Esmond Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill, was born in 1918. Educated at Wellington College he caused a stir when he declared he was a pacifist and with his brother, Giles Romilly, refused to join the Officer Training Corps.
The brothers also distributed communist leaflets in the school and began publishing a left-wing journal, Out of Bounds: Public Schools' Journal Against Fascism, Militarism and Reaction. In the first issue Romilly stated that the journal would "openly champion the forces of progress against the forces of progress against the forces of reaction on every front, from compulsory military training to propagandist teaching." The journal soon had a circulation of over 3,000 copies.
In 1934 the Daily Mail wrote an article about the activities of the Romilly brothers under the headline: "Red Menace in Public Schools! Moscow Attempts to Corrupt Boys". Soon afterwards the fifteen run away from school and went to work for a Communist bookshop in London. He also established a centre for other boys who had run away or had been expelled from public schools.
Romilly was eventually arrested and after his mother had told the judge that he was uncontrollable he was sentenced to a six-week term in a Remand Home for delinquent boys. On his release Romilly joined forces to publish the book Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles and Esmond Romilly (1935). The book received good reviews and the Observer commented on its "considerable intelligence, modesty, and tolerance, a series of clear, humorous, and lively pictures of schools, boys, masters and parents"
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Romilly joined the International Brigades. As the British Battalion had not yet been formed Romilly and 15 other Englishmen were attached to the German Thaelmann Battalion. Romilly fought in the defence of Madrid but by December 1936 all but two of the English group had been killed or seriously wounded. The following month, suffering from dysentery, he was sent home.
When Romilly returned to England he found work as a copywriter for a small advertising agency in London, whereas Jessica was employed in market research. Along with his wife Romilly became involved in the struggle against the British Union of Fascists.
We attack not only the vast machinery of propaganda which forms the basis of Public Schools, and makes them so useful in the preservation of a vicious and obsolete form of society; we oppose not only the semi-compulsory nature of the Officers' Training Corps, and the hypocritical stuff about character building - we oppose every one of the obscure restrictions, and petty rules and regulations.
I had a violent antipathy to Conservatism, as I saw it in my relations. I hated militarism, as this meant the O.T.C., and I had read a good deal of pacifist literature. Like many people, I mixed up pacifism with Communism. While I was in London at the beginning of the Easter holidays in 1933, before crossing to Dieppe, a street-seller sold me a copy of the Daily Worker. I was excited and intrigued, and gave an order to have a copy sent each day to Dieppe while I was there. Though I did not leam much Communism, I learned that there was another world as well as the one in which I lived.
The first British battalion was being trained at Albacete. It was part of the section of a thousand Englishmen who, in February, were to hold the most vital positions near the Valencia road under twelve days of the biggest artillery bombardment of the war, then counterattack and make Madrid's road safe for months - perhaps for good. I might have gone back and joined those men, who are the real heroes of the Spanish struggle. But I did not go. I got married and lived happily instead.
Despite the varying circumstances, temperaments, and proximate causes of the decision to fight in Spain, the great majority of British volunteers passing through Albacete shared some form of political idealism.
Even in his youth, Romilly understood that the experience of shooting and being shot at on a winter's morning in a village in a foreign country required more explanation than that provided by a grab bag of heroic slogans. He believed that "it will be taken for granted that everybody who joined the International Brigade had "political convictions." At the same time, he freely admitted that "these were not necessarily the only reasons why they joined."
Romilly may have been young, but he would have been the first to say he was not a fool. Well aware that no one "ever does anything just for one clear-cut, logical (in this case political) motive," he acknowledged that a failed business venture in London helped him decide to go to Spain. But he faithfully recorded the words of one of his fellow volunteers, an old soldier from World War I. "As far as I'm concerned," Romilly's comrade said, "this is a war we know all about, we all know what we're fighting for and why we're fighting."
(In 1937) I met for the first time Esmond Romilly, a second cousin of ours whom I had long admired from afar. Esmond had been in the news for some years, ever since he had run away from Wellington, his public school, at the age of fifteen to work in a Communist bookshop where with other runaways he plotted the editing, production and distribution of a magazine designed to foment rebellion in all the public schools. He and his brother Giles had written a book. Out of Bounds, describing their education and their conversion to radicalism, which had stirred considerable controversy in the press when it was published in 1935.
I had followed Esmond's fortunes with deep interest in the newspapers and through family gossip; shortly before arriving at Cousin Dorothy's I had read a dispatch in the News Chronicle: "Esmond Romilly, eighteen-year-old nephew of Mr Winston Churchill, is winning laurels for his gallantry under fire while serving in the International Brigade, which is fighting for the Spanish Government in defence of Madrid.' In a disastrous encounter with the enemy at Boadilla, on the Madrid front, in which scores of volunteers were killed, Esmond and one other member of his unit had been the only survivors. Suffering from a severe case of dysentery, Esmond had been invalided out of the International Brigade and sent to England to recuperate, which is how he came to be staying at Cousin Dorothy's.
That weekend, Esmond agreed to take me with him back to Spain, where he had a commission as a reporter for the pro-Loyalist News Chronicle. The following Sunday we fled, having devised an elaborate stratagem to deceive my parents into believing I was going to stay in Dieppe with some 'suitable' girls of my age. By the time they discovered my defection, Esmond and I were living in Bilbao, capital of the Basque province, and were engaged to be married. In an effort to prevent our marriage, Farve made me a Ward in Chancery and his solicitors sent Esmond a telegram saying, 'Miss Jessica Mitford is a ward of the court. If you marry her without leave of judge you will be liable to imprisonment.' We took this as a declaration of total war. Eventually the British Consul in Bilbao blackmailed us into leaving by threatening to withhold British aid in the evacuation of Basque women and children from the war zone unless we obeyed his instruction to return to England. This shabby piece of bargaining brought home to me the strength and ruthlessness of the forces ranged against us.
In many ways, this was a far from ideal honeymoon. Esmond was tormented by practical worries, and I felt completely inadequate to help solve them. But we got to know each other faster than would have been possible under more normal circumstances. Esmond had an infallible nose for the cheapest possible accommodation, and we stayed in Bayonne in a small hotel, crowded with Basque refugee families from the northern part of Spain. Every day we checked at the Basque Consulate for my authorization to travel and for possible news of transportation. We went for long walks in the town, during which Esmond told of his experiences on the Madrid front.
Within a few weeks of the first news of the Fascist rebellion, he had set out for Spain on his own, without telling any of his friends, fearful that he might be rejected and sent back because of lack of military training. For once in his life, he regretted his refusal to join the O.T.C. at Wellington. Knowing nothing of the organization of the International Brigade, he had simply bicycled to Marseilles in hopes of boarding some cargo ship bound for Spain. There he learned that young men from all countries were already flocking to the Spanish front, and he fell in with a miscellaneous group of volunteers - French, Germans, Italians, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Poles - sailed with them to Valencia, and was sent to the training camp at Albacete.
There was as yet no English battalion, so Esmond and fifteen other Englishmen were attached to the German Thaelmann Brigade. He was relieved to learn that most of these were also completely lacking in military training; they came from every conceivable walk of life - car-workers, farmers, restaurant-owners, university students. The training at Albacete was extremely brief, and within a few days the battalion was sent to the Madrid front. There they were in almost continuous action, living the muddy, bloody, confused life of footsoldiers. A week before Christmas, in a single disastrous battle, all but two of the English group were wiped out. Esmond and the other survivor, ill with dysentery and battle fatigue, were sent back to England, entrusted with the heartbreaking task of visiting the relatives of the dead.