International Women’s Day celebrates all that is great and good about the ‘fairer sex’ and 80 years since the start of The Spanish Civil War, it would be timely to remember one woman from England whose lust for liberty would see her fight against fascism and pay the ultimate sacrifice for doing so.
Felicia Browne was born into a well to do family on February 18th 1904 in Weston Green, Thames Ditton, Surrey. The talented girl had a flare for art and at the age of just 16 enrolled in art college, first in St John’s Wood school of art and then the Slade school of art.
In 1928 Felicia went to Berlin where she traded in her paint brushes and canvas for a brief dalliance with metal work and stonemasonry. She was in Berlin to witness the growth of Nazism and instead of cowering away from the dark shadow of the swastika, Felicia took it on and was an active member in anti-fascist activities in Berlin, including street fights with Hitler devotees!
Perhaps it was her active role in the anti-fascist movement in Berlin that saw her leave the city sooner than she preferred. She left it in such a hurry, she even left behind her art tools, but her activism did not wane and when she returned to her home soil she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Felicia had witnessed at first hand the rise of Nazism and the spread of fascism so she flung herself whole heartedly into the fight to stop it. She took part and organised protest marches because as she saw it, it was up to the ordinary working class to rise up against fascism as those in Downing street were merely ignoring it. She continued with her art but it took on a more left wing perspective and she became an art contributor to the Left Review.
In July 1936 Felicia went on a driving holiday through France with her friend the journalist and photographer Dr Edith Bone. Their vacation saw them journey from Paris down south and over the Pyrenees where Barcelona was marked as their final destination of the holiday but at the heart of this decision was of course, Felicia’s left wing politics.
The two holidaying ladies arrived in Barcelona in time for the People’s Olympiad, a socialist opponent to the 1936 Berlin Olympics which saw swaths of swastikas and a beaming Hitler overseeing it all. Unfortunately the People’s Olympiad didn’t get a chance to go ahead as a coup by the fascist General Franco against the republican government occured.
Many athletes and tourists either fled or found themselves stranded but many more, including Felicia, chose to stay and fight it out with the Francoists. She joined a Marxist militia and for a time was stationed in Barcelona where she did patrol duty. As the war escalated she wanted to be in the thick of the action and under took weapons training before going to the front.
Felicia did not find it easy to enlist in a combat group. She had to fight gender discrimination in order to win her place to fight the fascists. Every time she tried to join a militia at the front lines she was disuaded by those in charge; men! But she held out, wore them down and eventually won them over with her with gusty attitude. “I can fight as well as any man” she sternly informed them!
Felicia saw action on the Zaragoza front where on August 25th she joined a small group of ten on a dangerous mission. They drove to Tardienta town by car before walking 12km to a rail line used by Francoists. Their aim was to blow it up.
All went well in the way of placing the dynamite without arousing any suspicion but little did they know they were being watched by a troop of Francoists nearby.
Making their way back from the railway line over the unruly Spanish terrain Felicia and her comrades came across a downed plane. They recognised the dead pilot as one of their own and as they were burying him, 40 fascist soliders ambushed them.
In the ensuing firefight one of Felicia’s comrades, an Italian, was shot. As she tended to his wounds the ambushers unleashed a hail of machine gun fire on them, to which Felicia and her Italian comrade succumbed to.
In order to make a quick getaway, Felicia’s comrades were unable to bring hers or the Italians body with them but they managed to gather some of their belongings and from the 32 year old Felicia they took a sketch book.
Felicias sketchbook managed to make its way back to England where it’s contents made up part of a memorial exhibition in London in October 1936. They were then sold by the Artists International Association with proceeds going towards Spanish relief. No doubt, the lady killed in defence of the Spanish republic would have approved of her art aiding the cause she gave her life for.