7-8 Febrero “A rather cruel sport”

7 to 8th February

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 7 and 8, 1937.

(Post partially written by Alan Warren)

In the propaganda booklet, The Story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, written in the trenches of Spain, produced for supporters of the Battalion in the United States, the following passage recalls the bullfight on February 7th, and also that the Sunday before, a football match had been held between the Irish Section and the Dutch, who were part of the Medical Unit attached to the Lincoln Battalion.

One Sunday a football match was held between the Irish Section and the Dutch, which resulted in a draw since everybody played the game differently. On the next Sunday we were taken to see a bull fight at Motilla (del Palancar), a town near the base. The fight was gory and the matador not especially good. Since it was the first time most of us had ever witnessed a bull fight, it proved to be an odd and interesting day, though some of the boys expressed it as being a rather cruel sport

William Herrick writes about Ray Steele, who was mentioned by Merriman on January 28th as having been drunk and having broken a door:

One man did get drunk publicly, but he was quickly hauled in and placed in the brig for the night. His name was Ray Steele, a merchant mariner who called himself a Wobbly. He was one of the few non-Communists in the battalion. Though Ray had a club foot, he could outrun anyone in the battalion. I thought I was fast, but he beat me by yards in a hundred-yard dash. We had a football that we passed around and punted to each other. Ray could kick beautiful spirals forty, fifty yards. He became one of the finest machine-gunners and soldiers at the front

It is possible that the prisoner is, in fact, Ray Steele and that Merriman and Stember need to come to some resolution on the penalty to be served.   The Irish who have come to the American Battalion from the British remain difficult to command, no matter which Battalion they are in.  Drink remains an issue.

Merriman goes to Madrigueras to meet the British, but the British had left Madrigueras for La Gineta on February 7th and then to Jarama.   Scotsman Robert Bridges, from Leith, had been left in charge at Madrigueras.  Bridges would die on the 27th of February at Jarama. Madrigueras was left in an apparent state of difficulty with the British departure and this may be due to rain.

Vidal recalls the orders to go to the front his his memoir (translation by RMH and apologies for mistakes from the French)³:

The two following extracts from verbal recollection of the meeting of 28 January at the Etat Major gives an insight into the state of the Brigade nine days before departing from Albacete:

1) the following forces are ready:

1 English Battalion

1 French Battalion

2 Slav Companies

1 Italian Company (in reserve – ultimately assigned to another brigade)

It might also be possible to have one or two American companies and a Slav company to make up a Battalion was completed following. Telegraphed to Lukacs to have 33 Yugoslavs of his effectives.³

Vidal goes on to include the orders of the day for February 7, 1937.   They state³:

I communicated to General Gahl {sic}, Commandant of the XVth Brigade, the tone of your communication.  With his agreement, I alerted immediately the units of the XVth Brigade the ways that they could be ready to leave, at the latest by 10:00 on February 7.

The elements necessary to complete the Brigade and are actually missing are:

the complement of machine gun companies (24 machine guns for five battalions in place of the 40 machine guns allocated by the Ministry of Defense)

light machine guns


transmission equipment (radios, telephones, telephone wire)

materials for transport (the Base of the B.I. will donate a limited number of trucks and light vehicles.  The brigade is missing 5 touring cars and an important number of  trucks)

The Brigade has 5 Battalions of Infantry (3 International, 2 Spanish).

1 company of Engineers

a squadron of cavalry (2 sections of horse cavalry and 1 section of motorized cavalry)


Health Service

An Etat Major.

He includes the actual order for February 6³:

“The XVth Mixed Brigade (5th International Brigade) will leave on February 7 at the hours and fixed conditions which follow: 

{Table paraphrased}

First Convoy (Commander Fort):
15th Battalion (French-Belgian)  leaves Tarazona at 10:00 for La Gineta and boards the train at 11:00 for a 14:00 departure

16th Battalion (British) leaves Madrigueras at 10:00 for La Gineta and boards the train at 11:15 for a 14:00 departure

Second Convoy (Captain Alloca):

Squadron of Cavalry leaves La Roda, boards the train there for a 15h departure

Third Convoy (Captain Grebenerrov):

18th Battalion (Polish-Balkans-Italians) leaves Mahora for Albacete where they will board the train for undetermined departure time

The Engineers, Etat Major, and Service Sanitaire  board the train in Albacete for undetermined departure time.

