James Matthews was recently charged with terrorism offences for his participation in the Syrian Civil War. It itself this would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that he had not fought for the ‘Islamic State’ but for the Kurds, nominally one of the UK’s allies in the region.

The controversial decision to charge Matthews for his role in Syria is the latest chapter in a long, ambiguous history. British citizens have taken part in numerous conflicts in which Britain remained neutral. Lord Byron’s participation in the Greek War of Independence is the ur-example, and still one of the most famous instances of a ‘soldier of conscience’, motivated by belief to fight in another country’s war.


Alongside Byron, my own research subjects are among the most famous of these cases. The International Brigades were almost certainly the largest single mobilisation of foreign fighters in modern history, creating an equally big headache their home governments. For staunchly anti-communist states such as Britain, the loyalties of these fighters were murky – if they were willing to shed blood for their revolutionary beliefs in Spain, might they not be willing to do the same at home? The British state, while actually taking few steps to prevent their departure or prosecute them on their return, did keep a close eye on them and took some measures to restrict their participation in sensitive industries and the armed forces.

What interests me most about Matthew’s case, however, is the ambiguity stemming from whether he was fighting in Britain’s national interest. He was essentially on the same side as Western powers in Syria, fighting the same enemy. This mirrors the situation of the International Brigade veterans in Britain, after their decision to fight against the spread of fascism appeared vindicated by Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany. They were now all on the same side in an anti-fascist war – so why was their loyalty still suspect?

The ongoing suspicion of the volunteers – fuelled in part by the Communist Party’s anti-war policy prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, it must be allowed – has been a key element of my research into the relationship between the British state and the International Brigaders. I’m interested in understanding the basis of official policy towards the volunteers, particularly in the context of broader anti-communist measures. Equally though, I sought to interrogate the volunteers’ own narratives about the Second World War. On one hand, there is an emphasis on how their heroic fight against fascism was continued, with the ex-volunteers playing starring roles in the defeat of fascism. Yet there was also an equally prominent narrative of resentment and victimisation, with the veterans being unfairly barred from participating in the war effort despite their anti-fascist credentials and experience of modern warfare, with the British state opting to wastefully mistrust and mistreat them. These narratives appeared contradictory to me – how could they at once be heroic participants while be being barred from participating?

Thanks to a lucky archival find, I was able to find out a lot more about how the British state treated the International Brigade veterans. Part of the issue with existing research into the topic has been the difficulty of constructing a holistic picture, particularly as source material has often accrued around only atypical cases.[1] By locating the MI5 registry index for International Brigade volunteers, I was able to build a much broader picture of how far the British state went in persecuting the ex-volunteers.

TNA KV 5/123.

I found that not only was active persecution (or even surveillance) experienced by only a minority of veterans, but also that for the most part this did not appear to have been motivated by their time in Spain, but rather their previous and ongoing Communist Party activities. I wasn’t able to find any cases where Spain appeared to be a decisive factor in Security Service interventions, which stemmed much more from wartime activity than pre-war history. This reflected broader anti-communist policy at the time: while the Communist Party was always viewed as an enemy within, individual communists were only to be targeted if their actions warranted it, explicitly not just because they were members of the Party.[2]

Rather than the machinations of the intelligence services, what I found to have affected International Brigade veterans’ experiences in the Second World War were the cultures of the British military, particularly the Army. While the armed forces were supposed to liaise with MI5 when dealing with suspected ‘subversives’, the evidence strongly suggests that they rarely did, preferring to deal with the problem themselves. This gave considerable power to unit COs, some of whom had strong aversions to ‘Reds’ under their command and lost no time in getting rid of them on whatever grounds they could. While the intelligence services had developed a relatively nuanced understanding of communism in the interwar years, the British officer class had by and large not. Particularly in second-line units, where troublesome individuals were often relegated, officers sometimes did not appear to have a particularly firm grasp of their subordinates’ politics, nor the imagination required to acquire one.

Heaven help any jerries who land anywhere near our Searchlight Sites. The Glasgow Scotties are tough. It has been suggested that Hitler dopes his Troops when they go into battle. A much better effect could be achieved in this Battery by dosing them with two pints of the wine of the County. It is aptly described by the Gunners as ‘Jungle Juice’… All ranks seem very elated with the show being put up by Russia, it has even made some of the Gunners slightly ‘Cocky’, as it is feared that there political opinions are slightly tinged with Red.[3]

This grammatically imprecise Royal Artillery officer, who commanded Aberdeen communist and International Brigader Bob Cooney, typified what could often be a befuddled response to individuals whose politics would not have been tolerated in the peacetime armed forces. For many officers, the solution was to let sleeping dogs lie. If International Brigade veterans kept their heads down and did their jobs, they were generally able to play their desired part in opposing fascism once again.

This uneven yet often pragmatic approach seems in stark contrast to the decision to charge Matthews. While it undoubtedly reflects heightened concern amidst the return home of many who fought for the Islamic State, it marks a departure from a long history of restraint when dealing with the ambiguities caused by foreign fighters.


[1] E.g. Richard Baxell, Unlikely Warriors (London, 2012), pp. 417-46.

[2] Richard Thurlow, ‘“A very clever capitalist class”: British communism and state surveillance 1939–45’, Intelligence and National Security 12:2 (1997), pp. 1-21.

[3] TNA, WO 166/3372.

One thought on “Balancing Ideology with Pragmatism: Spain, Syria and returned ‘Foreign Fighters’

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