Back to the Spanish front, Keith Ovenden

Defence of Madrid
Geoffrey Cox
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877372382

The republication of Geoffrey Cox’s short work Defence of Madrid (1937) is a corrective to many contemporary assumptions about the Spanish Civil War. It is an eyewitness account of his six weeks in the Spanish capital from late October to early December 1936, when the apparently inexorable progress of the Rebel army was stopped at the gates of Madrid. In addition to the bitter and sometimes hand-to-hand fighting that then took place in the Casa del Campo and the grounds of the unfinished University City, Cox also witnessed the shelling and bombing of the civilian population.

Geoffrey Cox, born in 1910, was the son of a bank employee who rose to be manager of the Dunedin branch of the Bank of New South Wales. His parents were of English Anglican stock on his father’s side, and Scottish Presbyterian on his mother’s: Canterbury and Otago united. Cox grew up in various South Island country towns before Invercargill and Southland Boys’ High School prepared him for the study of history and law at Otago University. There he edited Critic and was associate editor (with Winnie Gonley) of the annual Otago Review. He felt he owed his passion for contemporary affairs to his mother, whose interest in such matters had been frustrated by a conventional marriage in small-town settings. Talented, articulate, hard-working and ambitious, he was also sufficiently “establishment” to be elected to a Rhodes Scholarship. (His mother’s father was Duncan MacGregor, the philosopher and social reformer. His father had been born at Mt Somers, and lived there as a boy till his own father was forced to sell during an agricultural recession.)

Cox went up to Oriel College, Oxford in 1932, but not before taking a brisk tour of Russia, Holland, France, Belgium and Scotland. Having read a book about A S Neill’s progressive school Summerhill, he went to visit it to see for himself. Thirst for the controversies of his age was never quenched. Journalism – as then understood – was his natural destination.

It is conventional wisdom that individuals make their own luck. While at Oxford, Cox immersed himself in the Europe of the 1930s, even going to work one summer on a Nazi German youth labour camp to find out what German fascism was really like. When, after Oxford, he went to work for the News Chronicle – a Left(ish) daily paper – he made himself indispensable by being reliable, sober, well organised, better informed, and most willing. He liked to say that getting sent to Madrid at the end of October 1936 to replace Denis Weaver, the paper’s war correspondent who had been taken prisoner by the Rebel forces, was the stroke of good fortune that nobody else wanted. Madrid was about to fall. The junta and its Moorish troops were expected to exact their customary revenge. Only a junior was expendable on such a reporting job, which was bound to be temporary as well as dangerous. Perhaps this is true. What is more likely is that a quick survey by the foreign editor of who was available in the office for a special, difficult and serious assignment in the front line of the evolving politics of a newly brutal age, very quickly identified Geoffrey Cox as the man for the job.

So, at any rate, he proved to be. All of Cox’s writing is intimate in the sense that he writes of what he sees and hears and smells. The Madrid in which he arrived was preparing itself for the onslaught of Rebel forces amid an atmosphere tense with waiting, alive with the resolve to fight, and alert to all the gains that had been made – social and economic – since the revolution that had been the widespread public response to the military uprising of July 1936. The situation was complex, but Cox set about reporting it as he saw it within hours of his arrival, and kept up a steady stream of observant and accurate reportage under increasingly difficult circumstances for the next six weeks. It turned out that he was one of only two British correspondents who had stayed in the city, and his reportage, frequently on the front page under his own byline (in those days a privilege reserved for only the most exalted) was widely read. It is no exaggeration to say that in these few short weeks he did much to shape public opinion about the war in Spain. He was the first to report the stalling and then the repulsing of the initial military assault; the first to write of the effects on the civilian population of shelling and bombing; one of the first to write vividly of the arrival of the forerunners of the International Brigade.

His work is thought by some to be partisan. The criticism is misplaced. He felt and shared in the euphoria at a new-found dignity and egalitarianism that he detected on the streets and in the cafés and on the front line of the battlefields of Madrid. There was nothing phoney about this. Observers often report similar emotions amid the experience of social turmoil and collective engagement. His instinct for who and what was right is steady and well-documented. The elected government had the loyalty of the great bulk of the population, as well as democratic right and justice on its side. The military insurgents stood for a repressive Catholic ideology of subservience, a ruthless attachment to power, and the private wealth of the landowning class. The republic was a newly democratised society: the military junta a body of reactionary authoritarians. The “accounting” that took place after the end of the civil war in April 1939, largely shielded from foreign observation by the outbreak of WWII, was worse than more recent events in disintegrating Yugoslavia. The crushing burden of poverty and sterile authoritarian domination that was reimposed on the peasantry and such of the urban working class as survived the murder, repression and starvation of the post-civil war period, was medieval. It took Spain 25 years to recover. An entire generation lost.

Cox, present at the defence of Madrid, understood very well the importance of the struggle, and the consequences of defeat. Afterwards, back at the News Chronicle, he was not slow to translate his success into new opportunities. He wrote this book in two months. Gollancz published it quickly while Madrid still stood in Republican hands, and it was widely reviewed and praised. With this success, Cox landed the job of foreign correspondent in Vienna for the Daily Express under Arthur Christiansen’s editorship, and his career was launched. He went on to cover the subsequent diplomatic and military events of Hitler’s rise to European domination; the Russian war in Finland; Blitzkrieg in Belgium and France. Escaping to England from Bordeaux after Dunkirk, he joined the army, and was with 2NZEF (the Div) in Greece, Crete and North Africa; served for two years as First Secretary in the New Zealand Legation in Washington under Walter Nash; and then as GSO3(I) to Freyberg for the last year of the war.

He must have been an inveterate notetaker because, with the exception of his years in Washington, he later wrote excellent books about all of these experiences. His The Red Army Moves (1941) on the Russo-Finnish War, The Race for Trieste (1977) on the New Zealand Division’s Spring offensive in Italy in 1945, and A Tale of Two Battles (1987) on Crete and Sidi Rezegh are all gripping as well as authoritative works. Indeed, The Race for Trieste is a classic account of mobile warfare and how it is waged, and certainly worth the time of anyone who wishes to understand the Division, and the role that it played in the termination of European fascism.

Some years after the war, Cox turned his creative talents to television news production for ITN, but he remained at heart a writer: “essentially [a] descriptive” one, he said in Eyewitness: A Memoir of Europe in the Thirties (1999). This is understatement. What Cox brought to his journalism, and as a gift to those who have had the privilege of knowing him, is a penetrating understanding of people and a steady judgement about their reliability, truthfulness and honesty. I never met anyone else who could, almost at a glance, so sum up a person and get them right. It is an immensely valuable talent. One has to hope that in addition to the gift of his public work, of which Defence of Madrid is the first, and fine precursor of what was to come, there is also a wealth of private material – letters, notes, diary entries – that will permit a further understanding not only of this remarkable and gifted New Zealander, but also of his contemporaries and the times through which they lived.


Keith Ovenden is a novelist and the biographer of Dan Davin.


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