August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
After six months of war, a parade or demonstration barely ruffled the surface of downtown Barcelona. Whenever bands and crowds occupied the Plaza de Cataluna and lightly shook the surrounding buildings with anthems and vivas , only a few clerks at the United States consulate abandoned their desks for the windows. The reason for these disturbances was ever the same: the volunteers of the International Brigades were arriving from France, or Catalan troops were departing for the front. But on January 6, 1937, Mahlon F. Perking the consul general, who watched the crowd teeming below, spotted an object that had never before appeared in the marches and rallies. Coming up the street was the flag of the United States. Behind it ambled sixty men in 1918 doughboy uniforms. They were lined up in four-front squads with their leader out in front, a .45 automatic strapped to his hip. The United States Army in Barcelona? Impossible! Throwing open his window for a better look, Perkins watched in puzzlement as the group halted under the consulate window and began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They sang nearly as badly as they marched, but what must have astonished him as much as anything else was that they knew the words to the second, and even the third, stanzas. (A common notion during the thirties was that if a man could recite the Declaration of Independence by heart or sing any stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” beyond the first one, he must be a member of the Communist party.) It flashed upon him that the spectre that had haunted the Department of State for the past three months had materialized under his very window. Despite “the most scrupulous policy of nonintervention” in Spanish affairs, a policy spelled out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and underlined many times by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the first group of American volunteers had arrived in Spain.
A clerk sent down to talk with the paramilitary band returned with the information that “they had come to fight for their principles.” Some claimed to be veterans of the World War; others were callow youths barely out of high school. Their leader refused to say whether they possessed legitimate passports. As they marched off, one of them called out, “We’re just the beginning!” Consul Perkins had reason to recall this impudent shout, for on the next day sixteen more Americans filed past his window. Then, on January 17, there appeared forty more, these carrying a blazing red banner marked A MERICAN B ATTALION . A day later there were twenty new ones with a banner of the same color and size, labelled A BRAHAM L INCOLN B ATTALION .
As yet only a trickle of American volunteers was seeping across the French frontier. Hopeful that the leak could be promptly plugged and caulked, Perkins cabled the information to Washington, which thereupon commanded its consular representatives in France to board each incoming liner and to stamp American passports N OT V ALID FOR T RAVEL TO S PAIN . It quickly became evident, however, that men willing to expose their flesh to fascist bullets were not likely to be intimidated by American consuls brandishing rubber stamps.
At Barcelona, Perkins continued to be troubled. Powerless to prevent or dissuade the volunteers, he could do nothing more than count them as they trooped through the city in their odd apparel, singing and laughing. So far as Perkins knew, the Department of State had not formulated a policy to cover American volunteers: Should they be accorded diplomatic protection, like other citizens, or had they forfeited this privilege when they agreed to serve a foreign power? He cabled Washington for clarification: In view of the hardships which they will soon undergo, I am apprehensive that some of them will be calling for assistance in the not distant future. I should be glad to be informed of the Department’s general attitude toward the question of expatriation and loss of the right of protection of American citizens enlisting in the Loyalist armies.
In response, Secretary Hull cabled back on February i that protection should not be extended to United States citizens who fought in Spain. Though the State Department had no power to prevent American citizens from travelling where they wished, it nevertheless had no obligation to protect those who violated the conditions of their passports. Did this mean, Perkins inquired with bureaucratic thoroughness, that American volunteers were not to use the consulate as a mailing address? They most certainly were not. That was that.
By the end of January, three hundred Americans had crossed into Spain. The floodgates were open and the volunteers streamed south.
Throughout the rainy October and chilly November of 1936, Spain had been front-page news, and for left-of-center readers in the United States that news was bad. The rebel armies of General Francisco Franco penetrated the outer districts of Madrid, collecting their strength for a final thrust which would carry them into the city and deal a deathblow to the Second Spanish Republic. Neutral journalists took refuge in their embassies and predicted that Madrid was doomed. General Emilio Mola, second in command of the besieging army, announced that while four Nationalist (rebel) columns were converging on the capital from outside, a fifth column of armed sympathizers and provocaleurs was preparing to strike from within. The darkest day was November 7, 1936, when Mundo Obrero , the Communist party daily of Madrid, printed in red ink the headlines: ALL OUT TO THE BARRICADES/THE ENEMY IS ACROSS THE RIVER . But in the days that followed, newspapers began to describe a phalanx of foreigners who had reached the trenches and barricades of the city. Forming well-disciplined lines, they hurled back the Nationalist attacks in Carabanchel, the Casa del Campo, and University City. The International Brigades, consisting of volunteers recruited by the Communist International, or Comintern, agencies in a dozen European countries, had come to the defense of Madrid, and despite repeated attacks by the armies of Franco to break the ring of defenders, the city held out.
Fascism, rampant elsewhere, had been halted at Madrid. For antifascists the moment was galvanic, the mood contagious. In the United States, they asked what they could do to assist the Republic. The answer was simple and the apparatus ready: contribute to the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, whose list of sponsors reads like a “Who’s Who” of the thirties: Van Wyck Brooks, Edna Ferber, Martha Gellhorn, Rockwell Kent, Sinclair Lewis, Archibald MacLeish, Dorothy Parker, Elliot Paul, Elmer Rice, and Upton Sinclair, to drop but a few names. It drew its support from oldfashioned liberals of the Nation-New Republic tradition, men and women of good will who deplored the rise of fascism. Young men who preferred a more activist role in defending Spanish liberty could enlist in the International Brigades, provided they knew the right people in leftist political or trade-union organizations. No mere adventurers—or “romantics” as they were called in the Communist party—need apply; nor, at this stage in the recruiting program, were bourgeois liberals desired. The ideal recruit was a youngish man with a proved, or at least promising, record in the Communist party.
Just as the Comintern had approved and organized the International Brigades, setting up an International Control Committee in Paris, so the Communist Party of the United States of America founded the Abraham Lincoln Battalion as its contribution to a worldwide effort to fight fascism in Spain. Every man accepted by the battalion had been tacitly approved by the party—a far cry from saying that every man was a Communist, however. The party had no intention of dipping into its coffers to finance the battalion. Money would be raised through front organizations like the North American Committee, whose membership would not know that they supported the battalion, much less that the C.P.U.S.A. whistled the tune both of them danced to. It was a well-oiled, ballbearing mechanism: in the interests of the Comintern, the C.P.U.S.A. provided the expertise and apparatus for sending men to Spain—and would, in the end, accept the credit, provided there was credit to accept.
November was a month of strikes along the New York waterfront and in the garment industry, and a large percentage of the first American volunteers were recruited from these trades. Recruitment was always low-key, even surreptitious. A second-generation Communist named Bill Harvey ( né Horwitz), who worked in the furriers’ union, happened to be talking with his union boss about the war in Spain and burst out with “I wish I was there!”
A week or so later Harvey received a letter in a plain envelope. Inside was an onionskin, without address or signature, which read: “Please appear on the Ninth Floor,” adding a date. The ninth floor was the head-quarters of the Central Committee of the C.P.U. S.A. on Twelfth Street. At the appointed time Harvey entered that sanctum and faced a screening committee composed of five men. The committee asked him a number of casual questions, making notes at suitable moments. Then one of the members shot a question at him, “Have you ever fired a rifle?”
