February 23, 1937
Some dates in 1937 just have to be written larger than others. While Bob Merriman reveals to us what happened on this date from his catching up in his diary in March 1937, we will try to maintain the flow through the dates in 1937. The first pages above give his comments about what occurred on February 20th. In the posting of 19-20, we reviewed the “moonlight march” discussed in these first two diary pages, where Commander James Harris showed up at the trenches and retook command, leading the Americans off into danger in a march into no-man’s-land in the middle of a moonlit night. The Americans came under fire, but that cannot be considered a strategic action of the Lincolns but rather a silly mistake. Merriman says that he, Stember and Hans Klaus went out after the men, found them and led them back to safety. Harris’ actions prompted his removal from command and they sent him back to hospital. He would later serve with the Polish Dombroski Battalion up to November 1937 but he would not command the Lincolns further.
In the February 22nd space in the diary, Merriman talks about the orders given to move forward to the Dimitroff (he will spell it Dmitroff in the diary) positions and not to take packs or bedding. This was a big mistake and Herrick complained in his book that the night was cold and they froze from not having their overcoats and packs. Merriman admits that this was a mistaken order and upon checking later, no such order had ever been given to leave their packs and blankets behind. He blames the command error on Lieutenant Clarence Wattis. He would hold bad feelings against Wattis until quite late in 1937 because of this error which was attributed to Merriman by the men.
When the Lincolns moved up, one company got lost. There was heavy machine gun fire. Landis confuses the lunar cycle (it was near full, but may not have risen at this point) and says
This night, like the night of their arrival, was pitch-black. Because of this, one section of the Machine Gun Company got lost. There were the last of the three companies to enter the trenches but they missed the entrance. …. [in the words of the section leader, who was quoted anonymously:] “Suddenly we heard strange voices, a muted garbling in a language we didn’t understand. We decided to play it safe and crawl along on our bellies; only now we had reversed direction and were heading back toward the road. We had crawled this way for just a short distance when suddenly, as if a curtain were being raised on an opening performance of a Broadway show, a round of extended and hearty applause shattered the stillness of the night. We looked up to see a long line of what proved to be International Brigaders sitting on their trench parapets. They were pointing at us and laughing uproariously, while never ceasing to applaud. There were thirty of us and we got to our feet slowly. To say that we were embarrassed would be the understatement of the year. Our thirty faces glowed bright red as we nodded recognition to the laughing Frenchmen, for that’s who they were: a rifle company of the 6th of February Battalion. We marched sheepishly back to the road, where Lieutenant Seacord and others were looking for us”.²
On the 23rd, the Lincolns were ordered to attack. The plan was that the Dimitroff’s on the right and the Spanish 24th on the left were to attack in unison. The Lincolns were facing an enemy that was dug in at a distance of 600-700 meters. The orders to attack came for later in the day, 3:00 pm, which left little daylight to cross such a distance against heavy fire. The Book of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade says “The 1st Section of the 1st Company led the charge. The Irish followed the Cubans, and finally the second company advanced on the right.” Rudolfo de Armas y Soto (who is saluting to the right of the flag to this photo) was the first killed, hit immediately by three bullets. Charles Donnelly of the Irish was killed. Captain Scott was hit by three bullets. He was wounded and lay in the field until later in the evening when by heroic efforts two stretcher bearers were able to remove him back to the lines, but not before being hit themselves. Scott would die in hospital.
Merriman says in the diary that the Spanish 24th Battalion did not advance. If they had, he said, the Americans would have broken through the Fascist lines. Nevertheless, the Americans reached positions in the olive groves below the Fascist trenches where they could reach those trenches with grenades. They could not advance further and the push stalled in the evening. By 10:00 or 11:00 pm the orders were given to pull back to the original lines. Merriman had been called away to a meeting.
Merriman mentions some new Americans. Morin was probably Francois Xavier Morin who sailed from the US on January 23 and died from his wounds. Morin was 50 years old. He also mentions a “Van Briggs” who was wounded and this name is not on the Lincoln list. He says that Company 1 was taken over by “Henry”. Chris Brooks has noted that this is William “Bill” Henry of the Irish Connolly Centuria which was part of Company 1, and is mentioned in Landis.²
At the start of the day, the Lincolns numbered 373 men.³ Making the best of an attack which took no new ground and caused many serious casualties (20 dead and 60 injured³, a casualty rate of 1:4), it is easy to say that it was not a success. The Lincolns dug in by the 24th of February in shallow trenches which did not provide much protection. Joe Gordon was hit in the eye by a sniper’s bullet in these shallow trenches.³ Merriman mentions “Pick” who was Robert Carl Pick. Pick would be dead in four days in an incident we will cover next week.
Like most of the Jarama battles, disagreement exists of the importance of the Lincoln attack. Robert Colodny notes that on the 24th of February, the Spanish 24th did indeed attack and take the heights of Pingarron, the hill to the west. But it did show that the Americans were willing to charge into withering fire, with rifles and bayonets. It gave the Lincolns a reputation of being troops who would be called upon again and again to attack “as shock troops”.
In Spain in 2014, they are not forgotten. Lyn Hurst published this photo on Facebook on February 22, 2014.
Literally, thousands of books have been written about Jarama and the ones quoted above might not be easily available. Here is an on-line reading list for those who wish to know more:
Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, Story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, New York, New York, 1937.
Wikipedia, The Battle of Jarama, accessed February 22, 2014
Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Battle of Jarama River, accessed February 22, 2014
Sparticus International, Battle of Jarama, accessed online February 22, 2014
¹ Book of the XVth Brigade, Warren and Pell Publishers, London. 2003 Edition, pg 69.
² Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Battalion, ibid. pp 63-71.
³ Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid. pp 99-100