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Uncomfortable Scavenger Hunt

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East Oxford: Location 3

South Park, Cowley, Oxford OX4 1DQ

A memorial commemorating a fight for democracy that grabbed international attention. 

An International fight for Democracy

At the bottom of South Parks, on the corner of St Clement's street, stands one of Oxford's most recent memorials, erected in 2017. 

 

The monument commemorates the volunteers of Oxfordshire who enrolled in the International Brigades to fight during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) on the side of the Republican army.

The war started with a de facto military coup which divided the country into two belligerent sections. By the end of the conflict in which half a million perished, and even more were permanently displaced, sometimes living as refugees in camps in other countries. The conflict ended with the victory of the nationalist forces in 1939, placing Spain under a dictatorship that would last until 1975.

Bronze Plaque on the Spanish Civil War volunteers memorial

Across the world, 50,000 men and women responded to the call from the Popular Front government of Spain and joined the International Brigade to defend democracy against the fascist military insurgency of General Franco. In the British Isles, about 2,500 volunteers joined the International Brigades. Today, we can find over 100 memorials to International Brigade volunteers across the UK.

Memorials to the International Brigades in the UK. Source: http://www.international-brigades.org.uk/ 

Oxford county also sheltered some of the 4,000 refugee children who had fled the deadly bombing of Guernica and the Basque region in 1937. People from across the social spectrum became involved in the care of the Basque children and the Mayor set up the ‘Spanish Relief Fund’.

The Oxford volunteers were both men and women, a mix of town and gown individuals, students and workers from diverse parts of the UK.

Guernica, painting by Pablo Picasso (1937) Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

To Highlight a Few:

  • Dorothy Collier, a surgeon, had studied at the Society of Oxford Home-Students (later St Anne’s College) and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, before graduating from University College Hospital, London and worked in San Pablo (Pau) Hospital in Catalonia.

  • Peter Ferguson was a 21-year-old student at Pembroke College, Oxford, who was reported killed in action in  April 1938, but arrived back in London in June, claiming to have lost his memory. 

  • Thora Silverthorne, the  daughter of Welsh miner, trained as a nurse at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary. She traveled to Spain with Spanish Medical Aid Committee in August 1936 and after her return founded the National Association of Nurses and was secretary of the Socialist Medical Association.

  • Herbet Fisher, after school days in Oxford, became the ceramics factory manager in the Potteries of W.T. Copeland & Sons, and died in 1938 as a result of wounds received in the Ebro offensive.

  • Alfred Smith, who lived at 65 High Street, worked at Morris Motors in Cowley, and joined the Commune de Paris Battalion at Lopera in 1936.

The story of the Spanish Civil War is one that has often been romanticized by journalists and writers, such as Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and it captured international public attention in the years leading up to the Second World War, a prelude to the rise of fascist authoritarian regimes.

 

As part of a non-interventionist pact, Britain was determined to remain neutral and all aid given (almost entirely to the Republicans) was on a voluntary basis. While fundraising for the memorial to be built, the International Brigades Memorial Trust (IBMT) Secretary pointed out that:

“The volunteers fought Franco, Hitler and Mussolini on the battlefields of Spain while their own government refused to help a fellow democracy. They warned that appeasement of European fascism would lead to another world war.”

The International Brigades Memorial is at the western tip of South Parks, at the intersection of Morrell Avenue and St Clement's Street.

You can read more about the Oxfordshire volunteers in No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 (2015), by Liz Wooley, Valery Rose, and Christopher Farman.

 

The memorial was designed by sculptor Charlie Carter, with a clenched fist gripping a scorpion symbolising the struggle for freedom and democracy against the tyranny of fascism. Its three-pointed star is the logo of the IBMT, and the bronze plaque reads this quote by C. Day Lewis:

“We came because our open eyes could see no other way.” 

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With friends or family? Discuss the following:

  • Although the conflict was in the 1930s, the memorial has only recently been erected in 2017. Why do you think this confict has become relevant again?

  • How do war memorials shape our memories of past conflicts?

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