Mark Derby - Charlie Riley: The Story of A New Zealand SCW Veteran

Mark Derby – Charlie Riley: The Story of A New Zealand SCW Veteran

This article, by LHP chair Mark Derby, first appeared in New Zealand Legacy (Journal of the NZ Federation of Historical Societies), Vol. 19, No. 2, 2007. Mark is editing a book on New Zealand’s response to the Spanish Civil War, to be published in 2009 by Canterbury University Press. Further information on Charlie Riley or any other New Zealander with a connection with the war is welcome. Email:

I grew up in the Hutt Valley, just north of Wellington, in the 1970s, when everything interesting seemed to happen elsewhere. It wasn’t until many years afterwards that I came to hear of the barely believable life of Charlie Riley, one of my former neighbours in the Hutt suburb of Naenae. By that time Riley was long dead so all my information about him has come from archival sources. Fortunately there are several of these since he was a keen writer who kept voluminous records and, in 1973, donated his entire personal papers to the Turnbull Library. The assistant Chief Librarian at that time, Ray Grover, was sufficiently struck by this material and its donor that he visited Riley at his immaculate state house and recorded his memories for the library‚Äôs oral history collection.

This account of the life of Charlie Riley, veteran of three wars and one of the handful of New Zealand combatants in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, is extracted from that oral interview, his personal papers (including two unpublished memoirs) and his extensive military records. Riley must have seen more battlefield experience than almost any other New Zealand soldier, was several times wounded and decorated, and was also a notoriously militant organiser of the unemployed during the 1930s. Yet he appears to have entirely escaped the attention of military and other histories, apart from a mention in Amirah Inglis’ Australians in the Spanish Civil War (since he was living in Australia when that war broke out). His surviving relatives may hold additional information but at present this article appears to be the sole published New Zealand tribute to someone I wish I’d known РCharlie Riley, uncommon soldier.

A self-described ‚Äòlittle Cockney sparrow‚Äô, Riley was born in November 1893, near the end of Queen Victoria‚Äôs reign, when London‚Äôs ‚Äòstreets were still lit with gas lamps, when hansom cabs clattered across its streets‚Äô, and from his eastern hamlet of Ratcliff young Riley ‚Äòheard the peal of Bow Bells when the wind happened to be in the right quarter‚Äô. Nearby were the great London docks of the East and West India Companies, the Royal Albert and others, from which towering vessels, some still fully-rigged, travelled to the farthest reaches of Her Majesty‚Äôs dominions.

Although a keen student, Riley had to leave school at 15 to support his family and spent some tedious months in the counting-house of a tea merchant until ‘an army recruiting sergeant thought I would make a good soldier,’ and offered him the traditional King’s shilling to enlist. The next five years were spent with the Royal Field Artillery at Woolwich Arsenal, until ‘the inside and outside of a fourteen pound gun, down to the last split pin, became as well known as one’s regimental number’.

On his discharge at age 21 Riley resumed his childhood passion for ships and the sea. As an ordinary seaman he worked on a succession of tramp steamers, eventually carrying Italian emigrants to New York. Returning from one such voyage in April 1912, his ship encountered the floating wreckage of the Titanic. When ‘cold voyages across the Atlantic’ lost their appeal, he signed on board the SS Tainui for Australia and New Zealand and was paid off in Wellington in April 1913. There he joined the passenger steamer Westralia, ‘a very happy ship’ which shuttled across the Tasman and around the coasts of both countries.

His mother’s illness brought Riley back to his homeland at the inauspicious time of July 1914. Upon the outbreak of war his ability to ride a horse saw him enlisted as a trooper in a heavy cavalry regiment, the Prince of Wales 3rd Dragoon Guards. After just three months’ training at Canterbury in Kent, the regiment was sent to the first battle of Ypres where Riley would spend the next two years engaged in heavy fighting, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant. ‘We had a gruelling time up there because in the winter time, 1914, 1915, [those years] were vile. We only had ordinary trenches about three feet deep and there was often two feet of water in them and we had ten days in and ten days out.’

