Tag: war

Basques in World War One


“To its sons who died in the war. The village of Biriatu.” Plaque dedicated to the fallen soldiers in both World Wars of a small town in Lapurdi.

The recent remembrance events associated with Veteran’s Day in the US and Armistice Day/Remembrance Day in Europe serve as a timely reminder of the horrors of war. The origins of these events lie in the close of World War I, the so-called Great War, in which hostilities officially came to an end at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.


“War Declared – Long Live France!” World War I is seen as a catalyst in fostering a more widespread feeling of French national identity. The Basque-language weekly Eskualduna, August 7, 1914, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As in many other parts of Europe, Iparralde lost a whole generation (or more) of young men in the service of the French armed forces during World War I, in which the loss of life surpassed anything previously thought imaginable. With all able-bodied males between 18 and 45 conscripted to fight in the French armed forces during the war, the rural baserri-based economy of Iparralde also suffered from this conflict. It has been estimated that some 6,000 men from Iparralde died during the war, a figure that was perhaps around 5 percent of its total population. In the words of James E. Jacob:

The war proved to be a watershed for the basques in two essential ways . . . For many rural Basque villages, the war simply severely reduced two generations of males and, with them, the reproductive capacity of the village . . . With the youth went the economic future; if the losses of war were not already enough, many of those who remained migrated to the coastal cities and elsewhere and would not return.

The second consequence of World War I was its impact on Basque culture. In these villages of the interior lay the vitality of Basque culture and the burden of its linguistic population. Loss by death was sudden and abrupt. But the return of demobilized Basque soldiers now committed to cultural assimilation into French society posed a longer threat to Basque culture . . . Coupled with the economic marginality of life in rural villages, the incentive to speak french was doubly persuasive; many parents viewed it as the key to success and upward mobility.

Like elsewhere in Europe, young men from the same local communities served in the same regiments or battalions in order to foster a spirit of comradeship. However, seeing the devastating effect that this had on these same communities during and after the conflict, the policy was reversed in World War II (the difference is telling in the list of casualties from both wars in the plaque above). Europe is at present holding a series of 100th-anniversary remembrance events to commemorate the Great War of 1914-1918. Its historical impact on the society of Iparralde should not be underestimated.

Further reading: 

As well as Jacob’s Hills of Conflict, check out Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga’s The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006.  For a more general overview see Cameron Watson’s Modern Basque History, free to download here.  See, too, Eneko Bidegain’s fascinating history of impact of the war on Iparralde, published in both Basque and French. And if you do read Basque, then Xipri Arbelbide’s 14eko gerla 14 lekuko offers a fascinating oral history of the war in the words of eight men and six women from the Basque Country who lived through it.


Basque Children of ’37 Association UK

The Basque Children of ’37 Association UK seeks to preserve the memory of the experience of almost 4,000 children who were evacuated to the UK in 1937 from Bilbao.

Basque refugee children aboard Habana 2

Basque refugee children aboard the SS Habana, from BasqueChildren.org, the website of the Basque Children of ’37 Association UK

In the spring of 1937, following the bombing of Durango and Gernika and with Franco’s troops on the brink of entering Bilbao and thereby defeating Basque resistance to the military uprising, the children were evacuated to the UK for their own safety. They were shipped aboard the SS Habana, which sailed from Bilbao on Friday, May 21, dropping anchor the following evening at Fawley, at the entrance to Southampton Water. On the morning of Sunday, May  23, the ship docked at Southampton, and the children were initially accommodated in a large camp at North Stoneham, Eastleigh. Later, they were dispersed to numerous “colonies” throughout the country.

Basque refugee children donation appeal

Funding appeal for Basque refugee children, from BasqueChildren.org, the website of the Basque Children of ’37 Association UK

Some of these Basque refugee children were taken in by the Attenborough family in the city of Leicester. Two of the Attenboroughs’ sons would later go on to achieve international renown: Richard (1923-2014), as a film actor, director, and producer, who won the Best Director Oscar for the movie Gandhi (1982); and David (1926- ), as a broadcaster and naturalist, responsible for creating some of the most highly regarded nature and wildlife documentaries in the history of the genre. Here, in a site devoted to remembering Richard’s life, under the “Oral Histories” section, Albert Hall and Betty Holyland specifically recall the Attenboroughs’ experience with the Basque Children’s Refugee Committee in the late 1930s. The Attenboroughs’ involvement in taking in both Basque and (later, in  World War II) Jewish refugee children is also noted in a short bio of Mary Attenborough.

The Basque Children of ’37 Association also serves as a forum for discussion and to promote dialogue between the children themselves, their descendants, researchers, and any interested persons. It provides a bibliography and a photo gallery on the Basque refugee children and their experiences.

Additionally, there is a touching portrait of life for some of these refugee children in a series of photos here, together with a short accompanying text marking the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Carshalton (at the time in the county of Surrey, now a suburb of London).

The CBS publication  War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, addresses the themes of  war, occupation, and exile during the turbulent period from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to the conclusion of World War II. This collection of essays attempts to convey the upheaval from the perspective of ordinary people’s lives, examining the human impact of war and displacement.