IN the new book Our Fathers Fought Franco (Luath Press), edited by Willy Maley, four adult children tell the stories of their fathers.

Here’s an introduction to the story of one of these men. I can’t do justice to the complexity and detail the book provides. I can only offer an outline and an invitation to read more. All royalties from the book are to be donated to the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT) which “keeps alive the memory and spirit of the men and women who fought fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939”.

The story of George Watters, or Geordie, is told by his son, Tam Watters, formerly a coal miner at Bilston Glen Colliery, an amateur photographer, camera sales adviser and one-time Scottish weightlifting champion.

For us, reading at this distance in time, the question might be: What made Geordie and his comrades so passionate in their political beliefs that they took such action, against all odds? Why fight Franco?

Geordie was a miner, from a community of miners. Life was struggle. Accidents and deaths were commonplace. After World War One, in January 1919, Geordie was only 14 when his oldest brother William was killed in a horrific accident at Prestongrange Colliery. He was already looking towards socialism.

“In the early 1920s he joined the Territorial Army to get some military experience in the hope that he would gain some knowledge which might be useful in any future conflict, political or social.”

Geordie told his son that he had first become politically active in 1922 at the age of 17. In 1923, he had ten dozen copies of Workers Weekly (later the Daily Worker and then the Morning Star), the official paper of the British Communist Party delivered to his home in Prestonpans for him to distribute every week. Geordie and older brothers Dave and Robert joined the Communist Party during the early 1920s.

Tam comments: “In the General Strike of 1926 the miners, including Geordie, were on strike for six months, fighting a huge cut in wages and an increase in their working hours. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, suggested bringing in the army to control the strikers. That reinforced Geordie’s deep dislike of the Tories. Churchill wanted to arm the soldiers” but the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, thought this was going too far and even King George V commented, “Try living on their wages before you judge them.”

Tam comments: “It is difficult to believe that, in 2002, in a BBC television poll, the British public voted Churchill the greatest Briton of all time.”

The miners had “barely enough to exist on. But even then, their lives were better than previous generations had been forced to tolerate.” Again, Tam comments: “A law was passed in August 1842 – the Mines and Collieries Act that stopped children under the age of ten and women from working underground in Britain.” Without that law, the children would have continued to endure barbaric conditions.

Such insights and observations lift all the accounts in this book from historical observation to contemporary application. We need to be aware of what’s gone on to see clearly the precedents for the atrocities that are being enshrined in law, even now.

Geordie held a deep hatred of racism and had huge respect for black American Paul Robeson, not only a famous actor and singer but a brilliant scholar and sportsman, and outspoken fighter for the betterment of his fellow man. At the height of his fame, Robeson could sell out concert halls anywhere in the world but he would often choose to perform free at miners’ galas or political rallies. Where are our Paul Robesons in 2023?

Geordie understood that the employers would never improve workers’ pay or working conditions voluntarily and by the mid-1930s, he was aware that the Asturian miners in Spain were in dispute with the mine owners, who were being backed by the right-wing government.

In 1934, the disputes had escalated into strikes and violent clashes and there was great loss of life when the miners were brutally crushed by the Spanish Foreign Legion and the Moroccan Regulares.

Geordie was an active member of the Communist Party, speaking regularly on street corners warning about the threat fascism presented to world peace. “He was one of many thousands who took part in the Hunger Marches.

In May 1936, despite 15,000 residents signing a petition against it, the British Union of Fascists were permitted to hold a rally in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.” Speakers included Oswald Mosley and William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”).

When Geordie raised his objections vocally and refused to keep quiet, he was beaten up by fascist stewards before being handed over to the police, accused of being an agitator, while Donald Renton (whose story we looked at last week) got to his feet and sang “The Internationale”.

How many of us in 2023 object to the encouragement given by mass media to the effective promotion of racist politicos and the normalising of their insidious priorities? Is public speaking more liberated these days? And what of objections to royalty?

Tam goes on: “Progressive people from all over the world made their way to Spain in 1936, willing to sacrifice their lives defending a government which had been improving the quality of life for the working class.”

Geordie decided he could not stand by and let the fascists overthrow the Progressive Front Government in Spain. He and his wife Ellen now had three young children, but “Ellen fully supported his decision to go to fight fascism”. Tam notes: “It is only in recent years that I have appreciated how much my mother’s support would have meant to my father.”

With three friends, Geordie travelled to Edinburgh in late December 1936, where they were joined by Donald Renton and others making their way to catch the bus to Glasgow, joining comrades from all over Scotland, to set off for Spain. Most of them didn’t have passports. Many would never return. The story of the journey itself is worth buying the book for.

“By the 12 February 1937, their very basic training had been completed and they were advanced to the front line at Jarama, where the fascists were rapidly advancing towards Madrid.” The enemy were “more numerous, better-armed and battle-hardened.”

