- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
The American volunteers received Merriman with mixed feelings. The intellectuals and student revolutionaries regarded him as one of “their kind”—an efficient (but not ruthless) college man with military training to boot. Yet many of the seamen and oldtimers thought they saw ambition written all over him and guessed that the days of Jim Harris were numbered. “At first I liked his big, open smile,” remembers one of these, “until I noticed that he never stopped smiling.” With steel-rimmed spectacles drooping down his well-chiselled nose, Merriman suggested a young professor as interpreted by Hollywood. But when he began to move, he moved fast. First he took over Harris’ lectures on tactics. Next he relieved him on drafting daily orders—for Harris wrote as badly as he spoke. Then came frequent trips to Albacete, ostensibly to obtain promised equipment and to confer with the base powers—all of these duties performed tactfully with the object of “saving” Harris. No one ever recalled a trace of friction between the commander and his adjutant, but some men did observe that Commissar Stember began to bypass Harris for a direct hookup with Merriman. Imperceptibly Merriman took over control of the Lincoln Battalion, proving that Horatio Alger and Karl Marx are not strange bedfellows.
Yet most men did agree that after the arrival of Merriman there seemed to be more zip in the drilling, gunnery, and lectures. Because live ammunition was sent to the front, there was seldom opportunity for target practice. The few Steyr and Ross rifles on hand tended to jam after each shot, and the bolts often had to be knocked open with a rock. A few defused Mills bombs were passed around to give the men a sense of their heft. Trench mortars were nonexistent, although a few tired Maxim water-cooled machine guns arrived.
Early in February rumors readied vuianueva tnat the Nationalists had begun a new offensive against Madrid, slashing across the Jarama River east of the city in an effort to cut the Valencia road, the principal artery feeding the nearly surrounded former capital. Yet nothing was confirmed. Almost no newspapers reached Villanueva other than the French-Communist L’Humanité , which few Americans were able to translate. (Outdated copies of the Daily Worker arrived from time to time, but the New York Times was banned from Albacete, along with other “fascist propaganda.”) Nevertheless, it was impossible not to detect that something big was in the offing. Couriers hinted that Albacete and the ancillary training villages of the International Brigades were being sucked dry of able-bodied men. Three sister battalions of the XV Brigade—one British, one Yugoslav, and one French—had vanished overnight from their camps. But the Lincolns received no word. They chafed with impatience: they had come to Spain to fight fascism, not to play war games in a time-forgotten pueblo.
On February 12 the Lincolns were alerted and ordered to prepare to move, not to the front but to a new training camp in the piny woods at Po/orubio, a few miles north of Albacete. They were furious, blaming their call-up delay on lingering anti-Americanism at the brigade base. At least one man in the battalion was relieved. Douglas Seacord knew they were too green to be committed to battle at that time.
In midmorning of February 15, 1937, a convoy of empty trucks, no two exactly alike, rumbled into Villanueva de la Jara and parked in the plaza mayor. The American volunteers drilling on the hillsides immediately returned to town and were instructed to assemble their field kits and get on the trucks. They began to suspect that they were not going to Pozorubio.
Trailed by a brand-new ambulance, the trucks drifted downhill past the queer Bangkok spire of the parish church (the battalion garage and gasoline warehouse), crossed the ditch-sized Valdemembra River, and turned south on the Albacete road. They were killing time, because troop movements were supposed to be made at night. After Madrigueras, a solitary gasoline pump along the highway with a dusty village beyond, they passed through flat prairie country that suggested to the midwesterners patches of Iowa or Illinois. The convoy contained approximately four hundred North Americans. The original group had received less than five weeks of haphazard military training; the latest arrivals, a group from the Bronx Young Communist League, less than three days.
It was dark when the convoy parked in the arena of the Albacete bullring, the assembly point for all Internationals bound for the front. In the bandstand, floodlit by the headlights of the trucks and surrounded by his entourage, stood André Marty. Shaking his fist, he explained that the Republican front along the Jarama River had caved in; once again the Internationals must save Madrid. The time had arrived for the Americans to show what they could do. ‘No pasarán!” Every American understood that much Spanish. ‘No pasarán!” they thundered back. Phil Bart made no speech because he was not in the bandstand. Perhaps he had not even been told that the battalion was moving up to the front.