100 not out - International Brigader fights on!
Thursday February 15, 2007 18:36 by Bristler - Bristle collective editors at bristle dot org dot uk
A tetsament to the enduring power of ideas
The editors at Bristle mag (http://www.bristle.org.uk) recently received news that former member of the International Brigades (Spain 1936-8) and Taunton resident for 52 years, Howard Andrews, was approaching his 100th birthday on 15 February. We salute this remarkable man who remains active in local social movements. The following tribute has been written by Dave Chapple:
Still fighting - Howard in Taunton on Hiroshima day 2006
TRIBUTE TO A REMARKABLE CENTENARIAN: HOWARD ANDREWS OF TAUNTON
In 1993 Esther Silverstein, an American university lecturer who had been a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, was asked by Jim Fryth and Sally Alexander what she remembered of her time in Spain. These were her first thoughts:
“Even though my knowledge of English custom was derived from 19th Century fiction, I seemed to adapt well to the English members of the 35th International Division Sanitary Corps of the Spanish Republican Army. One of the group, Howard Andrews, is memorable. He provided all the surgical teams with necessities for the maintenance of sterile technique and accomplished this by very hard work and the most constant attention to detail. Had he not done so we would all have been blown away. He operated five or six primus stoves at once, all filled with gasoline, on top of these sat pressure cookers and in each pressure cooker lay a metal drum containing supplies being sterilized. From this unit Howard Andrews supplied us with laparotomy sheets, sponges, towels, dressing, gloves, gowns and masks. He had one primus stove which always had a tea kettle ‘on the boil’, and from him I learned to drink strong tea with milk in it. Andy was working whenever we were and if I came to get fresh supplies I was given tea and told: ‘Sit down and have your tea. They can do without you for a few minutes.’ He was a serious person and his work was of the highest importance.”
Rosaleen Smythe was from Leicester, and worked in Spain as a hospital secretary in the same 35th Division as Andy and Esther. Fryth and Alexander quote from her diary:
“It has been raining for days and days. This prevents attacks. The river is rising hourly; it has reached the door of the hospital, which is only a wooden hut The cases are increasing. We have no clean water, no fires no heating, no lavatories or sanitation of any kind. The village has been bombed, the hospital, garage, and one or two houses. We had fourteen patients in the hospitals. One of them dies. A cavalry man had to have his leg amputated. They have been bringing his horse to the door of the ward to see him. We had one pregnant woman hit in the leg. We took in patients from the infirmary and the day after it was evacuated it was bombed to pieces. Existence is a misery. Rain is coming in. Rats run across the floor. Our rations are tinned meat, chick peas and five almonds each. We are afraid to undress night or day because of the bombing. We have no milk, eggs or potatoes for the typhoid patients, yet owing to good nursing only 8 per cent died.”
“Andy is a jewel. He has organised the stretcher-bearers and sees to the sanitation, the little there is. Dr Saxton has started a canteen in which we sell mouldy bread and jam, cognac and Malaga wine. In the evenings, by the light of a few candles we put on a gramophone. The records we have are Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one movement of Schubert’s Unfinished and one Haydn. We play them over and over again to the drip, drip, drip of the incessant rain. We put on extra pullovers to go to bed in, we have given our blankets to the patients. A bitter cold wind and a frost have set in. Those poor chicas have to clean the few bed-pans in the icy river water. Today the lorries tried to get down: we could have cried when they returned empty. Yet everyone is being very brave. The nurses are splendid. The bombing has begun again.”
Howard Andrews went along to the London offices of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee as soon as it was formed, and travelled to Spain by SMAC ambulance to volunteer in the fight against Franco at the end of August 1936. Using his Royal Army Medical Corps training, Andy stayed in Spain for over two years, at Barcelona, Granen, and in field hospitals during some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, including Teruel and the Ebro. He still has his 1938 passport to prove it!
Last October, Andy at 99 was by four years the oldest of the 32 surviving International Brigaders from the world over able to return to Spain for a week-long 70th Anniversary Homage. It was, as he said to me on the plane coming back, ‘The best week of his life.’
Andy was a Kilburn boy whose father was a soldier and whose mother took on jobs during the First World War to help feed and clothe her four children. Edward, the eldest, joined the Royal Navy two years under age and was torpedoed twice on the Murmansk run before he was 17.
At 16 Andy signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps, and by 1925 found himself in Imperial India stationed at Quetta in Baluchistan. An off duty hour with his pal Dave Munday at Bombay docks was a life-changing experience:
“We saw these figures with lumps on their backs and heads in the distance moving slowly up a ship’s gangplank. When we got closer we were horrified to see scores of Indian women, their ragged clothes black from head to foot, some with babies strapped on their backs, carrying heavy baskets of coal from the wharf. We went over to the Indian foreman, who told us that it was not unusual for a pregnant woman to carry on working until she was due, go inside a warehouse, have the child and then carry on working. I remember turning around to Dave and saying: ‘If this is the Jewel in the English Crown, I want nothing to do with it.’”
