The following is dedicated to the memory of Morris Miller, a brave soldier and my second cousin, killed in Spain in 1938. It is a work under construction, subject to constant tinkering, the addition of new information and the subtraction or modification of information.
Corbera d’Ebre, Catalonia – the Sierra de Pándols where Morris Miller was killed can be seen through the gaping entrance of this house destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. Modern Corbera is visible below. Franco left the village destroyed as an enduring message. Today, the ruins of Corbera are the site of an art and poetry installation dedicated to liberty and peace.
Morris Miller was born in Hull in 1916, and killed in Spain in 1938. He was born amidst the Great War, grew up in a British city wracked by political violence and died on a hillside overlooking Gandesa, Spain, fighting the nationalists led by Francisco Franco. His story had been lost. I set out to recover as much as possible.
Miller was a first-generation British citizen. Miller’s parents, immigrants from Latvia, had arrived in Britain in what became a controversial wave of Jewish immigration from the Baltic at the dawn of the 20th century. With one progrom recently concluded and every possibility of another in the immediate future, there were plenty of young Jews willing to take their chances on the other side of the North Sea, in the refuge of Northern England.
And so three brothers made the journey together and settled in Hull, where two became rich, and a third did not prosper, other than delivering a precocious son.
Hull was in the front line of the violent confrontations between the two dictatorial ideologies of Europe. Today, it is on the fringe, although there is quite a good university there, where Philip Larkin wrote beautifully in the library. Then it was a turbulent city and one in which the status of immigrants – Jewish, in this case – was hotly contested.
Hull was then an important port with several principle docks and a grand Victorian docks building presiding over wharves busy with timber, general cargo and passengers. Like all port cities, there are syndicates, rackets and criminals. In Hull there was also the ingredient of intense politics. Then there are immigrants. And there are those who hate them, never more so than in the run-up to the war when Hull was a major centre for para-Nazi black shirts loyal to Edward Moseley, the posh (6th baronet) Führer-in-waiting, still almost respectable then, backed by the Daily Mail.
For the immigrant Russian Jews, Hull was a natural first stop, with frequent ships from Libau in Latvia. Hull was the entrepôt of the baltic timber trade – a trade which enriched some but not all members of the Miller family, who anglicised their name on arrival. For many of the disembarking Jews, Hull was not always a final destination. Many moved on to America. But Morris’s family settled in Hull itself. This turned out to be an opportunity for some in the family and a destiny for another.
Blackshirts salute their posh leader – “a much maligned and much misunderstood political giant of his era,” according to the Daily Mail.
Morris grew up in a contested environment. Hull was conflicted. It was and is a place of bruising politics. It is a place that has spawned Big Man politics (John Prescott). It is rather tribal. Morris’s immigrant family was divided, too, his own father poor, but his two uncles and rich, their sons headed for glittering futures via medical school – the classic road to respectability. So he was in a place not quite as boring as provincial England could be. Morris Miller lived between the rich and the poor, in a city of political violence, and he was a communist.
This path led to a conclusion that 72 years later seems pretty easy to mock and not just because the communist trope turned out to be just as ridiculous and vicious as any of the others. He must have known he was very likely to be killed. His death did not retard the advance of European fascism for one second.
Yet Morris Miller was a communist to his bone marrow. When the call went out in the Party for volunteers for Spain, Morris needed no urging.
Blackshirts patrolled the local streets, posing for the cameras – throwing up their arms in Nazi salutes. The compulsion to confront fascist and Nazi movements in Europe was not yet government policy. Perhaps the only organisation ready to stand up against the fascists, or so it would appear to Morris, in the days before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Morris was a slight figure but it wasn’t the size of the boy in the fight that seemed to determine his combativeness, but the size of the fight in the boy. Although his parents had no money, he attended the elite Hymer’s College, doubtless with cheques from Uncle Wolf. Here he learned French and German. He yearned to go to university but without the money, could not afford it.
The struggle took over his life. by day he worked a menial job in a pharmacy. But at night, and at weekends, he dedicated himself as a communist.
The atmosphere of Morris’s youth was poisonous. Morris’s generation, the children of immigrants, were not widely welcomed in Britain. “Dirty Russian Jews” some called them. Snobby German Jews in Manchester and London were appalled by the intense rurality of their so-called brethren from the Jewish settlements across Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Questions were asked in Parliament and a Royal Commission investigated.
But the violence of the confrontation would only escalate. In Hull, there was soon organised anti-semitic opposition, in the form of Sir Oswald Mosley’s black shirts, and a celebrated battle between them and the reds, on Corporation Fields in July 1936. Morris would have been there.
Some of the Jews who came to Hull kept moving west, to Liverpool, then to America and through Ellis Island to New York, Jersey and further west – a few even to California, when there was no place farther to go, and then some of these Jews invented Hollywood, somehow creating thereby much of the underlying mythology of modern American identity. So this was not as stupid a cohort as imagined and Britain lost a lot of talent with the persecutions.
Jewish communities in Britain – especially those of the Russian immigrants – marginalised, isolated, but not all poor. Some of the newcomers made a lot of money – and few more made more than Uncle Wolf. He was a millionaire timber merchant, a miller of wood not flour. He employed a large number of men in his workshops, where he supplied the innovative new material of plywood to all of Britain. Wolf Miller was perfectly positioned in Hull, with a reliable supply of wood from Scandinavia and the Baltics. He had a talent for making a lot of money.
At more or less the opposite end of the spectrum was Wolf’s nephew, Morris Miller, son of the unworldly brother, for whom business was a impenetrable mystery.
While Wolf was making a fortune, his nephew Morris grew up in a febrile atmosphere, ripe with antisemitism and political confrontations, and although he wanted to be a journalist, ended up working in a chemist’s shop.
In 1927, Wolf and Morris separated explosively. Morris walked out on Wolf during a family meal at the Wolf family mansion, after a bitter exchange of words. Morris called his rich uncle Wolf a “dirty capitalist.”
“If I am a dirty capitalist you can stop eating my dirty capitalist food,” replied Wolf.
Morris stormed out of the house. He was never seen by anyone in his family again. It was an open secret that he had gone to Spain as a volunteer in the communist-Republican army, fighting the Nationalist-fascists. This was dangerous and illegal.
His own cousins had even tried to stop him, following him to Paris in a futile mission to get him back.
But Morris would have been past Béziers by then, on his way to the international training camp where he was lucky to get a rifle, and then into combat, in Caspe,in the Aragon offensive, in March 1938. The Republican army was already exhausted and on the defensive. Mill, however, seemed to have acquitted himself well. A witness recalls that on one of his capers, he was chased around a tree by armed enemy soldiers, but escaped, albeit wounded. Withdrawn from combat to recover from his wound, he got the chance to practice journalism as a correspondent for the International Brigade’s newspaper, and to engage in the dynamics of the party itself. A communist to the bone marrow, Miller was a founder of the activist communist movement, sthe intention of which was to produce pure, perfect, ideologically-driven political soldiers.
