NO action of this horrific war equals the bombing of the town of Guernica. The Basque town was all but destroyed in a deliberate aerial bombardment by Italian and German Nazi aircraft.
The attack, on April 26 was carried out following Franco’s request that his German and Italian allies destroy the town they claimed was being used as a communications centre.
More than 1,000 people are said to have died in the raid.
The attack famously inspired Picasso to paint perhaps his most famous work ‘Guernica’. This 25-foot-long mural brought home the brutality of the raid.
HARROWING: Picasso's Guernica depicted the destructiuon of the ancient Basque town
The Spanish Civil War had broken out in 1936 after fascist forces under General Franco had landed in south-west Spain to challenge the democratically-elected government of Spain.
As they fought against the government, the Francoists were aided by fellow fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany which poured soldiers, planes and tanks into the conflict.
The Spanish government had some support from the Soviet Union, but thanks to Britain and France’s policy of non-intervention and an arms embargo, it relied heavily on volunteers from across Europe and beyond with many hundreds coming from Wales to defend the republic.
In the wake of the bombing and the fighting in the Basque region around 4,000 children were sent to Britain as refugees.
SAFETY: Basque chilld refugees board the Habana in Bilbao
While child refugees were being taken in, the Argus reported on new efforts to find peace for the troubled country.
The front page of May 24, 1937, tells that a British armistice proposal was due to be discusses at Geneva.
The League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, repeatedly failed to stop the conflict in Spain. The civil war was one of the events which showed how toothless this organisation was.
We learnt that the League would “not meddle in the delicate talks set up by the British and French”. One of the proposals was for foreign volunteers to be withdrawn from the war in Spain.
Thousands of people had chosen to travel to Spain to fight for both sides in the bitter civil war.
While most – around 35,000 – fought on the government side, including many from the UK and Wales, around 10,000 also rallied to the fascist cause.
The ‘insurgents’, or Franco’s rebel forces said they would not discuss the British plan for a truce and withdrawal of volunteers as they considered it was a ruse on the part of the “enemies of the insurgents”.
In any case, they said, the only foreigners they had in their ranks were those of the ‘Spanish Foreign Legion’.
This was clearly untrue as Italian and German Nazi regular forces and fascist volunteers from Portugal, Ireland, France and elsewhere were fighting with them at that time.
The feeble attempts at peace-making, decisive foreign intervention, devastation of towns and cities and the plight of refugees all have chilling echoes of the current conflict in Syria.
Then as now opinion, was divided as to how much should be done to help the war-torn country. In one regard especially, there are touching reminders of the tragedy of Syria; and that is her child refugees.
Following the raid on Guernica, the Basque capital Bilbao came under siege from the rebel forces. The Argus reported on June 15 how the Basque government had decided to “defend the city at all costs” but to evacuate its civilian population “in the smallest space of time”.
The port was then subject to a blockade by the rebel navy. In an appeal to the British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, we were told how the president of the autonomous Basque region José Antonio Aguirre had promised that British ships, coming to evacuate women and children, would be protected.
By May 1937, refugees, especially from the Basque Country, were being welcomed in the UK.
Under a headline ‘Planes terrorise Basque children’ the Argus told us how hundreds of child refugees had recently arrived in Britain. They had escaped their war-torn home on the steamer Habana and were being housed in tents near Southampton.
REPORT: The front page of the Argus on May 24 1937 which told how Basque refugee children were traumatised
Nearby was an RAF base and we learnt the heart-breaking story that the planes terrorising the survivors of fascist bombing were not German or Italian, but British.
The children were so traumatised by the sight and sound of aircraft that when planes from the nearby base flew over they were terrified.
“After their experiences in Spain, many of the children are unable to realise the planes are friendly and insist that the planes have pursued them from Spain.”
“Whenever one of these planes comes over we have to run about among them and shout ‘Inglese’ so that they will know the planes are not from the enemy.”
While refugees now are housed behind high wires, then they were in canvas tents and watched over by Boy Scouts and members of the Boys Brigade.
When not being swooped on by friendly aircraft, the children had “slept like logs” in their bell tents and care was being taken to feed them familiar food of white bread, olive oil and dried fish.
However, many of them would find a home in Wales and in Gwent specifically.
The Argus told us how Caerleon council had been asked to help. “We have been asked to get Cambria House ready and to make the lot of Spanish children as easy to bear as possible”, the chairman told the Argus.
By the time they arrived in Newport, their spirits seem to have lifted. “Fifty children, bubbling with vivacity and carrying the air of an outing alighted from a train at Newport station” the Argus told us on July 10. These were a party of Basque children who would stay at Cambria House.
ARRIVAL: Basque child refugees arrive at Newport station in July 1937
Their interpreter, a Mrs Val Garcia told how she was bombarded with questions from the children, including one from 11-year-old ‘Rosario’, who wanted to know when they were going to the beach.
By July 12 when the Argus called at Cambria House it was “alive with chatter and industry” as volunteers and children made ready their new home.
“A team of six boys were sweeping the corridors and dusting woodwork. They entered into their work with a will and with a new pride of possession.”
Now they had a safe home, the priority was to satisfy their immediate needs, we were told. “Towels, brushes, kitchen utensils, toys, jig-saws and books would be needed.”
SAFE: Basque children at Cambria House in Caerleon. "They are already trying to play rugby" the Argus told us.
Until they learn sufficient English they would be unable to leave the site without being accompanied by an English-speaking guides. “To prevent sorrowful reminiscence and feelings of loneliness, the children must be entertained constantly.”
Many would stay and make Caerlon and Gwent their new home, but that front page from the Argus 80 years ago still has unhappy reflections in a conflict that still goes on.