Anger over tribute to hero of Spanish war

The commemoration of the centenary of the birth of a Whithorn hero of the Spanish Civil War has caused anger.

One local man has written to The Galloway Gazette to complain about the tribute to George Dickie, who was also known as Jack Brent.

On March 2, the Gazette reported the commemoration ceremony had taken place to mark the centenary of Dickie’s birth on February 24 in Ontario, Canada, at the plaque erected for him in the town. It was organised by Dumfries and District TUC on behalf of the International Brigade Memorial Trust (IBMT). The memorial is at 55 George Street, on the wall of the premises that the butcher’s shop occupied when Dickie worked there as a young man, his family having moved there when he was a baby.

The organisers spoke of the commemoration being “to this heroic, self-educated local man” who had travelled to Spain in the 1930s as an International Brigade volunteer to fight for democracy and the Spanish republic, against the fascists of Franco, supported by Hitler and Mussolini.

But Whithorn resident William Lawrie has condemned the tribute. In his letter to the Gazette, he says Dickie was a deserter who was forced to change his name in order to maintain anonymity.

Mr Lawrie also points out that Whithorn has a long and proud tradition of providing heroes for Britain’s war efforts down the years, and suggests it would be more appropriate to honour those who died or were wounded serving their own country.

In his letter he says: “George Dickie did indeed join the Cameron Highlanders, leave the Cameron Highlanders after a short spell, change his name, and go to London. The unsavoury truth was that he deserted from the regiment, was forced to change his name to Jack Brent to avoid capture and for the rest of his life was on the run, mostly in London, to evade justice.

“Whithorn has an exemplary record of service to this country in two world wars. Literally hundreds of men and women from the burgh and parish of Whithorn wore the King’s uniform in both conflicts. A proud record is that Whithorn, jointly with Kirkconnel, had the greatest number of volunteers per head of population who went to fight for this country in the First World War.

“Eighty names on Whithorn war memorial are a sombre testimony to the sacrifice made by the men of Whithorn fighting for their native land. I can name, rather uniquely, one woman and 17 men who were highly decorated for bravery, above and beyond the call of duty in the First World War.

“I have a friend who, as a young Whithorn girl, was part of the Bletchley Park code-breaking team who were credited with shortening the Second World War by two years, thus saving thousands of lives.

“I also remember a Whithorn man, alas no longer with us, who as part of operation ‘Overlord’ stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

“Despite all of Whithorn’s long and illustrious history, who do Whithorn Business Association deem fit to be the first man to have a plaque erected to him in Whithorn? None other than a self-promoting Canadian communist deserter, hiding behind a pseudonym, who did nothing for Great Britain or Whithorn.”

In 1936, Dickie, as Jack Brent, joined many other volunteers fighting for Spain’s government against the fascists under Franco. During the Battle of Jarama, Brent was severely wounded while rescuing a comrade. He died in Whithorn in 1951 at the age of 39.

The Whithorn commemoration was attended by Dumfries Trades Council, represented by Stuart Hyslop (treasurer), Gill Bailey (chairwoman) and Julia Watt Muir (vice-chairwoman), and Janet Butterworth, secretary of Whithorn and District Business Association, which commissioned the plaque.

A book published in 1954 by Lawrence & Wishart, titled “Good to be Alive” – The Story of Jack Brent, was written as a tribute by Stanley Harrison.