This sounds romantic but it must not be forgotten that at the time , mythologised as the communist volunteers have been, the party cadres were committing torture and murder with seeming impunity. There is nothing to link Morris Miller with any of this – except…. he was there.
Meanwhile, for anyone looking for further evidence of Communist Party perfidy, of which Morris was a witting or unwitting part, Hitler and Stalin were doing the deal that was to be vigorously supported by communist cadres all over Europe, and which led to the dismemberment of Poland and worse.
Even as Morris Miller was throwing himself into the struggle, it was too late for the International Brigades, doomed by the world’s indifference and Stalin’s cynicism. Even today, many Spanish people take sides in the conflict. I think it is a pity that both sides did not lose – although today, almost 75 years later, it seems that both sides have lost, even if it is true that the poisonous ideologies of the nationalists and republicans have been buried by a messy social democracy.
Morris Miller was soon back in action. After a spring and summer in 1938 hanging around brainy Americans, in which can can imagine that the party discipline was maintained despite all the evidence, Morris went into battle on Hill 481, filing a vivid account to the Volunteer for Liberty newspaper in which the fatuousness of the communist-Republican military campaign is exposed to eternity. Then across the valley to Hill 666, which was even worse. These were soldiers sent to their deaths not even provisioned with water, while commissars, literally like the Pigs in Animal farm, lived it up behind the lines, leaving ordinary soldiers to fight for scraps.
But I knew very little of this before setting out in search of Morris. Seventy years later, I am trying to reconstruct the story of Morris Miller. I know little. What made Morris Miller go to Spain? What happened to him when he got there? Why would a slight young man throw himself into battle? These questions intrigued me. But as I began my researches, it was at first to encounter disappointment. His journals were irrecoverable. But then I had some lucky breaks. And found out more than I had bargained for.
Research on the ground
It is a cool late Spring day on the southern mountain frontier of France and Spain. I am on a horse, catching a flavour of what this crossing may have been like for the young British, American, German and Polish volunteers. As a reconstruction, this exercise is hypothetical because I can find no trace of how Morris himself actually effectuated the crossing. He might have had a horse or donkey. Or he probably walked. My guides are Gitanes. Even with a tough Roma pony, I can attest that it is a rough trip – uncomfortable and sometimes frightening.
The French side is a savage garrigue with narrow, ill-marked trails, loose rocks, deep drops. As our caravan crossed the frontier, my mobile phone chirped with a text message from Vodafone, welcoming me to Spain. This was only a momentary distraction from a saddle that seemed to have been made from scrap carpet and rebar. A cairn marked the spot of the frontier. We descended a gentler path, opening into pastures, past some fine cattle, to a finca and a lunch of thick red wine and grilled meat.
Morris may not have been exactly here, but this smuggler’s trail between France and Germany was certainly a route used during the war, when all manner of people and things were moving covertly between the two countries. One can imagine that is is still a route for people and things that do not wish to be exposed to official channels.
In the autumn of 1936, comrades from all over the world were making the tricky journey across France, down to Béziers and Perpignan, and then making their way to Spain to assemble at International Brigade camps where they were trained to join the conscripted army of the Republicans in the fight against the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco.
Barcelona was in turmoil, the republic besieged. There was not just one civil war. In Barcelona, the Soviet-dominated communist party was taking control of the Republic. Communist militants were fighting a collateral war with the Trotskyists and anarchists. Meanwhile, the Francists advanced with their vanguard of Moroccans flown into the conflict by the Luftwaffe.
The British and French governments sat on their hands under the cover of a non-intervention pact while the Germans and Italians brazenly aided the Nationalists and the Russians looted the gold of the Spanish national bank in return for clapped out munitions from the great war.
What subsequently played out is documented in ten thousand places. This was a war that attracted not just fighters, but writers, poets, artists, photographers, miscellaneous adventurers and war tourists. Historians still feud over these events. The International Brigaders are memorialised as heroes in the fight against fascism, but the commisars were as ruthless as Franco, and not as smart. Even today, the lingering bitterness breaks through with acts of vandalism against the memorials of both sides. Gravesites are defaced.
The battlefields with their scraps of bone and rusted remains of mortar shells is is not the Spain the tourists see. This is a deeper, rural spain where farmers make wine and oil and grow citrus and melon in enormous tunnels of plastic. Trucks from all over Europe come to pick up the produce but in the rugged mountains that overlook the fertile valleys, there are still places nobody goes other than the most determined historians wearing heavy boots. Here you can find pits of bones, collected by Franco’s men from the hillsides, and tossed into folds in the grounds. Their cleansing of the battlefields missed plenty. Human remains and shell fragments litter the orchards and vineyards.
Looking back on this war, one wishes that both sides could have lost and in a sense, they did. Seventy years after Morris came here to fight, modern Catalonia, especially the great city of Barcelona, the last redoubt, is with all its contradictions and enduring bitterness, mostly a prosperous, peaceful, civilised and youthful place.
There is a republican sensibility even if there is a distant king. Barcelona is like a smaller version of Berlin, with beaches and sun.
It attracts artists, workers and tourists from all over Europe and beyond. The young do not remember fascism and the old would mostly prefer to forget it. For all its difficulties, Spain has been fully part of Europe for a long time now. There seems little time for memory. The airport and sea port of Barcelona are enormous. Lorries thunder down its motorways. Catalan is spoken openly and proudly. Catalan independence is seriously discussed (but this is like Quebec – they have almost as much independence as anyone could want, and everything is inside the EU in any case.
In Catalonia today the ruling elite boast of their common sense. And it is amazingly civilised. Morris’s story is firmly in the past, and chiseling it out has involved repeated trips to the field and the archives. The story of Morris has also exposed another story which is the hideous behaviour of communist cadres in Spain and the communist secret police who lived in opulent villas behind the lines with batmen and servants, and who killed and tortured the innocent just as Franco did. There is no point in belabouring a counter-factual in which the communists could have won the vivil war in Spain, but as to whether it would have been followed by purges and killings, there can be little doubt. The communists were much better at exterminating their leftist ideological enemies than at beating the fascists.
In this world of the Party, a picture emerges of Morris Miller as an activist communist soldier, not merely a volunteer in the XVth International Brigade, British Battalion, but a comrade identified by the party as a prospective cadre. Miller was a leader in the communist activist movement – a front that aimed to create a breed of politically militant super soldiers. Miller was a junior political officer in this now overwhelmingly communist army. But he was more than a junior commissar but an active soldier, and he threw himself into the front line of the fight.
After arriving in Spain, Morris Miller would have been processed through the training camp at Tarazona, near Albacetes and have been ready for action by early 1938. After very basic training, he was wounded almost as soon as he arrived on the battlefield in Caspe in early 1938. He later described this scrap to the Welsh volunteer Billy Griffiths.