Some years later, discharged from the army, a member of the Independent Labour Party, but with this memory burning still inside him, Andy, at home in Kilburn in 1931, used to knock on a stranger’s door, borrow a chair, stand in the middle of the street, and exclaim to passers-by the iniquities of Empire.
Andy’s army days had been uneventful until he was posted to Shanghai with the Jhansi Brigade in late 1926/early 1927. There to protect the British Canton during the run up to the Civil War of spring 1927, when Chaing-Kai Shek’s nationalists fought Mao Tse Tung’s Communists in the streets, Andy was witness to the aftermath of a massacre:
“I got the order to take some Indian troops and go to a certain place where there was this small wooden shed with the door slightly open. It was wedged tight when we prized it open the sight, stench and sound were unbelievable. Twenty to thirty bodies, all badly wounded, had been thrown inside. We started the work of taking the wounded out from the top of the heap, but by the time we were getting towards the bottom, the rest had died, of suffocation, or their wounds….they looked like civilians to me.”
By 1932 Andy was active in Willesden’s Unemployed Workers Movement- and a trades unionist when he could get work-and had joined the local Communist Party. His memories of that time are of confronting Mosley’s English fascists:
“They used to try and come into Kilburn: but we always got enough people and saw them off: chased them out of the area.”
In August 1936, with other Communists, Andy infiltrated a Mosley British Union of Fascists rally at the Albert Hall:
“We were scattered throughout the balcony, and at a given signal, stood up and threw anti-fascist leaflets onto the stalls below. There was immediate pandemonium! Blackshirt thugs came after us, and I was given one hell of a thunp in the stomach, and thrown down two or three flights of stairs. When I crawled to the entrance, I was thumped again, except this time two policemen were standing nearby. One of them came over and kicked me himself, saying: ‘Serves you right!’
A few months later, Andy gave up his job as stoker in a London hospital, and volunteered for Spain.
Before World War Two, Andy joined the Royal Artillery, and drove armoured vehicles across Northern France, until the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk:
“One time I remember my mate and I were sat in this armoured car inside a barn somewhere. There was this almighty crash, and we suffered a direct hit from shell. The heavy vehicle was blown right up through the roof, and came down again with a hell of a crash. I was still sat in the driver’s seat uninjured, my mate was thrown out and broke an arm. On Dunkirk beach I was in the water waist-high for what seemed ages waiting for my boat, and when I was rescued by a British destroyer, it was bombed and sank, so I had to be rescued again!”
Andy came to Taunton, Somerset, with his wife in 1955 and found work in the pharmacy department of the local hospital. Soon he had started to build up the local COHSE Branch, and became Branch Secretary. Together with fellow Communist and nurse Angela Sneddon, Andy built the branch up from 4 to over 100 in a year. He remained active in the small local Communist Party Branch, COHSE, and Taunton Trades Union Council until he retired aged 65 in 1972.
Andy and I met 16 months ago through another Communist Trade Union stalwart, Henry Suss of Manchester and Salford, who now lives at a home for the blind in Burnham on Sea.
Aged 99, living independently in his Council-owned bungalow, and in reasonable health, Andy has thrown back the years and resumed a life of political activism which has inspired all who have met him. He re-joined the Communist Party on his 99th birthday. He joined the Taunton Peace Group, attends meetings and town centre demonstrations, and in his own time leaflets door to door on his own against the renewal of Trident. He took an active part in the local battle to stop the sell-off of Taunton’s Council Houses, a campaign organised by the successor trade union to COHSE, Somerset County and Taunton Deane Branches of UNISON. He attends local trades council meetings, and last year confronted the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police during the South West TUC Pensioners Conference in a memorable exchange. Delegate after delegate had asked one soft unpolitical question after another, and this Chief Constable was lapping it all up. Then Andy rose slowly to speak:
“Chief Constable, when I went on Unemployed Demonstrations in the early 1930’s it was the police, your men, who showed us no mercy and battoned us to the ground. You were under the control of the Government then, and as far as I can see, under Labour or Tory Governments, that has continued. And when I read what is happening to poor Mr Brain Haw outside parliament today, I can only ask you: when will it all end?” Long silence, interrupted by a subdued police voice: “I admit that we have got it wrong with the unions in the past….” Conference was never quite the same after that!
Happy birthday to a remarkable friend and comrade!
Somerset Association of Trades Union Councils
Tel 01278 450562
NB: Quotes are from J Fryth and S Alexander: ‘Womens’ Voices from the Spanish Civil War.’ Pub. Lawrence & Wishart.