Saturday, March 01, 2008

Postcards from the front

A couple of weeks ago I got an interesting e mail from Wellington-based historian Mark Derby. Derby's two great research passions are New Zealand and labour movement history. He earns a crust for the Waitangi Tribunal translating old Maori documents, and devotes large chunks of his leisure time to research projects on the history of the workers' movement and the left. Mark's e mail was related to one of these projects:

Hi Scott

Work on my book on NZ's response to the Spanish Civil War is progressing well and we're still on track for publication late this year. But I haven't managed to get anyone in Auckland to check out and perhaps copy or take notes from Bob Ford's postcards from the frontlines of the civil war, held in the Auckland Museum's manuscript collection.

I have, however, managed to contact various surviving friends of Bob Ford and his wife, who came to live here during the McCarthy era. One guy recalls Ford sorting through his possessions, coming across an old revolver from the civil war, and hurling it away over the back fence. My informant says he later searched long and hard, but unsuccessfully, for this remarkable souvenir of the conflict.

Are you able to check out these postcards for me? At least it would provide a fascinating post for your website, and some good images. (Ford's ID cards and other civil war militaria are among the museum's collection. Plus he was a nephew of the great film-maker John Ford - Stagecoach etc - and took small parts in a number of his uncle's films. He was apparently very tall and good-looking, and might even be identifiable in DVD versions.)

Mark got in touch with me for the first time after I published an issue of the literary journal brief that included a long-lost short story by the Spanish Civil War veteran Greville Texidor. I'm keen to speed up the publication of what promises to be a fascinating book, so I called the Robert Ford documents up from the depths of the museum library’s archive last week. Inside the large wide folder handed to me by a solemn archivist I found the identity card and service booklet the Republican government issued Ford in 1937, a 'Canard de Honor' booklet the same government awarded him in 1938, and twenty-one postcards he sent home to America in 1937 and 1938.

Opening the folder in which the documents were stowed, I was reminded of a scene early in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, where the daughter of a veteran of the International Brigades opens a suitcase full of artefacts which have not been touched for many decades, and is suddenly thrown from '90s England into the tumultuous Spain of the ‘30s. The black and white mug shot on Ford’s identity card, the unsteady lines of his handwriting, and the faded urgent slogans of the posters reproduced on his postcards all suddenly brought his world to life. Auckland's museum is famous for the carved and painted taonga on display in its Maori Court and Pacific galleries, but many people forget that our library archive contains equally remarkable treasures.

Ford’s identity card states that he fought with the 2c Section of the Mooney Battalion of the American Company of the International Brigades. His identification number is 38758, and his enlistment date is the 18th of March 1937. His address is given as 6860 Odin Ave, Los Angeles, his unmarried status is noted, his birth date is given as 12-1-1910, his occupation is listed as cinema worker (in one of his uncle’s films?), and his organisation is given as ‘PC Anti-fascista Americano’, with ‘PC’ presumably meaning the Communist Party of the USA.

There are some interesting variations between the identity card and the service booklet. In the booklet, Ford is listed simply as a member of the ‘Brigadas Internationales’. His place of birth is listed as New York, his place of residence is Los Angeles, his profession is ‘Artista’, and his ‘Partido Politico’ is simply ‘Antifascista’. The date of Ford’s enlistment in the Brigades is given as the fifth of May, 1937, and the date of his discharge is the twenty-second of October 1938.

The same curious photo of Ford appears on both the identity card and the service booklet. Ford is hunched forward and looking downwards, with a dazed expression on his face. He has a long, angular face and a full head of hair. The white folder held a ‘Canard de Honor’ that appears to have been given to all the International Brigaders when they left behind a forlorn Republican Spain at the end of 1938 (perhaps the Republican government was too poor to mint medals, by then?).
Some of the twenty-one postcards appear to have been sent home on their own; others were clearly inserted along with letters which do not appear in Ford’s file. This makes establishing their chronology unexpectedly difficult. In some cases, individual postcards are dated and feature messages with clearly marked beginnings and endings. In other cases, though, they feature miscellaneous jottings, or what appears to be the overspill of a letter or a postcard which does not appear in Ford’s file. There are several ‘serial messages’, written over several cards. Whenever the recipients of a card are identified, they are named as ‘Bill and Nana’. Occasionally Ford asks after other family members, especially his ‘old man’.