That summer, he returned to the battlefield again, in the forefront of the fighting on the southwest side of the great Ebre (Ebro) river southwest of Barcelona. This was supposed to be a game-changing offensive in which the Republican army would cross the river on pontoons, and attack the Nationalists, disrupting their advance on Barcelona and perhaps turning the course of the war. In fact, the mission was doomed from the start, as an ill-equipped army lacking logistics and air cover was thrown forward just to be chewed to pieces by the Nationalists. Morris Miller would notsurvive this fight and neither did the Internatioal Brigade which was disbanded soon after and its members repatriated, seen off from Barcelona with the promise from La Passionata that they would not be forgotten. As they are not.
Miller’s greatest achievement as a journalist is to have left a vivid account of the military disaster – albeit one wrapped in party ideology. But the facts that emerge from his account add to the damning weight of evidence that condemns the communist leadership and exposes the futile sacrifice of lives in a hopeless mission.
As the battle started, the communist leadership of this offensive at first persuaded themselves or believed their own propaganda that they had got off to a good start. Franco allowed the Republicans to cross the river while preparing his own revenge. The Republicans asembled in great camps and played football with the locals. Then they advanced on the Republican artillery and air force in a manoeuvre that ranks with the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Their soldiers lacking even water at times, the Republicans were cut to pieces by Nationalist artillery and aircraft, directed by Franco himself from a nearby mountain top.
Miller’s account of this battle in the Volunteer for Liberty, the newspaper of the by then utterly totalitarian International Brigade, when read with hindsight, is highly revealing of a disastrous strategic and tactical situation, albeit the communists could not admit it. The article can be criticised as nakedly propagandistic spin but the Republican military disaster is forcefully there, too.
On Hill 481, the communist leadership of the Republican army threw their soldiers into an un-winnable position. Forced off the mountain, the Republicans repeated their mistake. They fought next from the even more impossible position on the hill of the devil – the notorious Hill 666. This is today a heavily wooded hill alongside of the modern road from Gandesa to the coast. There is a small, unmarked turn-off where you can climb the mountain, eventually penetrating out of ear-shot of the heavy trucks laden with the commerce of the region’s huge market gardens and orchards.
The hill is scarred by ancient shells. Much land has slipped from ancient terraces, now overgrown. The idea was to get behind the hill but once there there was little they could so except absorb punishment. They didn’t have the airpower or artillery to counter the nationalists. Somehow they had persuaded themselves that this was how they would win the war. There was nothing glamorous about the death of Morris. One of 526 British volunteers who did not return from Spain, he was one minute there, one minute gone, cut down by a shell fragment on the lee side of the hill. Far from offering protection, the flinty rock of the hill made it an ideal place to drop bombs and shells. It is impossible to dig proper trenches or fortifications, though there are scrapes into the hillside that might afford a little shelter. Anyone in the open was asking for trouble. This was essentially the last stand of the Republicans on the great natural frontier of Catalonia. Here is where the war was finally lost in the culminating disaster of the Republican military campaign. This is where the communist party sacrificed its bravest and most militant young men, for essentially nothing. I am not sure this was very glorious.
And this is where the story of Morris Miller came to an end, in a wilderness of oak and thyme, shattered rocks and if you look hard enough, pieces of bone and shells. There is a small monument near the place he was cut down. I have come to find it, and pause for a second at the place where he died. It is very quiet up here and really because this is a cemetery.
Setting out to discover what I could about Morris I was not optimistic.
Morris was young. there were no personal papers. But there turns out to be a surprising amount of information, once one starts looking. Enough to reconstruct an extraordinary series of military escapades, at least one unforgettable piece of journalism, and a hint of the kind of man Miller might have become. My researches led at the same time to another and gloomy conclusion. Miller might have acted heroically, but the story of his death is one of horror, primarily, and of wasted lives, and as a warning of what was to come, and what was lost.
Attempting to reconstruct his life, I discovered much more than I imagined likely. There turn out to be quite a few people engaged full or part-time in the Spanish civil war studies. Information is traded rapidly on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade mailing list and many other channels. The Tamiment Library at NYU is an extraordinary resource housing enormous archives and a great and growing literature. And then there is the miracle ingredient for biography – the Internet. As the keywords on my WordPress blog penetrated the networks, I began to hear from more and more people. Some were from Morris’s hometown of Hull, East Yorkshire, others from beyond. Some offered scraps of information, others material more substantial.
The star contributor is Alan Warren, a Spanish civil war researcher and proprietor of Warren and Pell Publishing . Alan now lives in Barcelona and has become the go-to guy for anyone needing to find themselves around the battlefields. He knows, literally, where the bodies are buried. It was Warren who gave me the most astonishing material of all, an unpublished memoir of the Welsh miner Billy Griffiths, a communist militant and union activist who was himself among the more striking figures in the XVth IB.
The Griffith memoir includes unique, dramatic and important recollections of Morris during the battle on the Ebro. It recounts the daring and resourcefulness with which he and Griffiths steal a donkey from Republican cavalry. And it takes the story up to the final very abrupt killing of Miller by shellfire. By any standards, this is a great find.
Griffiths takes up the story before the great battles in the Sierra Pandols, and his manuscript, almost filmic, describes an army poorly provisioned, although the commisars at headquarters made sure they were fed.
Our food was quite monotonous. It hardly varied-bread and coffee for breakfast; carrabunces for dinner and lentils for supper. However there was some slight advantage in being attached to HQ. After dinner, and sometimes after supper, Monty Sim’s batman brought out the scraps for disposal into an improvised bin. All eyes were fixed on him as he scraped the plates clean and when he had gone, there was a concerted rush to delve among the scraps!”
“It was an undignified sight. These were cultured men. Hickman, the head of the observers, had led a sheltered life. Prep school, Public school, Cambridge, a degree and an apprenticeship with Dunlop, then Spain. Joe Latus, a trawler captain; an American news reporter and so on. Yet the food was irresistible:a bit of liver or meat on a bone, perhaps a potato. It was a change.”
“One evening, whilst larking about, Joe Latus started to wrestle with one of his mates, and electrician from Liverpool. Joe was a big chap-not tall-about 5′10″. His opponent was well over 6′ and well muscled. It was a good scrap. Whilst it was on, Sam Wild came along. He watched for a while and when it was over he challenged the winner. I think it was Latus. Sam was not very big-about 5′7″, wiry muscle and bone. They rolled about stripped to the waist, over stones and pebbles and rough ground until both were exhausted. It finished in a friendly atmosphere. I relate this incident to indicate what sort of a man Wild was, perhaps one most fitted for the job he had to do.”
On the advance to Corbera on July 25/26th
“We returned to the road (after strafing by Nationalist fighters). Sam (Wild) told us to pick two men and scout the right hand side of the road towards Corbera. I chose Morris Miller and a fellow from Swansea. Miller, though young (about 20) was a seasoned campaigner. He had been wounded badly at Caspe. In fact he was stalked around a tree and fired at five times at close range and being left for dead. An ambulance picked him upon the side of the road and now here he was in my scouting party. The other was very young, and it was his first experience.”
“We moved leisurely through trees laden with fruit-black luscious figs, pomegranates, grapes. It was like the garden of Eden! We climbed upwards until we arrived at a prominence overlooking Corbera. There was nothing to report. There seemed little movement. On the way back we took the shortest direction to the road, calculating that the battalion would have moved forward to that point.”
