Saint John

Posted on April 8, 2009


By T.R. Healy


“And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can”

– John Cornford

John Cornford, if he is remembered, is remembered as a martyr of the Spanish Civil War. He was the first Englishman to go to the battlefront, less than a month after the war began, and one of the first to die in combat. A poet and a revolutionary, imbued perhaps with “too great a burning,” as his mother once observed, he was someone who was determined to make a difference in the world however steep the price.

The great-grandson of Charles Darwin, he was born December 27, 1915 into a distinguished Cambridge family. His father was a professor of Ancient History at the university, his mother a prolific writer of Georgian poetry whose most prominent practitioner was her close friend Rupert Brooke. Nine months after Brooke perished in the First World War from blood poisoning, Cornford was born, and in tribute to the famous poet, he was christened Rupert John, but always was known by his middle name. This seemed appropriate since he came to have disdain not only for the poetry of Brooke but also for the legend of the dead officer cultivated by, among others, his mother Frances Cornford.

The second of five children John Cornford experienced an ordinary childhood with his two brothers and two sisters, only setting himself apart from them with his tenacious obstinacy. An awkward, solitary youngster, without any hint of the exceptional young man he would become later, he seemed unduly cautious in comparison to his siblings. Not the sort of person to follow a path without knowing where it led, he was reluctant as a boy to take chances. As his father Francis M. Cornford pointed out, “He refused to attempt what he thought he never could do well.” And what he did well was think things out, the kind of child, his father observed, who “lived in thought without needing to translate it into action.”

Aware of his son’s determination to do what he thought was best, he assiduously kept his distance, deciding to permit the youngster “every opportunity to take his own line.” Mrs. Cornford was much more involved in the boy’s life, however, her presence becoming so intrusive at times that a palpable tension developed in their relationship. Regarding her intrusiveness as an impediment to his desire for independence, he could be as rude to her as he was polite to his father, as sharp with his tongue as if she were someone out to harm him. A persistent source of friction between them was poetry. Though a published poet, she often sent her latest poems to him after he went away to boarding school at Stowe and solicited his opinion, which was often withering in its criticism. He regarded her poetry, for the most part, as “utterly false.” It was too restrictive and artificial, he believed, shaped more by the demands of the Georgian tradition than by what was important to her. He preferred a more honest and vigorous approach that included a wide range of subjects presented in “a live language” based on the actual experiences of the poet.


At Stowe, Cornford struggled to write the kind of poetry he urged his mother to write, experimenting with different voices and forms in an effort to realize the “individual use of language” that he believed was essential to a successful poem. He was not very successful, however. Still he pressed on, writing several poems every week, never one not to plunge all the way into an activity that struck his interest.

Another subject that drew his attention at Stowe was politics. Increasingly, it became so important that he became convinced it mattered more than poetry. He became someone who began to see nearly everything in a political context, judging issues according to a calculus of stark facts. ‘The Waste Land,’ for instance, was admired by the aspiring poet less for its intricate use of language than as a devastating indictment of the ravages of modern capitalism.

Cornford entered Stowe in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression, confident like his father that the Liberal prescriptions of Lloyd George would solve the economic hardships of the nation. But as conditions deteriorated he looked elsewhere for solutions. Steadily, he moved to the left of the political spectrum, reading Marx and Engels and assorted interpretations of their writings. He was desperate not only to find answers but also, as his younger brother Christopher suggested, he was eager “to revolt against the restrictions of his life.” With the collapse of the Labour Party in the general election of 1931, he grew less and less confident in the ability of democracy to address matters of rampant hunger and unemployment. And by the time he reached sixteen he had decided that Communism offered not only a cogent explanation for the economic travails afflicting the industrial democracies but also the remedies to cope with them.

Though primarily interested in politics and poetry, Cornford in fact concentrated in the area of History in his course of studies at Stowe. He was such an outstanding student that at the age of sixteen he was awarded a scholarship to study History at Trinity College, Cambridge. He received the award in December of 1932 so it was assumed he would return to Stowe for the spring and summer terms since he could not matriculate to the university in the middle of the academic year. He had other ideas, however, and managed to convince his parents to let him complete the terms at what his mother referred to as “that odd London School of Economics.” He had become increasingly impatient with the restrictions imposed on him at Stowe, which he felt had offered him all it could, and was eager to go to London where finally he could be on his own.

