By Zakary Hartley-Dawson
Almost 85 years ago, a war broke out in Spain that would forever leave a bloody mark on the nation’s people and history. Following a military coup, a civil war broke out between Francisco Franco’s Nationalists anti-Franco Republican factions, each being conglomerates of various right and left-leaning groups respectively. With news of the war’s outbreak hitting the press in 1936, anarchists, communists and fascists alike flocked to the scene with the hopes of participating in this battleground of ideologies. Many Republican international volunteers went on to form groups such as the Lincoln, Mackenzie-Papineau, and Washington battalions, which operated under the Republican Spanish Popular Front, but some chose other ways of aiding, one such person being a Canadian by the name of Hazen Sise.
Sise was born in 1907 to a wealthy family in Montreal. He didn’t always plan on the life of adventure he would later pursue, and initially planned to become an architect, a long-held passion of his. Long before venturing to Spain, he had attended various schools, such as Mcgill University and the esteemed MIT, to learn to be an architect. Once he finished school, he crossed the pond over to London in order to work for Maxwell Fry, a British modern architect. Upon learning of the start of the war in Spain, Sise became incredibly worried about the conflict, and showed interest in aiding the Republican side due to his socialist ideals. His friends in London learned of this and pointed him in the direction of Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor and notable communist who had been planning to go to Spain to run a medical operation. After meeting to talk about the journey, Sise enthusiastically offered his aid, and so Bethune took him on as a handyman and driver. Sise closed up shop, handed away his work, and prepared for the task ahead. Right before departing, he wrote a letter to his father in which he stated “I sometimes suspect that you think I am motivated by a romantic, purely idealistic, urge to bring about a socialist society… [socialism] will come, when the time is right, as the only possible alternative to the mess we now are in.” Not long after, on the third of December, Sise, Bethune and one of his associates, Sorensen, had arrived in Boulogne, France and began their journey to Spain. Sise would later describe this foray as the “Great turning point in my life”.
The main operational role of the medical group Sise joined was to provide a mobile blood transfusion unit. They would load up as much contained blood as they could, or at least as much as would likely be required, and would set out to deliver it to areas that needed it, while Bethune would act as a doctor and organizer working at their base in Madrid. Bethune said that this idea came to him after he had spent “two weeks in the trenches” alongside Republican forces and witnessed a great number of fighters die of blood loss in hospitals. Only two or three hospitals provided this service at the time, so he took it upon himself to do provide blood transfusion services with a grant from the Socorro Rojo (a leftist international aid organization, think the Red Cross but communist). The official name of the group was, at the beginning of the operation, the Instituto Canadiense de Transfusion de Sangre but it would later be changed to the Instituto Hispano-Canadiense.
Preparations And Work in Madrid
After spending the 8-14th of December driving around Spain and organizing the necessities for their transfusion unit, they finally arrived at their first operation based in Madrid. The group was stationed in the SRI headquarters at 36 Principe de Vergara in a relatively untouched and prosperous area of Madrid, especially considering the ruinous state of much of nation. They were to spend their time there working at the main hospital, as well as out of their own building, in order to collect blood.
Upon arrival, reality took an interesting turn for Sise when he discovered documents accidentally left by a Spanish lawyer who acted as a legal counselor for the German embassy inside the hotel they were staying in that divulged the details of Nazi cooperation and aid given to the Nationalists. Sise, aware of the importance of this intelligence, then placed them into a laundry bin and drove all the way back to Valencia in order to hand over the documents to then Republican Foreign Minister Alvarez del Vayo.
Once Sise had returned to the operation in Madrid, he began work as a driver for the deliveries of blood. During the night time, he would set out in a bright yellow roadster loaded with blood into the Sierra de Guadarrama. From the information Sise left behind about his excursions, he seemed to quite enjoy the task despite the obvious danger of being a moving bright yellow target in areas still prone to infiltration by Nationalist forces. His work would expand to much more than just the Guadarrama area, as the operation soon took under its wing all Spanish blood transfusion units. When describing the scale of the operation, Bethune stated: “We are serving 100 hospitals and casualty clearing stations in the front lines of Madrid and 100 kilometres from the front of the sector Del Centro” on a front of 1,000 kilometres. With the expansion, Sise began to deliver blood to various areas on the southern front using a refrigeration truck with which he managed to deliver 10 gallons of blood in one month.
However, Sise did not solely aid in the delivery of blood, as he would also work with Bethune in Madrid, where he aided the clinic with whatever he could. While working at the hospital and living in Madrid, he had to put up with daily bombardments from Nationalist airplanes. Sise described some of his experiences at the hospital in Madrid as follows:
The explosions seemed uncomfortably close and my architect’s brain could not but try and picture the rather complicated plan of the building, to see whether we were moving towards the exposed side. Such little preoccupations become automatic in Madrid though one knows they won’t do any good. At last we were blinking in the brightness of the operating room, that cool room with green-flowered tile walls where I have seen things that I would like to forget; seen men die on the table in undignified and unmentionable ways before we ever had a chance of” pumping new blood in them… With a can of hot water I warmed up the bottle of nearly ice-cold blood while Loma lays out the little gleaming syringe pump and examines the veins at the crook of the man’s arm. The shells began falling closer, rattling the windows and making the instruments jump about in their glass cases… Loma slipped in the needle and we started connecting up the tubes, I holding the syringe, our arms entwined in a complicated way. We are all bending over different parts of the man who is breathing so fast that his whole body is heaving about with the effort. It’s a frightening thing which you take a long time to get used to. The surgeons quickly sew up one wound in the abdomen and start on the leg. Loma begins to pump. Soon a doctor mumbles “350 cc is enough” and we’re finished. We wash up, pack up and as we turn to the door they call softly, over their shoulders “Salud!” “Hasta la vista.” The anaesthetist suddenly laughs and raises his clenched fist.
