13-16 Marzo Waiting for Marion and Milly

Robert Merriman’s diaries from the 13th and 14th of March. He wrote this material on March 25


15-16 March
Robert Merriman’s diary from 15-16 March.

March 14 arrives and Merriman is isolated from Jarama.  He spends time with Bob Thompson and Thomas Bennett, who leaves for Albacete from Murcia.   He speaks of Newman, but we have previously seen this spelled Neuman.¹  But the war had not stopped to wait for Merriman.  On the 14th of March, the Fascists, led by Italian two-man tanks attacked the left flank of the Brigades’ lines at Jarama.  The attack hit first some relatively raw Spanish recruits who could not hold their trenches.

Allan Johnson
David Mates (left) and Major Allan Johnson (right). Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_191047. Tamiment Library, NYU

But first, we should introduce a new Lincoln, James Allan Donald McNeil (Allan Johnson) arrived in Spain and took over command of the 15th operations in the field.  Johnson had a strong military background (a graduate of the United States War College, General Staff School and a regular Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard.²  Johnson was an excellent strategist and wrote several articles in the 1937 Volunteer for Liberty on how to protect troops from aircraft and how to build effective fortifications.  His arrival was crucial given the decimation of the Brigade leadership on February 27th.  The Brigade “found” Johnson in Figueras on the evening of the 27th and rushed a car across Spain to pick him up and bring him to the front.  Johnson immediately assessed the state of the Brigade and personally made trips back to Albacete to replace the worn Maxim machine gun barrels with usable equipment.²   He improved the Brigade trenches so that they could be defended.

On the 14th of March in a state of dying interest on the Madrid front, the Fascists took one last attempt to cut the Chinchon-Morata -Titulcia road.  Using Italian two-man Fiat tanks, they rolled up a section of line on the left flank of the Brigade and chased out the Spanish troops holding that flank.   Eby says:

Jock Cunningham of the British Battalion, Photo: 177_179053 of the Moscow Archive ALBA 177, Tamiment Library, New York University
Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion.  Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024.  Tamiment Library, NYU
Chapayev (Yugoslav Commander) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion. Source: Moscow Archive Photo 177_177024. Tamiment Library, NYU

In the afternoon of March 14 the front suddenly erupted again as Moors, proceeded by Fiat tanks, stormed the trenches south of the XVth Brigade, an episode recorded in brigade lore as “the Battle of Dead Mule Trench”.  That section was lightly held by skittish quintos (conscripts) of the La Passionaria Battalion, who panicked and fled.  The contagion spread to the next sector, occupied by the British Battalion… {the Brigade leadership was in a meeting with Copic in the rear and the labor battalion held the Moors} …. Within minutes Captain Jock Cunningham, the ferocious, bushy-browed commander of the British, came dashing up the hill shouting, “You bloody Yanks! Goddamn you — we won’t leave you in the lurch!”…Close behind came Fred Copeman…. Grabbing handfuls of Mills bombs, a mixed force of Americans and British stormed down the length of the trench, flushing out the Moors in fine style.  One man would toss a grenade into a blind corner of the trench zigzag, and the others would quail-shoot the Moors who tried to scramble out.  The enemy ran out of grenades in the nearly subterranean fighting and never caught on that their opponents were only a patched-up raiding party, and not a full battalion.  The counterattack ended when Cunningham found the trench blocked by a dead mule and scrambled up on the parapet in full view of the enemy, where he caught a machine-gun burst that somersaulted him into the trench, his chest and arms spurting blood like a pump.³

Copeman took Cunningham back for help and Lieutenant Wattis continued to pick off Moors who piled up in the no-man’s-land as they retreated.  The Moors continued to hold that section of trench for some time, but proceeded no further into the Brigade lines.  The Brigades Russian T-26 tanks overmatched the small Fiats and dispatched them.  The Russians, according to Eby, called the Fiats “patrol cars” and their two man crews the “riot police”.³

Eby describes an incident which was to become famous over the next year: Robert Raven to Philip Cooperman….

Suddenly we ran into four soldiers who we thought were our own, but their helmets and clothes proved them to be fascists.  They tried to capture us.  We tore away and ran back thirty meters and grabbed some grenades.  My Canadian comrade opened the lever of his grenade and handed it to me, which he should not have done.  However, I crawled up towards the fascists under cover and was about to toss the grenade when there was a terrific concussion in front of me and I felt my face torn off.  Naturally, I dropped the grenade [which] exploded at my feet filling my legs with shrapnel.  My comrades must have retreated again and I kept crawling blindly, dragging my body through those trenches calling “Comrade, Comrade”.³

Robert Raven would recover.  He was, however, blinded in both eyes.  Raven would return to the US to lead appeals for support for the Internationals.

Jarama was not the only front of this war and, in two days, we will focus on the front at Guadalajara in early March 1937.


¹  There is only one Newman or Neuman in the Lincolns in March.  Sol Newman became a member of the Regiment de Tren and it is curious that he would be at Murcia.  His papers are filed in Tamiment as Collection ALBA 081 and would need to be consulted to see if this is the correct Newman.   There is also, however, a Dr. Neumann who was Austrian and who said to have helped start the International Brigades in Spain.  Being a doctor, Murcia would be a logical place for him to be.

² Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid., p 120.

³ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, ibid, pp 94-96.