17-18 Febrero. “Long live….”

17-18 February
Robert Merriman’s diary for February 17 and February 18

Merriman’s diary does not tell us much on these two days except that he was writing an epitaph for himself.  Much has been said about Merriman not being a member of the Communist Party but these lines in the diary would indicate that he is at least supportive at this point of the ideology of communism.  Perhaps he is telling us that he is a “real communist”.

By the 17th, the Americans had seen action at Jarama but Merriman does not describe it here.  Hundreds of books have been written about the American involvement in Jarama and Art Landis writes nearly two chapters of The American Lincoln Brigade on the action in February.¹   Yesterday (in 2014) the Asociacíon de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI) in Madrid put up a Spanish History Channel documentary on Jarama which can be found on the post of the 15th.  Additional video can be found here and here and here.   (A warning: some of this was broadcast on Falange TV).

From Landis¹, we can sketch what happened on these two days.  The actions of the 12th to 15th of February had resulted in the decimation of the French, German, and English Battalions.  Frank Ryan of the Irish caught the brigades in retreat along the Morata Road and with Jock Cunningham

Frank Ryan
Frank Ryan of the Irish Contingent in the International Brigade (Photo: 177_190100 of the Moscow Collection ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University.
Jock Cunningham of the British Battalion, Photo: 177_179053 of the Moscow Archive ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University

of the British, was able to rally the troops to follow him back to the Front.   Apparently, the only song known by all the troops was the Internationale and the troops sung out as they moved back to the front.  General Gal had exhorted the British to return saying there were no replacements.  Landis wonders if it was his enthusiasm which encouraged Ryan and Cunningham to return or the threat of court-martial.  In a prior battle south of Madrid, a French commander of the Brigades who did not follow orders was shot in December.  The encouragement to follow orders, even if they seemed unreachable, was a tangible threat to the commanders and would shortly be all too apparent to Robert Merriman.

The Americans who were in the trenches on the night of the 16th had already had a disaster of their own.  Two trucks moving to the front had misjudged the position of the International Brigade.  Carroll described the event²:

Riding in the first truck was a 25-year-old-graduate of Indiana University named Walter Grant…..  Grant rode in the darkness in the back of the lead truck toward the Jarama front.  Unfamiliar with the landscape, he probably did not realize that the driver had missed a left turn.  The driver of the second truck blindly followed his mistake.  Inside the third vehicle, an ambulance, rode Dr. William Pike, a volunteer with the American Medical Bureau, who noticed the road to the left.  He ordered the driver to stop, then directed the convoy on the proper course.  The Lincolns never again saw the missing trucks. But fascist documents indicate that the two trucks continued in the wrong direction until they came under enemy fire.  The first truck was shot off the road; the second crashed into it.  The survivors took refuge in a small gully, but they were easily overpowered.  Walter Grant and about twenty other Americans became the first of the Lincoln casualties.  Also lost were all the Battalion records.

Landis says that many on these trucks were on a list of prisoners as late as 25 December 1937.¹  Landis notes that none were repatriated so either they died at the scene, were executed after, or died in prison.  Accusations of traitorism on the part of the drivers was claimed by General Gal, but since the drivers were amongst the dead, it is likely to have been “fog of war”, a simple mistake.

On the 17th the Fascists attacked along a broad front.  In the south, on the 16th, the Irish O’Duffy Bandera, who were fighting for the Fascists, saw their first action at Ciempozuelos.  It was in this action that they were shot at by their own Spanish troops.  Fortunately, their positions were so far south, they did not come into contact with the International Brigade or it would have been the Irish, Americans and British shooting at the Irish.³  Instead in the attack on Ciempozuelos, the O’Duffy Bandera bogged down in the mud trying to cross the river and were generally ineffective.  Little more will be said about this group although they did see some action later in March. By June they were being repatriated back to Ireland, partly because Franco did not respect the ability of O’Duffy or his troops.

The Americans occupied positions on both sides of the paved road Camino de St. Martín de Vega.  The 2nd Company was the furthest left, the first company was nearest the road and the Cubans under Rodolfo de Armas was further to the north across this east-west road.  On the 16th, the Americans had their first battle casualty,  Charles Edwards, an observer, was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  Within an hour, Misak Chelibian was killed by artillery shrapnel.  But for raw recruits, the Lincolns had been placed well into the old positions of the Dimitrov Battalion.  Landis reports about 12 wounded in addition to the two deaths above over the next two days  and that the Lincolns had dug in deeply.

Another excellent summary of the Battle for Jarama can be found online on Robert Colodny’s “The Struggle for Madrid”.4


¹ Art Landis, The American Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

² Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

³ Robert A. Stradling, The Irish and the Spanish Civil War, ibid.

4 Robert Colodny, The Struggle for Madrid: The Central Epic of the Spanish Conflict, 1936-37, Transaction Publishers, 2009.