“Suddenly we came across a camp! There were horse and men. Morris and I assumed them to be Moorish cavalry. Our companion became hysterical and wanted to run down and join them, insisting they were our men. This could not be. We had no cavalry! We pulled him down and Miller sat on his head until he regained his composure. We told him to take the long way back to keep out of danger. This he did. In the meantime, Miller and I crept closer to the camp. We came across a mule loaded with rifles and immediately decided to pinch it. Scarcely daring to breath we untied the animal and led it away.”
“When we reached the road at a point a few miles further down, we found ourselves under fire. We scampered off the road and lay behind a bank. To our right was a house. I hung onto the mule while Miller went to investigate. It was a temporary Brigade Headquarters. The British Battalion were in action, attacking some strongpoint in the hills on then other side of the road. We left the mule in the care of the officer in charge, telling him he could have the rifles, but the animal was ours. Having done this we dashed oacross the road to join the Battalion..
Then Sam heard about our mule. We were ordered to enter Corbera and look for grub. We set off, the three of us on the back of the mule-Dobson, Miller and myself. The place was deserted. They had left in a hurry. There were masses of stores. Tinned milk, tinned food of all kinds and lots and lots of boots. We drunk a few tins of milk, and while Dobson searched for a pair of boots to fit him, Miller and I went to look for a cart. We found one, and a harness. Soon the mule was hitched up, the cart loaded and we were on our way.”
After Hill 481 the Bn went into reserve returning to the front on the evening of August 15th.
” It was good to relax. Hot coffee in the morning and evening. Even the carrabunces and lentils semed more appetizing. I had a parcel from home-the only one I ever received! Cigarettes from the local club, salmon, chocolate. This was indeed luxurious living! Morris miller and I were making a dugout. Most people thought us daft, but I was always over cautious. We had stopped work to share out the parcel. I didn’t smoke, so the cigs were a free distribution. A fair crowd had gathered and we sat around eating chocs and generally gossiping. Half a dozen planes came over and dropped a few bombs. The crowd melted like magic. All went into the dugout, piled on top of each other. All that is, except me and Miller. We were the only two left outside. There was no room for any more. It was quite a joke. At least, they thought
“That evening I shared blankets with Lesser. The food truck came at dawn, and Lesser had gone downto the road to wait for it. The road continued in the direction of our rear in a straight line for about half a mile along a narrow valley, no more than 20 yards wide flanked by steep hills. Where Lesser waited it swung sharply to the right in the direction of Gandesa, for about 200 yards and then disappeared in another bend which seemed to block the valley completely. To the right of where I sat, the terrain took on a new and more sinister appearance. It was as if a giant’s hand had cut a cleft through the mountain, revealing the rocks in all its nakedness below.
Through the jungle of boulders and projecting needle-like rocks, dwarfing a man by their size, a narrow tortuous path wound its way from the road, skirting precipitous drops where cleavage was sharpest and running onto the open at a point to the right, on the rising hills behind our position. Skirting the head of the ravine, the path got lost in a more open stretch of level ground, before the hills rose again, sharply to the crest and the front line positions of the British Battalion. One tried to avoid as much as possible the path and open ground because of the intensity of shell and mortar fire, which at times, came over at the rate of 40 per minute. Yet this was the only way to the British battalion HQ, the Canadian positions and the front line.
I got caught twice, but each time was fortunate to be near a shallow slit trench. Morris was not so lucky. He was killed outright!! So also was the Chief of Fortifications for the Brigade (Egan Schmidt), who with his staff, was caught in a barrage not far from the Brigade HQ. He and three of his staff were killed and a number wounded”.
A homage in Catalonia
I have returned to Hill 666 – “the hill of the devil,” a local guardia civil man tells me – a savage place of shattered rocks and prickly shrubs, to stand on the site where Morris died. There is no record of a grave. There are plenty of bone fragments around but they are hard to see. If there is anything remaining, it has been subsumed by the wild herbs and scrubby oak.
It is a tough climb. Finally, my guide Alan Warren stops in a small glade on the steep side of a ravine where there is a low concrete memorial. Morris’s name can be made out, faintly on the side of the rude concrete slab. Nearby, there is an empty cistern. On the hillside are the ’scrapes’ into the rock where the volunteers had sought shelter from the bomb and shell splinters rained on them with deadly accuracy from the nationalist positions on a ridge of hills to the northeast.
There are abandoned terraces and ancient stonework, even more ancient. This land once was terraced and cultivated but that would now be impossible now.
In the ravine are great boulders and land slips, dislodged by nationalist explosives.This is a cemetery and not just of those who died but of the dream of a Republican spain. It is here – almost exacly – that the Republicans lost the war, in an ill-fated offensive that ended with Franco’s triumphant seizure of Barcelona and the victory of a nationalism cognate with fascism.
It is impossible now to know exactly where the shell fragment cut down Morris, but it was very near here. The hill is thickly forested with quercus ilex – the prickly-leaved and very dark green Mediterranean evergreen oak that burns like coal. The under brush is wild thyme with a thick scent released by our boots.
I pick some quercus acorns and stuff them in a pocket and rest my hand for a moment on the memorial. The day Morris died here, this was a hellish place on earth as nationalist shells and bombs splintered on the bare rock and men cowered for cover on the bare rocky hillside. This was a very remote battle and even now, few people have ventured up this hill. It is a very peaceful cemetery: spooky, and very quiet.
How did Morris find his way here and why?
When I set out to recover the memory of Morris, I’d no idea what I would discover. In fact, I hadn’t expected to discover much. But what emerged is a tale of genuine heroism and principle, even if the ideological motivation appears in retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight naive and his sacrifice would hardly have retarded the advance of European fascism for a second.
Offered a place at Oxford ,he was unable to take it up, supposedly for financial reasons. It is said that because his father was not British born, he was ineligible for a scholarship. This was I am told a routine and lightly coded anti-semititic convention of the day, supposedly, designed to constrain the number of Jews in the hallowed quads of Oxford.
His own father having been a failure at business, unlike his brother and Morris’s uncle Wolf, my grandfather,. After leaving school Morris was forced to take up an apprenticeship at a chemist’s shop, a job his cousins recall that he loathed. At night, he attended left-wing political meetings, where the atmosphere would have been febrile with the war in Spain hotting up, the aggressive intentions of the Nazis evident, and the rise of local fascism on the streets of their own city an ever-present threat.
Hull was right in the centre of this conflict. There were stormy public rallies and fighting subsequently in the streets. At least once, Morris came home beaten up.
I fell into this story and kept on tumbling. I started out curious where my family had come from. But on the way to uncovering this wider mystery, I stumbled into the tale of Morris where a project and personality was also to be uncovered.
Morris was not only a soldier but an ideological warrior – he seemed consumed by the fight but also by the theory. An activist, who always out himself in the thick of the action, Morris ended up getting selessly killed in an inspiring fight that 70 years later remains as contentious as ever. He was certainly a mystery. Sometimes, at family gatherings in my childhood, his name would come up, but nobody knew anything substantial. He was as much of a myth as the supposed distant relative who had ended up a colonel in the Soviet Red Army.
