- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
It was again night when the train wound up between the jagged peaks of the coastal sierras to the Levantine meseta , an arid upland plateau beaten by winter winds that swept down from Aragon. In the blacked-out train, in the desolate wastes of Albacete province, four anonymous Americans and two Canadians composed what was termed the official marching song of the Lincoln Battalion. The tune was based upon an unidentified college ditty plucked out on a guitar; the words were a conglomerate of collegiate hoopla and proletarian cliché:
We march, Americans! To defend our working class, To uphold democracy And mow the Fascists down like grass; We’re marching to victory, Our hearts are set, our fists are clenched, A cause like ours can’t help but win, The Fascists’ steel will bend like tin. We give our word, they shall not pass, (shouted) NO PASARÁN ! (again) WE GIVE OUR WORD THEY SHALL NOT PASS !
With a few changes here and there—not so many, really—it might have been adopted by Fordham University as a football song. The composers liked it and sent it to New Masses , which published it, of course. Most of the waterfront crowd, who had no appreciation of finer things, laughed at it. They preferred “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
At ten o’clock in the morning of January 8, the first American volunteers reached Albacete, saffron center of the world and headquarters of the International Brigades. A band heavy on the percussion side welcomed them with its repertoire of national anthems, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Marseillaise,” and “God Save the King.” Pasted on the walls of the railroad station were posters advertising the International Brigades, one of which featured a triad of heads—Caucasian, Negro, and Oriental—encased in French poilu helmets of the World War. They marched behind the band to a barracks known as the Guardia Nacional. The Americans quickly decided that Albacete was the most God-awful place they had ever seen.
The volunteers had not eaten since Valencia. Food awaited them, but first there were speeches. Cheers of recognition greeted the appearance of a walruslike Frenchman in “the largest black beret ever known to man.” This was André Marty, the founding father of the International Brigades and its supreme commander. He was a hero in his own time for his leadership of the French Black Sea mutiny in 1919, when the French Navy refused to support the White Russian armies. As a man who had refused to take up arms against the fledgling Soviet Union, he had found favor with Joseph Stalin and become a fanatical Communist. He had an obsession about spies. In his foghorn voice, he warned the new volunteers to guard themselves against Trotskyites and other “political deviates.” Later, it would be claimed that Marty demonstrated more zeal in exterminating nonexistent Trotskyites than in prose- cuting a war against real fascists. With Marty on an iron balcony surrounding the courtyard like a gallery in a prison cellblock were Luigi Longo, the inspector general of the International Brigades, and “Vidai,” the military commander of the base (subsequently removed on an embezzlement charge). They made short, reasonable speeches of welcome.
The arrivals were then lined up by nationality, photographed for their livrets militaires , and told to fill out questionnaires. Those who listed their political party as “Communist” were told to change it, because of the Popular Front image of the International Brigades, to “Antifascist,” even though no such party existed. From a warehouse they received uniforms assembled from the surplus stocks of a half-dozen armies—primarily French—but no weapons. Clothes were given out on a catch-as-catch-can basis, the men trading to find the correct size.
For a day or so, the recruits drilled earnestly in the arena of the Albacete bullring, a fanciful structure on the edge of town that looked as though it had been squeezed out of a confectioner’s tube. Commands were barked out by French officers using jargon that not even the French recruits seemed to understand. In their time off, the recruits prowled the city; they sampled the local conac, said to have been blended from equal parts of rancid olive oil and low-octane gasoline; and they bought the local specialty, jackknives with handsome mother-of-pearl handles and worthless tin blades. There was little else to buy, unless one wanted to queue up outside a door in the barrio chino; but the female wares, recalled a volunteer, were “pretty awful.”