“I have,” Harvey replied promptly, fortunately recalling a shooting gallery he had patronized at Coney Island.
A few days later he was notified, once again on an unsigned onionskin, that he had been accepted.
Every night for several weeks the chosen men drilled in close-order formation at the East Side Ukrainian Hall. During rest periods, party dignitaries like Earl Browder, the general secretary, and Jack Stachel, director of the maritime section, made brief speeches explaining that they were the vanguard of an American working-class army, and relating the issues in Spain to a United Front against fascists throughout the world. Those not weeded out were issued ten-dollar bills and instructed to obtain passports. They invented fanciful reasons for travelling out of the country visiting an uncle in South Africa, completing art study in Poland, undertaking theological studies in Palestine. Aliases were common but by no means universal.
Then one night their two leaders were introduced, both selected by higher-ups in the party. Phil Bart, political commissar, would be in charge of the group until they reached Spain and began to undergo training, at which time James Harris, military commander, would take over. Bart was a cartoonist for the Young Worker , the official newspaper of the Young Communist League, a position that somehow seemed more suitable for this quiet man in his waning twenties than leadership of men shipping out to war. Pale, thin, and asthmatic, Bart aroused antipathies among many volunteers cast from rougher molds. Harris (alias Jackson) was a PolishAmerican seaman said to be an ex-Marine sergeant who had fought in China as an adviser to the Red Army. He was solidly built, sandy-haired, unassuming, and almost inarticulate. To the seamen among the men he was an authentic proletarian, not a Union Square revolutionary.
By the middle of December there were more than a hundred men drilling each evening at the hall, and each day fresh recruits arrived to study the intricacies of about face and present arms. Out-of-towners began to arrive, largely from Boston and Philadelphia; they were put up at the Thirty-fourth Street Y.M.C.A. and given $1.50 per diem maintenance allowance. Shortly before Christmas, eighty of the most promising recruits were separated from the others and informed that they would sail in a few days on the Normandie . The hall was filled with thumping, stamping, and cheering. The eighty men were divided into ten squads. Absolute secrecy was to be maintained. Until instructed otherwise, men were not to communicate with volunteers in other squads, and only squad leaders were allowed to speak with Commissar Bart. No drinking would be tolerated under any circumstances. Following a timetable designed to space them at wide intervals—to confuse federal “spies”—the squads went to an Army-Navy store situated under the Third Avenue Elevated, near Fourteenth Street, and purchased fifty dollars’ worth of equipment per man from the store owner, a party sympathizer not unwilling to mix profit with politics. I n identical black imitation-leather suitcases bound with yellow straps, the recruits packed away a random collection of army surplus—khaki shirts, rubbersoled brogans, puttees, woolen mittens, and fleece-lined jackets. Some, with their own money, bought sheath knives and even long-tubed gas masks, musty with the smell of dead rubber. A few brazen souls went uptown and opened charge accounts at fancy men’s stores. “The better the stores, the more guillible they were,” recalled a leader of this raiding party. A pair of boots from Abercrombie & Fitch lasted one volunteer the whole war.
The sailing date was December 26. Party leaders eld a clandestine bon voyage celebration (without lcohol) for them in a movie house near the Communist party headquarters a few hours before they boarded ship. Each volunteer got a parcel containing a carton of Lucky Strikes, a Gillette razor, two cakes of Palmolive soap, and a tin of G. Washington Coffee (an early-modern “instant”). They were handed third-class tickets issued by World Tourists, Inc., a Manhattan agency specializing in tours to the Soviet Union. (No one asked who was paying for their passage, because everyone knew.) Further, each man received a ten-dollar bill to cover shipboard expenses, including tipping, a repugnant bourgeois affectation necessary to reinforce the fiction that they were tourists. Before arriving at Le Havre, they were to receive fifteen dollars apiece to prove to port authorities they were not vagrants—but it was forcefully emphasized that this money had to be returned to Commissar Bart as soon as they cleared customs. In case they were asked where they were going, they should say that they were bound for the Paris Exposition. (It apparently did not occur to anyone that the exposition was not scheduled to open until summer.)
Like parachutists jumping out of an airplane, they left the theatre one by one at regular intervals. Earl Browder stood near the door, an expensive cigar clamped in his jaws, and shook each man’s hand. One volunteer recalled his surprise when he discovered that Browder’s hand was soft, warm, a little gummy—not the hand of a workingman. They went off to war on the uptown subway, the nickel coming from their own funds. No family or friends waited at the pier to see them off. Most of them had not told anyone where they were going. At the last minute, four men changed their minds.
With the thermometer steady at 62 degrees, it was winter cruise weather as the Normandie cast off its lines at midday on December 26, 1936, carrying the first group of American volunteers to the Spanish Civil War. In all, there were seventy-six men, whose backgrounds defy glib generalization. Aboard were a former junior-high-school principal from Alabama, a Negro county-fair wrestler from Cape Cod, a Japanese-American cook from the West Coast, three Boston-Irish brothers, a one-time West Point gunnery instructor, a Daily Worker columnist, an Armenian carpet salesman, a City College soccer star, an Army deserter, a Texas red-neck, and a Greenwich Village denizen who told everyone he wanted to die. Many of them had been to sea as deck hands, but the perspective afforded passengers was new to them.
Nearly one third of the first seventy-six men were worldly, hard-core types from maritime organizations; all of these men were fiercely loyal to one another and a little condescending to “the snot-noses of Union Square” who got their revolutionary fervor out of books read at City College and New York University. There was a handful or so who had obtained some military training in the lazy peacetime army. Douglas Seacord, the West Point gunnery instructor, had drilled them in bayonet technique back at the Ukrainian Hall. Martin Hourihan, the school principal, had served one year in the U.S. cavalry before his mother got him out, clinging to her devout hope that her oldest son would enter the priesthood. Joe Gordon ( né Mendelowitz), a man’s man and a Communist’s Communist, had learned more about fighting in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, where he grew up, than in the U.S. infantry, from which he had recently deserted.
Among them, too, were many national guardsmen, although for the most part these were party infiltrators like Tiny Agostino, a sullen stalwart from upstate New York who never took his politics with a grain of salt—or humor. A few chaps had taken courses at The Workers’ School, downstairs in the party headquarters, on “How to Organize Communist Party Cells in the U.S. Armed Forces.” One graduate, a seaman named Robert Gladnick, had been in charge of this activity at Randolph and Kelly fields in Texas. Though he had never had military training, he had been at least briefly involved in a military environment.
Contrasted with these warriors, the large number of Jewish intellectuals aboard the Normandie were abysmally green. All had done their stint on picket lines and were up on party theory, but few had ever fired a rifle. A major reason they gave for volunteering was “to take a crack at Hitler.” They had been told, and had seen the information repeatedly confirmed in the Daily Worker , that German storm troopers made up the bulk of Franco’s army.
This ethnic dimension of the war was lost upon the contingent from Boston, men like the three Flaherty brothers and their friend Paul Burns, a labor writer in his middle thirties. For them, fascism was simply a reactionary political movement bent upon destroying the hardwon gains of the working class. It had to be turned back in Spain before it spread like a virus through the socalled Western democracies. They were weary of ballot boxes and picket lines; they wanted to confront the enemy headlong, with steel. The war in Spain offered a special taste for each palate.
