Robert Merriman’s diary for September 5 and 6, 1937. This is the last days of the fighting in Belchite
Merriman is pretty reserved in letting us have insight into his real feelings. Today we get a peek into Bob Merriman’s psyche. On the 5th of September, mopping up of Belchite continues after the Church and barricade has fallen. Merriman says that he cannot find any of the leaders of the Lincoln Battalion so he, Sidney Shostek and George Wattis took initiative in working like soldiers. Merriman says that this is the greatest “fun” he had in Spain. After nine months in Spain and only a few hours truly on the line before being shot at Jarama, Merriman’s interest in fighting shows through. The Dave Engels’ article in the Book of the XVth Brigade said that Merriman was everywhere throwing grenades and fire bombs. The “fun” ended when a grenade dropped out of a building injuring George Wattis with about fifty pieces of shrapnel and Merriman was cut as well.
Merriman admits that he worked too much as a soldier and too little as a commander. Copic sends out orders for him to report to the Estado Mayor and Copic and Merriman yell at each other for much of the day as they tour Belchite. Merriman says that their advance in town is stopped at a barricade where a man got a bomb in the face.
View down the Calle Mayor towards the Plaza Republica, Belchite. Soldiers hold masks because of the smell of death. ALBA Photo 11_1226, Tamiment Library, NYU
Merriman says that Chapayev performed well and must have captured the Fascist hospital, staffed with nuns in their robes. Merriman says that the dead were stacked like cordwood. He said that there were sniper holes in the hospital and that women in the hospital served to bring supplies, apparently, to the soldiers. The barricade at the end of town was in the vicinity of San Martin de Tours Church. Like the San Agustin church, many fascist soldiers had holed up there and another standoff occurred with many injuries. Merriman planned to flank the barricade overnight by breaking through the neighboring buildings. Overnight, however, a grenade attack over the barricade injured Tom Hyde, who got shrapnel in his ankle. Hyde’s son said that this injury effectively ended his father’s front line service and he was repatriated on the Ausonia in December 1938 (Richard Hyde, personal communication). Overnight, guard was set up around the town although Merriman infers that some of the Fascists actually managed to escape.
International Brigade Sound Truck at Codo. ALBA PHOTO 11-1335, Tamiment Library, NYU
On the morning of the sixth, the Republican sound truck arrived and David Doran (Assistant Brigade Commissar) and a Spanish soldier made an announcement to the troops on the other side of the barricade.
Steve Nelson recalls the events of the day:
Dave Doran (near Huesca), ALBA Photo 177-177009, Tamiment Library, NYU
Dave Doran, who was my assistant up to this time, got hold of a propaganda truck, fitted with a phonograph, microphone, and loudspeaker. Never mind how he got it. He brought it up to the church, where the fascist resistance was centered. Hastily, he wrote out a speech. A Spanish boy read it into the microphone; the words went bellowing across the fascist lines. “Fascist soldiers, those of you who are Spaniards, listen!” the loudspeaker thundered. “Your leaders are lying to you. Quinto is in Republican hands. You will get no reinforcements. The relief column sent from Saragossa has been smashed at Mediana. There is no relief for you in Belchite, there is only death!” ….. “Come over to us and live. If you don’t you will all be wiped out in our first assault. We have you surrounded on all sides, so none of you can escape. Our guns are trained on you this minute, to blow you to a million pieces. …. Drop your arms and come over the barricades one by one. All who come over will live.”¹
Then silence. Doran’s emphasis on death brought the first soldier over the barricade.
“What’s the morale like?” Dave demanded.
“Not good. That speech on the loudspeaker — they are talking it over. The men are desperate, and only fear of the officers holds them; the officers are shooting them on the least provocation. But many have been killed or wounded. and the church and basement are nearly full of wounded. Many have had tourniquets on their arms or legs for three or four days, so gangrene has set in. No operations are possible. Ah, things are bad in there!”
“If this is true, could you go back and bring a group of them to our lines?”.
The prisoner didn’t like the idea at all. It was a risky business, going back. “If your men don’t shoot me, the others will. And if the officers find out–“
“I know all that, but it’s the only choice we’re giving you. Come back by way of this building, and slip your rifles across the sandbags”.¹
Fascists taken prisoner at Belchite, ALBA PHOTO 11-1146, Tamiment Library, NYU
Merriman says that this single artillery soldier started an avalanche of soldiers pushing their rifles over the barricade. The assault on Belchite was over and the town that would not surrender to Napoleon surrendered to Doran.
