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.