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  You are in: Home > History > The Last English Revolutionary  
 

The Last English Revolutionary
Tom Wintringham, 1898–1949

By Hugh Purcell with Phyll Smith

Hugh Purcell is a Cambridge University educated historian and formerly BBC producer of history documentaries. He has written several books on the twentieth century and the British Raj.
Phyll Smith is a librarian and film academic working in Grimsby. In 2007 he curated the exhibition – The Life and Writing of Tom Wintringham – and in 2008 he was given the title Librarian of the Year.

 

“Spain woke me up politically. I rediscovered democracy, the power that can come from people working together when a popular front is not just a manoeuvre but a reality.” Drawing on his political and fighting experience in the Spanish Civil War, Tom Wintringham wrote the best-seller New Ways of War – a do-it-yourself guide to killing people – but also a highly subversive call for a socialist revolution. He called for ‘a Peoples war’ and the phrase stuck. Recalling the English Civil war he likened the Home Guard he trained in guerrilla warfare to the New Model Army and later he helped found Common Wealth, a political party more radical in some ways than Labour. His finest hour was 1940 when he inspired his countrymen to resist invasion.

After gaining exclusive access to the Wintringham archive, now in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, historian Hugh Purcell published a biography of this uniquely English revolutionary (Sutton Publishing, 2004). Working with Phyll Smith, librarian in Wintringham’s home town of Grimsby, they have since discovered a wealth of historical firsts, including: the actual leaflet Wintringham wrote that led the prosecution case in the infamous treason trial of the Communist Party leadership in 1925; and additional evidence that in the summer of 1936 Wintringham was already propagating the idea of an ‘international legion’ to fight for Republican Spain. Churchill coined his own expletive as in ‘I refuse to be Wintringhamed’; Hemingway wrote his only play, Fifth Column, based on Wintringham and his lover, a supposed ‘Trotskyite spy’; and photographs show Orwell and Wintringham together in 1940 training for guerrilla warfare to resist a Nazi invasion – such was the dramatic imprint on history of this seminal figure, here revealed in an Enlarged, Revised and Updated edition.



List of Illustrations
Preface by Ricard Baxell
Acknowledgements

Introduction

Chapter One The Rebel
Chapter Two The Bolshevik
Chapter Three Code Name ‘Lincoln’
Chapter Four Revolution?
Chapter Five ‘Class Against Class’
Chapter Six Wintringham on War
Chapter Seven The English Captain
Chapter Eight The Battle of Jarama
Chapter Nine ‘And These Were Ours Who Died’
Chapter Ten Expulsion!
Chapter Eleven The Revolutionary Patriot
Chapter Twelve The People’s Army
Chapter Thirteen Common Wealth
Chapter Fourteen A Prophet Without Honour

Appendix: Books by Tom Wintringham
Notes
Index

 


Preface by Richard Baxell for The Last English Revolutionary

Wintringham was in a long line of English revolutionaries. Like John Lilburne he went to prison for his beliefs. Like George Byron he was a poet who fought for a lost cause in a foreign country. Like Oliver Cromwell’s English Captains he came from Lincolnshire stock and tried to bring about an English revolution.
Hugh Purcell, The Last English Revolutionary, 2nd edition, p. 258.

When the first edition of Hugh Purcell’s engaging biography of Tom Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, was published in 2004, the author’s aim was, he wrote, to ‘elevate him from a footnote of British History to the main text.’ And rightly so, for Wintringham fully deserves to be seen as a key figure within the British left during the first-half of the Twentieth Century. In only thirty adult years, Wintringham managed to be a founding member of the British Communist Party, a commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the instigator of the Home Guard, and the forefather of a new, if short-lived, political party of the left. Like George Orwell, Wintringham was a public school boy who turned against the establishment and was fully prepared to defend his political ideals with both pen and sword.

