Of donkeys and heroes

Of the thousands of British soldiers who were tragically slaughtered in the trench warfare of 1914-1916, often due to hopelessly poor strategic planning by the military high command, it is sometimes said, “They were lions led by donkeys.” This is a slur on donkeys. However, let us not dwell on that, but look instead at a rather wonderful conjunction of circumstances in the past few days in which the search for the second donkey led to a connection with the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.

In the village of Tarbena in the Sierra Bernia, on the way to purchase my second donkey, we stopped for a coffee at C’an Pinet – which, I had already been told by another teacher at my school, is a famous communist restaurant with memorabilia of the Spanish Republic all around the walls and in glass display cases. We were not disappointed! In fact we booked to return again next day for lunch.

So here is Barbara Reed, who has been helping me choose my second donkey up in the Sierra Bernia, pictured sitting in C’an Pinet under Karl Marx, the Spanish Republican flag and a photo of La Pasionaria, the fiery daughter of an Asturian coal miner, who became the Communist voice of Republican Spain and said farewell to the International Brigades when they were pulled out in 1938 after the international “Non-Intervention Pact” thoughtfully pulled out the support fromthe democratically elected Republic and allowed the Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy to finish off the job begun by MI6 when they ferried Franco from the Canaries to Ceuta in a Dragon Rapide, ready to start the revolt against the government. (Fascist dogs supported by English jackals, to continue our animal metaphor…)

In C’an Pinet – just to the left of the fireplace – is this photo of Bill Alexander, last commander of the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade. He is pictured in Spain in 1938, then standing outside C’an Pinet with the restaurant owner on his return in the 1970s, as secretary of the British Battalion Veterans Association. I met him in 1972 or ’73 at a London meeting of the battalion veterans, when my grandfather asked me to go along taking a greeting as he could not attend due to ill health. Bill Alexander died not long after, and my grandfather also, but their spirit lives on in this restaurant in the Sierra Bernia on the way to the place where I am buying my donkeys.

As the International Brigades paraded through Barcelona on their last farewell before being withdrawn, Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, said, “Spain will never forget you! You are heroes!” In C’an Pinet they are not forgotten.


About Gareth Thomas

After a mixed career as an aircraft technician, London fringe theatre playwright, Franciscan friar, and secondary school teacher, I find myself looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I like to listen to BBC Radio 4 and the wind in the pine trees. I am writing a comedy about a school in Benidorm. My favourite film of all time is "Jean de Florette". If I had my time again I would not have spent the early 1970s working for Special Branch.
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4 Responses to Of donkeys and heroes

  1. toadspittle says:

    Wonderful post. Needs naked donkeys, but still and all. What nostalgia! Toad envies Rabit. No chance of a Commie meal round here. An Anarchist sandwich in San Nicolas del Real Camino is the best they can muster. (That’s when you order a bacon, lettuce and tomato – and they leave out the bacon, to teach you a lesson.)

    Season’s greetings, nonetheless. ¡Hasta pronto!

  2. George Lee says:

    Lovely post, which I found by searching for my uncle Bill Alexander. By the way, he did not die in the 70s but in 2000, aged 90.

  3. Frere Rabit says:

    Thanks for that comment, George. If you want more photos of C’an Pinet, I can email them to you. Use this email address frererabit(at)gmail.com

    It is good to know that your uncle achieved such longevity. I think Jack Jones succeeded Bill as the Secretary of the British Battalion Veterans Association, and he too is pictured in the restaurant, at the same time he was General Secretary of the TUC.

  4. stephen says:

    Thanks so much for posting both the story of your desire to buy a Donkey and the Photo’s of this amazing time warp of Legends .No Pasaran

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