Fourth Convoy

21st Battalion (Spanish) boards the train at Albacete for an undetermined departure time.  {Note below that Vidal knew the 21st Battalion would not be going to Jarama at this time, but he needed to get them out of Albacete as they had billetted all over town and were causing Vidal problems with the locals.  He wanted them in Pozo Rubio}

Fifth Convoy (Adjutant Duguet):

Transport Section (leaves by road).

{The orders detail the number of trucks, rail cars, etc. in each convoy and are too extensive to quote here}

…. “Particularly during the train trip, rolling stock (trucks, ambulances, cars) will be camouflaged.  During the part of the voyage  during the night, all lights including cigarettes and pipes are rigorously prohibited on the train”…..

Men will be given two days supplies on leaving Albacete…..  Each soldier will receive 150 rounds of ammunition with their rifles … Each machine gun will receive 1500 rounds of ammunition….  The Chief of the Etat Major will receive funds for four days support for each soldier at 4 pesetas a day…..³

The order was signed by Vidal.   He says “The departure of the two Battalions for their assignments was a spectacle that Albacete was not accustomed.  The commander decided that some of the men would leave by vehicle, some on foot”.   The men marched 10-12 kilometers to La Roda and La Gineta for the trains.  The 21st Battalion (Spanish) only went 8 kilometers and then disembarked to move to Pozo Rubio.  The 24th Spanish Battalion moved to Mahora to replace the 18th Battalion in its quarters.   The 24th and 21st would rejoin the XVth Brigade two weeks later at the front.  Vidal describes in some detail the problem with the Spanish Battalions not obeying his orders and spreading themselves out in private homes and apartments in Albacete.  The 600 soldiers became a logistical nightmare for the Base as there was no way to feed them and the sanitary needs (showers and toilets) could not be found in Albacete.  Vidal needed to get them out of town, so he ordered them to the Front and then diverted them to where he could manage them.

Nowhere in the orders does it say where the Front is or where they are going…….


¹The Story of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, written in the trenches of Spain, by John Tisa.  1937. pp. 9-10. The complete booklet can be found at this link.

² William Herrick,  Jumping the Line. AK Press, 2001. p. 147.

³ Vidal,  “The Base of the International Brigades in Albacete 1936-1937″, RGASPI Archives Fond 545 Opus 2 Delo 32, BDIC Library, Nanterre, France (can be also accessed at Tamiment Library, NYU, from the microfilms).    {In hardcopy as Vital Gayman, Vital Gayman et la Base des Brigades Internationales d’Albacete en 1936.1938, Fondº Δ rés 744/1, Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC)6, allée de l’Université Nanterre Cedex F-92001 France}

5-6 Febrero Battalion Starts to Function

5 to 6 february

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 5 and 6, 1937.

(Post from 2014 by Alan Warren):

And so the training and organisation of the Battalion continues. Merriman  talked with Stern when Stern walked off on him (We are now leaning to this confusing sentence being “Stern blew up and went to Stember“). This is probably related to an observation made by William Herrick:

One morning several days before we left the village, as we stood at attention outside our barracks, Commissar Stern introduced a plump, middle-aged, unprepossessing man named Sam Stember as our new battalion political commissar. Then Stern, to our utter astonishment, strode white-faced to an infantry squad and just like that became a simple rank-and-filer. Our heads whirled. There were no explanations. The Party leadership and its mystical ways.¹

The constant reorganising, promotions and demotions is just one aspect of the International Brigades that is somewhat surprising to many. The personal rivalry and arguments between the men must have been a constant worry to Merriman, as one will see throughout his Diary. But as Merriman writes, “Battalion is starting to function”, which can only be to the good.

¹William Herrick, Jumping the Line. AK Press, 2001, p. 153

3-4 Febrero “Busy Day – Many Tales”

3 to 4th february page

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 3 and 4, 1937.