The release of this revised and fully updated edition in February 2012 is apposite. The month marks seventy-five years since Wintringham, the self-styled ‘English Captain’, led the British Battalion of the International Brigades into their first, bloody action on the Jarama battlefield in Spain. As the author recounts, elegantly weaving together Wintringham’s own memoir, English Captain (now also reprinted), with memoirs of other participants and fresh archival sources, it was an inauspicious beginning for the battalion, for within three days, half of them – including Wintringham himself – would be out of action, either killed or wounded.
The French writer Albert Camus famously wrote that supporters of the Spanish Republic across the world felt ‘the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy.’ This was certainly true of Wintringham, who saw his friends and comrades cut to pieces on the battlefields of Spain and the great cause, for which they sacrificed everything, brutally crushed. Wintringham’s contribution in actual battle may have been small, but the author points out, like Hugh Thomas before him, how Wintringham played a significant role behind the scenes. Drawing on new material, Hugh Purcell reveals that Wintringham was arguing for an international legion a full two months before the Comintern decided to send brigades to aid the Republic at the end of September 1936. Whether Wintringham was actually the initiator of the International Brigades themselves may be open to debate, but the chapters on Spain certainly provides ample evidence of Wintringham’s fundamental role in the formation and training – such as there was - of the British Battalion.

The fourteen months that Wintringham spent in Spain sit appropriately at the heart of this detailed and extensive biography. For Wintringham, nothing was the same after Spain: it was there that his political and personal lives collided so dramatically, eventually forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the politics he lived. It was in Spain that Wintringham met and fell in love with the American journalist and ‘great talker’, Kitty Bowler, who many of Wintringham’s comrades in the upper echelons of the Communist Party viewed as, if not actually a Trotskyist spy, then certainly thoroughly untrustworthy. The affair confirmed the view of a number of influential Party figures, including the Communist Party General Secretary Harry Pollitt, that Wintringham was an inveterate ‘skirt-chaser.’
Purcell’s biography now reveals the full extent – and consequences – of Wintringham’s womanising. As one reviewer of the first edition of English Revolutionary stated, Wintringham’s central weakness throughout his life was women – his treatment of them and his polygamy. Before his time in Spain, Wintringham had briefly left his wife and son to have an affair – and a child – with another woman. While his wife may have been prepared to forgive, others in the Communist Party were not. When Wintringham later returned from Spain with Kitty, the CPGB gave Wintringham a choice between Kitty, or the Party. When he refused to choose, in the summer of 1938, Wintringham was expelled.

Freed from the shackles of the Communist line, Wintringham moved politically closer to Orwell’s ‘revolutionary patriotism’ during the Second World War. Ironically, Wintringham’s argument for the necessity of entwining of war and revolution echoed the philosophy of the Catalan POUM militias, which the Communist Party had suppressed so viciously in Spain. Purcell admirably explains how Wintringham’s experience of the Spanish Republican Army where, at least theoretically, everyone knew why they were fighting and believed in the cause, led him to develop his idea of a Peoples’ Army, a defence force of volunteers, which could provide an in-depth web of protection against a Nazi ‘Blitzkreig’ attack on Britain. Wintringham became the director of the guerrilla training camp at Osterley, training volunteers in the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ and, as Purcell states, Wintringham deserves to be recognised as ‘the inspirer of the Home Guard.’ However, not convinced by Wintringham’s argument that a successful war needed a revolution, Purcell notes wryly that: ‘Tom did not seem aware that the Wehrmacht was a superb fighting army – and the product of a totalitarian society’ (p.183). During the war Wintringham became a household name, due to his regular articles in the Daily Mirror and Picture Post about home defence and the war abroad. His 1940 pamphlet, New Ways of War, infamously described as ‘a do-it-yourself guide to killing people,’ was popular for its well-aimed salvos on army traditionalists which, we now discover, inspired Michael Powell’s film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The film was a great commercial success and Wintringham’s revenge on the men of the War Office who forced him out of Osterley. Churchill apparently hated the film and probably didn’t like Wintringham any better.