Having just turned seventeen when he entered L.S.E., he continued to read History but attended few lectures. Rather he became involved in a welter of political activities prevalent at the School, relishing the chance to lead the kind of independent life that he had been denied at Stowe. He joined the Marxist Society, served on Anti-Fascist and Anti-War Committees, was an editor of the student newspaper. And soon after he arrived in London, he formalized his commitment to the Communist movement and joined the Young Communist League whose ambition for workers was “to educate and lead them in their struggles against capitalist exploitation and against imperialist war.”

The precocious seventeen-year-old was not entirely consumed by politics during his time in London. One afternoon, at a Chinese restaurant in Soho, he was introduced to Ray Peters, a Welsh woman a few years older who also was a member of the Communist Party. Immediately they were attracted to one another, and before long she moved into his room near Red Lion Square. They behaved more like students than comrades, attended concerts and soccer matches, visited museums, played hopscotch on the sidewalk. They even resembled one another, easily could have been mistaken for brother and sister with their dark, wavy hair and sultry Mediterranean complexions. Some thought they looked like gypsies, not only because of their dark features but because of their ragged attire.

When he enrolled at Trinity College, he reluctantly left Ray behind in London. She visited him on weekends for a while then packed her belongings and moved to Cambridge where, after first renting a room from a Marxist philosopher, found a place of her own. Cornford, though still maintaining a room at his college, soon moved in with her. The unconventional arrangement presented a difficult situation for his parents to accept, even more than his radical politics, but as well-intentioned progressives who could not imagine ever being thought of as intolerant, they dutifully accepted the relationship. His mother remained concerned, though, as she revealed in a letter to a friend: “Yes, such a lot of the best of RJC is being used on Ray. That’s why it’s not essentially distressing (though so full of danger) as it would seem on just hearing the facts.”

Cornford pursued his interest in History at Trinity but politics, as it had at L.S.E., remained his primary concern as a university student. Still an ardent Communist, he urgently involved himself in a host of pursuits designed to promote the Party’s agenda to combat the rise of unemployment and the spread of Fascism. He participated in anti-war demonstrations, wrote polemical articles for student publications, chalked streets with anti-Fascist slogans, railed in speeches at the Cambridge Union and at all sorts of rallies and marches. He spoke with such intensity, rocking back and forth on his heels, his right hand frantically stabbing the air, that his father actually thought his gestures resembled a hammer and a sickle. In the spring term of his second year at the university he became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and actively worked to recruit other students into the Party and regularly ventured into town to join picket lines and help organize demonstrations.

Despite all his militant activities, he remained interested in poetry, and though he only managed to write nine poems while at Cambridge, he did write some polemical essays in which he encouraged the rise of “a revolutionary literature.” For him, the bourgeois ideal of the artist as an impartial observer was to be replaced by the revolutionary artist whose primary purpose was to support “the dynamic and vital forces of society against the reactionary inertial forces.” One of the poems he wrote at this time reflected this new direction: “Here we break for good with the old way of living, / For we’re leaving only what wasn’t worth having, / And face turned forward, for there’s no life here.” Plainly, now, he had decided it was more important to be a revolutionary than a poet, but if poetry could facilitate the revolution, it was certainly worth doing he believed.

Cornford relished not only being provocative in politics but also in his personal life. Dismissing the notion of marriage as another bourgeois antiquity, he did not attempt to conceal that he lived with Ray and often invited her to accompany him to various functions at the university. When she became pregnant, neither of them were the least bit embarrassed but rather derived a certain impudent pleasure in flaunting their rejection of the conventional moral standards of the Cambridge community. Ray, a few months before the delivery, returned to London to stay with relatives, but after the child was born, she went back to Cambridge to resume her life with the nineteen-year-old father in a new apartment. The small tensions that had seeped into their relationship seemed to expand with the birth of their son James. All the differences between them finally became too much to endure, and after two years together they decided to separate.