I start with the surviving cousins; physicians in the north of England. I have been completely out of touch with them. I talk to them on the phone and they tell me the story of the high tea and some more.
“Most of the Miller family had communist leanings, mostly of the armchair variety,” recalled Eric Miller, Morris’s cousin, in June 2007, telling me what he knew of his own first cousin. I think Eric and his brother Dennis have never really quite got over losing Morris. Eric Miller’s first news is the worst. In 1939 Morris Miller’s letters and papers were destroyed by his mother in Hull, in the east riding of Yorkshire. She was fearful the incriminating documents would be discovered by the Nazi invaders whose arrival, she was convinced, was imminent.
This was a discouraging start to my investigation. The ultimate treasure for a biographer would have been his papers documenting the turbulent stories of contemporary Hull. But Eric’s memories are vivid enough. He tells me of an infamous row over Sunday high tea, from which Morris exited in acrimony, that would be the last time any of those present would see him again.
The heady stew of resentments, politics, engaged youth and stubborn aged, collided to produce a stormy send-off.
Not just within his family, Morris was a controversial character in Hull. The Mail (Hull) (1936) reported that although Spain was blockaded and because of the non-intervention policy, no official contact was allowed, ships with food used to brave the blockades. Two ships went from Hull several times. One of them was skippered by Captain ‘Potato’ Jones. His crew took food for the Republican Army, and maybe more. Not without opposition. After a big meeting in the City Hall to raise money for food, those who took refugees into their homes at weekends were pointed out. Spies from the Black Shirt opposition may have been present. A witness is quoted: “Afterwards one of us, Maurice (sic) Miller, was beaten up outside, in suspicious circumstances.”
It is almost inconceivable that Morris would not have been among the militants who attacked an Oswald Mosley rally in Hull in 1936, the so-called Riot of Corporation Fields, a notorious confrontation that still stirs resentments to this day. This event is tendentiously documented by the fascist Heretics website still published in Hull.
That Morris was already an official (although secret) comrade and member of the CPGB can hardly be doubted. Geoff Lawes, a researcher from Hull, has sent me this page (below) from an Brigade battle songbook signed by M.L. Miller (on the right hand side – click picture for detail) followed by the initials CPGB and the placename Hull. This artefact surfaced in May 2008 – showing that even 70 years later, further traces of this life can still be uncovered – thanks to the Internet. The image is (c) Geoff Lawes and used by his kind permission.
Click to enlarge this image
There are occasional traces of a dramatic streak in the Miller family, it may be fair to say. If one believes that this might be inherited, then the story of Morris’s departure from England would affirm this belief.
The last his cousins saw of Morris was when he stormed out of a high tea at his wealthy uncle Wolf’s house in Hull on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1937, after accusing his host of being “nothing but a dirty capitalist.” Wolf was a timber merchant and a prominent Jewish businessman in Hull. These were weekly rituals. Wolf was a sterling millionaire before the depression. On Sunday he would entertain Morris to tea – a meal that in Yorkshire would be comprehensive and quite possibly kept Morris going for the next week. But Morris was proud, angry and not easy always to like.
It was characteristic Morris behaviour. One moment he was hungrily scoffing his uncle’s food – then there was a passionate discussion of politics, not uncommon, followed by an escalating argument.
It is easy to imagine. Morris was red to the bone marrow; his uncle and host a very member of the class with which Morris had declared himself at war. It was not the first time there had been a row. But this time it was different. Morris almost certainly had already decided to go to Spain, although volunteers were routinely told to keep this secret. The final culminating row may have been his clumsy way of saying goodbye.
After leaving his uncle’s table in a huff, Morris returned home to his parents and finally told them where he was going after swearing them to secrecy. Over the next few days, his cousins Dennis and Eric, both still alive in 2008, retired physicians in the north of England, feared the worst. In an amazing display of loyalty, they actually followed him to Paris – but could trace him no further.
Morris Miller (left), Spain 1938. On right is Joe Latus, lieutenant machine gunner and observer, fellow- fighter from Hull, who was wounded and repatriated. Photo from Hull Sentinal, “The Voice of Labour,” (Hull Trades Council publication), March 1939.
According to the files at the International Brigade Memorial Trust, Morris Miller arrived in Spain on the 24th of September 1937 and entered the International Brigade (British Battalion) the following week. During the Aragon Retreats from Belchite, the begininng of the end for the Republican forces, he was wounded at Caspe in mid March, 1938.
Miller was hospitalized and returned to the British Battalion in May, 1938 and was named assistant political commissar/political delegate, reporting to the chief political officer, Bob Cooney. Five months later he was dead.
The following illustration shows a casualty list with Miller’s name. (The cross by Miller’s name and the footnote is by Rob Wardle (see acknowledgements).) Other annotations are contemporary. The date indicates that this list refers to the battle of Caspe.
Like a lot of people I had some romantic notions about the Spanish civil war. Although he is hated by some other historians, Antony Beevor’s demythologisation is not the only challenge to these ideas. Indeed, his own account of the Ebro is oddly deficient. For all the romance, this was a brutal conflict and one in which artists intellectuals of all stripes threw themselves with passion. The war was touched by surrealism, anarchism, fascism, and much else. But if Spain was a formative cultural and artistic event and the place to be for progressives, anti-fascists, writers and painters, it was horrid in close up and a ghastly stage-setter for the slaughters to follow.
What was it like getting to Spain when the normal border was closed? Today there are few open customs posts between Spain and France and the only officers you see are likely to be on the French side looking for cigarettes.
Then, the only way to avoid them was to pass through the mountains. As it happened, I know about this journey. I have been taken by Catalan gypsy guides over a mountain trail from France to Spain, and it is a painful, terrifying experience. We started above Collioure, the village in French Catalonia famous for its artists and market, and rode rough ponies over narrow trails, the land falling away for hundreds of feet below, trusting the animals would not trip.
I cannot say mine was the identical trajectory to Morris’s. But one gets the idea quickly of just how vulnerable humans can be in these mountains. In Catalan, the country is salvatge. The word equates to the French sauvage which would normally be translated into English as wild – although this lacks the necessary resonance of savage). The air is heady with the garrigue of wild herbs. The horses walk over trails you would think impossible; one stumbles and falls, tipping one of the riders to the ground.
We stop and dismount at a desolate ‘monestir’, now abandoned. It is hundreds of years old and decorated with faded murals. We rest but not for long. A stone marks the border. High in the Pyrenees my mobile phone beeps. “Vodafone welcomes you to Spain.” In the late afternoon we descend through olive orchards and tie up the horses at a remote inn. Exhausted, we are served beef from the hills, fried potatoes, thick red wine.
Morris Miller started his journey in Hull, now the fiefdom of John Prescott and the Labour party, then a battleground between young communists, frequently Jews, and fascists wearing the black shirts of Sir Oswald Mosely.
