By Scott Costen
ONE of Canada’s first anti-fascists is getting his due more than 80 years after taking up arms in defence of his beliefs.
Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, The Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War, is the first biography of a soldier, journalist, playwright and political activist who rose to prominence in the early 1930s but faded into obscurity a decade later.
Published earlier this year by University of Toronto Press, the book is meticulously researched and skillfully written by author Tyler Wentzell.
Born to missionary parents in China in 1903 and raised in a traditional British household, Edward Cecil-Smith seemed like an unlikely radical. After moving to Canada in 1919, he worked at a bank, joined the Canadian militia, and married a secretary with a Toronto-based missionary organization.
Just over a decade later, he would be an active member of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), writing for its newspapers, serving on one of its ward committees, and leading cultural initiatives within its Progressive Arts Club.
Wentzell places Cecil-Smith in the proper historical context and convincingly describes what led to his political evolution.
“To understand his motivation, we need to try to look at the world as he would have seen it at the time,” he writes.
After working as a reporter for mainstream newspapers, Cecil-Smith joined the CPC’s Worker and Daily Clarion. He also co-wrote Eight Men Speak, a play dealing with the arrest and imprisonment of CPC leaders, including general secretary Tim Buck.
Cecil-Smith was an intellectual and a devout Christian at a time when both traits were unfashionable within the party. He was also opinionated and argumentative. These factors may have limited his upward mobility, but they did not prevent him from playing a critical role within the CPC.
“Although he was never a member of the party’s inner circles, he was a prolific writer and organizer for the party,” Wentzell notes.
Like many on the political left, Cecil-Smith became increasingly concerned about the rise of fascism in the early 1930s. When war erupted in Spain, he saw it as an opportunity to use his military training in the service of his political ideals.
The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 when Nationalist forces, led by General Francisco Franco, sought to overthrow Spain’s democratically elected left-wing Popular Front government.
The Nationalists were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The government forces, known as the Republicans, were aided by the Soviet Union and International Brigades made up of volunteers from many different countries.
Nearly 1,700 Canadians defied their government’s foreign enlistment laws to serve in the International Brigades. More than were 400 killed. Of those who survived, many were wounded in body and mind.
Wentzell, an army officer as well as a historian, deftly chronicles the military conflict and Cecil-Smith’s role in it. He brings to life the long, tough — but ultimately unsuccessful — fight to “dig the grave of fascism” in Spain.
The author also provides new information about Norman Bethune, a CPC member and prominent physician who helped the Republican cause with his Canadian Blood Transfusion Service.
Bethune was close friends with Lilian Gouge, Cecil-Smith’s wife; so close, in fact, that Bethune thought of her on his deathbed.
Soon after arriving in Spain in early 1937, Cecil-Smith was appointed company commander within the Washington Battalion. Like the rest of the International Brigades, it was a diverse group of volunteers.
“Cecil-Smith led a unique command team that likely could not have existed anywhere but the International Brigades,” Wentzell writes.
“A Canadian commander, born in China and speaking with an English accent, a Scottish second in command who had served on the Northwest Frontier, and an African-American commissar from Philadelphia at a time when African-American officers were virtually unheard of in the British, American, or Canadian military.”
Cecil-Smith first saw action during the Brunet offensive in the summer of 1937. He acquitted himself well, directing his men despite being wounded in the hand, wrist and knee by fragments from an exploding bullet.
Wentzell notes how he “hobbled along, manoeuvring his soldiers, using what cover he could find” as his company advanced on a Nationalist-held town. Cecil-Smith was evacuated for medical treatment the following morning.
The formation of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps) occurred while he convalesced.
The battalion’s name honoured William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, leaders of rebellions in Upper Canada and Lower Canada, respectively. Both of the uprisings began in 1837 in response to oligarchic control of the British colonies.
Cecil-Smith took command of the Mac-Paps in the fall of 1937 and would remain at the helm until the International Brigades were taken out of the field by the Republican government in late 1938 in an effort to scale down the conflict.
Though widely viewed as a strong battlefield commander, Cecil-Smith was indifferent to the “political life” of the Mac-Paps. His focus in Spain was on winning the military struggle, not the ideological one.
As a result, he received a less-than-stellar assessment by party officials before leaving Spain.
“The commissars recommended restrictions on Cecil-Smith’s employment within the CPC,” Wentzell notes.
Cecil-Smith was a changed man upon his return to Canada in 1939.
“His experiences in the Spanish Civil War had been traumatic,” Wentzell writes. “He had endured combat, been wounded several times, and lost hundreds of soldiers under his command.”
Cecil-Smith began to write an account of the Mac-Paps but soon shelved the project, possibly due to interference by CPC officials.
He returned to the staff of the Daily Clarion, which soon after became a weekly.
When the Second World War kicked off in 1939, he wrote to the Canadian government with an offer to reactivate the Mac-Paps and fight fascism yet again. When this proposal was rejected, he joined the Canadian army, only to be pushed out months later due to his political beliefs.
After his brief time back in uniform, Cecil-Smith became a labour organizer for the CPC-backed Canadian Seamen’s Union. He also wrote a book, Red Ally: An Estimate of Soviet Life and Power.
He ceased being active in the party in 1942 and went on to work as an editor for mainstream magazines. “He did not appear to break from the party,” Wentzell explains. “He simply drifted away.”
Cecil Smith died in 1963 at the age of 60.
While grassroots campaigns have led to Mac-Paps memorials being erected in Victoria, Toronto and Ottawa, the country has largely forgotten them.
Not for King or Country is a welcome addition to the scholarship on both the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and the Communist Party of Canada.
Today’s generation of anti-fascists would do well to read it.
Redaction cannot survive without your help. Support us for as little as $1 a month on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/RedactionPolitics.
Featured Image: Tamiment Library, New York University