Commemorating those Kiwis who died in the Spanish republican cause

A speech for the weekend seminar on “NZ and the Spanish Civil War” hosted by the Trade Union History Project.

I am proud to stand here today at the Wellington Cenotaph as an MP in the New Zealand Parliament.

We are commemorating those brave, committed and most honourable New Zealanders who died defending the Spanish republic against the fascist onslaught in the years 1936-39.

Their names have not traditionally been engraved on our war memorials but we must remember them alongside our other war dead. For they were part of the first battle against the armed forces of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, which took place on Spanish soil while the “democratic” European powers, like Britain and France, looked the other way.

The fascist victory in Spain emboldened Hitler and Mussolini to launch further aggression, with such tragic consequences for the world, and of course the deaths of thousands of New Zealanders who we remember every Anzac Day at this very Cenotaph.

I first want to remember six fine young New Zealanders who died fighting for the Spanish republic. They were Griffiths Campbell McLaurin, an Auckland educated mathematician and Steve Yates, both killed in Madrid in 1937; Frederick Holmes Robertson, who jumped ship at Barcelona and died in battle in 1937; Jack Kent from Hawera, who went down with a republican troop ship sunk by an Italian submarine off Catalonia in 1937; William Madigan, a New Zealand seaman killed in the fighting in 1938; and finally Alexander Crocker McLure, an Otago mining student who founded the Spanish relief committee in New Zealand in 1936, the precursor group to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee — killed in 1937. We remember them.

I think we should also recognise the other six New Zealanders who fought to defend the achievements of the Spanish republic and did return home, such as Tom Spiller, who fronted much of the the campaign for the Spanish when he got back. I remember meeting Tom Spiller in his later life as a strong and staunch trade unionist.

We should also pay homage to the brave Kiwi nurses with the republican forces — such as Rene Shadbolt, Isabel Dodds, Millicent Sharples and Glady Montgomery, and also the treasured medical doctor Doug Jolly.

Then there was Athol Pirano a seaman captured late in the war when running supplies to the republicans, and Geoffrey Cox, a Kiwi journalist in Madrid who helped the republican cause.

Three of those I have mentioned were later honoured for their life’s work, Rene Shadbolt with an MBE, Dr Jolly with an OBE and Geoffrey Cox with a knighthood.

I was lucky to grow up in a family where the memory of the Spanish revolution was still very much alive. My parents Elsie and Jack Locke were among the active campaigners for the Spanish cause in the 1930s. My mother brought Spain into all her talks as she travelled around New Zealand talking on working women’s issues in the late 1930s.

My parents saw the Spanish people’s struggle as making a vital contribution to the international socialist and workers movement.

Even though I wasn’t alive at the time of the Spanish revolution I always felt inspired by it, and by the International Brigades that fought alongside the Spanish people.

This was internationalism at its highest, as eloquently expressed by the Spanish leader Dolores Ibarruri, or La Passionaria, in her farewell speech to the International Brigades in 1938.

She said:

“when the cloudy memory of the sorrowful, bloody days returns in a present of freedom, peace and well-being;

when the feelings of rancor die away and when pride in a free country is felt equally by all Spaniards, then speak to your children. Tell them of these men of the International Brigades.”

In fact, today’s Spanish government has extended Spanish citizenship to all living members of the International Brigage, including New Zealander Rene Shadbolt.

What we are doing here today is keeping alive the example of those courageous New Zealanders who served with the International Brigade and remembering particularly those who gave their lives for that most honourable cause.


Cenotaph, Wellington