BACK IN THE DAY: Impressions of the Spanish Civil War - A Lewisman’s Adventures in a Distracted Country (1937)

Alexander Nicolson and John Niven on a recce in Spain
Alexander Nicolson and John Niven on a recce in Spain

The Lewisman has always been a roamer, and it will come as no surprise to our readers to learn that there is at least one son of “Eilean an Fhraoich” in Spain at present.

He is Mr Alexander Nicholson, of Ness, a son of the Lional bard, and a nephew of Mr John Nicholson, of Edgemoor Hall. Mr Nicolson was born in Ness, but spent most of his boyhood years in Canada. A few years ago he returned to to Scotland and has since been frequently in Lewis.

In December 1936 he went to Spain with his friend John Niven, and experienced, first-hand, the Spanish Civil War. Here, Alexander tells his story.

Since I returned from Spain, many people have asked me what the war in Spain was like. I believe that the majority of people are aware of the general political significance of the Spanish International War, which it can truthfully be called since five nations are taking active part in it, and a dozen others are directly and indirectly assisting both sides I shall only attempt to describe Spain simply as I saw it.

As I entered Spain overland, I had to leave Paris in the early evening by Express. Although it was bitterly cold and wet in Paris, an altogether different scene greeted me when I opened my eyes in the morning. Dazzling sunshine came pouring in through the carriage window. The compartment which had been excessively cold during the night was now uncomfortably warm. After a 15-hour journey my friend and I alighted in a French town which is roughly 30 kilometres distant from the frontier.

A Well Guarded Frontier

We weren’t particularly anxious to leave this hospitable and warm town for the battlefields that lay across the Border. Because of this lack of inclination and because our French seemed quite inadequate, it took us two days to find the address to which we had been referred for transportation over the Frontier – a Frontier which is carefully patrolled day and night by watchful soldiers with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets, who do not ask for the password twice.

We were treated with the greatest courtesy at the Anti-Fascist Headquarters. After our letters of introduction had been interpreted and the necessary identifications had been made, we were asked to report back at midnight accompanied by our baggage – extra shirts and toothbrush.

A Cup of Tea

In this little town we had our last cup of tea for four weeks. Peculiarly enough our next cup of tea was shared with an English volunteer in a trench while bullets were zipping overhead. Two days after that our generous host was reported killed. It wasn’t until we arrived back in England that we learned that the rumour had been confirmed as fact.

That evening, leaving our hospitable French quarters we had a nightmare drive over mountain roads and around hairpin bends with a French driver who seemed to have a mania for speed and an utter disregard for the narrow bends which he manoeuvred most of the time on two wheels, whether by luck or skill it was difficult to judge. When I asked him the reason for this hurry, he smiled broadly and answered, “Yes,” - his answer to everything. It was all the English he knew and all he cared to know. Evidently it explained everything.

At the border we were stopped by soldiers but after a short conversation in Spanish, in which we had no part, our driver was allowed to proceed. One hour later we drove under an arch and found ourselves in the courtyard of a well-fortified castle, which we later learned had been a Fascist stronghold.

The Realities of War

During our stay here, we were shown a room in which the last few survivors had made a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to hold the place against desperate odds. My stomach turned when I saw the blood stains on the floor, the bullet-ridden doors, and the smashed concrete. This was my first initiation into the grim realities of war. Any romantic ideas I might have previously entertained were completely shattered.

To read the rest of this fascinating story buy the April issue of Back in the Day, out now.