New Zealanders march into besieged Madrid

8 November 1936

Spanish Civil War cartoon, 1936 (Alexander Turnbull Library, NON-ATL-C-0076)

New Zealanders Griff Maclaurin and Steve Yates were part of the International Column of anti-fascist volunteers which marched into Madrid, bolstering the city’s defences against the assault of General Francisco Franco’s rebel armies.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 with a pro-fascist military uprising against the democratically elected Spanish government. Within a few months these Nationalist forces stood poised to take the capital and assume control of most of Spain. The Republican government’s elected representatives had fled the capital for Valencia a few days earlier, with most foreign journalists joining the exodus. One journalist who stayed in Madrid was a young New Zealander, Geoffrey Cox, of the News Chronicle. Cox was on hand to give an eyewitness account of the International Column’s arrival, an event which provided a huge morale boost to the Madrileños struggling to defend their city.

The International Column of November 1936 was made up of anti-fascist volunteers from all over Europe. It was the forerunner of the International Brigades, which brought volunteers from around the world to defend the Spanish Republic. The column was organised by the Communist Party but included a range of volunteers of diverse left-wing persuasions. Among the first column that marched into Madrid was a small unit of ‘English’ machine-gunners which included two Kiwis: Steve Yates, a London electrician reputed to have been born in New Zealand, and Griffith Campbell Maclaurin, a Cambridge graduate originally from Auckland.

The International Column and their Spanish comrades halted the Nationalist assault, but suffered heavy casualties. Griff Maclaurin and Steve Yates were killed in battle within two days of arriving in Madrid. They were the first of the thousands of New Zealanders who would die over the next nine years fighting fascism. Contrary to the expectations of both Franco and the world’s press, Madrid held out under continual bombing and artillery bombardment for another 28 months. The city fell in March 1939 as the war came to an end.

At least 20 New Zealanders served as soldiers in the International Brigades or as medical staff for the Republican forces. Six of these volunteers were killed. Three New Zealanders are known to have served with the Nationalist forces. While for most New Zealanders the Spanish Civil War was a faraway side issue, a number of groups within New Zealand were strongly involved in fundraising activities. The Spanish Medical Aid Committee, the Communist Party, and a number of trade unions raised money to send three nurses directly from New Zealand to Spain. Renee Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds and Millicent Sharples were supported by New Zealand fundraisers throughout their service in Spain.