His immediate plans upon graduating from Cambridge were not clear. He applied for a position as an organizer with the Workers’ Educational Association in Birmingham so that he could be near the current love of his life, Margot Heinemann, a member of the Communist Party he had met at Cambridge who now worked in Birmingham. However, he was offered the position to his surprise. Disappointed, he decided to accept the research scholarship he had been awarded and spend another year at the university. Only twenty years old, his true ambition was to become a revolutionary leader in the Communist Party. “Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,” he wrote in one of his Cambridge poems. “Today is overturning yesterday’s settled good.”


The summer of 1936, following his graduation, Cornford planned to accompany Margot to the South of France and Brussels in August. His itinerary changed, however, when the Spanish military, under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, sought to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government on July 18. He was curious to see the conflict, which he expected “would be over very soon,” so he decided to visit Spain first, look around for a few days, then continue on to France. Urgently he obtained a letter of introduction from the News Chronicle identifying him as a freelance journalist, then headed for Barcelona, expecting to be back in England with Margot by the end of the month. His decision was so abrupt he did not even inform his family until after he crossed the border.


On August 8, 1936, three weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, the recent graduate arrived in Barcelona with a friend from Trinity, Richard Bennett, who agreed to accompany him at the last moment. He was beside himself with excitement, witnessing he believed the kind of society he had campaigned for so diligently as a member of the Communist Party. The revolution seemed a reality in Barcelona where, as he wrote Margot, “one can understand physically what the dictatorship of the proletariat means.” Wherever he looked he saw workers, armed with rifles, patrolling the streets, either on foot or in expropriated cars identified, in white paint, with the initials of their particular militia group. “The mass of the people,” he went on in his letter, “simply are enjoying their freedom. The streets are crowded all day, and there are big crowds round the radio palaces. But there is nothing at all like tension or hysteria.”

After two days in Barcelona, he grew restive and, leaving his college friend behind, set out for the Aragon Front at the invitation of an Austrian journalist. He had seen enough of the proletarian revolution, now he wanted to see the armed struggle against Fascism, and time was short because by the end of next week he was supposed to join Margot in the South of France. The last town they visited on the battlefront that day was Lecinene where a large POUM column was stationed and, to the surprise of his companions, Cornford decided to enlist in the militia. This was a Marxist organization more in sympathy with the views of Trotsky than Stalin, and therefore not supported by the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, but Cornford’s decision was so impulsive that he just joined whatever anti-Fascist militia outfit was available rather than leave the battlefront and return to Barcelona. He still remained an orthodox member of the Party, determined to promote its agenda.

With his decision he became the first Englishman to volunteer to fight at the Front for the Republic, but the following morning he became terribly depressed when he realized how isolated and alone he was in Spain. He had no one to talk with since he did not speak Spanish, and not a thing to read, so he decided to write a long letter to Margot in which he tried to explain his remarkable decision to enlist in the militia. There was the obvious political motive to help the Spanish workers in their resistance to the generals, but he also mentioned a more personal reason. “From the age of seventeen I was in a kind of way tied down, and envied my contemporaries a good deal their freedom to bum about,” he told her. “And it was partly because I felt myself for the first time independent that I came out here.”

Initially, he did not expect to be in the militia for very long, admitting in another letter to Margot, “I came out with the intention of staying a few days, firing a few shots and then coming home.” But the longer he was in the unit the more determined he became to remain in it. “You can’t play at civil war,” he wrote her. “Having joined it, I am in whether I like it or not. And I like it.” His first assignments as a soldier were confined to guard duty, but then as his unit launched attacks against two neighboring villages occupied by Nationalist troops, he became actively involved in the fighting, which he continued to regard as more of an ideological struggle than a parochial dispute between Spaniards. “I shall fight like a Communist if not like a soldier,” he declared. And, except for the huge tin cup tucked in his belt, he did resemble a street demonstrator more than a soldier, dressed in heavy, black corduroy trousers, a sports shirt and an alpaca coat, rope-soled sandals, and an old sombrero.

Though an avid cricket player, Cornford was rather clumsy and not much of an athlete, and before long all the marching he was required to do began to wear him down. Suddenly, one day after being on guard duty, he came down with a severe stomach disorder that caused him to spend the rest of the day in an empty cell in a monastery. He managed to pull his guard shift that evening but the pain persisted. Slowly he recovered, even managed to write a poem, ‘Full Moon at Tierz,’ in which he articulated his anxieties as he waited to go into battle near the town of Huesca:

“Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears my by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves.”