Purcell concludes this authoritative biography with the attempt by Wintringham and the Picture Post owner, Sir Richard Ackland, to establish a new political party of the left. While the Common Wealth Party met with some initial success, Purcell notes with amusement that the Labour Party Executive dismissed Common Wealth as ‘a party founded by a rich man in order that he should become a political leader, with views based not on Marx but on Marks and Spencer’ (p. 237). Ironically, as Purcell has now discovered, Wintringham was the author of Your M.P., which sold a quarter of a million copies and helped win the 1945 general election for Labour. It also helped bury the Common Wealth Party under the Labour landslide.
Since the publication of the first edition, enough new information has come to light to fully warrant this new edition. Much of it is due to the tireless efforts of the Grimsby librarian and co-author, Phyll Smith, whose meticulous research into Wintringham’s life has been of incalculable benefit to numerous historians over the years, myself included. Phyll has unearthed a wealth of new material for this new edition, ensuring that the story of Wintringham’s life in the Party, with Kitty and during the Second World War is now much more complete. We already knew that Wintringham was a writer of great intellect and skill, but the quantity and quality of his poetry was something previously rather overlooked. What has remained in this second edition is Hugh Purcell’s undoubted affection for his subject, despite Wintringham’s many errors of judgement in the worlds of sex and politics. While this new edition certainly does not hide Wintringham’s flaws, it nevertheless presents us with a picture of ‘a very likeable man, worthy of respect’ and his summary of the ‘English Revolutionary’ is, I think, a fair one: ‘With hindsight he was right about many things but wrong about some of the things that really mattered.’


International Brigade Memorial Trust
Turning point for an English revolutionary

“If ever an unsung 20th century hero deserved a full-length biography, it must be Tom Wintringham. His was a short but outstanding life: founder member of the Communist Party who was jailed for sedition in 1925; one of the first volunteers to arrive in Spain, where he commanded the British Battalion at the Battle of Jarama; a fine poet and journalist, whose Daily Mirror column on military strategy reached millions of readers; veteran of the First World War who was the instigator of the Home Guard at the start of the Second World War; and founder of the radical Common Wealth Party that attracted 100,000 votes in the 1945 general election. Remarkably, he achieved all this in a lifespan of only 51 years.
Of course Wintringham is not a complete unknown. More people now know about the man thanks to the excellent efforts of author Hugh Purcell. His 2004 biography led to radio and TV programmes and has now been enlarged, revised and updated with help from Wintringham enthusiast Phyll Smith, librarian in their common home town of Grimsby.” Reviewed by Jim Jump

“A revised and expanded edition of the standard Tom Wintringham was one of the more interesting minor characters of the Twentieth Century, who might be better known but for the hostility of both left and right, he having by turns managed to offend both.

“Originally published in 2004, The Last English Revolutionary tells how Wintringham, a man of comfortable middle class origins, was early attracted to progressive and even radical causes. He did his bit during World War I, became an early member of the British Communist Party, and lived a complex life as party organizer and propagandist, journalist, military analyst, and inveterate womanizer. Arguably, Wintringham played an important role in creating the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, and he led the British Battalion for a time, doing badly, but about as well as could be expected given the circumstances. He had an important role in the formation of Britain’s Home Guard during World War II, writing manuals on close combat and guerrilla warfare, and post war, having long broken with the Communists (though he could never bring himself to directly confront their criminal actions), helped found a short-lived leftist party. In the course of his active life Wintringham hobnobbed with such luminaries as Lenin and Churchill, by some accounts managed to offend Stalin, and churned out a number of books, scores of newspaper and journal articles, and a surprising amount of sometimes excellent poetry.
The Last English Revolutionary will prove a good read for anyone interested in British radicalism, the Spanish Civil War, leadership in battle, and the improvisation of armies.” New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewed in Italian, Spagna contemporanea (2014).

 



Published in association with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies

 

Publication Details

 
Paperback ISBN:
978-1-84519-448-2
 
 
Page Extent / Format:
320 pp. / 234 x 156 mm
 
Release Date:
April 2012
  Illustrated:   Yes
 
Paperback Price:
£22.50 / $39.95
 
 

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