03 August 2008

Red Cushing and the Spanish Civil War part III

I was to sail on a ship belonging to the Stag Line, and to throw dust into the eyes of the authorities, I was handed a seaman's book, an A.B. certificate and a life-boat certificate .... I formed one of the crew.... Sometimes I worked in the galley; sometimes I did lookout duties; I was even called upon to steer and a fine mess I made of it, too. I shall never forget the Captain coming up to the wheelhouse to remark dryly, 'I don't mind you writing your Jasus name on the face of the ocean, but why the hell do you go back to dot the "i"?'

... We were now in the thick of the fighting, with very little hope of respite. My only consolation was that I met Frank Ryan, another Tipperary man, who had once been either the Editor or Sub-Editor of the An Phoblacht. Tall and scholarly-looking, Frank had a thin, hawk-like face, dark hair and a humorous mouth. He was serving as a machine-gun officer with the Attlee Battalion. One of the men in his Company told me that thanks to Frank's intelligent siting of the guns in a defensive position farther south, practically the whole of an Italian Brigade had been cut to ribbons.

There was no marking time on the Teruel front. Severe fighting had been the order of the day there for six months before my arrival and for once I knew what war really meant. I also realised that we were getting the wrong end of the stick. Enemy attacks were growing in strength and we were being slowly pushed back towards the coast.

At length we were contained on the Ebro riverfront, with our forces strung out along the north bank. The position could only be described as critical. One day I crossed the river with a reconnaissance patrol with the intention of getting some idea of the enemy's strength. Taking full advantage of the natural cover, we proceeded for two or three miles without incident. Then suddenly, as we were cutting through a valley, all hell broke loose. Raked by a merciless crossfire, we scattered and ran.

It was a case of every man for himself. I found myself pounding along beside a fellow called McClusky. Neither of us knew where we were, but we were both confident that we were heading for our own lines... We were about to press on, when we heard voices coming from the direction of a large cave... 'Spaniards!' I hissed. Wait here.' I dropped flat and wormed my way cautiously towards the cave. Whether they were Fascists or Loyalists. I neither knew nor cared... As members of the International Brigade, we're liable to be shot on sight... I forget how many days and nights our trek lasted, when it ended at Port Bou. We had no trouble in persuading an old fisherman to take us to Marseilles in his trawler and there we hung around 'on the beach' for the next two months...

I went to see the American Consul. I had no credentials, as all my papers were in Spain... By participating in a war in which the U.S.A. were non-belligerent, I had automatically forfeited my citizenship...On receipt of this depressing information, I wandered along the Canebire as far as the recruiting office for the French Foreign Legion.. Once inside, I put my case forward with such eloquence that I was immediately escorted to the Depot of the Legion at Fort St. Jean, where my treatment proved altogether different from what I had expected. Instead of brutality, iron discipline 'and an austerity diet, I enjoyed the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the Depot and four excellent meals a day, including a litre of wine...

This dilatory attitude quite baffled me until one morning I bought the Continental edition of The Daily Mail and scanned the headlines. It was perfectly obvious that Great Britain and France would soon be fighting Germany... I had no difficulty in squaring matters with the French Foreign Legion. The authorities understood that my first duty was to my own country.

I travelled to England by way of Paris and Dieppe, disembarking at Newhaven and proceeding to Victoria... As I was leaving Victoria, with a view to catching a 'bus to Paddington. a slimy-looking character tried to sell me The Daily Worker. His smug references to the Spanish Civil War so incensed me that I hauled off and belted him one. I derived a great deal of personal satisfaction out of that blow, throwing into it all the anger and disgust I felt about Communist mismanagement in Spain. It symbolised for me my complete repudiation of the Party line...

Make of this what you will. Cushing was a larger than life character but think he should be read with a pinch of salt. His later adventures as a POW-cum-potential German spy are a mixture of comedy and tragedy.

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