The fronts of the postcards are all based on propaganda posters produced by the Republican government. The style of the images is various – colourful, simplified paintings, black and white cartoon caricatures, and historical paintings of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon are all reproduced alongside Republican slogans. Some of the images are famous - the ‘Los Nacionals’ painting of Franco and his henchmen in an uncomfortably small boat, for example. Ford clearly had an intense interest in the images on the postcards. He often interprets them to his readers, and several times talks about wanting to see them preserved for the future.

It was not possible for me to construct anything like a narrative of Ford’s experiences in Spain from the postcards. The ‘story’ they tell is discontinuous, and dwells more on the exigencies of the weather, the slowness of the mail, shortages of cigarettes, and other petty miseries of a soldier’s life than on the great events that were taking place in Spain in 1937 and 1938. The mail of the International Brigaders was of course subject to censorship, and Ford at times hints broadly that there are many things he cannot talk about. Ford appears to have been based in or near Madrid, but there is no clue in the cards themselves as to what role he played in the epic defence of the city in 1937-38. He does describe a bombardment which landed on Madrid in one card, but this occurred when he was off-duty.

We do get some fascinating glimpses of Ford the man, even if we don’t learn much about Ford the soldier. In a letter written on February the 4th, 1938, he tells us that Madrid is a ‘small town’ but that he likes it very much. There is one problem, though:

The Spaniards will never get used to my size. They turn around in the street and stare at me. But what can I expect [sic].

Putting this remark together with Ford’s very odd pose in the photo on his identity card, I can’t help but feel that he was abnormally tall, and rather sensitive about it. If Ford appeared as an extra in some of his Uncle’s famous films, then it might not be too difficult to pick him out!

Ford appears to have begun a serious relationship in Spain: in one of the postcards he responds to questions about when he will return from the country by saying that, even if the war were not a factor, he would not return for some time ‘for personal reasons’. His view of Spanish society appears to have been positive – ‘the Spanish are a swell people, and once we have finished with the fascists it will be one of the best countries in the world’ he says in one card.

Ford’s spelling is very bad, his language is informal, and his sentences are often ungrammatical. He uses colloquialisms like ‘swell’, often begins his sentences with conjunctions, and almost never uses abstract nouns. He doesn’t, in short, write like an intellectual (some would say this is no bad thing, of course!). Ford clearly does have a strong interest in visual art, but his interpretations of the postcards he sends are not especially sophisticated. There are no allusions to either the modernist painters who influenced the new propaganda art or the Old Masters like Goya who painted some of the classic images on the postcards.

What can we say about Ford’s politics? In a letter of March the 4th, he talks about the visit of Paul Robeson to Spain, and laments the fact that he did not get to see the great singer performing for Republican troops. Ford goes on to praise Robeson:

I am glad that he came to Spain. I believe that he is a communist, and if that is true it is a good thing. We need men like him in the revolutionary movement, as he is both popular and intelligent. In another letter home, Ford asks about a family member or acquaintance, whose name is unfortunately not legible:

Are the folks still Maine? If J[ ? ] is back what is her latest ideas [sic] on Spain? Does she still think we are a gang of priest killers? I don’t think there is much use in talking to people like her. She has a lot of funny ideas that she’ll never get rid of.

Ford was clearly a courageous and deeply committed man, but I’m not sure if we can say he was especially politically sophisticated. Several times he tells ‘Nana’ and ‘Bill’ that he doesn’t need to inform them about general events in Spain, because they can read ‘the papers’ in America. We know, of course, that media coverage of the war in Spain was intensely political, and papers often neglected to cover important events because of their ideological positions. Ford’s advice seems, then, a little naïve. I don’t think that a very ‘ideological’ Communist would have such a sanguine attitude towards the ‘bourgeois’ media!