Because it was the winter of a Depression year, they had the boat almost to themselves. In tourist class there were only a dozen other passengers, one of whom was an athletic-looking man wearing a massive signet ring, the design always turned to his palm. Word got out that the seal was that of Annapolis and the suspect an agent from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Bart warned his volunteers not to engage in conversation with the “government spy.” The maritime contingent fuelled the spy theory, for it diverted Bart’s mother-hennishness away from them. Having just left the strike kitchens of the New York waterfront, where they had dined on leftovers from the Fulton and Washington markets, they planned to enjoy the plush comforts of the Normandie . Ignoring Bart’s strictures about drinking, they put away bottles of wine at meals and argued that it was the nondrinkers who were arousing suspicion. Moreover, they had scouted the ship and discovered that second class was filled with statuesque girls of the Folies-Bergère. Despite Bart’s admonition that these girls were thoroughly “bourgeois” parasites, the seamen proceeded to storm second class. They had no money but soon established mutual interests with the girls. The seamen, if their tales contain even a grain or two of truth, broke records and made history on the Normandie crossing.
Even though it must have been perfectly clear to everyone aboard who the men were and where they were going, Commissar Bart continued to behave as though the ship were infiltrated with spies. Whenever his charges gathered together in groups of more than five, Bart dispatched Bobby Pieck, his eighteen-year-old assistant, to whisper commands to disperse. They whiled away the hours at poker (playing for matches, not money, because gambling was a capitalist vice), at muscle-building exercises, and in thumbing through dog-eared, obsolescent R.O.T.C. manuals that circulated surreptitiously like choice bits of pornography.
But halfway across, all of them were unnerved by a news flash posted by the purser for their benefit: Chairman [Samuel] McRcynolds of the House Foreign Affairs Committee declared he would urge the Department of Justice to apply the section of the Criminal Code providing $3,000 [fine] or a year in prison for enlistment of Americans in a foreign war.
Bart’s face bore a pained “I told you so” expression. To be arrested at Le Havre and extradited to the United States would be an ignominious end to the volunteer movement. The men glared at “the O.N.I, spy,” but he gave no sign of inward triumph, shame, or concern one way or another. Infantry manuals and other incriminating documents were tossed out of portholes.
At Le Havre, French customs officers winked at the volunteers and passed them through without looking inside their black suitcases. It was New Year’s Eve, and the men wondered how big a time they could have in Paris on a couple of dollars. But to their surprise, they were dispersed to boardinghouses and dingy hotels in Le Havre for two days. They devoured newspapers left behind by the crew of the Washington , which had just sailed. Back home the birth rate was down and typhoid was up. They heard of the sit-down strike in Michigan, where 34,000 workers occupied seven General Motors plants and defied the capitalists to evict them.
There were no hoped-for Paris leaves when the men finally arrived there, on January 2. After a free meal- bad enough to be commented on at the time and good enough to be recalled in the lean months ahead—they were shuttled across the city to the Gare de Lyon, where they boarded the night train headed south to Perpignan. The third-class compartments were jammed with hundreds of International Brigades volunteers. There were factory workers from Milan, purse-lipped refugees from Germany, cement-jawed Slavs, blonds from the Baltic with rucksacks. In many of these faces the Americans read tales of suffering and hunger: these were antifascists forged from alloys bitter beyond the ken of most Americans. Everything they possessed after half a lifetime of labor lay wrapped in small paper parcels held between their knees. The babel of strange languages and the heady disorder of men bound for war spilled over from the compartments to the platforms outside, where hundreds of French well-wishers saw them off. A foreign volunteer asked Joe Gordon his nationality. “ Juif ,” he replied. As the train pulled out of the station, men were singing “The Internationale” in a dozen languages. words were different, but the melody and the mood were identical.
At daybreak a vast river, the Rhone, appeared out of the mist. In the frosted fields workers wearing blue jackets and black berets pruned black vines that protruded from the earth like immense cloves. Bonfires of their cuttings lighted the way to Spain. Beyond Narbonne, the tracks ran across salt flats beside the sea, and a lookout called from the window, “Hey, I see the Pyrenees!” And sure enough, he had. From the railroad yard at Perpignan they were led into a high-walled enclosure and told to keep out of sight. They were dirty, tired, and hungry. Some sneaked out and brought back long loaves of bread.
After nightfall they were loaded into battered school buses, which bumped for several hours over a rutted road climbing into a gap in the looming mountains. Beyond the French frontier station, shut for the night, they dropped down from the mountains and debarked on the parade ground of the Castillo de San Fernando, a massive castle crowning the heights above the town of Figueras. Assigned a section of straw within a dark subterreanean casemate, they hung their suitcases on saddle hooks jutting from the wall. In a cavernous room lined with plank tables and lit by two weak lightbulbs, they were served beans from steaming washtubs and goat chops from a skillet twenty-five feet wide.
A few days later the International Brigades volunteers marched down to the railroad station, led by the Americans because they were first alphabetically. As they passed through the streets of Figueras, townspeople lined the curbs, cheering and bombarding them with almonds. A train camouflaged with zigzag smears of green and yellow paint carried them to Barcelona. Already they had picked up two plagues that remained with them to the end: lice and dysentery. It was midafternoon when they marched from North Station to the Plaza de Cataluna for their demonstration under the window of Consul General Perkins.
Dawn found them south of Tarragona, the tracks running beside the Mediterranean—“as blue as everyone said it was”—or passing through hamlets—“unreal, like Hollywood villages.” On southern slopes, almond trees were already in pink blossom. On tiny farms Spaniards clenched fists and called “ Salud! ” to the passing volunteers. At Valencia, capital of the republic since November, when the government had fled Madrid in panic, they ate in the plaza de toros , where bullfight posters sagged and flapped in the wind. Since the outbreak of war no bulls worth mentioning had been fought in Spain. Spaniards of both sides had found more interesting animals to kill.
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.”
Perhaps the most depressing place in town was the Plaza de Altozano. The municipal and provincial buildings had been taken over by International bureaucrats, pouter pigeons in swank uniforms and in perpetual motion. There were fleeting glimpses of Marty himself, popping in and out of his chaufteured limousine decked with tiny flags. Hovering around him were his next-in-powers, section heads and jefes of somethingor-other, bundled up in shaggy coats. In Albacete only one man had the right to cast a vote—André Marty. It was ironic that he had risen to power in the French Communist party on a platform of antimilitarism.
The Americans had little time to study the intricacies of rear-guard politicking and infighting. During the second week of January they left for their training camp at Villanueva de la Jara, some thirty-five miles northwest of Albacete. They were glad to go. Albacete could make a working stiff feel pretty small.
Having shunted the Americans to Villanueva, the Albacete base largely ignored them. Officially they were the 17th Battalion, XV (International) Brigade; unofficially they called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Truckloads of new faces arrived nearly every day, adding to the confusion of leaderless men drifting about the village without specific knowledge of what they should be doing. Since Philip Bart had remained at Albacete as their representative at the base, James Harris assumed command. Their table of organization called for establishing two rifle companies and one machine-gun company. The seamen were the most cohesive faction; they set themselves up as future machine gunners and named themselves the Tom Mooney Company (after Thomas Mooney, a militant workingclass leader in San Francisco who had been jailed on a trumped-up charge that he was responsible for a bomb explosion at the Preparedness Day parade in July, 1916, which killed ten bystanders).
