When General Franco rebelled against the Spanish government in 1936, more than 1,700 Canadians volunteered to fight in that country’s civil war. Very little was known about the volunteers, many of whom, due to the Great Depression, were transient workers. With the Canadian government unsure about whether or not they were criminals, and with the subsequent victory of Franco’s forces, most people seemed content to have the fact of the Canadian volunteers be known, but to let the details fade away quietly.
With the death of Franco in 1975 and then the fall of the Iron Curtain, Michael Petrou, a foreign correspondent for Maclean’s magazine, gained access to documents that has allowed him, in Renegades, to paint a portrait of the Canadian volunteers, while simultaneously writing about the war’s global implications.
All the good components of a war history are present here: statistical analysis of who the soldiers were, why they fought, and how their ideals were tested; incompetent officers sacrificing their men for the sake of appearances; and much demonstration of the absurdity of war, both in situ and in retrospect. Petrou does a fantastic job of continuously relating everything back to the why of the war, and how common wartime situations became a fight in the struggle of communism versus fascism. His descriptions of battles are engaging, even for those who shy away from traditional play-by-plays. He also exposes a long-held suspicion: that the Soviet Communist Party was very involved in the selection and monitoring of the international volunteers.
There are some strange aspects to the organization of this book, however. Part 4 consists of character sketches of three individual “renegades.” Given how short the book is, this feels a bit tacked on. But this quibble does not devalue an interesting book on a little-known topic. In addition, the 50-page appendix listing each volunteer whom Petrou found information on will no doubt be a critical source for those who study this topic in the future.