But I don’t think that the fact that Ford wasn’t a great writer or political theorist makes his postcards uninteresting. The fact that he wasn’t a Hemingway or a George Orwell perhaps means that his observations are more in tune with the viewpoints of the International Brigades rank and file. And I think Ford's interpretations of the meaning of the images on the postcards he sent home are important because of their contemporaneity. They aren’t the much-removed analyses which some PhD student cooks up in a research library – they are the thoughts of a man in the thick of the action. They show us the ideas that a young American was prepared to cross the world, fight, and potentially die for seventy years ago. That's why I've been happy to transcribe Ford's messages and send them on to Mark Derby. A historian who is immersed in his subject is often able to see the significance of even a trivial observation or quirk of expression, and to construct a narrative where others see only a confusion of random details. After decades in storage, Mark Ford's passionate and enigmatic postcards from the front deserve to be read again.

There's no denying, either, the widespread fascination that the Spanish Civil War continues to arouse amongst people who know the conflict only through books and films. After I came downstairs from the library archives I got into a conversation with a Basque couple who had decided to sneak in a visit to the museum before the end of their holiday in New Zealand. They had been fascinated to discover a place called Basque Park near the centre of Auckland, and wanted to know about the origins of the name; rather than fall into an embarrassed silence, I started raving on about Robert Ford's postcards. I told them about one card in particular, which showed the Republican flag overlaid with the banners of the Catalan anarchists and the Basque Country, in a display of anti-fascist unity.

I told the Basques how I'd momentarily mistaken their flag for a Union Jack, before remembering that their country had been a key part of the struggle against Franco and fascism. The Basques were amazed to learn that a museum in New Zealand held such a rare image, and even more amazed and impressed to learn about the young Kiwi men and women who defied their own government to travel across the world to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s. Fortunately for me the visitors forgot all about the puzzle of Basque Park, pulled out a little video camera, and insisted I repeat the story of Robert Ford and the Kiwi connection with Spain's war on film.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesnt surprise me that Ford would have seen the war pretty much as did the bourgeois media. Most went to Spain to stop fascism and defend 'democracy'. Only a tiny group of Trotskyists saw it as a fight between fascism and socialism.

Pierre Broue has a very clear account of the situation in 'Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution'.

9:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

What there were 2 Trotskyists who saw that? What about the Votskyists and the Phlebotskyists and the Looneyists?

It's good to hear that someone went there who felt 'in his bones' that there was something "rotten in the state of Denmark" - whatever that was - and who went there because he had courage and he cared.

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Ford would have seen the war pretty much as did the bourgeois media.'

What? The bourgeois media saw it as a fight between Christian civilisation and Bolshevist barbarism.

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ford was on the Republican side and would have assumed that his family were reading the views of the correspondents on their side of the fight. Most were pro-Republican.
There is an interesting paper on the 3 reporters on the NYT which showed that it tried to 'balance' its coverage.

12:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard you should actually read the Broue article before you start counting bones.

12:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Only a tiny group of Trotskyists saw it as a fight between fascism and socialism.'

What about the anarchist Freinds of Durutti and non-Trotskyist members of POUM? Didn't many of them die for defying the order to break-up collective farms and turn factorie back to employers? This one true church model of history favoured by some Trotskyists is wearing.

8:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True Church hasnt read Broue either.
OK I'll summarise it for you.
Trotsky was for the revolutionary masses, and against their misleaders, the POUM, who preached socialism but joined the Government, the anarchists who preached revolution but joined the Catalan government.
The most important point for me in Broue's analysis is that Trotsky vigorously advocated joining the Socialist Party youth, like in France, to win them over to revolution. And he was for the armed insurrection led by the anarchist workers, and sold out by their leaders and the POUM.
But don't take my word for it...

2:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'the anarchists who preached revolution but joined the Catalan government'

Not the Friends of Durutti though. They were against joining the government. This is a well-known historical fact. So were the left POUMistas. So were the Bordigistas. So why leave them out of your One True Church? Do only Trotskyists get to go to heaven?

2:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anarchists can sometimes get into purgatory...

6:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I read Orwell's book "Homage to Catalonia" the other day - that is excellent - but am not sure if I want to read a book about the Spanish Civil war - I try to avoid reading about wars lately...quite honestly I find such subjects very disturbing (literally I have bad (often terrifying) nightmares if I see a war film or read a book about war etc so - well what am I doing on here..hmm...

The most fascinating thing for me in Orwell's book was his (account of his) experience of being shot - what it was like to be shot...
I had a (fairly) good idea (via Orwell) of the murky politics behind it all - though I suppose I should read a more extensive book on the war itself - I really don't know very much about the war at all.