The Mooneys got the best military leader in the outfit, Douglas Seacord, a soft-spoken Tennessean with a smiling, pirate’s face who gathered about him party stalwarts like Joe Gordon; Douglas Roach, a Negro wrestler nearly as wide as he was tall; and Ray Steele, a seaman who could outrun most men in the battalion despite his clubfoot.
Now that Bart was gone, many of the volunteers wished he were back again, for he had been a link, however weak, in the chain leading back to the party organization in New York. Authority had broken down. Harris earnestly wished to establish a training program but could not cope with the anarchy already plaguing his battalion and being compounded almost daily by the arrival of fresh recruits.
Adding to the difficulties at Villanueva de la Jara was the insouciance of the French-dominated bureaucracy at Albacete. Directives, whenever they arrived, were written in French and had to be laboriously translated. (Complaints netted only a few copies of French-Spanish dictionaries; French-English ones were unavailable.)
Complaints from Villanueva piled up in Bart’s office at Albacete: Where was their training equipment? What happened to mail from the States? When would overnight leaves be authorized? Why couldn’t they be billeted closer to Albacete? But Bart had no weight whatever with the International Brigades bosses at the base. The C.P.U.S.A. was only a microscopic part of a completely capitalistic power, and Bart was a nobody in it. He represented a nation that in the view of the Comintern was slightly more politically developed than Albania but considerably less so than Bulgaria. André Marty publicly expressed his disgust with those “spoiled cry-babies,” those “arrogant Americans.” The C.P.U.S.A. had committed a grave error in not sending a man with better credentials to represent the volunteers at the base, for the Americans were, at least initially, treated like second-class citizens of the world revolution.
During their stay at Villanueva, the Lincolns failed to acquire even a minimal knowledge of military art. Some of the men blamed Harris, saying he had the mentality of a sergeant—a first-rate sergeant, to be sure, but a sergeant nonetheless. He seemed to know what he was talking about, but he talked so little! At lectures he posed abstruse tactical problems in technical jargon and then wheeled to ask a recruit, “What would you do in that case?” No matter what the recruit replied, Harris was apt to shake his head and say, “No good. You’d kill off all your men that way.” What the answer should have been, they never learned.
The wind of change began to blow in late January, when there appeared two figures destined to lead the Lincoln Battalion out of confusion and into catastrophe. Sam Stember came from Philadelphia, Robert Hale Merriman from the Soviet Union.
Both Stember and Merriman were in their thirties—but at that point their resemblance ended. Sam Stember was a loser. He was a sagging man with the mien of someone who had spent the best years of his life sitting behind a beat-up desk in a dingy office, organizing for the party. He seemed to the volunteers like a used-up hack slipping backward after a long uphill climb toward the higher ranks of the party bureaucracy. He emitted, almost like a body odor, a weariness and dreariness that led the men to nickname him Last Chance Stember. Others alluded to him as The Jello. Presumably he had been sent on a temporary basis by the New York office to develop political leadership and to put some snap in the battalion commissariat.
Robert Hale Merriman, on the other hand, was a winner. If Spain was the last chance for Stember, it provided the first big chance for this Californian whose dossier was probably the best recruiting propaganda the Lincoln Battalion ever had. Magnetic leader, studious intellectual, devout proletarian—it all seemed almost too good to be true, yet it was. And even Ernest Hemingway, reluctant to admit military prowess in Americans fighting in Spain, found Merriman irresistible. Hemingway changed Merriman’s name to Robert Jordan, gave him a sleeping bag, and made him the hero of his pastoral romance, For Whom the Bell Tolls .
Born in 1906 at Eureka, California, Merriman grew up in half a dozen logging towns in the redwood country. His father was a lumberjack and his mother a schoolteacher with literary aspirations. After high school he felled trees and fed pulp in a paper mill. Here he fell in with an old Irish radical, who forced him to question some of his laissez-faire assumptions. Young Merriman was intrigued by the theory that the strong ought to do something for the weak beyond exploiting them, but after he had saved enough money to matriculate at the University of Nevada as a twentythree-year-old freshman, his ambition was still to rise out of his economic class rather than to carry this class upward with him. One month after he arrived in Reno, the stock market crashed.
At the university, Merriman quickly became a key figure on campus and the beau ideal of fraternity row. Standing six feet two and weighing in at 190 pounds, he was a clean-cut, Anglo-Saxon go-getter. The Depression nipped the college careers of classmates, but not of Merriman. He picked up pin money as an end on the football team, ran the business half of the college newspaper, commanded a company of the R.O.T.C. (sevenfifty per month), and served as house manager of his fraternity, the prestigious Sigma Nu.
Yet grafted onto Merriman was a rebellious quality that made him balk at canons and taboos. His professors found him an omnivorous student; apparently the only courses he disliked were those that were required for a degree. On one occasion, when he refused to enroll in a course, the president himself intervened and demanded that he take it. After some research in Nevada statutes, Merriman found a forgotten law supporting his right to waive the requirements. (The law was subsequently changed, but Merriman had outsmarted the educational system.) Later, in an editorial, he denounced compulsory R.O.T.C. as incompatible with American democracy, much to the surprise of the military staff, who regarded him as a superior officer, and to the consternation of the president, who made a public speech about “rabble-rousers” on campus but apparently feared to use Merriman’s name. Yet on graduation day of 1932, the campus radical married Marion Stone, a sorority queen and drum majorette, and took a job in the corset department of a local department store.
In the fall, Merriman found a post as assistant instructor of economics at the University of California. He moonlighted as a body polisher at a Ford assembly plant, where he helped publish an illicit union-shop newspaper. When the plant went out on strike and the CaI football team were recruited as strikebreakers, Merriman led demonstrations demanding that they return to the gridiron where they belonged. In 1934 he won a Newton Booth Travelling Fellowship for his research project dealing with collective farming in the Soviet Union. When the Spanish War broke out, he and his wife were in Russia, where he was completing a thesis at the Moscow Institute of Economics. He said that he decided to go to Spain only after he had been reproached for the absence of Americans in the International Brigades, and that he had not heard of the existence of the Lincoln Battalion until he arrived at Valencia by Soviet freighter in mid-January.
It is not known what, if any, connection Merriman had with the Comintern. In the Soviet Union the Yezhovshchina —purges that would ultimately sweep away three quarters of the Central Committee—were getting under way, and it is likely that the Marty faction at Albacete, never entirely certain who or what stood behind Merriman, accorded him kid-glove treatment. In any event, they saw immediately that he was the ideal successor to Harris. The problem was how to remove Harris without arousing the ire of his followers and adding thereby to the divisiveness already existing in the battalion. For the moment, Merriman was installed as battalion adjutant on the basis of his “experience” in the R.O.T.C.
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.
