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Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances

British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War

Linda Palfreeman is Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Cardenal Herrera, Elche, Spain. She has spent some years researching local aspects of the Spanish Civil War and of the International Brigades’ Medical Service. Her ¡Salud! British Volunteers in the Republican Medical Service during the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939, published in 2012, was a response to the lack of accessible literature on what was surely one of the most important aspects of the conflict – health care and medical assistance during wartime.

When a military coup provoked civil war in Spain in July 1936, many thousands of people around the world rallied to provide humanitarian aid. Britons were no exception. Collective efforts in Britain to provide aid for the Spanish Republic were vast in both scope and effect. Whilst such enterprise has formed the focus of a few previous studies, some of the most dramatic stories of the Spanish war have yet to be uncovered.

This book seeks to shed light on the activities of two separate ventures that played important roles in British medical and humanitarian aid to Spain – the Scottish Ambulance Unit and Sir George Young’s Ambulance Unit. The volunteer members of these teams (those who went out to Spain and those who supported them in Britain) earned the unstinting praise of the Spanish government for their selfless commitment to the cause, as well as winning the respect and gratitude of the citizens whose welfare they strove so selflessly to protect.

Recently discovered documentation reveals previously undisclosed details of these remarkably altruistic and, indeed, heroic enterprises, clarifying the reasoning behind their creation and documenting their endeavours in Spain – endeavours of key relevance to the wider history of the conflict. In Spain, the volunteers of the Scottish Ambulance Unit and the George Young Ambulance Unit offered a heartening and inspiring antithesis to the suffering they sought to relieve. They deserve to be remembered for what they embodied during those days of untold cruelty and destruction – outstanding examples of man’s humanity to man.

Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies and the International Brigade Memorial Trust


Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-609-7
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $74.95
Release Date: November 2013
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-610-3
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: March 2014
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


The Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies
Series Editor’s Preface
List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Outbreak of Civil War, and the Response in Britain

Part One  ¡Salud! Scotland
  1 The Scottish Response to Outbreak of War in Spain
  2 The Scottish Ambulance Unit
  3 The First SAU Team Leaves for Spain
  4 A Spoonful of Sugar: The Second SAU Team Sets Out for Spain
  5 Porridge and Pimpernels
  6 The Third SAU Team Leaves for Spain
  7 Fernanda Jacobsen Goes it Alone: The Last SAU Campaign

Part Two  The Sir George Young Ambulance Unit for Spain
8 The Plight of Málaga
9 Sir George Young to the Rescue
10 Emergency Aid in Almería
11 British Hospitals in Almería
12 Establishing a Front-Line Medical Service
13 The GYAU and Anglo-Spanish Relations
14 Next Stop, Murcia
15 A Little Help from Friends
16 The End of the War: Sir George’s Part in Attempts at Evacuation

Notes & Bibliography, Index

Reviewed at

There are many books about the Spanish Civil War, but few deal with the humanitarian response to the war in detail, so Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances by Dr Linda Palfreeman is a most welcome addition. Despite the non-intervention stance of the British government, many in this country felt the need to respond to the cry for help from the Spanish Republic.
... This is a highly readable account, accompanied by several interesting illustrations, and has a freshness and immediacy that comes across through the many well-chosen extracts from first-hand accounts of the humanitarian response to that terrible conflict.
Chris Carson, North West Labour History

When Franco’s military coup initiated civil war in Spain in July 1936, many thousands of volunteers and activists around the world responded to the Republican appeal for humanitarian relief. Palfreeman’s book focuses on the activities of two separate participants that played significant roles in British medical aid and humanitarian relief to Spain: the Scottish Ambulance Unit and the Sir George Young’s Ambulance Unit. These initiatives have so far received little attention due to the ignorance of archival sources. Palfreeman fills this gap by using an extensive collection of new archival documentation, introducing new actors into the historical narrative.
Reviewed by Josep L. Barona, University of Valencia, Spain, in European History Quarterly

From a composite review of Mark Derby, Petals and Bullets: Dorothy Morris New Zealand Nurse in the Spanish Civil War. And the trilogy by Linda Palfreeman, Salud!: British Volunteers in the Republican Medical Service During the Spanish Civil War; Aristocrats, Adventurers and Ambulances: British Medical Units in the Spanish Civil War; Spain Bleeds: The Development of Battlefield Blood Transfusion During the Civil War, published in conjunction with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, London School of Economics

These books are both well-written, and Derby is a skilled stylist. The richness of the picture of wartime life that emerges provides a trove of detail on the bureaucracy and invention that comprised the life of a relief worker in modern war. These books ought not to be read for engagement with the historiography of humanitarian relief, for this the reader might turn to others in the Cañada Blanch/Sussex Academic Press stable, such as the trilogy on Spanish relief written by Linda Palfreeman. Rather, these are documentary histories, staying close to the source material of diaries and letters, and their value rests in their contribution to the social history of relief work. Nevertheless, in exposing some of these two women’s aspirations, they demonstrate Palfreeman’s conclusions on the need to be attentive to the spectrum of relief workers’ motivations and of the dangers of too arbitrary a separation of humanitarianism from politics. Gertrude and Dorothy’s accounts show the contingencies of daily practice – Gertrude and her Quaker colleagues felt drawn to provide a canteen for soldiers, which was not quite according to FWVRC custom – and demonstrate that the Red Cross model of neutrality was one only of a range of humanitarian positions. Dorothy’s aid work, for example, was an act of political solidarity with the Republican cause, and she was contemptuous of the British government’s policy of non-intervention for upholding an unjust status quo. Had she been aware of it, she may well have castigated the impartiality of the British Red Cross Society, which made a grant to the medical services of each side of the conflict but declined to intervene. These books can also be read for the light they shed on the growing specialisation of relief work in war, and for an insight into women’s adoption of such new professional roles, fashioned both in word and deed.
Reviewed by Rebecca Gill, University of Huddersfield, in Quaker Studies

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