battle of Brunete. By the time it was over Alex McDade, Oliver Law and many more were dead. Of the 140 men of the Connolly Column all but one was dead or seriously wounded. But the XVth and other Brigades fought on alongside their Spanish comrades until the end.

The Fascist Bootheel

After the Republic surrendered in 1939 the Fascists demonstrated why socialists had fought them to the death. Franco had over 100,000 Republican soldiers and sympathisers executed. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned in forced labour camps where many died. Several thousand captured International Brigaders were also imprisoned. Some were later repatriated, others like Frank Ryan, commander of the Connolly Column, died in Fascist concentration camps.

The best version I’ve heard of the song is that by Scottish folk group the Laggan, sung back-to-back with the Garibaldi Battallion’s Bandiera Rosa. There’s also a wonderful American/Spanish version of the song sung by Pete Seeger, live in Spain, shortly after Franco’s death. The story of the Connolly Column is told in Christy Moore’s very moving Viva La Quinte Brigada. Alex McDade, Oliver Law, Frank Ryan - I can but name a few. P