The Parc du Cinquantenaire is a large slab of green in the Etterbeek district of Brussels. It is home to some museums, a lot of statues, and a triumphal arch. Foreigners like the park and crowd it out on Belgium’s rare sunny weekends.
Buried in a corner behind hedges and an overshadowing building is a shiny grey stone wall and a monument of an arching pilot reaching for the sky. The wall records all the Belgian airmen who have died in military service since the first biplane wobbled into the sky over the country back in 1908. In the section for the dead of the Second World War is the name R. de Hemricourt de Grunne.
The neatly carved white letters hide a story not many know. Comte de Hemricourt de Grunne was a war hero and aristocrat, but he was also one of only fifty Belgians who fought for General Franco’s right-wing nationalist rebels in the Spanish Civil War. Short, dark, and bushy browed, the Belgian playboy abandoned a life of idle luxury to fight a personal crusade against a foreign government in a foreign land.
Hi friends. I had a long chat with Angus of the WW2 podcast recently about Ethiopia, mercenaries, Haile Selassie, and my book Lost Lions of Judah. He trimmed it down and tidied it up and now you can hear us discussing the Italo-Ethiopian war in glorious stereo through iTunes, Facebook, as well as the WW2 website. It’ll probably turn up on Youtube some time soon.
Tune in and take a listen, then get your hands on the book itself [or amazon.com]. It’s about the crazy gang of adventurers who helped Ethiopia fight back against the Fascist Italian invasion of 1935.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a bunch of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.
The Spanish Civil War was a vortex which sucked in foreign volunteers from Europe and beyond, and gave them a chance to fight their own battles on someone else’s soil.
In 1936 General Francisco Franco and his fellow Army officers attempted to overthrow Spain’s left-wing Popular Front government. The Nationalist insurgents believed the country was speeding towards anarchy, atheism, and communism. The government and its supporters saw the rising as a fascist assault on democracy. Foreigners from all sides flocked to join the fighting.
Italian Fascists and exiled Italians Communists came face to face in the grounds of a country house during the battle of Guadalajara. Frenchmen from either side of the political divide battled to the death around Madrid. Right-wing Cambridge man Peter Kemp fought against communist fellow countrymen in the 1938 offensive that divided the Republic and took Franco’s forces to the Mediterranean. After the war he asked a surviving opponent what would have happened if he’d been captured.
‘We’d have shot you,’ came the reply. ‘Sorry‘.
Kemp assured him he would have done the same if the positions had been reversed.
Hi friends. This is a round up of stuff about my books and assorted matters i.e. a combination shill/boast. Let’s go.
An article I wrote for the Amberley website about Ethiopia and the Italian invasion is live. Check it out here. It’s a useful overview of the war and mercenary involvement. Also has a very nice photograph of Haile Selassie with book and Great Dane.
The BBC History website commissioned an article on my book, emphasising the role played by foreigners, both as soldiers and journalists. Article is done, checked, and lined up for publication. Should be live this month or the next. Keep an eye out or check back here – I’ll update when it appears. [Update: they’re taking their time. Hang in there].
In Franco’s International Brigades I mentioned a mysterious Cuban called Miguel Ferreras who fought for both Franco and Hitler then married into the Guinness family and became stepfather to a man immortalised in The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life. Quite a ride.
Now Paul Howard’s biography I Read the News Today, Oh Boy shines more light on Ferrera’s strange life and times through his relationship with stepson Tara Browne. Howard’s book is a great read that covers everything from swinging sixties London to Paris’ gay underworld. Definitely worth buying.
Ferrera’s stepson was a gilded youth born into money, privilege, and bohemia in Ireland. His mother was brewing heiress Oonagh Guinness. Browne was precociously advanced, quitting smoking at the age of eleven, and never getting more than a few year’s schooling. He got his own kind of education from his mother’s artistic friends.
In 1957 Oonagh married Cuban fashion designer Miguel Ferrera in New York. Oonagh had two ex-husbands and Ferrera quickly ditched his first wife (who’d given him an American passport and a few kids) when all that Guinness money walked into his showroom. Tara hated his new stepfather and so did most of Oonagh’s friends who considered Ferreras rude, provincial, and untalented as a designer. They didn’t know the half of it.
If you’ve ever read any Evelyn Waugh then you’ll know the name Basil Seal. He’s the roguish protagonist of Black Mischief (squeezing money out of an impoverished African nation), Put Out More Flags (squeezing money out of WW2), and Basil Seal Rides Again (squeezing money out … no wait, sabotaging his daughter’s wedding). He also makes a brief appearance in the amputated limb of Work Suspended.
Amoral, unclean, and charming, he’s a bit of a fantasy self-portrait for Waugh. But he began as a stinging caricature of Waugh’s real life enemy from Oxford University: Basil Murray.
A dissolute and rich Oxford graduate who found a cause in Liberal politics and anti-fascism, Murray is probably the only man to be murdered by a monkey during the Spanish Civil War.
Crusading Catholics, foreign Fascists, and Muslims with a grudge. The Spanish Civil War set right against left when centuries of grievances erupted into a bloody settling of accounts in 1936. The left-wing volunteers who came from around the world to fight for the Spanish government are well known but foreigners also joined the other side. I wrote a book about it. Here’s a FAQ.
Q. What was the Spanish Civil War?
A. In July 1936 a cabal of right-wing generals tried to overthrow the Spanish government by force. The generals believed the recently elected hard-left government was speeding the country towards anarchy and Marxism. The government saw the generals as Fascists. The overthrow was meant to be a short, sharp coup d’etat, over in a few days. Instead the country was plunged into a bloody and divisive Civil War that lasted three years.