Key Points:

This is the Year of the Veteran and New Zealand has honoured those who served overseas. But Griffith Campbell MacLaurin, who was killed in action 70 years ago, has received no such recognition.

He and a comrade-in-arms, New Zealand-born Steve Yates, were killed in November 1936, the first of thousands of New Zealanders to die while fighting fascism.

Although MacLaurin was an outstanding student at Auckland Grammar School and Auckland University College and went on a scholarship to Cambridge University, his name is not on the rolls of honour of these institutions.

MacLaurin did not die for king and country, but fought as a volunteer with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, defending republican Spain against General Franco's fascists.

The International Brigade was made up of volunteers from throughout the world who came to support the Spanish Republic's fight against a right-wing military coup. The volunteers saw Spain as the last chance to stop fascism without another world war.

By November 1936, Franco's troops, supported and armed by Hitler and Mussolini, were poised to take Madrid.

MacLaurin was with the International Brigade when they first marched down the Gran Via, the main street of the Spanish capital, on November 8 that year.

Their arrival was a turning point, boosting the morale of Madrid's people and playing an important role in halting the fascist advance.

MacLaurin, Mac to his friends, was an unlikely candidate to fight for a left-wing cause on the other side of the world.

The family lived in Remuera and his father, Kenneth, was headmaster of Westmere School.

From his early days Griff MacLaurin pursued the family interest in scholarship rather than politics. His father instilled in him a love of history and his mother, Gwladys, taught him French.

His uncle, James Scott MacLaurin, had been New Zealand's foremost analytical chemist.

Another uncle, Richard Cockburn MacLaurin, was an outstanding mathematician and legal scholar who won a scholarship to Cambridge and was foundation professor of mathematics at Victoria University College in Wellington.

He became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1909 until his death in 1920. Under his presidency MIT was reformed into a world-class research and teaching institute.

Griff MacLaurin's early career indicated that he would follow in the footsteps of his distinguished uncles. He went to Hamilton High School and then Auckland Grammar, where he won a national scholarship to attend university.

At Auckland University College he specialised in mathematics, winning the Sir George Grey Scholarship. MacLaurin took a BA degree in 1930, followed by a master's with first-class honours, the Cook Prize, and a post-graduate scholarship in arts.

In 1932 he arrived at St John's College, Cambridge University, which his Uncle Richard had attended.

Author James McNeish, while researching for his forthcoming book on Paddy Costello, the noted New Zealand linguist who was MacLaurin's best friend at Cambridge, found that MacLaurin was not a success at Cambridge.

He struggled with his honours mathematics papers and scraped through with a third.

McNeish speculates that MacLaurin was overwhelmed by the intellectual level of Cambridge, but it may be that an interest in social life overcame scholarship.

He joined the University Conservative Association on his arrival at Cambridge and his bright manner, sports skills and friendliness allowed him to mix easily with the upper-class types.

His tutor, James Wordie, a veteran of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, instilled MacLaurin with a desire to travel and a visit to Germany in 1933, soon after the Nazis took power, profoundly changed Griff's world view. MacLaurin, who spoke German and French, spent four months in Freiburg. His experience made him a staunch anti-fascist and the impact of the Depression on working people led him to question capitalist economics.

MacLaurin made a thorough study of socialist literature and joined the very active Cambridge University Socialist Association.

When he graduated in 1934 he taught mathematics at secondary schools in Glasgow and St Peter's in York. It was was his social life rather than his socialism that landed him in trouble and MacLaurin was sacked from St Peter's after a drinking session. By this time, he had joined the Communist Party and considered politics more important than teaching or studying mathematics.

Returning to Cambridge, he set up a successful radical bookshop, which was highly regarded by publisher Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club.

The shop became the social centre of the left-wing scene at Cambridge, where Griff may have been part of the inner circle of communists that produced Cambridge spies Philby, Maclean, Burgess and Blunt. MacLaurin's social life also had an aspect of mystery to it, as he became married without telling his family in New Zealand. He began to learn Spanish with the intention of visiting Spain, but his plans took on more immediacy after the outbreak of the civil war in July 1936.

The Communist Party was instrumental in organising volunteers to fight in the International Brigade.

British Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt had heard that machine-gunners were needed in Spain and he asked MacLaurin - who had been trained to use a Lewis gun when in his school OTC cadet corps - to join the International Brigade.

MacLaurin agreed, left his bookshop in the care of his wife, and was off to Spain within the week with the first organised group of 11 volunteers from Britain, led by the Cambridge poet John Cornford.

MacLaurin's group arrived in Madrid with the International Brigade on November 8, 1936.

MacLaurin, with New Zealand-born Londoner Steve Yates and two others formed a machine-gun team.

They were sent to defend the Faculty of Philosophy at the University City, a part of Madrid under attack from Franco's forces, backed by German and Italian tanks, artillery and aircraft.

On November 9, in savage fighting at the parkland of Casa del Campo, MacLaurin's machine-gun unit remained behind to cover the retreat of their comrades.

Only one of the team survived the fight.

Cornford, who was killed in Spain a month later, paid MacLaurin this tribute: "If you meet any of his pals tell them he did well here and died bloody well. It's always the best seem to get the worst."

Cambridge activists commemorated the two Cambridge men with the Cornford-MacLaurin Memorial Fund, raising money for Spain.

MacLaurin's parents did not know he had gone to Spain until they received a telegram with the news of their son's death.

They became very active fundraisers for the Auckland branch of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee.

About 20 New Zealanders went to Spain with the International Brigade as soldiers or medical personnel.

Along with Griff MacLaurin and Steve Yates, four other New Zealanders were killed in Spain - our first casualties in the fight against the dictators.

The MacLaurin Chapel at Auckland University is one of the many memorials to our New Zealand war dead.

It was built by Griff MacLaurin's cousin, dairy industrialist William Goodfellow, in honour of his own son, Richard MacLaurin Goodfellow, who was killed in World War II.

But although his cousin Richard is honoured for the part he played in fighting fascism, Griff MacLaurin and his International Brigade comrades have no memorial in New Zealand.