The First World War I have even less knowledge of except it was vast butchery...not even sure why it happened or who was fighting who..or why...does anyone know - or care - after all these years? Anyone for a discussion of the Peloponesian Wars?

The futility of wars.

But thanks for that link I will check it when I have more time...

10:58 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I'm not interested in One True Church. I'm interested in school.
The Broue article is not a book Richard. Its a couple of thousand words. It analyses what was behind the same events that Orwell wrote about as Bourgeois Democrat.
It specifically mentions the Friends of Durruti as not sellouts. It speaks about the Communist Youth of the POUM. I referred to those who 'talked' revolution but then sold out to the popular front, not the revolutionary elements or the militant masses.
The only real question at issue is whether or not Trotsky's politics were correct or not. What do you say about that?

4:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I'll have a look at the "Broue article" - I don't know much about Trotsky - Lenin was great leader of revolutionary Russia, Mao of China.

My main interest in Orwell's book (that rings true about revolution and internal politics and so on.
But it depends what one focuses on - when reminded that the First World War was over James Joyce replied:

"Oh, I heard there was a war on"!

10:43 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dave - I realised that I know very little about the SCW so I have been doing some research and also reading a bit about Trotsky ... my History is patchy at best.

I remember years ago being very keen on "Revolution" (at least as an idea!) etc and I carried a book about Che Guevara around but I never read it - I just liked the (rather romantic) idea of him - I read bits and pieces about the Cuban revolution though...years since I read much about the Russian revolution also - but from what I read in Homage to Catalonia Orwell is pretty good - I realise now that the POUM was inspired by Trotksy or influenced (but it was not "Trotskyist") - even in the Wikipedia Stalin doesn't come out well - and it is reported that British Intelligence helped to fly Franco around the place to help him...interesting...I had such blank on the SCW that I didn't reaslise that Franco was the one who rebelled against the Government and I kept getting mixed up between the Republicans and Nationalists - I thought the latter were the socialists etc...this (somewhat) because usually it the "left" who rebel"....

I need to know more to read the article - it seemed a bit abstract but the book it introduces looks interesting.

Of course Stalin etc were not interested in real revolution.
Not sure where that places Trotksy - I will delve around and do some thinking.

Interesting the things Maps digs up...
So far it is very clear that the Spanish Civil War was far more than a civil war as such (or 'only') and was perhaps crucial historically - more than I had thought myself even after reading Orwell...who is pretty good on the subject - all things considered - including my own lack of knowledge in this area... History was not something I studied much as a young man - my area was in technical fields.

1:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Only a tiny group of Trotskyists saw it as a fight between fascism and socialism.'

wot about the friends of durutti?


11:47 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I had good look at that poster -it is beautifully designed.

11:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. Thanks to Maps, and to Mark for inspiring the research. And to Richard, Dave, etc. for the discussion. I lived for four and a half years in Barcelona (78-82) after visits in 76 and 77. I suspect that the comment about the "tiny group" was referring to a "tiny group" OF AMERICANS, as it would be patently wrong and silly if one was talking about Spain, where a good proportion of those fighting on the republican side were fighting for something more than (parliamentary) "democracy"
Outside Spain, few people had much idea of the revolutionary and nationalist (Catalan and Basque) aspects of the war. The Stalinist Third International did nothing to enlighten people. Remember this was the period where the Stalinists were in desperate "popular front" mode, and counter-revolutionary in their attitude to Spain. They pushed the idea of "democracy" v. "fascism" and of course, with the mentality which brought us the Moscow show trials, portrayed revolutionaries in Spain as fascist agents or dupes of fascists. Com. Parties around the world went along with that, and all kinds of "left" journalists like Hemingway played along.
Orwell's book and the perspective it conveyed had virtually no influence until well after the Civil War was ended.

Re Trotsky's analysis? Right? Wrong? Er, we are talking about a historic war here and not a chess problem!
How many of the millions who died in that war would care about the correctnesss of Trotsky' analysis? For all my fascination with the Spanish war and revolution, I cannot for a moment justify the horrific slaughter using any ideology whatsoever.


PS Beevor's recent book "Battle of Spain" is excellent.

