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Memories of a Mac-Pap – A Book Review

July 9, 2014

Lessons from a conflict that served as the practice round for World War II

Mac-Pap coverRonald Liversedge with David Yorke, ed., Mac-Pap – Memoir of a Canadian in The Spanish Civil War (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013), 220 pages (paper), $19 (CD and USD). 

A bloody harbinger of what Hitler and Mussolini had in store for the world, the Spanish Civil War served as an almost forgotten prelude to the Second World War. Equally buried in that history is the story of a group of Canadian volunteers known as the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the Mac-Paps.

Now Vancouver historian David Yorke has resurrected a little-circulated manuscript that tells that story through the personal vision of one of the 1,200 Mac-Paps that fought for the democratically elected Republican government of Spain against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco.

Ronald Liversedge’s memoir takes readers on a poignant personal journey marked by hardship, loss, commitment and camaraderie during which he witnesses the courageous deaths of his many compatriots and the political cowardice of the Canadian government.

Yorke’s biographical introduction and his copious historical notes at the end of Mac-Pap make this a welcome chance to re-examine the bitter conflict that the Nazis and Italian fascists used as a training ground for their killing machines.

Liversedge takes us to the frontlines, to the insanity of a ragtag army without uniforms, without language, without much food other than rice and olive oil, and seemingly without hope of winning against the overwhelming force of fascist mercenaries that turned them into cannon fodder.

Yet Liversedge does find hope in the mayhem of that war. He finds friendship, the caring of the Spanish people under siege, and the joy of knowing that he is in the right. “The world’s working people were for the Spanish people (that is the Republic),” he writes, “and the world’s rulers, the monopolists and bankers and the governments they controlled, were for the fascists.”

He also experiences the pain of losing friends and the frustration of watching his chosen side founder and ultimately fall. “Of the twelve hundred: six hundred were killed in action; sox hundred sick and wounded finally returned to Canada,” he notes, and many of those fought and died in the Second World War a few months after their return.

Liversedge doesn’t candy coat the misery he saw and suffered. Nor does he pretend that this was a perfect army with perfect conscripts. There were volunteers who perhaps joined the brigades without sharing his views as a strong Communist and he acknowledges it.

He depicts the bloody scenes of battle factually and with heart, but he doesn’t dwell on the negative aspects of his experience. He never loses sight of the cause and never abandons it even after the Spanish government orders all the International Brigades to leave for their own safety.

At home in British Columbia he continued for the rest of his life to fight against Franco’s fascism, to assist Mac-Pap veterans, and to expose the Canadian government for its unwillingness to assist the Spanish Republicans.

As he notes, only the Soviet Union provided assistance to the Republicans. The others, including Canada, seemed blinded by Hitler and the false hope that it would be business as usual under the fuhrer and il duce.

Liversedge writes in simple language that might read to some like a diary from the trenches and in a way that’s what it is. Here we have a modest but effective recounting of one person’s fight for what he believed in. It is worth the read in an age often devoid of the kind of selflessness and compassion for others that was exhibited by the Mac-Paps.

Excerpt from Mac-Pap

Entering Spain aboard the Cuidad de Barcelona

At about two o’clock in the afternoon we were told that we were forty miles from Barcelona, and would be arriving there around five. I went down to the cabin to have a rest before we got to Barcelona.

I was barely settled on the bed, when the terrific explosion occurred. The ship seem to literally leap from the water, settle back with a shudder which could be felt distinctly, and then noiselessly come to a stop. As I sprang from the bed and automatically started to tie on a lifebelt, I thought that a shell from a big naval gun had landed right on deck. I was mistaken. We had been torpedoed by an Italian submarine.

All the clothes I had on were underwear, trousers and shirt. My tobacco pouch was one of those rubber ones like a small pillowcase, and into this I stuffed my passport. I rolled up the pouch and put it inside my shirt, behind the life jacket. As I left the cabin I grabbed the second life jacket, and meeting George Sarvas at the cabin door, I gave him the life jacket, told him to put it on and to get up top right away. As I started up the stairway to the deck, I looked out through a porthole. The shoreline, a long, long way off, seemed to be tilted to a crazy angle. But it was the ship that was tilted.

When I reached the deck, a horrible sight hit me with a shock. The ship’s stern was already under water and she was slowly turning over to the port side. All around the ship was a mass of floating wreckage: barrels, crates, cases, planking, canvas, wooden bedsteads. And amongst all this debris were bobbing heads, and floating bodies, and around the bodies the sea crimson with blood…

And that is how some of us came to Spain.

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