15-16 Febrero “Willing to die for my ideas”

Robert Merriman’s diary upon arrival in Jarama, 15th and 16th of February 1937.
Commanders at Morata
Photograph of the XVth Brigade leadership at General Gal’s headquarters at Morata de Tejuña (Villa Fuentes de Venta), May 1937. L-R Allan Johnson, Vladimir Copic, unknown soldier, Harry Haywood, Marion Merriman, Col. Hans Klaus, Bob Merriman, and Joseph North. ALBA PHOTO 177-196126, Tamiment Library, NYU

From Albacete, the Lincolns boarded trucks and headed northwest at midnight to the front in the Jarama Valley.  Marion Merriman Wachtel noted that Stember had told Merriman that since James Harris did not show for the departure, Merriman was now in charge of the Lincoln Battalion.   While the battalion moved forward to the front, Merriman stopped in Morata de Tejuña (he calls it what looks to be Mortie or Mortia) a few kilometers behind the Jarama front where General Gal (Janos Galicz) and the Brigade staff were headquartered.

Merriman’s note “allowed them to fire” is described in many books on Jarama.  Each soldier was told to take five rounds and fire their weapons into a hillside.  For some, it was the first time they had ever felt the recoil of a rifle.  The Lincolns were welcomed with a bombing and strafing run from German Heinkel airplanes.  Edwin Rolfe wrote:

It was the first time the Americans had come under direct fire.  All of them stretched out full length, hugging the earth like experienced soldiers.  The single lapse of perfect discipline occurred when one of the younger volunteers turned over on his back, nervously aimed his rifle skyward and took a single shot at the planes.  The others remained silent…. It was the first real lesson, the first clear indication of the necessity for rapid troop dispersal under fire.  Before that, the men had tended to crowd together, seeking safety in close companionship.¹

Merriman says that the “Mexicans” (i.e. Russians flying the stub nosed Chato fighter aircraft) chased the Heinkels off.  Rolfe notes that the Chatos had two kills that day.¹ Merriman says that the men ran and showed early weakness.  The leaders of the Brigades wanted the men out of the trucks so they would not all be killed at once so the troops scattered to the two sides of the road.

“Kit” Conway, Commander of the British Battalion on February 12 at Jarama 2

Merriman would have known by the night of the 15th that things were difficult on the front.  On February 12th, the British had been flanked by Moorish troops and German Tanks.  Company commander  Kit Conway was killed as the British were caught in enfilading machine gun fire when they tried to advance to the bridge at St. Martín de la Vega.  Jim Prendergast of the British Battalion wrote:  “The Moors are sneaking up there on the left. Oh, where are our machine guns? … I reach the hill-crest where “Kit” is directing fire.  He is using a rifle himself and pausing every while to give instructions.  Suddenly, he shouts, his rifle spins out of his hand, and he falls back”.²  Kit Conway passed away overnight in the field hospital.

The British had to retreat from “Suicide Hill” and between the 12th and the 14th of February,  the Battalion strength went from 225 to 125.³  They were able, however, to keep machine gun fire on their old positions.  The situation was fluid over those two days with the French Edgar André Battalion, the German Thaelmann Battalion and the Polish Dombrowski’s also in the line.  The Thaelmanns lost their commander and commissar killed, the Edgar André Battalion lost all of its officers, the Dimitrov commander was killed, as were most of the officers of the 6th of February Battalion.³   Landis says that the XVth Brigade HQ Officers, the German Hans Klaus, the Croatian Vladimir Copic, the Bulgarian commissar Tabakoff, and the Hungarian Chapaiev and the English Captain Springhall, all had to go to the front to rally the troops to hold their positions.   The British had retreated back along the Morata road and were met by General Gal who told them that they had to go back.  There were no reinforcements and they had to continue to repulse the enemy offensive “at all costs”.  Gal threatened the British with court martial. The British went back into the lines.  The next day, Gal would go back to the British and apologize.

Moving up on the night of the 16th, the word reaches the other battalions that “The Yanks are coming”.   The Americans moved up into a reserve position in the secondary lines from “Suicide Hill”.  They dug in and would spend the next five days in those trenches.   Merriman relates the news that the Irish and Cuban units in the Lincolns became disoriented and gun fire hit friendly troops.  Interestingly, William Herrick relates:  “The third squad, with Kavorkian {Kevorkian} and Pete Shimrak, was with me.  Sudden shouts in Spanish, a couple of shots.  It was dark.  Joe’s voice {this is Joe Gordon}.  I ran over.  We ain’t got no passwords and these guys loom up.  What the hell are we supposed to do?  Two Spanish soldiers stood cursing, their fury unchained.  A Cuban comrade came over and straightened it out.”4   From this, it appears that Herrick’s unit may have been involved in the premature shooting and there is no reason to assume that Herrick embellished this unflattering story.

The final sentences in the diary need no interpretation.  Marion Merriman Wachtel wrote in her memoir “Bob knew that, come dawn, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion would be in the fight for its life”.5


¹  Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion, VALB, New York, NY, 1939.

² James Prendergast, “How ‘Kit’ Conway Died”,  The Book of the XVth International Brigade, ibid.

³ Art Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, ibid.

4 William Herrick, Jumping the Line, ibid.

5 Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid.

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