‘We were in St Julian, that the soldiers called Sanctuary Wood, when the first lot of Canadians got the effect of the gas that the Germans had put over in shells. We were in reserve to the Canadians so we brought them out and… they were all as green as grass from the chlorine…. after a while the Germans gave up using gas. It didn’t work always because they quite often got it back.’

‘In one attack we were unfortunate. We met up with a regiment of Prussian guard and they were all huge fellows… I remember going over the top, we met them about halfway and I saw one fellow coming at me so I was ready with the rifle and bayonet. I happened to slip just as I got in front of him. He took a lunge at me but he missed too so up I got quickly and into him, but before that his bayonet just nipped me in the arm, in the muscle.’ After emergency dressing in the field, this wound became infected with tetanus and after some time in a hospital in France, Riley was invalided to Britain to make room for more urgent cases.

Discharged from the army as unfit, the resilient 23-year-old became a civilian gunner’s mate on an armed merchantman plying between Britain and South Africa. Towards the end of 1917 he sailed from Port Said to New Zealand with the SS Arawa, repatriating some 800 wounded New Zealand troops. There he was paid off, but ‘in view of the fact that I had a re-examination and my arm was all right, I had to rejoin and carry on. This time I enlisted in the Mounted Rifles. I went into Featherston Camp and I went off overseas with the 35th reinforcement and arrived in time for the final of the battles in Palestine.’

After his final discharge in February 1919 Riley studied engineering at Canterbury University but failed to complete his qualification due to illness (perhaps a form of delayed shellshock). Instead he became a goldminer, and found work as a shot-firer in the West Coast Waiuta mine. By 1930 he was married and living in Christchurch but the onset of worldwide depression meant there was, ‘no work for a skilled gold miner with a licence to use explosives. My savings vanished within a year.’ Riley had by now become politically active on the left, first with the Labour and then the Communist Party. He became an organiser of the huge numbers of his fellow unemployed workers. ‘We used to have our meetings outside in Victoria Square, Christchurch, and we built up a nice organisation… We had illegal demonstrations and so on, we fought the police, we had to. We had to take to the streets to make ourselves known. Oh, I’m well known down there (in Christchurch).’

In the next few years ex-serviceman Riley took part in the 1932 tramways strike and accumulated 28 criminal convictions. Following the passage of the extraordinarily repressive Public Safety Conservation Act he was classed as a ‘rogue and a vagabond’ and along with several other unemployed leaders, sentenced to a year’s prison. ‘After I’d been there ten and half months, they asked me if I would go out on probation. I said no, you’ve kept me here this long, I might as well see it out – I did.’

In 1934, divorced and desperate for work, Riley made his way to Sydney, a city he knew from his seafaring days, and returned to gold-mining, first in Cobar, NSW and then Tennant’s Creek, NT. In both mines he was lucky, his crew striking rich seams of ore and earning bonuses of 80 pounds a month each. ‘From poverty to affluence, it was a good feeling.’ Isolated in remote mining camps, Riley spent his off-shift hours reading, thus learning of the rise of fascism in Europe, and especially of Hitler’s ruthless suppression of German trade unions along with Jews and other enemies on the left. The Australian miners and other unions raised funds for their support (‘even poverty-stricken men gave their sixpences’), and sympathetic German seamen were secretly recruited to carry large sums to the underground resistance movements.

One day, lying on his camp-bed under canvas in the searing heat of the Northern Territory, Riley heard on his radio that on the far side of the world Franco and his fellow Spanish generals had launched a revolt against their country’s freely elected progressive government, with the support of the world’s fascist leaders. ‘That Hitler and Mussolini and the Spanish generals had begun attacking Loyalist Spain was about the last straw for us.’ Within days he and a mate took the long and risky trek to Darwin, then returned by ship to Sydney, this time with ‘a small fortune in my pocket’. To save their funds, the two men signed on as firemen with a ship carrying wheat to Britain and after their discharge in Cardiff, the ‘two wild colonial boys took a first-class carriage to London’.