Not all of the Fascists surrender peaceably. Two or three hundred of the garrison tried to make a break for the fascist lines. The story told by Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá:
Afraid of the soldiers (those who wished to surrender) the officers stole away by one of the underground passages and took refuge in another strongly fortified building. We realized that there was more hard fighting in front of us…. Acting on orders, we moved closer to the building. Suddenly a few yards in front of us, we heard voices and distinguished a mass of people coming toward us. Some were women. There were shouts of “Camaradas!” We thought they were more of the people that had been liberated. But we always had orders to challenge all people coming from town and establish their identity before we let them pass. Then one commander shouted, and we realized what was happening. These were fascists who had escaped through one of the underground passages with which the town was honeycombed, and they were driving civilians before them in order to prevent us firing effectively.
Our commander called on them to halt. The answer was a shower of grenades. Women, children, men and Fascists were so mixed up and running in all directions that it was impossible in the bad light to distinguish anything clearly. We noticed that some of the civilians were firing at us. They were officers in disguise, and we found them out afterwards. ….. It was terrible for the time it lasted. But every one of the officers met his fate.”²
Dave Doran would become Commissar of the Brigade shortly. Nelson tells why:
“Belchite was ours. I went back to the factory. I was feeling good. I hadn’t slept for a hell of a while but I felt good. Everything was going fine.
Inside the mill, I saw Dave Doran. Dave shouted something and I started towards him.
‘Steve, look out for Cris’ake!’. From the corner of my eye, I saw the window high in the factory wall and the church tower above the window, and it the same instant, something hit me hard on the cheek, and an terrible, fiery pain struck inside my thigh, and ran up into my stomach, a pain so fierce that I doubled up on the floor; in spite of the pain I rolled toward the brick walls to keep from being hit again”.¹
Steve Nelson would survive, but never again see action. Nelson would shortly be sent to Valencia to meet visitors and then ordered back to the US where he would go on a fund raising effort in speaking about Spain.
Merriman went into town after hearing of the surrender. His first thoughts were to get his transportation out of town before it was grabbed by the 153rd Anarchist Battalion. Merriman says that he “organized” some good stuff and later Karl Sverchevsky (General “Walter”) would complain that the 153rd Battalion sabotaged the reputation of the XVth Brigade:
17. During the siege of Belchite, the fascist like command of the 12th Corps deluged the eastern front with lying and slanderous telegrams about the robbery and shootings that, supposedly the 15th International Brigade was engaged in, and about the impossibility of “bringing it up to the front line.” At the same time, they provoked clashes between the anarchist elements and the internationalists and advised the commander of the 153rd Spanish Brigade to sabotage my orders. This lie was so insolent and obvious that it even drove the command of the 5th Corps, which is not usually prone to put itself out for us, crazy, and Modesto then started a real row with Gen. Pozas, the front commander, over this and sent a very sharply worded telegram to Gen. Rojo demanding that the culprits be called to account.³
Fascist posters on the square in Belchite, September 1937. ALBA PHOTO 11-0596, Tamiment Library, NYU
Merriman says that he lost some trucks in the confusion over who “owned” the town and that he wanted to get his troops out as soon as possible onto the Mediana Road to move north, presumably to move to support the 57th British Battalion against an expected counterattack. But the Brigade had time to collect souvenirs and Merriman appears to warn the troops that this is a religious town and the women are conservative so restraint is necessary.
Merriman says “Defensive war a great one”. It seems that he is showing admiration for his enemy. He says they were persistent until the end. Merriman cannot find Sidney Shosteck (more on this in the next posting). Merriman gets promoted to Major for taking Belchite and it clearly was his personal intervention on September 3rd which got the Americans moving into Belchite. Recall, however, that he was under a “Party Order” and had little choice.
¹ Steve Nelson, The Volunteers, ibid, p 186-7.
² Lieutenant Hernández y Alcalá, The Book of the XVth Brigade, ibid., pp 283-286.
³ Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2001, p.481-2.