A week and a half after his bout of illness, the young soldier succumbed to a similar intestinal ailment along with a high fever. He was in much worse shape this time, and it was apparent to his superiors that he had to be hospitalized. Accordingly, he was transported to an improvised medical station in the rear then, as his health improved, was moved to Barcelona. In the next poem he wrote in Spain, ‘A Letter from Aragon,’ he recalled slipping off to sleep while listening to the moans of a wounded soldier in a nearby stretcher who was “Strong against death, but often unprepared for such pain.” Cornford was not deemed fit enough to rejoin his unit at Tierz so he was granted a three week leave to return to England. Of course, he was to use the time to recover his strength, but also, as he wrote his father before he left, to carry out “a special propaganda mission.”

He arrived in England on September 16, nearly six weeks after he left. His mission, which he likely proposed to his superiors in Barcelona, was to recruit a cadre of English volunteers who might offer an example of discipline and organization that was so sorely lacking among the troops he served with on the Aragon Front. In some of the actions he was involved in, he was struck by the lack of leadership which he believed compromised their efforts and was deeply frustrated, because of his inability to to speak Spanish, he could not provide any direction. When he returned to the Front, he intended to be with soldiers he could communicate with and become more than “a unit in the mass.”

Cornford was not alone in his concern about the lack of cohesion of some of the outfits fighting in Spain. While he was in England, and without his knowledge, the Comintern in Moscow authorized the formation of International Brigades, with volunteers recruited from throughout Europe by loyal Party members, in order to establish more structure and discipline in the militia units. Cornford did not recruit a brigade of course, barely even a squad of five Englishmen and one German, but he was satisfied that his recruits were dedicated to the cause and would be competent as soldiers. He left England on October 5, armed with the revolver his father had carried during the First World War. And along with toiletries and clothes he packed in his knapsack Marx‘s Capital and the Tragedies of Shakespeare.

To his surprise, Cornford did not return to his POUM unit but along with his new recruits was assigned to the training center for the new foreign volunteers. Because there was not yet enough British volunteers to form a unit of their own, they were attached to the French battalion known as the ‘Dumont’ after its commander. There they were issued black berets and 1914 Remington rifles. The conditions were quite primitive, the latrines scarce, and the language problems persisted, but through it all Cornford managed to maintain his enthusiasm and confidence. Well thought of by his fellow volunteers, he was someone they felt they could approach for advice and rely on to resolve problems that arose in the ranks. Always bursting with energy, sometimes speaking too quickly to keep up with his thoughts, he was someone others were easily inclined to follow.

Their training was abruptly suspended early in November because of the concern that Madrid might be taken over by Nationalist forces. Urgently, the volunteers were ordered to gather their gear and be prepared to depart at once for the capital, which was 150 miles from the training facility. They travelled the first part of the journey by train then completed the rest of the way in a convoy of open, two-ton trucks. Eventually on November 8, the day after the Nationalists launched their artillery bombardment, the International Brigade marched into Madrid. Many of the frightened and depleted citizens were encouraged by the appearance of the volunteers, hopeful now that they could defend their capital, while others, according to the English volunteer John Sommerfield, “looked at us as if we were too late and had come only in time to die.”


The British recruits were part of a machine-gun company that spent the night on the campus of University City in the building of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. The next morning, while drinking coffee outside of the building, they were bombed by an Italian airplane, followed by bursts of artillery fire. No one in the company was hit but there was considerable confusion until Cornford took charge and restored order. The next three weeks they spent in the field, exchanging fire with the Moroccans and legionnaires who comprised most of the Nationalist forces until a frustrating stalemate developed in the fighting in the four square blocks of University City. Even so, Cornford remained confident “Madrid won’t fall,” as he wrote to Margot, and he and his unit returned to the Philosophy building which recently had been taken back from the Nationalists. It was a curious bunker for a machine-gun company certainly, with the windows barricaded “with volumes of Indian metaphysics and early nineteenth-century German philosophy,” and the enemy so near that jeers could be hurled at them. And when Cornford was not seeking cover from the regular shelling on clear mornings, or not out on patrol, he played chess and read the Tragedies as if back in Cambridge.