To Kings Cross then Victoria for the boat train to Paris. The volunteers were instructed to tell the emigration officers in Britain (and the police in France) that they were “tourists” or “students” although nobody was fooled. In Paris they were met by comrades who put them in the hands of the communist cheminots (railwaymen) who helped them travel across France on the SNCF, putting them down in Toulouse and Perpignan for the final secretive crossing of the mountain passes.
The assembly camps are described in letters from the volunteers. I feel sure I have seen a contemporary echo. During the conflict in Kosovo, which I covered for MSNBC, I visited an assembly camp in Albania, a staging post where volunteers were enlisted in what was then called the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). The recruits were given a plate of pasta or rice. There passports confiscated. Oaths were taken. Military police stood by in case anyone thought they could change their mind. The air was heady with bravado and fear.
The Ebro campaign
In the summer of 1938 the international volunteers were mobilised for the attack over the Ebro. Morris was physically courageous and daring, having cheated death at least once, daring it again and again, and surviving a serious wound, before finally being killed, more or less instantly, by a shell fragment on a Catalan hillside that is today a place of sublime but haunted beauty and was then an unimaginable hell.
A trace of Morris at this time is in the papers of David Gordon, an American communist volunteer. On July 16 at 7.30 a.m., Gordon shares the news that “Our M.L. [Morris L. Miller] has been claimed by the British Battalion. But I’ll be seeing M.L. since he’s to take charge of Activists and Cadres for the Battalion.” This evidence strengthens the importance Miller was assuming for the party.
His death was glorious but horrible, if mercifully quick. Yet it was futile. Catalonia fell, the refugees fell back across the mountains to France where many perished in insanitary, disease-ridden French concentration camps such as the one at Cap D’Agde. Survivors and stragglers of the international brigade limped back to England and America. We heard from some again. It is astonishing how this very limited period made such a heavy footprint in everything from poster design to feminism. The letters, poems, books and screenplays are engrossing and there is no end to Spanish civil war studies because it is a subject that is endlessly interesting and about which astonishing new information continues to emerge.
Morris Miller the journalist
The Tamiment Library at NYU is a time machine. In the heart of 21st century Greenwich Village it houses the most important collection of the letters and artefacts of the men and women who went to Spain in 1937. At random I open a box and find a letter from a volunteer to his sweetheart, describing the wild flowers on the hill where he was writing. And in the letter, preserved in a glassine envelope, is a dried flower – plucked off this Catalan hillside seven decades ago.
Here is where I found the articles Miller wrote in the Volunteer for Liberty, the newspaper of the International Brigade and his photograph taken with David Gordon and Edwin Rolfe. They are the only extant pieces of his journalism I have discovered.
Of the two articles, the first, The 15th Brigade Motor Park, a portrait of the motor pool, shows us a writer keen to draw ideological lessons from everything he sees. “These comrades with the greased hands have…shown that they can « take it » and make the necessary sacrifices that true anti-fascists have often be called upon to make in this war for the National Independence of Spain.”
The second is more distinctive. It is his bruising participant’s account of the battle for Hill 481 in which, unwittingly or not, he offers a grim forewarning of what would lie ahead for the international volunteers in the Sierra de Pándols.
Handwritten caption on reverse of photo reads: Morris Miller Hull 2nd right front row killed Hill 666 Sierra Pandols August 1938. Sitting to the right of Morris is Harry Dobson, Welsh unemployed miner, survivor of the torpedoing of the SS City of Barcelona en route to Spain, political commissar, graduate of Moscow’s Lenin School. Identifications of others in this picture welcomed.
Jaume Ramon Sole commented
Picture Group of Maurice Miller Spanish Civil War: # 1 is a view of Tarrega , Lleida, taken from the garden of Toló , with members of the 15th Political Curator . Brigade . We have identified some of the brigade that appear :
The first brigade right to left is Mexican painter Antonio Hill Jiménez (1913-1995) , who was a member of the ” League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists of Mexico .” In May 1940 he participated in the attempted assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City , was arrested and went into exile in his country.
The second brigade right to left are William Susman ( aka Bill ELISA) ( 1915-2003 ) , of New Haven – Connecticut, who was one of the promoters of the files ALBA ( Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives ) . Thanks to him we have online photographs reproduced today . 1977 to return to Barcelona , said: ” I sat quietly on a bench in the Plaza Catalonia and started to cry without knowing why .”
The brigade military hat and black tie , which is located right in the center of the photo is John Gates (born Solomon Regenstriet ) ( 1913-1992 ) , New York City , a prominent leader of the ” American Communist Party “and was the editor in chief of the American Communist Party newspaper ” The daily Worker ” until 1957 . He published his memoirs , ” The Story of an American Communist ” in 1958 . Another picture of him is No. 8 , also made Tarrega , despite the smiling image of the curator , those days were tragic for the 15th . Brigade . Gates ordered the execution of two fellow brigadiers for desertion : Paul White and Abramofsky Bernad , which caused a strong dissent within the battalion , which compelled him to rectify it and announced that anyone else s’excutaria . (Letter amended International) .
To the left of the brigade have John Gates Canadian Frank Rogers , right above Tajonar in Melchor and the first sitting to the left is the American commissioner Milton Gale of Miami, and next in Morris Goldstein of Brooklyn, the third is sitting white shirt brigade British Maurice Miller (1916-1938) , Hull – England , who died three months later on the hill 666 Pàndols in full battle of the Ebro. At his side and to the right there is also British Rhondaa of Harry Dobson , of Wales , who died on 28 July 1938 near Gandesa in the Ebro offensive.
More information about Jaume Ramon Sole
IP: 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199.dynamic.jazztel.es
The story of Hill 481, Morris Miller’s account of a seminal battle leading up to the final rout on the Ebro (click here for the PDF ) appears in Volume 11, Number 32 of The Volunteer for Liberty, 17 September 1938.
Reading it today one is slightly shocked. There is no doubt that Morris was sugar-coating the events he described, in the interests of his ideology.
The history of the British Battalion in the last action is a record of high morale, of discipline and of doggedness in a series of attacks against fortifications which could have withstood all but the severest blasting by artillery; of a record of attacks made beneath withering machine gun fire, enfilading from left or right, under artillery fire that (sic) almost unceasing and beneath the ever-present threat of avion.
The dramatic war correspondence which follows is a prelude to the real news which is buried close to the bottom of the piece – that the British battalion has failed to achieve its objective, has suffered heavy casualties and has retreated. Yet Morris never deviated from the ideological line.
“In spite of the fact the fascists still held the position, the reputation of the battalion had increased a hundredfold.”
Delusional journalism was not unique to this era. I am looking for something else. Between the boilerplate commissar stuff, is there is a hint of a writerly voice? Can we know what we have lost? The text shows that Morris could write and that he put himself in the midst of the story.