In the chill February evening, they lined up before a supply truck and unloaded heavy coffin-shaped boxes. They broke them open and pulled out Remingtonstyle rifles, each wrapped in Mexico City newspapers and oozing cosmoline. Having no solvent to clean them, they used rags, handkerchiefs, and shirttails. The rifles were all of a kind, except that some barrels were stamped with the czarist spread eagle, others with the Soviet hammer and sickle. The latter were several inches shorter and a few ounces lighter, but their bolts were apt to jam when the metal overheated. (Some rifles were stamped only with “Made in Connecticut.”) Because of their reputed origin—made in the United States, sent to the czar in 1914, copied and fabricated by Bolshevik artisans, sold to Mexico for revolutionary work, and donated to the Spanish republic—they were christened mexicanskis . Each man got 150 rounds of ammunition, all the Mills bombs he wanted, and a vicious-looking needle bayonet with a triangulated blade that could stick a pig but not cut a throat. There was no time to test fire the rifles, which in many cases lacked locking attachments for the bayonets. Each man received a metal helmet. Nine men out of ten got the French poilu style of the World War, nearly worthless objects that might have done for construction workers but proved to be eggshells when struck by steel or lead.
Orders came down from Colonel “Vidai” confirming Harris as commander, Merriman as battalion adjutant, and Stember as commissar. As captains, they were issued field glasses, sidearms, and cloth map cases (without maps). The ist Company, which included Irish and Cuban sections, was commanded by John Scott ( né Inver Marlow), a volatile Englishman of the Byronic school who gave the impression of more acquaintance with the cigars of a West End club than with the fog and clamor of a union hall.
The 2nd Company was allegedly commanded by Steve Daduk, who had been hanging around Albacete since late fall recuperating from a wound. He was a peppery redhead of five feet six who wore, instead of the regulation International uniform, a blue miliciano boiler suit with a red bandanna around his neck. Originally he had been sent to Villaniieva on a temporary basis to assist with the training program. Some volunteers opined that Daduk’s autobiographical war tales—he claimed to have been shot down over Madrid while flying for the International squadron—improved with each retelling.
The 3rd, or Mooney, Company, the backbone of the battalion, remained under Seacord, the most respected officer among the Americans. Though his gunners were intractable and independent, Seacord was never known to raise his voice or lose his temper. “We behaved like a bunch of anarchists,” one of the men said, “but we loved that man.” This company received half a do/.en water-cooled Maxims, guns so heavy that they rested on wheeled carriages.
At midnight the battalion climbed aboard the trucks, xvhich rolled out of the bullring and up the road to Madrid, 150 miles northwest. Approximately 450 British had similarly left Albacete seven nights before; now less than a hundred remained in their shallow trenches under the olive trees of the Jarama.
The first streaks of daylight found them, numbed by exhaustion and the bone-deep cold, at the village of Chinchon, which perched on a ridge overlooking the lush, green valley of the Tajuna River. Beyond the valley floor rose another ridge, or smallish mountain, topped by a wide plateau dotted with olive trees. This plateau was the extreme southern flank of the Battle of Jarama, then being fought along a twelve-mile front. (The Jarama River was out of sight, beyond the far plateau.) Ten days before, the Franco forces had launched their offensive, which had as its objective the cutting of the Madrid-Valencia highway in order to starve Madrid into submission. The main thrust had been halted farther north, and now both armies snaked their lines southward, hoping to discover a soft sector for penetration. Since both were vastly overextended, the front was liquid. On the plateau across from the Americans, the enemy occupied most of the higher ground and had pressed the Republicans backward toward steep ravines that dropped down into the Tajuna Valley. If they broke through, they would be able to blanket the valley floor with dominating fire and push the Republican lines back to the Chinchon ridge.
The Lincoln Battalion descended into the Tajuna Valley in late afternoon. Overturned and charred vehicles littered the ditches, but in the fields peasants thrashed olive trees with long poles, harvesting the fruit and ignoring the convoy.
Morata, the major road junction of the sector, resembled a set for a World War movie. Beside the field kitchen in the bombed plaza mayor a disabled Russian tank squatted heavily like a prehistoric toad. There were houses without walls (revealing interior rooms, in the manner of a dollhouse), houses without roofs, and in a few places nearly intact roofs without houses. The stork nest on the gable of the town hall had not been disturbed, but the storks were gone. Morata was the hub for operations on the plateau. Seven miles north lay Arganda, the original objective of the enemy offensive; five miles east lay Perales de Tajuna, the headquarters of the Russian tank battalion (close enough to lend support but far enough away to insure that their valuable, experimental vehicles would not be captured if the front collapsed). The western road wound up to the plateau, two miles distant, where the battle raged. Time and history would prove that the front existing at that moment was fixed until the end of the war and that the Battle of Jarama was in its last phase.
Guided by an impassive German International, the Lincolns filed on foot up the dark mountain starkly silhouetted against a blood-red sunset. It was dark when he led them across a railroad track and then over loose stones and briers to a flat-topped knoll. They had no idea where they were and could see nothing. The German explained that the enemy held a ridge on higher ground, a mile or so west. Advising them to dig in, he vanished. A few machine-gun bullets crackled overhead.
“Dig in!” commanded the Lincoln officers. Nobody had remembered to bring up picks and shovels. Cursing Stember, they dropped on their knees, stabbed the rocky ground with bayonets, and shovelled dirt with their helmets and bare hands. Water froze on these hills at night; digging kept the men warm. By daybreak they had scratched out a wobbly circle of trench, deep enough to lie in but too shallow for standing, along the top of their knoll. Drenched in sweat, they rolled up in blankets and waited for enough light to see the battlefield and to position themselves in it.
The first objects to materialize were a row of apple trees bordering the mine railroad that looped around their knoll on three sides. To the west rose a much higher ridge, structured like an ocean swell, irregular and buckled. Enemy trenches and outposts were hidden among a thick grove of olive trees, a thousand yards off. The road from Morata to San Martin de la Vega twisted between folds of hills directly in front and led upward into enemy territory.
Their first mistake, digging trenches on a skyline, was immediately exploited by the enemy spotters. At six o’clock a few shells lumbered overhead and exploded harmlessly beyond them. An American voice called out, “What the hell are they trying to do—kill us?” But jokes vanished when subsequent explosions crept gradually up the hillside toward them. Grabbing bayonets and helmets, they frantically dug deeper.
By nightfall two Americans had shot toes off to be evacuated, one man had deserted, and a half dozen others were lightly wounded. They named their summit Suicide Hill. Here they remained for four days, subjected to light barrage and sniper fire.
During the night of February 19 or 20 there occurred the controversial “Moonlight March” of the Lincoln Battalion, an episode that has brought more questions than answers with the passage of time. On his own authority, Captain Harris assembled the battalion behind Suicide Hill and led them on a march toward the enemy lines. After wandering about for a short time, they returned to their point of origin. That evening Merriman replaced Harris.
Because the machine guns of the Lincoln Battalion were not needed in their third-reserve position on Suicide Hill, the brigade transferred some of the guns and crews to the French battalion, which held a vulnerable section of the front lines south of the San Martin road. Seacord welcomed this chance to test his Maxims. The crews moved out on the night of February 21, set up their guns behind terrace walls overlooking a deep ravine, and were told to expect an attack in the morning. These squads were the first units of the Lincoln Battalion to be employed in the Spanish Civil War. The attack came, and it was beaten back in ten minutes.
During their fighting with the French battalion the Mooneys learned that their guns were worthless rejects purchased from armory bone yards, and most of them had to be sent to the rear for reconditioning. One or two squad leaders begged for permission to dismantle and reassemble them for another try, but most of the Mooney Company weapons were taken from them.
