A Witness to the Spanish Civil War

After being destroyed during the blitz, Henry Buckley’s chronicle of the Spanish Civil War is now available for the first time in 70 years.

The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic

Henry Buckley’s Life and Death of the Spanish Republic constitutes a unique account of Spanish politics throughout the entire life of the Second Republic, from its foundation on 14 April 1931 to its defeat at the end of March 1939, combining personal recollections of meetings with the great politicians of the day with eye-witness accounts of dramatic events. It lucidly explains a complex period in vivid prose laced with humour, pity for human suffering and outrage at those whom he considered to be responsible for the tragedy of Spain.

It was an ironic commentary on the experiences recounted in the book that, not long after it had been published in 1940, the warehouse in London containing stocks of the book was hit by German incendiary bombs and all the unsold copies were destroyed. Thus, this classic history of the war has been unavailable ever since.

Henry Buckley was born in Urms near Manchester in November 1904 and, after stints in Berlin and Paris, he had come to Spain to represent the now defunct Daily Chronicle. Henry Buckley was a devout Roman Catholic, with radical social instincts. It was human empathy, rather than ideology, that accounted for his support for the struggles of the industrial workers and the landless peasants in the 1930s.

While working for the Daily Telegraph, Henry Buckley established friendships with many of the most prominent war correspondents who worked in Spain, including Jay Allen, Vincent Sheehan, Lawrence Fernsworth, Herbert Matthews, renowned photographer Robert Capa and Ernest Hemingway . It is said that when Hemingway returned to Madrid after the Civil War, he would always turn to Henry Buckley to find out what was really going on in Franco’s Spain.

The overwhelming value of this new book is that it provides an objective picture of a crucial decade of contemporary Spanish and world history. Perceptive and revealing, Buckley’s portraits of the major political and military figures of the day continue to profoundly colour our judgements.

Below we have compiled a selection of extracts from the book as well as a gallery of images taken by Buckley and fellow journalists during the war.

In Conflict

Buckley’s quiet manner belied the courage which saw him visiting every front at considerable risk to himself. In the latter stages of the Battle of the Ebro, on 5 November 1938, he crossed the river in a boat with Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Sheean, Robert Capa and Herbert Matthews. He commented later:

We were sent out to cover the news on Lister’s front—Hemingway was then reporting to the North American Newspaper alliance. At that time, virtually all the bridges across the Ebro had been smashed by the fighting and a series of treacherous spikes had been sunk in the river to discourage all navigation on it. However, since there was no other way of getting to the front, the five of us set out in a boat with the idea of rowing along the shore until we got to the deepest part of the river, then crossing, and rowing back to the opposite shore. The trouble was that we got caught in the current and started drifting into the centre. With every moment that passed, the situation became more menacing, for, once on the spikes, the bottom of the boat was certain to be ripped out; almost as certain was that we would drown once the boat had capsized. It was Hemingway who saved the situation, for he pulled on the oars like a hero, and with such fury that he got us safely across.

Buckley was, of course, playing down his own bravery. Hemingway described him during the war as ‘a lion of courage, though a very slight, even frail creature with (or so he says in his book) jittery nerves’.


After the capture of Catalonia by the rebel forces at the end of January 1939, Buckley, along with Herbert Matthews, Vincent Sheean and other correspondents, had joined the exodus of refugees. He and Matthews established themselves in a hotel in Perpignan and devoted themselves to reporting on the appalling conditions in the concentration camps improvised by the French authorities into which the refugees had been herded. They managed to intervene to rescue people that they knew from the groups being taken to the camps.

Although he says little of his own role, Buckley’s pages are alive with fury when he reaches his horrendous account of refugees arriving at the French frontier. He was outraged that Britain and France did not do more:

The whole world was excited about the rescuing of some 600 chefs d’oeuvres of Spanish and Italian art which were being guarded near Figueras after their long odyssey. But we cared nothing about the soul of a people which was being trampled on. We did not come to cheer them; to encourage them. To have taken these half million and cherished them and given them work and comfort in Britain and France and their colonies, that indeed would have been culture in its real sense of the word. I love El Greco, I have spent countless hours just sitting looking at the Prado Titians and some of Velázquez’s works fascinate me, but frankly I think that it would have been better for mankind if they had all been burnt in a pyre if the loving and warm attention that was lavished on them could have been devoted to this half-million sufferers.

British Government

To some degree, the greatest object of Buckley’s indignation during the conflict is the role of the British government and the diplomatic corps. He comments that:

When I did talk to any of our diplomatic officers I found them very complaisantly disposed towards the Spanish Right. They looked upon them as a guarantee against Bolshevism, much preferable to have them in power than either Socialists or Republicans for this reason, and they would gently pooh-pooh any suggestion that the Spanish Right might one day side with Germany and Italy and we might suddenly find our Empire routes in danger.

Arriving in Spain

Buckley was disappointed by his first sight of Spain, and by the shabbiness and poverty of the peasants:

Nothing had prepared me for the grim aspect of the Castilian uplands in November, for the shabbiness and poverty of the peasants, for the smell of rancid olive oil at wayside stations. I felt bitterly disillusioned as the train crept slowly across the Peninsula from Irun to Madrid.

Yet Buckley was also fiercely self-critical about the audacity of reporting on a country of which he knew nothing in 1929. He writes throughout with a humorous awareness of his own deficiencies, describing himself, on leaving Paris for Madrid, as ‘a rather crotchety and thin-blooded virgin’. Buckley may have been ignorant on his arrival but he set out to learn and learn he did. ■


Henry Buckley‘s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, with an introduction by Paul Preston, is out now. A chapter from the book, recounting the arrival of Spanish refugees in France at the end of the conflict, is available to read online and to download.


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