While Sise does mention daily bombardments in a few sources, it was not like that for the entirety of his time in Madrid. The hospital he worked in was hit much more than other buildings in Madrid due to it being one of the biggest targets in the cities layout. Nonetheless, working at the hospital meant that he saw wounded and disfigured people as much as the day was long while he was there, with his delivery work probably being the only work less engaged in such an atmosphere. If working in Madrid didn’t give Sise enough of a view of the horrors of war, his next venture certainly would.
Onwards to Malaga
On the fifth of February, Sise and the group’s newly recruited member Cuthbert Worsley, a journalist from England, arrived in Valencia with their new Renault truck. The reason for this journey was because Bethune was meeting with Colonel Cerrada, an official of the Soccoro Rojo, in order to have their operation officiated under the Republican Government. After the meeting, the group would drive down to Malaga in order to tell hospitals along the route of the arrival of the unit, all the while delivering blood and testing out the new truck. However, after the meeting, the group learned that their unit was not to be officiated. Despite this, Sise, Worsely and Bethune all decided to head to Malaga.
After about two days of staying in Valencia, the trio finally headed for Malaga. While driving, the group ran into a sandstorm, and was forced to stop in Alicante. Upon arrival, they began to hear rumors that Malaga had fallen to Nationalist forces. These rumors would be confirmed the next day when they arrived in Murcia and officials notified them of the situation.
Malaga had not been in a good state for some time now. Due to Nationalist offensives and a fear of being subjected to the atrocities commonly committed by both sides of the civil war, thousands of civilians had fled to the city, which now teemed with around 100,000 citizens, refugees, and Republican soldiers. On top of that, the city was incredibly tactically vulnerable at that point in time. To the south, there was the ocean, to the north and west were the Nationalists, and the only way out of their position was through one road heading east to Almeria that made anyone travelling it an easy target. Despite all this, and the fact that 10,000 Italian Blackshirts had broken through the front lines and had been advancing on Malaga for ten days, Republican forces paid no mind. That state of mind carried on until the fifth of February when the Nationalist navy started to shell the coastline to make way for an advance on the city. Over the next few days, both the governor of the province and the southern army chief and his staff would abandon the city and its inhabitants to their (likely terrible) fate. Finally, the city evacuated on February 7th, taking the sole narrow coastal road to Almeria, a town 200 kilometres away. Once the empty town had been seized by the Nationalists and Blackshirts, they turned to chase the retreating Republican forces.
After arriving in Almeria on the tenth of February, the group wasted no time in heading in the direction of Malaga to see how they could aid the refugees. As they drove out, what started as small pockets of refugees alongside the road turned into one long, unbroken mass of weathered and tired souls. Most wore torn, dusty clothing, some children had no shoes and many had swollen feet from the five days of non-stop walking they had to endure. Sise later described in an interview that driving on a snowy day and having flakes fly at his windshield reminded him of driving on the Malaga-Almeria road due to the sheer amount of people.
After driving for many hours, the group stopped 20 kilometres away from the city of Motril. At this point, Bethune had made the decision to begin filling the van up with children in order to drive them back to Almeria and save them the hard road ahead. However, upon opening the truck, families began frantically trying to get themselves, but more so their children, into the truck. It got to the point where they had to bring some mothers and fathers along as separating them from their kids, even it meant saving the life of the child, proved impossible. Bethune and Worsley stayed behind while Sise drove the 40 people he could cram into the truck all the way back from Almeria. When he got to Almeria, he unloaded the group of refugees at the Socorro Rojo Hospital, and soon after met with the regional governor. Sise learnt from him that there were no supplies to spare for any of the refugees seeping into the town, as Almeria was barely getting by as most of the towns supplies went towards the war effort. Sise then refueled the truck and headed back to try and find Bethune and Worsley along the road. By the time he found them, it was sundown the next day, and he was incredibly exhausted due to lack of sleep. They once again loaded up the truck with refugees, but this time Worsely took shifts behind the wheel, giving Sise time to rest while they drove without Bethune back up to Almeria. After arriving in Almeria once more, Sise was left at a hotel to recover from three days straight of driving, as Worsely drove back to get Bethune and their final load of refugees.
The next day, after the trio regrouped, they met a Red Cross representative named Adrian Phillips who hadn’t heard of the Malaga incident and also didn’t seem to have any interest in seeing it. After some Convincing from Bethune, Adrian and Sise drove back out onto the road so that Adrian could see it for himself. Sise had not yet had the chance to take pictures of the event while he was there and so he went out with the group to do so. The images Sise ended up taking of the Malaga Almeria road incident are some of the only ones we have to date. The images he took put into frame the aftermath of Nationalist bombings and strafing of Republican forces which killed many civilians. In addition to the strafing, most people in these pictures have been walking for days and most likely have not slept much if at all. Besides the exact scenes portrayed in the images, what one can gather from Sise’s photos is an insight into the toll of civil war on civilians and civilian life.
Images taken by Sise of the Malaga-Almeria road incident.
The End of a Journey
After saving countless lives and leaving quite a mark on the Spanish people, the unit disbanded in June of 1937. Bethune got caught up in some controversy over supposed spying while in Spain, and so was forced to return to Canada. As for Sise, he would go on to work on quite on a few quite impressive architectural works while back in Canada such as Expo 67 and various works for the government. Sise would live in Canada up until his death at the age of 67 in 1974.