The Fighter Fell in Love: A Spanish Civil War Memoir by James R. Jump

 Reviewed by Michael Eaude

This is the memoir of a volunteer to the International Brigades, formed to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Jimmy Jump (1916-1990) was a late recruit to the Brigades, setting out from London in November 1937. This meant that the action he saw, after machine-gun training in Albacete, was in the decisive Battle of the Ebro that was fought and lost from June to November 1938. He was evacuated with jaundice in September and spent nearly three months in hospital in Santa Coloma de Farners, a town in the forest inland from Lloret de Mar.

Unlike many conventional Civil War memoirists who follow every twist in the Communist Party line, Jump wrote what he saw, including negative aspects of the Brigades. This independent approach was assisted by his being a journalist and not previously being a party member (though he joined during his stay in Spain). He came from a comfortable Conservative family and, after growing up in Wallasey on Merseyside where he studied Spanish at school, got a job on the Worthing Herald as a reporter. Here he met Cayetana, a young Spanish woman who had travelled as an escort with Basque refugee children, who were in camps at Worthing and Lancing. They became engaged and agreed to marry after Jump returned from Spain.

There is a debate at the heart of this book, which explains why it was not published in the 1960s when Jump wrote much of it, nor in the 1980s when he revised and extended it. Only now has his son, also called James Jump, brought the manuscript to light. In his Foreword Professor Paul Preston speculates that Jump was probably aware that his openness in discussing three taboo subjects, i.e. executions of volunteers, false accusations of “Trotskyism”, and homosexuality, would have caused hurt to his comrades in the British International Brigade Association (IBA). Non-publication did not only avoid hurt. His book would have led, too, to ostracism by valued comrades, as Stalinist orthodoxy was then the order of the day in the IBA.

Jump writes dramatic scenes.  On the way to a counter-attack at Balaguer in May 1938, the 15th Brigade is assembled in a field at Terrassa. As Jimmy Jump, unlike most volunteers, spoke good Spanish, he was often assigned to translate. He and a senior Spanish officer stand on a low stone wall and he translates a chilling speech. “Two Trotskyist deserters” from the Brigades have been shot… “found guilty of deserting in the face of the enemy and of spreading defeatism.” That night everyone in camp is struggling to understand the executions of these two Scandinavian volunteers. Jump wrote:

I wondered how many, in their hearts, felt as I did. Despite all that we had been told of defeatism, Trotskyism and fifth-columnists, I felt that these two men had really been executed merely because they were afraid and I wondered how afraid I would be when under fierce attack.

The book reaches its narrative climax at the Battle of the Ebro, when the Brigade is pinned by enemy aviation to the side of the bare Hill 481. The sun tortures the soldiers while from the hell of no man’s land the dying’s “pleas for help are brought to us on the warm air”. 

Jump entwines another climax with this battlefield horror. While these comrades are dying around him in the battle for the hill, he hears that another comrade Paddy O’Sullivan had shot an 18-year-old Spanish deserter he had found hiding in a bush. Jump realises he could never have done this. He thinks that he is “only intellectually an anti-fascist”, while the men around him “who had suffered poverty and unemployment” understood that fascism was the extension of the capitalism that oppressed them and were prepared to do anything at all to halt it. I am not convinced by Jump’s argument that intellectuals are soft and that only real workers are sufficiently ruthless, but the point is sincerely felt and strongly argued.

Worse was to follow, when his Irish friend Maurice Ryan who “had an irrepressible sense of humour and revered no one” was shot as a “Trotskyist – a label so easily fastened on anyone who deviated from the ‘correct’ political line”. Ryan’s only crime was that he was a rough guy who liked to crack jokes against authority, including the Communist Party and the IRA. Jimmy Jump remarks that Ryan was “a brave soldier and a fine machine-gunner”, but fatally he said what he thought. You might think these were qualities to be admired in a young anti-fascist: free debate and hatred for authority. This was clearly not the case when opinions and jokes contradicted the party line. (J. Jump junior, in his very thorough notes, gives different and, if true, more solid reasons for Ryan’s execution).

I believe no other International Brigades memoir is as honest as Jimmy Jump’s in questioning the IB’s ruthlessness with deserters and their calling any deserter a “Trotskyist” or “fifth-columnist”. In fact, there were no followers of Trotsky in the Brigades: “Trotskyism” was a chimera to keep the troops in line and subdue political debate. The Russian purges of the Old Bolsheviks had been introduced into the Spanish War.

Other themes usually absent in Civil War memoirs are tackled by Jump. He criticizes the puritanical attitude of the Brigades’ political commissars to homosexuality, quite common in reality among men living close together in the shadow of death. And he comments how soldiers were “generally bored to tears” by the lengthy, repetitive political speeches of the many visiting dignitaries. However, they liked Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, who was clever enough to make no rousing speech, but told them the English football and cricket results. 

Twenty of Jimmy Jump’s short, thoughtful and moving poems complete each chapter. They deal, not with glory or heroism, but with the basics of life in the war, like this on fear before battle:

All my belongings have gone in a lorry
To the safety of the rear
And I am alone
Wearing my tattered uniform and my fear.

Jimmy Jump need not have feared his fear, for he was commended for courage under fire. His poems are direct and simple. They are lyrical in the detail: a loaf of bread, a tin of corned-beef, a change of socks, the “hospitals without eggs/ where nurses wash sheets without soap”. 

There is a poignant passage in which Jump talks of his terror of being wounded, especially being blinded or losing a leg. He was wounded in a leg in the Battle of the Ebro. The wound was apparently slight, but some 40 years later it caused the amputation of a leg due to circulation problems. Over time, the war wound caught up with him.

Jimmy Jump worked as a teacher in Kent until his retirement coincided with Franco’s death in 1975. He and Cayetana then went to live in Logroño in Northern Spain. Health problems brought him back to Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex in the early 1980s, where he died in November 1990. As well as poems, collected in a bilingual edition as Poems of War and Peace, issued by Piedra de Rayo (Logroño) in 2007, Jimmy Jump wrote a number of Spanish teaching text-books and a monumental Penguin Spanish Dictionary, published in the last year of his life.

All those who volunteered for the Brigades in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 deserve maximum respect. They put their lives on the line to fight fascism and nearly 500 British volunteers died. Jimmy Jump’s outstanding book describes brilliantly the personalities of his comrades, the country they fought in and the cause they defended. He also faces two key polemics, about fear and desertion and about the Stalinist witch-hunt against “Trotskyism”, which make his memoir particularly powerful. And original.

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Michael Eaude’s latest book is Sails & Winds (Signal), a cultural and political history of Valencia.

James R. Jump, The Fighter Fell in Love: A Spanish Civil War Memoir (Clapton Press, 2021). 978-1913693053, 192 pp., paperback original.

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