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.
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. 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 survivor 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.
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.
You can now read Franco’s International Brigades [or amazon.com]on your Kindle. The ebook version is available from Amazon as of today. It has a nice new cover and some light revision to the previous Hurst edition text.
Remember – if you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon you’ve got an account there. And that means you can review any book on the site. So if you feel like telling the world how much you enjoyed Franco’s International Brigades go right ahead. It will really help to raise the book’s profile.
For all those completists out there, this ebook edition has some additional material about Australian Catholic reactions to the Spanish Civil War and an updated total for Greek volunteers in Franco’s forces. The photograph selection is slightly different too.
For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my books in paperback or ebook:
Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com]
Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World [or amazon.com]