Robert Charles Hepburn in the Spanish Civil war

James Durney

Only two Kildaremen fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War – Frank Conroy and Robert Charles Hepburn. Frank Conroy was killed in action on 28 December 1936, two weeks after arriving in Spain, while Robert Hepburn had a more discomfiting military career.

Robert Charles Hepburn was born in Kildare Town on 13 March 1913, the son of Charles Hepburn and Rosalie Henshaw. Charles Hepburn was born in Co. Antrim in 1883 and in 1901 and 1911 was living in McClean’s Lane, South Dock, Dublin. His trade was recorded as a carpenter and his religion as Church of Ireland. Mary Rosalie Henshaw was the daughter of James and Rebecca Henshaw, from Co. Clare. James Henshaw was a bricklayer from Scariff, Co. Clare. A Roman Catholic, James married Rebecca Pidgon, who was twelve years his senior and Church of Ireland, in 1891. They had three children – James, Rebecca and Rosalie. In the 1911 census all the children are recorded as being Irish Church, but Rosalie was baptized as a Catholic. She was born in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, in 1895, and in 1911 was recorded as a domestic servant. James was born in Carlow, while Rebecca was born in Dublin. James Henshaw obviously travelled wherever he could find work and in 1911 is living in Stafford Street, on Dublin’s northside. Two years later the family were living in Kildare Town where Robert Charles Hepburn was born. Charles Hepburn’s profession was recorded as a carpenter.

At eighteen years of age Robert Charles Hepburn joined the British Army and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1931-34. His Irish address was given as 78 Iveagh Gardens, Crumlin, Dublin, and his trade as a tailor’s presser.  He arrived in Spain from London on 6 February 1937 and was sent to the Jarama front twelve days later. Three days of fighting from 12-14 February had dealt the British Battalion, of the International Brigade, a near-mortal blow. Of the 630 men who had gone into action on 12 February, only eighty or so were left unscathed when the battle ended three days later. To help replenish the battalion’s numbers, some eighty new volunteers from Madirueras were rushed to the front, even though most of them were yet to receive training.  Some had not even handled a rifle. At the front morale was at an all-time low. Heavy casualties, lack of sleep, bad food and constant living in unsanitary conditions at the front took its toll on the British and Irish volunteers and there were many desertions.

Robert Hepburn suffered a nervous breakdown after six days at the front and was sent to the cook-house to rest. After a week he refused to return to the front and battalion commander, Captain Jock Cunningham, sent him to the base at Albacete for a medical examination. Doctors found him fit for the front, but Hepburn still refused to return and was arrested on 3 March 1937. Sentenced two days later to one month in the labour battalion on 8 March he requested to return to his unit in the line. Hepburn served in an anti-aircraft unit, but soon deserted. He was caught on a ship in Alicante in June 1937 and sent back to the International Brigade at Brunete and then for punishment to Camp Lukacs. The camp had been established in order to offer deserters an opportunity for rehabilitation, as an alternative to more draconian forms of discipline. However, most volunteers said it was more like a prison camp. Hepburn was in Denia Hospital in late June 1938 and was proposed for repatriation before the withdrawal of the International Brigade in September 1938. He deserted again by stowing aboard the S.S. Wisconsin in Alicante and landed at Marseilles on 18 July 1938. Hepburn was repatriated home with the help of the Irish Legation and British Embassy in Paris.