Miller’s account of battle is gripping and revealing within the context of the delusional groupthink by the communist military cadre that was soon to produce the ultimate military disaster. Hill 481 was a bloody prelude to what happened later, when more troops were committed to indefensible positions. the story titled Hill 481 was Miller’s final article for the Volunteer but not his final battle. Shortly after filing it he was killed in the even more impossible position of Hill 666.In Hill 481, Miller writes of an operation where the assumptions were wrong from the start:
...for the first time the action assumed a serious aspect. What had previously been regarded as a light action became a tough proposition…
For days, the battalion takes casualties but makes little progress,
…by this time the boys were thoroughly tired. Night and day they had made Herculean efforts. To add to their difficulties water was kilometres away and very rarely could details be spared. Moreover communications had not yet been established with the Intendencia, though Bob Cooney, Battalion Commissar, had succeeded in getting up a small amount of tinned stuff which had been captured from the fascists.
Miller turns now to the fifth day when the most severe attack on the hill began, the air thick with machine gun bullets and fascist shells landing in forward positions.
…the fascist shells were landing in our forward positions . When battalion commander Wilde gave the order to withdraw, the last attack had ended. Among the comrades we lost in this attack was our brave comrade Lewis Clive, who had returned from the hospital the previous day to take command of his old company. He was killed while directing the fire of his men.
Miller’s account of Hill 481, in which the British Battalion “earned itself the name of « shock battalion » of the 15th brigade,” reveals an operation in which the intelligence was faulty, the men not supplied with either adequate food or even water, there were heavy casualties and the objectives were not met. But these are all conclusions to be drawn from the stated facts. The piece concludes with a heroic defence of the battalion commander, Sam Wilde, who had put his men in such a position, and of Bob Cooney, Miller’s direct boss in the party hierarchy, for the “high political level” of the Battalion (even as it was failing to achieve its military objectives) .
A subsequent editor’s note in the Volunteer took account of Miller’s death on the Ebro front and promised a report in a future issue, written by Miller, on the June “activist congress” of the 35th division. This article never appeared as the Volunteer was soon driven from its offices and its staff put to flight.
“Miller’s greatest legacy to the Brigade was the activist movement of which he was one of the most outstanding leaders, and in whose formation and functioning he played a major role,” declares the Volunteer showing that even as the war was being lost, the Party bosses were determined to strengthen their ideological control, and that deputy commissar Miller was part of this project. They might have been better occupied supplying their soldiers with food and water rather than pure ideology, is what I cannot help thinking.
In the summer of 1938 the Republican (largely at this stage Communist) army attempted to relieve pressure on the north and forestall the nationalist assault on Catalonia and the prize of Barcelona. The campaign began well enough with the crossing of the great Ebro River on pontoons, with communist-controlled military police shooting deserters at the rear.
But as the operation unfolded it became the biggest military disaster of them all for the Republicans, producing terrible casualties and opening the door to Catalonia.
In the hills above Gandesa, the combat was awful, the insufficiency of the Republican logistics and tactics were glaring. In the final edition of The Volunteer, an American writer signing himself with the initials D.A.N., described Hill 666 in terms that paid only lip-service to the party line, as first the Lincolns then the British offered themselves to the artillery of Franco:
Men of the Lincoln are not likely soon to forget that hill… no matter how long they live or how much modern warfare they may see that hell-hole will remain in their memory, a nightmare come to life.
Our introduction to the scene should have been a warning. God never made a more desolate stretch of terrain, and man never contributed more to its further desolation. From the main road, at night, we climbed for hours over broken rock; the men sweated and groaned under the weight of their equipment, their guns. As we climbed there was not a man who did not think: « It’s going to be tough getting food, water and munitions up here; it’s going to be tough for the wounded. »
The first three days were “relatively quiet” but by noon the fourth day the fascists opened up with their guns and mortars and kept up the assault for seven and a half hours.
…they gave us everything they had and it was plenty…they had the range and they kept the range…the fascist gunners knew just where we were.
This continued for days. The article in The Volunteer improbably described the withdrawal of the Lincolns as a victory.
For we licked them on Hill 666 as surely as though we had taken additional terrain They hoped to blow us off that hill by sheer weight of flying steel. Well they hammered us but it was not hard enough.
But all the propaganda could not disguise the defeat. It was the same story as Hill 481 only worse. The army of the Republic had marched (or crawled) into indefensible positions, cut off from supplies, utterly exposed to Franco’s superior artillery.
With grateful acknowledgement to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive team at the Tamiment Library, New York University. Photograph of Morris Miller with Edwin Rolfe , the great American poet of the Spanish Civil War, and David Gordon, the American communist. This photograph appears in Madrid 1937, Routledge, NY & London, 1966, with a caption stating it is “near Marsa, summer of 1938″. Miller was dead within days or weeks of this photo being taken.
The photograph above showing Miller in an olive orchard with comrades David Gordon and Edwin Rolfe was taken near the village of Corbera d’Ebre, an ancient Catalan settlement utterly destroyed by Franco in 1938 when it became a last redoubt of the Republican army of the Ebro.
The village was rebuilt elsewhere and the old village left a ruin, a constant reminder to Catalonia of the penalty for defiance. Today the old village is a haunting place of gaping, empty shops, roofless houses, the shattered remains of the church, rubble in narrow and winding streets, all perfumed with the scent of wild thyme. Oddly, this place, surely one of the most extraordinary to be seen in a nation teeming with tourists, is little visited.
The village is not just a memorial but a unique art installation. Artists and poets have implanted a sculpture garden called the Alphabet of Freedom, (In Catalan, L’Abecedari de la llibertat). Poems. Sculptures. Ruins. This was a place once thick in the miasma of death. Now, it has the scent of wild herbs. It is hard not to choke.
Mariano Andres – ‘T’ for terror; one of an “alphabet” of sculptural objects and poems at Corbera today. Jonathan Miller photo
On the slopes of the Sierra de Pándols today, overlooking the Ebro valley, one can still see the shallow excavations where the soldiers attempted to dig themselves in. But the stony surface made real trenches impossible and when the shells and bombs fell there was no real cover. The splintered fragments of rock were themselves lethal. The communist military commanders were at best careless with the lives of their men but a more severe verdict is that this is how they lost the war, squandering their best soldiers on an ill-considered venture that resulted only in Franco winning it.
-Jonathan Miller photo
This is the war memorial on the Sierra de Pándols which commemorates Morris Miller and other men of the XV International Brigade who died here.
Peter Beaumont, describing this in the Observer, noted: “89 British and Irish volunteers died here accounting for almost 10 per cent of all British fatalities in the civil war. Among them were former soldiers, union activists and every colour of the left, from members of the Communist party to social democrats – including David Haden-Guest, uncle of the film-maker Christopher, who was shot by a sniper as he read a newspaper.”
From this hill you can see sprawling, modern, unfinished Gandesa, the thundering lorries hauling away the produce from a surrounding landscape of polytunnel salad farms, vineyards and orchards. To the east is Corbera, the ruined village on the hill, the new town below it, on the new main road.
I leave some flowers on the memorial and walk over a stony path to the hillside where Miller and the others were killed. If one were to choose the worst possible static position, this would probably be it. The place is extraordinary and I pick a sprig of thyme and tuck it into my notebook as a souvenir. What a place for Morris Miller’s journey to end. I feel both close to him and sad.