Extensive field maneuvres were conducted in the countryside surrounding Villanueva de Jara. However, as William Herrick noted:

Two days later I was ordered by Seacord to observe a machine gun squad during maneuvres – without a gun. We were guarding ingress to the village at the narrow point where the road passed the fortress church.…¹

The lack of effective weaponry available is often noted by the brigaders at this time. in their training at nearby Madrigueras, The British often used football rattles to simulate machine gun fire!

John Tisa also remembers:

The numbers of rifles allotted to our infantry was too few for the number of men. Those without rifles used broomsticks or canes to train and march with. It didn’t matter, though, for those outdated and prehistoric rifles were not serviceable anyway. If you had tried to fire one, you would have risked having your head blown off. Fortunately, no ammunition was available.²

Merriman notes on February 3rd the actions of Scott’s No. 1 company on February 3rd. Composed principally of Irish and Cubans, it seemed to have worked fairly well. Herrick comments on the pecadillos of some of the officers, and also the relationship between Merriman and Scott, alias Englishman Inver Marlow:

john scott

Poor quality photograph of John Scott from “The Book of the XV International Brigade” (1938).

Several fights broke out. Seacord was drinking more, as was (Gladnick said) Jim Harris, our commander. Adjutant Commander Merriman was partial to the infantry commander, Scott, two WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) on a hot tin roof. Scott was much liked by his men, as was Seacord by his.³

hendrikson 1

George Hendrickson (ALBA 052, Tamiment Library, NYU)

hendrikson 2

Two other photographs of Hendrickson in Spain (Tamiment, ALBA 052).

What the “many tales” were leaves much to the imagination, but George Hendrickson was once in the merchant marine, went over with the first 96 volunteers, and having been a trained radio operator on a ship ended up being attached to Transmissions.  He was based in Valencia for the greater part of the war owing to his skills, but not much more is known about his time in Spain.  He returned to the United States on February 9, 1939 with one of the last groups of Internationals to leave Spain.

William Hathaway was from Downen Grove, Illinois. He was killed on February 27th, 1937 at Jarama.  The only Hedley named in IB lists is Englishman John F. Hedley from Liverpool, who came over in December 1936, and left sometime in 1937.

“Parker” we guess is John William Parks, who was then commissar of No. 2 company.  Merriman’s final line that he had “announced  organisation of the Batt(alion)” was to have dramatic repercussions, as will be seen over the next few days…

Between February 3 and February 6, nine battalions of Italian Black Shirts and their mechanized forces had attacked the coastal town of Malaga between Gibraltar and Grenada.  Defending the town were 40,000 Republicans led by Colonel Villalba.  By February 7, the defenders and townspeople were in a mass exodus under fire up the coast.  The Fascists took Malaga and reportedly shot over 4,000 people in the next week.¹  William Beeching mentions that Norman Bethune, historically the most well known doctor in Spain, rushed south to Malaga when he heard about this exodus, Beeching quotes Bethune (pardon the length of this moving passage)4:

… the farther we went the more pitiful the sights became. Thousands of children — we counted five thousand under ten years of age — and at least one thousand of them barefoot and many of them clad only in a single garment. They were slung over their mother’s shoulders or clung to her hands. Here a father staggered along with two children of one and two years of age on his back in addition to carrying pots and pans or some treasured possession. The incessant stream of people became so dense we could barely force the car through them.

. . . it was difficult to choose which to take. Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.

“Take this one.” “See this child.” “This one is wounded.” Children with bloodstained rags wrapped around their arms and legs, children without shoes, their feet swollen to twice their size crying helplessly from pain, hunger and fatigue. Two hundred kilometers of misery. Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream of men, women, children, mules, donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives lost in the mob. How could we choose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for ten hours only. Here was a woman of sixty unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death.

We first decided to take only children and mothers. Then the separation between father and child. husband and wife became too cruel to bear. We finished by transporting families with the largest number of young children and the solitary children of which there were hundreds without parents.

