9-10 Febrero. Foresight and hindsight.

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 9 and 10

After 77 years, it is somewhat specious to explain what is going on in Merriman’s diary when we know what is happening at the time and what will happen shortly.   I have thrown a new keyword at the top of the page which will become monumental in the lexicon of the International Brigades, “Jarama”.   Between the 1st of February and the 10th, it became very clear that Franco’s forces had begun a major flanking offensive against Madrid designed to cut the road between Madrid and Valencia.  The lines at that  point were west of the road and Franco and General Mola planned an offensive to cut the road, sweep up to Alcala de Henares which is on the road to Guadalajara outside of Madrid, and isolate Madrid completely.  This would have ended the war.   A map of the region will help the discussion for the next month.

Map of the Battle Front of the Jarama Valley, February, 1937.  The initial objective was Arganda shown here and the ultimate objective was Alcara de Heneres which would be under the legend box above.   Source: Thomas1, p. 375

We cannot discuss the battles in this valley in any great detail here, but Merriman will discuss the events which most affected the Americans.   Frustratingly, Merriman’s diary does not talk about plans and movements but this is understandable.  He was carrying a document that could be used by the enemy if captured. His discussions are mostly retrospective about things that could not be used against the Brigades if it fell into enemy hands. We will find out about events after the fact.

On February 5, six hundred Moroccan fighters under the command of General Orgaz of “the forces of the rebellion” (as the Spanish termed the Fascist army) attacked the little town of Ciempozuelos against the 18th Brigade of the Republican Army.  The Republicans were overwhelmed and retreated.  Ciempozuelos became a literal slaughterhouse with hundreds of soldiers and civilians killed including those who were in a mental hospital there.²  Ciempozuelos was an atrocity of war. In this sector, some internationals had been supporting the Republican Army.  It became clear that this Jarama river valley had to be defended at all costs and the road to Valencia could not be cut off.  The discussions in Merriman’s diary and the hurried pace of training were recognition that they would have to go forward soon.

If Merriman knew the situation by February 10, there is no evidence from the diary.   Over the past week, Merriman had been putting out fires between the Irish and the British, the Irish and the Cubans, and the Irish and the Americans.  The quotes from William Herrick, an American, on the previous days are among the many text references to the events, but the understanding of the French (Marty and Vidal) and Americans (Stember and Merriman) of the depth of the discontent may have been culturally limited.   Rob Stradling in his book “The Irish and the Spanish Civil War“² spends nearly a chapter discussing the historical problems between George Nathan, the British Commander in November 1936, and the Irish. Nathan, who was Jewish, had fought for the English in the Irish Rebellion and was a “Black and Tan”.  He had been involved in the taking of a town where two Sein Fein leaders had been killed.  Nathan’s ethnicity became the subject of  the attack against him and he was replaced by Tom Wintringham in December.  Stradling asserts that André Marty intentionally placed Nathan over the Irish “first, in order to show the battalion who was in charge; and, second, to divide and rule the troublesome Irish”.  He quotes Fred Copeman as saying “the Irishmen drank like fish, they would not take orders from MacCartney”.

Company 1 leader Bill Scott was also accused of being a British supporter (and even not really being Irish) and having him lead the Connolly column was now Merriman’s problem.  Frank Ryan, a Sein Fein leader, and now high up in the Brigades, had added to the rancor by writing a Daily Worker article in December about his colleague, Nathan.  When it hit the fan in December (and Stradling asserts that Marty brought it to a head by leaking this information to the Irish) Ryan had been sent to Madrid to be out of the way while the Irish had a vote to separate from the British and go to the Americans.  The vote was split 45-11 but the majority ruled and they all went from the British to the Americans (to the relief of Wintringham).  Stradling says that the Irish boasted that they had hauled machine guns up to the British Headquarters to make sure they got their way on the transfer.

All this seems terribly wasteful of effort given, in Merriman’s words on February 9, “Vidal soon to move”.  He notes that the Americans were “to move to forest”, probably a reference to their leaving Villaneuva de la Jara to Pozo Rubio which was a forested, secretive camp4.  Expectations that the towns that they were training in would be bombed may have entered into this plan.