Meanwhile, on Washington’s Birthday the Lincoln Battalion moved from Suicide Hill to front-line trenches. The Republican command had resolved to pinch the enemy lines at a half dozen places simultaneously to find a soft spot, and the Lincolns were to deliver a frontal attack in the sector just north of the San Martin road. For five days they had peered at the olive groves on the upper plateau, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of snipers hidden by the trees, which were so far away that they resembled silver-green puffs. They moved up at night, in single file, into sandbagged trenches on the plateau. It was an eerie place. Shells had split open trees, creating nightmarish shapes. Yet some trees were unscathed, their limbs thickly festooned with black olives, which rained down whenever a burst of machinegun fire whipped the grove. Gusts of wind swaying the trees set off nervous rifle fire from sentries convinced that they had detected Moors flitting through the grove. From higher ground the enemy guns occasionally poured a withering fire into the battalion trenches, which were much too shallow. By now sick and tired of crouching, crawling, and stooping like infants or old men, the Lincolns yearned to cross this last four-hundred-yard gap and meet the fascists in a head-on fair fight.
In the morning of February 23, Merriman went over the attack plan with his company commanders and section leaders. An hour prior to sunset, Russian tanks were to push through the grove to the enemy trenches. While these knocked out strong points already charted by observers, the Lincolns were to seize the trenches, from which a harrowing fire could be laid down against enemy positions south of the San Martin road. Four hundred yards was no distance at all: a man in good shape ought to be able to cover it in a few minutes. Merriman hoped that the Mooney giins would come up during the day: if they did not, the company would go over as riflemen. Baskets of Mills bombs arrived. No one knew whether a stray bullet could detonate them, so to be on the safe side they dug deep holes for the baskets. Because of “complications from an old wound” Steve Daduk had returned to Albacete, and Eugene Morse, a one-time New York cab driver, took over 2nd Company.
Time passed slowly, yet somehow too fast. Just on schedule, two Soviet fifteen-ton tanks clanked up the San Martin road just before sundown and spun into the grove in front of the Lincoln trenches. Their 45-m.m. cannon and Dichterev machine guns hammered the enemy parapets. The Lincolns went over not as a collective wave but by sections, the Cubans and Irish out in front. Cursing and yelling, the others climbed out of their trencli and advanced into the grove. Kneeling from time to time to fire a round at distant piles of red dirt marking the enemy trenches, the Americans abandoned half-learned squad maneuvers in favor of an indigenous instinct to fight from tree to tree. It was easier than anyone had imagined, for the enemy was at the moment too busy fighting off the tanks to bother with clusters of unarmored humanity seeping through the grove. But there was too much side-winding, bunching, and backtracking. The Lincolns pecked at, but did not threaten, the enemy.
All at once everything seemed to go wrong. There was an explosion, and a geyser of liquid fire shot up as one of the tanks burst into flames. The grove was suddenly illuminated by a garish light, dazzling to the oncoming men. While the sister tank scuttled back to the safety of the road, the Lincolns swept around the burning vehicle. They must have been perfect targets: those behind the bonfire were floodlit, those ahead were silhouetted. As bullets lashed the grove, numbers of attackers took refuge behind trees. Those in the lead learned with dismay that the olive grove ended. Ahead of them, sloping slightly upward, lay a vineyard, naked and open, perhaps two hundred yards wide. No cover existed in that wide emptiness except gnarled vines protruding from the ground like hundreds of agonized, arthritic hands. Small groups gamely started across.
A few feet out, Lieutenant John Scott tried to rally his company after its momentum had stopped. He shouted, “Continue the advance,” and fell with three slugs in his body. Still alive, Scott passed on his command to William Henry, a Dubliner, who lay down beside him and began scooping dirt in front of Scott’s head with the illusion that it would provide protection. Other men trapped in the vineyard dug in with helmets, bayonets, rifle clips, and bare hands, trying to scratch a hole to salvation. Fascist gunners raked the vineyard, concentrating their fire on those places where they heard the stricken cries “First aid!” and “Stretcherbearer!” Men pinned down in the open learned not to fire back, for the tiny spurt of flame from their riHe muzzle attracted a massive counterfire. The attack fizzled out. The major contribution of Captain Merriman to this skirmish was sending forward the Tom Mooney Company with picks and shovels to dig a trench in no man’s land.
It was nearly midnight before the Americans were recalled to their trenches. By this time the grove was so quiet that the men were able to walk back upright without a single bullet being fired at them. Many of them never received the order to retire and found themselves at dawn alone on the battlefield with the rest of the battalion a quarter-mile to the rear. Although individual volunteers combed the grove looking for particular missing comrades, there was little systematic effort to recover the wounded.
By daylight most of the cries and groans from the battleground had ceased: there was nothing out there but scattered dead. Stronger than pity was the secret thought, “Better him than me.” Enemy snipers hammered at the American trenches. For the first time, the Lincolns were able to see the enemy, all of them Moors, who walked, not ran, across the unprotected gaps in their trench line. “Seeing them was like confronting an abstraction,” said an American. Joe Gordon stood up to take a look and was hit by a bullet, which entered his left eye and came out behind his ear, but he walked under his own power to the dressing station. No food came up till midday, when stewpots of cold coffee and kettles of rice sludge were passed down the trench.
News filtering into the line was bad. Eugene Morse, and Company commander, was reported dead—a false alarm, as it proved. Rudolfo Annas, leader of the Cubans and an anti-Batista revolutionary, was dead. Commissar Stember was said to be missing. Casualties were estimated at twenty dead and forty wounded. For what purpose? The men could not say. “Upstairs iliey called it a probe. To us it was a shaft,” complained one. The world was not changed. That patch of vineyard laced with interlocking machine-gun fire was still there. They had met fascist steel, and it had not bent like tin, as their song had promised.
The newly formed B Division, made up of the XI and XV (International) brigades, was commanded by General “Gal” (often “Gall”), the most mysterious- and by far the most incompetent—of the International general officers in Spain. No one knew his given name, and “Gal” was, of course, a nom de guerre . He spoke German with a Slavic accent; he spoke Russian with a Teutonic accent. Apparently he thrived upon this aura of mystery concerning himself, encouraging it whenever he could. During the World War he had fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army until captured by Russians. Later he fought in the Red Army as a minor officer. Packed off to Spain, Gal had commanded the XV Brigade as a colonel during the opening days of the Jarama fighting. Now a divisional general, he possessed definite ideas of how generals should treat their inferiors, ideas based upon how, for the past twenty years, generals had treated him . He had a staff so slavish that any Balkan potentate might have envied him.
His record at Jarama had been better than average. He had established a stable defensive line on the plateau, and several times he had rallied retreats by making personal appearances among the men in the manner of old-style revolutionaries or minor Hellenic deities. But Gal was a foreigner in the Red Army during a period in Soviet history when outsiders were becoming increasingly unwelcome. Doubtless he reasoned that the Comintern would be more impressed by a stunning offensive, brilliantly conceived and executed, than by his defensive role, however vital this had been. Even though each side had thrown up a nearly invulnerable system of front-line and reserve trenches zigzagging all the way from Arganda to Titulcia, General Gal pored over his charts and reports, searching for a magic key. Always he came back to Hill 693, called Pingarrón, the highest point in the plateau between the Jarama and Tajuna rivers. During the first days of the battle, a tabor of Moors had seized Pingarrón and fortified it. Gal desperately wanted it back, for he believed that by its recapture he could drive the enemy back across the Jarama. It mattered little to Gal that his division was plagued by desertions, that he lacked adequate artillery, tanks, and planes to support his attack properly, or that the Nationalist offensive had already been stopped in its tracks.
