Who was John Smith?

by Alex Osborne

John Smith holds the interesting honour of being the only man from Irvine to join the International Brigade. John was born in 1907 in his parents’ home in Clark Drive, into a large family, having three brothers and five sisters. John himself would marry but lose his wife, along with their only child due to complications at childbirth in 1933.

On the 1st of January 1937 John would join the international brigade and leave Scotland for Spain to fight against the rise of Franco and his Fascism. Never far from the fighting, John would get wounded several times throughout the course of the war. On one of these occasions, while recovering from wounds sustained on the front lines, he would write home to his mother “If this does not make the Labour Party do something, nothing will”.

While Attlee, leader of the opposition at the time and future Prime Minister would visit Spain later that year and reaffirm his party’s commitment to support Republican forces, Attlee would not go into government until the Second World War and there would be no great international response to the Civil War from Britain. In fact, the British government would encourage France to follow the UK in its dedication to inaction. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico would provide the Democratic forces with direct support, while Franco would get support from both Germany and Italy.

In September 1938 John would give his life fighting for his beliefs in the climactic battle of Ebro.

This battle would see the Republican army crushed by Franco, supported both by Mussolini’s Italian fascists and Hitler’s Nazis and all but signaled the curtain call for democratic forces in Spain. The free air force would no longer operate as an effective fighting force and the territories loyal to the Republic were split in two. John was one of as many as 30,000 men who died during the brutal battle that lasted from July to November. After the battle Franco would go on to win the war and Spain would not return to democracy until the late 70’s, after Franco’s death.

While John’s story has a sad ending, John is far from forgotten. Listed on the roll of honour for the International Brigade he was also honoured by Cunninghame District Council in 1988 who would erect a plaque on the anniversary of his death at Irvine Library. More recently he would be remembered by the North Ayrshire Trade Union Council who would host a townhouse memorial gathering in 2017 and raise a memorial stone to John in 2018.

It is important to remember John’s story because he was an inspiration to many, both during and after his life. A hero who believed so strongly in the ideals of democracy and justice that he would take up arms at the idea that someone, anywhere would be denied either. John’s example would inspire his own family and his own brother would become a councillor in 1945. It is important that we continue to honour and remember his legacy in our community.