Why did these men die here? What made them commit to such a cause? Their motives were noble and correct even if they proved powerless to arrest the enemy.
In 1936, the British government had not yet completed its abject grovel to Adolph Hitler. The editor of The Times was working late into the night removing anything from his newspaper that would upset the Fürher. In Spain, a nationalism cognate with fascism was attempting to seize control. In Hull and other British cities, Blackshirts were roaming the streets, beating up Jews and left-wing militants (often the same people). Although the holocaust was still to begin in the Baltics, there were chiller than normal winds blowing in off the North Sea. There were still strong links between the Latvian port of Libau and Hull. Morris upset people with his bloodthirsty predictions of what was in store and not just for the Jews. (So many International Brigade volunteers were Jews that they would joke that yiddish was the common language.)
Morris was generally penniless and although he argued consecutively with all of his brothers, cousins and uncles, he was not averse to showing up at their homes for a meal, which would typically culminate with Morris expounding his theories in a way that had a tendency to upset some of those around him. He was hardly sanguine at a time when a lot of middle class British Jews, desperate to assimilate, were still preferring to look the other way.
Morris’s accurately predicted the lethal threat posed by Nazism, fascism and, a subject that increasingly pre-occupied him, Spanish nationalism. Morris was a Marxist anti-clericist and didn’t need much encouragement to see the reactionary Spanish coalition of church, landowners and proto-nazi chancers as a force that absolutely must not be allowed to prevail if Europe was not to descend into a hegemon of national socialist dictatorships. He was infuriated by the British government which was pretending to be even-handed and yet continually obstructed any aid to the Spanish republican government, for fear of offending Hitler. Worse, the weak French government was being heavily influenced by the British to close its borders to supplies for the Republicans. It was practically as if Chamberlain was going to hand Europe to the dictators on a plate.
Morris’s discourses rattled his family. His family was poor, he was clever but his educational opportunities were forclosed by lack of money, his relatives were relatively affluent – his uncles proprietors of a thriving timber business. Morris was bright and a linguist, who spoke French and German, but he was underemployed as a pharmacist’s assistant. He joined the communist party in December 1936.
After stalking out of that high tea at his uncle’s house – often his most substantial meal of the week, he was rakish thin and always short of money – he travelled to Spain in 1937 swearing his parents to secrecy, as what he was doing was technically a crime. He promised to write and kept his word, in fluent letters describing the train journey from Hull to London and then the boat train to Paris, lying to the emigration inspectors that he was a student on his way to Paris.
At the Gare du Nord he was met by a French commusist who assembled him with the other sheepish young men arriving on the boat train. They were shepherded to the front of the station where comrade taxi drivers ferried them across town to the (?Austerlitz) station for the train first to Toulouse and then the local trains to Perpignan where they were given a meal again by local comrades, and helped across the border to Catalonia, where an international force of volunteers was assembling. Morris had no doubt what he was fighting for. He had fought the blackshirts on the streets of Hull and even if he had come off the worst for wear, his physical courage was not in doubt.
Every year to this day, a handful of Morris’s comrades gather at Jubilee Gardens on the Embankment in London to remember him and the others who fell in their battle against the fascists. The surviving veterans become older and frailer but it is interesting that the number of younger people attending is increasing as a new generation discovers (as I did) what their relatives had done.
Is the story of Morris Miller one to inspire or is it merely intriguing? He was a controversial and divisive character. His cousins still miss him. You can admire and even be awed by his sacrifice – but to me it seems wasted. The volunteers did not really change the course of the war. Their sacrifice was heroic, but futile. Today there are still young men and women who go off to fight in defiance of their own governments, but in a different cause and rarely communism. Today religion is back as the opiate of the masses.
If Morris had lived, would he have remained a party loyalist? Who can tell? Many returned from Spain with shattered faith. What’s plain to me, even as I see in Morris the immaturity of a young and hot-headed man, was a conviction and a political consciousness that could not accept fascism. This only became the official policy of the United Kingdom two years later.
I like to think Morris could have become a great writer. It is hard to tell from the fragments he left behind but obviously I want to believe that he could have been one of the greats. But we shall never know. This is the collateral damage of war.
If his life was mythic, his death presents a problem. He was a hero, to be sure. His communism is understandable in the circumstances of the time, even if it might appear naive in retrospect. But more evident is that like so many of the young men who gave their lives on both sides of this conflict, it was futile death – a hopeless waste of a promising writer for whom fidelity to ideology was above all. Morris was a talented guy. If he had not been killed in Spain, I think we would have heard more of him.
Today, modern Catalonia, part of the EU, remains distinctive and the history still unsettles. Catalonia is neither fascist nor communist (although it still has anarchic qualities) and hence it can be said that as far as the long-ago civil war is concerned, here at least, both sides lost. There is a small museum in Gandesa, which tries in its own way to memorialise the horror, yet in the curation, curiously detached… as if wishing it all swept away, put in a cupboard, covered in dust, a memory to be avoided.
On Hill 666: A stiff climb to a memorial to the dead, somewhat brutally restored…. Morris’s name can be made out very faintly.
Acknowledgements: A number of people are owed thanks including the surviving cousins of Morris Miller and his niece, Elaine Davison, who got me started. David Leach the filmaker has created a film Voices from the Mountain and sent me a DVD which is fascinating but I have not had the nerve to tell him that it was destroyed by my new puppy! Leach prepared comprehensive notes on four volunteers named alongside Morris Miller on a small memorial in the Sierra de Pándols. The others are Lewis Clive, a descendant of Clive of India; Harry Dobson, communist Welsh miner; David Guest, son of the Labour MP Dr. Haden Guest, leader with Miller in the militant activist movement, and Wally Tapsell, active young communist later circulation manager of The Daily Worker. The International Brigade Memorial Trust and Tamiment Library at NYU are invaluable sources. Gail Malmgreen at NYU is a walking encyclopedia although I am not sure every visiting researched gets cake! Marelene Sidaway at the IBMT is another magnificent figure and the go-to person on British volunteers as is James Carmody. Alan Warren provided the unpubished memoir of the Welsh miner Billy Griffiths which added so much to the story. I had a kind response to requests for information from the late Rob Wardle, whose father Robert was killed in action at Calaceite in April 1938. Wardle died in December 2005. Wardle revealed to me the open mystery of a chair dedicated to Morris Miller, attribution entirely unknown, that now stands in the Guildhall, Hull, next to a plaque commemorating the men from Hull who died in Spain. This plaque will soon be rededicated and I will supply further information when I know it. This is journalism and not history – needless to say all errors are my own.
A note on naming: Morris Miller was known as Maurice in Hull but his name appeared in a simplified style in his by-lines for The Volunteer and he is cited as Morris in his contacts with a number of contemporary sources. I have thus assumed that at the time of his death he would wanted to be known as Morris, and for the sake of simplicity have called him thus throughout.
This is a work in progress. To be corrected, extended, continued…
Explore posts in the same categories: Spanish Civil War