For Whom The Bell Tolled

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The trial was interrupted suddenly when General “Pavlov,” commander of the Soviet tank corps in Spain, entered with his entourage and demanded to know what was going on. The tribunal bolted out of their chairs, and Copie explained that American volunteers were being court-martialled for desertion. Pavlov had been informed that a Russian-born American was being tried by the International Brigades. This effrontery had infuriated him, for Red Army officers customarily regarded Internationals as the sweepings of the Comintern. That Copie dared to place a “Russian” on trial touched Pavlov to the quick. He kicked over the table in front of Claus, brushed aside the sycophantic apologies of Copie, and ordered the tribunal dissolved. Though strictly speaking Pavlov had no authority over and little interest in the Lincoln Battalion, his elitist contempt for Copie and his flunkies may have saved a handful of Americans from summary execution.

The mutineers then filed back to the plateau, where they were rearrested and incorporated into a labor battalion employed in digging trenches in no man’s land. Throughout the battalion men swore that they would never go into battle again or obey the orders of men like Merriman, now called “Captain Murderman.” Commissar Stember, whom no one had ever seen on February 27, reappeared to cajole, lecture, and threaten; but they glared at and cursed him openly. A succession of commissars—English, French, and German—visited the Americans to talk about grand strategy and noble sacrifice, but their speeches sounded like what they were—rationalizations, excuses, fabrications. Repeatedly the men raised a question that no one in the hierarchy cared, or dared, to answer: Why had not the suicidal attack been called off when it had become obvious that success was impossible? No amount of propaganda could counterbalance the conviction that 127 comrades had died in vain.

Pingarrón had not been taken. It and the trenches attacked by the Lincoln Battalion remained in Nationalist hands permanently. The Battle of Jarama had played itself out, but the scars of the massacre of February 27 never completely disappeared. Never again during the Spanish Civil War would the American volunteers accept, with unwavering trust, the decisions of rear-line commanders, for they had learned that these men, despite glittering assurances, actually knew as little about the realities of war as they. And that amounted to almost nothing.