The Cooperman discussed in this section is Lieutenant Phil Cooperman, who came over with the first group of Americans and became Battalion secretary.  Cooperman died in Spain (not known where, but it was after 14 March when Cooperman was in Guadalajara).   Merriman says “to Salamanca to sleep” and this is the Hotel Salamanca in Albacete which had been taken over as a barracks5.  His statement “English to us” is cryptic and would mean that the English would be coming to the Brigades, but not Merriman’s Lincoln Battalion, who would get only the Irish out of that group.

On the 10th Merriman returns to Villanueva with his booty and hears “tales”.  This is interpreted as people complaining about each other.  He meets with Vidal and mentions “rumors about Malaga”.  Between February 3 and February 6, nine battalions of Italian Black Shirts and their mechanized forces had attacked the coastal town of Malaga between Gibraltar and Grenada.  Defending the town were 40,000 Republicans led by Colonel Villalba.  By February 7, the defenders and townspeople were in a mass exodus under fire up the coast.  The Fascists took Malaga and reportedly shot over 4,000 people in the next week.¹  William Beeching mentions that Norman Bethune, historically the most well known doctor in Spain, rushed south to Malaga when he heard about this exodus, Beeching quotes Bethune (pardon the length of this moving passage)³:

… the farther we went the more pitiful the sights became. Thousands of children — we counted five thousand under ten years of age — and at least one thousand of them barefoot and many of them clad only in a single garment. They were slung over their mother’s shoulders or clung to her hands. Here a father staggered along with two children of one and two years of age on his back in addition to carrying pots and pans or some treasured possession. The incessant stream of people became so dense we could barely force the car through them.

. . . it was difficult to choose which to take. Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.

“Take this one.” “See this child.” “This one is wounded.” Children with bloodstained rags wrapped around their arms and legs, children without shoes, their feet swollen to twice their size crying helplessly from pain, hunger and fatigue. Two hundred kilometers of misery. Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream of men, women, children, mules, donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives lost in the mob. How could we choose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for ten hours only. Here was a woman of sixty unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death.

We first decided to take only children and mothers. Then the separation between father and child. husband and wife became too cruel to bear. We finished by transporting families with the largest number of young children and the solitary children of which there were hundreds without parents.

And now comes the final barbarism … On the evening of the 12th when the little seaport of Almeria was completely filled with refugees, its population swollen to double its size. when forty thousand exhausted people had reached a haven of what they thought was safety. we were heavily bombed by German and Italian fascist airplanes. The siren alarm sounded thirty seconds before the first bomb fell. These planes made no effort to hit the government battleship in the harbour or bomb the barracks. They deliberately dropped ten great bombs in the very center of the town where on the main street were sleeping, huddled together on the pavement so closely that a car could pass only with difficulty, the exhausted refugees. After the planes had passed I picked up in my arms three dead children from the pavement in front of the Provincial Committee for the Evacuation of Refugees where they had been standing in a great queue waiting for a cupful of preserved milk and a handful of dry bread, the only food some of them had for days. The street was a shambles of the dead and dying, lit only by the orange glare of burning buildings. In the darkness the moans of the wounded children. shrieks of agonized mothers, the curses of the men rose in a massed cry higher and higher to a pitch of intolerable intensity. One’s body felt as heavy as the dead themselves, but empty and hollow, and in one’s brain burned a bright flame of hate.


¹ Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, Harper and Brothers, New York,  1961.

² Robert A. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, Mandolin, Manchester University Press, 1999.

³ William C. Beeching, Canadian Volunteers, Spain, 1936-1939, University of Regina, 1989.

4 Volunteer for Liberty, Vol. 1, No. 28, p. 12

5 Vidal (Gayman, Vidal) “The Base of the International Brigades in Albacete 1936-1937”, RGASPI Archives Fond 545 Opus 2 Delo 32, pg 14, accessed at Tamiment Library, NYU, from the microfilms.

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