There they made contact with recruiters for the International Brigades, the volunteer army of more than 40 nationalities being assembled to help defend the Spanish people against rightwing insurrection. As part of a group of over 100 volunteers, including a number of French Foreign Legion veterans, Riley made the gruelling 14-hour trek across snowbound tracks through the Pyrenees, evading French machine-gun posts and searchlights. ‘Sometimes you had to run and drop down when the searchlights were in the vicinity, but anyhow, we made it and we arrived.’

In Catalonia the nuggety ex-miner was enlisted in a mainly British unit of the XV International Brigades, and was soon thrown into action in the battle of Teruel. With characteristic offhandedness, Riley recalls the conditions as ‘pretty tough. The Germans and the Italians were far better off than we were. One thing we lacked was sufficient artillery and they had more aircraft than we did, although we were supplied from time to time with Russian bombers and they used to do a lot of good work.’
Riley (3rd from left) and Australian members of the International Brigades arriving home from the Spanish Civil War.

Over the next 20 months Riley took part in the battle of Brunete, the later Republican offensive across the Ebro River and the subsequent disastrous withdrawal. In his 200-page memoir of the civil war he records his fascination at the differences he found between the idealistic Republican army and the British army in WWI. ‘There were no batmen or officer’s servants in the Republican Army; even the CO cleaned his own boots.’ He is full of admiration for the women and children of republican Spain, and for regular Spanish troops such as the very youthful snipers. ‘Many of them were little taller than their rifles, but this did not prevent them from commanding respect.’

As a trained soldier with a knowledge of explosives and artillery, Riley gained the title of ‘shock brigader’, awarded to those with qualities of both military and political leadership. Already fluent in French, he acquired a useful knowledge of Spanish and trained the younger troops in the use of weapons and explosives. He also appears to have volunteered for some of the most dangerous actions of a very desperate war. ‘The night patrols were the more exciting of all night duties and … I must confess I used to enjoy taking part in patrol work near the lines. This was probably a stray heirloom inherited from the Great War period when in various sections of the Western Front, I seemed to enjoy (at the time anyway) creeping across No Man’s Land with other adventurous spirits loaded with hand grenades’.

Riley’s memoir records in detail the various types of weapon, command systems and military tactics he observed, most of them new to him since the Spanish Civil War served as an important testing ground for the world war to come. ‘In the earlier days of the Rebellion, the antiquated Spanish Mauser held sway and there were many much more antiquated blunderbusses, carbines and flintlock pistols that did sterling work on the barricades, and which… might have found honoured resting places in any museum.’ By the time Riley arrived in Spain, however, modern weaponry was arriving from the few foreign countries which officially supported the Republic, and he was issued with a Czech-made light machine gun with which to defend his column of infantry. ‘If planes came down, you took a potshot at them and got rid of them. They often flew low and you didn’t miss, you hit them somewhere and quite often a few were brought down.’

The Republican forces were generally less well equipped than their opponents and were often forced to improvise their weapons and strategies. Riley’s experience with explosives in the mines meant he was called upon to take part in the exceptionally dangerous work of close-quarter anti-tank warfare. ‘We carried about eight anti-tank bombs each. We used to get close to (the tanks) and throw them under the tracks and once they went off you’d see that the track had come off. They were immobilised then and all you had to do was find a place where you could throw another bomb in and kill the crew… If you get close to them they can’t shoot you, because their line of fire is beyond you.’

No more than a dozen New Zealanders fought with the International Brigades, and Riley appears to have met only one other, a fellow seaman named Bert Bryan, from Timaru. The two met in combat on the River Ebro, the last major action of the International Brigades.

‘There was one place that was giving the Republican officers a headache and that was the Mora de Ebro bridge, so they sorted out half a dozen miners and I was among them and we mined the middle of the three spans.’ Two nights later, the Republican fighters heard the rumbling of Italian tanks massed on the far side of the river. ‘The fuses were all ready and we just set them off. The bridge was half full of tanks when up she went and the three spans with it…. They never crossed the Ebro River, not while we were there.’ Soon after this success, however, Riley’s unit faced a fierce counter-attack from Italian infantry, and he was hit by machine gun bullets and shrapnel.