PPS I was puzzled by the reference to the Catalan anarchist flag. The only anarchist flags that I've seen were determinedly not nationalist, whether Catalan or Spanish. The FAI which appears on many anarchist flags refers to the "Iberian Anarchist Federation", which is a neat way of not referring to the Spanish state. Maps, could you reproduce that postcard?

11:29 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for those details Arihi. Skyler is actually going to write a dissertation based partly on the cards - she already did some research on the Civil war for a Pol Science paper last year - so I'm hoping she'll scan the lot of 'em. Mark has sent me some more info on Ford which I'll post, too. Perhaps Robert Ford was simply wrong about an anarchist flag superimposed on Basque and Republican flags? The Spanish Civil War seems like an infinitely large onion - I think I'd be afraid to research it seriously, so complex and multi-faceted does it seem...

12:57 am  
Blogger Richard said...


I started reading about the Spanish civil war - even though I studied Spanish once (not very successfully) I hadn't really read much on the war..I did read Hemmingway as boy and recently Orwell - although I read most of his books as a teenager I didn't realise he was political until more recently (I wasn't political until I was about 21 or so)!

Trotsky is also someone I "neglected" - I read about the Russian revolution (years ago) but I have to admit I simply accepted the negative view (of most politicos at the time) that Trotsky had stuffed up at Brest-Livosk or wherever it was - Iaccepted that most Trotskyists were MI5 or CIA agents or agents provocateurs which was one of the line is I heard in the 70s - I also had the impression that Trotksy was just another long line of them who was killed by an ice pick - one shouldn't be killed by an ice pick if one is to be taken seriously by History!!

Meanwhile, since the 70s, the various left wing parties have further an further fragmented, become even more demoralised, corrupt and or confused; alhtough there seems to be an upsurge in enthusiasm amongst certain idealist young people...

I think - it seems logical to me that many people would see the war as a struggle of fascism v socialism etc - even Picasso probably saw that. It was also inevitably a civil war as revolutionary situations tend to be...and, as you say, they are wars are also.

Could fascism have been stopped, an some human progress made, and what can we learn from the 'genuine' Marxists (and many are deeply sincere and committed), (including Trotskyists) - certainly the Soviet Union was already quite revisionist (possibly even pro Capitalist by the 1930a).

I suspect that they and the British Govt. (I think the British and other capitalist nations were secretly backing the Nazis to destroy communism (in the USSR and Spain or wherever else)) - but the fly in the ointment was Hitler - who looked impressive to them probably, but who turned out to be an idiot) worked together secretly with so-called Axis capitalist powers to make sure socialism didn't happen and that certain elements in the "Communist Parties" assisted in preventing revolution, much as the French Communist Party also betrayed the left in the 1968 French Revolution.

I am the one who plays Chess...very few chess problems have a single solution BTW!

4:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Re Trotsky's analysis? Right? Wrong? Er, we are talking about a historic war here and not a chess problem!
How many of the millions who died in that war would care about the correctnesss of Trotsky' analysis? For all my fascination with the Spanish war and revolution, I cannot for a moment justify the horrific slaughter using any ideology whatsoever."

I think the point is whether millions who died would not have had the socialist revolution succeeded. Trotsky's program and that of the Friends of Durutti was betrayed by a relatively small number of treacherous or misguided leaders. The ideology of bourgeois counterrevolution is a 1000 times more bloody than that of socialist revolution.

1:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting back. I do look forward to seeing all of those postcards.


8:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fear our discussion will not be productive as I am a pacifist and you clearly accept that revolutionary war is worth the cost in lives ("You can't make an omelette etc.).
Like Richard, I was impressed by Orwell's description of being shot. I was also impressed by his description of seeing his first dead fascist, who in death was simply a nineteen year old boy, as he would have been when he was conscripted from his Castillian village, or when he joined up with a Falangist idealism not all that different from the idealism of the young POUMists he was to be killed by. War, whether revolutionary or bourgeois, reduces individual people to labels and that reification is as deadly as the traditional dehumanisation of the enemy by warmongers.
And as for the violence ending with the revolution, I will not mention Krondstadt but refer you to Anatole France's "Les Anges ont Soif" which shows how revolutions devour their own just like any bourgeois war.


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