Sadly, we have now reached the end of an era. With the death of 98-year old Stan Hilton, there are no longer any British veterans of the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil war of 1936-1939 alive to tell their tale. Stan may well have been the last member of the entire English-speaking Fifteenth International Brigade. Jules Paivio, the last of the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, died in 2013 and the American, Delmer Berg, the final Lincoln, died earlier this year.
Over the course of the civil war more than 6,000 volunteers (1,000 Canadians, 2,500 British and Irish and 2,800 Americans), served in the Fifteenth International Brigade, part of a 35,000 strong band of brothers—and sisters—from some 53 countries around the world. These anti-fascists volunteered to join the battle because, as one American from Mississippi put it simply, "I saw in the invaders of Spain the same people I’ve been fighting all my life". They believed that Spain’s struggle transcended national boundaries; arguing that fighting fascism in Spain would help the fight against fascism across Europe and, conversely, a victory for Franco was seen, by extension, as a victory for Hitler. The rapid and determined support for Franco’s rebels by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy provided convincing evidence for a connection between the regimes.
While the International Brigades were only a small part of the Spanish Republican army, their arrival on the Madrid front eighty years ago this November was hugely significant. The international volunteers raised the morale of the defenders of the Spanish capital, whilst providing invaluable instruction in the use of weaponry such as machine-guns. However, the involvement of the International Brigades in the fighting around Madrid between November 1936 and the spring of 1937 was probably their high-water mark. As the war dragged on, their influence gradually waned. Outnumbered and outgunned, lacking crucial air cover, and consistently thrown into the heart of the fire, the foreign volunteers were, in the words of one senior Scottish volunteer, "cut to pieces". Around a fifth of the 35,000 international volunteers were killed in Spain and the vast majority were wounded at some stage. As an American historian explained, raw courage and belief in the essential "rightness" of the volunteers’ cause "could not overcome inexperience, poor coordination and superior military force".
When nineteen year old Stan Hilton jumped ship in Alicante and volunteered to join the fight, he was convinced that "it was the right thing to do". By this time, November 1937, the British Battalion had been fighting in Spain for almost a year. They had been having a very tough time of it during the bloodbath at Jarama in February and, in the ferocious heat of the Spanish summer at Brunete, the British had been virtually annihilated. While some success had been seen on the Aragón front in the autumn, the target of the Republican offensive, Zaragoza, had stubbornly remained in rebel hands. With the battalion in reserve, Stan was sent for military training at the British Battalion’s headquarters in the village of Madrigueras, just to the north of the main International Brigades headquarters at Albacete. His period of training (such as it was) completed, Stan joined the battalion in early 1938, as the British volunteers fought as part of the republican force desperately trying to hold on to the remote capital of Teruel. Conditions were horrendous: in freezing temperatures that sank to twenty below zero at night, more men died in Teruel from the cold than were killed in battle. For Stan, brought up on notions of "sunny Spain", it was a brutal introduction to the realities of warfare: "It was freezing. I was always bloody cold", he later recalled.
Things were about to get much worse. Boosted by reinforcements, Franco’s forces recaptured Teruel before pressing home their advantage by launching a colossal offensive in the spring against the republican forces in Aragon. Thirteen divisions, including Italians and the German Condor Legion, plus a huge number of tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns, backed up with over 900 aircraft, were massed for the push through to the Mediterranean. Much better armed and supplied, Franco’s forces outnumbered the defending republicans by almost five to one. What began as a series of breakthroughs swiftly turned into a rout, as the republican lines virtually collapsed. Franco’s soldiers successfully reached the Mediterranean in mid-April 1938, splitting the republican territory in two.
With the republican army in disarray and communications having essentially broken down, Stan ended up having to undertake a dangerous swim across the fast-flowing Ebro river to evade being captured (or worse). Half-drowned, starving and exhausted, Stan decided that he had had enough of the Spanish war and headed for the Mediterranean coast. In March 1938, with the permission of the British ship’s captain, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona, and sailed for home.
During the Second World War, Stan served in the British Merchant Navy and, after demobilisation, in 1956 he took the decision to emigrate to Australia with his young family. There he remained, mainly working as a tiler in the building trade, living a quiet life, his presence unknown to the UK’s International Brigade Memorial Trust. Until, that is, he was tracked down in an old people’s home in Yarrawonga, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. A couple of years ago, Stan was transferred from there to a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, in order to be closer to his family. It was there, on 21 October 2016, that Stan Hilton, tiler, merchant seaman and International Brigader finally died, aged 98. He was the last of the last.