‚ÄòAfter being wounded in the head, face and left jugular artery, both shoulders and arms, I must have presented a pretty sight. One side of my face was a mass of congealed blood, the khaki beret which I held to my neck being saturated with the thick bloody mass… I still remember walking up a hillside to contact the dressing station which lay on the other side of the hill.‚Äô The still-conscious Riley was taken to Valls Hospital where his wounds became infected. ‚ÄòOnly by long and careful treatment by the American staff and my Spanish nurses, Carmen and Tina, did I manage to retain my right arm.‚Äô That treatment included an emergency transfusion of blood donated by one of these nurses.

Fortunately for the critically injured Riley, the quality of medical care available to Republican troops was generally very high. Volunteer doctors and nurses as well as combatants had arrived from around the world to support the anti-fascist resistance, and together with native Spanish staff they pioneered battlefield medical techniques, such as the use of emergency blood transfusions, that would soon become routine.

This treatment was provided under the worst imaginable wartime conditions and as Riley was transferred to a succession of hospitals, he witnessed a number of bombing raids on medical facilities. ‘Some time after I had left Valls, the hospital was bombed by insurgent air squadrons. Nevertheless it had remained untouched until almost the very end (of the war) for the reason that Franco had a country estate there.’ At the time of this bombing, Riley notes, the hospital had a full complement of 400 patients.

After a month at Valls, with his right arm slowly recovering, Riley applied to rejoin his brigade but the hospital’s medical officer transferred him to the International Brigade’s Base Hospital at Mataro. There he met a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses, probably including Rene Shadbolt and Isobel Dodds who had been sent by New Zealand’s Spanish Medical Aid Committee. In late 1938, shortly before all International Brigaders were formally withdrawn from the front, he and other seriously wounded men were repatriated on board a Red Cross train to Paris. Still with his right arm in a sling, Riley arrived at London’s Victoria Station where he promptly weighed himself to note the rigours of the past 20 months’ fighting. ‘The pointer registered at 8 st 7 lbs, which showed a loss of 2 st 7 lb.’

Before leaving London, Riley campaigned on behalf of fellow International Brigaders still held in Spain. In a series of letters he urged the British government to protect the ‘ninety-odd British prisoners of war languishing in the toughest of Franco’s prisons, at San Pedro de Cardena, a number of whom were not only severely wounded but still need urgent medical attention.’

Arriving back in Christchurch in June 1939, the 46-year-old convalescent might justifiably have taken pride at simply being able to mow his own lawn. Instead Riley resumed the unfinished and worsening anti-fascist struggle. Taking seven years off his age, he was one of the first to enlist at Christchurch’s King Edward Barracks. He was initially placed in a reserve unit of fellow-WW1 veterans but predictably, found himself out of place in Dad’s Army and applied to join the Expeditionary Force. Against all probability he passed the medical and left for Egypt with the First Echelon.

Riley’s first action was in Libya with the 34th anti-tank battery, digging tank traps to support the Australian battle for Tobruk. Two years of desert combat came to a sudden end when he was wounded yet again, this time in the foot, and his war service finally ended in 1943 with a disability pension.

The almost indestructible leftwing battler remarried after the war, outlived his second wife and carried on alone in his Naenae state house until his death in 1982. Interviewing him ten years before this, aged 80, Ray Grover recalls that ‚Äòthere was nothing military about him, but he had the attitude of a ranker, a chirpy little Cockney guy.‚Äô Unlike many of those who offered their lives to the Spanish cause only to see Franco impose decades of repression, Riley looked back on his actions without regret. ‚ÄòThere was no bitterness in the man at all.‚Äô

‘So you’ve fought and been wounded in three wars?’ asked Grover, in wonderment. ‘Yes, I’ve been a bit unlucky. And lucky. Could have been worse.’