One rung below General Gal stood Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Copie, the Yugoslavian commander of the XV Brigade. A thick-set man of forty-six with sausage fingers and a cleft chin, he exuded a grass-roots charm whenever he inspected the line. Like Gal, Copie had also been a conscript in the Austro-Hungarian Army, captured by the Russians, and “liberated” through loyal service in the Red Army. After returning to Croatia after the war, he published a radical newspaper and was sentenced to a three-year term for political conspiracy. Exiled from Yugoslavia, he lived in the Soviet Union as one of a large group of unwanted foreigners who were dispatched to Spain when the International Brigades were formed. It was understood that if a man proved his mettle, he might be allowed to re-enter the Soviet Union. Copie arrived at Albacete while Gal was organizing the XV Brigade. Gal made him brigade commissar. Copie performed well as a commissar: he understood political organizing, he had had experience writing propaganda, and he was an able psychologist. Indeed, he did so well that after Gal became divisional commander, Copie succeeded him as the commander of the XV Brigade, a position that was far beyond his experience. This man was destined to be the brigade commander of the Americans for the next eighteen months—a man whose most obvious talent was an uncanny ability for being lightly wounded or absent whenever disaster struck.
As part of the Pingarrón offensive, the XV Brigade would create a diversion by attacking the enemy lines along the San Martin road. Since the Yugoslav, the French, and the British battalions had been badly depleted by the fighting of the past two weeks, the Lincoln Battalion was assigned the main role in this diversionary move, while Gal’s major attack developed at Pingarrón, a flatfish summit two miles to the southwest. Gal and Copie let it be known that they were displeased with the Americans, in part because of their poor performance on February 23, and in part because they tolerated debate and demanded explanations.
While General Gal and Colonel Copie powwowed in the valley, Captain Merriman labored to reorganize the Lincoln Battalion on the plateau. Desperate for someone with military experience to assist him, he pulled Seacord from the Mooney Company and made him battalion adjutant. This helped him regain some support lost on account of his rear-guard part in the February 23 attack. Many men muttered that Merriman was a coward, but they unanimously admired Seacord.
Meanwhile, the Americans moved to trenches south of the San Martin road. The ground was uneven, and the Nationalist and Republican trenches bulged toward each other, following the contours of the land. Just ahead was a shell-wracked olive grove extending perhaps fifty yards into no man’s land. Beyond it, stretching two hundred yards across, lay a forbidding hollow containing stunted vines. On a far hillside, faintly visible through torn olive trees, was the enemy trench line. The British, who had once occupied this position, had vacated it eagerly, and the Americans soon discovered why. Not only was it raked by head-on fire from the opposing trenches, but also it was battered by angle fire from machine-gun nests on higher ground both to the south, toward Pingarrón, and to the north, beyond the San Martin road. Yet the British had been required only to hold it, not to press an attack from it.
On the day before the attack, about seventy new Americans arrived at the front, many of them still clad in the street clothes they had worn aboard ship. (The New York committee no longer provided volunteers with fifty dollars’ worth of surplus uniforms.) Before they climbed up to the plateau, a one-week veteran named Robert Gladnick gave them an hour’s worth of rifle instruction. They received no other training at all. Some of the newcomers were only seventeen.
Unable to obtain maps for his officers, Merriman had pencil sketches drawn from the battalion chart. This was a cartographical wonder of such antiquity that elevations were marked not by contour lines but by brown hatching resembling millipedes. Yet it was vastly better than the Michelin road maps used by many of the first Republican commanders at Jarama. Among the battalion issue there were so many different makes, models, and calibers of weapons that Merriman kept on his headquarters table a wooden plank with a specimen cartridge of every weapon taped to it. No more than four machine guns were “operational,” which is to say that they functioned some of the time. But the terrain was very poor for placing the guns, cut up as it was behind the lines by ravines. Thus the Maxims were placed close together on a battered hillock beside the road. To deliver the attack the Lincoln Battalion had about 450 men.
On February 26, Captain Merriman was called to the picturesque mill beside the Tajuna River where Gal had installed his headquarters. Surrounded by charts, telephones, and other symbols of power, the General explained the role of the Lincoln Battalion in the coming battle. Precisely at 7:00 A.M. Republican aircraft were to bomb and strafe the enemy lines. This was to be followed by an artillery barrage. Finally a company of tanks would grind down the enemy barbed wire and clear a swath for the American attack. A Spanish brigade situated just north of the San Martin road would go over the top from its position a few hundred yards to the rear of the Lincoln Battaliontrenches occupied by the Americans when they delivered their February 23 attack. After the Spaniards had drawn up even with the Americans, Captain Merriman would lead his men swiftly ahead and seize the enemy trenches. Once this objective was attained, reinforcements could be hurled into the gaping salient. As a piece of paper work, Gal’s war-college plan accounted for everything except the obvious: specific instructions on what to do if the promised airplanes, artillery, and tanks failed to materialize.
Dawn of February 27 revealed an overcast sky, with the ceiling low and rain imminent. The men breakfasted on three cups of tepid coffee each and a thick hunk of bread. Clamped on their heads were their brown French helmets with the cowlick crest. Fitted on their mexicanskis were the long needle bayonets which, it was said, the Moors feared to see.
On a lee slope behind the lines, Captain Merriman briefed his officers. He spoke of discipline and timing, and, as always, he spoke well.
Zero hour came and went. Nothing happened. Merriman shook his watch; there was still no sound of shell, tank, or plane. Half an hour later, sporadic rifle fire broke out north of the road in the vicinity of the Spanish brigade scheduled to lead the attack. The Lincolns opened fire through their sandbagged apertures and drew upon themselves a devastating reply. Within minutes the enemy had obtained dominance of fire, and bullets were slashing open the Lincolns’ sandbags. They huddled and waited. The mist burned off.
Captain Merriman called Colonel Copie to inquire whether air and tank support would be forthcoming and was told there would be a brief delay. The voice on the phone asked whether he had placed an aviation signal on the road. A what? Merriman said no one had told him anything about an aviation signal. With rising impatience, the voice explained that a large white T must be laid down so that pilots would know where to unload their bombs. A simple task to perform at night, it was now extremely hazardous, for the road was under heavy fire. Dutifully Merriman assembled an assortment of underwear, shirts, and towels pinned together to form a T. The two men who “volunteered” to place it on the bullet-swept road were universal favorites, both of them battalion runners: Joe Strysand, a thirty-year-old organizer in the New York teachers’ union, and Bobby Pieck, once Phil Bart’s assistant on the Normandie . They dashed out with their signal, which looked like laundry on a clothesline, and succeeded in placing it. Both were chopped down, blotting the cloth red.
