IT was a conflict being fought hundreds of miles away by men whose language he did not speak in a country he’d never been to before.
Yet in February 1937 Sam Wild, a young steel erector who lived much of his life in Totley, Sheffield, lay riddled with four machine gun bullets on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War.
He was, it turned out, one of the lucky ones.
While more than half of the 600 Brits fighting against the Fascists in the infamous Battle of Jarama perished, Sam was dragged to safety.
In a makeshift Spanish hospital doctors managed to remove the bullets, patched him up and told him he should go home.
He refused. The cause, he said simply, was too important.
By May, just three months later, he was once more in the trenches of this strange land.
It is 75 years this summer since the start of the Spanish Civil War, and 75 years too since thousands of young men from across the world voluntarily risked their lives to go and fight the rising Fascist forces.
Among them were at least 26 South Yorkshire lads.
Little is known about them as a collective – other than that nine would perish out there – but this summer they will all be honoured at a special exhibition being held in Sheffield to mark the anniversary.
Among those whose stories will be told are Tommy James, who would later become a Freeman of Rotherham, Joe Albaya, whose Spanish father owned a sweet shop in Sheffield, and, of course, Sam Wild.
“They were all freedom-fighters,” says Mike Wild, of Kestrel Green, Sheffield, son of Sam, who passed away in 1983.
“These young men went over there because what was happening in Spain, and to the Spanish people, was wrong. Their democratically-elected government was being overthrown.
“The British government didn’t ask them to go – in fact the UK was part of a non-intervention agreement which made it illegal – but they did it anyway.”
It was a dark time in Europe.
Hitler’s Nazis were in power in Germany, Mussolini’s Fascists controlled Italy, and in the UK Oswald Mosley’s British Union Of Fascists were whipping up hatred on the streets, as proven when a 1934 rally at Sheffield’s City Hall descended into violence.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, in Russia Stalin was sending thousands of his opponents to the Gulag prison camps.
It was within such a global context, Spain’s General Francisco Franco launched his military coup in July 1936
“It was an illegal uprising by an anti-democratic group – and that’s why so many young idealists were disgusted by it,” says Mike, a retired lecturer who has spent years researching the period and visiting the battlefields. “It was a war of ideology.”
The Sheffield Peace Council, a socialist group set up to campaign for international disarmament, immediately began a programme of aid for the Republican government, which soon became an underground recruitment drive for possible fighters.
Among those who signed up was the 28-year-old Sam Wild, though in Manchester where he was then living, rather than Sheffield
A one-time navy man, Sam had become highly-politicised while unable to find work in the depression-hit 1930s, and was adamantly opposed to Fascism.
“After agreeing to fight, everything was sorted out for him,” says Mike, 71. “He was put on a midnight train to London, then shipped across to Paris. From there he caught the train to Perpignan and, after some very basic training, he was trucked out to the front lines.
“He signed up in December 1936 and was fighting by February.”
It was in this first battle – the Battle of Jarama, an infamously bloody conflict for control of the Valencia-Madrid road – that Sam was shot. While they attempted to cover a tactical retreat, his column was advanced on by Moorish mercenaries who peppered them with fire. Though the troops managed to repel the attack and eventually secured the road, Sam was left with two bullets in his arms and two in his left side.
“He was told at hospital to go home,” says Mike. “But that wasn’t an option. He was a strong man, and he was back in action again by May – and he actually ended up getting shot four more times before the war ended.”
It was perhaps this courage and tenacity which saw him promoted up the ranks until he commanded a battalion of 2,000 International Brigade troops.
He stayed in Spain for the duration of the conflict, travelling from front to front, and was eventually given the Spanish Medal of Valour.
“His untiring energy, efficiency and sangfroid gave an example of bravery to the whole battalion,” the dispatch read.
But Sam, who was born in Lancashire and moved to Sheffield after the Second World War, was not the only one who made a name for himself during the conflict.
There was also Tommy James, a Rotherham socialist, who went out in December 1936 and would later arrange for the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso to come and speak in Sheffield.
And Arthur Newsum, a Sheffield communist born in Grove Street, Pitsmoor, of whom little is known, other than that when he was killed while serving on the Jaen front, aged just 26, more than 200 people attended a memorial service in Sheffield.
Yet for all the efforts of Sam, Arthur and Tom, and indeed thousands more like them who volunteered for the International Brigade, the Republicans were eventually defeated.
Breaking the global non-intervention pact, Hitler sent his newly-created Luftwaffe – the same force which later devastated Sheffield during the 1940 Blitz – to support Franco.
The bombing raids on cities like Guernica eventually broke the morale of the Republican government while Fascist troops, supported by Italian armaments, inflicted increasingly bitter defeats on the ground.
Fearing defeat, the Republican government thanked the International Brigade and told them to leave Spain.
On February 27, 1939, the Franco regime was recognised as the new Spanish government.
The country remained a military dictatorship until 1977.
Any relatives or anyone with any information about South Yorkshire men who joined the International Brigade are asked to email Mike Wild on firstname.lastname@example.org with a view to being included in the upcoming exhibitions.
The South Yorks contingent
THOSE who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War did so illegally.
As such, few records were kept on who went out there to fight. However we do know the following 26 men all went from South Yorkshire. Unless stated they survived the war:
From Sheffield: M Aaronberg (killed at Jarama, 1937); Joe Albaya; Clem Beckett (killed at Jarama, 1937); A Cooper (unrecorded); Tommy Degnan; Frank Girling; James McDonald; Arthur Newsum (killed at Cordoba, 1937); Walter Ryder; Alfred Stirling; Frederick Sykes (killed at Jarama, 1937); George Turnhill (killed at Teruel, 1938); D Weston; H Windle; Sam Wild.
From Rotherham: Geoffrey Alstopp (killed at Caspe, 1938); Tommy James; Joseph Maiden; Chris Smith.
nFrom Doncaster: Hector Barber; Thomas Nottingham; H Tagg (killed at Jarama, 1937).
From Barnsley: William Brent (killed at Aragon, 1938); John Hallworth; Harold Horbury; Norman Mason (killed at Aragon, 1938); Stephen Ward.
The exhibitions and events
A main exhibition is to be held at Sheffield University’s Jessop West building from July 4 - 17. Called Antifascistas, it will look at the history of the conflict and its global consequences.
A complementary display, called Behind The Clenched Fist, will run over the same period at Sheffield’s Local Studies Library. This will focus on the South Yorkshire contingent who fought.
A rededication ceremony of the Olive Tree Memorial at Wortley Hall - dedicated to those from South Yorkshire who fought - will take place on Saturday, July 2.
A rededication ceremony of the Sheffield Memorial in the Peace Gardens will take place on Saturday, July 9, with a special display and music. A memorial concert at Sheffield Trades and Labour Club, in Duke Street, will take place the same Saturday.