One day, while reading, he suffered a shrapnel would in the head from one of their own anti-aircraft shells that inadvertently struck the Philosophy building. It was not serious but bled profusely so he spent the night in a hospital and received a bandage that was so cumbersome he was unable to put on his helmet. Two days later, back with his unit, he informed Margot, “I think I killed a Fascist,” and described how two Frenchmen he was shooting with insisted he had struck the one enemy soldier that went down. “If it is true, it’s a fluke, and I’m not likely to do as good a shot as that again.”

A few days later in the middle of December, Nationalist troops launched a new attack twelve miles from Madrid and captured the village of Boadilla del Monte, but with the support of Soviet tanks the international volunteers successfully counterattacked. His head still bandaged, Cornford participated in the action, only one of five English members of the ‘Dumont’ Battalion able to continue to fight. Around this same time 150 new British volunteers arrived in Spain so Cornford and the other English volunteers in the ‘Dumont’ were ordered to join them to form at last an all English-speaking unit known as the ‘No. 1 Company.’ They had hardly got together for training when they were deployed to the Cordoba Front where a diversionary attack was planned to relieve pressure on Madrid. Cornford was so exhausted that it was suggested by his superiors that he remain behind and assist in training the new British volunteers who were expected soon, but he declined the suggestion and on Christmas Eve moved out with his unit for Cordoba. He was as intense as ever, bundled up in an enormous overcoat that looked as if he were fighting in Siberia, but also maintained his sense of humor. He was well aware that to bear all the confusion of warfare sometimes “the only thing to do is to laugh at it.”

The company was ordered to take the village of Lopera, the main command post of the Nationalists in the province, and was promised complete air and artillery support. Moving across olive groves surrounding the village, the volunteers managed on Christmas night to reach the crest of a hill above the outpost and waited for support to arrive but all they received were urgent orders to attack. Finally, in a long line reminiscent of the tactics employed in the First World War, they charged over what became known as the ‘English crest’ and were met by a devastating fusillade of machine-gun fire. They dug in, using their tin plates as shovels, and the Nationalists counterattacked and the volunteers retreated. The next day, December 28, they launched one more attack and almost reached the walls of the village before they were driven back by furious artillery and machine-gun fire.

Among those killed in the battle for Lopera was John Cornford. His twenty-first birthday was December 27, but it is not known if he died then or on the following day. Also, the circumstances of his death remain uncertain since his body was never recovered and no one who was involved in the battle reported what happened to the young volunteer. Consequently there were many different accounts presented in the obituary notices in England, though all reflected the sentiment that Cornford had once expressed about some soldiers he knew who had died in combat: “It’s always the best seem to get the worse.”

In the last poem he wrote in Spain, Cornford referred to Margot Heinemann as “Heart of the heartless world.” As he indicated in the letters he wrote to her, one of the reasons he had enlisted in the resistance to Franco was to oppose such heartlessness, indeed as a dedicated Communist he was convinced the policies of Marxism would improve the lives of many people and make the world more equitable and responsible. He was mistaken, of course, as Marxism turned out to be the most brutal and ruthless ideology to emerge in the twentieth century, imposing a system of beliefs that routinely justified the elimination of millions of people for the benefit of an avaricious few. Some of his supporters believed that had he survived the conflict and witnessed the undeniable brutality of Communism in practice, he would have renounced the ideology as other gullible British writers did eventually. This is questionable, though, especially since the woman to whom he dedicated his last poem remained devoted to the Party despite all the cruelties it inflicted.

Many political martyrs are not always the saints they appear. Certainly John Cornford was a daring and determined young man, willing to risk his life for his political convictions, but maybe his death spared the world more grief than it deserved. At Cambridge, according to a classmate Victor Kiernan, he used to recall with admiration an anecdote from the Russian Civil War in which the future Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun opened fire with a machine gun on thousands of prisoners during a forced retreat. The ultimate ambition of a fledgling revolutionary like Rupert John Cornford was to become as ruthless as Bela Kun, and if he had made it out of Spain, he probably would have contributed to the heartlessness of the world he had condemned as a poet.

Collected Writings
John Cornford
Carcanet Press, 1986
220 Pages


T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and received an M.A. in International History from the London School of Economics. His essays have appeared in such publications as Appalachia, Commonweal, Palo Alto Journal, and Sugar Mule.

Posted in: Essays