Alan William Gilchrist (1913-1981) – Teacher and Sussex Brigader
Brighton born Alan Gilchrist was 25 when he arrived in Spain in May 1937. A schoolteacher and member of the National Union of Teachers (now part of the National Education Union), he was initially posted to the British Anti-Tank Battery, serving as their Political Commissar from January to April 1938 when the Unit was disbanded.
Gilchrist saw action in many of the major battles fought by the British Battalion – Jarama, Brunete, Teruel and the Ebro. He contracted malaria after Brunete but recovered to attend the Officer Training School. Commended for his bravery at Corbera on the Ebro front, Gilchrist was wounded in the chest in July 1938 and arrived back in England in December 1938.
Gilchrist was active in the International Brigade Association serving as its Vice President. He returned to teaching and in the early 50’s taught English at Hanley Castle Grammar School in Worcestershire. Alan Gilchrist died in 1981 and his ashes were scattered on Hill 481 by Christopher Smith, a close friend and fellow Anti-Tank Battery member. Hill 481 was a heavily fortified and strategic Fascist stronghold on the Ebro front overlooking Gandesa which the British Battalion had attempted to capture to great cost.
In 2012, Mike Slater of Malvern, a former pupil of Alan Gilchrist paid this tribute to his onetime English teacher.
“He (Alan) had a significant influence to the good on my life and many others. At school he was a tall imposing character, well respected by all. As pupils we were in awe of him-we knew he had been in the Spanish Civil War, but he never spoke about it and we were too fearful to ask.”
Alan wrote several novels under the name Alan Cowan. I believe that they were critically well received but not sure as to their commercial success.
The first was ‘A Kind of Truth’ published in 1961 and centres on five men in an anti tank battery. Very much drawn from life.
To say that he was much loved by the boys of Hanley Castle Grammar School is not an exaggeration. The academic life did not attract me and I must have been a little horror. Mr Gilchrist or ‘Crusty’ (a perfect name for him) was brilliant and in addition to his English duties, each year he would put on a play and then the annual trip to Stratford was a joy, and one year we even went to London to visit an art gallery and theatre after.
I often think of him and always ask myself the question, why no autobiography?
Thanks Michael – this is really fascinating stuff, especially relating to his novels – thanks for commenting.