Blast from the Past: Arthur Timpson and the Anarchists
Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings will showcase articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers.
An Encounter with the Anarchists in Figueras
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 7, Number 1, March 1985 and included in the VALB anthology Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Spain, 1936-1939 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987).]
After a typical crossing of the Pyrenees, Arthur Timpson had a unique experience with the Anarchists who were briefly in control of the fort in Figueras during the uprising in Catalonia in May 1937. Arthur Timpson, who was the Commanding Officer of the John Brown Artillery Battery, died in 1976. These excerpts from a manuscript he had written were furnished by his widow, Anne Timpson.
We did not have to wait long. In an hour a truck pulled into the yard. It was covered with one of those Conestoga canvas tops. Two men were in the cab. We got in the back. The canvas back drop was pulled down and we were told not to look out. The order surprised me. I had the feeling that volunteers for the war ought to be allowed exposure to the people. I remember how the first trains from France went to Spain all covered with flowers. But I was a good soldier and said nothing out loud.
About an hour later the truck stopped with a lot of voices all about us. Then the back flap was pulled aside and someone with a very seamed face, topped by a leather cap, looked in; gave us a brief scrutiny, and closed the flap. I was sitting close to the rear and got a glimpse of a wall and a machine gun pointing carelessly in our direction. Two more of the leather-capped men were with the gun. Our truck went ahead for another fifty yards. Then we got out. We were in an immense square with barrack like buildings all around. There was the gate that we came through with two machine guns over the gate. A half dozen more of the leather caps were visible. None of them looked friendly. Someone, of the reception committee I suppose, said, “Anarchists. We are POWs.”
And so it was that on the 6th of May, 1937, I became a prisoner in the Fortress of Figueras. That Fort had held off Napoleon. [It is a] Famous place connected with history. Was it to be merely a matter of incarceration? A quick peek at the machine gunners on the wall didn’t reassure me any. I suspected they would have no qualms over the prospect of using those two Maxims on us. But how come? Our reception committee had a man who seemed to be an authority. Strongly built, speaking with an accent, he asked us to follow him with an accent, he asked us to follow him into one of the barracks. We sat down at tables and he ordered food for us. Then he introduced himself as the cantonment commander. Later I was to hear that he was a hero in the war, and that he was Armenian. He told us that the Anarchists were getting impatient with the Republicans, Socialists and Communists who were running the war, and hampering the Anarchists in the spreading of their gospel. The Anarchists were keeping all of the weapons they could get, borrow or steal, and hiding them in Barcelona, and that they had decided to strike out on their own, and take over the country. It seems there was some battling going on in Barcelona, and the Anarchists had seized Figueras and the Fort. He went on to say that it was quite serious, and the Fascists were interested and eager to fan the flames. A Franco plane had made a turn over Figueras that very morning. He also hoped that no one inside these walls would excite the lads on the wall. We all averred that we would behave. He said we could rest a bit after eating; then we would be called to go to the parade ground for drill. He also said to go easy on the Spanish wine for it was raw and had a fierce and sneaky wallop.
We got rice, one bowl. The rice was brown and boiled in olive oil, making it porridge-like. Spanish bread [was] rather heavy in taste. The food didn’t make much of an impression on me. It was to be much later that the monotony of the food got on the nerves now and then, and it was a bit of an inner struggle to keep the nerves from exploding. My time for eating cats, dogs, lizards and horses was still in the future.
The day turned out to be a dull day of drill and hanging around the barracks. We got word that the Anarchists had pretty much given up the grandiose ideas they held of taking over Spain. Even in Barcelona they were laying down their arms. Our leather caps never changed their expressions, however. And we were still prisoners. Some sort of argument must have taken place the next morning, for we were all asked to come out and drill in large formations with the other three hundred men who had been waiting shipment south. And we were told to sing. The Germans sang beautifully. The British and we were not so artistic. We heard a short speech from the Commandant in which he hinted that though we meant no harm to anyone here, we would conduct ourselves as men if pressed by anyone. I suspected this was a form of warning to the leather caps who might have threatened our people. The leather caps must have taken umbrage but nothing happened. The Germans marched and sang; we tried to march. Eventually, we were all dismissed. The leather caps must have gotten the point about their private war having had a disastrous ending all through Republican Spain.
In the afternoon we were all called out for exercise in the field. The leather caps must have relented in full, for the machine guns were now pointed to the outside, instead of into the compound. The outside of the barracks were solid walls. The compound and the barracks had been cut in to the top of the hill, for the walls showed only a low outline. Looked formidable. We were about a third of the way down hill. There we were assigned to groups that took up a rough line facing up hill. We were to attack up the slope, scrambling and lying prone by turns. But before we got going we had an air alarm. A plane had come in from the sea and was making a turn of over Figueras. A series of whistles and loud calls had us all flatten along the sides of the arroyo we were in. The plane went away and we moved hurriedly over several tracks in the freight yards, and loaded into a string of cars without an engine. There we waited for hours. The day was darkening rapidly when the train finally left. And so we proceeded to Valencia and finally Albacete, where we would be processed and assigned to the John Brown Battery, an artillery outfit.