Sunday, 01 Oct 2023

Brothers in arms, a long way from home: the first Australians to fight fascism overseas

Brothers in arms, a long way from home: the first Australians to fight fascism overseas

Brothers in arms, a long way from home: the first Australians to fight fascism overseas

The grainy, sepia photograph shows two men, an Australian and a New Zealander. Sydney dock worker Jack Franklyn is partly obscured by bush, leaning forward, his rifle poised and ready. New Zealander Bert Bryan, bare-chested and wearing a beret, crouches at the edge of a trench while shooting at the enemy. They're in Spain, the battle of Ebro in 1938, and the fact they are fighting together in one of the Spanish civil war's most seminal and bloody battles lends a gritty new dimension to the revered legend of Anzac.

The photograph was recently discovered among personal mementoes in the western Sydney home of 80-year-old Vanessa McNeill. Her father, Wollongong steel worker Jim McNeill fought the fascists alongside Bryan and Franklyn at Ebro, which began 85 years ago this July. McNeill was shot by a machine gun at Ebro, his second wounding in Spain.

McNeill entrusted the photograph, along with a dusty suitcase of her father's papers, photographs, postcards, publications, and castanets with ribbons in the colours of the fallen Spanish Republic to historian Michael Samaras. Samaras placed most of the material with the local Illawarra Museum, and now he is offering the photo to the Australian War Memorial.

Despite Australia's obsessive celebration of overseas military conflicts since colonial days, the experiences of its people who fought and died in the Spanish civil war rate barely a mention in official military history or commemoration.

Their remarkable stories might be known to their now aged children and, perhaps, grandchildren. And the actions of a few have been chronicled in books. They were certainly covered in contemporary newspapers. But the 70 or so Australians who joined the International Brigades to fight or serve as nurses in support of the Spanish Republic's bitter, failed military resistance to Franco's fascist forces are not acknowledged.

This, despite the fact that all of the volunteers were precocious military opponents of global fascism when many countries - including the conservative Menzies government of Australia - were still set on appeasement of fascist leaders like Franco and Hitler. Indeed, some of the Australian International Brigadiers had previously battled the fascist New Guard on Australia's streets in the early 1930s. Others, meanwhile, returned from the Spanish civil war and immediately signed up to fight fascist Nazi Germany and Italy in the second world war once Australia joined.

The incredible stories - of why they volunteered, how they reached Spain, their experiences of combat, their unlikely survival and their deaths - deserve formal national remembrance. That most of those Australians who served in the International Brigades were of the sharp left - including many communists and unionists - doubtless contributes to the official amnesia about them.

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