A short time later two of the fifteen-ton Soviet tanks climbed up from Morata, fired a few rounds from a road cut, and backed off. Encouraged by their appearance, the Spanish brigade north of the road climbed out of their trenches, advanced a few yards, and fell back virtually in rout. Were more tanks coming up, or were these two the extent of their armored “support”? No one knew. Just then Copie rang up the Lincoln headquarters. Why had not Merriman sent his men into the attack? The Spanish brigade, according to Copie, had already advanced seven hundred yards and were being cut to pieces because the Americans re-used to move to their support. Merriman must have been astonished at this fantastic lie. He told Copie that the Spanish had already retreated to their original line.
“Don’t contradict me!” bawled Copie. “Move your men out!” He gave the Lincoln Battalion ten minutes to come up with the position, on his headquarters chart, where the Spanish brigade was supposed to be. Reluctant to expose his men without support, Merriman contested Copic’s order, warning that the battalion would be wiped out. Copie rang off angrily. He then dispatched two Britishers on his staff by motorcycle with instructions to remove Merriman from command if he refused to attack. Commissar D. F. Springhall and Lieutenant George Wattis raced up a mountain path and reached the communication trench just as three Republican planes dipped over the lines and dropped a light picket of bombs far beyond the enemy lines. The Britishers learned that Merriman had requested covering fire from the British battalion on his left. The Tom Mooney machine guns fired a belt or so, then broke down. Enemy bullets were ricocheting off their armored shields with great slamming clangs.
Doubtless Springhall and Wattis were appalled by the prospect of attacking under such conditions, but they had no authority to call off the assault. Merriman met them with a grim smile. He was peeling off his field glasses and preparing to lead the attack in person. It is not known whether this heroic gesture was dictated to him by conscience or by Copie. Impressed by Merriman’s example, the British staffers resolved to follow it. It was about ten o’clock.
At the whistle, the Americans climbed up the trench wall, some of them dashing forward with animal yells while others peered cautiously toward the enemy lines. Merriman walked up and down the parapet waving the men out and shouting. Lieutenant Wattis, an officer famous for his cool style, strode through the trench, tapping lingerers on the shoulder with a swagger stick and prodding armpits with an automatic pistol. The new arrivals went over with full packs. One of these, a boy in muddy tennis shoes, slipped back as though he had lost his footing, his forehead against the trench wall as though faint or sleepy. A companion shook him, until he saw a stream of red ooze pouring from under his helmet and filling his collar. Yet few men were hit as they clambered out of the trench. The enemy fire fell off, if anything. For about thirty seconds, Nationalist officers allowed the Americans to emerge from their burrows so that they could be butchered in the open. Then they let go.
The sudden volley caught Merriman in the act of raising his arm to wave the men forward. He was knocked back into the trench by a bullet which broke his left shoulder in five places. As he turned to look at Merriman, Springhall was struck by a bullet that carried away his upper teeth from ear to ear. Seacord had fallen heir to the Lincoln Battalion, but he never learned of this honor. With hundreds of others he was dashing through the hollow. Seconds later he and two companions were killed by a machine-gun burst.
Four men running side by side fell to the ground the instant the enemy volley lashed the hollow. A seaman just behind was impressed by their training-manual responses, until he crawled up and found them dead. By this time bullets were spewing up tiny geysers of earth around him. Therefore he used his dead companions—all of them Young Communist League men from the Bronx—as a barricade.
One volunteer recalled reaching the hollow, where he saw a network of red stripes hovering a few feet above the ground like surveyor’s strings. Although he had never before seen this phenomenon, he knew it was an interlocking crossfire from enemy machine guns on the flanks. Men who did not know what it was were plunging into it and dropping in swarms. He dispatched a runner to instruct the Lincoln gunners to concentrate their fire on the enemy flanks, but the runner was laced from head to foot before he could rise to his feet, and seconds later he himself was struck unconscious by a mortar explosion that wrapped his helmet so tightly around his ears that it had to be hacksawed off.
Another man thinks he got fifty yards into the vineyard before he was hit. “I thought someone kicked me in the leg. Went down surprised and plenty sore. Got up again only to flop once more.” He found some shelter and waited for a stretcher bearer. None came. He lay there all day, received two more wounds, and crawled back at night.
To advance was as impossible as swimming up a waterfall. Those men farther back gathered some protection from olive trunks and opened fire against the enemy trenches. By this time none of the Maxims was operational.
Within ten minutes the attack had ceased. It had not been halted by official order; it had simply been crushingly stopped. Before being taken to a dressing station, Merriman passed on his command to Philip Cooperman. He repudiated it at once.
Meanwhile, the men out in no man’s land were being exterminated. Those pinned down could not tell who was living or who was dead. As in a feverish dream, images were vivid yet cognition was elusive. One volunteer recalled a feeling as though he were play-acting: the director would soon say, “All right, let’s try that scene again.” Then on his left a man cried out, “Oh!” less in pain than in surprise. “Is that man hurt?” he heard himself ask. Back came an emotionless reply, “He’s dead.”
In the middle of the afternoon it began to rain. As visibility dropped, men ventured to crawl back and to pull in the nearer wounded. The narrow, shallow communication trench leading down to the dressing station became clogged with men bleeding, vomiting, coughing, and dying. Too exhausted to drag the dead from the passageway, the living ground them underfoot.
The light faded quickly, and the ditch blackened. The walking wounded continued to trickle to the rear, slithering down off the plateau in the darkness. There were not enough able men to move the stretcher cases. The best they could do was to crawl under blankets with them to give them some warmth and to shield them from the rain. (Since no stretcher bearers arrived until daylight, most of the badly wounded died.)
At that moment the Lincoln Battalion consisted of eighty effectives. All the others were killed, wounded, or missing. They had been in front-line positions less than six days. (The Lincoln Battalion archives disappeared at the end of the war. Records were slipshod at best, and present statistics are only quasi-statistical. In mid-March, the correspondent Herbert L. Matthews was told that 127 men had been killed and 175 wounded during the February 27 attack.)
It was nearly daylight before gunnysacks of goat chops and demijohns of coñac came up to the trenches. A Hungarian captain took charge and ordered the Americans to clear their trenches of the dead.
Shovelling and coñac converted the survivors from a leaden, lethargic mass into an angry, mutinous mob. As soon as Hungarian Internationals took over their trench section, large groups slipped away, desertion en masse forming in their minds. “On to France!” was their cry. The British and the Franco-Belgians had already mutinied; now it was the Americans’ turn. But as they approached Morata de Tajuna, a squadron of French cavalry blocked their route with lances and machine guns. These horsemen, White Russian émigrés who had joined the International Brigades to earn the right to return to the motherland, ranged through the territory behind the lines, rounding up deserters. The Americans, having survived the ghastly slaughter on the plateau, had no wish to be massacred in the valley. They allowed themselves to be disarmed and herded back to the area administered by Colonel Copie, who put them on trial at once for “cowardice and desertion in the face of the enemy.” Smaller groups of Americans were caught and turned back after fleeing six to eight miles.
The trial took place in a high-vaulted cave, one of the numerous bodegas that honeycomb the foothills of the Tajuna Valley. Colonel Copie arrived in the afternoon with half a dozen of his staff and set up his kangaroo court. His chief of operations, Lieutenant Colonel Claus, a meticulous ex-Kaiser soldier, served as prosecutor. It is alleged that Copie asked for the death penalty for every tenth man, the rest to be relegated to a “labor battalion.” The defendants had no counsel beyond one of their own group who was able to pick out a few words of German from the long-winded spiel of Colonel Claus.
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.