What follows is a gripping, day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour and even minute-by-minute account of the battle of Jarama, which I won’t try to reproduce here. We learn what happened to Geordie and his friends, after capture, imprisonment, and eventual return to Scotland.

And as we read this account, the connections, comradeship and solidarity of the individual figures begins to make the whole book a coherent story, a testament to an enlarging company of good men and women, whose experience in Spain and in Scotland was born of the conviction and investment in values they had learnt at home.

THAT company extends beyond the immediacy of history, the time these men shared in the 1930s, and comes forward through time, to us now. “How ferocious the fighting had been on those days in Jarama Valley is shown by the fact that after only two days, No. 2 Machine Gun Company had lost well over 50 per cent of their men, killed, wounded or missing, and their battalion had gone from 600 men to approximately 200. In comparison, percentage-wise, the British army lost 12.5 per cent of their men during the six years of the Second World War.”

One episode gives a vivid sense of what was happening at home: “One day in late March 1937, Ellen had an unexpected visit from a neighbour. She said she had just been at the cinema and had seen a newsreel item showing some British men who had been taken prisoner by the fascists in Spain and, to her surprise, she had spotted Geordie Watters.

Ellen was very excited by this amazing news and rushed to get on the next bus to the cinema; the projectionist was kind enough to put the newsreel back on, and it was confirmed that it was indeed Geordie! By coincidence, that was how many of the prisoners’ families found out that their loved ones were still alive; albeit they were still in extreme danger.”

The prisoners were to be exchanged but at home the political scene had other priorities: “The world was spiralling towards another world war but, at the beginning of 1937, the right-wing media had been full of articles about the upcoming coronation of George VI and his wife Elizabeth, as king and queen of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, and as emperor and empress of India.

The coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 12 May 1937. The media was in a frenzy and the attire of the king and queen and their guests was of more interest to them than the plight of Geordie and his comrades. Geordie certainly would have had no interest in those events, he had no liking for royalty.”

When they left Spain in October 1938, the International Brigades had a farewell parade through Barcelona, where huge crowds waved farewell and La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, who had inspired the International Brigades’ battle-cry of “No Pasaran” (They Shall Not Pass), made her famous speech which ended: “We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain – return!

"Return to our side for here you will find a homeland – those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship – all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people who today and tomorrow will shout with enthusiasm – Long live the heroes of the International Brigades!”

Tam comments: “Compare her beautiful tribute to these brave men with the following quote from Winston Churchill’s son, the Tory MP Randolph Churchill: ‘A few excitable Catholics and ardent Socialists (in Britain) think that this war matters, but for the general public it’s just a lot of bloody dagoes killing each other.’ With the Churchills it was ‘like father like son’.”

“By the start of the Second World War, Geordie and Ellen had five children to care for and during the war, Ellen worked at the Cockenzie boatyard to help provide for her family. Geordie served in the Royal Artillery.

He served in Madagascar, India, Persia (now Iran), Iraq, Sicily, Gallipoli, North Africa and Egypt but, in later life he hardly mentioned the war. Perhaps he thought fascism should have been defeated long before that”.

After the war, while Franco’s dictatorship continued to terrorise the Spanish people, with many who had fought for the Popular Front government shot as traitors or put into camps and used as slave labour, back in Scotland, Geordie had difficulty in finding employment.

He was blacklisted from the mines because of his political activities. But he was elected as NUM chairman for Prestonlinks Colliery. After that pit closed 20 years later, he worked at Monktonhall Colliery.

When local men had a problem with their wages or bad management, they would go to Geordie Watters to get it sorted out. By 1953, Geordie and Ellen had a family of eight: George, Ellen, Billy, Jimmy, Davie, Tam, Isabel and Mary.

In the 1960s Geordie was still involved in protesting and demonstrating against political and social injustices. On one occasion he was demonstrating against the Polaris submarines being deployed at Holy Loch, and in the evening, Tam heard his mother saying that his father had been arrested and put in a police cell. “Strangely, at the time I didn’t think that my father’s detention was a significant enough event for any of the family to worry about!”

Other than Spain and during the Second World War, Geordie had never travelled outside Britain. In 1977, the family supported him to go with Ellen for a holiday in Leningrad, timed for the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was thrilling for both of them.

Tam recollects that the last time he visited his father at the latter end of his life, suffering from dementia in a care home: “a nurse mentioned that he seemed even more confused than usual and had been talking about things that could never have happened. He had been telling them that he had been to Leningrad and he had gone into great detail about the trip.”

The nurses were rather surprised to find out that his story had been true. “But, for the family, it was comforting to think that in spite of his dreadful illness he was able to remember that holiday and had some happy memories of it during that awful time in hospital. He died shortly after that.”

In an era when politics and media seem designed to desensitise people and make us feel cynical about what’s most essential, to trivialise social morality and demonise deep understanding, Geordie’s story and this book are good medicine.