And now comes the final barbarism … On the evening of the 12th when the little seaport of Almeria was completely filled with refugees, its population swollen to double its size. when forty thousand exhausted people had reached a haven of what they thought was safety. we were heavily bombed by German and Italian fascist airplanes. The siren alarm sounded thirty seconds before the first bomb fell. These planes made no effort to hit the government battleship in the harbour or bomb the barracks. They deliberately dropped ten great bombs in the very center of the town where on the main street were sleeping, huddled together on the pavement so closely that a car could pass only with difficulty, the exhausted refugees. After the planes had passed I picked up in my arms three dead children from the pavement in front of the Provincial Committee for the Evacuation of Refugees where they had been standing in a great queue waiting for a cupful of preserved milk and a handful of dry bread, the only food some of them had for days. The street was a shambles of the dead and dying, lit only by the orange glare of burning buildings. In the darkness the moans of the wounded children. shrieks of agonized mothers, the curses of the men rose in a massed cry higher and higher to a pitch of intolerable intensity. One’s body felt as heavy as the dead themselves, but empty and hollow, and in one’s brain burned a bright flame of hate.


¹William Herrick, Jumping the Line AK Press, 2001. p. 152

² John Tisa, Recalling the Good Fight, An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War.1985. p.25

³ William Herrick, ibid. p. 151

4 William C. Beeching, Canadian Volunteers, Spain, 1936-1939, University of Regina, 1989.

1-2 Febrero Hunting for New Quarters

1 to 2 february pages

Robert Merriman’s Diary for February 1 and 2, 1937

Copeman and Meredith

Fred Copeman and perhaps Bill Meredith, ALBA PHOTO 177-178032, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

Fred Copeman in his autobiography Reason in Revolt refers indirectly to the tools related to his anti aircraft lecture as mentioned by Merriman:

lewis mg

Lewis machine gun similar to the ones described by Fred Copeman and used for anti aircraft defense.

I concentrated on the Lewis gun, easy to handle and very light, and I knew all about.  In the end, six of these guns were made serviceable, and either by design or by accident, I found myself in command of a small anti-aircraft unit….. The Lewis gun section soon became efficient. An old trick was to throw tin lids into the air from the trenches, the gunners having to hit them before they touched the ground. No small feat this, and yet every No.1 gunner within three weeks was able to hit the lids two at a time in the air

Merriman relates that he is shopping for new quarters for the Americans.  He looks at buildings presumably in Villaneuva de la Jara.  The size of the training battalion is having growing pains.

Merriman speaks of the feistiness of the men and the drinking which needed correction.  Since last year’s posting of this page, Barry McLoughlin has finished his work on the Irish in Spain and he relates:

As regards excessive drinking, there seems to have been a temporary ban on the sale of alcohol in the village {Madrigueras}, to which the men reacted by ordering café frio, a potent mixture of cold coffee liberally laced with rum.  Fred Copeman, in his chortling interview with the Imperial War Museum, mentions a “punch-up between the Irish and the English late at night …. sent to the guardhouse …. trivial stuff”, adding the erroneous comment that this was the reason that Frank Ryan took his men to the American Battalion.  In fact the very opposite was the case, but “old Fred”, for all his affability, was never a stickler for historical detail, neither in his memoir of the war (1948) nor in the interview he gave in 1978.²

Several men are reprimanded and one deserts.  “Cox” is very likely  Thomas Cox Jr..  He was born in Douglas, Alaska, and was a Native American.  Two weeks after Merriman wrote this page, Cox would be in one of two trucks that accidentally drove into the enemy lines on February 16, 1937, moving to the lines at Jarama. Fifteen Americans and one Canadian were killed, and only one wounded prisoner survived, but had his throat cut by a band of scavenging Moors that night. Cox arrived in Spain on January 23rd 1937.

“Givney” is John Givney, and who will continue to be a thorn in Merriman’s side all spring.   His transgression here is not detailed anywhere.


¹Fred Copeman.  Reason in Revolt. Blandford Press, 1948. p. 81.

² Barry McLoughlin, Fighting for Republican Spain, Lulu.com, ISBN 9781291968392, p. 58.